My First Article for Popular Mechanics!

My First Article for Popular Mechanics!

There’s a potentially Earth-like planet around the closest star to Earth—that’s the space headline that captured the world’s imagination this summer. But here’s something that was easy to forget in all that furor over Proxima Centauri. Our neighboring star doesn’t look anything like the Sun.

We humans have known only one life-sustaining planet in the universe: a green-and-blue globe called Earth. So perhaps we can be forgiven for thinking the ideal ingredients for creating life must resemble what we se here: a bunch of planets around a medium-sized yellow star.

Mind-expanding missions like the Kepler Space Observatory, however, have scientists questioning whether a solar system like ours really is the perfect place to hunt for new Earths and the possibility of life beyond our planet. Lately, astronomers have been taking a closer look at red dwarfs—stars with low mass, low temperatures, and slow rates of fusion.These stars don’t look much like our life-giving Sun, but they make up almost 70 percent of the observable stars in the sky and could survive for trillions of years—far longer than our star.

If we’re going to find life beyond our solar system, many scientists believe it will be orbiting a red dwarf. Here’s why.

gliese_667_cc_sunset
Artist’s impression of a sunset seen from the super-Earth Gliese 667 Cc. Credit: ESO

The Alien Worlds of Red Dwarfs

In the past, planet-hunters thought the odds of finding potentially habitable worlds around red dwarfs were quite low. Because of their low mass and temperature, red dwarfs emit just 3 percent as much light as our sun. For an orbiting planet not to freeze into an uninhabitable iceball, it would need to be as close to the star as Mercury is to our Sun. Unfortunately, being so close to a star means the planets probably would be tidally locked, where one side is constantly facing the star and the other side always faces away. Not ideal conditions for creating life.

Red dwarfs are also far less stable compared to larger stars, undergoing sudden rises and drops in the amount of light and heat they emit. This creates big variations in temperature, adding yet another challenge for budding life.

If we’re going to find life beyond our solar system, it will likely be orbiting a red dwarf.

It’s not all bad news, though. Red dwarfs have a considerable advantage over other stars in their incredible lifespans. Our Sun has been around for 4.57 billion years, yet humanity has existed for just 200,000 years. Life takes a long time, and complex life even more so.

Time is one thing red dwarfs have plenty of—they can exist for trillions of years because of their low mass and slow rate of nuclear fusion. Since they’re also so common in our cosmos, the odds of finding planets within that habitable Golidlocks zone is statistically high. For astronomers, the pros are starting to outweigh the cons.

Artist's impression of the planet orbiting Proxima Centauri
Artist’s impression of what the surface of Proxima b could look like. Credit: ESO

The Case for Going Red

In 2005, astronomers from around the world converged on Mountain View, California, for a workshop sponsored by The Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence (SETI) where scientists argued the case that red dwarf stars could be the best place to look for aliens. In the end, it comes down to sheer probability. Within 33 light years of Earth there were 240 known red dwarfs at the time, compared to just 21 stars like ours.

Although red dwarfs are hard to find because they’re dim, once they’re spotted it’s much easier to see how many chunks of rock are in orbit. The so-called transit method of finding exoplanets, which the Kepler telescope used to great effect, relies on looking for changes in brightness caused by a planet passing in front of its star. It looks something like this:

Because planets orbiting a red dwarf are likely to hug their stars so tightly, the orbital period is often just a few days long, which makes for pretty good odds of seeing such a transit.

New Worlds Emerge

Since that SETI conference more than a decade ago, oodles of new planets orbiting red dwarfs have been discovered. Between 2005 and 2010, astronomers found six exoplanets orbiting Gliese 581, a red dwarf located about 20 light years from Earth. Two of these planets, Gliese 581-c and -d, lie on the inner and outer edge the star’s habitable zone. Another exoplanet, Gliese 581-g, may also have an orbit fit for habitability (though its existence is still contested).

