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L. Neil Smith's
Number 756, February 2, 2014


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From the End of the World to Worlds Without End
by Jeff Fullerton

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Attribute to L. Neil Smith's The Libertarian Enterprise

"I haven't seen many leading intellectuals giving up their own luxuries, much less necessities, in order to make amends for the "rape of the Earth," "eco-doom," and the rest of what engineers and technologists are accused of. We shall continue to enjoy; but after us, The Deluge. Our children shall pay". [Source]

A quote from Jerry Pournelle's A Step Farther Out I came across in an idle moment in my recent struggles dealing with round two or three of the Coldpocalypse. Getting hard to keep track of which one!

I have this book laying around or packed away in a cardboard box somewhere. I first heard about it in the editorial comments of Far Frontiers—the paperback serial collections of SF short stories in the 1980s and eventually bought it. Years later I have come to see an uncanny similarity of the dilemma and complaints of the space advocacy movement then and today's TEA Party. Small in numbers and bent—if not outraged by the hypocrisy of the Left that thought the trillion dollar price tag for Gerrard K. O'Neil's vision of orbiting space habitats (which critics ridiculed as 'beekeeping in orbit') was too dear—and energy beamed down from solar power satellites (which many an environmentalist fretted might cook an occasional goose!) too dangerous—yet today think nothing of racking up many times the debt and wind farms that are literal bird killing cuisine arts that have been granted special dispensation to violate the Endangered Species Act—in the name of advancing 'Green Energy' that even many greens don't want.

Then again most greens don't want anything that produces more energy. Like in the motto of E.F. Schumacher'—"Small is Beautiful"—except when it comes to Big Government and their mantra has long been that the party is over and its time to scale back the affluent middle class American lifestyle in the name of saving the Planet—unless you happen to be one of those over-paid government employees with underfunded pension plans who must be bailed out—hell or high water!

And the quote above sure had Al Gore with his multiple mansions and obscene environmental footprint pegged—before he claimed credit for inventing the Internet—or before the majority of us ever heard of him—or the Internet for that matter!

And so begins my next article on extrasolar planets that I have been wanting to do for some time and have been promising to write. Also an opportunity to take a break from both the dreariness of winter and our unfree world with all its depressing problems. For it is one of the brighter spots in these troubled times.

The story really began with Giordano Bruno

Who; by the account at the link given lived in a time troubled like our own—if not more so—and was burned at the stake in the Year 1600 for holding the view—among other heresies—that the Earth was but one of several planets that revolved around the sun—and that the sun was a star and the stars were distant suns—each endowed with planetary systems of their own. The doctrine he espoused —The Plurality of Worlds expanded on the views of Copernicus which which was also controversial in that time and managed to get Galileo in trouble with religious authorities—who wanted Copernicus too—but in those tumultuous times—which were also the days of the Protestant Reformation and struggles between various European powers over spheres of influence and the building of empires in the newly discovered Americas—there were places of refuge where one might hide—albeit for maybe a short time—like Bruno did many times having lived in Italy, France, England and even Germany where he studied and wrote down his ideas and opinions on many things.
But I digress yet again!

