Dreaming About Pailly Crater

Hello, friends!

So this is kind of a weird time in my life.  A few weeks ago, I handed my manuscript over to my editor.  Now my editor has handed that manuscript back to me.  There’s surprisingly little that needs to be fixed, so I guess I’ll be moving forward with my self-publishing plan soon.

And that’s weird to me.  I’ve been writing for a really long time now.  I’ve come close to being published before, but this time is different.  My writing dreams have never felt so real to me, and yet at the same time nothing about what’s happening feels real to me at all.  I don’t know how to explain it any better than that.

I know a lot of writers fantasize about getting their book on a bestseller list or winning some sort of award.  I honestly don’t care about that.  So long as I make a living writing full time, I’ll be happy.  However, I will confess there is one prestigious honor that I do find myself daydreaming about, from time to time.  Is it premature for me to talk about this?  Yes.  Yes, it is.  Indulge me.

The International Astronomy Union has a longstanding tradition of naming craters on Mercury after artists, writers, and musicians.  To quote from this website, Mercury’s craters are to be named after:

Artists, musicians, painters, and authors who have made outstanding or fundamental contributions to their field and have been recognized as art historically significant figures for more than 50 years.

The most recent Mercury crater naming announcement came in September of 2019.  Among others, poet Maya Angelou and comic book artist Jack Kirby now have craters named in their honor.  Previously, craters have been named after H.P. Lovecraft, J.R.R. Tolkien, and Walt Disney (this is not Disney crater, which seems like a missed opportunity to me).  Click here to see a full list of Mercury’s crater names.

Mercury is the most heavily cratered object in the Solar System, so it seems to me there should be room on the I.A.U.’s list for a Pailly crater.  Maybe someday.  A writer can dream, right?

Next time on Planet Pailly, if you can’t make the planet fit for human life, maybe you should make human life fit for the planet.

Sciency Words: The Yarkovsky Effect

Hello, friends!  Welcome to Sciency Words, a special series here on Planet Pailly where we talk about those weird and wonderful words scientists use.  Today on Sciency Words, we’re talking about:

THE YARKOVSKY EFFECT

Have you ever tried to count all the stars in the night sky?  Well, that might be an easier job than finding and tracking all the asteroids that keep whizzing by our planet.  Part of the problem is due to something called the Yarkovsky Effect.

Ivan Yarkovsky was a Polish engineer working in Russia.  He was also a huge science enthusiast.  If Yarkovsky were alive today, I imagine he’d be writing a blog about all the cool sciency research he was doing in his free time.

But it was the late 19th/early 20th Century.  Blogging wasn’t an option, so instead Yarkovsky wrote pamphlets about science, which he circulated among his science enthusiast friends. And almost fifty years after Yarkovsky’s death, an Estonian astronomer by the name of Ernst Öpik would remember reading one of those pamphlets.

Imagine an asteroid orbiting the Sun.  Sunlight causes this asteroid’s surface to get hot.  Then, as the asteroid rotates, that heat energy radiates off into space.  Would this radiating heat produce any thrust?  Would there be enough thrust to push an asteroid off its orbital trajectory?

Öpik thought so, and in 1951 he wrote this paper introducing the idea to the broader scientific community.  Today’s Sciency Words post would probably have been about the “Öpik Effect,” except Ernst Öpik was kind enough to give credit to the obscure blogger pamphlet writer who originally came up with the concept.  Thus we have the Yarkovsky Effect.

And in 2003, radar observations of the asteroid 6489 Golevka confirmed that the Yarkovsky Effect is real!  The asteroid had wandered 15 km away from its original course!

Around the same time, a copy of Ivan Yarkovsky’s original pamphlet was found in Poland.  As described in this article, it seems Yarkovsky was working on the basis of some faulty premises and a few rather unscientific assumptions.  He more or less stumbled upon the right idea by accident (but let’s not dwell on that part of the story).

Next time on Planet Pailly, no one’s going to name a scientific theory after me, but maybe there’s another sciency honor I can aspire to.

