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Friday 30 June 2017

The Universe on 101 words: What's the fastest star?

Above: A hypervelocity star creates a huge bow wave of dust and gas as it ploughs through the Orion nebula.
What phrase describes the night sky? Not 'full of speed demons', unless you've ingested something hallucinogenic. But stars only appear unmoving because they're incredibly distant - most are actually travelling at hundreds of kilometres a second. And some,  called hypervelocity stars, are travelling at thousands.

The record holder for straight line speed? The star US 708, at 1200 kilometres per second.

What could throw a whole star so hard? 

Some were blasted up to speed by supernova. Others got accelerated by the gigantic black hole in centre of our galaxy

And some we can't explain - even after years studying them...

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Above: The Milky Way. Full of the stellar equivalent of angry teenage boy racers. Comforting thought,hey?

Friday 23 June 2017

The best images of planets beyond our solar system

The last ten years have been an amazing time: Growing up the idea of finding planets around other stars was mentioned to me in textbooks... at the very end, usually in the same very short chapter that mentioned ideas like space hotels, finding intelligent aliens, or building colonies on Mars.

Above: A private SpaceX space capsule on Mars. Good luck borrowing sugar from the neighbours guys...
  And, now, we have found thousands of planets around other stars. Many of them are far stranger than my textbooks expected, which assumed we'd find that solar systems similar to our own. The reality has been that solar systems come in all kinds of exotic configurations. Those books thought we'd be finding these worlds with direct imaging, using massive telescopes - by and large we haven't: Almost all of them were found by indirect means, like watching for stars wobbling, planets occulting the stars they orbit, or gravitational lensing of the light from background stars*.

But not quite all: Although it's still very hard to do, some exo planets have been photographed directly by very, very large telescopes just like my textbooks expected. Below are some of the best. Think of them as a teaser for the future: These fuzzy points of light are what the next generation of telescopes will be improving on - and they're also actually images of something I thought I might never get to see. 

Which is pretty damn cool...

1: Formalhuat b

NASA Hubble Space Telescope has revealed this: A gigantic disk of debris surrounding the nearby star Fomalhaut. Circling it is a planet on an unusual elliptical orbit that carries it on a path straight through the debris - probably not great news for the planet itself. The planet, called Fomalhaut b, swings as close to its star as 4.6 billion miles, and the outermost point of its orbit is 27 billion miles away. 
"We are shocked. This is not what we expected," said Paul Kalas of the University of California and the SETI Institute. They suspect that this is evidence of another planet gravitationally 'interacting' with Fomalhaut b. That's scientist code for 'having a huge fight which Formalhaut b lost', hence why this planet is on an orbit that exiles it to the far end of its solar system. .  

2: Beta Pictoris B

This image was taken by the Gemini Planet Imager (GPI) , and it shows a planet, beta Pictoris b, orbiting the star Beta Pictoris. Beta Pictoris b is a new born giant planet -- several times larger than Jupiter and just ten million years old. Its so young it's still glowing in infrared light from the heat released in its formation. The bright star Beta Pictoris is hidden behind a mask in the center of the image - the large blank circle.

3: ROXs428b

This possibly-planet has an estimated mass between 6 and 15 Jupiter masses. Exactly how much it weighs is important, because things lighter than 13 Jupiter masses can't generate enough pressure in their cores for nuclear fusion, and are definitely planets. Objects heavier than that can generate enough pressure in their cores for a brief burst of deuterium fusion (the weediest kind - true stars use hydrogen fusion) in their youth, which makes them 'brown dwarf' sub stars. Whichever side of that division it's on it's a bigger object than Jupiter, and like Beta Pictoris b it's young enough to still glow with heat from its birth.

4: HR8799

An image of an exoplanet is rare, but videos of them are like diamond dust. The star HR 8799 is even rarer: It has not one but four planets big enough to be imaged from earth, andhere they are gently orbiting their primary. This time lapse video took seven years to make, with each frame being shot using at the W.M. Keck observatory in Hawaii. The black circle in the middle blocks the blinding light of the star, and thus make the planets visible.