I first heard of Giordano Bruno and his concept of the Plurality of Worlds from the lips of the late 20th Century astronomer Carl Sagan when I was a teenager and researched the subject further on my own. In the science section of my school library I came upon a book that I think was titled " The Planet Girded Suns' which described Bruno's claim of "Innumerable suns & innumerable earths"—essentially worlds without end. Being a science fiction fan and having known for some time that the stars were distant suns the concept was not foreign to me. I had known that long before I knew of Carl Sagan. Indeed I even knew something about an astronomer named Peter Van-de Kamp who claimed to have detected two giant planets similar to our Jupiter circling the red dwarf system known as Barnard's Star—the second closest neighbor to our Solar System at six light years—which made a bit of a hoopla back in the 1970s. Had read an article in a scholastic science magazine that detailed this ambitious plan by the British Interplanetary Society for the construction of an unmanned fusion propelled starship called Daedalus that could reach Barnard's Star in just a little more than half a century traveling at ten percent the speed of light. That seemed a bit slow to a kid who was used to the idea of rapid interstellar travel as in FTL (Faster Than Light) the way it is done in Star Trek, Star Wars and Battlestar Galactica! And I thought—why Barnard's Star? : when Alpha Centauri—which I first heard about as the intended destination of the Jupiter 2 of Lost in Space fame—was so much closer at only 4.3 light years and was much more interesting being a multiple system consisting of three stars—one of which was of the same spectral type as our sun and more likely to have habitable planets than some pitiful lone ember of a red dwarf. But it was reasoned at the time that it was uncertain whether systems with multiple suns even had planets and Barnard's was the first system detected beyond our own—or so they thought—and therefore more worth the investment of resources.

To make a long story short—Van-de Kamp's claim turned out to be a false alarm. He used a technique known as motion studies to detect planets by the effects of their gravitational tugs on their stars—which would wobble as they moved in their courses relative to our system and the more distant stars. Being a close neighbor of our sun—Sol—Barnard's Star has a very large proper motion; making it an ideal candidate for that method. Never the less Van-de Kamp's observations were determined to be in error because they could not be duplicated by other astronomers. It would be a while until we knew whether our solar system was unique, rare or common. Carl Sagan who often referred to Sol as "a mediocre star" made a bold prediction circa 1980 that within 20 years we would know whether or not other stars had planets.

Well, it came to pass in the Year 1995 that the first extrasolar planet—AKA exoplanet—was discovered orbiting 51 Pegasi—a sunlike G class star in the constellation of Pegasus. It was designated 51 Peg b and has been unofficially named by some astronomers as "Bellerophon" after the rider who tamed the namesake of the constellation to which the star belonged—the winged horse Pegasus of Greek mythology. 51 Peg b in addition to being the first officially confirmed exoplanet was also the first example of a new class of planets unrepresented in our solar system; gas giants with close orbits also known as "Hot Jupiters—or Jovians" which were totally unexpected and contrary to established theories of planetary formation. This particular planet was estimated to have a mass about half that of our Jupiter—(which weighs in at about 318 times the mass of Earth!) but actually larger in diameter because it is puffed up by expansion from the heat in its scorching close orbit which puts the planet Mercury to shame with a period of 4 days!

These "Hot Jupiters" proved to be easy to detect and before long quite a few were found in other systems using a variety of methods ranging from motion studies (like Van de Kamp attempted), Radial Velocity (measuring the blue and red shift of a star being tugged at by an unseen companion), Transit Method (detecting a dip in a star's light intensity from a planet passing across the disc—sort of a mini eclipse!) And Gravitational Lensing—(a process that uses the gravitational field of a star to focus light from more distant stars and can sometimes actually capture an image of a companion planet—a fleeting event!) Plus a few other observation techniques which I will not get into for the sake of time—but can easily be looked up by googling for information on exoplanets.

As for "Hot Jupiters" it seemed for a while that they might be common and that suggested that maybe our solar system with the small rocky planets close to the sun and the, giant, gaseous planets forming farther out—might not be the norm. This did not bode well for the prospect of finding habitable planets as quite a few systems had giant planets in their habitable—or "Goldilocks Zones". These particular planets fell into another subcategory—which astronomers started calling "Water Cloud" Jovians—because they would have water clouds in their atmospheres as opposed to ammonia clouds like Jupiter & Saturn or methane clouds like the giant ice planets; Uranus & Neptune. The giant planets in the habitable zones would tend to be bluish in color, streaked with white bands of water clouds. Such worlds might even support some form of airborne lifeforms that have evolved a means to stay aloft at the levels in the deep atmosphere that are hospitable to them. Some of these planets may also have moons capable of supporting lifeforms that might be more familiar to us.

