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There’s something out there — part 3

In part 1 of this story I told about the discovery of Sedna, the first – and still only – body found far beyond the edge of the Kuiper belt. Part 2 described some of our early theories on how Sedna had gotten there and what it was telling us about the early history of the solar system. Here I’ll begin talking about the most recent searches for more things like Sedna and how we’re doing so far.

Mars attacks

One of the fun things about having a book coming out [TODAY, IN FACT] is that you get invited to do guest posts here and there around the web. You can, for example, watch for me from now until the solstice over at BoingBoing. One of the most fun so far was a chance to write at Babel Clash, about my take on life on other planets. Here is what I had to say:

I grew up in a universe teeming with

So is Pluto a planet after all?

The news last week that Eris might actually be a tiny bit smaller than Pluto led to the inevitable question: doesn’t this mean that Pluto should be a planet, after all?
The simple obvious answer to this question is no. Pluto was not demoted in 2006 simply because it was no longer the largest known object beyond Neptune, but because it was one of many many such small objects beyond Neptune. The

Brian Marsden, gatekeeper of the solar system

Brian Marsden, long time director of the International Astronomical Union Minor Planet Center died today. While it is easy to say “he was the nicest guy…” in this case it was simply true. Everyone who came across him has stories about Brian. My book, coming out in out a few more weeks has a few too. Just last week I autographed a copy for Brian and bookmarked the spots where he appeared. I say

Dwarf planets are crazy

[yet another Eridian digression in lieu of continuing the Sedna story. Sorry! Plus this one is written while staying up all night and trying to run a telescope at the same time. Not the best for coherent writing or fixing typos, but I am losing sleep pondering the strange results from last week’s Eris occultation. And I have not been getting enough sleep to be able to afford the loss.]
I’m in Hawaii for a few precious nights to point the Keck telescope – one of the largest in the world – at dwarf planet Eris – one of the largest in the solar system. A week ago I would have just said “the largest in the solar system,” but as of last weekend I’m less sure.
The news that Pluto might indeed remain the largest dwarf planet is big, and, even though it will have no impact on the well-settled question of whether Pluto is a planet or not (still: no), it should make fans of the former planet smile a little bit. At least until they remember that Eris is substantially more massive, and in a head-on collision Pluto would suffer the brunt of the damage.
To me, though, Eris has suddenly become substantially more interesting than it was a week ago.
I will admit to you a somewhat embarrassing secret of mine: when I go around the world giving scientific talks about all the exciting scientific insights coming from the new discoveries of the dwarf planets, I often spend almost no time on Eris itself. I talk about the strange orbit of Sedna, the rapid rotation and collisional family of Haumea, and the irradiated surface of Makemake. But when it comes to Eris there has not been much more to say than “Yeah, it has a surface composition like Pluto and is a little bigger and more massive than Pluto, but, basically, it is a ever-so-slightly-larger Pluto twin.” Scientifically, finding a twin of Pluto doesn’t teach you much new, except that whatever made Pluto did it twice. Good to know, but not a huge scientific insight.
Now it seems that Eris is far from being a Pluto twin. The only plausible way for Pluto and Eris to be essentially the same size but for Eris to be 27% more massive is if Eris contains substantially more rock in its interior than Pluto. In fact, the amount of extra rock that Eris contains is about equal to the mass of the entire asteroid belt put together. That counts as a pretty big difference.
Now, crazy dwarf planet, what are you trying to tell us?
First, why is this difference in composition so surprising? It’s because Pluto and Eris should be identical. Here’s the standard scenario: About 4.5 billion years ago, the outer solar system was a swirling cloud of ice and rocky dust. Over time the ice and rock began sticking together to make small bodies, which in turn grew to bigger and bigger bodies until things the size of Pluto and Eris finally formed. Making Pluto or Eris requires sweeping up so much material from around the ice and dust cloud that any small local variations should be averaged out. Even if some of the smaller objects that initially coagulated differed from each other in composition, by the time objects got to the size of Pluto or Eris they would all be more or less the same.
This scenario even had good evidence to support it. For years, the only two icy objects known in the outer solar system were Pluto and the much larger Triton, the moon of Neptune which is thought to be a captured Kuiper belt object. When the masses and sizes of these two objects were finally measured and their densities and interior compositions computed it was realized that, as predicted, they are indeed nearly identical. Entire theories were constructed out of the fact that Pluto and Triton gave us the most pristine measurement of the composition of the entire early cloud of ice and gas and dust that led to the whole solar system and planets and life. The only thing left to do was to book the flight to Stockholm.
Things started getting a little more confusing about 5 years ago as we finally were able to start to measure the interior compositions of some of the newly discovered Kuiper belt objects. Eris, one of the early measurements, was, at least, consistent with having the same composition as Pluto and Triton (and thus we assumed that it probably did, because, well, that just made sense), but then there were objects like Haumea which is mostly rock with a thin layer of ice, and small Kuiper belt objects made almost entirely of ice, and a new measurement of Charon showing it has more ice than Pluto, and the word this summer that Quaoar has essentially no ice in it whatsoever.  Orcus, just to keep things interesting, is somewhere in the middle.
Interiors of all Kuiper belt objects with known densities. Yellow/brown is rock, blue is ice. Objects range from 100% ice to 100% with everything in between. The largest object is Triton, the next two are Pluto and Eris. The elongated body is, of course, Haumea. Quaoar, Charon, Orcus, and smaller objects also appear. Truly, the dwarf planets are crazy.
So Eris is not the only crazy dwarf planet. They all are. I have absolutely no faith that any dwarf planet out there gives you a confident measure of what the early solar system was like. They are all thoroughly different. How could this possibly be?
No answer is immediately obvious, but it is immediately obvious that one or more of the assumptions of the standard scenario are going to have to be discarded. Earlier this summer I had constructed a new hypothesis that did an adequate (though, frustratingly not great) job of explaining some of the crazy variability in the Kuiper belt as being due to a random series of giant collisions which knocked the ice off of some objects, leaving just the rocky cores. I gave a couple of talks on the hypothesis, and even wrote the first draft of a scientific paper describing the details. But I fear now that the draft is going to have to go to the recycle bin. Even in my hypothesis once things grow to a certain size they should be more or less the same. Eris and Pluto are just too big to be different. So what happened instead? Did they form in different places? In different solar systems? Did Eris spend time close to the sun? None of these hypotheses is immediately appealing, but somewhere in there there must be a kernel of what really happened. Pluto and Eris and all of the rest of the dwarf planets must have a widely divergent set of histories of formation or evolution or interaction or all of the above.
And, so, in just a week, Eris has gone from not really teaching us much new about the solar system to potentially demanding that we throw out some of our most cherished assumptions. Eris, goddess of discord and strife, indeed.
These two nights studying Eris at the Keck telescope are not turning out to be terribly effective. Clouds, instrument problems, and, now, fog. But we’ll be back. We’ve now got an entire solar system to figure out, and Eris might just be that puzzle piece that someday makes all of it finally make sense.

The shadowy hand of Eris

[sorry: a brief interruption in the ongoing Sedna story for some late breaking news]

Eris, the goddess of discord and strife and the most massive dwarf planet, is up to her usual tricks.

