With recent observations made possible by the Kepler space telescope, numerous planets have been discovered orbiting distant stars. Whereas previous observations and techniques could detect exoplanets, scientists are now able to observe and classify them, with the ultimate aim of determining how Earth-like they are and whether or not they can support life.
Combined with advanced astronomical techniques, the latest estimates claim that there may be are up to 50 sextillion potentially habitable planets in the universe. With their eyes on the next step, the scientific community is now preparing to launch a bevy of new space telescopes that can peer across the universe and tell us how many of those planets actually harbor life.
One such telescope is NASA’s Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite (TESS), which will launch in 2017. While Kepler was focused on a single patch of sky with around 145,000 stars, TESS will be equipped with four telescopes that keep track of around 500,000 stars, including the 1,000 nearest red dwarfs. TESS is expected to find thousands of orbiting, Earth-sized-or-larger planets around these stars.
But to find out whether or not any of those planets actually house life, another sophisticated telescope needs to be employed – the James Webb Space Telescope.Whereas TESS is Kepler’s successor, the James Webb Space Telescope – a joint NASA/ESA/CSA venture – is the planned successor for the Hubble Telescope and is due to launch in 2018.
The JWST has a primary mirror that’s about five times larger than Hubble’s (pictured above), which means it can resolve much fainter signals, locating stars and other objects that have never been seen before. Because it primarily operates in the infrared band (whereas Hubble was tuned towards visible light), the JWST will also be able to see through dust clouds into hidden areas of space.
The JWST’s scientific payload includes a spectrometer that’s sensitive enough to analyze the atmosphere of distant planets. By measuring light from the parent stars, and how its reflected in the planets atmospheres, it will be able to determine if there are life-supporting elements and evidence of biological life – such as oxygen and methane.
Because these planets are light years away, and because the reflected light is incredibly dim, the James Webb Space Telescope will only be able to do this for large planets that orbit red and white dwarfs. Still, that leaves thousands or even millions of candidates that it will be able to observe, and determine whether or not they are already inhabited by extra-terrestrial life.
And last, but not least, there’s the New Worlds Mission, which aims to put a Starshade – which is essentially a big flying space umbrella – into space. This disc would then fly between the James Webb Space Telescope and the star its observing, blocking out large amounts of light and the result “noise pollution” from nearby bright stars that the JWST isn’t observing.
With the Starshade in place, the JWST would be able to probe thousands of nearby planets for signs of life and return data to Earth that is of far greater accuracy. The New Worlds Mission is currently in the prototyping stage, but NASA hopes to procure the necessary funding by 2015 and and launch it within the JWST’s own lifetime.
Because of all this, it is now believed that by 2020 (give or take a few years) we will have the ability to directly image a distant planet and analyze its atmosphere. And if we find methane or another biological marker on just one planet, it will completely redefine our understanding of the universe and the lifeforms that inhabit it.
The answer to the question – “are we alone in the universe?” – may finally be answered, and within our own lifetime. And in the meantime, be sure to enjoy this video of the Starshade space umbrella, courtesy of New Scientist.
Good news everyone! According to the International Astronomic Union, the public can now participate in the naming of new exoplanets. What’s more, they can be popular names like kinds found in science fiction, assuming they are appropriate and the public is behind it. This represents a big change in terms of IAU policy, which previously reserved the right to give names to newly discovered bodies outside of our Solar System.
As recently as late March, 2013, the IAU’s official word on naming exoplanets was, “the IAU sees no need and has no plan to assign names to these objects at the present stage of our knowledge.” Their rationale was since there is seemingly going to be so many exoplanets, it will be difficult to name them all.
But then, on March 24th, the IAU added on their website:
…the IAU greatly appreciates and wishes to acknowledge the increasing interest from the general public in being more closely involved in the discovery and understanding of our Universe. As a result in 2013 the IAU Commission 53 Extrasolar Planets and other IAU members will be consulted on the topic of having popular names for exoplanets, and the results will be made public on the IAU website.
This new decision follows from an event earlier this year where the SETI Institute and the space company Uwingu organized their own campaigns for creating popular names of objects in space. Both events were wildly popular with the general public, but generated some controversy. For one, the IAU issued a statement regarding the contests saying that while they welcomed the public’s interest, the IAU has the last word.
For example, the SETI institute’s contest, “Space Rocks”, was intended to name two newly discovered moons around Pluto. Though the name “Vulcan” was the top contender for one of them, and even got a nod from William Shatner, the IAU overruled their decision and went with the name “Styx” instead. Additionally, the IAU took issue with the “selling” of names, referring to the fact that Uwingu charged a fee to take part in their contest.
However, given public interest in the process and the fact that other bodies might begin privatizing the process, the IAU has altered its position on these matters and opened up the naming process to the public. The new rules, which were passed this summer, now allow individuals to suggest names of exoplanets and planetary satellites (moons) via email to the IAU.
