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

New Anthology Sample: Arrivals!

Yuva_coverIt’s been awhile since I posted anything from my group’s upcoming Yuva anthology. But of course, there’s a reason for that. With time constraints and other commitments competing for our attention, my group and I have had little time for this ongoing project. But now that I’ve finished editing the preliminary draft of Papa Zulu, I’ve had some time on my hands and decided to rededicate it where its needed.

Below is the latest sample from my story Arrivals, the opening story for Part III of our anthology. As you may know, this story involves the colonists of Yuva, over a century after they first arrived, getting news that a Second Wave is on its way. In the last sample, the Planetary Council was discussing what to do, and a joint mission was proposed between the Ministry of Defense and Planetary Research to fly out and meet the ships while they were still in transit.

In this sample, another revelation is made, and it’s not very pleasant one! Read on to learn more…

*                     *                    *

Padda examined the design specs before her, the latest in a series of proposals from the joint task force charged with creating their diplomatic transports. It was now late afternoon and the sun was filtering in through the dome at a slight angle, lending a lovely glow to the arboretum’s generous supply of native specimens.

And in the cumulative radiance of the room, sunlight intermixed with neon-green and purples, the organic light of her Tab’s display glowed and showed her the Ministry’s latest design specs. As expected, the engineers had taken all possibilities to heart, and were producing endless iterations to ensure that the fleet that met the Flotilla would be prepared for any eventuality.

Well, almost any eventuality…

As Padda scanned through image after 3-D image of shuttles with double-hulls, upgraded thrusters, and upgraded acceleration cushions for its crew, she wondered if any amount of planning could prepare them for what they would be encountering soon. In her mind’s eye, she had run several scenarios, some practical and others fantastic. But all of them retained the same mix of awe and terror.

And in that, she knew she wasn’t alone. All over the planet, the spec and interact films were running sims that were based on the impending mission to meet the Second Wave. Word on the QIN had it that most of the simulations were nightmarish, finding an entire crew of dead colonists inside, the work of a hostile organism or a terrible disease. Others had it that the ships were a Trojan horse preceding an invasion, containing some kind of biological or nanotechnological scourge. People always loved to fantasize, and somehow, disaster scenarios remained a powerful draw.

And yet, the paranoid fantasies were not entirely unfounded. Three ships, coming from an Earth that had progressed a full century since Padda’s own ancestors had departed. And every indication they had told them that they were of greater sophistication than the ones that taken part in the First Wave. They had yet to meet them, and already one of their greatest concerns had been confirmed. Those that were on the way would be more advanced than those they were coming to meet.

Yes, despite their virtually identical genetic makeup, there was little doubt that the people they would be encountering on the other side of that airlock would seem very… alien to them. It was a thought that had crept up countless times in the past few months. And each time, she could not help but experience a slight shiver.

Finishing with her perusal of the latest draft plans, she gestured across the surface of her Tab to minimize these and call up the list of her latest messages. At the top of her Inbox, amidst countless requests, referrals, and questions regarding the latest in a million bureaucratic matters, was a message from Motlke. She called it up and looked directly head, preparing for her contacts to broadcast the video directly into her visual field.

She was surprised to see only a small text message appear as soon as it cued up.

My office, 1300 hours. Come alone.

Delete this message upon reading.

The directness and unmistakably clandestine nature of the message surprised her. Waving her hand across the screen, she quickly close and deleted the message, as instructed. Discreetly, she reattached her Tab to her suit, allowing the cells to draw power from her clothes, and left the arboretum.

___

“What are you talking about?” Padda asked, her face suddenly turning cold.

“I assure you, the information is legitimate,” Moltke replied. “My source in Defense says he’s seen all the schematics, even had the chance to peruse some documents on the stated purpose of the design. His exact words were ‘contingency situation’. That leaves very little doubt in my mind as to what it’s for.”

Padda placed her hands in front of her face in prayer fashion and took a deep breath. Though she knew Moltke well enough to give him the benefit of the doubt, her mind simply couldn’t accept what it was being told. She knew the people at Defense were in the habit of expecting and preparing for the worst. But this?

