Saturday, December 30, 2017

Dealing With Characters

If you read my other blog (, you may have seen my facebook post a couple weeks ago that I couldn’t post that week’s episode because Bugalu was being a jerk, and I had to do a major rewrite. As I did the rewrite, Mac was hostile and everybody started explaining everything! (As you know, Bob, Earth’s moon orbits around Earth, and it takes about 28 days to do it.) The only thing worse than an info dump is a completely unnecessary info dump!

I used to say that I start with a character, and they tell me their story. Well, kinda sorta. Sometimes, I start with a scene (a battleground after the battle) or an experience (being tossed off a cliff like a piece of garbage). Then I start wondering, “Who would be in this situation? How did they get here? Or, if it’s more interesting, what will they do now?”

No matter how tight-lipped a character starts out, by the time I’ve written 3-4 thousand words about him/her, they have layers of likes, dislikes, memories, experiences, hang-ups and maybe even dreams. They are no longer 2-dimensional (an apprentice wizard), they are developing some depth (Her teacher has gotten frail during her apprenticeship, so she feels she should stay and take care of him).

I get to know my characters pretty well. You’d think that would be a good thing, but... it has its drawbacks.

When they start telling me their story, they might not give all the details. We don’t know each other very well, and they don’t think their life is that interesting, usually, so I can’t blame them for editing what they give me. And I don’t usually question much while I’m getting the rough draft down. But when I start going through the next draft, I start asking for details.

“Smitty, I’m not sure I understand. Mac just came on board, and you’re already out of sorts with her. Did she do something to irritate you?”

“She stared at me from the moment her transpod opened!”

That hadn’t been mentioned before. Obviously, that scene needed expanding so the reader would know he was not - normally - an old sour-puss.

“He’s passed over plenty of hopeful subordinates who would say he is.”

“He decided they wouldn’t fit his team. Part of being an officer. Hold your peace, Drake. She’s talking to Smitty.”

Okay. Maybe I should say here that I’ve been working on Mac’s adventures on the Fireball for about 40 years. That’s a long time to have the same people living in your head. Yes, we’ve taken breaks - some of them pretty long - and they’ve had to share my head with plenty of other characters during those decades. But I think it’s safe to say that I REALLY know Mac, and the rest of the crew.

How well do you know your siblings or spouse? If you’re having a bad day, do they know it? Or do you still hide that away?

When I confronted Bugalu about being a jerk in the soon-to-be-posted episode, he responded with, “I was trying to make Mac get her temper under control. It’s not like I haven’t talked to her about that before.”

Sure enough, Mac was verging on a rampage, until Bugalu had shocked her by being a jerk. I put on my ‘director’/counselor hats, and we worked to get their moods more... settled in the story.

Oh, and the un-necessary explaining? It happens from time to time, mostly in a rough draft. I just pull my editor hat on tight and remove the unnecessary bits. In this case, 2 pages of ‘splainin’ became 6 lines. 5.5 lines. Somewhere in there.

I don’t want my characters to edit their story. That’s part of my job.

Fighting between characters? Maybe, because siblings fight. Spouses fight. After 40 years, you have to expect an occasional disagreement. But if it becomes part of the story, it needs a reason. Something other than, “I was having a bad day.”

Friday, December 15, 2017

Weird Planets 12

Good morning! This is the 12th day of your tour, and it’s the last day! So tomorrow you can either rest up or start home, it’s your choice. Now, we do have a number of planets to get through today, so everybody buckle up and let’s get going!

The first one is 51 Pegasi b. Now, don’t ask about the name; they only gave us clues about one naming method, and have completely ignored any other methods that may have been used. Anyway, 51 Pegasi b is gigantic, about half the mass of Jupiter. Yet it completes its orbit in 4 days, so it’s tucked right in close, like so many seem to be. This was the first confirmed exo-planet orbiting a sun-like star, and that’s its claim to fame.

Here is system HR 8799. We aren’t here to see any one planet in this system, but the entire system. This was the first exoplanet system that was directly imaged. As you can see, the system contains a debris disk and 4 massive planets, at least.