Those looking to make a contribution to naming newly discovered planets and moons are asked to abide by the following criteria:
Prior to any public naming initiative the IAU should be contacted from the start by Letter of Intent sent to the IAU General Secretary
The process should be submitted in the form of a proposal to the IAU by an organization
The organization should list its legal or official representatives and its goals, and explain the reasons for initiating the process for naming a particular object or set of objects
The process cannot request nor make reference to any revenues, for whatever purpose
The process must guarantee a wide international participation
The public names proposed (whether by individuals or in a naming campaign) should follow the naming rules and restrictions adopted for Minor Bodies of the Solar System, by the IAU and by the Minor Planet Center.
Among other rules cited in their new policy are that proposed names should be 16 characters or less in length, pronounceable in as many languages as possible, non-offensive in any language or culture, and that names of individuals, places or events principally known for political or military activities are unsuitable. Also, the names must have the formal agreement of the discoverers.
This about face has its share of supporters and critics alike. Whereas people who support it generally see it as a sign that we are entering into an era of open and democratic space exploration. the critics tend to stress the contradictions and ambiguities in the new policy. Whereas the IAU previously claimed it had the final word on the naming process, their new stance appears to indicate that this is no longer the case.
In addition, companies like Uwingu are now free to participate in the naming of planetary bodies, which means that their contest to name Pluto’s moon “Vulcan” would now be legitimate under the new framework. Many people, such as astronomer and Uwingu CEO Alan Stern, are wondering if the new rules will apply retroactively since they were previously forbidden from having any input.
As for me, this puts me in mind of my own attempts to name real or fictitious exoplanets. Sadly, since it this was done for the sake of writing fiction, they would have no legal standing, but the process was still fun and got me thinking… If we are to begin exploring and colonizing planets outside of our Solar System, how will we go about naming them?
Now it seems there is a process in place for just such a thing, one which will assign actual names instead of bland designations. And it appears that this process will be a trade off between scientific organizations and public input, either through campaigns or contests. And I imagine once we start breaking ground on new worlds, settlers and shareholders will have a thing or two to say as well!
Planet Microsoft… Planet Starbucks… Planet Walmart… I shudder to think!
Between the Mars rovers, deep space probes, and long-term plans to mine asteroids and colonize Earth’s neighbors, there’s just no shortage of news from space these days. Unfortunately, not all of it is good. For instance, NASA recently announced that the Kepler space telescope, which was launched back in 2009 for the purpose of identifying Earth-like exoplanets, is suffering from malfunctions and may be broken down.
And in the course of its operational history, it did manage to identify a number of exoplanets that existed within the habitable zones of their parent stars. In fact, it had found a total of 2,740 candidate exoplanets spread across 2,046 stars systems, and a confirmed total of 132 that have the potential to support life. Unfortunately, during the early month of April during its weekly communication, NASA found that the space observatory was in safe mode, a sign that something was amiss.
After looking into the problem, they realized that it had lost its ability to precisely point toward stars because one of the reaction wheels – devices which enable the spacecraft to aim in different directions without firing thrusters – had failed. This was especially bad since last year an different wheel failed, meaning it only had two wheels remaining. The probe needs at least three working in order to properly aim itself, but now that seems impossible.
But the Kepler team said there are still possibilities of keeping the spacecraft in working order, or perhaps even finding other opportunities for different scientific pursuits. Either way, the team is not ready to throw in the towel on the telescope. And since NASA already approved to keep the mission going through 2016, a lot is still riding on it remaining functional.
Charles Sobeck, the Kepler deputy project manager, addressed the team’s efforts to get the telescope working again during their daily briefing earlier in May:
Initially, they did see some movement on the wheel but it quickly went back to zero speed, indicative of internal failure on the wheel. Our next step is to see what we can do to reduce the fuel consumption, as we would like to extend the fuel reserve as long as we can.
In terms of the malfunctioning wheel, he indicated that there are a few things they can still do to get it working again. One possibility is “jigging it” or running it in reverse.
We can try jiggling it, like you’d do with any wheel here on Earth, commanding it to move back and forth, so we can try to bring the wheel back in service. Or perhaps since wheel #2 hasn’t been turned on for eight months, it may come back if we turn it on. It will take us awhile to come up with a plan.
Sobeck also explained they are currently using thrusters to stabilize the spacecraft, and in its current mode, the onboard fuel will last for several months. But they hope to soon put the spacecraft into what is called a “Point Rest State” – a loosely-pointed, thruster-controlled state that minimizes fuels usage while providing a continuous X-band communication downlink. This ought to keep the fuel consumption down to the point where the telescope could keep going for several more years.
What’s more, the team also indicated that there is still terabytes of information gathered by the probe that has yet to be sifted through. They estimate that it will take at least two years for them to process it all and determine what other exoplanets exist nearby in our galaxy. And as Paul Hertz – NASA’s astrophysics director – put it, with the work it has already performed, Kepler has essentially carried out its task:
We’ll continue to analyze the data to get the science that Kepler was designed to do. Even though Kepler is in trouble, it has collected all the data necessary to answer its scientific objectives. Kepler is not the last exoplanet mission, but the first. It has been a great start to our path of exoplanet exploration.
