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Proxima Centauri b: Have we just found Earth’s cousin right on our doorstep?

What began as a tantalizing rumor has just become an astonishing fact. Today a group of thirty-one scientists, led by Guillem Anglada-Escude at the Queen Mary University of London, UK, announced the discovery of a terrestrial exoplanet orbiting Proxima Centauri. The discovery of this planet, Proxima Centauri b, is a huge breakthrough not just for astronomers but for all of us. Here’s why.

This artist’s impression shows a view of the surface of the planet Proxima b orbiting the red dwarf star Proxima Centauri, the closest star to the Solar System. The double star Alpha Centauri AB also appears in the image to the upper-right of Proxima itself. Proxima b is a little more massive than the Earth and orbits in the habitable zone around Proxima Centauri, where the temperature is suitable for liquid water to exist on its surface. Credit: ESO/M. Kornmesser

This artist’s impression shows a view of the surface of the planet Proxima b orbiting the red dwarf star Proxima Centauri, the closest star to the Solar System. The double star Alpha Centauri AB also appears in the image to the upper-right of Proxima itself. Proxima b is a little more massive than the Earth and orbits in the habitable zone around Proxima Centauri, where the temperature is suitable for liquid water to exist on its surface.
Credit: ESO/M. Kornmesser

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Erosional remnants

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A Piece of Mars: The erosionally-streamlined bright areas are on high ground. They are remnants of a vast dusty mantle that once covered this whole area – the rest of it has been blown away. The surrounding regions (check out the whole image) are still covered by that mantle, but here you can see through to the underlying, dark surface made of dark, cratered lava flows. (HiRISE ESP_017914_1685, NASA/JPL/Univ. of Arizona)

Ancient ripples?

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A Piece of Mars: Potential signs of wind activity are everywhere on Mars. Take this 0.96×0.54 km (0.6×0.34 mi) scene, which is on bedrock dated to be several billion years old. There’s a fabric of ridges trending from the upper right to lower left. The smaller and smoother ones are clearly windblown bedforms. The larger, bright ones are shedding boulders, so if they’re old bedforms then they’ve been lithified. How old are they? Billions of years old? Or did they form sometime in the intervening years? (HiRISE ESP_046389_1695, NASA/JPL/Univ. of Arizona)

Fossil dunes

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A Piece of Mars: This 1.92×1.08 km (1.19x 0.67 mi) scene shows eroded ridges that are, in fact, lithified dunes. They are so old that you might not recognize them as dunes without more context. This doesn’t happen much on Earth, where inactive dunes are quickly eroded, buried, and/or destroyed by other geologic processes, so enjoy this uniquely martian wonder! (HiRISE ESP_046597_1670, NASA/JPL/Univ. of Arizona)

Dunes not in the global dune database

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A Piece of Mars: Ten years ago I participated in a global survey of martian dunes. But we missed a few dune fields, like these beauties. They’re small, low, and in rugged terrain, which made them difficult to spot in the lower resolution data set we used. I keep a list of dune fields we’ll have to add if we get a chance to update the database. This scene is 0.96.0.54 km (0.6×0.34 mi) wide. (HiRISE ESP_043582_1555, NASA/JPL/Univ. of Arizona)

When the martian surface is eroded, pretty things emerge

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A Piece of Mars: Just like at Earth’s Grand Canyon, erosion on Mars has created some really beautiful landscapes. This 480×270 m (0.3×0.17 mi) scene shows rugged terrain that was once buried in sediment. Does the texture here represent the landscape before it was buried, or was it created in the process of scouring off all that overlying sediment? Probably a mixture of both. And we get a pretty view because of it! (HiRISE ESP_046198_1750, NASA/JPL/Univ. of Arizona)

Where we have been

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A Piece of Mars: This 0.98×0.54 km (0.61×0.34 mi) scene shows ancient windblown bedforms (maybe dunes) that have been partially eroded by the wind. The wind has left behind ghostly stripes: these are remnants of where these things once were, back when they were still actively migrating. Some of the bedforms have been almost entirely erased, except for those remaining bits. Much smaller (2-3 m wavelength) ripples have since formed between some of them, probably made from material scavenged from the larger bedforms. (HiRISE ESP_037700_1710, NASA/JPL/Univ. of Arizona)