5: GJ504 b


Several times the mass of Jupiter and similar in size, this new world, dubbed GJ 504b (what's with all the dull-ass names I wonder), is the lowest-mass planet ever detected around a star like the sun using direct imaging techniques. "If we could travel to this giant planet, we would see a world still glowing from the heat of its formation with a colour reminiscent of a dark cherry blossom, a dull magenta," said Michael McElwain, a member of the discovery team at NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Md. "Our near-infrared camera reveals that its colour is much more blue than other imaged planets, which may indicate that its atmosphere has fewer clouds."

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Saturday 17 June 2017

Answers for Authors: Where should I site a Galactic Empire? (re-published)

It's good to be Emperor...

You need an evil galactic empire, or a benevolent  planetary federation, to set your scorching page turner of space opera in. The problem is that, to help your readers suspend their disbelief, you now have to figure out a believable interstellar civilisation. And write it a plausible sounding history. With a way of being founded and of expanding that makes sense. And you can't look that stuff up with Google...

....weeeeell.... actually... 

I've spent far too much time reading papers and sitting courses on the search for extraterrestrial intelligences, so I know a surprising fact: Some very very clever brains (they include Stephen Hawking and Carl Sagan) have devoted serious man hours to what a huge galactic civilisation could be like. Not for fiction, but because they think we should be checking the sky in case there really is one somewhere.

That means there's a lot of stuff been written that can help you. Much more than a blog posts worth (I'll have to write a book... hmmm) so here I'll just try and sum up their thoughts on most important aspect, re-mixed for SciFi instead of SETI. And that big important aspect is, of course: Location, location, location.

It’s very much like looking for a house – you need to think about location, access to amenities, commuting, and what won’t break your budget. Admittedly the the plumbing is rather more complicated on an interstellar empire. And the call-out fees are a nightmare if it breaks...

"Suitable for a buyer who really likes space... ahahaha..." Never trust an estate agent nicknamed 'Slick' guys.
In much the same way that it’s only a truly exceptional house that doesn’t need the ground*, unless your empire builders can wave away fundamental laws of physics** you’ll at least need your location to fill some really basic needs:
  • It will need an energy source. This probably means stars, but other energy sources – like the matter falling into a super massive black hole or the radiation beams of a pulsar, do exist. There is even a scale - the Kardashev scale - for rating any alien empires by how much power they use.
  • It will need planets, or at the very least the kind of heavy elements planets are made out of  as building materials for artificial living structures like ringworlds.
  • It doesn’t have to be friendly to life – your empire builders could have migrated there from a more hospitable part of the universe when they had the technology to handle the difficult conditions – but it needs to be close enough to at least one friendly environment for someone to have made the trip.
Then there are other things that it’s very useful to have, but a lack (or overabundance) of which could be overcome to a greater or lesser extent using technology or good planning:
  • Commuting: You’ll probably want your empire to be small enough to get messages across in a reasonable time. Many authors do this by introducing a Faster Than Lightspeed (FTL) drive - although other methods, such as much longer than human-normal lifespans (via gene engineering or suspended animation), are also thrown about by both authors and scientists. But another way, if you’re not committed to an Earth centred civilisation, is to just set your empire in a part of the universe where the distances between stars are smaller than the five light years that the stars near Earth average (see below). If George Lucas can have a galaxy far, far away then why not you...?
  • Stable environment: In the same way at you wouldn’t buy a house in the part of town where gangs occasionally leave heads in dustbins (although I once rented such a place), you wouldn’t set up a civilisation in a part of the galaxy where there are good odds that radiation from a supernova, neutron star collision, or belch from a supermassive black hole might fry it to a crisp. True, you could overcome this with technology, but let me assure you: No house alarm is truly unbeatable, and I expect that so no technological solution to stellar dangers will be either.
  • Minimum age requirement: This goes hand in hand with the need for a quiet neighbourhood – young areas of the galaxy, like young clusters and star forming nebula, tend to be crowded with troublemakers like unstable blue giant stars, dense molecular clouds, and wandering black holes. Older locales tend to be much quieter, since the dangerous stars tend to have blown up or burnt out eons back. Older locales also have had more time to spawn native life forms who can rebel against (or ally with) your empire.
  • Conditions suitable for life (of some kind) to arise: Not an absolute need - a sterile locale could be colonised from outside. Still, it’s simpler in terms of backstory for a thriving civilisation to grow up near to the planets that spawned them, and that means they need a few things: A stable environment, a ready supply of chemical energy, some form of chemistry complex enough to support things like DNA, and some way of mixing everything together – usually a good solvent like water – are generally regarded as the minimum. You can waive at least some of them, however, if you make your life form exotic : A.I, sentient gas clouds, energy based, or whatever your imagination can conjure.
  • Life forms suitable to reach technological era: NASA and ESA are spending a lot of money looking for evidence of bacterial life on Mars, but it’s unlikely bacteria are going to build stargates or leave their home planet by anything other than accident^* . Hence you need creatures that could invent and use technology. 
Above: The stunning colours (which a human eye would never actually see) of a star forming nebula. A beautiful sight, but a very dangerous place to live.