In the end, its too soon to say if Kepler is deep in space (literally), or just experiencing a lull while her technicians get her back on track. And even if this does prove to be the end of her, the many thousands of planet she managed to identify during her years of service will certainly prove useful to humanity as we begin to set our sights on interstellar exploration and, God willing, colonization. And I imagine more than a few will bare the proud name of Kepler, in honor of her namesake and the telescope itself!
Back in January, National Geographic Magazine celebrated its 125th anniversary. In honor of this occasion, they released a special issue which commemorated the past 125 years of human exploration and looked ahead at what the future might hold. As I sat in the doctor’s office, waiting on a prescription for antibiotics to combat my awful cold, I found myself terribly inspired by the article.
So naturally, once I got home, I looked up the article and its source material and got to work. The issue of exploration, especially the future thereof, is not something I can ever pass up! So for the next few minutes (or hours, depending on how much you like to nurse a read), I present you with some possible scenarios about the coming age of deep space exploration.
Suffice it to say, National Geographic’s appraisal of the future of space travel was informative and hit on all the right subjects for me. When one considers the sheer distances involved, not to mention the amount of time, energy, and resources it would take to allow people to get there, the question of reaching into the next great frontier poses a great deal of questions and challenges.
Already, NASA, Earth’s various space agencies and even private companies have several ideas in the works or returning to the Moon, going to Mars, and to the Asteroid Belt. These include the SLS (Space Launch System), the re-purposed and upgraded version of the Saturn V rocket which took the Apollo astronauts to the Moon. Years from now, it may even be taking crews to Mars, which is slated for 2030.
And when it comes to settling the Moon, Mars, and turning the Asteroid Belt into our primary source of mineral extraction and manufacturing, these same agencies, and a number of private corporations are all invested in getting it done. SpaceX is busy testing its reusable-launch rocket, known as the Grasshopper, in the hopes of making space flight more affordable. And NASA and the ESA are perfecting a process known as “sintering” to turn Moon regolith into bases and asteroids into manufactured goods.
Meanwhile, Virgin Galactic, Reaction Engines and Golden Spike are planning to make commercial trips into space and to the Moon possible within a few years time. And with companies like Deep Space Industries and Google-backed Planetary Resources prospeting asteroids and planning expeditions, it’s only a matter of time before everything from Earth to the Jovian is being explored and claimed for our human use.
But when it comes to deep-space exploration, the stuff that would take us to the outer reaches of the Solar System and beyond, that’s where things get tricky and pretty speculative. Ideas have been on the table for some time, since the last great Space Race forced scientists to consider the long-term and come up with proposed ways of closing the gap between Earth and the stars. But to this day, they remain a scholarly footnote, conceptual and not yet realizable.
But as we embark of a renewed era of space exploration, where the stuff of science fiction is quickly becoming the stuff of science fact, these old ideas are being dusted off, paired up with newer concepts, and seriously considered. While they might not be feasible at the moment, who know what tomorrow holds? From the issues of propulsion, to housing, to cost and time expenditures, the human race is once again taking a serious look at extra-Solar exploration.
And here are some of the top contenders for the “Final Frontier”:
Nuclear Propulsion: The concept of using nuclear bombs (no joke) to propel a spacecraft was first proposed in 1946 by Stanislaw Ulam, a Polish-American mathematician who participated in the Manhattan Project. Preliminary calculations were then made by F. Reines and Ulam in 1947, and the actual project – known as Project Orion was initiated in 1958 and led by Ted Taylor at General Atomics and physicist Freeman Dyson from the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton.
In short, the Orion design involves a large spacecraft with a high supply of thermonuclear warheads achieving propulsion by releasing a bomb behind it and then riding the detonation wave with the help of a rear-mounted pad called a “pusher”. After each blast, the explosive force is absorbed by this pusher pad, which then translates the thrust into forward momentum.
Though hardly elegant by modern standards, the proposed design offered a way of delivering the explosive (literally!) force necessary to propel a rocket over extreme distances, and solved the issue of how to utilize that force without containing it within the rocket itself. However, the drawbacks of this design are numerous and noticeable.
F0r starters, the ship itself is rather staggering in size, weighing in anywhere from 2000 to 8,000,000 tonnes, and the propulsion design releases a dangerous amount of radiation, and not just for the crew! If we are to rely on ships that utilize nuclear bombs to achieve thrust, we better find a course that will take them away from any inhabited or habitable areas. What’s more, the cost of producing a behemoth of this size (even the modest 2000 tonne version) is also staggering.
Antimatter Engine: Most science fiction authors who write about deep space exploration (at least those who want to be taken seriously) rely on anti-matter to power ships in their stories. This is no accident, since antimatter is the most potent fuel known to humanity right now. While tons of chemical fuel would be needed to propel a human mission to Mars, just tens of milligrams of antimatter, if properly harnessed, would be able to supply the requisite energy.