On Friday night Eris was predicted to pass directly in front of a relatively faint star in the constellation of Cetus. You might think that this sort of thing happens all of the time, but you’d be wrong. Eris is so small in the sky and stars are such tiny points of light that, though they get close frequently, their actually intersections are rare. When they do intersect, though, something amazing happens: the star disappears. And since we know how fast Eris is moving across the sky, seeing how long the star disappears gives us a very precise measure of the size of Eris. Or, to be more exact, a very precise measure of a single chord passing through the body.
Predicting that such an event is going to take place is a lot of hard work. Teams of astronomers around the world continuously measure and refine the orbit of Eris (and other objects out in the Kuiper belt) and carefully pinpoint the positions of stars potentially in its path. When a collision (ok, “occultation” is the right word here) looks possible, more and more effort is put into better understanding the precise location of the star and alerts go out throughout the world to try to watch a disappearing star.
The predicted size and path of the shadow of Eris. South America was the mostly likely location to make a good detection, but the uncertainties in the position of Eris and the star might have put the shadow as far north as N. America or even down in Argentina.

There is one important catch. Even if every single telescope in the world were watching, most would not see a thing. That’s because Eris is so small that if it is blocking the star from one spot on the earth it is not blocking it from most others. The easiest way to think of this is to imagine that that one star being occulted is the only star in the entire sky and it is super bright. As Eris moves in front of the star it makes a shadow on the earth, and that shadow is the size of Eris itself. Eris has a diameter about 5 times smaller than that of the earth, so the shadow covers an area something like 5 times 5 = 25 times smaller than the earth itself. It’s not quite that bad, though, because, like a lunar eclipse, the shadow of Eris sweeps across the face of the earth, making a track that looks something like the picture here.

It’s hard enough knowing that Eris is going to occult the star. Knowing precisely where on earth to be to see the occultation is even harder. So on Friday night, dozens of astronomers from Europe, South America and North America all watched one little spot in the sky to see if a faint star would disappear. I gave it a try myself from my robotically controlled 0.6 meter telescope at Palomar Observatory (which I operated remotely while making dinner for me and Lilah), though the star was so low in a still-bright evening sky at the time of the predicted occultation that I wouldn’t have been able to tell one way or another if anything happened. Dozens might seem like a large number of astronomers, but it’s not enough to blanket the entire earth; there were gaps between telescopes where the shadow could pass and we would never know. We would require some luck. And, happily, we got lucky.

Watch the disappearing star! (Atacama Celestrial Explorations Observatory)

The first positive report came from Sebastian Sarabia, Alain Maury and Caisey Harlingten at the San Pedro de Atacama Celestial Explorations Observatory in Chile, who saw the star disappear for 76 seconds. Later it was reported that Emmanuel Jehin at the TRAPPIST telescope, about 700 km south in La Silla Chile also saw the star disappear. This means we’re in business. While each single detection gives you only one chord across the body, it only takes two different chords to precisely define the size of a circle. And since we are pretty certain Eris is massive enough to be spherical (Pluto, only 80% the mass of Eris, is spherical), that means a size can be measured.

Yes! This is huge! Most of the ways we have of measuring the sizes of objects in the outer solar system are fraught with difficulties. But, precisely timed occultations like these have the potential to provide incredibly precise answers. The earliest measurement came from trying to infer the size of Eris by measuring the total amount of heat coming from it, kind of like closing your eyes and holding your hold out and trying to tell the difference between a small flame and a huge bonfire next to you. Those early results – as you might guess -- had large uncertainties but suggested a diameter of 3000 km with an uncertainty of 400 km, making it comfortably larger than Pluto, with a radius of about 2300 km. Soon after, my students and I obtained some beautiful images with the (now, sadly, defunct) High Resolution Camera on the Hubble Space Telescope. These images allowed us to (just barely) measure the size of the tiny disk of Eris. We found that our best measurement gave Eris a diameter of 2400 km with an uncertainty of 100 km. This means that Eris is, within the uncertainties, more or less the same size as Pluto! Later measurement of the orbit of Dysnomia showed that Eris is a 25% more massive than Pluto, so, still a more substantial body, but their sizes could be remarkably similar. Of course, if they are the same size by Eris is more massive that must mean that Eris contains considerably more rock in its interior than Pluto. I can’t think of any good reason for this to be true, so my best guess for the past few years has been that Pluto and Eris have similar interiors and that Eris is 25% more massive because it is 7% larger. That would suggest a diameter for Eris around 2480 km, which is well within our measurement uncertainties and not too far off of the thermal measurements. If you had asked me to bet on Eris’s true size a week ago, this is what my bet would have been. I would even have bet a lot of money. Too bad you didn’t take that bet a week ago, because you could have won some money.
The preliminary results from the two occultation detections suggest that Eris is on the smaller end of our uncertainty range. Indeed, Bruno Sicardy, who masterminded the entire worldwide attempt to detect these occultations, suspects that Eris can be no bigger than 2320 km across. Sadly, the uncertainties in these occultation measurements are larger than they might have been; the only detections of the occultations came from fairly small telescopes, which means that to detect the faint star they had to take long exposures. Long exposures mean that you don’t know as precisely when the star appeared and disappeared. With the success of these observations, though, bigger telescopes are now likely to try to get in on the action. One or two good occultations with big telescopes taking fast data, and we will know the diameter a Eris even better than we currently know the diameter of Pluto. I can’t wait.
Though the results from Friday are preliminary and not as precise as I would like, it is still fun to speculate on what they might mean. If these preliminary results stand up, Eris and Pluto are very different bodies. Though Eris is substantially more massive, they are essentially the same size. Eris must be made almost entirely of rock with a little coating of frost – which we see – on the outside. How could Eris and Pluto look so similar in size and exterior composition yet be totally unalike on the inside? As of today I have absolutely no idea. Two other large objects in the outer solar system – Haumea and Quaoar – also appear to be mostly rocky with a little ice on the outside. In the past we’ve been willing to make up special explanations for them. But Eris, too? Having to continue making up special explanations is becoming unpalatable. Something is going on in the outer solar system, and I don’t know what.
What’s next? We are all eagerly awaiting a more precise analysis of the results to see what they really show. Eris reveals her secrets slowly, but we now already know so much more about that little world than we did on that moment in January 2005 when we first saw her crawling across the sky. And there will be more to come. We don’t yet know when or where, but, once again, some astronomer will be watching a faint star in the constellation of Cetus suddenly blink out as the next shadow of Eris crosses the face of the earth and the exploration of the most massive dwarf planet will continue.

Next up: What does all of this mean for the dwarf planets and the solar system?

There’s something out there — part 2

The view from Sedna

(Be sure to read part 1)

Seven years ago, the moment I first calculated the odd orbit of Sedna and realized it never came anywhere close to any of the planets, it instantly became clear that we astronomers had been missing something all along. Either something large once passed through the outer parts of our solar system and is now long gone, or something large still lurks in a distant corner out there and we haven’t found it yet.

Of all of the planets, comets, asteroids, and Kuiper belt objects in the solar system, Sedna is the only one that tells us this astounding fact so glaringly. The orbit of every single other object in the entire solar system can be explained, at least in principle, by some interaction with the known planets. Sedna alone requires something else out there.

But what?

In our 2004 paper announcing the discovery of Sedna (give it a try; though it – like all research papers – has some technical details that might not make sense, I believe it to be relatively readable), we suggested three possibilities. Our first idea was that perhaps there was an unknown approximately earth-sized planet circling the sun about twice the distance of Neptune. Sedna could have gotten too close to this Planet X and been given a kick which would have flung it out into a far corner of our solar system. But, like always, nothing can kick you into a far corner and make you stay there. You always come back to the spot where you were kicked. So Sedna’s new orbit would be one that came in as close as this Planet X and went far into the outer solar system – just like Sedna’s orbit. Back in 2003 I had liked this idea a lot. Our search of the skies had only begun a few years earlier, so the prospect that there might be an earth-sized planet awaiting discovery seemed pretty exciting indeed. It was, admittedly, a long shot, but discovering planets always is.