In 2012, the European Southern Observatory (ESO) published the results of a spectrographic survey that examined 102 red dwarf stars in the Milky Way over the course of six years. They found that red dwarf stars were more likely to have an Earth-like planet orbiting them than a gas giant. Two years later, another ESO study concluded that virtually all red dwarfs in the universe have at least one exoplanet orbiting them. At least a quarter of them have a super-Earth (a planet like ours but slightly bigger) orbiting within their habitable zones.

eso1629e.jpg
Artist’s impression of the planet orbiting Proxima Centauri. Credit: ESO/M. Kornmesser

The drumbeat goes on. This past July, researchers from the Harvard Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics (CfA) released a study in which the team calculated the likelihood of Earth-like planets forming within our universe over cosmic timescales, starting with the first stars to form, billions of years ago, and continuing into the distant future. They determined that low-mass red dwarf stars would be more likely than giant stars to maintain a system of planets long enough for life to emerge, and that likelihood only increased with time.

“We considered the likelihood of ‘life as we know it’ to form between the appearance of the first stars and the death of the last stars,” Professor Avi Loeb, a science professor at Harvard University and the lead author on the paper, told PM. ” We found that the likelihood peaks in the distant future around low-mass stars, simply because these stars live much longer than the Sun.”

Other discoveries made in the past five years have also bolstered the case for habitable planets around red dwarf stars with exoplanet candidates around Innes Star, Kepler 42, Gliese 832, Gliese 667, Gliese 3293, and most recently Proxima Centauri. All of these star systems are located relatively close to our own, though still impossibly out of reach with only today’s space-faring technology.

In the coming years, as more exoplanet hunters like the James Webb Telescope and the Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite look to the sky, it’s probable that scientists and astronomers will focus much of their efforts on nearby red dwarf stars.

“One of the great discoveries made in the past decade or so is that it seems like there are planets all over the place,” TESS project scientist Stephen Rinehart told PM, “even around these small stars so different from our own.”

See it here: Popular Mechanics

The Fate of Humanity

the-futureWelcome to the world of tomorroooooow! Or more precisely, to many possible scenarios that humanity could face as it steps into the future. Perhaps it’s been all this talk of late about the future of humanity, how space exploration and colonization may be the only way to ensure our survival. Or it could be I’m just recalling what a friend of mine – Chris A. Jackson – wrote with his “Flash in the Pan” piece – a short that consequently inspired me to write the novel Source.

Either way, I’ve been thinking about the likely future scenarios and thought I should include it alongside the Timeline of the Future. After all, once cannot predict the course of the future as much as predict possible outcomes and paths, and trust that the one they believe in the most will come true. So, borrowing from the same format Chris used, here are a few potential fates, listed from worst to best – or least to most advanced.

1. Humanrien:
extinctionDue to the runaway effects of Climate Change during the 21st/22nd centuries, the Earth is now a desolate shadow of its once-great self. Humanity is non-existent, as are many other species of mammals, avians, reptiles, and insects. And it is predicted that the process will continue into the foreseeable future, until such time as the atmosphere becomes a poisoned, sulfuric vapor and the ground nothing more than windswept ashes and molten metal.

One thing is clear though: the Earth will never recover, and humanity’s failure to seed other planets with life and maintain a sustainable existence on Earth has led to its extinction. The universe shrugs and carries on…

2. Post-Apocalyptic:
post-apocalypticWhether it is due to nuclear war, a bio-engineered plague, or some kind of “nanocaust”, civilization as we know it has come to an end. All major cities lie in ruin and are populated only marauders and street gangs, the more peaceful-minded people having fled to the countryside long ago. In scattered locations along major rivers, coastlines, or within small pockets of land, tiny communities have formed and eke out an existence from the surrounding countryside.

At this point, it is unclear if humanity will recover or remain at the level of a pre-industrial civilization forever. One thing seems clear, that humanity will not go extinct just yet. With so many pockets spread across the entire planet, no single fate could claim all of them anytime soon. At least, one can hope that it won’t.

3. Dog Days:
arcology_lillypadThe world continues to endure recession as resource shortages, high food prices, and diminishing space for real estate continue to plague the global economy. Fuel prices remain high, and opposition to new drilling and oil and natural gas extraction are being blamed. Add to that the crushing burdens of displacement and flooding that is costing governments billions of dollars a year, and you have life as we know it.