Fission and fusion reactions convert just a fraction of 1 percent of their mass into energy. But by combine matter with antimatter, its mirror twin, a reaction of 100 percent efficiency is achieved. For years, physicists at the CERN Laboratory in Geneva have been creating tiny quantities of antimatter by smashing subatomic particles together at near-light speeds. Given time and considerable investment, it is entirely possible this could be turned into a form of advanced propulsion.
In an antimatter rocket, a dose of antihydrogen would be mixed with an equal amount of hydrogen in a combustion chamber. The mutual annihilation of a half pound of each, for instance, would unleash more energy than a 10-megaton hydrogen bomb, along with a shower of subatomic particles called pions and muons. These particles, confined within a magnetic nozzle similar to the type necessary for a fission rocket, would fly out the back at one-third the speed of light.
However, there are natural drawback to this design as well. While a top speed of 33% the speed of light per rocket is very impressive, there’s the question of how much fuel will be needed. For example, while it would be nice to be able to reach Alpha Centauri – a mere 4.5 light years away – in 13.5 years instead of the 130 it would take using a nuclear rocket, the amount of antimatter needed would be immense.
No means exist to produce antimatter in such quantities right now, and the cost of building the kind of rocket required would be equally immense. Considerable refinements would therefore be needed and a sharp drop in the cost associated with building such a vessel before any of its kind could be deployed.
Laser Sail: Thinking beyond rockets and engines, there are some concepts which would allow a spaceship to go into deep space without the need for fuel at all. In 1948, Robert Forward put forward a twist on the ancient technique of sailing, capturing wind in a fabric sail, to propose a new form of space travel. Much like how our world is permeated by wind currents, space is filled with cosmic radiation – largely in the form of photons and energy associated with stars – that push a cosmic sail in the same way.
This was followed up again in the 1970’s, when Forward again proposed his beam-powered propulsion schemes using either lasers or masers (micro-wave lasers) to push giant sails to a significant fraction of the speed of light. When photons in the laser beam strike the sail, they would transfer their momentum and push the sail onward. The spaceship would then steadily builds up speed while the laser that propels it stays put in our solar system.
Much the same process would be used to slow the sail down as it neared its destination. This would be done by having the outer portion of the sail detach, which would then refocus and reflect the lasers back onto a smaller, inner sail. This would provide braking thrust to slow the ship down as it reached the target star system, eventually bringing it to a slow enough speed that it could achieve orbit around one of its planets.
Once more, there are challenges, foremost of which is cost. While the solar sail itself, which could be built around a central, crew-carrying vessel, would be fuel free, there’s the little matter of the lasers needed to propel it. Not only would these need to operate for years continuously at gigawatt strength, the cost of building such a monster would be astronomical, no pun intended!
A solution proposed by Forward was to use a series of enormous solar panel arrays on or near the planet Mercury. However, this just replaced one financial burden with another, as the mirror or fresnel lens would have to be planet-sized in scope in order for the Sun to keep the lasers focused on the sail. What’s more, this would require that a giant braking sail would have to be mounted on the ship as well, and it would have to very precisely focus the deceleration beam.
So while solar sails do present a highly feasible means of sending people to Mars or the Inner Solar System, it is not the best concept for interstellar space travel. While it accomplishes certain cost-saving measures with its ability to reach high speeds without fuel, these are more than recouped thanks to the power demands and apparatus needed to be it moving.
Generation/Cryo-Ship: Here we have a concept which has been explored extensively in fiction. Known as an Interstellar Ark, an O’Neill Cylinder, a Bernal Sphere, or a Stanford Taurus, the basic philosophy is to create a ship that would be self-contained world, which would travel the cosmos at a slow pace and keep the crew housed, fed, or sustained until they finally reached their destination. And one of the main reasons that this concept appears so much in science fiction literature is that many of the writers who made use of it were themselves scientists.
The first known written examples include Robert H. Goddard “The Last Migration” in 1918, where he describes an “interstellar ark” containing cryogenic ally frozen people that set out for another star system after the sun died. Konstantin E. Tsiolkovsky later wrote of “Noah’s Ark” in his essay “The Future of Earth and Mankind” in 1928. Here, the crews were kept in wakeful conditions until they reached their destination thousands of years later.
By the latter half of the 20th century, with authors like Robert A. Heinlein’s Orphans of the Sky, Arthur C. Clarke’s Rendezvous with Rama and Ursula K. Le Guin’s Paradises Lost, the concept began to be explored as a distant possibility for interstellar space travel. And in 1964, Dr. Robert Enzmann proposed a concept for an interstellar spacecraft known as the Enzmann Starship that included detailed notes on how it would be constructed.