Just based on those we can rule out some locations already: The great voids between galaxies would be impossible to build in without importing massive amounts of both matter and energy across billions of light years. Some galaxies have stars that are much further apart than normal, so trips would take longer and they would be scarce of energy and building material too. The same applies to the galactic halo, and intergalactic space. Active galaxies, where massive black holes are sucking down matter and belching back out radiation, are hard places for life to ever arise in or anywhere near. 

Above: The Andromeda galaxy - nice a roomy, lots of close packed stars, and private parking.
If you’re not employing FTL engines, or if they’re limited to some practical upper limit, you probably want some improvement on the travel times to the nearest stars to Earth -  so the Milky Way's galactic core is attractive with its close packed solar systems, but the risk of supernova, neutron star collisions, and mega flares from giant black holes make it much less attractive long-term. Something similar applies to young clusters of new formed stars, or active star forming nebula.

But there are good locations to be found - here are a few suggestions: 
  • A multiple star system. The Universe abounds with stars and solar systems that are bound in small clusters by gravity, orbiting about each other. The individual stars are usually much less than a light year apart, often only light months or weeks, but there’s usually enough room between them for each star to have a habitable zone and fully developed system of planets. You could invent your own such star system - which is what the writers of the Battlestar Galactica remake did - for example: Four red dwarf stars with seven planets orbiting each star, might plausibly give you twelve habitable worlds (three in the habitable zone of each star) all packed into a light month of space^.  There would also be another sixteen uninhabitable but potentially mineable worlds. True, this is the entry level galactic empire - but it’s limited extent is compensated for with other advantages. In particular, if you want a real locale that is also close to Earth, then the nearest star system to Earth (the three star cluster of Proxima, Alpha, and Beta Centauri) actually fits the bill^^: Small by galactic standards, but still an empire greater than every civilisation of Earth combined.
  • Globular clusters:  These collections of hundreds of thousands of stars have a lot to recommend them – they’re old, so there are few or no dangerous, radiation spitting, potentially explode-ey young stars around. Instead most of the stellar population are red dwarfs, with their tight wound systems of planets, or red giants destined to die relatively quiet deaths. Average distance between stars is down to less than three light months – so even a sub-light speed starship could cross between several star systems over the course of a year. On the downside: Planets orbiting any Sun-like stars would be pulled out of orbit by neighbouring stars, and Globular clusters are generally quite poor in heavy, planet building elements, so only fairly small planets (like Earth) would form around their stars. But these aren't showstoppers: Planets orbiting red dwarf stars would be much more likely to stay with their suns, as these hug their planets much closer, and some of these clusters do have enough planet forming elements. On top of that the age of these stars - 5 billion years at least -  makes it more likely for a technological civilisation to have had time to arise^°. Globular clusters are not without hazards to navigation However: The long dead blue super stars, the absence of which makes the cluster fairly quite, will have left behind things like black holes and pulsars, which will be concentrated in the core. 
  • Open clusters: Open clusters, on the whole, are not great spots for civilisation building - most open clusters are both too young for any worlds to have given rise to complex life, and are filled with big, radiation spitting, supernova prone, blue stars. Older ones, where things have settled down, are rare – the members of open clusters are usually born with enough speed to escape the cluster, so they drift apart in a few tens of millions of years. But some of the biggest have got enough gravity to have stayed together for hundreds of millions, or even billions, of years. Examples are places like the Beehive cluster, which is coming up on 3/4 of a billion years old, and is composed mainly of red dwarfs and sunlike stars. Near the clusters core these are packed within maybe as little as 1/2 a light ear of each other, and while these clusters may not be old enough time for technological life to arise (that took over 4 billion years on Earth), they have had time for a stable ecosystem to form that would support colonists. 
  • Ultra compact dwarf galaxies. These are quite a new discovery, and something of a mystery – tiny galaxies less than 200 light years across, that are as jam packed as the cores of globular clusters. Like globular clusters they’re mainly made of older, redder, stars and many of the same things apply to them, but they have higher levels of planet building heavy elements. 
  • Giant elliptical galaxies: For the big dawgs only – old and stable but up to 6,000,000 light years across, one of these could be home to a titanic empire of trillions of star systems – and is more likely to be so than the Milky Way ever will: The majority of stars in these galaxies are old, stable, and long lived - and there are trillions, so they have a good chance of having spawned a civilisation. But these are vast, vast places that could swallow our galaxy without noticing, so your empire builders better have mastered a powerful means of FTL travel, immortality, or both. 