The second possibility that we considered and wrote about was that perhaps a star had passed extremely close to our solar system at some point during the lifetime of the sun. “Extremely close” for a star means something like 20 times beyond the orbit of Neptune, but that is 500 times closer than the current nearest star. A star passing by that close would have been brighter than the full moon and would have been the brightest thing in the night sky for hundreds of years. Perhaps our early ancestors even temporarily lived under a dual-star sky. Sedna, before the rogue star came calling, would have been a normal Kuiper belt object with a looping orbit which would take it out to the distant solar system but then eventually back to Neptune (which had, presumably kicked it around earlier). But on one of its trips to the edge of the solar system, Sedna would have accidentally gotten too close to this interloping star, and the star would have given Sedna another little kick. Suddenly, Sedna would find itself on a new orbit which no longer went back to Neptune. The orbit would, of course, have to go back to the spot where Sedna had gotten the kick from the passing star, but the star would be long gone by then. This idea was a fun one, and, best of all, we could do a reasonably good job estimating the probability that something like this might have occurred. Looking at the number of star near us in the galaxy and fast they all move relative to each other, we found that the chances of such a rogue star encounter happening sometime in the past 4.5 billion years was around 1%. Not good odds to hang your theory on. (People often ask: can’t you just go back and find the star that did it and see if it is there? Sadly, there is no chance. The sun is 4.5 billion years old and it takes about 250 million years to orbit around the galaxy, so it’s gone around about 18 times. So has everything else in the vicinity. Everything is now so mixed up that there is no way to know for sure what was where back when.)

The third possibility was the one that we deemed the most likely. Instead of getting one big kick from an improbably passing star, imagine that Sedna got a lot of really small kicks from many stars passing by not quite as closely. The chances of this happening might seem low, too, but astronomers have long known that most stars are born not alone, but in a litter of many stars packed together. How tightly? In our region of the galaxy, there is currently something like one star per cubic parsec (don’t worry too much about these units here; suffice it to say that a parsec is a little less than the distance to the nearest star, so it is not surprising that in a box with edges about that length there is about one star). In the cluster of stars in which the sun might have been born there would have been thousands or even tens to hundreds of thousands of stars in this same volume, all held together by the gravitational pull of the massive amounts of gas between the still-forming stars. I firmly believe that the view from the inside of one of these clusters must be one of the most awesome sights in the universe, but I suspect no life form has ever seen it, because it is so short-lived that there might not even be time to make solid planets, much less evolve life. For as the still-forming stars finally pull in enough of the gas to become massive enough to ignite their nuclear-fusion-powered cores they quickly blow the remaining gas holding everything together away and then drift off solitary into interstellar space. Today we have no way of ever finding our solar siblings again. And, while we see these processes occurring out in space as other stars are being born, we really have no way to see back 4.5 billion years ago and see this happening as the sun itself formed.

Until now.

Maybe.

If Sedna got put on its peculiar orbit by the interactions of all of these stars 4.5 billion years ago, it is now a fossil record of what happened at the time of the very birth of sun. Everything else in the solar system has been kicked and jostled and nudged by planets big and small so there is no way to trace them back 4.5 billion years. Sedna, on the other hand, has been doing nothing but going around and around the sun in its peculiar elongated orbit every 12,000 years. After almost half a million of those orbits, Sedna remains lonely and untouched by anything else. By watching the orbit of Sedna we could be watching 4.5 billion years in the past.

All of these possibilities are exciting! A new planet! A rogue star! Fossils from the birth of the sun! And in the years since Sedna’s discovery other astronomers have chimed in with their own ideas, including the possibility that Sedna was kicked by something large out in the Oort cloud (small planet? Brown dwarf? Nemisis? Who knows) and, in the most imaginative spin, that Sedna was kicked by the sun. The sun? Yes, because, in this hypothesis, Sedna used to orbit a different star, and the sun got close and kicked Sedna around and stripped if away. Sedna would then be the first known extra-solar dwarf planet. Or something like that.

Sedna is telling us something profound, but what? With only a single object, there is absolutely no way to know. It would be like finding a fossilized skeleton of a T. Rex and trying to infer the history of the dinosaurs. If you had just that one skeleton you would know just what to do: head back out into the desert and start digging. When we found Sedna, we, too, knew what was next: head back out into the night and keep looking. Until we found more, we wouldn’t know what this profound bit of the solar system was trying to scream so loudly in our ears.

Next week: The search for more Sednas.

There is something out there — part 1

Is it real, or is it cat hair?

Seven years ago this week I was preparing one of my favorite lectures for The Formation and Evolution of Planetary Systems, a class I frequently teach at Caltech. “Preparing” is probably the wrong word here, because this lecture, called The Edge of the Solar System, was one I could give even if instantly wakened from a cold deep sleep and immediately put on stage with bright lights in my eyes and an audience of thousands and no coffee anywhere in sight. The lecture explored what was known about the edge of our main planetary system and the ragged belt of debris called the Kuiper belt that quickly faded to empty space not that much beyond Neptune. Conveniently, one of my most active areas of research at that time was trying to figure out precisely why this ragged belt of debris had such an edge to it and why there appeared to be nothing at all beyond that edge. I could wing it. So instead of preparing the lecture, I really spent that morning doing what I did whenever I had a few spare moments: staring at dozens of little postage-stamp cutouts of pictures of the sky that my telescope had taken the night before and my computer had flagged as potentially interesting. Interesting, to my computer, and to me, meant that in the middle of the postage stamp was something that was moving across the sky at the right rate to mark it as part of the Kuiper belt. I was not just lecturing about this debris at the edge of the solar system, I was looking for more of it, too.

I didn’t find more objects in the Kuiper belt every morning I looked, but that previous night seven years ago had been a good one. I quickly found two of the typical debris chunks moving slowly across the sky, and I was about ready to walk over to give my lecture, when, with only about a minute to spare, the outer solar system seemed to change before my eyes.
There, on my computer screen, was a faint object moving so slowly it could only have been something far more distant than what I was just going to walk into the classroom and declare to be the edge of the solar system. Maybe. The object was so faint that I didn’t know whether to believe it was real or not. If you look at enough sky – and, really, I had – you are bound to find some chance alignment of blips of noise or variable stars or cat hairs that looks just like something real.
I went into the classroom, delivered the lecture as I knew it, but stopped short at the end.
“Here is the way I was going to end this lecture,” I told them.
I proceeded to talk about how nothing existed beyond the edge of the Kuiper belt (yes, yes, you sticklers, the Oort cloud is way out there, but that is not supposed to start up until 100 or 200 times further out than the edge of the Kuiper belt).
“But I’m not sure I believe this anymore,” I said.
 I told them about that morning’s blip. I couldn’t promise them that it was real, but I told them that if it was, the solar system might be very different place than I was just telling them.
That little blip, far more distant than what was supposed to have been the edge of the solar system, was indeed real. It was Sedna.
Sedna is the Inuit goddess of the sea, often depicted with the body of a seal, long hair, and no fingers.
A few weeks later, after confirming that Sedna was real and determining its unprecedentedly strange orbit around the sun, I came back, told the class all about it, and wrote down a few simple equations on the blackboard to show just how strange the orbit is and also the many different ways it might have gotten that way.
“Come back and take my class again next year, and I’ll have it all figured out,” I confidently told them.
That was seven years ago. Any poor student taking my advice would have sat through the last six years of lectures and still not learned what put Sedna where it is, since I still don’t know the answer.
What makes Sedna’s orbit so strange?
Sedna takes 12,000 years to go around the sun on its elongated orbit, and it never comes close to any of the planets.

