Exoplanet Explorer: Gliese 504b “Pinkie Pie”

August 16, 2017

Continuing our exploration of the exoplanets, today we’re visiting a planet called Gliese 504b.

Gliese 504b isn’t the kind of alphanumeric gobbledygook we usually get for exoplanet designations, but still… I prefer actual names, or at least nicknames. I think it’s easier to write about a planet when it has a name, and names help give us a sense of a planet’s personality.

So as of today, I’m officially renaming Gliese 504b Pinkie Pie.

Wait, I shouldn’t have used the word “officially.” I’m just some guy with a blog. Only the International Astronomy Union has the authority to…

“Pinkie Pie” was discovered in 2013 orbiting a Sun-like star about 57 lightyears away in the constellation Virgo. This was one of those rare cases where astronomers were able to directly image a planet orbiting another star, and they could even identify the planets color. This made headlines, because the planet turned out to be pink. Glorious, fabulous bright hot pink!

The pink color is apparently due to the planet’s age. It’s only a few hundred million years old, which is young for a planet, and it’s still glowing from the heat of its formation. It appears to be a gas giant, several times more massive than Jupiter.

Also, it seems the topmost layers of clouds aren’t there. Perhaps the kinds of swirling, opaque clouds we’re accustomed to seeing on giant planets like Jupiter or Saturn will form later on as Pinkie Pie grows older and cools off. In the meantime, as telescope technology improves, Pinkie Pie may offer us an unprecedented opportunity to see how gas giants are structured on the inside.

Before I end this post, there is one more thing that you should know about Pinkie Pie. It’s rather important. There’s an ongoing mystery as to how a planet so young could be orbiting so far away from its parent star. According to our current understanding of planetary formation, gas giants like Pinkie Pie should be much closer in. Unless maybe Pinkie Pie isn’t a planet after all!

Yes, Pluto isn’t the only one to have its planet status called into question. Except while Pluto is essentially too small for planethood, Pinkie Pie might be too big. Some astronomers suggest that Pinkie Pie should be classified as a brown dwarf.

Of course that depends on how the term brown dwarf is defined. More about that in Friday’s edition of Sciency Words.


Recommended Reading: Earth in Human Hands

August 14, 2017

Welcome to another edition of Recommended Reading here on Planet Pailly, a special series devoted to books that I think you should read. Today I’m recommending Earth in Human Hands: Shaping Our Planet’s Future by David Grinspoon.

If you’re a fan of Star Trek, especially if you’re one of those fans who takes Gene Roddenberry’s vision of a utopian future for our planet seriously, then you really need to read this book. 24th Century Earth, according to Star Trek, will be a paradise; Earth in Human Hands tells the story of how we could make that fictional paradise a reality.

Now I should make it clear that this is not explicitly a book about Star Trek (though as I read it, I couldn’t help but notice the parallel). This is actually a book about the Anthropocene, which is something of a controversial term. I’ve written about it previously here and here. The basic idea is that human activies have already had such a dramatic impact on our planet that we’ve initiated a new epoch of Earth’s geological history. The Holocene is over; the Anthropocene has begun.

Up until now, the changes we’ve caused have been, for the most part, inadvertent. We might even be forgiven for our mistakes, since we didn’t realize for a long time what we were doing. But Grinspoon’s premise is that the time is coming when we will stop making inadvertent changes and start making changes that are deliberate and intentional. First, we’ll want to undo some of the damage we’ve caused, and then we’ll start to reengineer our environment to make our lives more comfortable and secure the planet’s biosphere against natural disasters.

To be clear, Grinspoon is not saying we’re there yet. We do not have the knowledge or technology to reengineer our planet—but we may be heading in that direction. If so, the Anthropocene might not be an age of ecological disaster but rather a golden age for planet Earth, under the wise and benevolent stewardship of the human species.

Admittedly this is a hyper-optimistic vision for our future, but then again so was Star Trek. So if Star Trek’s utopian Earth is something you believe in, something you’d like to see become a reality, then David Grinspoon’s Earth in Human Hands is the book for you.


