Make Pluto great again, but not every other dwarf planet there is

Thursday, 23 March, 2017

Nearly eleven years after losing its status as a fully-fledged planet of the solar system, dwarf planet Pluto stands to be reinstated to the big league. But it won’t be alone. Another one hundred bodies, orbiting the Sun, many of them likewise dwarf planets, stand to be upgraded.

Were this to happen, the size of the solar system, in terms of the number of planets it has, would swell. Instead of the current eight planets, there would be one hundred and two. I don’t know about you, but that seems excessive.

When Pluto was relegated to dwarf planet status, I, like many others, wasn’t happy about it. But now it seems quite reasonable. Pluto, for instance, is only seventy percent the size of the Moon, and just under twenty percent the size of Earth. Referring to it as a planet seems absurd.

On the other hand, dwarf planet isn’t much of a designation either. Perhaps we need to rethink the way bodies of the solar system are classified all together? My suggestion, keep the eight planets of the solar system as they are, and consider anything smaller than Mercury, a “member”.

On reflection though, that will probably only create yet more problems, and disagreement. Instead, let’s reinstate Pluto as a planet, a honourary planet, since for a long time it was always regarded as such. Then reserve labels like dwarf planet to bodies discovered after Pluto.

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A fictive flight over the surface of Mars

Friday, 17 March, 2017

About eighteen months ago, I posted some footage of a reasonably realistic animated flyover over a region of Mars called Atlantis Chaos, produced by the European Space Agency.

More recently, Finnish photographer and video producer Jan Fröjdman, using high resolution photos taken by the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter, combined with a 3D process, has crafted a video clip of a fictive flight above the surface of the red planet.

As good as being there, if you ask me. Go full screen, for best results.

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What’s a day on Mars going to give you everyday? Permanent jet lag

Friday, 10 March, 2017

The day on Mars is only forty minutes longer than the day on Earth. Yet sols, as they are often called, to help avoid confusion when talking about the rotational periods of both planets, could prove to be hard for would-be colonists of the red planet to adjust to.

As surprising as it sounds, the extra time would be enough to leave human dwellers feeling permanently jet lagged. It seems we are simply far too used to a twenty-four hour day only.

Tacking on 40 minutes every night adds up quickly; after a short while, the Mars clock would be so far offset from the 24-hour clock that noon would be the Earth equivalent of midnight, and you might start to feel the consequences. You might experience a persistent cognitive fuzz, causing you to forget mundane things and take longer to learn new ones. You might start making mistakes.

I could think of any number of people who would be grateful to have what amounts to almost an extra hour in the day, but now it looks like going to Mars isn’t going to be the answer for the time poor among us after all.

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Apollo astronauts were fantastic photographers, here’s the proof

Friday, 10 March, 2017

Photo by John Young, Apollo 16

Apollo astronauts weren’t just heroes, they were fantastic photographers. So believes Dutch designer Simon Phillipson, and that’s not something I’m going to argue with.

To make his point, Phillipson has collected two hundred and twenty five photos, taken by thirty three NASA astronauts, during the Apollo Moon flights, and published them in a book, Apollo VII – XVII, that he wrote with Floris Heyne, Joel Meter, and Delano Steenmeijer.

See a selection of photos from the book here.

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Trappist 1 was found last week, but you can visit the website now

Tuesday, 28 February, 2017

Trappist 1 poster, by NASA

Well that was quick. Within days of NASA revealing that Trappist 1, an ultra cool dwarf star thirty-nine light years from the Sun, was found to be hosting seven earth-like planets, the star, and its solar system, already has a website.

No sign – yet anyway – of a social media presence though. I expect someone will soon point out to the powers that be of the Trappist 1 system, that this is detrimental to their brand, and inhibits engagement between them and their clients.

Clients? Sure, that would be anyone who intends to colonise the Trappist 1 planets. There’s also – already – some short stories inspired by the system, and a nice collection of posters. I’m impressed, this is a lot of work in a short amount of time.

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NASA finds seven earth size planets, but are they anything like Earth?

Friday, 24 February, 2017

After days of keeping us in suspense about a new discovery, NASA let the cat out of the bag, in the early hours of yesterday morning. The TRAPPIST optic robotic telescope, located in Chile, recently identified a dwarf star, about forty light years distant from Earth, that is host to seven planets around about the same size as Earth.

Come on now, you didn’t think they were going to announce that an alien civilisation had been found, did you?

This is still a significant discovery though. Particularly as three of the seven bodies orbiting TRAPPIST-1 – the star also takes its name from the Belgian operated telescope – are within its solar system’s so-called Goldilocks, or habitable zone, an area capable of supporting life, that is neither too hot, nor too cold.

It is this bit that is especially of interest, as it means these planets may habour water in liquid form, and, as a result, potentially life of some sort. And that is obviously an exciting prospect. But talk we may one day be able to emigrate there is well wide the mark, to say the least.