Enzmann’s concept would be powered by deuterium engines similar to what was called for with the Orion Spacecraft, the ship would measure some 600 meters (2000 feet) long and would support an initial crew of 200 people with room for expansion. An entirely serious proposal, with a detailed assessment of how it would be constructed, the Enzmann concept began appearing in a number of science fiction and fact magazines by the 1970’s.
Despite the fact that this sort of ship frees its makers from the burden of coming up with a sufficiently fast or fuel-efficient engine design, it comes with its own share of problems. First and foremost, there’s the cost of building such a behemoth. Slow-boat or no, the financial and resource burden of building a mobile space ship is beyond most countries annual GDP. Only through sheer desperation and global cooperation could anyone conceive of building such a thing.
Second, there’s the issue of the crew’s needs, which would require self-sustaining systems to ensure food, water, energy, and sanitation over a very long haul. This would almost certainly require that the crew remain aware of all its technical needs and continue to maintain it, generation after generation. And given that the people aboard the ship would be stuck in a comparatively confined space for so long, there’s the extreme likelihood of breakdown and degenerating conditions aboard.
Third, there’s the fact that the radiation environment of deep space is very different from that on the Earth’s surface or in low earth orbit. The presence of high-energy cosmic rays would pose all kinds of health risks to a crew traveling through deep space, so the effects and preventative measures would be difficult to anticipate. And last, there’s the possibility that while the slow boat is taking centuries to get through space, another, better means of space travel will be invented.
Faster-Than-Light (FTL) Travel: Last, we have the most popular concept to come out of science fiction, but which has received very little support from scientific community. Whether it was the warp drive, the hyperdrive, the jump drive, or the subspace drive, science fiction has sought to exploit the holes in our knowledge of the universe and its physical laws in order to speculate that one day, it might be possible to bridge the vast distances between star systems.
However, there are numerous science based challenges to this notion that make an FTL enthusiast want to give up before they even get started. For one, there’s Einstein’s Theory of General Relativity, which establishes the speed of light (c) as the uppermost speed at which anything can travel. For subatomic particles like photons, which have no mass and do not experience time, the speed of light is a given. But for stable matter, which has mass and is effected by time, the speed of light is a physical impossibility.
For one, the amount of energy needed to accelerate an object to such speeds is unfathomable, and the effects of time dilation – time slowing down as the speed of light approaches – would be unforeseeable. What’s more, achieving the speed of light would most likely result in our stable matter (i.e. our ships and bodies) to fly apart and become pure energy. In essence, we’d die!
Naturally, there have been those who have tried to use the basis of Special Relativity, which allows for the existence of wormholes, to postulate that it would be possible to instantaneously move from one point in the universe to another. These theories for “folding space”, or “jumping” through space time, suffer from the same problem. Not only are they purely speculative, but they raise all kinds of questions about temporal mechanics and causality. If these wormholes are portals, why just portals in space and not time?
And then there’s the concept of a quantum singularity, which is often featured in talk of FTL. The belief here is that an artificial singularity could be generated, thus opening a corridor in space-time which could then be traversed. The main problem here is that such an idea is likely suicide. A quantum singularity, aka. a black hole, is a point in space where the laws of nature break down and become indistinguishable from each other – hence the term singularity.
Also, they are created by a gravitational force so strong that it tears a hole in space time, and that resulting hole absorbs all things, including light itself, into its maw. It is therefore impossible to know what resides on the other side of one, and astronomers routinely observe black holes (most notably Sagittarius A at the center of our galaxy) swallow entire planets and belch out X-rays, evidence of their destruction. How anyone could think these were a means of safe space travel is beyond me! But then again, they are a plot device, not a serious idea…
But before you go thinking that I’m dismissing FTL in it’s entirety, there is one possibility which has the scientific community buzzing and even looking into it. It’s known as the Alcubierre Drive, a concept which was proposed by physicist Miguel Alcubierre in his 1994 paper: “The Warp Drive: Hyper-Fast Travel Within General Relativity.”
The equations and theory behind his concept postulate that since space-time can be contracted and expanded, empty space behind a starship could be made to expand rapidly, pushing the craft in a forward direction. Passengers would perceive it as movement despite the complete lack of acceleration, and vast distances (i.e. light years) could be passed in a matter of days and weeks instead of decades. What’s more, this “warp drive” would allow for FTL while at the same time remaining consistent with Einstein’s theory of Relativity.
In October 2011, physicist Harold White attempted to rework the equations while in Florida where he was helping to kick off NASA and DARPA’s joint 100 Year Starship project. While putting together his presentation on warp, he began toying with Alcubierre’s field equations and came to the conclusion that something truly workable was there. In October of 2012, he announced that he and his NASA team would be working towards its realization.
But while White himself claims its feasible, and has the support of NASA behind him, the mechanics behind it all are still theoretical, and White himself admits that the energy required to pull off this kind of “warping” of space time is beyond our means at the current time. Clearly, more time and development are needed before anything of this nature can be realized. Fingers crossed, the field equations hold, because that will mean it is at least theoretically possible!
