Meeting Minutes - Michel Fich: Distant Planets and the Search for Life - June 13th. 2019
Announcements Activities – Ray Biffis - The night at the Grand River Raceway in Elora on Sept. 23rd has 36 people signed up with only four more spaces available on a first-come basis; Coffee – Andy Curtis - Next Thurs., June 20th, coffee will be at the Boathouse and the alternative meeting location is the Airpark Café.
David Moller introduced today’s guest speaker, Dr. Mike Fich from the University of Waterloo. Topic: Distant Planets and the Search for Life
Bio: Michel Fich Professor, Department of Physics and Astronomy University of Waterloo is an astronomer specializing in studies of star formation, the interstellar medium, and the structure of galaxies. His recent research activities have focused on “small scale” formation studies of low and intermediate mass stars, circumstellar disks, and the formation of proto-solar systems. A faculty member at the University of Waterloo since 1986, Dr. Fich received a B.Sc. from Waterloo in 1978 and M.A (1981) and Ph.D. (1983) degrees from the University of California, Berkeley. He then spent three years as a Research Assistant Professor at the University of Washington in Seattle. During the past decade much of Dr. Fich’s efforts have been devoted to astronomical instrumentation projects, primarily at sub-mm/far-infrared wavelengths. He is currently the Canadian leader in (1) the HIFI instrument on the Herschel Space Observatory, an ESA/NASA/CSA project; (2) SCUBA-2, a wide-field submillimeter camera for the James Clerk Maxwell Telescope in Hawaii; and (3) CCAT, a large (25 meter diameter) submillimeter telescope planned to be built at an elevation of 5600 meters in the Atacama region of Chile by an international team including Cornell University, the California Institute of Technology, the University of Colorado, the University of Cologne, and a growing number of Canadian universities. Dr. Fich is also working on new projects that are still in early development stages and that involve a variety of space satellite missions. Dr. Fich grew up in Southern Ontario, lives in rural Erin Township in a low-tech solar and ground-source heated innovative-designed home. He is the father of two brilliant sons who have grown up and moved on to professions in areas of modern high-technology. His principle hobbies, outside of astronomy, are in music (especially playing his guitars), wilderness canoeing and growing roses. He volunteers in several community organizations. Presentation: In the past twenty years our knowledge of solar systems in the Universe has changed dramatically. We have gone from one solar system (ours! THE Solar System) to almost 3000 separate solar systems. These 3000 stars have in total over 8000 planets In orbit around them. The next question that is most-often asked is: Is there life on any of these planets? In this talk I will review how we found all of these planets and what the possibilities are for detecting extraterrestrial life on them and elsewhere.
Dr. Michael Fich Dr. Fich began his presentation by talking about how solar systems are detected. He showed additional planets and solar systems also detected by satellite. However a solar system like ours has not been found. Most of these solar systems are much smaller than our solar system. This only means that we can’t yet find a larger solar system. Jupiter is the biggest planet in our solar system and many of the planets in other solar systems are about the same in size as Jupiter. Most of the planets in other solar systems are much hotter than our planet. These planets are close to their stars. This impacts the search for life.
The size of the sun is about a million times the volume of the Earth. Earth is the smallest of the smaller terrestrial planets and the only life that we know of exists on Earth. There are seven small dwarf terrestrial planets beyond Pluto but they are quite small in relation to Earth. There' s a cloud of planets at edge of our solar system. But the solar system is mostly empty space.
How do we find planets around other stars? The stars are so small they just look like tiny little bright dots in our galaxy. Planets don’t emit light they only reflect it so how do we detect them? So there is no hope of seeing the planets around these stars. We can see the stars and it turns out that the planets reflect the stars. This is a very small measurable amount of motion because the planet and the star are in orbit around a very huge mass in the solar system. This took many years to prove and the theory was developed by a Canadian astronomer named Bruce Campbell. If you can measure the speed of the planet you can measure its shift. As the planet goes around the star, you can measure the amount the star is moving. You have to know at which star to look and it can take weeks to determine the motion of the star. There is a technique of looking at huge numbers of solar planets and it relies on the motion of the planets around the star. A planet doesn’t emit light but it blocks a little bit of star light. Viewed from Earth at a time when the planet passes in front of the star it can be detected. This is fairly rare because the planets are in motion and in orbit. The light of the planet dips in brightness when this happens. If the researchers know the orbit of the planet they can determine when the planet will pass in front of the star and then they can measure the brightness. This can tell how big this little black circle of a planet is or the size of the planet.
