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Strange New Worlds

Strange New Worlds: The Search for Alien Planets and Life beyond Our Solar System

Ray Jayawardhana
Copyright Date: 2011
Pages: 288
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  • Book Info
    Strange New Worlds
    Book Description:

    Soon astronomers expect to find alien Earths by the dozens in orbit around distant suns. Before the decade is out, telltale signs that they harbor life may be found. If they are, the ramifications for all areas of human thought and endeavor--from religion and philosophy to art and biology--will be breathtaking. InStrange New Worlds, renowned astronomer Ray Jayawardhana brings news from the front lines of the epic quest to find planets--and alien life--beyond our solar system.

    Only in the past fifteen years, after millennia of speculation, have astronomers begun to discover planets around other stars--hundreds in fact. But the hunt to find a true Earth-like world goes on. In this book, Jayawardhana vividly recounts the stories of the scientists and the remarkable breakthroughs that have ushered in this extraordinary age of exploration. He describes the latest findings--including his own--that are challenging our view of the cosmos and casting new light on the origins and evolution of planets and planetary systems. He reveals how technology is rapidly advancing to support direct observations of Jupiter-like gas giants and super-Earths--rocky planets with several times the mass of our own planet--and how astronomers use biomarkers to seek possible life on other worlds.

    Strange New Worldsprovides an insider's look at the cutting-edge science of today's planet hunters, our prospects for discovering alien life, and the debates and controversies at the forefront of extrasolar-planet research.

    eISBN: 978-1-4008-3813-4
    Subjects: Physics, Astronomy

Table of Contents

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  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-xii)
  3. Chapter 1 Quest for Other Worlds The Exciting Times We Live In
    (pp. 1-15)

    We are living in an extraordinary age of discovery. After millennia of musings and a century of false claims, astronomers have finally found definitive evidence of planets around stars other than the Sun. A mere twenty years ago, we knew of only one planetary system for sure—ours. Today we know of hundreds of others. What’s more, thanks to a suite of remarkable new instruments, we have peered into planetary birth sites and captured the first pictures of newborns. We have taken the temperature of extrasolar giant planets and espied water in their atmospheres. Numerous “super-Earths” have been found already,...

  4. Chapter 2 Planets from Dust Unraveling the Birth of Solar Systems
    (pp. 16-45)

    Since there is no way to go back in time and see how our own solar system formed, astronomers have to find clues to its origin by other means. Detailed observations of stellar nurseries reveal the characteristics of young suns and their surroundings, including disks of gas and dust that presumably turn into planetary systems. Sophisticated computer simulations, based on our understanding of physical laws, can follow the collapse, under the influence of gravity, of a gas cloud into a star. Experiments with dust balls show how tiny grains stick together to make bigger clumps in disks girdling young stars....

  5. Chapter 3 A Wobbly Start False Starts and Death Star Planets
    (pp. 46-66)

    It is one thing to infer that planetary systems must be ubiquitous in the Galaxy from the presence of dusty disks around most newborn stars, but quite another to find the planets themselves. Just because the raw material for planet making is common does not have to mean the final products are as well. In fact, the hunt for extrasolar planets started long before astronomers had direct evidence of protoplanetary disks. Naturally the targets of these searches were the Sun’s nearest neighbors. The preferred method: looking for periodic wobbles as these stars travel across the sky, by recording their positions...

  6. Chapter 4 Planet Bounty Hot Jupiters and Other Surprises
    (pp. 67-93)

    It had been a long time coming. There were the many decades of failed attempts and refuted claims, of denied research grants and scarce telescope time, and of painstaking refinements to the instruments and software. Finally, in the fall of 1995, astronomers announced definitive evidence of the first planet orbiting a normal star other than the Sun. It was an unusual beast in an unexpected location—a gas giant a hundred times closer to its star than Jupiter is to the Sun—raising serious doubts about its nature and fueling a sharp debate about its very existence. Within a year,...

  7. Chapter 5 Flickers and Shadows More Ways to Find Planets
    (pp. 94-122)

    Since faint planets are hard to see next to bright stars, astronomers have had to come up with clever ways to unveil them. The Doppler technique—using spectral line shifts to trace the subtle dance of stars as planets tug on them—has been the most successful in the first fifteen years. But two other methods have also reached maturity—and are paying off handsomely. Both depend on finding chance alignments of celestial objects through brightness changes of stars.

    The first technique exploits a remarkable property of gravity that Albert Einstein discovered: its ability to bend light, thus to magnify...

  8. Chapter 6 Blurring Boundaries Neither Stars nor Planets
    (pp. 123-148)

    Over the past two decades, astronomers have uncovered a surprising variety of worlds in the outer realms of our solar system and beyond. Of the thousands of icy bodies circling the Sun beyond the orbit of Neptune, the biggest few—all found in the twenty-first century—resemble Pluto in many ways. For a while there was talk of inducting a tenth planet, but Pluto was demoted instead, stirring a public debate that got emotional at times. The revelations at the other end of the planetary-mass range are perhaps even more profound. At the same time as the extrasolar planets, astronomers...

  9. Chapter 7 A Picture’s Worth Images of Distant Worlds
    (pp. 149-171)

    There is something exciting about a picture of a planet circling another star. For most people I’ve spoken with, reading about hundreds of planets discovered through Doppler surveys, transit searches, and microlensing just does not compare with seeing an actual photograph of one. Somehow the photo makes it a “real” world, even if it is just a faint dot next to a bright, overexposed star. These people will be happy to hear that the era of direct imaging is here at last.

    For an alien photographer that wants to capture a family portrait of our solar system from tens of...

  10. Chapter 8 Alien Earths In Search of Wet, Rocky Habitats
    (pp. 172-202)

    The brilliant floodlights came on at dusk, with their crisscrossing beams pointed at the shiny Delta-II rocket perched on Pad 17-B at Cape Canaveral, Florida. The sky above was perfectly clear, with the Moon more than half full. The flawless liftoff occurred at 10:49 p.m. on March 6, 2009, as hundreds watched from within the Kennedy Space Center and hundreds more from the beach at Jetty Park a few kilometers away. One man among the select crowd within the compound, Bill Borucki, had waited longer, and fought harder, than anybody else to be there. The rocket’s precious cargo—a satellite...

  11. Chapter 9 Signs of Life How Will We Find E.T.?
    (pp. 203-228)

    Once the invention of the telescope showed that the Earth is but one world among many, it opened the serious prospect of life on other planets. The reconnaissance within our solar system has revealed some tantalizing hints but no definitive evidence so far. Now that we are on the verge of finding extrasolar worlds with conditions hospitable for life, the question has gained a new urgency. Guided by remote observations of the Earth, clues about how the solar system’s three large rocky planets have evolved, and theoretical models of planets in other stellar environments, scientists are figuring out how best...

  12. Glossary
    (pp. 229-238)
  13. Selected Bibliography
    (pp. 239-244)
  14. Index
    (pp. 245-256)
  15. Acknowledgments
    (pp. 257-258)
  16. About the Author
    (pp. 259-259)