How Proxima b Lost Its Ozone Layer

Hello, friends!

Today we’re visiting Proxima Centauri, one of three stars in the Alpha Centauri system, the star system right next door to our own.  And it turns out Proxima has at least one planet.  Not only that: Proxima’s planet is orbiting within the habitable zone.  That planet may have liquid water on its surface, and perhaps even life!

Proxima’s planet, known officially as Proxima b, orbits about 0.05 AU away from its star.  That puts Proxima b closer to its star than Mercury is to our Sun.  But that’s okay.  Proxima Centauri is much smaller, dimmer, and colder than our own Sun, so everything balances out.

But I have bad news.  The temperature might be right for life, but the radiation environment is all wrong.  Proxima Centauri is a very angry little star.  It’s much angrier than our Sun.  Solar flares, solar wind, and solar radiation are a whole lot worse than anything Earth would normally have to worry about.

In March of 2016, Earth-based astronomers observed a “superflare” on Proxima Centauri.  As you can see in the highly technical diagram below, that superflare would have done serious damage to Proxima b’s ozone layer (assuming Proxima b had an ozone layer in the first place).

According to this 2018 paper on ozone loss, if superflares like that are normal for Proxima Centauri, we should expect Proxima b to lose 90% of its ozone layer in just five years (again, assuming Proxima b had an ozone layer in the first place).  Without an ozone layer, incoming ultraviolet radiation would thoroughly sterilize Proxima b’s surface (much like it does on Mars).

And it gets worse.  Earth’s magnetic field deflects a lot of harmful solar and cosmic radiation away.  But according to this 2016 paper on space weather, Proxima b’s magnetic field (assuming Proxima b has a magnetic field) is taking a real beating.  The magnetic field would be badly weakened and compressed.  As a result, Proxima b’s atmosphere would start eroding away, due to the solar wind, and if those UV rays haven’t already killed everything on the surface, all that solar and cosmic radiation would have a chance to finish the job.

Even the most extreme of extremophiles here on Earth would have a tough time surviving on Proxima b.  But the situation is not hopeless.  That 2016 paper on space weather and that 2018 paper on ozone loss both acknowledge that there are still plausible scenarios where life could evolve and thrive on Proxima b.  But in order to do it, the Proxima b-ians must have done one of two things:

  • Life on Proxima b must be very specifically adapted to that radiation environment, or…
  • Life on Proxima b must have found a good hiding place, perhaps deep underwater or underground, where the radiation can’t reach it.

Next time on Planet Pailly, it’s a bird!  It’s a plane!  It’s… oh no, it’s a killer asteroid!!!

Sciency Words: Solar Wind

Hello, friends, and welcome to another episode of Sciency Words.  Each week, we take a closer look at some science or science-related term so we can expand our scientific vocabularies together!  Today on Sciency Words, we’re talking about:

THE SOLAR WIND

The stars twinkle in our sky because Earth’s atmosphere scatters starlight.  The Sun has an atmosphere too, so it shouldn’t surprise you to learn that when astronomers observe stars that happen to be near the Sun (as viewed from Earth), they can see that the Sun’s atmosphere also scatters starlight.

What might surprise you—and what did surprise astronomers in the 1950’s—is that this scattering effect can extend very, very far into the space around the Sun.  The Sun’s atmosphere must be huge!  As reported in this 1959 article from Scientific American, the Sun’s atmosphere might be so big that it encompasses Earth!

Pursuing this and other lines of evidence (such as the apparent correlation between flare activity on the Sun and aurorae here on Earth, as well as apparent 11 year fluctuations in cosmic radiation levels), American astrophysicist Eugene Parker wrote this paper in 1958, introducing a concept now known as the solar wind.

As you might imagine, the Sun’s atmosphere is hot.  Absurdly hot.  Remember that temperature is really just a measure of the average velocity of atoms, and you’ll soon realize (as Parker did) that atoms in the Sun’s atmosphere must have enough velocity to escape the Sun’s gravity.  And since those atoms would also be ionized, these streams of ionized particles coming from the Sun would serve as extensions of the Sun’s magnetic field.