Now this - and I keep asking for the name, but they never give it to me - was once called the Oldest Alien Planet. It is 12.7 billion years old, so it formed more than 8 billion years before Earth and only 2 billion years after the Big Bang. Its discovery made people start thinking that planets are very common in the universe and that life may have begun far sooner than anybody had ever imagined. I’m still waiting to hear from one of those civilizations that got started so much earlier than us.

Here we are, only 420 light-years away from Earth, at the Coku Tau-4 system. See the big dusty disk going around the star? Scientists think this system has the universe’s youngest star, less than 1 million years old. They haven’t actually found it yet, but if you look closely, you can see a big hole in that disk. That hole is 10 times the size of Earth’s orbit around the sun, and they surmise it’s been made by this planet cleaning up the dust as it rolls around its orbit.

This is Hat-P-1. Huge, isn’t it? It is 1.76 times bigger than Jupiter, but only has 1/2 Jupiter’s mass. It’s lighter than a ball of cork would be! What’s holding it together? I have no idea. Known as one of the Puffiest Planets known, it could float in water, if it could find a tub big enough.

This Super-Neptune, called Hat-P-11b, is 4.7 times the size of Earth, but has 25 times Earth’s mass. If you weighed 100 pounds on Earth, here you’d weigh 2,500 pounds. Doesn’t sound very inviting to me. And it’s puny star is 3/4 the size of our sun, and cooler. On the other hand, 11b’s orbit is so close to that star, it only takes 4.88 days to complete an orbit, and the surface temperature is around 1100°F. Nope, still doesn’t sound inviting.

Now here’s a fun one. Most planets orbit in the same plane as their star’s equator. But XO-3b’s orbit is at a 37-degree angle to the star’s equator. How did that happen? The only other planet that’s been known to have such a tilted orbit was Pluto. But it got demoted to dwarf planet, and its eccentricities are of no interest anymore. So tilted orbits are an oddity. I’ve heard a rumor that one planet orbits backwards to its star’s rotation. But I don’t know where it is, or else we’d squeeze that in today, too.

Okay, watch carefully, or you’re going to miss this planet. SWEEPS-10 is only 740,000 miles from its parent star. It zips around so fast, a SWEEPS-10 year is only 10 hours long. This puts it in a classification called Ultra Short Period Planets. Those are the fastest planets, where their orbits last less than a day.

Take a good look, this is the last planet of the day, and of our tour. COROT-exo-3b is the densest exoplanet known to man at this time. As you can see, it’s about the same size as Jupiter, but it’s mass is 20 times Jupiter’s. That makes it about twice as dense as lead. But it might not even be a planet. Scientists are also considering the possibility that it’s a brown dwarf, or failed star.

Please watch your step as you disembark. Thank you for taking our tour, and for sticking with it for the entire 12 legs. I know the tour is called ‘Weird Planets’, but actually, this was only a sampling. If we had tried to show you all the weird planets out there, we could be at it for years. Have safe journeys home!

[At last! I don’t know what I’ll be doing next week, but it will probably have nothing to do with planets, weird or not!]


Wednesday, December 6, 2017

Weird Planets 11

Good Morning! Today we'll be visiting some of the Gliese discoveries, and then... well, we'll see if we have the time to visit anything else.

Our first visit is to Gliese 436b, which orbits that faint red dwarf you can probably see in the distance. Gliese 436b is about the size of Neptune, but has a small rocky core, surrounded by ice that makes up the majority of its size. And then 436b has a huge hydrogen cloud surrounding it, a cloud that is approximately 50 times the size of 436b proper. Like a comet, 436b exudes a 'tail' of this hydrogen as it orbits its sun. And finally, despite its icy exterior, this planet has an average temperature around 439 C. Some people call this the 'burning ice planet'.

Here is Gliese 581c, which made headlines when its discovery was announced in 2007. This is a super-Earth, with a mass 5 times that of our own. So if you weigh 100 pounds on Earth, here you would weigh 500 pounds. Even so, this was one of the first to be announced as a potentially hospitable planet. However, further study revealed that it was 'tidally locked', meaning that one side always faces its parent star. That side would be blistering hot, and the opposite side unbelievably cold. The only possible location that might offer acceptable temperatures would be the 'twilight zone' between day and night, which I'm thinking would possibly experience a lot of wind. So, a fairly thin band of livable area with a lot of wind, and you weigh 5 times what you should. Surely we could find a better place to colonize?

