So the story goes … that a high school student discovered a new planet (or exoplanet, to be exact) back in 2020, only 3 days into his internship with NASA.Continue reading “He discovered a new planet … at 17 years old”
As a science fiction writer, I like to scroll through the news looking for weird scientific happenings or vague, unexplained phenomena that could easily be spun into a fantastical story.
Sometimes you get bamboozled by clickbait titles and half-baked articles with no research behind them. That’s the game you play.
But sometimes you get really lucky and find a piece that just clicks. And when NASA put out their video of the blackhole’s sound, it was like getting a whole nugget while panning for gold.
What Sound Does A Blackhole Make?
Now, one of the things I was taught as a kid was that there isn’t sound in space. That Star Wars was space fantasy, not science fiction, and laser beams and explosions in space don’t make cool noises. Space is a vacuum and sounds are pretty much sucked up into the void.
Well, whoever told me that, they lied. There ARE cool noises in space, and NASA just revealed an eerie sound coming from a blackhole. Take a listen:
Now, this wailing, windy sound isn’t what you’ll hear if you roll up to the blackhole in your spaceship. It’s taken scientists a long time to be able to parse out these sounds.
According to NASA, these sound waves were born out of data collected from the blackhole in the Perseus galaxy in 2003. Technically, the “pressure waves” sent out from the blackhole rippled through hot gasses and created these sound waves, but they weren’t on the spectrum of human comprehension.
A new sonification program just now made the sounds from this blackhole audible to human ears. In fact, the waves were raised by 57 octaves in order for us to hear them!
In NASA’s official press release, they said that they also were able to formulate sound data from another blackhole, commonly known as M87. That video is below:
Spinning Yarns with Blackhole Sound
For some reason, the first thing I thought about when I heard the Perseus blackhole sounds was the big singing sinkhole from Adventure Time. I’m not sure why, but something about sounds coming from large, dark spaces made my brain connect those two things.
But it got me thinking about the importance of music in SFF media. In Adventure Time, the song from the sinkhole is sweet, and helps Finn and Jake just enjoy the world around them.
What does the blackhole song mean? Could the sound waves be translated into some kind of code? Will the Fox Mulders of the world latch onto the audio clips and try to dissect messages from aliens?
Perhaps the sound is the hum of an ancient mothership that’s fighting to escape the clutches of the blackhole. Or maybe it’s a warning siren, and blackholes are like the beacons of Gondor, but from space.
New discoveries like this help drive the SFF collective braintrust, and I’m curious to hear what you all think the blackhole sounds might be.
Other Neat NASA Happenings
The blackhole sounds videos were just the most recent things NASA released, but they’ve been on a roll for the past few weeks. The James Webb Space Telescope has been snapping some awesome pictures since it replaced Hubble in December of 2021.
One of the most recent pictures was a stunning snapshot of Jupiter. The image was captured with the Webb telescope and infrared filters were applied to bring out the bright details of the planet’s atmosphere. The filters helped to pinpoint auroras and other hazes that are a part of Jupiter’s make-up.
This picture of Jupiter is mesmerizing because for so long, we’ve seen cloudy or indistinct images, but this one is so clear and crisp. It reminds me of the acrylic pouring videos or a glass marble. It’s beautiful.
Out of all of the Webb telescope images, this one is my favorite, aside from the Cosmic Cliffs image that was released in July.
If you’re a fan of space exploration and vintage Space Race literature, you should check out the interview we did with Alan Smale. His new book, Hot Moon, is an alternate history about the US and Soviet race to the moon.
The Top Facts You Probably Didn’t Know
We live in a vast and wonderful solar system with planets and moons that orbit our star, the sun. But, how much do you know about each of our planets? Many of us may have learned the order of planets from Mercury to Pluto (now a dwarf planet), but each one has a unique composition and is full of facts that differ strongly from the earth. Let’s take a look at each one. At the end, let us know how much you already knew!
This planet is small with a diameter of 3,032 miles. It is gradually shrinking at a nearly imperceptible rate of 9 miles per 4 billion years. As the planet appears to be gradually cooling, its volume is reducing. Mercury does not have a strong atmosphere and it is susceptible to violent impacts from passing meteors, causing its surface to be riddled with craters. Temperatures on the planet can range from a staggering 800 degrees Fahrenheit down to -269 degrees Fahrenheit. Its lack of a strong atmosphere does not allow it to capture heat from the sun, so its nightly temperature drops drastically. Mercury does not have any moons because of its size and low gravitational pull.
Venus rotates on its axis slower than any of the other planets in the solar system. It takes 243 earth days to rotate one time. It is also full of carbon dioxide within its atmosphere, making it an expert at trapping heat, making it hotter than its neighbor Mercury. Temperatures on Venus are 863.6 degrees Fahrenheit! It spins in the opposite direction of the other planets. Each planet except for Venus spins counterclockwise on its axis. Venus also orbits the sun in the opposite direction of the planets. This is likely due to a collision that occurred an unknown number of millennia ago that essentially flipped the planet upside down. Venus is abnormally bright, being the second brightest planet or moon in the sky, after earth’s moon. This is due to the reflective nature of its sulphuric acid clouds. Because it is easier to see in the sky compared to the other planets, it makes sense that it is the first planet to be tracked across the sky. Many say this began in the second millennium BCE.