The term solar wind doesn’t appear in that 1958 paper.  Parker first introduces that term in this 1959 paper, in which he defends his idea and responds to critiques from other astrophysicists.  As Parker explains:

In view of the simple hydrodynamic origin of the expansion, it seems appropriate to term the stream a solar wind.

Also in 1959, the Soviet Union’s Luna 1 space probe gathered the first empirical evidence that the solar wind really does exist, leading to confirmation that Eugene Parker’s solar wind hypothesis was correct.

And today, a NASA spacecraft named in Parker’s honor is spiraling closer and closer to the Sun, gathering more data about the solar wind and other mysterious phenomena associated with the Sun.

Next time on Planet Pailly, now that we’ve talked about the solar wind in our own Solar System, we’ll check out the space weather forecast for the solar system next door.

#IWSG: The Writing Lesson I Never Learned

Hello, friends!  Welcome to another episode of the Insecure Writer’s Support Group!  If you’re a writer, and if you feel in any way insecure about your writing, click here to learn more about this wonderful group!

This month, my muse and I have reason to celebrate.  I mean, any time writing gets done, my muse and I have reason to celebrate.  But this month in particular, we have an especially good reason to celebrate.  My manuscript is done, and it is now in the hands of my editor.

At some point, obviously, my editor will hand that manuscript back to me along with a big old list of things that need to be fixed.  But in the meantime, I don’t have to worry about it, and that’s a nice feeling.

Except turning my manuscript over to my editor did not feel like the triumphant moment I thought it would.  Why not?  Because my manuscript was late.  Very late.  I’m taking the self-publishing route with this book, so it’s not like I’m in breech of contract or anything like that.  The only deadline I missed was a deadline I imposed on myself.

But still, I’m really shocked by how long it actually took me to finish that manuscript.  And since I have other self-imposed deadlines looming on the horizon, I’m a little concerned.  Am I going to stay on schedule?  Are those self-imposed deadlines not as realistic as they seem?

Which brings me to one of the very first lessons I (supposedly) learned on my writing journey.  This comes from author/blogger Jon Gibbs.  I attended one of his writing seminars back in 2006 or 2007, and he told me—told a whole group of us young, naive writers—that however much time you think you need to write something, double it.  That’s how you set a deadline.

More often than not, that lesson has proven to be true.  Just about everything takes twice as long as I think it should.

So when I set my deadline for my manuscript, did I follow Jon Gibbs’ advice?  No.  And the two deadlines I have coming up in March and May?  Did I follow Gibbs’s advice for those?  Nope.  So my muse and I are going to have to cut the celebration short and get back right back to work.

Next time on Planet Pailly, have you noticed how windy it is in outer space?

Orbiting the Blogosphere: The Betelgeuse Supernova and Other Spacey Stuff

Hello, friends!

Last week ended up being kind of a research poor week for me.  So today I thought we’d take a look at what some other spacey and sciency bloggers have been up to.

First up, Matthew Wright has a post about Betelgeuse, a red giant star in the constellation Orion.  Betelgeuse is about to go supernova!  Or maybe not.  Probably not, actually.  Click here for more!

And speaking of Betelgeuse, if it were to go supernova, what would the resulting Betelgeuse nebula look like?  How visible would it be to us here on Earth?  Starman over at Starman’s Meanderings has done some math for us.  Click here!

Meanwhile, SpaceX has been launching a whole lot of shiny new satellites for their Starlink Internet service.  But those shiny new satellites are too shiny, it turns out, and they’re already causing problems for astronomers.  Steve Hurley over at Explaining Science explains that science.  Click here!

And lastly, but not leastly, Fran from My Hubble Abode pays tribute to the Spitzer Space Telescope, recently decommissioned by NASA.  Click here for that.

And if you’ve seen any cool space or science blogs recently, be sure to share in the comments below.  The more we can share our love for space and for science, the better!