The smart money appears to be in offshore real-estate, where Lillypad cities and Arcologies are being built along the coastlines of the world. Already, habitats have been built in Boston, New York, New Orleans, Tokyo, Shanghai, Hong Kong and the south of France, and more are expected in the coming years. These are the most promising solution of what to do about the constant flooding and damage being caused by rising tides and increased coastal storms.

In these largely self-contained cities, those who can afford space intend to wait out the worst. It is expected that by the mid-point of the 22nd century, virtually all major ocean-front cities will be abandoned and those that sit on major waterways will be protected by huge levies. Farmland will also be virtually non-existent except within the Polar Belts, which means the people living in the most populous regions of the world will either have to migrate or die.

No one knows how the world’s 9 billion will endure in that time, but for the roughly 100 million living at sea, it’s not a going concern.

4. Technological Plateau:
computer_chip4Computers have reached a threshold of speed and processing power. Despite the discovery of graphene, the use of optical components, and the development of quantum computing/internet principles, it now seems that machines are as smart as they will ever be. That is to say, they are only slightly more intelligent than humans, and still can’t seem to beat the Turing Test with any consistency.

It seems the long awaited-for explosion in learning and intelligence predicted by Von Neumann, Kurzweil and Vinge seems to have fallen flat. That being said, life is getting better. With all the advances turned towards finding solutions to humanity’s problems, alternative energy, medicine, cybernetics and space exploration are still growing apace; just not as fast or awesomely as people in the previous century had hoped.

Missions to Mars have been mounted, but a colony on that world is still a long ways away. A settlement on the Moon has been built, but mainly to monitor the research and solar energy concerns that exist there. And the problem of global food shortages and CO2 emissions is steadily declining. It seems that the words “sane planning, sensible tomorrow” have come to characterize humanity’s existence. Which is good… not great, but good.

Humanity’s greatest expectations may have yielded some disappointment, but everyone agrees that things could have been a hell of a lot worse!

5. The Green Revolution:
MarsGreenhouse2The global population has reached 10 billion. But the good news is, its been that way for several decades. Thanks to smart housing, hydroponics and urban farms, hunger and malnutrition have been eliminated. The needs of the Earth’s people are also being met by a combination of wind, solar, tidal, geothermal and fusion power. And though space is not exactly at a premium, there is little want for housing anymore.

Additive manufacturing, biomanufacturing and nanomanufacturing have all led to an explosion in how public spaces are built and administered. Though it has led to the elimination of human construction and skilled labor, the process is much safer, cleaner, efficient, and has ensured that anything built within the past half-century is harmonious with the surrounding environment.

This explosion is geological engineering is due in part to settlement efforts on Mars and the terraforming of Venus. Building a liveable environment on one and transforming the acidic atmosphere on the other have helped humanity to test key technologies and processes used to end global warming and rehabilitate the seas and soil here on Earth. Over 100,000 people now call themselves “Martian”, and an additional 10,000 Venusians are expected before long.

Colonization is an especially attractive prospect for those who feel that Earth is too crowded, too conservative, and lacking in personal space…

6. Intrepid Explorers:
spacex-icarus-670Humanity has successfully colonized Mars, Venus, and is busy settling the many moons of the outer Solar System. Current population statistics indicate that over 50 billion people now live on a dozen worlds, and many are feeling the itch for adventure. With deep-space exploration now practical, thanks to the development of the Alcubierre Warp Drive, many missions have been mounted to explore and colonizing neighboring star systems.

These include Earth’s immediate neighbor, Alpha Centauri, but also the viable star systems of Tau Ceti, Kapteyn, Gliese 581, Kepler 62, HD 85512, and many more. With so many Earth-like, potentially habitable planets in the near-universe and now within our reach, nothing seems to stand between us and the dream of an interstellar human race. Mission to find extra-terrestrial intelligence are even being plotted.

This is one prospect humanity both anticipates and fears. While it is clear that no sentient life exists within the local group of star systems, our exploration of the cosmos has just begun. And if our ongoing scientific surveys have proven anything, it is that the conditions for life exist within many star systems and on many worlds. No telling when we might find one that has produced life of comparable complexity to our own, but time will tell.