These are just suggestions, but there are locations out there to fit most plot needs. The question is, simply, what kind of empire does your Imperial Majesty want? 

Above: The Voyager 2 probe encounters the planets of a red dwarf star.

*  Space stations, maybe, would count.

** You could write an empire like that: A civilisation so advanced it can more or less conjure matter and energy out of nothing, lurking in the utter darkness between the galaxies. Sounds like it might have some potential in a very Lovecraftian way, no? But a civilisation that advanced would be capable of almost anything, and so would suffer from the superman effect – it’s almost impossible to write a story for them because it’s impossible to think up a problem or obstacle they couldn’t solve almost instantly. If you don’t believe me I cite every superman film since superman 2 as evidence. 

^* There really are plausible ways bacteria might naturally leave their home planet and colonise another by accident, such as riding the debris from a giant asteroid strike, but you’d need to be writing a very esoteric story for that to count as an empire. Some kind of communal bacterial intelligence might work, but you’d have to have your heroes charge into battle against the evil empire by scrubbing every kitchen work surface on the planet with Dettol. 

^For hard SF writers: That means the furthest worlds could be travelled between in five months with a starship that could hit 20% of lightspeed – a speed many researchers believe we could reach with engine designs we could build in the next century. A radio message could make the same journey in one month, giving a slightly better messaging time than existed between the furthest corners of the Roman empire.

^^Two sun like stars (alpha and beta centauri)about the same distance apart as the Sun and Saturn, with a red dwarf star (proxima centauri) orbiting the larger two at a distance of ¼ of a light year. There’s a confirmed planet in the habitable zone of the red dwarf, and a possible detection of one in a very tight orbit around one fo the Sun like stars. Small, undetected planets in the habitable zones of the sun like stars are possible. It’s very plausible to put a human colony around each of the stars, with the occupants able to visit each star system in less than a year with sub light speed engines. A small empire of three solar systems - but still bigger than every empire on Earth combined.

°^A civilisation taking in a whole such cluster would control hundreds of thousands of systems, but its inhabitents would need to be longer lived than modern humans, or have FTL – these clusters are often over a hundred light years in dimeter despite being so close packed. 


Sunday 11 June 2017

Six of the astounding natural wonders of Jupiter

Jupiter, a planet almost as wide as a small star, is hard to miss even in the vastness of space - if you know just a lttle astronomy it shines like a beacon in our skies. Even its system of moons and rings is structured more like a miniature solar system than a... well... system of moon's and rings. It's a vast planet, and it influences a vast region of space 

Above: How Jupiter compares to the smallest stars.
Some people are prejudiced about this sort of thing, but I like 'em big.

