An Exomoon For A Lonely World?

The discovery of alien worlds–exoplanets that dwell beyond our Sun’s family–has now become just “business as usual” for astronomers who hunt for these distant planets throughout our Milky Way Galaxy. The first alien world circling a Sun-like star was discovered back in 1995, and today the list of confirmed exoplanets has grown to approximately 1,000–with many more candidates awaiting confirmation.

But what about exomoons–moons that orbit these remote alien worlds?

In December 2013, a team of astronomers said that they may have spotted a weird system composed of an alien planet and its moon, floating freely in interstellar space, rather than inhabiting the close-knit family of a parent star.

The strange and remote system revealed its presence in a study that made use of a technique termed gravitational microlensing, which searches for the bending of starlight that results from the gravitational pull of an unseen body existing between a distant star and our planet. In this particular case, the massive body could conceivably be an alien world and its bewitching, circling moon. However, the astronomers admit that the signal is not sufficiently clear, and it might instead be coming from a faint star and a lightweight exoworld in orbit around it.

“An alternate star-plus-planet model fits the data almost as well” as an alien world and its moon-companion scenario, the astronomers reported in a study that was published in December 2013 on the preprint site arXiv. The paper has not yet been peer-reviewed.

We have known since 1995 that our Solar System is far from unique in the Cosmic scheme of things. In fact, astronomers think that our Milky Way Galaxy could be literally swimming with billions upon billions of planets–and an even greater number of moons. Some of these moons could even possess the mysterious and precious recipe that permits them to harbor living things.

As far back as ancient Greece, humanity has wondered if there are other solar systems beyond our own. This idea has not always been greeted with joy by the powers-that-be. For example, in 1584, when the Catholic monk Giordano Bruno declared (among other things) that there are “countless suns and countless earths all rotating around their suns,” he was accused of heresy by the Church and burned at the stake. Our planet was unceremoniously evicted from its exalted status as the most important body in the Universe early in the 16th century, when Nicolaus Copernicus calculated that Earth orbits the Sun, rather than the other way around. His revolutionary concept, although reluctantly and bitterly swallowed at the time, shattered the traditional Judeo-Christian dogma that we and our Earth hold a central, special place in the Universe.

During the past generation, alien worlds have been discovered at a frenetic pace. Since the 1995 discovery of 51 Pegasi b–the first exoplanet to be spotted in orbit around another Sun-like star–astronomers have been finding worlds upon worlds upon worlds dwelling in our majestic, barred-spiral Galaxy.

But What About Moons?

Our own Solar System’s eight major planets possess (at last count) 170 moons. Most of these moons are barren, icy, bodies circling the quartet of frigid, gaseous, giant planets dwelling in the outer limits of our Sun’s family: Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus, and Neptune. However, a few of these icy jewels may hide living tidbits. For example, Europa of Jupiter, may sport a global subsurface ocean secreted beneath its shattered icy shell, blissfully warmed by tidal flexing into a life-loving, liquid water state. It is possible that primitive tidbits of aquatic life swim around in Europa’s subsurface, salty sea. Titan, of Saturn, possesses an environment eerily similar to that of our Earth before life developed here (prebiotic). Lazy, large raindrops of liquid hydrocarbons float slowly onto the surface of this frigid, tortured moon, forming seas and lakes composed of liquid methane and ethane that play the same role as water does on our planet. It is possible that life, as we do not know it, has evolved there using liquids other than water.

In our own Solar System, moons are becoming major targets for future space missions. Yet, when astronomers peer far beyond our own extended solar family, they are apparently more focused on spotting alien planets than their alien moon-companions. However, as exomoon hunter Dr. David Kipping of the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics (CfA) in Cambridge, Massachusetts has noted: “I think exomoons are just as interesting as exoplanets.”

Indeed, now that astronomers know that a multitude of exoplanets are dancing around our Galaxy, exomoons should also abound. However, moons that circle alien worlds are extremely difficult to spot because of their small size and lack of brightness.

If Planets Come, Can Moons Be Far Behind?

The authors of the December 2013 paper, titled A Sub-Earth Mass Moon Orbiting a Gas Giant Primary or a High Velocity System in the Galactic Bulge, explain in their study that gravitational microlensing is a promising new technique for astronomers to use in order to spot moons dwelling beyond the close-in satellites that transit searches are designed to discover. The transit technique–another technique used to spot exoworlds–searches for the tattle-tale dimming of a star’s light that results from a planet or moon passing in front of its fiery, brilliantly incandescent face from Earth’s vantage point.

The study was led by Dr. David Bennett of the University of Notre Dame in South Bend, Indiana. Regardless of whether or not the weird system does turn out to include a distant, dancing moon, “these results indicate the potential of microlensing to detect exomoons,” the authors wrote.

