Exoplanets in Northern Constellations

by jonmaaa

HD 176051 b

The hunt for exoplanets reaped its first award in 1995 with the discovery of 51 Pegasi b, a prototype of a class of planets called hot jupiters, approximately 50 light years away in the constellation of Pegasus. Since then, an overwhelming 861 planets have been identified as of March 22, 2013. Personally, I do not find myself learning by rote all the planetary names, distances and physical characteristics. That would just be silly, and the current names aren’t all that memorable (take the catchy-sounding WD 0806-661B b for example). What I do find memorable, however, are the positions of known exoplanets in northern constellations.

Only being equipped with a pair of old 8×42 Lux binoculars, there are limits to what I can see in the urban night sky. However, I still find it enjoyable to get my gear together and learn the constellations, distances to other systems and, as of late: the positions of known exoplanets.

How do I go about doing this? Well, for starters, the German astrophysicist Hanno Rein’s Exoplanet application is an excellent resource for staying up to date with new discoveries and learning about the characteristics of known exoplanets. But my principal tool for learning about exoplanets in northern constellations doesn’t actually require the ownership of an iPad or iPhone. NASA has launched a very interesting free online tool called Eyes on Exoplanets. This is truly a treasure trove for all exoplanet enthusiasts! Using this NASA tool, a person interested in the positions of known exoplanets can locate these by simply providing the free application with one’s own geographical location. This enables the view of the night sky from that particular location with the positions of known exoplanets thus being highlighted.

This is how I discovered that HD 176051 b, a gas giant in the habitable zone of its host star, is located about 49 light years away in the constellation Lyra, a constellation in which one finds one of the brightest stars in northern skies: Vega. This star was made famous by its appearance in the 1997 movie Contact which starred Jodie Foster and was based on the novel with the same title by Carl Sagan.

HD 176051 b has actually been touted online as possibly hosting habitable exomoons not unlike fictional Pandora featured in James Cameroon’s blockbuster Avatar. The existence of such exomoons is thought possible around HD 176051 b since liquid water could exist on the surface of a rocky world in the zone where the gas giant happens to orbit its host star. We need not look farther than our very own Solar system to find moons where life is thought to possibly exist, and these moons technically orbit outside the habitable zone of the Sun. Due to the frictional heat that is produced by the gravitational pull of Jupiter, the Jovian moon Europa is thought to have a liquid water ocean and conditions possibly suitable for life under its icy surface.

So, why shouldn’t the conditions for life possibly be even better elsewhere in the galaxy? Or if life doesn’t exist there, who can deny oneself the thrilling prospect of one day going there to visit? Nothing is known about these hypothetical exomoons, and they may be too hostile to us in terms of gravity, atmospheric composition and so on. But the conditions could also turn out to be balmy and welcoming. As discovered on Mars just recently, water on at least one other planet in the ancient past of the Solar system would probably have been good enough for humans to drink today. In essence, the HD 176051 system could one day possibly be a destination to which our species could migrate.

Next time I look up at the constellations and locate Lyra, its appearance won’t have changed, but I will gaze at one of its stars and see a new world of possibilities.