One can only imagine what they will look like. One can only imagine if they are more or less advanced than us. And most importantly, one can only hope that they will be friendly…

7. Post-Humanity:
artificial-intelligence1Cybernetics, biotechnology, and nanotechnology have led to an era of enhancement where virtually every human being has evolved beyond its biological limitations. Advanced medicine, digital sentience and cryonics have prolonged life indefinitely, and when someone is facing death, they can preserve their neural patterns or their brain for all time by simply uploading or placing it into stasis.

Both of these options have made deep-space exploration a reality. Preserved human beings launch themselves towards expoplanets, while the neural uploads of explorers spend decades or even centuries traveling between solar systems aboard tiny spaceships. Space penetrators are fired in all directions to telexplore the most distant worlds, with the information being beamed back to Earth via quantum communications.

It is an age of posts – post-scarcity, post-mortality, and post-humansim. Despite the existence of two billion organics who have minimal enhancement, there appears to be no stopping the trend. And with the breakneck pace at which life moves around them, it is expected that the unenhanced – “organics” as they are often known – will migrate outward to Europa, Ganymede, Titan, Oberon, and the many space habitats that dot the outer Solar System.

Presumably, they will mount their own space exploration in the coming decades to find new homes abroad in interstellar space, where their kind can expect not to be swept aside by the unstoppable tide of progress.

8. Star Children:
nanomachineryEarth is no more. The Sun is now a mottled, of its old self. Surrounding by many layers of computronium, our parent star has gone from being the source of all light and energy in our solar system to the energy source that powers the giant Dyson Swarm at the center of our universe. Within this giant Matrioshka Brain, trillions of human minds live out an existence as quantum-state neural patterns, living indefinitely in simulated realities.

Within the outer Solar System and beyond lie billions more, enhanced trans and post-humans who have opted for an “Earthly” existence amongst the planets and stars. However, life seems somewhat limited out in those parts, very rustic compared to the infinite bandwidth and computational power of inner Solar System. And with this strange dichotomy upon them, the human race suspects that it might have solved the Fermi Paradox.

If other sentient life can be expected to have followed a similar pattern of technological development as the human race, then surely they too have evolved to the point where the majority of their species lives in Dyson Swarms around their parent Sun. Venturing beyond holds little appeal, as it means moving away from the source of bandwidth and becoming isolated. Hopefully, enough of them are adventurous enough to meet humanity partway…

_____

Which will come true? Who’s to say? Whether its apocalyptic destruction or runaway technological evolution, cataclysmic change is expected and could very well threaten our existence. Personally, I’m hoping for something in the scenario 5 and/or 6 range. It would be nice to know that both humanity and the world it originated from will survive the coming centuries!

News from Space: New Horizons Passes Neptune

new-horizons-neptuneIt certainly has been a momentous few weeks for space exploration! Between the final weeks of August and the month of September, we’ve seen the Curiosity rover reach Mount Sharp, the Rosetta spacecraft created the first full map of a comet’s, the completion of the Orion space module, and the MAVEN orbiter reach Martian orbit. And before the month is out, India’s Mars Orbiter Mission (MOM) will also arrive in orbit around the Red Planet.

Despite all these developments, that occurred (relatively) close to home, there was even more news to be had, coming all the way from the edge of the Solar System no less. At the tail end of August, NASA announced that the New Horizons space probe passed Neptune orbit and is on its way to Pluto. Launched back in 2006 for the purpose of studying the dwarf planet, the probe is expected to arrive on July 14th of next year.

new-horizons-neptune-8NASA says that the the craft passed the Neptunian orbit at 10:04 pm EDT on Monday August 25th, which coincided with the 25th anniversary of Voyager 2’s flyby of Neptune in 1989. But where Voyager came within 4,950 km (3,080 mi) of the gas giant, the New Horizons craft passed by at a distance of 3.96 billion km (2.45 billion mi). The spacecraft is now almost 4.42 billion km (2.75 billion mi) from Earth, and is the fastest man-made object ever sent into space.