“I was excited by this paper,” said Dr. Jean Schneider in the December 23, 2013 Scientific American. Dr. Schneider is of the Paris Observatory, and was not part of the new research. He continued to note that exomoons have “become fashionable these days,” and are one of his personal “holy grails.” Dr. Schneider authored a paper in 1999 describing how to spot exomoons using the alternative transit technique.

Microlensing is a form of gravitational lensing, an effect on light that was predicted by Albert Einstein in his General Theory of Relativity. According to the General Theory of Relativity, massive objects bend–or warp–the Spacetime near them. This means that literally everything, even light, will take a curved path around such massive objects due to Spacetime warpage.

Imagine a child carrying a heavy bowling ball to her trampoline, and tossing it onto its stretchy surface. The bowling ball bends, or warps, the material of the trampoline. Now, the little girl takes a handful of marbles, and throws them onto the trampoline where the bowling ball has caused a dimpling in the fabric. The tossed marbles take curved paths around the bowling ball–instead of the straight paths that they would otherwise take if the bowling ball were not there to warp the material of the trampoline. The material of the trampoline represents Spacetime; the marbles are anything, even light, that must take a curved path, instead of a straight one, because of the warpage induced on Spacetime by a massive object–in this case, the bowling ball.

When light emanating from a brilliant background star wanders past a massive object on its way to the greeting telescopes of astronomers, it shows up as bright circles of warped light that are termed Einstein rings. If the massive object is composed of two objects, such as a planet and its companion moon, the circle will appear to be bulging in spots and broken. Sometimes the Einstein ring is too small for astronomers to resolve the details, but the general effect of gravitational microlensing can be determined from the way the star’s overall brightness changes in time.

Dr. Bennett and his team have observed a two-body system, which they have dubbed MOA-2011-BLG-262, from gravitational microlensing information collected at the Mount John University Observatory located in New Zealand, and the Mount Canopus Observatory in Tasmania.

However, at this time, the astronomers are not certain which of the two bodies is responsible for the brightness fluctuations. The explanation that best explains the observations is an enormous exoplanet, about four times the mass of Jupiter, circled by a companion moon. If this is correct, the exoplanet and its moon would be nearby–by cosmological standards–between 1,000 and 2,000 light years from our planet.

They would also be adrift, lost and alone, in our Milky Way Galaxy, with no star to guide them, rather than being part of the close-knit family of one of our Galaxy’s billions of stars!

Free-floating planets are outcasts–the rejected and ejected children of our Milky Way’s billions of stellar systems. These unlucky planetary orphans were cruelly tossed out to fend for themselves in the frigid blackness of interstellar space, far, far away from the delightful warmth and companionship of their parent stars and planetary siblings. Youthful stellar systems are unruly environments, where violent interactions between newly-forming planets and parent stars can eventually result in the tragic ejection of a doomed baby planet from the system that was its cradle. Our own Solar System may have given rise to many more planets than the eight planets that we now know, and these rejected siblings of our Earth may well be freely floating around in the space between stars with no stellar parent to call their own. Astronomers have predicted the real existence of such orphaned worlds for a long time.

Indeed, our Galaxy could be chock full of Jupiter-size free-floating, orphaned alien worlds–there may be billions of them, wandering their solitary way around the Galactic center, in a way similar to the manner in which our Sun and other stars do.

But some of these free-floating worlds may not be so lonely, after all. They may be orbited by companion moons.

If confirmed, this recent tentative discovery of an alien moon beyond our Solar System, will likely represent only the tip of an enormous iceberg! Furthermore, exomoons are just as alluring as exoplanets–and show just as much promise.

“It seems probable that many thousands, possibly millions, of habitable exomoons exist in the Galaxy and now we can start to look for them,” Dr. Kipping told the press in September 2009.

Assessing David Beckham’s Move To The LA Galaxy

David Beckham has been one of England’s finest ever footballers. He may not have the control and skill of the likes of Kaka, Ronaldinho, or Zidane, but his ability to pass the ball over distance, hit a dead ball, and in particular, deliver a cross into a dangerous area, is second to none. His career has taken him from the great treble winning Manchester United side, to the exciting Spanish La Liga winners Real Madrid. These are arguably the two biggest football clubs in the world, and David Beckham has been, and remains, a hero at both.

Becks has ninety-nine England caps to his name, many as captain, and one can only hope that the new England manager, Fabio Capello, his old boss in Madrid, will do the decent thing and allow him to get the one hundredth cap he so richly deserves.

The reason Beckham is so popular is not just his footballing ability or his Hollywood looks, it is the way he dealt with the adversity that his sending off in the 1998 World Cup quarter final against Argentina brought to his door.

English football fans around the country were burning effigies of the footballer and making death threats. He dealt with all that as a very young man, and showed courage and dignity. The sheer weight of his ability and his likable personality won over England and made him a hero.