Many objects out in the Kuiper belt have shockingly elongated orbits like Sedna. For almost all of these objects, this characteristic makes sense. These small leftover pieces of debris have been kicked around by planets throughout their existence. Whenever they come too close to one of the planets (usually Neptune, since it is the closest to these objects), they get a gravitational kick that can send them on a looping orbit to the distant outskirts of the solar system. But – and this is the key part here – unless they get kicked all the way out of the solar system, they always come back to where they were kicked. If you get kicked by Neptune, you can go zooming off into the unchartered regions far beyond the Kuiper belt, but you will come back to see Neptune again. When we look at the Kuiper belt, we see the results of all of this kicking clearly: the Kuiper belt objects that come closest to Neptune are on the most elongated orbits. Those far away are more free to go about their circular orbiting lives.

The exception to this rule is, of course, Sedna. Sedna has one of the most elongated orbits around, but it never comes anywhere close to Neptune or to any other planet. Indeed, the earth comes closer to Neptune than Sedna ever does. And the earth is not in danger of being kicked out of its orbit by Neptune anytime soon.
Something had to have kicked Sedna to have given it its crazy orbit. But what?
The answer is: something large that is no longer there, or that is there, but we don’t know about yet.
This answer is astounding. The orbit of every single other object in the entire solar system can be explained, at least in principle, by some interaction with the known planets (and, again, for you Oort cloud sticklers out there, the known galactic environment). Sedna alone requires Something Else Out There.
What is it? Seven years out, we still don’t know. The hypothesized culprits have included passing stars, hidden planets, Oort cloud brown dwarfs, and, of course, Sumerian-inspired alien conspiracy theories. Whatever it is, it is bound to answer profound questions about the origin and evolution of the solar system, as well as inspire many new questions we had never known to ask.

(Read part 2)

There is something out there

Is it real, or is it cat hair?

Seven years ago this week I was preparing one of my favorite lectures for The Formation and Evolution of Planetary Systems, a class I frequently teach at Caltech. “Preparing” is probably the wrong word here, because this lecture, called The Edge of the Solar System, was one I could give even if instantly wakened from a cold deep sleep and immediately put on stage with bright lights in my eyes and an audience of thousands and no coffee anywhere in sight. The lecture explored what was known about the edge of our main planetary system and the ragged belt of debris called the Kuiper belt that quickly faded to empty space not that much beyond Neptune. Conveniently, one of my most active areas of research at that time was trying to figure out precisely why this ragged belt of debris had such an edge to it and why there appeared to be nothing at all beyond that edge. I could wing it. So instead of preparing the lecture, I really spent that morning doing what I did whenever I had a few spare moments: staring at dozens of little postage-stamp cutouts of pictures of the sky that my telescope had taken the night before and my computer had flagged as potentially interesting. Interesting, to my computer, and to me, meant that in the middle of the postage stamp was something that was moving across the sky at the right rate to mark it as part of the Kuiper belt. I was not just lecturing about this debris at the edge of the solar system, I was looking for more of it, too.

I didn’t find more objects in the Kuiper belt every morning I looked, but that previous night seven years ago had been a good one. I quickly found two of the typical debris chunks moving slowly across the sky, and I was about ready to walk over to give my lecture, when, with only about a minute to spare, the outer solar system seemed to change before my eyes.
There, on my computer screen, was a faint object moving so slowly it could only have been something far more distant than what I was just going to walk into the classroom and declare to be the edge of the solar system. Maybe. The object was so faint that I didn’t know whether to believe it was real or not. If you look at enough sky – and, really, I had – you are bound to find some chance alignment of blips of noise or variable stars or cat hairs that looks just like something real.
I went into the classroom, delivered the lecture as I knew it, but stopped short at the end.
“Here is the way I was going to end this lecture,” I told them.
I proceeded to talk about how nothing existed beyond the edge of the Kuiper belt (yes, yes, you sticklers, the Oort cloud is way out there, but that is not supposed to start up until 100 or 200 times further out than the edge of the Kuiper belt).
“But I’m not sure I believe this anymore,” I said.
 I told them about that morning’s blip. I couldn’t promise them that it was real, but I told them that if it was, the solar system might be very different place than I was just telling them.
That little blip, far more distant than what was supposed to have been the edge of the solar system, was indeed real. It was Sedna.
Sedna is the Inuit goddess of the sea, often depicted with the body of a seal, long hair, and no fingers.

A few weeks later, after confirming that Sedna was real and determining its unprecedentedly strange orbit around the sun, I came back, told the class all about it, and wrote down a few simple equations on the blackboard to show just how strange the orbit is and also the many different ways it might have gotten that way.
“Come back and take my class again next year, and I’ll have it all figured out,” I confidently told them.
That was seven years ago. Any poor student taking my advice would have sat through the last six years of lectures and still not learned what put Sedna where it is, since I still don’t know the answer.
What makes Sedna’s orbit so strange?
Sedna takes 12,000 years to go around the sun on its elongated orbit, and it never comes close to any of the planets.

Many objects out in the Kuiper belt have shockingly elongated orbits like Sedna. For almost all of these objects, this characteristic makes sense. These small leftover pieces of debris have been kicked around by planets throughout their existence. Whenever they come too close to one of the planets (usually Neptune, since it is the closest to these objects), they get a gravitational kick that can send them on a looping orbit to the distant outskirts of the solar system. But – and this is the key part here – unless they get kicked all the way out of the solar system, they always come back to where they were kicked. If you get kicked by Neptune, you can go zooming off into the unchartered regions far beyond the Kuiper belt, but you will come back to see Neptune again. When we look at the Kuiper belt, we see the results of all of this kicking clearly: the Kuiper belt objects that come closest to Neptune are on the most elongated orbits. Those far away are more free to go about their circular orbiting lives.

The exception to this rule is, of course, Sedna. Sedna has one of the most elongated orbits around, but it never comes anywhere close to Neptune or to any other planet. Indeed, the earth comes closer to Neptune than Sedna ever does. And the earth is not in danger of being kicked out of its orbit by Neptune anytime soon.
Something had to have kicked Sedna to have given it its crazy orbit. But what?
The answer is: something large that is no longer there, or that is there, but we don’t know about yet.
This answer is astounding. The orbit of every single other object in the entire solar system can be explained, at least in principle, by some interaction with the known planets (and, again, for you Oort cloud sticklers out there, the known galactic environment). Sedna alone requires Something Else Out There.
What is it? Seven years out, we still don’t know. The hypothesized culprits have included passing stars, hidden planets, Oort cloud brown dwarfs, and, of course, Sumerian-inspired alien conspiracy theories. Whatever it is, it is bound to answer profound questions about the origin and evolution of the solar system, as well as inspire many new questions we had never known to ask.
NEXT WEEK:
How we are trying to answer the mystery of Sedna’s origin, why we have so far failed, and why 5 year olds make more sense than 7 year olds.