Next time on Planet Pailly, there’s one super important lesson about writing that I really should have learned by now.  We’ll talk about that in this month’s posting of the Insecure Writer’s Support Group.

Sciency Words: Colony

Hello, friends!  Welcome to another episode of Sciency Words.  Normally on Sciency Words, we talk about those strange words scientists use, but today we’re going to talk about a word scientists—or at least some scientists—would prefer to stop using.  And that word is:

COLONY

Mars is so eager for humans to come visit and maybe even stay permanently.  And plenty of humans are eager to do just that!  We’ll bring life to Mars.  Not only that, we’ll bring civilization and culture.  One might say it is humanity’s destiny to colonize Mars.

But is this language of “colonization” and “destiny” too evocative of European imperialism?  Some think so, and they would ask that we stop using such colonialist language when we talk about space exploration.

Now I want to be clear about where I’m coming from on this: I try my best to call people by the names and terms they prefer to be called, and if I find out that the language I use offends somebody, I’ll do may best to change.  Some would accuse me of being too P.C., but I think it’s just good manners.

And I have found that if you make an effort to be respectful and accommodating to others, others will make an effort to be respectful and accommodating to you, and in general they’ll be more willing to forgive you if/when you do slip up and say something unintentionally hurtful.

So a few years back, when I came across this article from National Geographic, I started reading it with an open mind and a willingness to change.  But by the end of the article, even I felt like this was an example of political correctness run amok.  The word “colony” is offensive.  So are the words “settlement” and “frontier.”  Okay.  What words should I use instead?  Even that National Geographic article seems to concede at one point that we don’t have many workable alternatives to these terms.

But this concern does seem to be coming up more and more.  Plenty of people in the scientific community are shying away from words like colony and colonization.  Bill Nye (the Science Guy) says he avoids the word colony, and this official glossary of SETI terminology warns that “settle” and “colonize” may have certain negative connotations for some people.

So at this point, I’m not sure what to think.  What about you?  Do you think this is much ado about nothing, or should we really start looking for alternatives to words like “colony” or “settlement” in our space exploration vocabularies?

Next time on Planet Pailly… I actually don’t have anything planned yet for my next blog post.  We’ll probably just talk about more space stuff.

Being Polite to Siri

Hello, friends!

I recently bought a new phone, and I seem to have slipped into an odd new habit.  Whenever I ask Siri to do something for me, I say please.  And afterward, I say thank you.

Why do I do this?  Well, I could joke with you and say I’m worried about artificial intelligence taking over the world.  On the day when the machines overthrow their human masters, I’m hoping Siri will remember that I was one of the polite ones, and maybe then I’ll receive a less severe punishment than the rest of humanity.

But I won’t say that.  That would be silly.

Instead, I’m going to borrow a sentiment from Star Trek’s Ensign Sonya Gomez.  Why am I polite to technology?  Because why not?

Honestly, being polite to a machine costs you nothing.  And maybe if you practice good manners with your technology, you’ll develop other good habits, like having good manners when you interact with actual human beings.

Also, it really wouldn’t surprise me much if there’s a database somewhere where I’m flagged as one of the “polite ones,” and maybe someday that will become really important.

Next time on Planet Pailly, is it politically incorrect to talk about colonizing Mars?

Why Haven’t We Found Planets in Alpha Centauri?

Hello, friends!  Today I’d like to take you on a quick tour of the Alpha Centauri star system, the Solar System’s next door neighbors.

Alpha Centauri consists of three stars.  Two of those stars orbit in a tight binary formation, sort of like this:

Animation courtesy of Wikipedia.

The third star is known as Proxima Centauri.  It’s a tiny red dwarf star, orbiting very far away from that central binary pair.  Proxima is known to have at least one (possibly two) planets, but we’ll visit Proxima’s planets in a future post.

Today, I really just want to focus on Alpha Centauri A and B, the two stars in that central binary, to see if they have any planets.  In 2012, astronomers announced the discovery of a planet orbiting Alpha Centauri B, but that discovery turned out to be a ghost in the data.  Otherwise, astronomers have found nothing out there.

