Thursday, October 18, 2012

Diamonds are Forever ... and Everywhere

Credit: Reuters/Haven Giguere/Yale University
An illustration of the interior of 55 Cancri e — an extremely hot planet with a surface of mostly graphite surrounding a thick layer of diamond, below which is a layer of silicon-based minerals and a molten iron core at the center.

It's Thursday so it must be time for me to get my science geek on.

And, as often happens, both items are all about space.

First up is a cool story from Reuters about a planet made of diamond.

The rocky planet, called '55 Cancri e', orbits a sun-like star in the constellation of Cancer and is moving so fast that a year there lasts a mere 18 hours.

Discovered by a U.S.-Franco research team, its radius is twice that of Earth's with a mass eight times greater. That would give it the same density as Earth, although previously observed diamond planets are reckoned to be a lot more dense. It is also incredibly hot, with temperatures on its surface reaching 3,900 degrees Fahrenheit (1,648 Celsius).

The study estimates that at least a third of the planet's mass, the equivalent of about three Earth masses, could be diamond.

David Spergel, an astronomer at Princeton University, said it was relatively simple to work out the basic structure and history of a star once you know its mass and age.

Planets are much more complex. This 'diamond-rich super-Earth' is likely just one example of the rich sets of discoveries that await us as we begin to explore planets around nearby stars."

"Nearby" is a relative concept in astronomy. Any fortune-hunter not dissuaded by "The Diamond as Big as the Ritz", F.Scott Fitzgerald's jazz age morality tale of thwarted greed, will find Cancri e about 40 light years, or 230 trillion miles, from Park Avenue.
Next up is an item about exploring the lunar landscape at the poles for water, in the form of ice.

A cool new vehicle has been designed specifically to search the moon's surface, and up to one meter below it, for water. It was designed by a spin-off from Carnegie-Mellon University.
The appropriately-named "Polaris."

Astrobotic Technology Inc. has completed assembly of a full-size prototype of Polaris, a solar-powered robot that will search for potentially rich deposits of water ice at the moon's poles. The first of its kind, Polaris can accommodate a drill to bore one meter into the lunar surface and can operate in lunar regions characterized by dark, long shadows and a sun that hugs the horizon.

Astrobotic, a Carnegie Mellon University spinoff that develops robotics technology for planetary missions, is developing Polaris for an expedition to the moon's northern pole. It would launch from Cape Canaveral atop a SpaceX Falcon 9 launch vehicle. The company, in partnership with CMU, seeks to win the Google Lunar X Prize of more than $20 million.
Observations by NASA and Indian spacecraft suggest that a substantial amount of water ice could exist at the lunar poles. That ice could be a source of water, fuel and oxygen for future expeditions.

To find the ice, a rover thus must operate as close to the dark poles as possible, but not so far that it can't use solar arrays for power, Whittaker said. Polaris thus has three large solar arrays, arranged vertically to capture light from low on the horizon. The solar arrays will be capable of an average of 250 watts of electrical power.
 Then, just when I thought my space-fix had been satisfied, Associated Press comes out with a story that an "earth like" planet has been discovered just outside of our solar system.

(AP Photo/ESO, L. Calcada)
EARTH'S HOT COUSIN: This artist’s impression made available
by the European Southern Observatory
on Tuesday, Oct. 16, 2012
shows a planet, right, orbiting the star
Alpha Centauri B, center,
a member of the triple star system that is the
closest to Earth.
Alpha Centauri A is at left. The Earth's Sun is visible
at upper right.
Astronomers say that just outside our solar system they've found a planet that's the closest you can get to Earth in location and size.

It is the type of planet they've been searching for across the Milky Way galaxy and they found it circling a star right next door - 25 trillion miles away. But the Earth-like planet is so hot its surface may be like molten lava.

The team of European astronomers who found it say it's likely there are other planets circling the same star.

And those planets could fit the not-too-hot, not-too-cold description that astronomers sometimes call the Goldilocks Zone.

The star system is Alpha Centauri B. The research was released online Tuesday in the journal Nature.
So first of all, don't you love the phrase "The Goldilocks Zone?"

I think that would be a great title for a Sci-Fi novel about looking for a habitable planet for humans after we destroy this one.

That's all for science geek zone today. But you have to admit, science is pretty cool.

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