Gliese 581e is in the same system. 581E used to hold the title as the smallest alien planet, but in January 2011, the announcement of Kepler 10b meant 581e lost that title.

Okay, we do have time for a couple more, so let's look at the WASP planets!

WASP 17b is the first planet discovered that orbits in the opposite direction as its host star's rotation. It also currently has the title of 'Most Puffy'. This is because it is the 2nd largest planet currently known, but its mass is half of Jupiter's. Sounds like a big ball of gas, right?

That brings us to our final system for the day, WASP 47. This is a compact multi-planet system, the only one known to hold a 'hot Jupiter' with close companions.

Now, sit back and relax. We'll be back at the station in a jiffy.

Thursday, November 16, 2017

Weird Planets 10

Good morning! Congratulations on completing the first 9 installments of your tour. We don’t have as many worlds to visit as yesterday, so there will be ample time to relax. If you want a pillow or beverage, press the blue button on your arm rest, and either CXQ-9 or CXQ-10 will tend to you. Now, if everybody is comfortable, we’ll get started.

Excuse me. I’m sorry to disturb you, but we are entering the system of today’s first planet. If you turn your attention to your viewers, currently on their maximum magnification, you’ll see a small deep-pink blob. This is GJ-504b, the Pink Planet, 57.3 light years from Earth. The dark pink glow of GJ-504b is caused by the remaining heat of its formation. It’s about the same size as Jupiter, but it’s further from its sun than Neptune is from ours. Scientists didn’t think such a large planet could form at that distance because there wouldn’t be enough dust and debris. Your viewers will adjust their magnification as we approach and swing past, so you can get a good look.

Your attention, please. We are now 434 light-years from Earth, approaching planet J1407B, which is described as a ‘Super-Saturn’. It has a mass of 40 Jupiters and 37 rings surround it, spanning 120 million kilometres. That’s about 200 times the size of Saturn’s rings. Some scientists think these rings may be in the process of forming moons, which has them quite excited, since they’ve never seen that happen outside of our solar system. Actually, even within our system, we haven’t seen it happen.

CXQ-9 and -10 will serve brunch as we move on, complete with champagne! Enjoy!

Good afternoon! Your viewers are currently showing KOI-314c, the lightest planet to have both its mass and physical size measured. Rather surprisingly, it has the same mass as Earth, but is 60% larger in diameter. If you weigh 100 pounds on Earth, you will still weigh 100 pounds on KOI-314c. However, the larger diameter seems to indicate a very thick atmosphere. If you look slightly to the left of the planet’s image, you’ll see the red dwarf star that it orbits. This system is about 200 light-years from Earth. Yes, we are already headed back to the tour station.

This is our final viewing for today. This is Epsilon Eridani b, which orbits an orange Sun-like star only 10.5 light years from Earth. Before long, Earth telescopes may be able to photograph it directly. Unfortunately, it is too far from its star to have liquid water or life as we know it. However, I’m going I’ll make a couple low orbits around it and set your viewers on maximum, and you can all try to spot life as we don’t know it!

Ladies and Gentlemen, we have returned to the tour station. I hope you have enjoyed your day with Star Tours. Er, I mean, Planet Tours.

Wednesday, November 8, 2017

Weird Planets 9

How many are here for Leg 9 of the Weird Planets Tour? All of you? Okay, we’ll get started. Frankly, a lot of people stay in their hotel room for this day. After 8 straight days of viewing planets, they feel they’ve seen all the possibilities. I prefer to think that each planet has something that makes it unique. Everybody secured? Here we go.

Today we’re going to visit planets and systems discovered by the Kepler Telescope, which was the first unit designed and launched specifically to look for xenoplanets. Our first stop is the Kepler-11 system. Take a look; there are at least 5 planets, although sometimes I swear there’s 6. And they’re all packed in real close to their parent star. If this were the Earth system, all of them would be within Mercury’s orbit. And yet, this system is stable; they aren’t playing havoc with each other’s orbits. When this system was first discovered, a lot of scientists revisited the ideas about planet formation. And Kepler-11 also suggested that systems with multiple small planets might be common. It makes the Earth system a little less unique, but ups the possibility that other intelligent beings – or at least life of some kind – will eventually be found.