Taking Customer Service to the Next Level [Video]

Kevin HazardChris Valderrama. The man. The myth. The legend. Some say he’s “Stig” on Top Gear. Some say he wrote his first fully functional operating system just after his first birthday. Some say the Seinfeld episode where George naps under his desk was inspired by the fully furnished studio apartment he built in a file cabinet in his office. Some say when he orders donuts, his minimum order is a baker’s dozen dozen (13 x12 = 156.) All I can say is that he’s the manager of The Planet’s technical support department, and he’s a crazy smart guy.

At the 2010 cPanel Automation Bootcamp, Chris was the headlining speaker in a session titled “From Happy Customers to Loyal Customers: Taking Customer Service to the Next Level.” He discussed some of the problems inherent in scaling support, what characteristics support managers should look for in new hires, setting support goals, choosing metrics and evaluating performance. If your business is support-centered, you’ll get a lot out of his presentation:

media
[See post to watch the Flash video]

If you want to see what else you missed at this year’s Automation Bootcamp, check out the Bootcamp Hoedown wrap up video cPanel posted. What to watch for in that video: Few familiar faces from The Planet, incredible shots of the Server Challenge, some line dancing and people getting thrown off a mechanical bull.

-Kevin

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Heading South, Looking Up

For most of the past decade the last thing I would do before going to bed was to step out on to my back patio and stare up at the sky for a few minutes, checking for clouds. If the skies were clear I always slept better. In the morning, I would hop out of bed and do the same thing, to see if any unexpected weather front had passed or cirrus had snuck in while I had been sleeping. If all was well with the skies, I knew that my robotic telescope 95 miles southeast of me, likely had a successful night scanning the skies, and I was excited to get up and get to my office to see the results. I knew that any clear night we might (and eventually did!) discover something larger than anything else ever seen past Neptune. It was just a matter of time and of keeping those pesky clouds away.  

Too many clouds

Whenever I found anything, I would quickly tell the two other guys working with me on the project, Chad Trujillo at the Gemini Observatory and David Rabinowitz at Yale University, and we would scheme what to do next to learn even more.
While clouds would come and go, there was something even more substantial blocking much of our view of the sky: the earth. From our spot at a latitude of 33 degrees north, there were many constellations in the southern hemisphere that we could never see. We would never know if something was flying past the constellation Tucana (the toucan), swimming through the constellation Volans (the flying fish), or disguised with the constellation Chameleon (the, um, chameleon).
Five years ago, right after we found Haumea, Eris, and Makemake in quick succession in the northern hemisphere, everyone asked: When are you headed south?
It was an obvious thing to do. The northern skies were quickly being exhausted, the southern skies were relatively untouched. Like any good whaler who has successfully depleted his prime hunting grounds, I knew it was time to wait for next breeze to push me over the equator and into the southern seas.
But I wasn’t going to go.
It’s true that finding more objects was so appealing: each of these largest discoveries beyond Neptune has painted us a unique picture of the early history of the solar system. Finding even a few more would substantially increase our understanding of this otherwise mysterious time period. But for this same reason, I couldn’t take the time to go look for more. Each of the objects that we found was indeed so interesting that I decided that it made more sense to spend the time studying them in detail rather than looking for more. We studied the tiny moons of Eris and Quaoar and Haumea. We developed theories for the unexpected slabs of frozen methane on Makemake and even predicted that we should see the same thing on Quaoar (and we DID!). We went down a rabbit hole with Haumea and found an unexpected world of icy rocks, dancing satellites, and the biggest Humpty Dumpty puzzle known in the solar system. And we spent years trying – and still not yet succeeding – to understand Sedna.
Making more discoveries in the southern hemisphere would be fun, but whenever anyone asked, I simply said: I’m not going to do it, but you should.
That’s not quite as crazy an idea as you might think. Given the right equipment and a sufficiently obsessive personality, mounting such a telescopic survey is not that hard to figure out how to do. After all, I had never done one until I did the one I did. And I muddled by somehow. I made a few mistakes along the way that I later thought through and fixed, but I always promised anyone who asked that I’d be more than happy to give them more advice than they could ever want.
But no one ever took me up on my offer.
Still, I had other things to keep me occupied. I was playing with data from the Cassini spacecraft on fog and lake-effect clouds on Titan and teaching a new generation of Caltech undergraduates how to understand such things. I was not going to go south.
But.
But.
But.
Then I got antsy.
It had been too long.
I didn’t mind if someone else was going to make the discoveries, but I was getting frustrated that no one was going to make the discoveries.
So I cracked.
The new Skymapper telesccope at Siding Spring

With a little discussion I got involved with a group from the Australian National University who were building a fancy new telescope to survey the whole southern skies in what they called the Skymapper project. It was going to be perfect, though the telescope and camera were still under construction, so it would take some time still. Michelle Bannister, a graduate student at ANU, took the project on as her Ph.D. thesis, and, with the beauty of Skype, I have yet to get on an airplane even once for this project.

As it turns out, I was not the only person getting antsy. A few months later I got word that another survey in the south was soon to be underway. The survey was going to take place using an old telescope that had been refurbished and an old camera that had been shipped south. The old camera? The same one we had used at Palomar! The survey was being run by my old collaborator David Rabinowitz, who, too, must have tired of no one doing anything. It seemed likely to me that refurbishing an old camera and telescope was going to be faster than building a new one. To get things going even faster, David even hired my recently graduated Ph.D. student Meg Schwamb -- who had been working on the northern survey -- to run the southern survey. It seemed to me that Michelle and I were now in second place, and that David and Meg were going to be the likely winners of the race to the southern hemisphere. We stepped up our efforts to at least make it a fair fight and try to have a chance.
Out of nowhere, though, a third group appeared. This group, predictably, now, includes my other old collaborator Chad Trujillo (the group is run by Scott Sheppard out of Carnegie Observatory, who, many years ago, was one of those people to whom I had said: you should do the southern hemisphere; shockingly, people occasionally take my advice!). Scott and Chad are using an existing camera and an existing telescope. Existing cameras and telescopes trump refurbished cameras and telescopes trump still-under-construction cameras and telescopes. I resigned myself to third place.
Having a friendly but serious race definitely makes things much more fun, but being the likely third place survey when attempting to discover new objects in the outer solar system is not particularly useful. Once a discovery has been made, everyone else is a has-been. Or perhaps never-was. There is actually no such thing as third place.
The Uppsalla 0.5 m telescope

Unbeknownst to anyone, though, Michelle and I have a secret weapon. While it is true that existing cameras and telescopes are great, they still lose to one thing: existing data. For the past 10 years the Siding Spring Survey has searched for near earth asteroids from the moderately small Upssalla telescope at Siding Spring Observatory in Australia (right next to the new Skymapper telescope being built, in fact). The pictures that the Uppsalla telescope takes night after night have been fabulous for detecting the motion of the occasional fast moving tiny rocks that might someday come slamming into us, but these pictures were never designed for finding the much more slowly moving distant objects that we wanted to see.  To the Uppsalla telescope, the things we want to discover are so far away and moving so slowly that they might as well be the stars of the Milky Way. But over the past year Michelle and I have developed a huge software package to go back over 10 years worth of pictures and try to pull out the distant slowly moving objects.