There is, you see, a big difference between a planet that is “earth-like”, and one exactly like Earth. Or a planet that could be called an Earth twin, or Earth analog. For example, Proxima b, an exoplanet within the habitable zone around Proxima Centauri, the nearest star to the Sun, is considered to be earth-like, as it is a rocky, or terrestrial planet.

It might have some sort of atmosphere, and possibly there could be liquid water on its surface. But Proxima b may be far from habitable, at least as far as humans are concerned. As Proxima Centauri is a red dwarf star, which are relatively cool, Proxima b would need to be quite close, to be within the habitable zone.

This sort of proximity however could mean Proxima b is tidally locked, meaning the planet’s rotational period matches the time it takes to orbit the star. This result here is only one side of the planet would ever face the star.

Therefore, the sunny side of Proxima b would be quite warm, whereas the night side would be extremely cold. The only spots that might be conducive to life, would be near the day-night terminator. In addition, the planet is also exposed to stellar wind pressures far greater than those that Earth experiences.

Not all that earth-like, after all. So while some form of life may manage to eke out an existence there, it would hardly be suitable for human occupation. The same conditions could well apply to the planets within the Goldilocks zone of TRAPPIST-1, given it to is a relatively cool dwarf star.

At the very least, they’re quite possibly tidally locked. If we’re looking for a new planet to settle on then, it needs to be an Earth twin. This is a planet, as the name suggests, that is identical in almost every way to ours. And if there are at least one hundred billion planets in our galaxy, the Milky Way, then it stands to reason some proportion must be virtually identical to Earth.

But an Earth twin candidate needs to be more than a terrestrial planet, orbiting within the habitable zone of its solar system though. In their book, Rare Earth, published in 2000, US paleontologist Peter D. Ward, and Donald Brownlee, a professor of astronomy, outlined the criteria necessary for a planet to be classified as an Earth twin:

The right distance from a star; habitat for complex life; liquid water near surface; far enough to avoid tidal lock; right mass of star with long enough lifetime and not too much ultraviolet; stable planetary orbits; right planet mass to maintain atmosphere and ocean with a solid molten core and enough heat for plate tectonics; a Jupiter-like neighbor to clear out comets and asteroids; plate tectonics to build up land mass, enhance bio-diversity, and enable a magnetic field; not too much, nor too little ocean; a large moon at the right distance to stabilize tilt; a small Mars-like neighbor as possible source to seed Earth-like planet; maintenance of adequate temperature, composition and pressure for plants and animals; a galaxy with enough heavy elements, not too small, elliptical or irregular; right position the galaxy; few giant impacts like 65 million years ago; enough carbon for life, but not enough for runaway greenhouse effect; evolution of oxygen and photosythesis; and, of course, biological evolution.

That’s an extensive list. Some astronomers think two percent of the Milky Way’s planets may be Earth twins, meaning there could be two billion such bodies. Given the exacting conditions required for their existence though, I think the actual number may be far smaller.

It could a very long time, therefore, before any announcement is made regarding the discovery of a truly earth-like planet, that is, an Earth analog. It also means we have to take greater care of our own Earth. Clearly we’re not going to be emigrating anywhere else in any hurry.

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Saturn’s rings, as seen in unprecedented detail, by Cassini–Huygens

Friday, 3 February, 2017

Saturn's rings, photo via NASA

NASA’s Cassini–Huygens automated space probe has been orbiting Saturn, the sixth planet of the solar system, since 2004. During that time it has taken countless photos, including this set, that show’s the planet’s ring system in intricate detail. Incredible. Here’s a larger version of the above photo.

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UFO, psychics, and spies. The truth is amongst the CIA’s data

Wednesday, 1 February, 2017

The truth is out there. Somewhere, surely. Dig through the twelve million, that’s right, twelve million pages of data, or some 930,000 declassified documents, that the CIA recently made searchable online, and see what you can learn about past investigations into unidentified flying objects, psychics, and spies, and the like.

A great way to spend a rainy day, maybe?

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Graffiti, on Earth, and to the outer reaches of space, by Josh Keyes

Tuesday, 24 January, 2017

Artwork by Josh Keyes

Portland based painter Josh Keyes may not be a graffiti artist, but he can imagine a world where graffiti is to be seen no matter where you look, or where you are.

The likes of whales and icebergs are fair game for this highly resourceful would-be tagger, and not even leaving the planet helps either, as this work-in-progress image of a Space Shuttle, titled “Tin Can”, shows.

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Epoch, a journey of epic proportions through the solar system

Wednesday, 18 January, 2017

Dim the lights, turn up the volume, and go into full screen mode for Epoch, a journey to the far reaches of the solar system.

By Ash Thorp, whose video NONE I linked to last October, and San Francisco based Danish art director and motion designer, Chris Bjerre.

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