Nevertheless, New Horizons’ Long Range Reconnaissance Imager (LORRI) was still able to capture images of Neptune and its giant moon Triton. As you can see from the image below, Neptune appears as the large white disc in the middle, while Triton is the small black dot passing in front and sitting slightly to the ride. NASA says that Triton may be very similar to Pluto and the information gathered by Voyager 2 may prove helpful in the coming encounter.

new_horizons_plutoRalph McNutt of the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory.

There is a lot of speculation over whether Pluto will look like Triton, and how well they’ll match up. That’s the great thing about first-time encounters like this – we don’t know exactly what we’ll see, but we know from decades of experience in first-time exploration of new planets that we will be very surprised.

The first mission in NASA’s New Frontiers program, the New Horizons mission was launched on January 19, 2006 atop an Atlas V rocket from Cape Canaveral, Florida. It broke the record for the fastest man-made object on lift off with a speed of 58,536 km/h (36,373 mph). The 478 kg (1,054 lb) spacecraft was sent on a 9.5-year mission to fly by Pluto – a distance so far that radio signals from the nuclear-powered probe take four hours to reach Earth.

new-horizons-neptune-7Sent on a slingshot trajectory using the gravitational pull of Jupiter, which tacked on another 14,480 km/h (9,000 mph) to its speed, New Horizons will pass Pluto in July of next year at a distance of 13,000 km (8,000 mi). After this encounter, it will continue on out of the Solar System, during which it will be in the distant Kuiper belt studying one or more Kuiper belt objects (KBOs).

Though this will still not rival Voyager 1’s accomplishments, which left our Solar System last year, New Horizons promises to gather far more information on the Outer Solar System and what lies beyond. All of this will come in mighty handy when at last, humanity contemplates sending manned missions into deep space, either to Alpha Centauri or neighboring exoplanets.

Sources: gizmag.com, nasa.gov

News From Space: Kepler Finds Many New Worlds!

exoplanets2Late last month, NASA announced the discovery of 715 more exoplanets, nearly doubling the number of planets beyond our Solar System. These newly-verified worlds orbit 305 stars, revealing multiple-planet systems outside of our own, with four of them within their stars habitable zones. It’s the single largest windfall of new confirmations at any one time, and its all thanks to a new verification technique employed by the Kepler space probe’s scientists.

Nearly 95 percent of these planets are smaller than Neptune, which is almost four times the size of Earth. What’s more, this latest batch of exoplanets puts the total number of those confirmed from about 1000 to just over 1700 – and increase of 70% that occurred overnight! This discovery marks a significant increase in the number of known small-sized planets more akin to Earth than previously identified exoplanets.

alien-worldJohn Grunsfeld, associate administrator for NASA’s Science Mission Directorate in Washington, had this to say in a press release:

The Kepler team continues to amaze and excite us with their planet hunting results. That these new planets and solar systems look somewhat like our own, portends a great future when we have the James Webb Space Telescope in space to characterize the new worlds.

Since the discovery of the first planets outside our solar system roughly two decades ago, verification has been a laborious planet-by-planet process. Now, scientists have a statistical technique that can be applied to many planets at once when they are found in the same planetary systems. From NASA’s Ames Research Center in Moffett Field, Calif, the Kepler research team used a technique called verification by multiplicity, which relies in part on the logic of probability.

Kepler78b1The Kepler space probe observes some 150,000 stars and has found a few thousand of those to have planet candidates. If the candidates were randomly distributed among Kepler’s stars, only a handful would have more than one planet candidate. However, Kepler observed hundreds of stars that have multiple planet candidates. Through a careful study of this sample, these 715 new planets were verified.

This method can be likened to the behavior we know of lions and lionesses – where the lions are the Kepler stars and the lionesses are the planet candidates. The lionesses would sometimes be observed grouped together whereas lions tend to roam on their own. If more than two large felines are gathered, then it is very likely to be a lion and his pride. Thus, through multiplicity the lioness can be reliably identified in much the same way multiple planet candidates can be found around the same star.