Sciency Words: Noösphere

August 11, 2017

Today’s post is part of a special series here on Planet Pailly called Sciency Words. Each week, we take a closer look at an interesting science or science-related term to help us expand our scientific vocabularies together. Today’s term is:

NOÖSPHERE

Earth has a lot of “spheres.” There’s the atmosphere, which is the sphere of air surrounding our planet, and the lithosphere, which is the sphere of rock making up our planet’s crust and upper mantel. Earth has a hydrosphere (all of Earth’s surface water) and a biosphere (all of Earth’s organisms, collectively).

Over time, scientists have come to appreciate how all these “spheres” are interconnected with each other, maintaining conditions on this planet that are just right for life. At the risk of sounding New Agey, it’s almost like Earth is alive, like Earth is a single organism, and we’re just small parts of a greater whole. If so, perhaps we can add one more sphere to the list: the noösphere.

The term noösphere (pronounced either new-o-sphere or know-o-sphere) was coined in the 1920’s by a Jesuit priest named Tielhard de Chardin. The word comes from two Greek words: nous, meaning mind, and sphere, meaning sphere. In other words, the noösphere is the sum total of all the knowledge and intelligence on our planet.

Or going back to the New Agey stuff, the noösphere is Earth’s mind. We humans are like cells in Earth’s body, but we’re not just any old cells: we’re Earth’s brain cells. You might even say Earth has started to develop a new level of intelligence, a noösphere 2.0, as all us brain cells form a new series of neural connections with each other (in other words, the Internet is making Earth smarter).

Of course we could push this analogy too far. Are human beings really worthy of being compared to brain cells? Is the Internet really making our planet smarter?

While I’m not ready to declare humanity to be Earth’s brain, I do think the concept of the noösphere is interesting and warrants some discussion. The various spheres of our planet are interconnected, sometimes in weird and surprising ways; so how does the noösphere—the accumulated knowledge and intelligence of all humanity—contribute to (or detract from) the greater whole?

P.S.: I first learned about the noösphere in David Grinspoon’s recent book Earth in Human Hands, which I’ll be reviewing next week.


What Am I Researching?

August 9, 2017

I have a fun special project in the works for this blog. I don’t want to say too much yet, but some of my research materials arrived last week and I’m getting pretty excited about it.

As you can see, I have some reading to do. Add to that a few other books which were already in my possession…

Also, I picked up something special at the grocery store.

So can you guess where I’m planning to take my imaginary spaceship next?


Molecular Monday: Worldbuilding with Lithium

August 7, 2017

Once upon a time, long before I knew much about chemistry, I wrote a Sci-Fi story set on a moon orbiting some far-flung gas giant. For story reasons, I needed this moon to have some sort of valuable resource, and I picked lithium to be that resource. Again, I didn’t know much about chemistry at the time, but for some reason I guessed this lithium-rich moon would probably have a rust-red color to it, like Mars.

Fast forward to today. I’m currently in the process of revising this and other stories in the Tomorrow News Network series. One of the things I’m trying to do is apply a little more science to my storytelling. And regarding this rust-red moon, it turns out I sort of got this one right!

There is a compound of lithium and nitrogen called lithium nitride (chemical formula Li3N) which has the kind of dark red color that I wanted for my moon. Lithium nitride forms spontaneously wherever pure lithium comes into contact with atmospheric nitrogen, so it’s fairly easy to make. It doesn’t seem like much of a stretch to me that a lithium-rich moon would be covered in this stuff.

Of course the characters in my story need an otherwise Earth-like environment. That means Earth-like gravity, free oxygen, an active water cycle…

Okay, I’m not clear on just how rapidly everything would catch on fire in this situation, but based on a YouTube demonstration and some lab safety info I found online, it seems you should be careful about exposing lithium nitride to oxygen, and for God’s sake keep it away from water!

So yeah… it seems I have some to rethinking to do. Fortunately, there are other, less explosive lithium compounds I could work with.

Programming note: I’ve been doing Molecular Mondays as a once-per-month thing for a while now, but I feel like I’m starting to slip with my chemistry research. So Molecular Mondays will now return to its original biweekly schedule. So tune in two weeks from today when we’ll be talking about… I don’t know, probably lithium again.


Sciency Words: Tardigrade

August 4, 2017

Today’s post is part of a special series here on Planet Pailly called Sciency Words. Each week, we take a closer look at an interesting science or science-related term to help us expand our scientific vocabularies together. Today’s term is:

TRADIGRADE

Tardigrades, a.k.a. water bears… there’s just something lovable about them. They’re kind of cute for microorganisms (or kind of horrifying, depending on which picture you’re looking at). And they’re absurdly tough. They can survive almost anything. They can even survive in space.

There have been several experiments now where tardigrades were taken to low Earth orbit and exposed to the vacuum of space for prolonged periods of time. Most of them survived the experience. In the absence of food, water, or oxygen, tardigrades can enter a state of suspended animation, and their cells have the ability to repair their D.N.A. if it gets damaged by solar or cosmic radiation.

In fact tardigrades seem to be so well adapted to the hazards of space that it’s sometimes suggested (usually not by serious scientists) that these little guys might come from space.

German pastor and zoologist Johann August Ephraim Goeze is credited with discovering tardigrades in 1773. Goeze called them Kleiner Wasserbär, which is German for “little water bear,” because the way they walk on their eight pudgy, little legs reminded Goeze of the plodding movements of bears.

In 1777, Italian biologist/Catholic priest Lozzaro Spallanzani made further observations of these creatures. Spallanzani called them il Tardigrado, meaning “slow walker,” again because of the slow, plodding manner in which they walk. The English words tardy and tardiness are closely related, etymologically speaking.

Today we’ve retained both tardigrade and water bear as common names for these creatures. Apparently some people also call them moss piglets, which is just adorable. Over a thousand species of tardigrade have been identified, all classified under the phylum Tardigrada.

As for the question about where tardigrades came from—are they native to this planet, or did they immigrate to Earth from someplace else?—I can only say this: if tardigrades do have an extraterrestrial origin, they must have arrived on Earth a very, very long time ago. The oldest known tardigrade fossils date back to over 500 million years ago (meaning they may have been here since the Cambrian explosion).


The Titan Mission That Could’ve Been

July 31, 2017

This is a follow-up to my recent post about NASA’s next flagship-class mission. There seemed to be a lot of interest in the comments about a possible mission to Titan and/or Enceladus, Saturn’s most famous moons.

The competition for flagship mission funding can get pretty intense. The Titan Saturn System Mission (or T.S.S.M.) was a strong contender last time around, as was a proposed mission to Europa, the most watery moon of Jupiter.

According to Titan Unveiled by Ralph Lorenz and Jacqueline Mitton, things got a little nasty when the Europa team started calling Titan “Callisto with weather,” the implication being that Titan was geologically boring.

Callisto, by the way, is a large by often overlooked moon of Jupiter.

Ultimately Team Europa won. NASA deemed their proposal to be closer to launch-readiness. Now after a few years delay due to a certain global financial meltdown, the Europa Clipper Mission appears to be on track for a 2022 launch date (fingers crossed).

As excited as I am for Europa Clipper, the mission to Titan would’ve been really cool too. It actually would have included three—possibly four—spacecraft.

  • A lake-lander to explore Titan’s liquid methane lakes.
  • A hot air balloon to explore the organic chemical fog surrounding Titan.
  • A Titan orbiter to observe Titan from space and also relay data from the lander and balloon back to Earth.
  • And a possible Enceladus orbiter, built by the European Space Agency, which would have tagged along for the ride to Saturn.

It’s a shame T.S.S.M. didn’t get the green light from NASA. Just think: we would’ve had so many cool things going on at once in the Saturn System, enough to almost rival the activity we’ve got going on on Mars!

But now once Europa Clipper is safely on its way (again, fingers crossed), Team Titan will have another shot at getting their mission off the ground.