Summary: In case it hasn’t been made manifestly obvious by now, there’s no simple solution. In fact, just about all possibilities currently under scrutiny suffer from the exact same problem: the means just don’t exist yet to make them happen. But even if we can’t reach for the stars, that shouldn’t deter us from reaching for objects that are significantly closer to our reach. In the many decades it will take us to reach the Moon, Mars, the Asteroid Belt, and Jupiter’s Moons, we are likely to revisit this problem many times over.
And I’m sure that in course of creating off-world colonies, reducing the burden on planet Earth, developing solar power and other alternative fuels, and basically working towards this thing known as the Technological Singularity, we’re likely to find that we are capable of far more than we ever thought before. After all, what is money, resources, or energy requirements when you can harness quantum energy, mine asteroids, and turn AIs and augmented minds onto the problems of solving field equations?
Yeah, take it from me, the odds are pretty much even that we will be making it to the stars in the not-too-distant future, one way or another. As far as probabilities go, there’s virtually no chance that we will be confined to this rock forever. Either we will branch out to colonize new planets and new star systems, or go extinct before we ever get the chance. I for one find that encouraging… and deeply disturbing!
It seems another star system is making the news recently. And much like Gliese 581, the subject is the discovery of a planet that is said to be Earth-like in orientation. Located in Alpha Centauri, a star system just 4.3 light years from our Solar System, this exoplanet is the closest discovery yet to be made by scientists and astronomers.
Those with a penchant for science fiction will be immediately familiar with the name Alpha Centauri. As the closest star system to our own, it has been mentioned and used as the setting for countless science fiction franchises. Star Trek, Transformers, and most recently, Avatar have made use of this binary system and its system of planets. But up until now, speculations as to its ability to actually support life (at least as we know it) have been just that.
Officially, the planet is known as Alpha Centauri Bb, in that it is the second observable planet that orbits Alpha Centauri B, the larger of the stars in the binary system. It took a research team nearly four years to classify the planet and determine that it boasted a mass similar to that of Earth’s. According to Xavier Dumusque, the lead author of the planet-discovering study: “This result represents a major step towards the detection of a twin Earth in the immediate vicinity of the sun.”
But of course, there’s a snag, at least as far as colonization would be involved. According to the same research team, Alpha Centauri Bb is closer to its host star than Mercury is to our Sun, and they estimate that surface temperatures average around 1200 degrees Celsius (2192 Fahrenheit). Forget Pandora, can you say Crematoria? If humans were ever to set foot on this world, it would only be because of terraforming so radical that it completely altered the nature of the planet. Still, it is an exciting find, and is another step along the road to locating nearby exoplanets that humanity might someday call home.
In the meantime, check out this video from the European Southern Observatory. It’s like Google Earth meets the Milky Way Galaxy – Google Galaxy! I like that!
And here we go again with another news story that comes to us from beyond our world, but curiously (no pun!), not from the Red Planet. It seems that the Earth-like exoplanet known as Gliese 581 g, aka. Zarmina (or Yuva to me and my writer’s group!) has been the subject of some interest as of late. In fact, two stories have emerged about this world, which ranks as number one on NASA’s list of Earth-like worlds beyond our system. And I think you’ll agree, these two stories couldn’t be farther apart.
The first sounds like something out of a novel by Carl Sagan: two years ago, while doing research for SETI, an Australian astrophysicist claimed he picked up a “suspicious signal” from the vicinity of the Gliese 581 system. Since that time, a number have websites have come forward that claim to have traced the signal back to the Earth-like exoplanet itself. The second story comes from the International Astronomical Union, which chaired a meeting this week and raised doubts about the actual existence of Gliese 581 g.
For those who may not recall, the existence of Gliese 581 g has been featured in the news quite a bit of late, and not just on my site 😉 Discovered in 2010 astronomer Steven Vogt and a team of scientists working out of the Keck I facility in Hawaii. After locating the rocky world, they made two determinations based on their findings which set the astronomical community aflame.
On the one hand, the planet was roughly three time the mass of Earth but was believed to possess the same overall gravity. On the other, it was located within the system’s “habitable zone”, meaning it was warm enough to support life but cool enough to maintain water in a liquid state. Combined with its proximity to Earth, 20 light-years, this made Gliese 581 g the most likely candidate for eventual colonization.
To be clear, the astronomical panel did not dismiss the existence of Gliese 581 g out of hand, but did say that its existence cannot be confirmed as a scientific certainty. According to Francesco Pepe, an astronomer who works on HARPS data at the Geneva Observatory, “The reason for that is that, despite the extreme accuracy of the instrument and the many data points, the signal amplitude of this potential fifth planet is very low and basically at the level of the measurement noise.” So basically, the evidence put forth by Vogt and his team may have been nothing more than echoed signals. Bummer!
