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Astronomers find a five-planet solar system in the Sunâ¿¿s backyard

Nov 6, 2007 -- Astronomers reported today that they have found a planetary system with five planets orbiting a nearby Sun-like star. The star, 55 Cancri, in the constellation of Cancer, was previously known to have 4 planets. The newest member of the 55 Cancri planetary system was discovered the same way the other four planets around 55 Cancri were found â'' inferring their presence from the wobble they introduce into the starâ''s motion.

â''We now know that our Sun and its family is not unusual,â'' said astronomer Geoff Marcy of the University of California at Berkeley at a NASA press conference earlier today.

The latest results are the culmination of a 18-year quest, the team of astronomers making the announcement reported. The first exoplanet around 55 Cancri was reported 11 years ago.

The fifth planet around 55 Cancri is about 45 times more massive than the Earth, which means it is somewhere larger than Neptune but less than Saturn in mass. It orbits its parent star in 260 days. Debra Fischer of San Francisco State University, one of the team members making the announcement, speculated that the planet may look like â''a beefy Neptuneâ'' or even be like a â''Saturn with rings.â''

Telescopes on Earth cannot image the planets around other stars because of technological limitations. It is extremely hard to resolve a planet, which only reflects light from its parent star, next to the star itself, given how far even the nearest stars are from Earth. 55 Cancri, for instance, lies about 41 light years away. (A light year is the distance that light travels in 1 year, at the headlong speed of 300,000 kilometers per second.)

So, astronomers have resorted to using measurements of the motions of the stars to infer the existence of planets. It turns out that a planet will introduce a signature gravitational wobble into the starâ''s motion. The larger the planet, the more the wobble introduced. Conversely, the tiny wobble from a small planet is extremely hard to distinguish from detector noise. Thus, most planets found using this technique tend to be large.

The first exoplanet was found about 12 years ago. Since then, about 260 plus exoplanets have been discovered. However, there are very few multi-planet systems known. 55 Cancri is the only quintuple-planet system known; there is a star that is known to have four planets and some have three planets.

Astronomers are excited about the newest planet around 55 Cancri because it seems to lie in the habitable zone â'' an area around a star where temperatures are thought to be favorable to life. Although the planet itself is probably too massive to harbor life as we know it, it could have large moons that may be suitable for life. Astronomers also pointed out that there is a large gap around 55 Cancri where no planets have been found. This does not imply that there are no planets there, they said, just that the planets are too small to be detected using current technology. It is possible that an Earth-mass planet lurks in that gap, said Fischer.

Astronomer Jonathan Lunine of the University of Arizona summed up todayâ''s announcement, saying astronomers â''are beginning to move from finding lots of stars with planetsâ'' to finding real planetary systems like ours, something astronomers have suspected are fairly common.

â''The new planetary system is reminiscent of our own Solar System,â'' said Marcy.

The discovery had him â''jumping out of my socks,â'' he said.

For images and visualizations, see:

http://www.nasa.gov/audience/formedia/telecon-20071106/index.html

I voted touch screen today

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I voted touch screen today. At one p.m., one of the five machines at my local polling place was already down. A screen failure, the poll worker reported, that happened about an hour after the polls opened.

The poll workers were not expecting a repeat of last Novemberâ''s debacle, in which printers ran out of paper and the machines locked up. (The paper is in a tamper proof housing and cannot be changed on site.) Not because a solution to the problem has been found, but because with only a few school board and city council seats in contention, voting today is extremely light.

Meanwhile, in San Francisco, concerns about the accuracy of the machines that automatically count paper ballots means that each ballot will be reviewed by an election worker to make sure that the voter used a special black ink pen, and the results wonâ''t be reported for weeks.

How is high tech voting going in your part of the country?

Announcements of Nanotechnology Funding in India Keep Coming

There has been a recent spate of nanotechnology-related announcements coming out of India, including a new investment platform for new and emerging companies and a new facility at IIT Bombay donated by Applied Materials.

Contained within the former announcement is reference to the Indian government starting a five-year national mission called the Nano Science and Technology Mission (NSTM) with an upfront investment of Rs 1,000 crore (US$254,322,838), which translates to nearly $51 million for each year of the plan.

This seems to be a strong and competitive investment, but anyone paying attention to nanotechnology in India will recall that the last bit of appropriated funds (Rs 200 crore for the 2005-2006 budgets) for the NSTM went largely unspent as chronicled on this blog .

What seems to be missing in all of these new announcements is some plan to not let the mistakes of the recent past happen again. Itâ''s fairly easy to pick a number for funding, but actually spending it (never mind wisely) seems to be the problem.

Shuttle Leaves Space Station a Better Place

After nearly 11 days, the crew of the Discovery orbiter undocked this morning from the International Space Station, leaving the ISS a better place than they found it.

At 5:32 am EST, Pilot George Zamka backed the orbiter about 400 feet from the ISS and performed a fly-around to allow crew members to collect imagery of the station in its new configuration, according to NASA. That configuration includes the newly attached Harmony portal and a newly deployed solar power array. Both were primary tasks of the complicated mission known as STS-120. As NASA administrators said in recent days of the assignment, it was "one for the record books."

The STS-120 crew already had a challenging agenda on its hands when it docked with the space station on 25 October. They were scheduled to: load the 16-ton Harmony utility hub; connect the P6 portside truss segment and extend its solar-cell wing; examine a malfunctioning starboard solar-panel rotary joint; deliver Mission Specialist Daniel Tani, the newest ISS crew member, and pick up his returning counterpart, Flight Engineer Clayton Anderson; and perform an experiment in space to test damage repair techniques on the shuttle's exterior. They were initially tasked with making five spacewalks over nine days to accomplish the technical chores.

However, the schedule began to unravel on Sunday, 28 October, when Tani opened the housing of the starboard Solar Alpha Rotary Joint and found metallic debris adhering to it (see our previous entry "Spacewalkers Carry On Despite New Glitch"). That's when things got a little dicey. In order to investigate the problem with the rotary joint, which keeps the starboard solar wings oriented toward the sun, NASA managers re-jiggered STS-120's priorities. The mission was extended a day, the spacewalks were reduced from five to four, the shuttle repair experiment was scrapped, and emphasis was placed on the demands of the port and starboard solar array work.

That's when the next shoe dropped. While deploying the P6 4B solar array, the material holding the delicate solar cells snagged on a guide wire and ripped in two spots, forcing ground controllers to halt the maneuver in place in order to come up with a workaround (see our previous entry "Space Station Woes Affect Shuttle Schedule"). Yesterday, Mission Specialist Scott E. Parazynski performed a daring spacewalk to repair the damaged but electrically active solar wing (which took him further from a spacecraft than anyone had ever attempted).

With the portside solar wing repaired and deployed and the starboard rotator joint further examined (with debris samples collected for analysis), NASA administrators decided the crew of STS-120 had done enough to chalk up a resoundingly successful mission and gave them the green light to head home. They are now scheduled to attempt to land at Cape Canaveral on Wednesday afternoon.

This flight to the ISS was initially publicized as an historic meeting between the first two spacecraft commanders who happen to be women, Commander Pamela A. Melroy and Commander Peggy Whitson, skippers of the shuttle and station, respectively (see our recent entry "Women Set to Take Charge of Space"). The circumstances that soon arose, however, changed the focus of the storyline to one in which astronauts and cosmonauts had to exercise quick thinking, imagination, and courage to solve problems on the fly to save the day.

It didn't matter what gender they were in the end. Both crews exhibited the "right stuff" when the going got tough, following in a long tradition. Congratulations are due to both teams.

Internet Buzz, the gPhone, and the Open Source Software of â¿¿The Open Handset Allianceâ¿¿

By last week, the anticipatory crescendo of speculation and rumors about a mythical gPhone had taken on such a fevered pitch that hardly anything Google announced today could be expected to live up to the hype (Gizmodo even posted a play-by-play of the conference call). Rather than introducing a new handset capable of bringing the (legally questionable) iPhone to its knees, Google announced the formation of The Open Handset Alliance, a group of companies that includes headset manufacturers like Motorola and LG, mobile operators like Sprint and T-Mobile, software companies, and chip manufacturers. They'll work on developing Android, what they promise will be â''the first complete, open, and free mobile platform.â''

An open and free mobile platform would allow the same kind of 3rd party innovation we've benefited from in computer software, paving the way for customized phones that go beyond the sixteen possible buttons on an iPhone. Now that the gPhone hype bubble has burst bloggers, journalists, and telecom insiders are trying to dissect what it all means (except those still waiting for an actual gPhone).