The questions to answer are, firstly, can he win over America, and secondly, why has he chosen to play there whilst he is still good enough to play at the very top?

In terms of winning over America, I think he can become a popular figure. His marriage to Victoria, making her comeback with the Spice Girls, is big news, and they are likely to become media favorites. Neither Victoria nor David tend to shy away from the limelight and they are sure to prove a hit.

In relation to his footballing decision, I believe Becks may have made the decision too quickly. He agreed to the move when he appeared to have no future at Real Madrid with Capello leaving him out of the side. He made the decision for two reasons. Firstly, the obscene amount of money he was going to get paid, and secondly because Victoria would crave the LA lifestyle. These reasons are perfectly understandable and laudable. They were made with his wife and children at the forefront of his decision making.

What it does mean is that Becks has probably come to the end of his wonderful career as a top player, and whilst he may get that one hundredth cap, he is unlikely to get many, if any, more.

He will enjoy his time with LA Galaxy, and he will prove to be popular with the locals and the media. He will be happy, as will his wife. They will be financially secure forever, his children will grow up in a wonderful place, and he might just manage to raise the profile of the game in the States.

I say ‘Good luck Becks’ and thanks for all you’ve done for England.’

Cheap Ford Galaxy – Perfect If You’re Visiting a Fortune Teller

I have a few irrational fears: spiders, which counts me out of “I’m a Celebrity Get Me Out Of Here!” when I’m a z-list celebrity, hospitals, even when I’m just visiting someone and finally carnival folk. On the latter, I have no doubt that the majority of carnival folk have skills that merit being able to travel from country to country performing to packed big tops, it’s just the ‘kooky’ nature that makes me feel uneasy and their games where you can win “A Cheap Ford!” but never do. As for clowns, well they’re just damn scary aren’t they?

What possessed me then to not only go to a carnival last week but to join in and ‘have fun’ I’ll never know. Needless to say I went with a wallet stuffed full of cash and left empty handed and with the lightest wallet known to man. Before I left though I went to see a fortune teller. Now you don’t have to be a regular reader of my articles to know that I don’t like being told when things are going to happen, I’m laidback and let things take their course. The fortune teller was very authentic though with her tent complete with Homebase table and chairs, Carpet Right rugs and crystal ball that I’m sure I saw in Toys R Us.

No matter, I crossed her palm with silver and let her have a feel of my hand. It was at that moment I realised that I had awfully dry and chapped hands for a man of my age and I really should buy some moisturiser. No matter, she continued unabated and told me what life had in store for me. Currently I am single, have a good job, slow car which looks fast and a loving family. Life therefore is pretty good, although nothing a Lamborghini Gallardo and Olga Kurylenko wouldn’t improve.

The fortune teller unfortunately didn’t advise that Italian metal or the latest bond girl would be arriving on my doorstep but she does reckon 2009 will not only be the year I find love but will have the first of a load of kids too. Blimey. Well if when I’m deep into December 2009 and I’m clutching a baby whilst I write this I’ll give her credit, but it did make me think what if I had a large family and had to choose a car to fit them all in.

Obviously the days of the sleek two door coupe will be gone and I’ll be into MPV territory. There are a number to choose from but my personal favourite has to be a cheap Ford Galaxy. Don’t be put off by me writing ‘cheap’ it’s just you get so much top quality metal for your buck with a Ford you’d be ill-advised to go elsewhere.

The Galaxy is available with either a 2 litre petrol engine or the diesel route which offers 1.8 or 2 litre derivatives. Personally the 2 litre diesel would be my choice, with a frugal 43.4mpg and because the latest Galaxy is surprising light (well compared to an Elephant) the 140bhp gives a top speed of 119mph and a nippy 9.9 seconds to 60mph from standing.

Of course practicality is priority one when buying an MPV and Ford boast there are 31 cubby-holes in the Galaxy. I didn’t have time to count them all when I was in the car but I’ll take their word for it – there’s a lot. There’s seating for seven as is de rigueur for any self respecting MPV, with the rear two seats offering ample room for a six-footer like me despite being in the boot.

The best news for me and Olga when we’re carting the kids to football and school is that despite the Galaxy being a large seven seater, it drives superbly. The windy roads I took the car on have tested others that are meant to be sporty to their limits. With the Galaxy it took the bends in its stride with minimal body roll.

My only minor criticism is that Ford claim that to drive the Galaxy is to “travel first class”. I’ve not experienced first class as much as I’d like but I know that when I flew to Chicago in first or travelled to London in the posh bit there certainly wasn’t a diesel rattle in front of me.

So there you have it – the best car for me and Olga Kurylenko is a cheap Ford Galaxy. Put the kettle on love I’m famished.