Going sunward—there is a zone for what are known as "Clarified Jovians" which are the scalding version—too hot to form water clouds and typically a deep blue in color because they have been "clarified". Extremely hot Jupiter type planets have clouds of sulfur, silica or metal vapor and are either dusky looking or deep red in color. 51 Peg b—aka "Bellerophon" mentioned above fits this category.

Next step down came the Neptunian planets—which would be analogs of the giant Ice Planets—Uranus and Neptune of our solar system—moved sunward. From giant balls of ice they would thaw out into giant water worlds with oceans hundreds of miles deep. GJ1214b discovered in 2009 in a close orbit around a red dwarf star is an example of such a world. It is too hot to support life as we know it but similar worlds with more distant orbits around their stars might be habitable—at least to indigenous lifeforms. And strange places to explore with maybe an airship or submarine! Some of these would have deep atmospheres of hydrogen and water vapor and other gases and deep Stygian oceans underlaid with layers of exotic forms of water ice or heavily compressed water in a semi solid form that makes up the mantle of the planet over a rocky metallic core.

Some of these giant Neptunians are in scorching hot orbits similar to Hot Jupiters. Some are in cooler orbits and are likely to have moons also. Some of these moons might also support life if certain conditions are met.

Not long after the discovery of Neptunian planets in close orbits came the Super Earths—or super terrestrial planets. Also called Superterrans. These are planets ranging above the mass of the Earth up to about 10 times the mass of Earth—which may be the threshold for transition into Neptunians. Some astronomers set the limit lower. Some of the first of these were found in close orbits around sun-like stars. These are obviously too hot for life. But as time went on—more and more of these were being discovered in the habitable zones of red dwarf stars. Which may include multiple planets—as many of these are compact solar systems. One such system of particular interest is Gliese 581 which contains several super terrestrial planets—two of which orbit within the habitable or "Goldilocks Zone". The announcement of "Planet g" in 2010 caused quite a stir. This planet is estimated to have as mass of about 2 to 3 times that of Earth and is the 4th from its star in a system of 6 super terrestrial planets. Planet g—(I guess in this case g is for "Goldilocks"—which who knows—might make for a great name when they get around to officially naming exoplanets someday!)—may go down in history as the first habitable planet to be discovered around another star—if it actually turns out to be "habitable". If you look at the illustration of the scale comparison of the Gliese 581 system to our inner solar system in the link above, you will note that the first five planets would fit well inside the orbit of Mercury if they had the same orbits around our sun and planet f would be just outside the orbit of Venus. The Goldilocks Zone which encompasses g & d is the band of space between fire and ice where it is neither too hot or two cold for water to be in a liquid state is much more compact than the one in our own system which starts somewhere near the orbit of Venus (in our system Planet f would be a very warm to hot planet near the inner edge) to well beyond the orbit of Mars. In the Gliese 581 System—planet g is considered well within the zone and d is near the outer edge and may also be habitable if it has significant atmosphere and a good greenhouse effect.

Comparing red dwarfs to G-class yellow stars like our sun is like comparing campfires to bonfires. To be comfortably warm you have to huddle closer to a smaller fire. And it seems based on observations of multiple red dwarf systems it seems the planetary systems of smaller stars are more compact—much like the moon systems of Jupiter and Saturn which some astronomers have described as mini solar systems. But there may be some drawbacks associated with planets in close orbits around low end stars. The main problem is tidal locking in which over time results in a world with one side permanently facing its sun and the other fixed in perpetual darkness and cold. Much like our moon which keeps one side facing Earth and its day / night cycle—one month—are equal to its orbital period. Mercury and Venus are well on the way to that state—though not quite there yet. A terrestrial type in a red dwarf system would likely be tidally locked—especially by the time complex life comes into being. It is possible that circulation of oceans and atmosphere might mitigate the extreme temperatures of both sides. Or the surfaces of such planets may have their own habitable zones in a band between the blistering hot sub solar point on the day side and the frigid night side!