At about that same time, the Kepler Telescope discovered Kepler-10c, a mega-Earth planet that some called the “Godzilla of Earths”. 10c is 2.3 times the size of Earth, and 17 times heavier. I think that means if you weigh 100 pounds on Earth, on 10c you would weigh 1,700 pounds. You couldn’t stand up on 10c. You wouldn’t have enough muscles to do it. Now, 10c has a sibling, Kepler-10b, which is a lava world. We’ll catch a glance of that on our way out. The Kepler-10 system is 570 light years from Earth, and is located in the constellation Draco. Considering the naming practice, there should also be a planet called Kepler-10a. I keep asking about it, but they never add any notes about that planet, if it even exists.

In front of us, you can see a double star. Orbiting around both stars is a circumbinary planet, Kepler-16b, which some have nick-named “Tatooine”. You’ve already visited the other so-called “Tatooine”, haven’t you? In a trinary star system? Yes, that earlier 1 only orbits one of the 3 stars, so the chances of any occupants actually seeing 2 suns setting at the same time are pretty slim, but on Kepler-16b, that could be possible.

Our next planet is Kepler-22b. Yes, ma’am, I’m sure there were discoveries between 16 and 22, but they haven’t given me any information on them. They carefully pick which planets to have you view. I’m afraid we couldn’t possibly visit every planet that’s been discovered. At this point, there are thousands of them, and it would take years, even if we managed several in 1 day.

The next planet is Kepler-22b. This planet is in its system’s habitable zone, and could possibly be an actual water world, which we don’t have in Earth’s system.

A short hop away is the Kepler-36 system. Do you see the 2 planets? Just 2, and their orbits are extremely close to each other. At their closest, the distance between them is 1.2 million miles, which is only 5 times the distance between the Earth and her moon. That might make colonizing easier than Earth had in colonizing Mars.

And now we skip all the way to Kepler-186f. Does anything look familiar about this planet? Some people think there is, even if they can’t say what. Kepler-186f was the first rocky planet found in the habitable zone, so the temperature is right for liquid water. It’s also very close in size to Earth. It always makes me want to land and see what might live there. But we have to keep moving, or we’ll never get done.

Here we have the Kepler-444 system, the oldest known planetary system. Here we have no less than 5 terrestrial-sized planets, all in orbital resonance. This group shows that solar systems have formed and existed in our galaxy for nearly its entire life.

Kepler-452b is the first Earth-sized planet found in the habitable zone of a sun-like star. So it might look even more familiar than 186f did. 452b is only 60% larger than Earth, and 5% further from its star. Following our earlier logic, if you weigh 100 pounds on Earth, here you would weigh 160 pounds, which would be tiring, but do-able. And if a typical day on Earth got to 100°, here it might get to 95°. But there are a lot of things that have an influence on a planet’s temperature, so I’m not absolutely certain of that last statement. Still, at first glance, it certainly sounds inviting.

And now, just one last pause on our way back to the station. As you may know, the Kepler Telescope developed a technical problem, which scientists ‘fixed’, sort of, but its mission had to be modified to accommodate its somewhat limited capability. At that point, they stopped using ‘Kepler’ in the naming ritual and started using ‘K2’, to indicate these discoveries were made after its mission was modified.

This is the K2-3 system. We’re a bit late getting back, so we won’t stop here long. K2-3 has 3 super-Earths in orbit. If you check today’s pamphlet, the mass and radius of each is listed. The home office keeps promising to include updates on their atmosphere compositions, so if you see that information, I’d appreciate you letting me know.

And here we are. I apologize for a long day, but Leg 9 always takes longer than the home office thinks it should. Have a pleasant evening and get a good night’s sleep.

Thursday, October 19, 2017

Weird Planets 8

Good morning. I am your replacement driver and tour guide. Your previous driver, um, has been... has been asked to stay home today.

Hope you had a large breakfast, because we’re going to visit several ‘HD’ systems on this leg, and it could be a long time until supper. Everybody buckled in? If not, get that way, ‘cause we’re headed out.