We live on its surface all of our lives and may think we know quite a bit about our planet. But, did you know scientists believe at one point in history that the earth may have looked purple instead of blue? This is because it is theorized that microbes relied on retinal instead of chlorophyll for survival. Retinal reflects back violet and red light. There is an estimated 60 tons of cosmic dust that falls into the earth from meteorites, comets, and other celestial bodies. This contributes to the sodium and iron in our atmosphere. There is a theory that Earth once had two moons that collided and left us with the current moon we see in the sky. Other planets aren’t the only places where temperatures can be extreme. On the East Antarctic Plateau, it can drop to -133.6 degrees Fahrenheit. Earth is not perfectly round. It is a bit more narrow at the poles and bulged at the equator. The largest living organism on earth is a fungus. You can find the honey fungus spanning almost two and a half miles in the state of Oregon.
A year on Mars is 687 Earth days because its orbit is further from the sun. It has two moons that are likely asteroids that were captured by Mars’ gravitational pull. They are named Deimos and Phobos. Mars’ axis tilts similarly to Earth’s axis tilt, giving it seasons. Its atmosphere is not dense and cannot trap heat from the sun. It averages -212 degrees Fahrenheit during its cold season and a pleasant 68 degrees Fahrenheit during its warmest season. Mars has its own volcano, Olympus Mons, which is dormant but is the largest volcano and the highest peak of any other in the solar system. It is approximately three times taller than Mount Everest. Mars has another distinguishing feature on its surface. It has a crater that covers 40% of it. It also has the largest canyon of any of the planets in the solar system that is 4 miles deep and extends for thousands of miles.
This planet has more moons than any other in the solar system. It is the largest planet in the solar system and is also the one that spins the fastest. It takes approximately 10 hours for Jupiter to complete a full spin on its axis. The planet has a strong magnetic field (about 14x stronger than Earth’s) and a vast amount of radiation around it. Jupiter has rings that can be divided into three layers. Winds near Jupiter’s center are estimated to be 400 miles an hour. Jupiter is sometimes credited with shielding Earth from passing objects by pulling them into itself with its strong magnetic field. Its mass is 318 times greater than Earth.
It is sometimes called “The Jewel of the Solar System” with its visible rings and large size, second only to Jupiter. The planet is made up of gases, mostly, and its rings are made up of rocks, ice, and dust. Wind speeds at Saturn’s equator can reach 1,118 miles per hour. A year on Saturn is about the same as 29 years on Earth but a day on Saturn is 10 hours and 14 minutes. At its widest, Saturn could fit Earth across itself 9 times. Saturn is the least dense planet in the solar system. It is said that when Galileo looked up to Saturn with an early version of the telescope in 1610, he thought its rings were two moons stuck to the sides of the planet.
This is the third largest planet and is made of gas and ice. As such, it is the coldest planet in the solar system with temperatures reaching -360 degrees Fahrenheit. Uranus is spinning on its side, like a bowling ball rolling toward the pins. Because of its unusual orientation to the sun, a summer on Uranus lasts 42 Earth years, as does a winter season, putting a year on Uranus to be the equivalent of 84 Earth years. Uranus has 13 rings, all made of dark particles that are extremely small. Winds on the planet can reach 560 miles per hour. The human eye can see Uranus in the night sky on Earth because the planet just meets the brightness scale needed for the human eye to see it.
It is made of water, methane, and ammonia around a core of rock. It has 5 primary rings and 4 arcs of rings that are clusters of dust and space debris. It has 14 moons. Because of Pluto’s strongly elliptical orbit, Neptune is occasionally the furthest planet from the Sun. Of the other gaseous planets in the solar system (Uranus, Saturn, Jupiter), Neptune is the smallest. It is said to have a similar gravitational pull as that on Earth at only 17% stronger, the closest gravitational pull to Earth of any other planet in the solar system. Its winds reach 1,304 miles per hours.
This dwarf planet (as of 2006) has been beloved by generations as part of the planets of the solar system. Pluto was discovered in 1930 and was named at the suggestion of a girl who was 11 years old. Pluto has a diameter of 1,473 miles, making it smaller than Earth’s moon which has a diameter of 2,160 miles. Pluto is part of the Kuiper Belt that orbits the Sun just outside of Neptune’s orbit. Pluto has five moons. It is one-third water and two-thirds rock. It has mountain ranges and craters on its surface.
The Future of Space Exploration
As we dive deeper into space through advancements like the James Webb telescope, we will continue to uncover details of other planets that will enhance our understanding of our solar system’s place in the vast expanses of space.
It’s not often that you see a hard science fiction novel crafted with such care and meticulous research as Hot Moon by Alan Smale.
Astrophysicist by day, award-winning author by night, Alan Smale’s newest book is about an alternate 1979 where the Soviets are bent on wresting the Moon from NASA’s hands. This sci fi novel features accurate details of orbital mechanics, daring feats of ingenuity, and a thrilling battle in space.