Kepler-telescope-580x448Jack Lissauer, c0-leader of the Kepler science team at NASA’s Ames Research Center, explains the difference this process ushers in:

Four years ago, Kepler began a string of announcements of first hundreds, then thousands, of planet candidates –but they were only candidate worlds. We’ve now developed a process to verify multiple planet candidates in bulk to deliver planets wholesale, and have used it to unveil a veritable bonanza of new worlds.

Of these planets, the vast majority are small, boosting the number of known small Earth-sized planets by a factor of 400%. Other jumps include a 600% increase is known Super-Earths (or Mini-Neptunes), a 200% boost for Neptune-sized planets, and just 2% for Jupiter-sized planets. The 305 solar systems are also quite similar to our own, with the planets orbiting along a flat plane in tightly-packed, nearly circular orbits.

kepler_graphAs noted, the Kepler scientists confirmed the existence of four planets situated within their solar system’s habitable zone. They are Kepler-174d, Kepler-296f, Kepler-298d and Kepler-309c, are less than 2.5 times the size of Earth, and all orbit around M and K stars. Kepler-296f is especially interesting, in that it orbits a star half the size and 5 percent as bright as our sun, and is either a gaseous planet composed of hydrogen-helium, or a water world surrounded by a deep ocean.

In the meantime, NASA has released this animated graph (shown above) to put all the discoveries into context. And while the discovery of only four potentially habitable planets amongst 715 (a mere 0.0056% of the total) may seem discouraging, each discovery brings us one step closer to a more accurate understanding of our place in the galaxy. The findings papers will be published March 10 in The Astrophysical Journal.

Sources: IO9, (2), nasa.gov

Vote for Gliese 581g to be Renamed “Yuva”

alien-worldPeople who follow this blog may recall how, recently, I posted a story about Uwingu, a non-profit organization that sells the naming rights to exoplanets and (now) Martian craters. Well, as I explained in that last post, it’s not so much a matter of naming rights as naming suggestions, ones which are then voted on and then made into a crowdsourced map of an extra-terrestrial planet or the stars.

Far from this being some kind of scam or false promise, Uwingu does this in order to spur public participation in space exploration, and uses half of the proceeds to fund scientific research. After reading up on what they do and what the process for it all is, I began to think it might be fun for my writer’s group to pitch a suggestion of their own.

gliese_581gFor some time, we’ve been working on the Yuva Anthology – a series of shorts that tell the story of a future colonization effort on Gliese 581g. Not only is the planet real, but it was considered by NASA to be the most Earth-like exoplanet yet discovered in the known universe. So naturally I wondered, what if we voted to name it Yuva?

And now it’s been done! Uwingu has received my suggestion (and payment for the transaction), and printed me out the certification of authorization that you see below. Now all we need is people willing to spend $0.99 to make it a reality. Simply click here, select the name Yuva from the list, and confirm your payment of ninety-nine cents – but only if you’re comfortable doing so of course.

Uwingu_Certificate_19840Also, for those who’ve got a pile of digital currency just burning a hole in their accounts, be advised that you can vote as many times as you want. As the saying goes “vote early, vote often!” Just keep in mind that have to pay $0.99 each time you do. Unlike naming rights, there’s no bulk discount to be had here. That seem right to you?

Thank you in advance to anyone who supports this project and helps to make it a reality! And I do sincerely hope myself and my group can get the anthology out by this summer. It’s been a long haul, and coordinating the efforts of over a dozen writers is difficult at the best of times! Until next time, keep your eyes on the stars!

News from Mars: Put Your Name on a Crater!

mars_lifeMars is a interesting and varied place, with enough mysteries to sate appetites both subtle and gross. But as we come to study it up close and get to know it better, a peculiar challenge arises. Basically, there are thousands of geological features on the Martian surface that don’t yet have names. Up until now, only those mountains, hills and craters that are observable from space have been designated.

With the Mars rovers pouring over the surface, each new feature is being named and designated by NASA scientists – The Gale Crater, Yellowknife Bay, Mount Sharp, etc. But what of the public? Given that this is the age of public space travel where regular people have access to the process, shouldn’t we be able to toss our hats in the ring and get a chance at naming Martian features?