So what then are to we make of this news? Either Gliese 581 g does not exist, or it is home to an extra-terrestrial civilization that is sending out signals. In all likelihood, the doubts raised by the IAU are merely a setback, and it will be a few years before we are certain of the exoplanet’s existence. But then again, anything is possible. However unlikely it may be, we might be meeting “Zarminans” in a few generations time. Who knows? Maybe they’ll come find us, flying in tiny saucers and demanding we take them to our leader.
Personally, I hope it happens the way my group and I envisioned it, with colony ships going there within a century’s time and discovering alien life that does not resemble our own by any measure. Any other way is just plain crazy 😉
Imagine a city that runs entirely on solar energy and other renewable energy source. A city that generates entirely no carbon and no waste, with mass transit that relies on electronic, computer-controlled pod cars. That is the concept behind Masdar City, a planned urban environment located 17 km south-east of the capital of the United Arab Emirates (Abu Dhabi).
Designed by the British architectural firm Foster and Partners, and with the majority of the seed capital coming from the government of Abu Dhabi, Masdar is a blueprint for future cities based on sustainability, clean energy, and the latest and best in manufacturing, recycling and waste management technology. On top of that, it will contain some of the most advanced facilities in the world, dedicated to science, commerce and eduction.
In essence, it is the answer of what to do about rapidly advancing technology, urban growth, and development in the developing world. Point of interest include:
Masdar Institute: Wouldn’t you know it? At the heart of a city based on sustainability and clean energy is an institute dedicated to the furtherance of these very things. Known as the Masdar Institute of Science and Technology (MIST), this research-oriented university was developed in conjunction with the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and focuses on the development of alternative energy, sustainability, and the environment.
In addition, its facilities use 70% less electricity and potable water than normal buildings of similar size and is fitted with a metering system that constantly observes power consumption. It’s full range of programs include Chemical Engineering, Mechanical Engineering, Material Science and Engineering, Engineering Systems and Management, Water and Environmental Engineering, Computing & Information Science, Electrical Power Engineering and Microsystems.
Renewable Energy: In addition to its planned 40 to 60 megawatt solar power plant, which will power further construction projects, with additional solar panels to be placed on rooftops, for a total output of 130 megawatts. In addition, wind farms will be established outside the city’s perimeter capable of producing up to 20 megawatts, and the city intends to utilise geothermal energy as well.In addition, Masdar plans to host the world’s largest hydrogen power plant, a major breakthrough in terms of clean energy!
When it comes to water consumption, that too will be handled in an environmentally-friendly way that also utilizes solar energy. At the hear of this plan lies a solar-powered desalination plant. Approximately 80 percent of the water used will be recycled and waste greywater will be reused for crop irrigation and other purposes.
Waste Management: As already noted, the city will also attempt to reduce waste to zero. Biological waste will be used to create nutrient-rich soil and fertiliser, and plans exist to incinerate it for the sake of generating additional power. Industrial waste, such as plastics and metals, will be recycled or re-purposed for other uses. The exterior wood used throughout the city is Palmwood, a sustainable hardwood-substitute developed by Pacific Green using plantation coconut palms that no longer bear fruit.
Transportation: Initially, the planners for Masdar considered banning the use of automobiles altogether, focusing instead on mass transit and personal rapid transit (PRT) systems, with existing road and railways connecting to other locations outside the city. This systems utilize a series of podcars, designed by the company 2getthere, contains 10 passenger and 3 freight vehicles and serves 2 passenger and 3 freight stations connected by 1.2 kilometers of one-way track.
The cars travel at an average of 20km/h (12mph), trips take about 2 and a half minutes and are presently free of charge. Last year, a system of 10 Mitsubishi i-MiEV electric cars was deployed as part of a one-year pilot to test a point-to-point transportation solution for the city to complement the PRT and the freight rapid transit (FRT).
Given the mounting environmental crisis this planet faces, cities like Masdar may very well be the solution to future urban planning and expansion. But of course, as an incurable sci-fi geek, I also consider cities like this to be a handy blueprint for the day when it comes time to plan extra-solar and even exoplanet settlements. Not only are they effective at curbing our carbon footprint and environmental impact, they are also a good way to start over fresh on a new world!
Hello again! Boy, I tell ya, it’s good to be back in the swing of things. You know what they say about absence making the heart grow fonder? Well, they also say a few things about being addicted to your devices! But either way, I’m happy to be back in civilization and able to communicate with my friends and colleagues who are, unfortunately, only reachable electronically.
And I’m even happier that people have had a creative outburst while I was away. I miss being able to take part in brainstorming sessions and coming up with new ideas with people. So I was pretty pleased when I came home and found my inbox so crammed full of emails and comments from my writer friends. And, like a plant that’s been deprived of water, their thoughts set my mind aflame with new ideas!