Another problem—some red dwarfs are also flare stars which fluctuate in output—with massive pulses of solar flare activity alternating with quiet periods which makes for a rather unstable climate on top of being belted by lethal bursts of radiation on a regular basis. Life may find a way to adapt—plants with heavy cuticles or hairy coverings (like many desert plants) and animals with protective scales or hair—or a subterranean or aquatic lifestyle.

And the discoveries continue.
More Super Earths around other M and K and even a few low end G class stars. The K stars are the intermediate ones in the lineup between red dwarfs and sun type stars which emit more in the orange part of the visible spectrum. The average habitable planet in such a system would have an orbit like Venus and they have found a few candidates. Perhaps best known is Kepler 22b

With a diameter about two and a half times that of Earth it may be either a small gaseous planet or an ocean world. The system is very far away in the neighborhood of 600 light years. Much closer to home is Tau Ceti which is only 12 light years distant—on the literal edge of our interstellar neighborhood.

It is a system of 5 Super Earth type planets endowed with a massive asteroid belt that puts our own to shame—and there may be other planets with longer orbits outside that belt—perhaps the likes of our gas giants—that will be eventually detected. One, possibly two of the inner planets may fall within the habitable zone—depending on the composition of the atmosphere and other characteristics. One near the inner edge. The other on the outer. Could quite possibly end up with a world that is hot and marginally habitable and a cold one that is in a perpetual ice age—or possibly a Snowball Earth. But the environment could be chaotic for all the planets in that system given a higher frequency of impacts from the more numerous asteroids and comets! If there is any life there—it could be a lot like John Brunner's novel: The Crucible of Time—in which today's fabled city may end up tomorrow's interesting hole in the ground! Civilization, let alone intelligent life might have a hard time getting started given the increased frequency of mass extinction events the likes of the one that killed the dinosaurs or the Permian / Triassic event—or even worse!

Perhaps the most pragmatic rationale that would justify the great expense for colonizing space would be the notion that should not keep all our eggs in one basket—a single planet—but rather spread them out by making humanity into a multi planet species. Another rationale is economic in nature and in addition to generating a flood tide of new wealth to pay the way could also provide an economic uplift to the population remaining behind on Earth. A third rationale is like the first one mentioned—but it aims at escape from tyranny and the preservation of human freedom in addition to continuation of the species. But before exploring these—we must first ask the question: can human beings even live on some of these other planets—let alone get there?

In our speculations regarding the habitability of other planets we have been disappointed before. Not long before the time I was born in the early 1960s they were still making rosy speculations about Venus and Mars which in addition to being either hot or cold as hell ( depending on your definition of hell) had atmospheres that were totally unbreathable and turned out to be a far cry from the Golden Age science fiction of Edgar Rice Burroughs and Ray Bradbury & Robert A. Heinlein. There remains hope for Mars in the way of fossil evidence of past life from when the planet had warmer, wetter conditions—or living microbes clinging to a precarious existence in some sheltered niche—but to paraphrase Elton John in his song "Rocket Man"—it's hardly the kind of place to raise your kids—though I'm sure there are plenty willing to try.

The problem with Mars is that it is too cold, too dry and most of all the air is too thin. Only one millibar—which might as well be the vacuum of space as far as breathing is concerned. Plus it is a reducing atmosphere made up of mostly CO2. And Venus—which was once hailed as the Earth's twin turned out to roasting hot—hotter than we bake most foods in an oven—and has the same kind of atmosphere as Mars—only more of it—too much and it even drizzles sulfuric acid in the cooler, upper levels of the atmosphere! As far as living there—the Russian Venera landers lasted maybe a few hours until the heat seeped in and overwhelmed the electronics of the robotic systems! Venus seems to be too hot because its too close to the sun (just past the inner boundary of the Goldilocks Zone) and Mars—which is well inside the outer boundary seems too small to retain enough atmosphere to become or remain habitable over the long term.