We sat down with Alan to discuss how he started writing, the inspiration for Hot Moon, and his future plans.
Isaac Payne: So Alan, I know that not only are you an award-winning author, you’re also an astrophysicist for NASA. Tell me, how did you decide to get into astrophysics?
Alan Smale: Sure. It really started when I was a kid. I was always interested in astronomy, and fascinated by the Apollo program as well. I used to go out in the backyard with my dad when I was young and look at the Moon and planets, the stars and galaxies. I stayed interested in astronomy for all of my formative years.
And then later on, I went to college to study physics at the University of Oxford, they had optional astrophysics courses in the first and third year, and so I took those and enjoyed them thoroughly.
After my bachelors degree, I was accepted for a doctoral program. It’s actually called DPhil in Oxford, Doctor of Philosophy, rather than a PhD, but it’s the same thing. I did optical and x-ray astronomy research there for three years or so while earning my doctorate. After that I did a post-doc at the Mullard Space Science Laboratory, part of University College London.
When my first post-doc ended, I moved to the States to take up a job at NASA, at the Goddard Space Flight Center. I’ve been with NASA ever since.
IP: What kind of research do you do at NASA?
AS: I study low mass x-ray binaries, which are binary star systems that are quite tightly bound, and one of those stars is a compact object, either a black hole or a neutron star. These are extremely dense objects. Material from the more normal companion star spirals into that compact object, and that’s where the x-rays come from. If we study those sources by looking at both the x-rays and the optical emission, we can learn a lot about them.
IP: So obviously you’ve been pretty ingrained with science and astronomy since you were young. Were you an avid science fiction reader, too?
AS: Oh, yeah, I cut my teeth on all of the old classics. When I was growing up, I read a lot of Isaac Asimov, Ursula Le Guin, Robert Heinlein, Arthur C. Clarke, Ray Bradbury, Larry Niven. All of this stuff was really prevalent in the atmosphere around me at the time.
I’ve been interested in science fiction all my life, as well as science and astronomy. In fact, all the sci-fi I read probably played a big role in my interest in the sciences. The space program, astrophysics, and science fiction have always coupled together quite tightly, for me.
IP: And when did you start writing science fiction? Did you start pretty early on with that as well?
AS: I started writing science fiction in a very juvenile kind of way. When I was a kid I used to write what now would be called Star Trek fan fiction. But I really started writing seriously for publication when I turned 30. I was already living in the States and working at the Goddard Space Flight Center by then. I’d finished my academic studies, and I was no longer a student at that point, so I had a little more free time. Then, pretty soon after that, I started having stories accepted.
IP: What was the name of your first publication?
AS: It was a short story called “The Breath of Princes” and it appeared in the A Wizard’s Dozen anthology from Harcourt Brace, edited by Michael Stearns.
It was actually a fantasy story, which is kind of funny looking back on it now. In fact, my first two or three published stories were fantasy, but over the past fifteen years, most of my writing has been alternate history or hard science fiction.
IP: What about the genre of historical fiction do you find fascinating?
AS: I’ve always been a history buff. Growing up in England, there was a lot of history around. My family used to go to Hadrian’s Wall for vacations, and to Bath, so I got to explore a lot of Roman ruins and remains there.
I’m not actually sure what the precipitating event was that made me focus on historical writing, but one thing about it is that it’s very different from my day job. I feel as though I’m using very different mental muscles when I’m writing history-based speculative fiction than when I’m doing academic research.
My most recent book, Hot Moon, is very technical, hard science fiction, but until I got to that book, most of my fiction writing was in a different head-space from the day-job work I was doing. Doing scientific research is very different from writing about history, so it was a complete break for my brain, the two sides didn’t bleed into each other.
It feels very refreshing, somehow, when I’m working hard at both science and writing. A change is as good as a rest!
Anyway: I’d always been fascinated by history, and by some of the older alternate history tales. Books like Lest Darkness Fall by Sprague de Camp, and The Man in the High Castle by Philip K. Dick.
The past is a very fertile playground for fiction. And one of the things I like about alternate history is that it kind of holds up a mirror to the real history; I get the resonances of what really happened, underlying the tale that I’m telling, and they both reinforce each other and play off each other.
If you know the real historical events, then you’ll know that the events in a given story are different because of a different result in a war, or an election, and perhaps different people are in the foreground. And by doing that, it kind of makes you think about how history is made. Who the important people are. How history really works.
I just found myself gravitating more and more to that kind of writing over the last 10 or 15 years. Over that period, a lot of my reading has been historical non-fiction, and most of my writing output has been historically based.
IP: You mentioned that Hot Moon is hard science fiction, as well as being an alternate history. Can readers expect for Hot Moon to stay within the bounds of 1979 astrophysics, or does the book move into science fiction with more advanced technologies?
AS: I definitely stay within those bounds. There’s nothing in Hot Moon that wouldn’t have been possible with the technology that they had back then. I spent a lot of time researching the Apollo program, which was a real labor of love because as I mentioned before, I was really into it when I was a kid.
