Steppenwolf planets: life in interstellar space?

Paul Raven @ 10-02-2011

Life needs light, right? Without a parent star, a planet stands little chance of developing the conditions under which comples chemistry can bootstrap itself into biological processes.

So goes the conventional wisdom, at any rate, but here’s a paper by two space boffins from the University of Chicago that posits the possibility of “Steppenwolf planets”, roaming the vast tracts of interstellar space with no star to call their own, but of sufficient mass and composition to harbour subsurface oceans heated by the still-active planetary core.

Technovelgy compares this to an old George RR Martin story with which I’m not familiar, but I seem to remember a more recent precedent in the latest Greg Egan collection, though the title of the story eludes me.And then there’s Peter Watts’ Blindsight… can anyone think of any others?

It occurs to me that, short of technological developments of a science fictional scale, the only real use we’ll ever be able to put these hypothetical Steppenwolf planets to would be… well, the settings for science fiction stories, basically. Oh, the irony!

But hey, lookit – I managed to write the whole post without a single “born to be wild” gag!

Ah, nuts.


Charlie Stross: we’re probably never going to build starships

Paul Raven @ 30-11-2009

an unlikely spaceshipHere’s a second piece of punditry for your Monday morning, this time from the inimitable Charlie Stross. He’s been poking the traditional sf mythology of the starship with a sharp stick over the last few months, and the end result is a suggestion that – as far as realistic speculation about the future is concerned – we need to recognise the starship as the nautical metaphor it really is, and face up to the fact that the only plausible way we could reach other stars is through tiny “starwisp” probes made of memory diamond substrate. [image by Brenda Starr]

Again, the whole piece is well worth your time (if only to see that Stross has sat down and run the numbers on it), but here’s the coup de grace:

… yes, I think human interstellar exploration (and yes, maybe even colonization) might be possible, after a fashion. But to get there, we’re going to have to master at least two entire technological fields that don’t yet exist, even before we start trying to blast compact disc sized machines up to relativistic velocities. And that’s without considering the difficulty of how to cram an industrial infrastructure capable of building more of itself, of a machine capable of surviving in deep space — the equivalent of those 300,000 NASA technicians and engineers — into the aforementioned CD-sized machine …

If we succeed in doing it, it’s going to look nothing like the Starship Enterprise. Or even New Horizons. The whole reference frame we instinctively assume when we hear the word “ship” is just so wrong it’s beyond wrong-ness: it’s on a par with Baron Munchausen’s lunar exploits as seen in light of the Apollo Program. We need a new handle for discussing and analyzing such a venture. And the sooner we consign the “-ship” suffix to the dustbin of failed ideas, the better.

If Stross is right, then the only sf writer of my experience who has written truly plausible descriptions of post-human exploration beyond the solar system is Greg Egan… can anyone suggest any others?

But just in case Stross has put you on a downer with his debunking, here’s a potential antidote in the form of scientists speculating about using the Hawking radiation from small man-made black holes as a power source for interstellar propulsion. One of them even goes so far as to suggest that the sweet-spot in the physics that informs the theory implies that we live in “a universe optimised for building starships”…