Companies outside the alliance (conspicuously including American carriers AT&T and Verizon) have tried to brush off importance of the announcement. According to the Times Online, Arun Sarin, the head of Vodafone, asked, â''What is it that is missing in life that they [Google] are going to fulfill?â''

Over at Salon.com, the Machinist Blog has a good answer:

At the moment your phone is a jail cell. It could be, depending on your model, a very nice jail cell -- the Apple iPhone is like Martha Stewart's jail cell. Still though, you can't get out. You can't do what you want. You're locked in by carriers, by handset manufacturers, and by software companies to using only approved programs in an approved way.

Worse than that, there aren't many things to do on the phone anyway, because there isn't really a software industry devoted to building programs for such devices. Why should there be if all the users are in jail?

Back in August, IEEE Spectrumâ''s Steven Cherry expained Googleâ''s hope that the 700 MHz band would â''require that any owner allow any device onto their network, and that any application be allowed to run on those devices.â'' It sounds like the Open Handset Alliance will be the next step towards those goals.

In liberating phones, it looks like Google wonâ''t even take the credit by branding any particular headset a â''gPhoneâ'' (as reported in the San Jose Mercury News):

Instead, the big news is that Google has gone generic, offering free software to anyone who wants it under the relaxed terms of an open-source license, which will allow developers to view the source code for that software. This also means there will not be a "gPhone," or any sort of phone with the Google brand on it.

Unlike Microsoft Windows or Internet Explorer, the mobile operating system and browser built by Google will not carry its brand. Indeed, it's possible that people who buy the new phones will have no idea that Google is behind their gadgets.

But just because Google will be giving away the software operating system software for free, itâ''s not an act of charity. According to Forbes, Android will give Google more of a user base to expose to its ads:

Ninety-nine percent of Google's revenues come from ads, either the ones it puts next to free Internet-based services like search and e-mail, or through syndication on third-party Web pages. The bigger the Internet gets, Google executives figure, the more pages there are for ads and the more people will need search (with more ads) to find anything.

Iâ''m skeptical that this is a really great ideaâ''have you ever noticed how small a cell phone screen is? Mine can barely describe the barebones information that makes web surfing valuable, and the last thing Iâ''d want to give up is pixel real estate for ads I donâ''t want. What I will tolerate on a twenty-inch monitor is very different from what Iâ''ll allow on my phone.

Ten things I didn't know about Facebook

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Until recently, Facebook was a tool for college and high school kids, no one else needed apply. Now itâ''s open to everyone, but many of us who are, letâ''s say, over 30, just donâ''t get it. (In fact, there is a group on Facebook called â''Over 40 is Facebook Creepyâ'' for people who donâ''t want us ever to get it.)

But I have a high school kid, and that means, whether I want to or not, that I have to deal with life in a Facebook world. At monthly parent coffees, the topic of Facebook has been coming up regularly, in the context of, â''my kid is on Facebook and I have no idea what heâ''s doing there.â''

One parent group I belong to decided it was time to understand Facebook. And since we live in Silicon Valley and are spoiled rotten by the technical talent at our doorsteps, we did the obvious thing; we called Facebook and asked them to send someone to our next get together to explain it all to us.

Since Iâ''d already spent some time checking out Facebook, I thought I understood the Facebook world. I was wrong. Here are some random things that I learned that day, that clued me in just a little more to this technology that just may be the way lots of things get done in the future, perhaps as ubiquitous as email is today.

--When you join, you identify yourself geographically. As soon as you do that, all other members similarly identified can look at your profile. Thatâ''s 45,000 people on average, a million if you live in London. (For teens under 18, itâ''s restricted to other members under 18. Thatâ''s still tens of thousands of people.)

--Company H.R. departments are checking out Facebook when hiring. At least one company reportedly gathers the Facebook login info of current staff members to use as entry to applicantsâ'' profiles. (Profile access is restricted to people belonging to the same group (MIT graduates, people who live in New York). But log in as someone in that group and youâ''re there.)

--If you lie on Facebook, youâ''re stuck with it. Lot of kids inflate their reported ages drastically to get around age restrictions on the site; they may come to regret this when theyâ''d rather not be several years older. (Yes, they could kill their account and start fresh, but after a couple of years building a network and content, thatâ''s a pretty drastic move.)

--If lie about your age, you likely wonâ''t get caught. But if you do get caught, your age will not be changed, you will simply be deleted. If you contact Facebook and ask to change your age, you will be deleted.