The good news? We are potentially back in virtual first place. The bad news? We’re only in first place for a small number of the very brightest objects, and those might not exist. The Upsalla telescope would only be capable of detecting the very brightest of the know objects in the northern part of the outer solar system: Pluto, Eris, Makemake, Haumea, maybe Quaoar and Orcus. So if there is something that bright in the south, we should find it first. The chances, though, are only moderate. Remember, our northern survey could see a good bit of the way south, so the southern survey really only have about 1/3 of the sky to look at, and it is 1/3 of the sky that is somewhat far from the disk of the solar system. So my best guess is that there will be one or zero really bright objects down there. We’ll know the answer before anyone else, but unless the answer is one, rather than zero, no one will particularly care!
The one fun thing that I like to ponder as I think about the fresh skies of the southern hemisphere is just how fresh they really are. When we were looking at the northern skies we knew that 70 years ago Clyde Tombaugh had been there first. Sure, we could see things 100 times fainter than Clyde, but we knew that we were unlikely to stumble across anything as bright as, say, Pluto. The southern skies have never even had a Tombaugh. I’ve been spending free moments idly speculating on how bright the brightest slowly moving thing could be in the south that would have escaped detection. Is there any reason something as bright as Pluto would have been found if it existed in the southern skies? I don’t think so. You could probably even hide something a few times brighter and get away with it.
Does this mean something twice the size of Eris is lurking in the southern hemisphere, waiting to be pulled out of the old data? I don’t think so. But it might be.
These days I don’t look at the sky last thing before going to bed each night. And I don’t check for clouds first thing in the morning. I do the seemingly much more mundane tasking of picking up my phone from beside my bed, using it to log in to my server on the Caltech campus, checking that all of the processors are humming away sorting through 10 years worth of data, and waiting to see what gets spit out. Is there anything in the old pictures? I don’t yet know, but it’s just a matter of time and keep those pesky computers running smoothly.

UNIX Sysadmin Boot Camp: User Management

Ryan RobsonNow that you’re an expert when it comes to bash, logs, SSH, and passwords, you’re probably foaming at the mouth to learn some new skills. While I can’t equip you with the “nunchuck skills” or “bowhunting skills” Napoleon Dynamite reveres, I can help you learn some more important — though admittedly less exotic — user management skills in UNIX.

Root User

The root user — also known as the “super user” — has absolute control over everything on the server. Nothing is held back, nothing is restricted, and anything can be done. Only the server administrator should have this kind of access to the server, and you can see why. The root user is effectively the server’s master, and the server accordingly will acquiesce to its commands.

Broad root access should be avoided for the sake of security. If a program or service needs extensive abilities that are generally reserved for the root user, it’s best to grant those abilities on a narrow, as-needed basis.

Creating New Users

Because the Sysadmin Boot Camp series is geared toward server administration from a command-line point of view, that’s where we’ll be playing today. Tasks like user creation can be performed fairly easily in a control panel environment, but it’s always a good idea to know the down-and-dirty methods as a backup.

The useradd command is used for adding users from shell. Let’s start with an example and dissect the pieces:

useradd -c "admin" -d /home/username -g users\ -G admin,helpdesk -s\ /bin/bash userid

-c "admin" – This command adds a comment to the user we’re creating. The comment in this case is “admin,” which may be used to differentiate the user a little more clearly for better user organization.
-d /home/username – This block sets the user’s home directory. The most common approach is to replace username with the username designated at the end of the command.
-g users\ – Here, we’re setting the primary group for the user we’re creating, which will be users.
-G admin,helpdesk – This block specifies other user groups the new user may be a part of.
-s\ /bin/bash userid – This command is in two parts. It says that the new user will use /bin/bash for its shell and that userid will be the new user’s username.

Changing Passwords

Root is the only user that can change other users’ passwords. The command to do this is:

passwd userid

If you are a user and want to change your own password, you would simply issue the passwd command by itself. When you execute the command, you will be prompted for a new entry. This command can also be executed by the root user to change the root password.

Deleting Users

The command for removing users is userdel, and if we were to execute the command, it might look like this:

userdel -r username

The –r designation is your choice. If you choose to include it, the command will remove the home directory of the specified user.

Where User Information is Stored

The /etc/passwd file contains all user information. If you want to look through the file one page at a time — the way you’d use /p in Windows — you can use the more command:

more /etc/passwd

Keep in mind that most of your important configuration files are going to be located in the /etc folder, commonly spoken with an “et-see” pronunciation for short. Each line in the passwd file has information on a single user. Arguments are segmented with colons, as seen in the example below:

username:password:12345:12345::/home/username:/bin/bash

Argument 1 – username – the user’s username
Argument 2 – password – the user’s password
Argument 3 – 12345 – the user’s numeric ID
Argument 4 – 12345 – the user group’s numeric ID
Argument 5 – "" – where either a comment or the user’s full name would go
Argument 6 – /home/username – the user’s home directory
Argument 7 – /bin/bash – the user’s default console shell

Now that you’ve gotten a crash course on user management, we’ll start going deeper into group management, more detailed permissions management and the way shadow file relates to the passwd usage discussed above.

-Ryan

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When Words Collide: Hosting v. The Cloud

Kevin HazardIf you keep an eye on @theplanet on Twitter, you know that last week, a few of us were repping The Planet in Washington, D.C., at the Fall 2010 Channel Partners Conference and Expo. The weather was perfect, the expo hall was packed with people, and our booth got great traffic … pretty much all you can hope for at a trade show.

As my title would suggest, I love talking about all the good stuff happening at The Planet, and in a trade show setting, I have plenty of opportunities. I get to share a little about our company and hear some of the cool things the booth’s visitors are doing in their businesses.

Sometimes, attendees know what they need and why they should talk to us. Other times, we’re the next booth in the aisle, and they want to try and talk to everyone while ‘trick or treating’ for cool swag. Counterintuitively, I get to share the most about what we do with that second group of folks, and I’ve noticed those conversations can get pretty adventuresome.

We’re surrounded by the world of hosting day-in and day-out, so it’s easy to forget that it’s still a pretty foreign concept to some folks … even to businesspeople and entrepreneurs in other areas of technology. At Channel Partners, I had to step back a few times and restart from a higher “hosting in general” place before diving into how The Planet meets our customers’ needs as a hosting provider. The interaction might look like this:

The Planet: We do hosting.
Attendee: Oh, so do you have a cloud?
The Planet: Absolutely. Our cloud is designed for production with *insert Server Cloud differentiators*
Attendee: What kinds of servers do you have in the cloud?
The Planet: Let’s back up a second … What do you mean when you talk about “the cloud?”
Attendee: You know … I send all the data off and I don’t have to mess with any of the hardware.

At that point, we’re on the same page. We can talk about the The Planet as a very general “cloud” by the attendee’s definition and how our specific cloud product is a specialized product that abstracts the hardware at the next level. From there, we can talk about what their business needs, the products we have that will meet those needs, and what they can do to learn more.

Success in the those kinds of interactions requires establishing a level foundation that we can build upon. Terms like “hosting,” “cloud” and “virtualization,” are loaded with buzz these days, so more often than not, the best way to talk about them is to lay out a definition and move forward from there.

Are there any other buzz words you don’t understand or that you think have too many definitions?

-Kevin

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Encima y Más Allá

Yhonit FloresHola y buenos dias, me llamo Yhonit Flores. Trabajo en el departamento de soporte tecnico del ‘El Planeta.’ Hace unos dias tome el tiempo para hablar con el V.P. de cuidado de clientes sobre nuestro soporte en español y aun que no tenemos soporte en español, me dijeron que podria hacer lo yo mismo.

Asi es que, me da gusto en informarles, que yo — a lado de otros tecnicos — si es que puedan, vamos a poder dar soporte en español. Toda via no hay soporte oficial en Español, pero consideren este mi “nooficial” oficial suporte en espanol.