Okay, on the right side is HD 106906 b. It’s 11 times the size of Jupiter. Yes, it does have a parent star. It’s one of those bright bits of light ahead of us. This planet’s distance from its star is 650 times as Earth’s distance from our sun, so I can’t blame you for asking. Despite being so remote from its star, the average temperature on the surface is 1500° Celsius, which is 2,732° Fahrenheit. That’s pretty toasty warm, in my mind. Scientists say it shouldn’t exist at all, being so large and so far from its parent. Where did it get enough material that far out? But however it came to exist, it’s only 13 Million years old. Just a baby, really, since the universe is over 14 Billion years. So maybe it just hasn’t had a chance to cool off since it came into being?

Now, right over here is Osiris, more formally known as HD 209458 b, which was the first planet to be seen as it crossed in front of its star. It’s also the first planet to have its light directly detected. Its discovery showed that transit observations were possible, which opened up a whole new realm of exoplanet discovery.

The planet ahead of us is HD 189733 b. It’s about the size of Jupiter, and has been studied quite a bit ever since scientists discovered it transiting its star while they studied that star using X-ray frequencies. This is also one of the first planets to have its atmosphere ‘sniffed’ to determine its composition. I don’t remember the full list, but I do remember that the atmosphere contains methane. No, that doesn’t necessarily mean there’s cows on that planet. Methane can be produced naturally. It doesn’t have to be a biological byproduct.

Now we come to HD 114762 b, which was discovered in 1989. This is the first discovered planet to be orbiting a sun-like star. However, because its mass is - as seems so popular - 11 times that of Jupiter, and because it only takes 84 days to complete an orbit, it was initially thought to be a brown dwarf. But it’s not. As a comparison, tiny little Mercury takes 88 days to complete an orbit around our sun.

I have to ask you to please be quiet as I approach this one. If it was up to me, we wouldn’t even bother with this one. Too dangerous, if you ask me; you never quite know what to expect from HD 80606 b. It’s orbit is so eccentric-- Oh! Hang on! ... Whew! That was close. I think we’ll be safe now, at least for a few minutes. Besides its highly eccentric orbit, HD 80606 b also displays plenty of storms and atmospheric heating, and you can plainly see how fast it rotates.

Okay, that’s our tour for today. I’ll take you back to base so you can get some supper. I know I’m ready for it. No, I’m sorry, I don’t know who will be your next driver and tour guide. No, I don’t know where you’ll be taken, either. From the looks of it, you still have quite a number of planets to visit. We are all qualified drivers and tour guides, ma’am, otherwise, we wouldn’t have the job.

Thursday, October 12, 2017

Weird Planets 7

We are about to start our whirl-wind tour of some of the remaining weird planets, but first, please pay attention to the following non-safety-related information:
Who designed the way stars and planets are named? I’ve more or less figured out how it works, but it really doesn’t give you any information about that star or planet. First, there’s some designation that I think indicates who/what ‘discovered’ the star. I recognize ‘Kepler’, which in its 2nd stage of life is denoted as ‘K2’. But WASP? CaRoT? No Idea. Then comes a number to designate the star. And finally, a letter to designate the planet within that star’s system. The planets are lettered as they are found, so smaller planets probably have later letters than big planets, even if they are closer to that star.

Please keep your hands and legs inside this blog at all times, as I am both driver and tour guide, and we have a lot of space to cover!

The first planet we’ll visit in this 3rd leg of our tour is PSR J1719-14 b (AKA the Sun Hugger), which is only 3,900 light-years from Earth. This is a possible member of the diamond-planet family (I told you about one of those in an earlier blog), and it races around its star in only 2.2 Earth hours, which makes it the fastest planet in the Ultra-Short-Period-Planet category. Also, it’s a pulsar planet, because its star is a pulsar.

Now, out the other window, take a peek at PSR J1719-1438-?, another pulsar planet orbiting a pulsar 4,000 light-years from Earth. Scientists think this planet was once a star, but when its companion became a pulsar, the huge gravity field stripped most of it away, leaving it with only the mass of Jupiter, and exerted pressure on what was left to make it a diamond planet.

Now around here – somewhere – we can see the PSR B1257+12 system discovered in 1992 and 1994. These pulsar planets at one time were the smallest planetary bodies known to exist outside our own solar system.

