Scientists use a laboratory in two ways: 1.To check a model or process they think to be correct and 2. To search for new discoveries that advance the science. There is often considerable overlap between the two; a model can be discredited and at the same time a new discovery is made. Now look up; especially at night when the Laboratory of the Universe (LOU) is on full display (during the day it is overpowered by Sunlight). Like everything else in Science, discoveries in the LOU seem to occur more frequently now than even twenty years ago. That is because there are more scientists, (so more ideas to test, more eyes to see, and more brains to interpret what is seen) and these scientists have greatly improved instruments to “see” as well as better tune the communication between them. Astronomy, Astrobiology, and Particle Physics all use the LOU to test and formulate many of their models. Just recently some major telescopes have been opened, via the internet, to the general public as part of a citizen scientist program. Two sites to start you off are http://www.worldwidetelescope.org and http://www.telescope.org. This article is being written on the internet; the authors are not together.
Many people may think that since stars are so massive that they only impact the objects around them. However, planets can impact the star’s orbit as well. In fact, one of the best ways of identifying planets in the universe is measuring the very precise movement, or wobble, of a star due to planetary influence. This is how scientists, using a new planet-searching orbiting telescope, Kepler, discovered Proxima B. This is an Earth-like planet around our closest neighboring star, Proxima Centauri in the constellation Cygnus (Swan), about 4.2 light-years away. It appears this planet resides in the habitable zone of this star, theoretically, water should exist there as vapor, liquid, and solid. In astrobiology’s current view, water is necessary for Life. The parent star, about 12% of the Sun’s mass, is called a red dwarf, so even though the planet is closer than Earth is to the Sun, the lower radiation from the smaller size makes for a closer habitable zone. Furthermore, red dwarfs, which are so small and “dark” they are hard to see. They make up a large fraction of the stars that we have observed so that earth-like planets may be more abundant than we think. When you look up in Norwood and see all those winking lights above, think of the scientists struggling to find planets around them.
Now is the dark sky portion of the month; a time for star parties. The evening “star(s)”, Jupiter and Venus, are really planets that are very close to one another and are setting into dusk. The “dance” this week between the new moon, Venus, and Jupiter should be fun to watch.