Si ud requiere sorpote en español, favor de sentirce libre de llamar y preguntar por me o mandar un ticket en Español y pedir que yo lo trabaje o cual quier otro tecnico que pueda hablar y escribir Español. Pero, puede talves tomara un poco mas de tiempo en recibir una respuesta, porque no todos pueden hablar en español.

Miro adelante en ayudarle con sus necesidades de soporte tecnico.

Y gracias otra vez por elegirnos a nosotros

En Inglés

My name is Yhonit Flores, and I work in The Planet technical support department. I recently spoke with our VP of customer care about providing support in Spanish to our customers, even though our only official support language is English.

And now, I’m happy to inform you — our great customers — that technicians can provide you with Spanish-language support if they are able. Because there is still no “official” Spanish support, you can consider this our unofficial-official Spanish support.

Simply ask for me, or send in a ticket in Spanish and request to have it worked by any technician able to speak the language. Keep in mind there may be a delay in response, since not everyone can provide Spanish support.

Thanks again for choosing us as your hosting provider, and I look forward to helping you with your support needs!

- Yhonit

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Partnering with The Planet: Never Been Easier

Drew JenkinsThe Planet Partner Program drives business to The Planet and makes money for our partners.

That’s a pretty straightforward mission statement.

We have reseller, referral and affiliate programs to enable execution of that mission statement for anyone and everyone, and our goal is to make participation easy. We’ve already talked about which partner program fits you best, so in this post, I want to highlight an exciting promotion we just announced for our Referral Partner Program.

In the month of September, registered referral partners have incentives on an even broader range of contract terms: In addition to standard monthly recurring payments for contracts of 12 months or longer, referral partners can receive commissions for month–to–month agreements and six–month contracts.

I’m a pretty “go with the flow” kind of guy. Give me my family, my friends and University of Texas Longhorn football, and I’m set. The fact that I value simplicity so much might be why I’m so excited we’re introducing this new flexibility into our program. Long-term contracts are not always a fit for our partners and the customers they refer, so we’ve listened and created options to meet them where they are.

So what does that mean for you?

  • If you’re an existing referral partner, you can take advantage of these promotional terms immediately. Just contact your channel manager or send a note to partnerplus@theplanet.com.
  • If you aren’t currently a partner but this post is music to your ears, head over to our Partner Referral Form to get the ball rolling on your first referral.
  • If you want to learn more about the Referral Program and how your business can take advantage of it, drop us a line at partnerplus@theplanet.com.

Hook ‘em Horns!

-Drew

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Is Your Data Endangered?

Kevin HazardIn the 240 posts that have been published on The Planet Blog to date, one of the most consistent themes has been the importance of data protection. If you’ve been around our blog for a while, you’ll be able to rattle off different backup strategies and new technologies that can keep your data safe. If you’re new to the scene, here are a few backup-related gems that can help you catch up:

Unfortunately, having “book knowledge” (or in this case “blog knowledge”) about backups and applying that knowledge faithfully and regularly are not necessarily one and the same. Regardless of how many times you hear it or read it, if you aren’t actively protecting your data, YOU SHOULD BE.

Here are a few questions to help you determine whether your data is endangered:

  1. Is your data backed up?
  2. How often is your data backed up?
  3. How often do you test your backups?
  4. Is your data backed up externally from your server?
  5. Are your backups in another data center?
  6. Are your backups in another city?
  7. Are your backups stored with a different provider?
  8. Do you have local backups?
  9. Are your backups backed up?
  10. How many people in your organization know where your backups are and how to restore them?
  11. What’s the greatest amount of data you might lose in the event of a server crash before your next backup?
  12. What is the business impact of that data being lost?
  13. If your server were to crash and the hard drives were unrecoverable, how long would it take you to restore all of your data?
  14. What is the business impact of your data being lost or inaccessible for the length of time you answered in the last question?

We can all agree that the idea of backups and data protection is a great one, but when it comes to investing in that idea, some folks change their tune. While each of the above questions has a “good” answer when it comes to keeping your data safe, your business might not need “good” answers to all of them for your data to be backed up sufficiently. You should understand the value of your data to your business and invest in its protection accordingly.

For example, a million-dollar business running on a single server will probably value its backups more highly than a hobbyist with a blog she contributes to once every year and a half. The million-dollar business should probably have more “good” answers than the hobbyist, so the business should invest more in the protection of its data than the hobbyist.

If you haven’t taken time to quantify the business impact of losing your primary data (questions 11-14), sit down with a pencil and paper and write out your answers. Do any of those answers make you want to change your approach to backups or your investment in protecting your data?

The funny thing about backups is that you don’t need them until you NEED them, and when you NEED them, you’ll usually want to kick yourself if you don’t have them.

Don’t end up kicking yourself.

-Kevin

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NFL + The Internet = Fantasy Football

Keith PoweIt’s the end of August. That means one thing: Fantasy Football.

The NFL regular season kicks off September 9 in New Orleans, so these last few weeks of August have been abuzz with scouting reports, insider tips and sophisticated drafts all across the country. While I might have a bit more history with the NFL than my coworkers, when the season (and the smack talk) starts, that experience doesn’t mean much if my fantasy team comes up short on Tuesday morning.

I manage to play in a few fantasy leagues every year, and I’m always looking for an edge: from making draft selections to benching players in a given week to negotiating trades with my opponents. That’s why I turned to one of The Planet’s customers for help. Footballguys has trusted us to host their infrastructure for quite a few years now, so I return that trust in a small way by living on their fantasy football site during the months of August and September.

It looks like I’m not the only one:

Football Guys

It goes without saying that they must have a pretty good hosting provider to be able to handle those huge influxes of traffic. :-)

A few of my coworkers still buy fantasy football magazines and rely on a healthy dose of ESPN to prepare for the season, but with fantasy football’s huge popularity surge in recent years, everyone seems to be shifting toward online outlets for the latest news and stats. Time is of the essence when a top draft pick gets sidelined for the season or a new standout emerges from the pack, and depending on how you respond, it can make or break your season. When your pride is on the line, it’s important to have reliable resources keeping you up to date.

Because Kevin just featured a few of our customers who are doing some exciting things on our infrastructure, I wanted to send Footballguys.com some love with its own blog post. If you’ve already got your team drafted, check out their free Rate My Team application, and if you can’t get enough fantasy facts and stats, grab their iPhone app to take the info on the road.

-Keith

P.S. If you happen to be one of my fantasy league competitors, please disregard this blog post. Footballguys.com is a cool site, but they don’t want to help you beat me.

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Citizens of The Planet Speak Up

Kevin HazardIf you’ve clicked around our site since its latest redesign, you’ve probably noticed the “Citizen of The Planet” theme. When you navigate to theplanet.com, you’re greeted with our value proposition:

It’s Your Planet. Host It Your Way.
Technology that saves you money
Management options that save you time
Expert support that lets you sleep

When a visitor, customer or potential customer hits our site, our goal is to evoke a “That’s what I’ve been looking for!” sigh of relief. We make those promises because we know they’re what our customers care about the most. We also know we can back up all of those promises. The problem with making those kinds of bold claims is that the savvy Internet surfer is far too cynical to take any company at its word.

That’s why, in subsequent frames of our rotating header, we stopped. We instead handed the microphone to our customers to tell you what they think:

Wayne Coleman - NetBroadcasting.tv - Citizen of The Planet

Even if you’re not familiar with REALworkspaces, Dynapp, Integrity Host or NetBroadcasting.tv, the fact that they’re not sporting “ThePlanet.com” in their signature is pretty refreshing. These customers run their own businesses, and those businesses trust and rely on The Planet.