I spent a lot of time getting into the nuts and bolts of the technology, really getting deep into figuring out what was possible and what wasn’t. I obey the laws of physics throughout the book, which is actually a pain because orbital mechanics are quite complicated and it really constrains what my characters can do! They need large amounts of fuel for relatively small orbit changes, for example, and things like that.
So in the first book, there is nothing that wasn’t possible with the technology of the time. The Apollo and Soyuz spacecraft, the Lunar Rovers, and other hardware in the book either existed in the 1970s, or could have been in existence in that timeframe if the US and Soviet space programs had continued. There would have been no technical showstoppers with implementing any of the vehicles, machinery, or bases in Hot Moon.
In the second book we’ll certainly see more of the speculative technology that was suggested at the time. These are ideas that people had done a bit of experimentation with, some prototyping and technical development, but which never came to fruition. There were a lot of bright ideas around then, but a lot of those programs ended up being canceled, or not coming to fruition for other reasons.
So, overall, I’ve tried really hard to keep the science very close to reality. There’s a key political difference in how we get to the world of Hot Moon in 1979. And one of those differences is that the US involvement in Vietnam is much more limited, and of a shorter duration.
As a result, the US has quite a lot more money. In reality, the US couldn’t possibly have pursued the war in Vietnam and the Space Race simultaneously without making huge concessions elsewhere. So, a different Vietnam War, and a rather different Cold War, are central to the Hot Moon universe.
Make sure to check out the second part of our conversation with Alan Smale, right here on the Signals from the Edge blog on Thursday, July 14th!
In the meantime, check out another one of our interviews:
As the Earth changes due to shifting climates, pollution, and a whole slew of other factors, we always have to be on the watch for weird weather phenomena. Tornados, volcanic eruptions, hurricanes–you name it.
Natural disasters happen all the time, and while there’s little we can do to control them, our best hope is to be as prepared as possible for their inevitable strike.
But recently, we’ve had a new threat to worry about, one that can impact more than just our houses or neighborhoods. These new threats are from outer space, and they can impact our whole human livelihood.
The past few days you’ve probably been hearing about solar flares, a geomagnetic storm watch, and, if you did your research, co-rotating interaction regions of solar wind.
It got me thinking about what we can even do to protect ourselves from these solar happenings, and wondering whether or not the end of times will be brought on by some kind of “space weather”.
Understanding Solar Flares and Geomagnetic Storms
There are a few different phenomena that occur around our Sun, and they all have different impacts on Earth.
A solar flare is a sudden brightening of the Sun’s surface that usually lasts for just a few minutes. Solar flares are caused by the release of magnetic energy stored in the Sun’s atmosphere.
Geomagnetic storms are disturbances in Earth’s magnetic field that are caused by changes in the direction and intensity of the Sun’s magnetic field. These changes are usually associated with solar flares.
Solar flares and geomagnetic storms can both cause problems for us here on Earth. Solar flares can disrupt communications and power grids, while geomagnetic storms can cause auroras (northern and southern lights) and interfere with navigation systems.
You might have also heard about a coronal mass ejection (CME), which is a large release of plasma and magnetic field from the Sun’s atmosphere. CMEs are sometimes associated with solar flares, but they can also occur without any flare activity.
When a CME hits Earth, it can interact with our planet’s magnetic field. This interaction can cause a geomagnetic storm.
What is a Co-Rotating Interaction Region?
A co-rotating interaction region (CIR) is a region where the solar wind slows down and becomes denser. CIRs are usually associated with an increase in geomagnetic activity.
Solar flares, geomagnetic storms, and CIRs are all caused by changes in the Sun’s magnetic field.
Last week, scientists at NASA detected a large sunspot that was rapidly growing on the surface of the sun, and they anticipated a solar flare at some point in the near future. Sunspots are the precursors to–and warnings of–a change to the Sun’s magnetic field, and potential threats to the Earth.
Thankfully, the sunspot rotated away from Earth, which decreased the risk of solar flare. However, scientists later found out that the geomagnetic storm watch–and the subsequent magnetic shock wave, was a result of the co-rotating interaction region.
The CIR doesn’t have any warning signs–no sunspot–which is why no one was able to predict the geomagnetic storm.
What Do These Things Mean For Earth?
I, for one, was slightly concerned about the news of all the solar activities over the past week. I never really understood what kind of impact solar flares or CMEs could have on Earth, so I did some research.
The common belief is that a solar flare acts like an electromagnetic pulse, disrupting electronics in the vicinity. But, the impacts that solar flares have on the Earth actually are quite minor. The wave of electromagnetic radiation increases the ionization rate in the Earth’s upper atmosphere, which may interfere with short wave radio functionality, but doesn’t do much else.
There have been reports of large solar flares or CMEs that caused problems in the 1970s with detonating underwater mines, and SpaceX reports that many of their Starlink satellites were damaged in early 2022 by solar activity.
Of course, scientists are able to predict and monitor solar flares–evident because of the sunspots–and prepare for any kind of bump in radiation.
But, CIRs are harder to predict and not so well understood, and they can cause unexpected geomagnetic storms to hit Earth. It’s these storms, the ones that come with no precedence, that are dangerous to our livelihoods.