For one, I realized I had yet to discuss NASA’s top 5 Exploplanets in any real detail. Not long ago, it was announced that the planet Gliese 581 g, which is roughly 20 light years from our Solar System, is the most Earth-like planet in this region of the Galaxy, and hence, the most likely candidate for settlement someday. However, this news came as part of a larger story about all the planets, Earth-like or otherwise, that NASA has been confirming the existence of in recent years. Guess I was too busy focusing on how this effecting my writer’s group to expand on how cool these discoveries really are 😉
The table above shows the top five contenders, grouped according to how similar they are to Earth in terms of gravity, atmosphere, distance from their star, and ability to support life. Gliese 581g, the fourth planet from the Gliese 581 star, ranks as number one with a 92 percent comparison match. Being roughly the same size as Earth, though boasting significantly more mass, it is also thought to have roughly the same gravitational pull. In addition, the astronomer who was intrinsic in it’s discovery, Steven Vogt, indicated that it is a prime candidate for extra-terrestrial life.
The second candidate, at 85%, is Gliese 667C c, a planet which orbits a red dwarf roughly 22 light-years away. It is so named because it’s parent star is part of a triple star system, or a trinary. Since c is estimated to be at least 4.5 times as massive as Earth, it has the honor of being designated a “Super-Earth”, and no doubt would have enough gravity to make even a world-class athlete feel overwrought from the simple task of walking.
Third is Kepler-22 b, an exoplanet which was spotted by NASA’s planet-hunting Kepler space telescope in 2009. An 81% match to Earth, this world is another “Super-Earth” which is speculated to have an atmosphere and climate which could be hospitable to Earth creatures. Unfortunately, this bad boy is over 600 light years away, making it a pretty poor candidate for settlement anytime soon.
Fourth up is HD 85512b, another super-Earth which orbits the orange dwarf Gliese 370, which is roughly 35 light-years away. At a relatively reasonable distance, and a 77% match to Earth, this planet could be a suitable candidate for colonization one day. NASA already estimates that its average surface temperature and presence within the star’s “Habitable Zone” would be within tolerable limits. Hopefully the gravity is the same!
And coming in at fifth place is the second planet to come to us from the Gliese 581 system, the fifth planet known as Gliese 581 d. As the above table shows, g and d are both within the systems Habitable Zone and could be made to support human populations, provided certain requirements (i.e. the existence of water, suitable temperatures and gravity) were met. When it was first discovered in 2007, it was dismissed as being “too cold” to support life. However, subsequent atmospheric modelling studies suggest that it could be habitable provided its atmosphere is capable of generating a Greenhouse Effect, as Earth’s is.
Many question how and why the discovery of exoplanets will benefit humanity. As one of my friends (hi Rami!) asked me recently, what good is it to colonize worlds do us if our problems remain? I argued that it would ensure our survival, but quickly realized that I’d need to make a better case if I was going to prove that point. As a curve-ball, I asked him to consider the possibility that maybe Earth itself, as we’ve made her in the past 15,000 years, could be the problem…
Naturally, that statement requires clarification. But that’s something for another time. Right now, all I am hoping for is that the discovery of habitable planets within humanity’s reach will mean either the possibility of extra-terrestrial life, or the option of planting the seed of humanity in a distant solar system. The implications of either would be mind-blowing, and I for one feel privileged to live in a time when such possibilities might be coming true!
Wow! It’s fun and amazing when things line up like this. According to IO9, astronomers have confirmed that there are two exoplanets that may be habitable, which will come in handy when the human race begins looking for new planets to colonize. Officially, these planets are known as Gliese 581 g and c, which orbit a star system located roughly 20 light years from Earth.
Can you say coincidence? By now, just about everyone who reads my blog knows that myself and a group of writers are hard at work producing an anthology about the colonization of a distant world in the not-too-distant future. Well guess where it’s set? Gliese 581-freaking-g! That’s where! Yes, in the course of researching realistic locations for our story, Mr. Goran Zidar suggested we use this star system seeing as how it is known to have a system of planets.
After doing our due diligence, we learned that two planets are deemed habitable by human standards, Gliese 581 g and c. And of the two, g is the prime candidate for settlement, being the closest in mass, surface temperature and gravity to Earth. Yes, with a little terraforming, this planet could be hosting a settled population withing a few generations.
I love it when fiction and real life come together like this! Granted, this “news” isn’t exactly new. In fact, Gliese has been in on astronomers radar for quite some time, and has been dubbed “Zarmina” by scientists. But it’s new to us. And frankly, I like our choice of name better. Yeah, Yuva sounds so much more palatable than Zarmina, doesn’t it? I think so…
Hey all. As you may know, my writing and I are busy at work producing an anthology about space travel and colonization. We have our location picked out, the star system Gliese 581. We have a planet, known as Gliese 581 g. We still need more writers, I was hoping for a dozen or so people to contribute to our short story collection. So if you’re a writer and enjoy classic sci-fi, space travel, exoplanets, weird aliens, androids, terraforming, sub-orbital colonies, space elevators, terradome and so forth, let me know and I’ll set you up with a project!
In the meantime, I’ve updated our map of the Gliese 581 to more accurately reflect the planets and the names they will be assigned in our story. Have a gander: