I'm not always a political hack or headbanger. I'm also a bit of a tech geek who thinks neat new scientific ideas, especially with regard to space exploration, are just cool things.

In the New York Times, Dennis Overbye talks about how a new approach to astronomy is allowing scientists to better observe what's out there, in their quest to continue looking for planets, solar systems, and maybe other forms of life.

Since 1995, around 250 planets outside the solar system, or exoplanets, have been discovered. But few of them are in systems that even faintly resemble our own. In many cases, giant Jupiter-like planets are whizzing around in orbits smaller than that of Mercury. But are these typical of the universe?

Almost all of those planets were discovered by the so-called wobble method, in which astronomers measure the gravitational tug of planets on their parent star as they whir around it. This technique is most sensitive to massive planets close to their stars.

The new discovery was made by a different technique that favors planets more distant from their star. It is based on a trick of Einsteinian gravity called microlensing. If, in the ceaseless shifting of the stars, two of them should become almost perfectly aligned with Earth, the gravity of the nearer star can bend and magnify the light from the more distant one, causing it to get much brighter for a few days.

If the alignment is perfect, any big planets attending the nearer star will get into the act, adding their own little boosts to the more distant starlight.

That is exactly what started happening on March 28, 2006, when a star 5,000 light-years away in the constellation Scorpius began to pass in front of one 21,000 light-years more distant, causing it to flash. That was picked up by the Optical Gravitational Lensing Experiment, or Ogle, a worldwide collaboration of observers who keep watch for such events.

This seems to be a promising approach to help look for planets more like our own, and maybe see who else is out there. Pretty cool stuff.

Now, back to my thesis. Enjoy the weekend everyone.

4 Response to "Microlensing?"

  1. moye graham 16/2/08 23:15
  2. Anonymous 17/2/08 00:24
    Yep, a real geek if I've ever seen it.
  3. Speaker's Mafia 17/2/08 08:44
    If there is someone out there, the Speaker will get them in line. We can't have aliens out there running around without knowing who to kick something up to.
  4. west_rhino 20/2/08 11:42
    To consider the first test of microlensing was put on hold by WWI it really is nothing new, though on examination, I'm shocked that the ACLU isn't howling over the fact that it's existance underscores the existance of a creator who intelligently designed the physics...

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