Powerful geomagnetic storms have been known to:
- Overload power transformers
- Damage power grids for long periods of time
- Disrupt communications systems
- Level orbiting satellites
- Increase chances of radiation poisoning for astronauts and high-flying aircraft
All of these things, when separate, are terrible, but when combined, can be catastrophic. Can you imagine if the power grid went down indefinitely? What would you do about your food storage? No computers, no Internet, presumably, and limited communications with anyone over any channel. It’d be a return to an almost prehistoric age.
For many of this, it’s the stuff of science fiction, but as more events like the geomagnetic storm watch occur, it becomes more likely that we’ll all be impacted by some kind of solar event.
As our civilization has evolved, we’ve gone from gathering resources above ground for our shelters and day-to-day lives. Wood, stone, and natural fibers all functioned as the backbone for early human civilizations.
But as time went on, we started to look deeper, digging through the ground at our feet to discover iron ore and other precious metals.
And at this point in time, we’re pretty familiar with all the resources Earth has to offer, and are making quick use of them.
So, it begs the question: Where will we turn for resources once the Earth’s bounty has been depleted?
The answer is space. And mining in space might be closer to reality than we think.
Codexes for Space Miners
Science fiction writers have been thinking about this issue for a long time. Mining asteroids is a popular element of many space opera novels.
Pushing Ice by Alastair Reynolds has characters mining cometary ice in our solar system. Leviathan Wakes by James S. A. Corey opens with the ship Canterbury hauling that same ice to Ceres Station. Powerstat by Ben Bova investigates harnessing massive amounts of solar energy from space. Countless other novels explore the idea of collecting resources from space, like The Web Between the World by Charles Sheffield and Macao Station by Mike Berry.
It’s fair to say that space miners are a critical part of many space operas, but how close to reality are these sci fi stories?
What Are We Mining in Space?
A recent article from Scientific News states that the collision of two neutron stars can produce massive amounts of heavy metal, like gold and platinum.
When two dead stars collide, debris and other materials are shot out into space. Eventually, they’re transformed into familiar heavy metals through a phenomenon known as the r-process.
This process occurs when “atomic nuclei climb the periodic table, swallowing up neutrons and decaying radioactively”.
But this is old news, these discoveries are at least 5 years old at this point. Yet, this data suggests that in the future, we might be mining more than just asteroid ice in space.
Not only could we collect gold and platinum from space, but mining asteroids could yield nickel, cobalt, iron, aluminum, and a slew of other materials, including hydrogen, one of the proponents of rocket fuel.
Urgently Hiring: Space Miners
An article by Alex Gilbert in the Milken Institute Review, published in April 2021, claims that mining in space might happen as soon as 2024.
NASA recently handed out contracts to four companies, allowing them to extract sample material from the moon. The moon will probably be a hotspot for mining and exploration, with it being only a few days’ journey from Earth. Studies of have shown that there are large, frozen deposits of water in many of the moon’s craters, and who knows what’s lying under the surface.
But, just like in the works of science fiction we so revere, scientists are setting their sites farther than the moon. Asteroids and other moons—include those of Mars—are targets for potential mining operations. Japanese and Chinese space missions are already planned to bring back samples from one of Mars’ moons.
However, the realm of interplanetary mining gets into some sticky legal red tape. There isn’t a formal set of guidelines of who gets to mine what, or colonize where. Space law is still in its infancy, but the US, Luxembourg, and the United Arab Emirates are leading the charge in developing space-resource laws.
But certain treaties pose as roadblocks for space exploitation, and for good measure. The Outer Space Treaty of 1967 states that no celestial bodies shall be exploited for national gain. We can only assume that must also apply to individuals such as Jeff Bezos and Elon Musk, who have set their eyes on the stars as a way to line their pockets.
The difficulty of ironing out interplanetary doctrines between all the nations gives the technology ample time to meet the standards for widespread mineral harvesting.
See You Later, Space Miner
All of this is to say that sci fi worlds filled with space miners, pirates, and intergalactic diplomacy might not be far off. While we might not see it in our lifetimes, the foundations for mineral exploitation and far-flung space travel are under construction as we speak.
And our successors might not just be chunking up space ice, but rather harvesting gold, platinum, and other precious metals from neutron star fallout and hefty cash-cow asteroids.
But what do you think? What will become the most valuable resource in space? Hydrogen? Iron? Let us know in the comments below.
Now, maybe you’ve probably heard, and read, a lot of crazy stories and theories involving aliens, extraterrestrials, and possible life outside planet Earth. But the biggest catch is: it is possible. And we have some exoplanets to prove that!
But what exactly makes an exoplanet habitable? According to NASA, a planet can be considered habitable if it has what it takes to sustain life for a period of time. Like drinkable water sources, atmosphere that allows unaided breathing, and climates that don’t reach extreme temperatures.
The planet usually resides in what’s called the habitable zone; not too close to their host star as to make the planet’s surface unbearably hot, and not too far away from the host star to freeze the planet.
Now that you know the requirements to classify habitable exoplanets, we have gathered a list of some of them that might become the next Earth.