Because we didn’t want a dozen frames cycling on the front page, we selected a few to feature. That was no easy task. I grabbed the customer testimonial videos and added them to a playlist here so you can have a one-stop shop for some cool success stories:

[See post to watch the Flash video]

Needless to say, we’re as excited about having these folks as our customers as they are about having The Planet as their hosting provider. If you have a few minutes and you’re interested in seeing a cross-section of the kinds of businesses that are powered by The Planet, click on this “link love”:

If The Planet powers your business and you want to share your success, let us know! We’d love to help you tell your story.

-Kevin

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Season 4: The Sabbatical Years

Mike Brown’s Planets is back. After a long break at the conclusion of Season 3 (I define these Seasons after the fact: if I haven’t written anything in a while I declare it to have been because, clearly. it is the end of the season), the writing will now resume. This season is destined to be the most exciting of all for the simple fact that it also coincides with my current sabbatical, which started last week and lasts for the next 6 months.

My sabbatical will be a funny thing. While most people take the opportunity to take their families to glamorous places and work in exciting new labs, I am taking the opportunity to spend more time in my comfy green chair at home, writing. Diane refers to it as my staybbatical, which I guess is about right. And, after a few days of tidying up loose ends from my office, I am finally here, sitting in the green chair. Let Season 4 commence.

Here are some of the things I am working on:

  • Heading south: 5 years after the discovery of the last dwarf planets, the race has finally commenced to scan the southern hemisphere. The 3 competing teams have familiar players. Who is going to win? I have predictions.
  • Guest posts: As an experiment I am conscripting some younger students and postdocs to write about what they do. First up: Amino acids on Titan. Stay tuned.
  • Where is Planet X hiding? Just in time for making your plans for 2012, I’ll critically review what might still be left lurking in the outskirts of the solar system, and I’ll tell you the probability that it will affect us in 2012. Well, OK, you can probably answer that one already.
  • Sedna is 7, and she still makes less sense than Lilah, who is only 5.
  • Why Pluto still matters. Nearly 5 years after no longer being a planet Pluto still actually matters. You never thought you would hear me say that, did you?
  • Nobody wants to go to the moon anymore. So maybe that means I should go to the moon.

My staybbatical won’t be entirely in my green chair, though. I will admit to having volunteered to be a chaperone on almost all of Lilah’s kindergarten field trips. I even signed up to help with quilting for 5 year olds (they insisted that all I need to know how to do is tie knots; which I do). But also look out for The Wacky Adventures of a Scientist on a Book Tour. Coming soon, to a city (possibly) near you. It should be a fun six months.

An Insider’s Perspective from The Planet Data Centers

Jeff ReynoldsGreetings!

My name is Jeff, and I am a data center technician here at The Planet. I support the servers hosted in our Dallas data centers. It’s not always an easy job, but it’s definitely interesting. That’s why I thought you’d like to know a little more about me and the other technicians who are the eyes and hands at the console. Since we are providing frontline support, the better you understand our jobs, the better we can serve you.

In case you were curious, this is MY office:

Jeff Reynolds Blog

I hail from Chicago, and prior to joining The Planet, I was enlisted in the U.S. Army as a combat engineer stationed in Baumholder, Germany. It’s a beautiful country with spectacular libations — or beer and brats to most of us. Germany was filled with historic sites, and my unit was stationed no more than 20 miles (or 32 kilometers) from three Medieval- to Renaissance-era castles. Despite not being much of a history buff, I was still amazed to be in the presence of structures that have remained standing through centuries of war and expansion. I was also able to see Rome, including the Colosseum and the Roman Forums, along with the Alps.

Jeff Reynolds Blog

Jeff Reynolds Blog

One other sight that really knocked my socks off (which didn’t have much to do with history or European culture) was a lovely young woman named Jacqueline. We got hitched in a small German courthouse and we’ve been going strong for four years. I’ve never regretted a moment, and I try my best to make sure she doesn’t either … every now and then, I get some looks that let me know when I need to step it up a notch or two in that department. We also have a little one named Tabitha. As you can see, she’s a big fan of snow:

Jeff Reynolds Blog

When my wife’s enlistment was up, we moved to Dallas and stayed with the in-laws. Things were a little dicey at first, but we hunkered down, and with the use of some military training, we made it through. At least one of us needed to become gainfully employed, and I was the lucky one. I got a call from Dallas DC managers Josh Daley and Doug Day about an opportunity to work “in the field” for The Planet. We spoke a while on the phone, and what I said must have impressed them enough, because I was invited to an interview a week later at the D2/D6 facility.

It wasn’t easy to sell myself during that little chat. While I was proud of my service, it’s hard to translate combat engineering and marching in cadence to the IT field. I’ve always had an interest in networking and server operating systems, though. I think it had a lot to do with the 1995 movie Hackers – and Angelina Jolie’s appearance in the film didn’t hurt.

I started out learning more about computer security, but my interests drifted once I began to learn more about the open-source community and this thing I’d never heard of: Linux. My first distribution was Red Hat Core 4, and I can admit that I spent at least 17 hours staring dumbfoundingly at my monitor before I was actually able to get it to work. I was only 12 years old back then, but something tells me that being older and having additional life experience wouldn’t have been much help in getting that OS to boot any sooner. Babies don’t sleep as well as I did that night, or that morning rather.

After serving in the Army, I finished college with a degree in Information Technologies. While in school, I was able to knock out a few certifications: CCNA, Network+ and Security+. Looking back, maybe it wasn’t such a hard sell for me to prove myself to The Planet. I was still plenty nervous, though.

Nervous, but excited.

Just walking into the Dallas facility made me know I wanted to be here. It may not have been impressive in the way the Alps were impressive, but I was still struck by it. My interview was conducted in a windowed room overlooking the D2 data center floor. It was the first time I had seen hundreds of racks containing live servers. Looking over the data center, I realized that this was it. This was the Internet. Rooms like these filled with thousands of computers, serving up whatever content was required of them.

Too often, people think of things in terms of how they view and use them. Sounds harmless enough doesn’t it? Why wouldn’t you equate something with its interface? When a lot of people think of the Internet, they think of their web browser. More often than I’d like to admit, friends and family have come to me saying that “the Internet is broken,” when Firefox or Internet Explorer won’t load a page. But as I’m sure the people reading this know, the Internet is a far broader thing than can be contained in a web browser.

I took a moment to wonder if any of the websites I frequent were served from here, and whether I might glance at the hardware that hosted the pages I use to find the weather, traffic information, or news about what my old Army unit is up to in Afghanistan.

It may not be as scenic as the Alps, but it’s something to appreciate to say the least.

Needless to say, I was lucky enough to snag a job on the floor in the D6 facility after the interview process wrapped up. My basic job description calls for installing and troubleshooting server hardware, operating systems and data center components. I’m pretty well versed in Linux-based/POSIX-compliant operating systems, as well as Windows Server 2003 and 2008. Should your server ever become unreachable, just give me a call, and I’ll get it back online for you.

I wanted to post on The Planet Blog to let you get a glimpse of how things happen on the floor, how frontline issues happen, and how we resolve them. I want you to be confident that my fellow techs and I have you covered. Look for more to come — this is just a little intro so you’ll know who I am the next time you see me.

If you need me, come find me at the helm of my KVM on wheels. Forget desks and cubicles, the data center is MY office.

-Jeff

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