Calling for a Better World – Remember to Vote

In English

Another attack this month, this time in Nice in the middle of the 14 July celebrations. First, the obvious: this attack, which targeted people and families watching fireworks, was despicable and inhuman. Of course, I send my thoughts to the victims and their families as well as to my colleagues and friends who live in Nice. But I am tired of being an impotent witness to this outbreak of violence everywhere in the world, and I absolutely refuse to remain silent. Like many people, I feel like I’m living a nightmare, in a polarized world in which a tiny minority of violent sociopaths want us to embrace ideas from another time whatever the cost to us, our loved ones, our values, and our dignity as human beings. I hope that this stops and that we find a solution and learn, once and forever more, to live together in peace. But we are living in a very difficult time and we must prepare for many setbacks and tragedies.

The events in Nice also make it imperative that we learn certain key lessons. We, the citizens of free nations going about our daily business, are paying a huge price for wars launched in the first decade of this century by radical and ignorant politicians who manipulated their nations into engaging in a war without end, a war that accomplishes nothing except awakening extremism and hatred in the minds of the weak, the ignorant, and the alienated. (more…)

Landslides unlike any on Earth

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A Piece of Mars: Click on this 0.96×0.54 km (0.6×0.33 mi) scene to see it in detail. Many thin, narrow landslides have formed on these dust-coated hills. As far as I’m aware, there’s nothing like this on Earth. Inside the landslide scars, there are small dusty ripples about 1.75 m (~6 ft) in wavelength, smaller than the ripples found on dark sandy dunes. These landslides are visible in images at least as far back as 2007, although they clearly formed after the small crater on the slope (which is slowly being filled with the dusty debris). (HiRISE ESP_045605_1715, NASA/JPL/Univ. of Arizona)

GPI at 2016 SPIE Astronomical Telescopes and Instrumentation

GPI is here at the SPIE Astronomical Telescopes and Instrumentation conference in Edinburgh, Scotland to talk exoplanets and engineering with our colleagues around the world. We have had talks and posters by GPIES team members on topics from AO and instruments to computing and pipelines. This week has also been a great opportunity to meet face-to-face and discuss some of the finer points of GPI technical challenges and plans going forward. Here are some pictures from the week:

Edinburgh, Scotland

Bruce gave a great talk on the GPI instrument and GPIES campaign in the instruments session:

Bruce’s talk about the GPI instrument

Vanessa gave a great talk about GPI’s AO performance in the AO session:

Vanessa’s talk about GPI AO


In her talk, I was especially struck by how well the GPI team has continued to monitor and improve the performance of the instrument, throughout the GPIES campaign.

Franck’s poster was about the GPIES project from a systems level:

Franck’s poster about the GPIES project

Marshall’s poster was about the GPIES pipeline and calibration, critical for extracting accurate exoplanet info from the raw data:

Marshall’s poster about the data pipeline and calibrations

Ben’s poster was about an improved algorithm for finding exoplanets particularly close to the star:

Ben’s poster about detecting exoplanets extremely close to their stars

Li-Wei had a poster about using the satellite spots to determine photometry in the polarized mode:

Li-Wei’s poster about calibrating the polarized photometry when using the coronagraph

Max had a poster about polarimetry mode: performance, data reduction, and contrasts:

Max’s poster about calibrating instrumental polarization and GPI’s performance in polarimetric mode

We also took the opportunity to gather 17 of the attending GPIES members for a delicious Indian dinner:

GPIES dinner on Thursday night at the conference

GPIES dinner from Franck’s perspective

I had to add this picture because Dmitry somehow managed to hide in all the dinner pictures

Unfortunately Patrick and Lyra were not able to attend the dinner due to an early bedtime for one or the other, and Stephen was only able to stop by to say hi.

After a conference like this, I always leave full of new ideas and a renewed energy for my work. Thanks GPI and SPIE for a great SPIE!