Check them out:
- Proxima Centauri b
- Ross 128 b
- Tau Ceti f
- Wolf 1061 c
- Teegarden’s Star b
Proxima Centauri b orbits around the habitable zone of the red dwarf star Proxima Centauri (the closest star to the Sun and part of a triple star system).
The exoplanet was discovered in August 2016 by using the radial velocity method, where periodic Doppler shifts of the parent star’s spectral lines suggest an orbiting object.
The Proxima Centauri (the habitable zone where it orbits around), with the correct planetary conditions and atmospheric properties, may present the existence of liquid water on the surface of the planet, which makes the Proxima Centauri b exoplanet habitable.
In 1935, Murray Leinster’s short story “Proxima Centauri” puts human travelers into the Proxima Centauri system. The story received mixed reviews, but caught the eye of Isaac Asimov, who talks about it in the anthology Before the Golden Age.
Plus, Stephen Baxter predicted the existence of Proxima b three years before it was actually discovered with his book, Proxima!
Ross 128 b is an earth-sized exoplanet orbiting within the inner habitable zone of the red dwarf Ross 128.
It was found using a decade’s worth of radial velocity data from the European Southern Observatory’s HARPS spectrograph (High Accuracy Radial Velocity Planet Searcher) at the La Silla Observatory in Chile.
Ross 128 b’s orbital patterns haven’t been completely confirmed, but it tends to stay within its habitable zone. However, if it has an Earth-like atmosphere, the planet could distribute the energy received from the star around the planet to allow more areas to potentially hold liquid water.
Tau Ceti f is a super-Earth or mini-Neptune orbiting Tau Ceti.
This exoplanet was discovered in 2012 by statistical analyses of the star’s variations in radial velocity, based on data received by HIRES, APPS, and HARPS.
In October 2020, Tau Ceti f was confirmed to be the most potentially habitable exoplanet orbiting a Sun-like star.
The Tau Ceti system has fascinated science fiction writers for decades, as it has been a part of literature by Arthur Clarke, Dan Simmons, Lois McMaster Bujold, and most recently, Andy Weir with Project Hail Mary.
Wolf 1061 c
Orbiting within the habitable zone of the red dwarf star Wolf 1061 in the constellation Ophiuchus, Wolf 1061 c is the fifth-closest known potentially habitable zone, classified as a super-Earth.
Since it is so close to its star and possibly tidally locked, the results show that on one side, it is permanently facing the star and the other side permanently facing away.
This could mean the existence of an extreme variations of temperatures, but the terminator line that separates the illuminated side and the dark side could potentially be habitable, as the temperature there could be suitable for liquid water to exist.
A larger portion of the exoplanet could also be habitable if it has a thick enough atmosphere to facilitate heat transfer away from the side facing the star.
An exoplanet discovered in July 2019 by a peer-review article in Astronomy & Astrophysics published by Mathias Zechmeister and more than 150 other scientists.
This peer-review was published as a part of the CARMENES survey, supporting the existence of two candidate exoplanets orbiting Teegarden’s Star.
The radial velocity method detected possible habitable exoplanets due to the Teegarden Star’s alignment and faintness. After three years of observation, two periodic radial velocity signals emerged from Teegarden’s Star b at 4.91 days.
It orbits around the habitable zone of its host star, indicating the possibility of existing stable liquid water on the surface, thanks to its atmospheric composition.
The host star’s composition also bodes well for the exoplanet’s habitability. Most red dwarfs emit powerful flares, which can strip off other planets’ atmospheres and cause them to be uninhabitable. However, Teegarden’s Star is relatively quiet and inactive, making Tegarden’s Star b a good candidate for human life.
New Habitable Exoplanets Everyday!
In July 2020, an article at the Science Daily News reported a study from the University of Arizona that pinpointed the existence of methane in plumes of Saturn’s moon Enceladus, the sixth-largest moon of Saturn, measured by the Cassini spacecraft on Saturn’s icy moon.
This could be a sign of possible life on the moon since the information received by Cassini is compatible with the characteristics of a habitable environment.
So there might be a potentially hospitable exoplanet closer than we think!
If you liked this article, I highly suggest you check out Nasa’s Exoplanet Exploration website. It has a lot of cool facts and an expansive exoplanet catalog.
The pages of space travel history are filled with records of countless animals and insects who were sent into space.
Perhaps the most famous was Laika, the cosmonaut dog sent into orbit on Sputnik 2 in 1957. She became the first animal to ever enter space, and her journey sparked a flurry of other tests that eventually led to the first human space trip in 1961.
But, why do scientists send animals into space, anyways? And what do recent medical discoveries like intestinal liquid ventilation mean for the future of space travel?
Why Perform Animal Testing in Space?
Animal testing has polarized the science community. On one side, the human safety activists argue that animal testing helps protect us from harmful side effects of pharmaceuticals, cleaning supplies, and pretty much every other product under the sun.
On the other side of the spectrum, the animal rights activists argue that there are other ways to safely perform tests that doesn’t cost lab animals their lives.
There are valid points on both sides of the argument, but sending animals to space has sort of become the posterchild for both animal testing and abolishing animal testing.
So why do we send dogs, chimps, and spiders to space to begin with?