Here we’ve reached 12,400 light years from Earth to view PSR 1620-26 b (AKA Methuselah). As you might have guessed, it got its nickname by being old. Too old, some say, because it’s 13 billion years in age, almost 3 times as old as Earth! It would have formed less than 1 billion years after the Big Bang, even though it was thought there wasn’t enough material (I assume they mean heavier elements) to create a core for a planet. So, what’s it made of? I don’t know, they didn’t say. At that distance, maybe they can’t tell. So how do they know how old it is? Do you suppose they counted its wrinkles? J

Okay, you can take a little break now while I get us in another section of the universe.

Thursday, October 5, 2017

Weird Planets 6

Some of these planets look familiar, which is how they get their nicknames. Is it a surprise that someone has imagined planets similar to actual exoplanets?

HD 188753 is sometimes called Tatooine. It is a Jupiter-sized planet located 149 light-years away from us… in a triple star system. One list explained that this meant the planet orbited a star, which orbited another star, which orbited a third star. They could be right that HD 188753 is set up this way, but it is not the only configuration available to 3 stars and 1 planet. How many other configurations can you come up with?

Whatever the configuration of this system, the gravitational fields would be complex, so scientists were surprised to find planets could be created in such a gravity maelstrom. Dr Maciej Konacki of CalTech feels the view from this planet would be spectacular, with ‘occasional’ triple sunsets. Yes, that’s possible; it depends on the distance between the triplet stars. Some ‘companion’ stars are so far apart that each appears as only a bright point to the other. But this Tatooine would definitely be hot; it completes an orbit around its star in 3.5 Earth days, so it is snuggled up real close.

CoRoT-7b was the first exoplanet to be dubbed a ‘Super Earth’. That means it’s a rocky planet, not a gaseous one. Knowing that other rocky planets exist, scientists can look for potentially habitable planets that reside in a star’s ‘Goldilocks’ zone.

However, this particular planet does not look like a pleasant place, as it is tidally locked to its star, meaning the same side always faces the star, and the temperature on that face is around 4,000° F. If you want to visit, consider that it may be the rocky core of a vaporized gas giant where it rains rocks. Be sure you take a strong umbrella with you!

Kepler-10b is the first rocky planet discovered by the Kepler equipment. It is the smallest known exoplanet; an Earth-sized world that may have a lava ocean on its surface. I love a hot tub, but that’s too hot.

OGLE-2005-BLG-390 is the first ‘cold super Earth’ exoplanet discovered, nicknamed Hoth. The thought is that it began to accumulate a Jupiter-like core of rock and ice, but didn’t stop with just a core. It is 5.5 times the mass of Earth, has a surface temperature of -364° Fahrenheit, and orbits a red dwarf star some 28,000 light-years away.

Well, on this trip, we’ve gone from Tatooine to Hoth. Have we gotten all the ‘extremes’ done? I’m not sure. But next week, we’ll start zipping through the planets that only appeared on 1 list. Bring your seat belt!

Thursday, September 28, 2017

Weird Planets 5

Now we begin exploring the exo-planets that only appeared on 2 of the 4 lists. Does it seem like this series will never end? Cheer up; the process will get faster. The fewer lists that contained a particular planet, the less information I have to pass on to you. I’d like to get through several planets today, so let’s get started.

Earth Jr is only 20 light years away. It’s official name is Gliese 581d. Actually, there may be 2 planets around the same star, but only 581d is mentioned on both lists. 581g was a ‘shiny thing’ that briefly appeared in the same paragraph on the first list.

Gliese 581 is a red dwarf star located in the Libra constellation, and 581d sits on the outer edge of the Goldilocks zone, so it would be possible for water there to be liquid. In addition, the atmosphere produces a significant greenhouse effect, making it even more hospitable for life (more or less) as we know it. It is, however, 8 times the mass of Earth, so do you think any creatures living there would be Big and Strong? Or Short and Strong? I can’t decide, myself, and I assume it would depend - at least in part - on the biochemistry of the creatures.

If it exists, Gliese 581g sits in the middle of that same habitable zone. Some research says it does exist, other research says it doesn’t. This is only 20 light years away, so let’s go find out, shall we?