The sheer audacity and clandestine nature of it all, not to mention the severity…

“And he specifically said it was a weapon? There was no confusion on that point?”

“He was very clear,” Moltke said with a nod. Gently, he glided around to the other side of his desk, moving to the dispenser at the wall and requesting some refreshment. “Not only did the plans call for an unmanned craft, my source emphasized that a specific section was designated as ‘payload’. In the parlance of military planners, that means much the same as warhead.”

Padda took another deep breath and placed her hands on her lap. The dispenser began to buzz quietly and pour steaming tea into an awaiting pot, while another began to carefully print out biscuits onto a sheet. The noise suddenly made her realize that she had not eaten in hours and she was in fact quite hungry.

“And did he specify what nature the weapon would take?”

Moltke shrugged and then removed the teapot and biscuits from the dispenser, placing them all a small tray and bringing them over to his desk. He got to the next part as he poured the tea into two cups and handed her one.

“He could not be specific on that point. But, I did some additional checking, on a hunch, and I think I might have found out what Defense might be up to.”

Padda hummed receptively and smelled the tea. He had anticipated her desire correctly by ordering the Darjeeling. After blowing on it a few times, she took a tentative sip.

“And what did you find?”

Moltke took a sip himself and then exhaled hotly.

“Well, as you know, our high-energy labs have been working hard to produce all the antimatter we put in for. And that’s quite understandable, given the quantities that we stressed we would need. However, I placed a call to the labs to see if they had received any additional requests for fuel. As it turns out, the quantity they are now working towards is forty percent higher than what our initial projections called for. Obviously, this was no accident. I had to call in a few favors in order to get the details, but it seems a certain Councilor contacted them and put in for a greater requisition.”

“Let me guess…” Padda placed the cup down and folded her hands on her lap again. “Astrakhan?”

Moltke took another sip, chuckling to himself. “The order was not signed, but it was official and came directly from the Ministry. So between this requisition order, and the blueprints my source witnessed, I’d say it’s pretty obvious what they have planned.”

Padda shook her head. Yes, it was indeed obvious what they were up to. From all outward indications, they were prepping an antimatter warhead, something that could take out the entire Second Wave before it reached Yuva. Eliminate the potential threat before it had a chance to become a real one. But then again, Moltke’s source had used the words “contingency situation”. Was it possible Astrakhan and his colleagues would be giving them a chance to fail first? That seemed like the far more likely situation, and far less audacious. Her mind quickly began to embrace this more appealing of the two options…

“Is there any chance Defense could be planning to use this weapon as a ‘first strike’ option?”

“Possible,” Moltke conceded. “But if that is the case, he and his associates would have much to answer for once the dust settled on the whole affair. Mass murder is not something our people would look kindly upon, no matter how much he and his associates could stress that they did it to protect us.”

Padda accepted that. Granted, Astrakhan would not be the first man in history that was willing to sacrifice his career, even his life, in the name of protecting his people. But somehow, the Councilor just didn’t seem like the type to martyr himself, not when the danger was still so potential and nebulous.

No, she admitted to herself. There’s still time to do things our way.

“Assuming you’re right,” she said at last. “How do we proceed?”

Moltke shrugged again, draining the last of his tea. “I’m really not sure. Knowing doesn’t exactly change the nature of our situation right now, does it?”

Padda shook her head. “No, I guess it doesn’t. If we confront Astrakhan now, he’ll just deny it. I mean, we have nothing solid to charge with him. And if we tip our hand now, he and his people will no doubt just find a more clandestine way to prepare a ‘contingency’ weapon.”

Moltke raised his finger to her in pedagogical fashion. “Not to mention that it will let him know that I have sources within his Ministry. No, in the end, I’m afraid all we can do is… proceed with the plan we have and hope everything works out.”

“And by that you mean that we proceed with the rendezvous, and pray that our exploration teams don’t find something aboard those ships that will convince Defense that they need to blow them all to hell.”

Moltke chuckled. “Yes, that’s about right.” He looked to the biscuits sitting between them, noting that she hadn’t touched a one. “Now eat something, Anuja. You look absolutely famished.”