Mars_impact_craterThat’s the goal of Uwingu, a non-profit organization dedicated to increasing public participation in space exploration. In addition to naming exoplanets, they have begun a project to that gives people the opportunity to name over 550,000 craters on Mars. By getting people to pledge donations in exchange for naming rights, the company hopes to raise over $10M to help fund space science and education.

The project touched off in late February, with their map of Mars uploaded to the site and half a million plus craters indicated. Just like how Apollo astronauts have named landing site landmarks during their Moon missions or how Mars scientists have named features they’ve encountered on robotic missions, Uwingu proclaims that, “Now it’s your turn.”

Mars_cratersNot only are there craters to name, but people can also help name the map grid rectangles of all the Districts and Provinces in Uwingu’s “address system” – which they say is the first ever address system for Mars. Prices for naming craters vary, depending on the size of the crater, and begin at $5 dollars apiece. For each crater a person purchases and names, Uwingu gives them a shareable Web link and a naming certificate.

In the past, Uwingu has been a source of controversy, particularly with the International Astronomical Union (IAU), which is responsible for naming celestial objects and planetary features. In general, they are opposed to Uwingu’s methods of selling naming rights to the public. As the organization states on their website:

The IAU is the internationally recognized authority for naming celestial bodies and surface features on them. And names are not sold, but assigned according to internationally accepted rules.

Mars_craters1But Alan Stern, NASA’s former science program and mission director, claims that Uwingu is independent. He also stated that in 50 years of Mars exploration, only about 15,000 features have ever been named. What’s more, he and the rest of the Uwingu team – which includes several space notables, historians and authors – know that the names likely won’t officially be approved by the IAU.

Nevertheless, they claim that they will be similar to the names given to features on Mars by the mission science teams (such as Mt. Sharp on Mars –the IAU-approved name is Aeolis Mons) or even like Pike’s Peak, a mountain in Colorado which was named by the public, in a way. As early settlers started calling it that, it soon became the only name people recognized. Uwingu hopes that their names will also stick, given time.

mountsharp_galecraterIn the past, Stern has admitted that having people pay to suggest names with no official standing is sure to be controversial, but that he’s willing to take the chance – and the heat – to try and innovative ways to provide funding in today’s climate of funding cuts. As he stated in a series of recent interviews:

Mars scientists and Apollo astronauts have named features on the Red Planet and the Moon without asking for the IAU’s permission… We’re trying to do a public good. It’s still the case that nobody in this company gets paid. We really want to create a new lane on that funding highway for people who are out of luck due to budget cuts. This is how we’re how we’re trying to change the world for a little better.

He also pointed out that Uwingu is independent, and that this map is one they are generating themselves through crowdfunding and public participation. Whether or not the names stick is anybody’s guess, but the point is that the process will not be determined by any single gatekeeper or authority – in this case, the IAU. It will reflect a new era of public awareness and involvement in space.

mars-mapIn the past, Uwingu’s procedure has been to put half of the money they make into a fund to be given out as grants, and since they are a commercial company, the rest of the money helps pay the their bills. So no matter what – even if you pitch a name and its outvoted by another, or the names just fail to stick when the cartographers finish mapping Mars – you’ll still be raising money for a good cause.

For those interested in naming a crater on the Red Planet, click on the link here to go to Uwingu’s website. Once there, simply click on a spot on the map, select the crater you want (the price for the crater is indicated when you select it), offer a name and explain why you’ve chosen it. And be sure to check out some of the one’s that have been named already.

Sources: news.cnet.com, universetoday.com, uwingu.com

News From Space: Alpha Centauri’s “Superhabitable” World

alpha_centauri_newsScientists and astronomers have learned a great deal about the universe in recent years, thanks to craft like the Kepler space probe and the recently launched Gaian space observatory. As these and other instruments look out into the universe and uncover stars and exoplanets, it not only lets us expand our knowledge of the universe, but gives us a chance to reflect upon the meaning of this thing we call “habitability”.