WASP-18b is 325 light years away. But since we don’t yet have light-speed travel, we aren’t likely to get there before it dies. Some scientists think it should have already died, before we ever got a glimpse of it. WASP-18b races around its sun in less than 24 hours, but its orbit is apparently degrading, so it’s getting closer and closer to its sun, and in 1 million years (or less?), it will plunge into that star.

WASP-12b is 870 light-years from us. I don’t think we’ll want to settle there, for it is rather warm - 4000°F or 2250°C. It sits only 2 million miles from its sun (Earth is 93 million miles from our sun), and takes just over 1 Earth day to make a complete orbit of that star. It’s also a gaseous planet, with 1.5 times the mass of Jupiter and about twice Jupiter’s size. Obviously, it’s less dense than Jupiter, right? So, even less chance that in all that gas there would be anyplace solid to build a new home. And can you imagine the air conditioning bill?

Wednesday, September 20, 2017

Weird Planets 4

TrES-2b is called the Dark World. Sounds like a world Sith Lords would be attracted to, right? It’s a gas giant the size of Jupiter. And it is black, to match the Sith Lords’ hearts.

Dark World is 750 light years from us. It orbits its star at a mere 3 million miles (Earth is 93 million miles from the sun), but TrES-2b is darker than pure coal or the blackest paint. It turns out that the Dark World reflects only 1% of the light that falls on it. So as we approached it, we’d see a black ball of gas, possibly with a slight red glow to it, according to one scientist.

Why is it so dark? Nobody knows, but there are some theories:

1. It has no reflective clouds due to its high temperature. All the gas giants in our system have plenty of clouds, so they reflect quite a bit of light. But a gas giant without clouds? Would that make it transparent? I’m thinking it is highly unlikely that the only gases making up any planet are clear. Iodine gas is dark purple, nitrogen dioxide is dark brown, and Trifluoronitrosomethane (I have no idea what this is or how it’s made, but apparently it’s a gas) is deep blue. That doesn’t get us to black, but what I’m saying is, How would it manage to be absolutely clear? I suppose if it was clear, most of the light would go through it and come out the other side.

But, even without a rocky core, the deeper the light goes into the gas giant, the more gravity it is subjected to. I remember from physics classes that light has properties of both waves and particles, so I’m thinking the light would get bent as it traveled through. Would that act as a prism and produce a rainbow as it came out the other side? Would we be able to see such an effect from here? I don’t know. That is a long distance, and there’s no atmosphere (to speak of) between us and it to let us see any such rainbow.

2. The dark world’s atmosphere contains chemicals that absorb light. My resident chemist being out of the house right now, I tried to google what chemicals might do that. Chlorophyll and other organic compounds absorb light, but they usually specialize. Around 2015, some biochemists learned to manipulate cholorophyll’s atomic structure so it would absorb different colors, and they got the entire range of visible light absorbed. Their inspiration was nature; a tiny creature called a sea squirt had bacteria and microbes that - between them - absorbed every bit of visible light that hit the squirt. So I suppose this is possible, but wouldn’t the planet need to be totally covered in varieties of cholorophyll, which is an organic substance. My resident chemist says that ‘organic doesn’t necessarily mean it has anything to do with life.’ Well, on Earth, cholorophyll is found in plants, bacteria and microbes, so it looks like cholorophyll has something to do with life here. Would the same be true for The Dark World?

3. It has a chemical we haven’t thought of yet. This one also seems mildly possible. I find it very difficult to comment on it, because if we haven’t even thought of this chemical, how would we have any idea what its properties are?

4. I think The Dark World is made of Dark Matter. I know, I know, Dark Matter can’t be seen, and we can (barely) see the Dark World. Maybe it’s got a bit of regular matter mixed in. I don’t really know much about Dark Matter (not enough physics classes recently), it just sounds really cool. And really, really dark. Like the Dark World!

So, which theory do you like? Now, using that theory, imagine a story where humans arrive at The Dark World to explore. It is, apparently, one of a kind. Or at least, weird.

Friday, September 15, 2017

Weird Planets 3

GJ 1214b is another exoplanet that I found on 3 of the 4 lists. Some have nicknamed it ‘Waterworld’ since its discovery in December of 2009. It orbits a red dwarf star some 40-42 light years from us and is a ‘super Earth’, a planet whose mass is between Earth and Neptune. It is triple the size of Earth, but its mass is about 6.5 Earths.