In the early days of the space race, scientists were uncertain about the conditions in space. There were a lot of unanswered questions:
- Could humans survive the g-force of entry and reentry?
- Would the human body withstand the stress of a prolonged space trip?
- How would the body readjust to Earth’s gravity?
Bioastronautics specialists figured that the road to these answers was simply to send various creatures into orbit and observe the results. Unfortunately, almost all animals sent into space died from the stress. But their sacrifice led to the first human spacewalk, the first feet on the moon, and the development of the ISS.
What Kind of Creatures Got Tickets to Space?
While Laika was the first dog in space, she was followed by:
- 32 monkeys and apes (Ham was the first chimp in space)
- Small mammals like dogs, cats, guinea pigs, and rabbits (Félicette was the first cat in space)
- Mice and rats
- Frogs, turtles, newts, and geckos
- Insects and arachnids (ants, fruit flies, orb spiders, etc.)
While no adult birds were brought to space, the American flight Discovery STS-29 took 32 chicken embryos into space.
Once scientists had a substantial amount of data about the effects of space on the body, they became interested in unborn creatures.
In addition to the countless live animals sent into orbit, scientists have sent quail and frog eggs into space, as well as the seeds for potatoes, cottonseed, and rapeseed.
But new studies have shown that certain animals have the capacity to breathe with much lower levels of oxygen than previously observed, which is obviously a plus when it comes to space travel.
Discovery of Intestine Breathing in Pigs and Rodents
A new study published in the medical journal Med presents the findings of how oxygenated liquid given to the intestines supported two mammals in respiratory failure.
Both pigs and mice were able to survive environments with critically-low oxygen levels because of oxygen tubes inserted through their rectums to reach the intestines.
Kind of absurd, right?
Well, scientists have known about non-lung respiratory functions for a while. Sea cucumbers and some freshwater catfish, for example, use their intestines to process oxygen. But until now, no mammals have been known to possess such abilities.
What does intestinal breathing in these mammals mean for humans? And what does it mean for the future of animal testing in space?
Medical Benefits of Non-Lung Breathing
The researchers who found the intestinal breathing capabilities of pigs, rats, and mice stated that the discovery might be used in the future to help human patients in respiratory failure.
75% of mice that were given the intestinal liquid ventilation system survived for almost an hour in oxygen-deficient environments, and in non-lethal oxygen-deficient environments, mice with the intestinal liquid ventilation were more active than mice without.
It’s still unclear whether or not humans have the same intestinal breathing abilities, but Takanori Takebe, head researcher of the project, said that “The level of arterial oxygenation provided by our ventilation system, if scaled for human application, is likely sufficient to treat patients with severe respiratory failure, potentially providing life-saving oxygenation.”
In the current medical climate, such a device might remedy the lack of ventilators for COVID-19 patients.
Thinking Outside the Box
As science fiction enthusiasts, we like to take real-world discoveries and bend them a little. In this case, the finding of intestinal breathing sparks questions about a functional use for it in the vacuum of space (or at least, in a space station).
Picture this: you’re on a spaceship in deep space, life support systems are failing and your friend is badly wounded. Oxygen is a precious commodity and you’re already running low. You have to keep your friend alive until backup arrives.
The intestinal liquid ventilation system can support your friend’s respiratory function while not consuming valuable oxygen gas. You’re able to keep him stable until rescue arrives.
While not the most realistic scenario, it’s perfectly feasible that in the future, intestinal liquid ventilation will be used to life-saving effect, not just on Earth, but in space too.
And who knows, maybe pigs and mice will be sent into orbit to test the ILV system before it’s approved for human use. While many of the animals sent to space lost their lives, their sacrifice made modern space exploration possible, and will continue to advance our trek beyond Earth.
Science fiction literature is so packed full of super-sophisticated weapons and doomsday devices, it’s become the norm for our favored protagonists to make it their mission to disable them.
Most of these weapons of mass destruction are the design of hyper-advanced species or devious alien races, but many of the weapons are based off real life events. For instance, the development of the atom bomb.
But now, there might actually be a connection between the tests done during the Manhattan Project and the origins of meteorites, and possibly, the same WMDs so prevalent in science fiction.
It all started when Paul Steinhardt, one of the pioneers of quasicrystal research, found samples of quasicrystal among the debris of the Trinity bomb test site.
Quasicrystal Formations Found in A-Bomb Test Sites
Researchers have been studying the aftermath the atom bomb left on the landscape of the New Mexico test site in 1945.
The detonation of the atom bomb created extremely high temperatures and intense pressure, which fused sand and debris from the bomb tower—like copper—into a field of trinitite.
What’s trinitite, you ask?
Well, it’s a unique crystalline glass formed during nuclear events. Trinitite got its name from Trinity, the first atom bomb tested in Alamogordo, New Mexico. Trinitite comes in two different compositions based on its refraction index. Plus, trinitite comes in a few colors:
- ‘Normal’ trinitite – usually a greenish hue, very low levels of metallic compounds
- Red trinitite – gains its color from copper, iron and lead
- Black trinitite – a very rare form of trinitite that contains high levels of iron
Trinitite has been a well-known substance since the 1940s, but researchers were shocked when they found samples of quasicrystals in a piece of red trinitite from New Mexico.