So Jupiter has been a major target for probes and space telescopes - the JUNO space probe is there right now, returning some astounding images and unprecedented results. So let's say we could have ridden with Juno to the Jupiter system, then gone our own way to have a poke around the giant planet's territory. What are the Jovian equivilents of Niagra falls and Everest?

1: The Great Red Spot
Image by NASA/JPL, processing by Jason Major.
According to Donald Trump, a man of... questionable... judgement, global warming is 'just weather'. But even he would struggle to shrug off Jupiter's Great Red Spot: This storm is big enough to swallow several planet Earths, and draws it's power from deep within the giant planet. No-one knows for sure why the upper layers of clouds are red, although a lot of explanations have been put forward. Other storms that have grown enough to reach a comparable size have also turned red, so whatever it is is common to all of Jupiter, not just the one super storm.
Just recently the JUNO space probe flew closer to it than any spacehip ever before, sending back astounding images like the one above - you can see more, here. 

2: Gigantic aurora

Earth's aurora are the result of solar weather interacting with its magnetic field. So, given that Jupiter's magnetic field is so huge it would be  as big s the Moon when seen from Earth (if it were visible), it's not surprising that Jupiter's aurora are pretty damn spectacular. In fact, they're  hundreds of times stronger, and on top of that they're both non stop and several times bigger than our whole Earth.

3: The swirling chaos of Jupiter's north pole.
One of the sights JUNO has revealed is the chaotic, complex, systems of storms that occupy Jupiter's north pole. Like no mission before, this ne is revealing Jupite itself in all its inhuman glory, and you can see all the images here.But the blue tinged north pole, a region many times larger than Earth, has been the most unexpected: It lacks the ordered cloud stripes and wind bands of the rest of the planet. Instead, immense storm systems churn endlessly against each other, giving patterns more reminiscent of something from an H.P. Lovecraft novel.

4: Io

In my opinion astronomers project emotions onto titanic cosmic things a bit much: A supernova does not have a 'fury', guys, it's an exploding star - it doesn't need fury!

And of course, I never do that myself... ahem. 

But when it comes to Jupiter's moon Io the word 'hellish' is totally appropriate: Almost the entire Moon is covered in lava lakes, volcanoes, and sulphur deposits. Driven by the flexing of its core by Jupiter's massive gravity, Io rides above Jupiter's night time clouds like the spirit of vengeance itself.

5: Europa

If Io shines in Jupiter's sky like a spirit of vengance, it's sister moon Europa is the spirit of serenity: The same forces that have turned Io into a volcanic hell scape have warmed the core of the icy moon Europa, melting the lower levels of ice into an ocean more immense than anything found on Earth: Spanning the whole moon, and up to 100 km deep, this ice covered deep is where Poseidon would truly belong.

6: Titanic comet strikes
Above: The fragments of comet Shoemaker-Levey 9
Decades back a comet, named Shoemaker-Levy 9, was torn apart by the gravity of Jupiter. The debris left behind took the form of a long string of comets, and on the next orbit that string smashed into the giant plant, each fragment smashing into the atmosphere one at a time. At the time we thought this was a unique event, but astronomers are beginning to suspect that gigantic asteroid strikes on Jupiter are more common than we realised, thanks to it's gigantic gravity.

That's the whistle stop tour of Jupiter. But will ordinary people one day get to see these things frst hand? What do you think?

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Monday 5 June 2017

The Universe in 101 words: How much of the Universe can we see?

Above: A simulation of the distribution of matter in the universe after the expansion.

Light only travels so fast, and the Universe is ‘only’ 14 billion years old. That creates a fundamental barrier to astronomy: We should only see things close enough for their light to have reached us. So are we limited to seeing a section of Universe 14 billion light years wide? 

Nope, that'd be far too simple: The Universe is expanding, and the young Universe actually expanded faster than light. So we see things further away than we should, as they were when they were closer than 14 billion light years. 

Thanks to this weird quirk of nature, our observable slice of Universe is, in effect, a staggering 46 billion light years wide.

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Above: The Milky Way rises above the horizon, with two of its companion galaxies: The Magellenic clouds.