It is possible that our solar system lucked out on having only one habitable world. Had Mars been a little larger or the Goldilocks Zone shifted a little more sunward—we might have had at least two habitable planets in our solar system instead of one lonely Earth.

As for the science—we are literally living in a renaissance era that is transforming our understanding of our place in the Cosmos. It is the Copernican Revolution on Steroids. Like Carl Sagan's prediction of two decades ago that foretold of a time in which we would know if planetary systems were common around other stars (and we find that the majority of stars—even binary and multiple systems as well as red dwarfs and even the old population I stars with low metallicity have them!)—within the next 20 and likely even less—we will likely know the makeup of many nearby stellar systems as well as we knew our own solar system in the 20th Century just prior to the advent of the myriad probes launched to reconnoiter our inner and most of the outer planets. And of particular interest will be our nearest neighbor—Alpha Centauri—a system consisting of a G and a K-type star with an elliptical orbit around a common center of mass and a separation close to the orbital distance of Saturn at closest approach—plus an outlying red dwarf companion known as Proxima Centauri at half a light year from the main pair. A system with three habitable zones and close enough to make it a feasible objective for physical exploration and colonization if terrestrial type planets are detected.

To pull that off will of course require an economy much bigger and more advanced technologically than what we have currently. It will likely involve colonizing the Asteroid Belt—the details of which I am champing at the bit to delve into but it has been a busy winter and I was lucky to find time just to write what I have now. So the best is yet to come.

On our voyage to escape the End of the World—to Worlds Without End. Giordano Bruno finally got the last laugh on those who insisted the Earth was the Center of the Universe. I hope we get to get to laugh at those who believe in Only One Earth and the Limits to Growth (except when it comes to government of course!)
It's my mission in Life!

End Notes:

Conjecture on Super Earth-type planets.
Originally the predictons were rosy. The assumption was then that they were more conducive to life because being more massive they might be more geologically active—meaning a more vigorous tectonic cycle which under current theories is deemed essential for a planet to maintain habitable conditions over the long term. It was even assumed that Earth might even be near the low end of the range given that Venus which is only slightly smaller lacks tectonic activity. The classic Habitable Planets For Man by Stephen Dole puts the range of habitibility somewhere between .40 times the mass of Earth and 2.35. Later speculations on Superterrans suggest that many such planets may be gaseous in nature—like mini-Neptunes and the more terrestrial type ones may lack plate tectonics because increased density of their mantles by the higher gravity.
More recently astronomers have suggested that Super Earths are a mix of both gaseous and terrestroid types and the lower end ones may not be very diffrent from Earth.

Another article from Psychology Today with some interesting speculations on the properties of Super Earths. Gravity seems to be less of an issue that escape velocity as it pertains to planetary mass. [Link]

An interesting article concerning the Alpha Centauri system. [Link]

The letter designations for stellar and planetary companions in a nutshell:

When a star is determined to be part of a multiple system—the designation of the primary—or largest member of the system is "A" and the secondary member is "B" as in Alpha Centauri A & Alpha Centauri B. the third star of that system Proxima Centauri (which some astronomers question as an actual member) is "C".

Lower case letters are used for planetary companions which are labeled in order of discovery which may not necessarily be the order in distance from their primaries- as the more massive planets are often discovered first. And now you know why planet g comes before planet d in the Gliese 581 System lineup and other ones that might have had you scratching your head!

Late in 2012 it was announced that a small planet close in size to our Earth was detected in a very close & obviously scorching hot orbit around Alpha Centauri B. Designated Alpha Centauri Bb it generated a flurry of excitement for a while but has since been questioned as subsequent attempts to duplicate the data have failed to confirm its existence. Similar doubts were being raised for a while in regard to the existence of Gliese 581g—but more recent observations seem to confirm its existence.

As you can see- the science of detecting exoplanets is still in its infancy. Some of the extrapolations and speculations of a stronomers attempting to model extrasolar planets based on the minuscule amounts of data are kind of like building entire organisms from a few bones or even a jawbone or single tooth!

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