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.


Fuse me to the Moon… (with bombzzz!!1!1)

Tom James @ 02-02-2009

mandelbrot_fusionPhysicist Friedwardt Winterberg has a new paper here on a possible fusion-powered spacecraft, with shades of Project Orion and Project Daedalus:

Large scale manned space flight within the solar system is still confronted with the solution of two problems: 1. A propulsion system to transport large payloads with short transit times between different planetary orbits. 2. A cost effective lifting of large payloads into earth orbit.

For the solution of the first problem a deuterium fusion bomb propulsion system is proposed where a thermonuclear detonation wave is ignited in a small cylindrical assembly of deuterium with a gigavolt-multimegampere proton beam, drawn from the magnetically insulated spacecraft acting in the ultrahigh vacuum of space as a gigavolt capacitor.

For the solution of the second problem, the ignition is done by argon ion lasers driven by high explosives, with the lasers destroyed in the fusion explosion and becoming part of the exhaust.

The key point is that it’s designed without $MAGIC_FAIRY_DUST technology and is intended to be feasible from a purely engineering standpoint.

[via Slashdot][image from SantaRosa OLD SKOOL on flickr]


Alpha Centauri ‘should have an Earth-like planet’

Tomas Martin @ 11-03-2008

An artist’s impression of an earth-like planet around Alpha CentauriAlpha Centauri is the closest star system to our own but with a bonus: there are three stars rather than one. It’s also one of the best chances we know in the local area to have a planet similar to Earth capable of developing life like ours.

If any planet were to harbour earth-like life in the three-star system, it would likely be around Alpha Centauri A, which is most similar to the sun. However astronomer Javier Guedes and his coauthors believe that Alpha Centauri B is likely to have terrestrial planets in its habitable region. Based on computer simulations of planet formation, Guedes and his team found that no matter what starting conditions, a terrestrial planet always formed around the star. By studying the ‘wobbles’ the planet causes on its parent star, the team reckon they could find any potential planets within a few years.

[story via Daily Galaxy, image via Solstation]


A one-way ticket to Mars … or even beyond?

Paul Raven @ 06-03-2008

NASA-Mars-base-concept-drawing The technical obstacles and logistical difficulties to sending a manned mission to Mars are large, but by no means insurmountable. One of the biggest issues is the launch from Mars and subsequent return journey … which is just one of the reasons former NASA engineer Jim McLane reckons a Mars mission should be one-person and one-way only. [via SlashDot; image courtesy NASA]

“When we eliminate the need to launch off Mars, we remove the mission’s most daunting obstacle,” said McLane. And because of a small crew size, the spacecraft could be smaller and the need for consumables and supplies would be decreased, making the mission cheaper and less complicated.

While some might classify this as a suicide mission, McLane feels the concept is completely logical.

“There would be tremendous risk, yes,” said McLane, “but I don’t think that’s guaranteed any more than you would say climbing a mountain alone is a suicide mission. People do dangerous things all the time, and this would be something really unique, to go to Mars. I don’t think there would be any shortage of people willing to volunteer for the mission […] That will be the easiest part of this whole program.”

If you met the physical criteria for a mission like that, would you volunteer? I’d certainly consider it, I think, but in truth I don’t think I’m quite that brave.

And while we’re on the subject of planets in our solar system, there may be another one to add to the list. Via Warren Ellis comes news that Japanese astronomers believe they have located an as-yet undiscovered planet that is half the mass of our own Earth.

Of course, this “Planet X” is way out in the Kuiper Belt and orbits the sun about once every thousand years, so it’s not a very likely candidate for exploration. But it makes you wonder how much more stuff there is lurking in the outer reaches of the solar system waiting to be discovered.


Asteroid may hit Mars at end of January

Tomas Martin @ 22-12-2007

The asteroid is part of a small group of rocks that cross both Earth and Mars orbitsIf you’ve watched Deep Impact and Armageddon a hundred times and still want to know what a real asteroid impact would look like, mark January 30th 2008 on your calenders. On that date, the path of Asteroid 2007 WD5 passes perilously close to our neighbour Mars and may or may not hit it.

The NEO (near-earth object) was found in November and marked because it also passes close to Earth. Analysis of its path say there’s a 1 in 75 chance the 50m rock will impact on the red planet, causing a crater up to half a mile wide.

[via Chris Mckitterick, image by NASA]


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