March 29, 2012
“This is amazingly awesome news. Just think about it – TENS OF BILLIONS of planets may have life – and this just in our galaxy alone. The chances of there being intelligent life in the universe (other than humans, if we can even call ourselves intelligent theses days) are astronomical. There probably isn’t just one or two intelligent species out there, there are probably thousands! These are the types of things the human race should be concerned about – not fighting with each other over religion, or who is going to win this season’s Dancing With the Stars.” –KTRN
Scientists have long assumed that the best chance of finding alien life in the universe is on planets similar to ours. The latest scientific discoveries show that there might be tens of billions of such planets in our galaxy alone.
Astronomers at the European Southern Observatory in Chile came to these findings after studying more than a hundred red dwarves, the most common stars in the universe.
The French-led team found out that 40 per cent of red dwarves are orbited by super-Earths – planets up to ten times bigger than our own – which are the correct distance away from their star for liquid water to be found on them. Liquid water is considered a major precondition of life.
From then on, figuring out the amount of potentially habitable planets was only a matter of math.
“Because red dwarfs are so common – there are about 160 billion of them in the Milky Way – this leads us to the astonishing result that there are tens of billions of these planets in our galaxy alone,” lead researcher Xavier Bonfils from the Observatoire des Sciences de l’Univers in Grenoble, France, said in a statement.
Despite the mind-boggling possibilities of billions of other civilizations, astronomers say it’s not time to record our interplanetary greetings just yet.
January 12, 2012
“This is awesome – and mind boggling. Imagine billions of Earth sized planets orbiting starts in our galaxy. Let’s not forget there are billions of galaxies in the Universe. Scientists now say every star has at least one planet orbiting it. Do the math – the chances that we are alone in space is virtually none. In fact, with these numbers, there is a good probability that the Universe is beaming with life – not just microscopic life, but intelligent existence. Don’t you think man’s number one goal as the species of Earth would be to find this other life? To colonize space? To discover where we come from? Nope – let’s just keep fighting and killing each other other over an invisible God in the sky we can’t see. Perhaps the discovery of life in the Universe could bring us closer together. It’s disturbing that all the nations on planet Earth are not coming together to venture into space.” –KTRN
An international team, including three astronomers from the European Southern Observatory (ESO), has used the technique of gravitational microlensing to measure how common planets are in the Milky Way. After a six-year search that surveyed millions of stars, the team concludes that planets around stars are the rule rather than the exception. The results will appear in the journal Nature on 12 January 2012.
Over the past 16 years, astronomers have detected more than 700 confirmed exoplanets  and have started to probe the spectra (eso1002) and atmospheres (eso1047) of these worlds. While studying the properties of individual exoplanets is undeniably valuable, a much more basic question remains: how commonplace are planets in the Milky Way?
Most currently known exoplanets were found either by detecting the effect of the gravitational pull of the planet on its host star or by catching the planet as it passes in front of its star and slightly dims it. Both of these techniques are much more sensitive to planets that are either massive or close to their stars, or both, and many planets will be missed.
An international team of astronomers has searched for exoplanets using a totally different method — gravitational microlensing — that can detect planets over a wide range of mass and those that lie much further from their stars.
Arnaud Cassan (Institut dʼAstrophysique de Paris), lead author of the Nature paper, explains: “We have searched for evidence for exoplanets in six years of microlensing observations. Remarkably, these data show that planets are more common than stars in our galaxy. We also found that lighter planets, such as super-Earths or cool Neptunes, must be more common than heavier ones.”
The astronomers used observations, supplied by the PLANET  and OGLE  teams, in which exoplanets are detected by the way that the gravitational field of their host stars, combined with that of possible planets, acts like a lens, magnifying the light of a background star. If the star that acts as a lens has a planet in orbit around it, the planet can make a detectable contribution to the brightening effect on the background star.
Jean-Philippe Beaulieu (Institut d’Astrophysique de Paris), leader of the PLANET collaboration adds: “The PLANET collaboration was established to follow up promising microlensing events with a round-the-world network of telescopes located in the southern hemisphere, from Australia and South Africa to Chile. ESO telescopes contributed greatly to these surveys.”
Microlensing is a very powerful tool, with the potential to detect exoplanets that could never be found any other way. But a very rare chance alignment of a background and lensing star is required for a microlensing event to be seen at all. And, to spot a planet during an event, an additional chance alignment of the planet’s orbit is also needed.
Although for these reasons finding a planet by microlensing is far from an easy task, in the six year’s worth of microlensing data used in the analysis, three exoplanets were actually detected in the PLANET and OGLE searches: a super-Earth , and planets with masses comparable to Neptune and Jupiter. By microlensing standards, this is an impressive haul. In detecting three planets, either the astronomers were incredibly lucky and had hit the jackpot despite huge odds against them, or planets are so abundant in the Milky Way that it was almost inevitable .
October 12, 2009
By Mark Stevenson
Apolinario Chile Pixtun is tired of being bombarded with frantic questions about the Mayan calendar supposedly “running out” on Dec. 21, 2012. After all, it’s not the end of the world.
Or is it?
Definitely not, the Mayan Indian elder insists. “I came back from England last year and, man, they had me fed up with this stuff.”
It can only get worse for him. Next month Hollywood’s “2012″ opens in cinemas, featuring earthquakes, meteor showers and a tsunami dumping an aircraft carrier on the White House.
At Cornell University, Ann Martin, who runs the “Curious? Ask an Astronomer” Web site, says people are scared.
