Openhouse: Strange Planets

by Nick Hynes

As a creative organisation, we like to think big. And we encourage our clients and industry peers to do the same. With this in mind, cast your eyes upwards, take in the huge expanse of the night sky and imagine just how many stars and planets are out there. Now, that is big.

To boggle our minds further, we invited Chris Lintott to host our most recent Openhouse event and take us on a journey into his, and other worlds. Yes, that’s the Chris Lintott, Professor of Astrophysics at Oxford University and host of BBC’s ‘The Sky At Night’, who we’d spotted previously, entertaining a crowd of hungover clubbers at last year’s Bluedot Festival of music and science.

  • Chris spoke to an assembled crowd of creatives and space cadets and introduced us to a few of the hundreds of strange new planets discovered every year, around distant stars. Apparently, they reveal their presence by causing a brief, observable dip in the host star’s emitted light when the orbiting planet passes in front of the star. A phenomenon that proper astronomers know as ‘transit’. See, I was paying attention.

  • Among the new planets we’ve added to our (really massive) map of the known universe is LTT 1445Ab a strange exoplanet in a three-star system, 22.5 light years from Earth. It orbits one of the stars every five days, while the other two stay suspended in its sky. Star Wars fans may recognise this planet as a real-life Tatooine.

    Another is the snappily named TOI 700 d. (Clearly, astronomy needs the services of a good branding agency.) This planet circles a dwarf star in the Dorado constellation and is remarkable because it’s one of only a few planets to be discovered in a star’s habitable zone – what’s known as the ‘Goldilocks Zone’, not too hot, not too cold, but just the right temperature to support life. Possibly…

  • Of course, the Universe is a big place and there’s more going on out there than professional astronomers alone can keep track of. Which is why they rely on amateur astronomers around the world, who volunteer their time and their telescopes to study distant corners of the night sky. One example of this cosmic crowdsourcing is Zooniverse – a citizen science web portal that allows amateur stargazers to go planet hunting among the data uploaded by the Kepler satellite.

    One such volunteer was Andrew Grey, a 26-year-old car mechanic from Darwin, Australia who discovered a previously unknown four-planet system about 600 light years away. Apparently, he celebrated by taking out his telescope, and having a beer with it – a typically Australian perspective on the Universe.

  • Rounding off his mission, Chris offered us three amazing astronomical facts to impress your Earth-bound mates down the pub.

    1. If you could find a bathtub big enough, and filled it with water, Saturn would float in it.

    2. On Titan it rains liquid methane in droplets as large as your fist. But they fall very slowly, so in theory, it’s possible to dodge between the raindrops.

    3. Also, if you were to run from here to the end of the known universe with your hand held open, when you finally came to a stop, you’d end up with only two grains of dust in your hand. Yep. Space is a pretty empty place.

    Makes you think…

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