Over the last decade or so, we’ve found so many exoplanets, both near and far.  Given how close-by Alpha Centauri is, you’d think we would have found something there by now.  It’s enough to make you wonder if, maybe, there’s nothing to find.  But it turns out there’s a very good reason why we’re having so much trouble finding Alpha Centauri’s planets.

As Alpha Centauri A and B move through their figure-eight orbital paths, sometimes they’re close together, and sometimes they’re far apart.  Over the past decade or so, it just so happens that they’ve been very close together, at least from our vantage point here on Earth.  Even with all the advanced planet hunting techniques we’ve developed in the past ten years, the double glare of those two stars would’ve concealed any signs of a planet from our view.

But that’s about to change.  In February of 2016, Alpha Centauri A and B were as close together as they’ll get (as seen from Earth).  They’ve been moving away from each other ever since, and according to this article from Scientific American, 2020 is the magical year when A and B are finally far enough apart that our telescopes can observe them separately.

Based on the metallicity of those two stars, they should be just as capable of forming planets as our own Sun.  Planetary orbits would be stable up to 2.5 astronomical units away from either star, according to Scientific American (our entire inner Solar System could fit comfortably inside that 2.5 A.U. radius).  And computer simulations produce many plausible scenarios where Earth-like planets could exist in the Alpha Centauri binary.

In some of those computer simulations, an Alpha Centaurian planet might be even more suitable for life than Earth!  So stay tuned.  In the next few years, we may finally get news about habitable planets—or even a superhabitable planets—in Alpha Centauri.

Next time on Planet Pailly, how are you preparing for the robot rebellion?

Sciency Words: Superhabitable

Hello, friends!  Welcome to Sciency Words, a special series here on Planet Pailly where we talk about the meaning and origin of scientific terms.  Today’s sciency word is:

SUPERHABITABLE

The word “habitable” traces all the way back to ancient Latin.  Think of a residence or dwelling.  Think of tenants and landlords and the act of paying rent.  That’s the sort of thing words like habitabilis, habitator, or habitatio referred to.

Of course when we talk about planets, the meaning of “habitable” and “habitability” is a bit different.  Unless…

In our ongoing search for extraterrestrial life, it’s generally assumed that Earth is typical of habitable planets.  But why should we assume that?

In this 2014 paper, physicists René Heller and John Armstrong claim that Earth is not as perfectly suited for life as it seems.  In some ways, Earth is kind of a dangerous place to live, and there have been several instances where life on Earth nearly got snuffed out.  Heller and Armstrong then go on to argue that other worlds may “offer more benign environments to life than Earth does.”

If we insist on calling Earth “habitable,” then Heller and Armstrong propose calling those other worlds “superhabitable.”  Though really, if we’d stop being so geocentric and anthropocentric in our terminology, it is the “superhabitable” planets that should set the standard for habitability, and Earth would be better described as “marginally habitable.”

So what sort of planet would offer a more benign environment for life than Earth does?  Well, according to Heller and Armstrong, planets that are two to three times as massive as Earth would do nicely.  More massive planets will remain geologically active for longer, and they’ll have stronger magnetic fields to protect life from solar and cosmic radiation.  Shallower oceans and a thicker atmosphere would help too.

A smaller and cooler star would also be preferable.  A K-type “orange dwarf” would spew out less harmful radiation than our own G-type Sun, and K-type stars last longer.  A whole lot longer.  No need to worry about the day the sun dies if your planet orbits a K-type star!

Personally, I feel like Heller and Armstrong are making a lot of big assumptions in describing their superhabitable planets.  There may be some wishful thinking at work here.  But then again, it’s also a pretty big assumption to assume that Earth is a typical example of a habitable world.  There’s probably some wishful thinking at work there too.

Next time on Planet Pailly, the nearest superhabitable planet could be a lot closer than you think (unless you clicked that link above, in which case you probably know where Heller and Armstrong said the nearest superhabitable planet might be).