“It’s too bad that we’re getting e-mails from fourth-graders who are saying that they’re too young to die,” Martin said. “We had a mother of two young children who was afraid she wouldn’t live to see them grow up.”
Chile Pixtun, a Guatemalan, says the doomsday theories spring from Western, not Mayan ideas.
A significant time period for the Mayas does end on the date, and enthusiasts have found a series of astronomical alignments they say coincide in 2012, including one that happens roughly only once every 25,800 years.
But most archaeologists, astronomers and Maya say the only thing likely to hit Earth is a meteor shower of New Age philosophy, pop astronomy, Internet doomsday rumors and TV specials such as one on the History Channel which mixes “predictions” from Nostradamus and the Mayas and asks: “Is 2012 the year the cosmic clock finally winds down to zero days, zero hope?”
It may sound all too much like other doomsday scenarios of recent decades – the 1987 Harmonic Convergence, the Jupiter Effect or “Planet X.” But this one has some grains of archaeological basis.
One of them is Monument Six.
Found at an obscure ruin in southern Mexico during highway construction in the 1960s, the stone tablet almost didn’t survive; the site was largely paved over and parts of the tablet were looted.
It’s unique in that the remaining parts contain the equivalent of the date 2012. The inscription describes something that is supposed to occur in 2012 involving Bolon Yokte, a mysterious Mayan god associated with both war and creation.
However – shades of Indiana Jones – erosion and a crack in the stone make the end of the passage almost illegible.
Archaeologist Guillermo Bernal of Mexico’s National Autonomous University interprets the last eroded glyphs as maybe saying, “He will descend from the sky.”
Spooky, perhaps, but Bernal notes there are other inscriptions at Mayan sites for dates far beyond 2012 – including one that roughly translates into the year 4772.
And anyway, Mayas in the drought-stricken Yucatan peninsula have bigger worries than 2012.
“If I went to some Mayan-speaking communities and asked people what is going to happen in 2012, they wouldn’t have any idea,” said Jose Huchim, a Yucatan Mayan archaeologist. “That the world is going to end? They wouldn’t believe you. We have real concerns these days, like rain.”
The Mayan civilization, which reached its height from 300 A.D. to 900 A.D., had a talent for astronomy
Its Long Count calendar begins in 3,114 B.C., marking time in roughly 394-year periods known as Baktuns. Thirteen was a significant, sacred number for the Mayas, and the 13th Baktun ends around Dec. 21, 2012.
“It’s a special anniversary of creation,” said David Stuart, a specialist in Mayan epigraphy at the University of Texas at Austin. “The Maya never said the world is going to end, they never said anything bad would happen necessarily, they’re just recording this future anniversary on Monument Six.”
Bernal suggests that apocalypse is “a very Western, Christian” concept projected onto the Maya, perhaps because Western myths are “exhausted.”
If it were all mythology, perhaps it could be written off.
But some say the Maya knew another secret: the Earth’s axis wobbles, slightly changing the alignment of the stars every year. Once every 25,800 years, the sun lines up with the center of our Milky Way galaxy on a winter solstice, the sun’s lowest point in the horizon.
That will happen on Dec. 21, 2012, when the sun appears to rise in the same spot where the bright center of galaxy sets.
Another spooky coincidence?
“The question I would ask these guys is, so what?” says Phil Plait, an astronomer who runs the “Bad Astronomy” blog. He says the alignment doesn’t fall precisely in 2012, and distant stars exert no force that could harm Earth.
“They’re really super-duper trying to find anything astronomical they can to fit that date of 2012,” Plait said.
But author John Major Jenkins says his two-decade study of Mayan ruins indicate the Maya were aware of the alignment and attached great importance to it.
“If we want to honor and respect how the Maya think about this, then we would say that the Maya viewed 2012, as all cycle endings, as a time of transformation and renewal,” said Jenkins.
As the Internet gained popularity in the 1990s, so did word of the “fateful” date, and some began worrying about 2012 disasters the Mayas never dreamed of.
Author Lawrence Joseph says a peak in explosive storms on the surface of the sun could knock out North America’s power grid for years, triggering food shortages, water scarcity – a collapse of civilization. Solar peaks occur about every 11 years, but Joseph says there’s evidence the 2012 peak could be “a lulu.”
While pressing governments to install protection for power grids, Joseph counsels readers not to “use 2012 as an excuse to not live in a healthy, responsible fashion. I mean, don’t let the credit cards go up.”
Another History Channel program titled “Decoding the Past: Doomsday 2012: End of Days” says a galactic alignment or magnetic disturbances could somehow trigger a “pole shift.”
“The entire mantle of the earth would shift in a matter of days, perhaps hours, changing the position of the north and south poles, causing worldwide disaster,” a narrator proclaims. “Earthquakes would rock every continent, massive tsunamis would inundate coastal cities. It would be the ultimate planetary catastrophe.”
The idea apparently originates with a 19th century Frenchman, Charles Etienne Brasseur de Bourbourg, a priest-turned-archaeologist who got it from his study of ancient Mayan and Aztec texts.
Scientists say that, at best, the poles might change location by one degree over a million years, with no sign that it would start in 2012.
While long discredited, Brasseur de Bourbourg proves one thing: Westerners have been trying for more than a century to pin doomsday scenarios on the Maya. And while fascinated by ancient lore, advocates seldom examine more recent experiences with apocalypse predictions.
“No one who’s writing in now seems to remember that the last time we thought the world was going to end, it didn’t,” says Martin, the astronomy webmaster. “There doesn’t seem to be a lot of memory that things were fine the last time around.”