New Solar System (image credit- Tim Pyle NASA)

This is a very exciting time for astronomers, amateur astronomers, astronomy buffs, ufologists and aware citizens of the world.

First and foremost this week a new solar system with six planets has been discovered along with an additional 1200 exo-planetary candidates by the NASA Kepler Spacecraft. Probably as I am writing this, the number will change in the upward direction. This information is being added to daily. The Kepler Spacecraft has been a wonderful success for NASA. I urge all my readers to click on my links to detailed information at NASA on this fascinating program and the mechanics of the Kepler Spacecraft.

The star with the newly found solar system, Kepler 11, is said to be Sun sized. The amazing thing here is that five of the six planets found around Kepler 11 are in very close orbits around Kepler 11 and all six are thought to be rocky objects like the Earth and Mars and the Moon. In the beginning of the discovery of exoplanets, almost all the planets discovered were gas giants like Jupiter and Saturn but much larger and closer in to their stars- not what would be considered to be hospitable to life as we know it. That all changed in Autumn 2010 with the discovery of a rocky planet only 20 light years away orbiting a red dwarf star, Gliese 581, in the so-called Goldilocks or habitable zone – a region where liquid water could exist on a planet’s surface.

So it begins to seem that habitable planets may be relatively common in our galaxy. This idea was considered to be foolish in scientific circles within very recent history. We add to this idea that the Universe is proving to be larger than anyone expected and appears to hold three times the number of stars many astronomers might have estimated only a year ago. We are poised at the brink of a paradigm shift comparable to or greater than the one Galileo started with his non Geocentric model of the solar system. (The earliest heliocentric model of the solar system was by Philolaus in the fifth century BC, but was not widely adopted. Philolaus was a Sun worshipper. Is the Sun a conscious being? I think so.) In short, our beloved Solar System appears to be one of trillions out there. There are probably millions of solar systems in our Milky Way Galaxy and there are billions of galaxies. There is no reason not to believe that many other galaxies have stars with solar systems. Similarly there is no reason not to postulate that many of these solar systems have rocky planets in the habitable zone with water on them.

Where there is water there is likely to be life. Meteorites have told us that the building blocks of life exist in space. Rudimentary life can exist in extremely harsh conditions. There are stars in this galaxy that are far older than the sun, and galaxies that are far older than the Milky Way. It does not require a big leap from these facts for us to expect to find advanced civilizations on some of these rocky, watery planets. If some of the civilizations out there are tens of thousands of years more advanced than ours, might they not be visiting our habitable rock with it’s cruel warlike dominant ape species we like to call “human beings”? It is indeed an exciting and frightening time to be alive!

 

One of the reflecting telescopes at Jenny Jump State Forest. Photo by Gordon Bond

 

There is a wonderful dark sky location convenient to Metro NYC and Philadelphia, as well as Northern NJ, Eastern PA and Southern NY State. Within the Jenny Jump State Forest in Hope, NJ, the site is run by UACNJ, the United Astronomy Clubs of New Jersey. Every Saturday night they have a featured speaker with audio-visual extras inside a small museum/clubhouse and the fee is a donation. After the speaker is finished one can go outside and look at the skies. There are people on hand with telescopes and if the night is clear amazing things can be seen.

The evening I attended, the lecture was by an astronomy professor Lonny Bunis from Raritan Valley Community College, another time I spoke with an astronomy professor from NJIT, Dr. Dale Gary, who had discovered an exoplanet. I was very impressed! I also saw Jupiter and her four Galilean moons including a shadow cast on the surface of Jupiter by one of them. So for a portion of Jupiter there was an eclipse at that time. Jupiter has 63 known moons so these little lunar eclipses must be a common occurence. The comet Hartley 2, a nebula, Uranus, and the Andromeda Galaxy were other things I saw through the 16″ reflecting telescope. A club member ably manned and focused those sights in the telescope for visitors to see. Light from the Andromeda Galaxy takes two and a half billion light years to reach the Earth. Light from our Sun takes approximately 20 minutes to reach us. So everything that you see in the sky exists in the past. For all we know the Andromeda Galaxy is no longer there! I also saw three meteors careening through the night sky.

The environmental issue here is that we are losing the ability to see the stars because artificial lighting is polluting the night sky so it never really gets dark enough in most places to see these celestial marvels. Artificial lighting can be made less strong and so that its light reflects downward toward the Earth causing less light to escape upwards towards the sky.

The International Dark Sky Association works to combat light pollution.