Breaking Down Man-made Quasicrystals and Natural Quasicrystals
So, quasicrystals. Sounds fancy, right?
Turns out, they are fairly common, but not at the bottom of a radioactive crater.
A quasicrystal refers to any crystalline structure that has a unique pattern that doesn’t repeat. In other common crystals, the atomic structure forms a lattice that repeats itself with perfect symmetry.
Quasicrystals have been sort of a physicist’s taboo since the 1980s, and were largely consider to be a joke. However, in 2011, Dr. Dan Shechtman won the Nobel Prize in Chemistry for his discovery of the first quasicrystal, a diffraction pattern of an aluminum and manganese alloy.
Many more manmade quasicrystals have been discovered since 2011, but the hunt still continues for more natural quasicrystals. Paul Steinhardt, a theoretical physicist at Princeton, led a team to scour a remote volcanic region in Russia in search of natural quasicrystals.
And that’s where the trinitite comes in.
In a rare piece of red trinitite from New Mexico, Steinhardt discovered a quasicrystal that was actually formed because of the Trinity test. The heat, pressure, and violent impact of falling from the sky created the unique structure.
That unique structure of quasicrystal just so happens to also be found in meteorites.
Do Quasicrystals Give Us a Hint to the Origins of Meteorites?
As a science fiction enthusiast, this is where my brain started to spitball ideas before I even did any research.
If an atomic bomb created enough heat and pressure to form quasicrystals, what else had that kind of power?
Since the A-bomb is perhaps the most powerful weapon known to humankind, was it possible there was something even more lethal out there in the wide cosmos that could have the same effect?
Maybe the planet-destroying ray of the Death Star blew chunks of Alderaan deep into space with tiny quasicrystals on the debris. Or maybe a planet’s core exploded because its residents experimented on the core.
While much remains a mystery, researchers who studied the quasicrystals of the Khatyrka meteorite found in Russia suggest that the quasicrystals were formed during a collision between two asteroids. But there’s no concrete evidence that rules out other, more fanciful, possibilities.
Tests on trinitite allow scientists to determine the type of nuclear event that occurred and approximate a location for the origin of the glassy substance. Is it only a matter of time before similar tests can tell us where in the universe these natural quasicrystals come from? Perhaps we’ll also learn about the origins of meteorites, even if they come from deep space.
For now, let your imagination roam. And please, don’t build a doomsday ray to try to make quasicrystals.
Perseverance: A New Mars Rover
NASA’s new rover, previously called Mars 2020, finally has a name: Perseverance. There was a huge contest that got about 28,000 entries and the winner was a middle school student named Alexander Mather.
In an example of why he won the contest, here’s a powerful line from his essay: “We are a species of explorers, and we will meet many setbacks on the way to Mars. However, we can persevere.”
NASA’s Thomas Zurbuchen added during the announcement ceremony, “Perseverance is a strong word: it’s about making progress despite obstacles.”
The rover is supposed to launch aboard an Atlas V rocket in July of this year and, if all goes according to plan, will arrive on Mars in February 2021. It will have with it an array of scientific instruments such as ground-penetrating radar, spectrometers to measure soil composition, as well as cameras for both close-up and panoramic views of the surface of the Red Planet.
There’s also going to be a tiny helicopter, which is going to be the first heavier-than-air aircraft on another planet. Finally, there will be an oxygen-producing device that will be able to work with the CO2 in the Martian atmosphere.
There are two main goals to the Perseverance mission. First, it is is to take scientific measurements that help us make sense of the Martian environment both past and current. Did it ever host life? The second mission is to collect samples that another rover, planned for 2026, will pick up and return to Earth.
The six-wheeler will land on Mars in the dry river delta in the Jezero Crater in February 2021.
Space Tourism, Coming Right Up
SpaceX plans to send three tourists up to the International Space Station (ISS) in 2021. They’re doing this along with a Texas start-up called Axiom Space.
This announcement came after NASA said last year it would open up the ISS to a bit more commercial activity.
Axiom CEO Michael Suffredini said in a press release, “This history-making flight will represent a watershed moment in the march toward universal and routine access to space.”
There have been civilians on the ISS before, but they all went up on Russian Soyuz ships. This trip will be the first launch of private citizens on a private spacecraft, however. They plan to use a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket and a Crew Dragon capsule.
How much will it set you back to go to the ISS? A pass for the 10-day trip reportedly runs about $55 million.
What’s Happening at CAEZIK SF & Fantasy Publishing
The Pursuit of the Pankera: A Parallel Novel About Parallel Universes hits the streets on March 24! It’s the previously unpublished work by Robert A. Heinlein that is a parallel to his 1980 novel, The Number of the Beast.
Of course there’s also Robert J. Sawyer’s new novel, The Oppenheimer Alternative, which is being published by CAEZIK in paperback on June 2 in the United States. Read an advanced preview here (link opens a PDF) and be the first of your friends to have a peek inside Sawyer’s latest work.
Also, The Oppenheimer Alternative is now available for pre-order, so be sure to get on the list right away.