Basically, our notions of what constitutes a habitable environment are shaped by our own. Since Earth is a life-sustaining environment from which we originated, we tend to think that conditions on another life-giving planet would have to be similar. However, scientists René Heller and John Armstrong contend that there might be a planet even more suitable in this galaxy, and in the neighboring system of Alpha Centauri B.

alpha_centauriBb1For those unfamiliar, Alpha Centauri A/B is a triple star system some 4.3 light years away from Earth, making it the closest star system to Earth. The nice thing about having a hypothetical “superhabitable” planet in this system is that it makes it a lot easier to indulge in a bit of a thought experiment, and will make it that much more easy to observe and examine.

According to the arguments put forward by Heller, of the Department of Physics and Astronomy, McMaster University, Hamilton; and Armstrong, of the Department of Physics, Weber State University in Ogden, this planet may be even more suitable for supporting life than our own. It all comes down to meeting the particulars, and maybe even exceeding them.

habitable_sunsFor example, a habitable planet needs the right kind sun – one that has existed and remained stable for a long time. If the sun in question is too large, then it will have a very short life; and if it’s too small, it might last a long time. But the planet will have to be very close to stay warm and that can cause all sorts of problems, such as a tidally locked planet with one side constantly facing the sun.

Our own sun is a G2-type star, which means it has been alive and stable for roughly 4.6 billion years. However, K-type dwarfs, which are smaller than the Sun, have lives longer than the age of the universe. Alpha Centauri B is specifically a K1V-type star that fits the bill with an estimated age of between 4.85 and 8.9 billion years, and is already known to have an Earth-like planet called Alpha Centauri B b.

alpha_centauriBb2As to the superhabitable planet, assuming it exists, it will be located somewhere between 0.5 and 1.4 astronomical units (46 – 130 million mi, 75 – 209 million km) from Alpha Centauri B. All things being equal, it will have a circular orbit 1. 85 AU (276 million km / 172 million miles) away, which would place it in the middle of the star’s habitable zone.

Also, for a planet to sustain life it has to be geologically active, meaning it has to have a rotating molten core to generate a magnetic field to ward off cosmic radiation and protect the atmosphere from being stripped away by solar winds. A slightly more massive planet with more gravity means more tectonic activity, so a better magnetic field and a more stable climate.

 

PlutoHowever, the most striking difference between the superhabitable world and Earth would be that the former would lack our continents and deep oceans – both of which can be hostile to life. Instead, Heller and Armstrong see a world with less water than ours, which would help to avoid both a runaway greenhouse effect and a snowball planet that an overabundance of water can trigger.

Our superhabitable planet might not even be in the habitable zone. It could be a moon of some giant planet further away. Jupiter’s moon Io is a volcanic hellhole due to tidal heating, but a larger moon that Heller and Armstrong call a “Super Europa” in the right orbit around a gas giant could heat enough to support life even if it’s technically outside the star’s habitable zone.

 

alien-worldAccording to Heller and Armstrong, this world would look significantly different from our own. It would be an older world, larger and more rugged, and would provide more places for life to exist. What water there was would be evenly scattered across the surface in the form of lakes and small, shallow seas. And, it would also be slightly more massive, which would mean more gravity.

This way, the shallow waters would hold much larger populations of more diverse life than is found on Earth, while the temperatures would be more moderated. However, it would be a warmer world than Earth, which also makes for more diversity and potentially more oxygen, which the higher gravity would help with by allowing the planet to better retain its atmosphere.

panspermia1Another point made by Heller and Armstrong is that there may be more than one habitable planet in the Alpha Centauri B system. Cosmic bombardments early in the history of the Solar System is how the Earth got its water and minerals. If life had already emerged on one planet in the early history of the Alpha Centauri B system, then the bombardment might have spread it to other worlds.

But of course, this is all theoretical. Such a planet may or may not exist, and may or may not have triggered the emergence of life on other worlds within the system. But what is exciting about it is just how plausible its existence may prove to be, and how easy it will be to verify once we can get some space probes between here and there.

Just imagine the sheer awesomeness of being able to see it, the images of a super-sized Earth-moon beamed back across light years, letting us know that there is indeed life on worlds besides our own. Now imagine being able to study that life and learning that our conceptions of this too have been limited. What a time that will be! I hope we all live to see it…

 

 

Sources: gizmag.com, universetoday.com