The researchers decided to look at a million stars all of the time. When they found a planet that they could measure the dip in brightness three times - this means over three years’ time - they would be able to confirm the measurement of the planets size.
The NASA Kepler mission, was a planet search by satellite searching for Earth-like planets around sun-like stars was launched in 2009. In less than a year later they had found five planets. One planet was the Kepler-11 system which is a solar system smaller than our solar system. After four years the Kepler satellite broke down. But after analyzing the data there were 3,926 confirmed planets. The researchers have a 95 percent success rate in finding planets. There are 7,356 planets known outside of our solar system. There are 3,011 stars that have planets. There are 657 multi-planet systems and 156 terrestrial planets in our galaxy but they are very close to the star so they are not Earth-like. The things that the researchers are seeing are not like what is on Earth. However, there are solar systems everywhere.
The questions now to be asked are: Is there life on any of these planets? What does life look like? Would we recognize life if we saw it?
Science fiction writers and artists always make intelligent extraterrestrial life look like distorted humans and non-intelligent life looks like a dinosaurs or a giant insects. But the planets that are being seen are all very high mass with much greater gravity. So what kind of life could exist on a high-gravity planet? Dr. Fich predicts life will be found on a high mass planet and will probably look like green slime or things like algae and this will be found in the next 30 years. Because of photosynthesis and green life reflection this will probably be the form of life we will find.
The one thing that all this life is based on is liquid water. But this is a bias on our part due to life as we know it. If there was a form or life that was not based on water, would we recognize it? Therefore when we look for life on other planets we look for planets that have water. On a planet that is very hot, water will be in the form of steam and on one that is far away from the star, the water will be frozen. So, researchers look for planets with the right temperature for water in the inhabitable zone, ie., between freezing and boiling.
How would we recognize intelligent life? The problem becomes, how would we communicate. Would intelligent life communicate the same way as us?
A researcher named Frank Drake, worked out a definition of intelligent life as a civilization that could communicate with another civilization. And the only way to communicate over large distances would be by light waves or radio light. So his definition was that the only intelligent civilization would be one that could communicate by radio astronomy. We have these huge antennas that can pick up signals elsewhere. So he came up with an estimate of how common this would be. There is a formula for this estimation taking into account numerous variables called the Drake Formula.
Using the formula it turns out that any civilization that could communicate with us would be quite far away from Earth. So far away that we would not have communicated with them yet. But in the next thousand years we will communicate … and that is on the optimistic side of things.
There is software that the ordinary person can tap into to participate in the search for signals using their home computer when it is idle from other use.
Dr. Fich said that there is potential downside to searching for other intelligent life. The most likely scenario is that any other life that we would find is probably technologically superior and usually when different technologies meet, the superior one takes over the inferior one. Dr. Fich quoted the National Post that said in headlines: “We should hide.”
Julian Sale who thanked Dr. Fich and gave him a token of appreciation from the Club.
Before Julian closed the meeting he made a few comments as the newly inducted president for 2019 – 2020 on his future aspirations for the Club. He said there are few things he would like to lead the Board to focus on: - continuation of the great line up of speakers and this will be in good hands with John Sneyd; - continue to improve on the audio/visual presentation; - would like to get more volunteers involved; - expects to have the support of the new Board and he would like to express thanks to the retiring Board members.
Next meeting: Thurs. June 27th, 2019 with guest speaker Dr. Mike Dixon - Agri Food Sector- Various Technologies.