--Facebook has virtual walls around high school communities. Thatâ''s a good thing for Internet safety. Unfortunately, except at private schools and two or three large public schools in the U.S., the gates are somewhat open. That is, Facebook can easily verify a studentâ''s school attendance if the school issues student email addresses, most schools donâ''t. So verification consists of emailing another member at the school and asking if the person goes there.

--While Facebook has both public posts (the Wall) and private posts (mail), people under 24 or so donâ''t distinguish between the two, so lots of messages that should be private are not.

--The meaning of the term â''pokeâ'', a popular action on Facebook, is unclear. Said our Facebook rep, â''not even we at Facebook know what it means.â''

--There are 10 to 15 million photos uploaded to Facebook daily. Many of them are tagged and searchable by name; and while you can take your name off of an embarassing photo, you canâ''t make the photo go away.

--A 26-year-old engineer working at Facebook is considered a senior citizen.

--No one working at Facebook is dealing with Facebook privacy from a parentâ''s perspective, because no one is old enough to be the parent of a teen.

That last one is the scariest, because these folks are developing new features daily, and well, letâ''s say donâ''t have a particularly adult perspective on them.

Anyway, it seems that even though Iâ''d rather not spend more time on line than I already do, this is one virtual world I canâ''t hide from any longer, itâ''s time to get my own Facebook account. Besides, my husband got one last week and I canâ''t wait to poke him.

The Dog That Proved Space Flight Possible

Before men and women could travel into space, it had to be proven they could withstand the challenges of such a harsh environment. Some believed at the outset of the Space Age that no living creature could withstand the dangers posed by high levels of ionizing radiation out there. To test the possibility, the first space scientists, therefore, decided to send a dog into orbit, fifty years ago.

When I spoke with aerospace pioneer Fred Durant a couple of month's back on his memories of the launch of Sputnik 1 a half century later, one of the things he said to me last was: "We shouldn't be celebrating Sputnik 1. It was important, don't get me wrong. But Sputnik 2 was even more important. It proved that manned spaceflight was a possibility."

On 3 November 1957, the Soviet Union launched the second artificial satellite into planetary orbit. The managers of Sputnik 2 decided that, in addition to adding more sophisticated scientific instruments to the payload, they would include a small compartment in the little cone-shaped spacecraft to carry a dog into the cosmos.

Originally, she was a 2-year-old stray found wandering the streets of Moscow. Soviet authorities first nicknamed her Kudryavka (or Little Curly in English), but her handlers renamed her prior to the satellite launch in response to her peppy behavior in lab tests. They called her Laika (literally Barker).

The Samoyed-terrier mix weighed in at 13 pounds, the perfect size to fit into the pressurized "crew" compartment aboard Sputnik 2. She was strapped in and fitted with electrodes to monitor her vital signs (as well as a receptacle to collect waste). Then she was shot into orbit by a giant R-7 ICBM rocket system. Dispensers enabled her to consume gelatinized food and water on the craft.

Early telemetry from the satellite, according to the Soviets, indicated that she survived the ascent and was eating regularly as she hurtled around the planet every 103 minutes. Knowing that she would never be able to return to Earth alive, as the mission had no controlled re-entry capability, Soviet planners explained that Laika would be a martyr to the cause of science. They would initially claim that the pooch (dubbed Muttnik in the West) survived, as calculated, seven days in the void.

In 2002, though, the truth came out. Russian sources revealed that Laika had lasted only a few terrifying hours inside her tiny capsule. Neither radiation nor weightlessness caused her demise, it is thought, but rather trauma from vibration and heat (as the thermal control system had malfunctioned after lift-off). Still, during her brief existence in orbit, Laika had proved that living creatures could, if properly equipped, survive a trip into space. The rest, of course, would be history.

Tomorrow will mark the fiftieth anniversary of the original voyager's journey into the heavens. Sadly, it will also mark the day of her death. We call dogs "man's best friend." This is one dog that should always be referred to as "science's best friend." Rest in peace, Kudryavka.

Nanotechnology and the...Twinkie?

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Okay, what do you call nanotechnology and a Twinkie? Umh..a tortured analogy?

There's a joke in there somewhere, I guess. But I am not sure, and I am not too sure what the point of this video is. To be honest, I only watched half of it by which time I was driven to such distraction that I was almost tempted to eat a Twinkie.

I know, I know what's the difference between a Twinkie and nanotechnology? No, that's not it either.

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