Waterworld - as you might guess - is probably covered in water, reaching depths far deeper than Earth’s oceans. It is assumed to have a solid core, but the lists disagree about that core. One assumed the core would be made of rock, one simply said the core was ‘solid’, and the third stated that with an ocean that deep, the pressure and cold could have formed a core made of different forms of ice.

The depths of this ocean might be frigid, but not the atmosphere, which it definitely has. This planet’s air is described as ‘thick’ and ‘steamy’. It is thought to be home to water in a medley of phases, such as steam, liquid, and plasma. Maybe even ice, down in the core region. Another scientist said that Waterworld’s high temperatures and high pressures could form some exotic materials, such as ‘hot ice’ or ‘superfluid water’.

The possibility of ‘exotic forms of water’ makes me think of an episode from the original series of Star Trek. Small bits of a freakish form of water would ‘infect’ people and make them behave as if they were drunk, even to the point of committing suicide. For most of the episode, Dr McCoy and his team could not figure out what had gotten into the victims... all the tests just considered this stuff water. But in the end, of course, they got it figured out and devised an antidote. There was a very similar episode in ST The Next Generation.

Hmm. I wonder if ‘Waterworld’s ocean consists of salt water, or something more closely resembling fresh water. If the only thing solid is the core - which at the very least might well be covered in ice, if not composed of ice - then where would it get any salt?

And if the ocean is fresh water, what are the chances that it managed to produce any life? Probably not life as we know it, because we need a whole bunch of stuff besides the hydrogen and oxygen found in water. Stuff like iron, carbon and potassium, just to name a few.

Now, let’s all think about this and try to figure out how plain water might manage to create living creatures. And when we’re done with that, let’s tackle the intelligence question.

Wednesday, September 6, 2017

Weird Planets 2

I did find some exoplanets listed on more than one list. But none of them showed up on all 4 lists! So much for ‘Weird is weird.’

The first one we’ll look at is 55 Cancri e, which somebody has nicknamed ‘The Diamond Planet. It is only 40 light-years from us, and one list says it is worth about $26.9 nonillion ($26.9 followed by 29 zeroes). None of the other planets on these lists come with a price tag, so why does this one? Because they figure about 1/3 of its surface is made of diamonds. It is only twice the size of Earth, but it is almost 8 times denser than Earth. There must be something there that is denser than Earth’s rocky core. There is speculation that it has a ‘weird’ chemistry from what we know on Earth, and that it might consist of graphite and other forms of carbon.

So why would so much of it be made of diamond? Diamonds are carbon that is exposed to high temperatures and intense pressure over time. And 55 Cancri e has plenty of both! Despite its size, it orbits its sun closely, about 1/25th the distance from our sun to Mercury. At that distance, its ‘year’ is 18 hours long, and it is tidally locked, meaning the same face of the planet is always pointed at its sun. On that sunny side of the planet, the temperature could be about 3900 degrees F. Plenty hot, I would think. And as dense as it is, anything that is not actually laying on the surface would soon find itself squeezed so hard, its molecules get really up close and personal. If that item was mostly carbon, that pressure and heat would produce a diamond.

So far, 3 of the lists agree about it, but the NASA list included some thoughts about it that the others didn’t. It has been proposed that 55 Cancri e has a rocky core surrounded by a layer of water in a ‘supercritical’ state where it is both liquid and gas. It is also thought this planet is topped by a blanket of steam.

Does that negate the idea of a big chunk of it being diamond? I don’t know. NASA didn’t mention graphite, carbon or diamonds. Yes, the name on each list is 55 Cancri e; I double and triple checked. I suppose all 3 lists could be right, but those who compiled the lists only mentioned the tidbits of information that they found fascinating. What do you think?

Thursday, August 31, 2017

Weird Planets

A couple years ago, one of the panels I ‘moderated’ at mid-west sf conventions was about some of the definitely-odd exo-planets that had been found. Since astronomers are scientists and are never happy with what they know, they keep looking out into space. And they keep finding things, a certain percentage of which can be called ‘weird’. So I thought I’d take a fresh look at their current list of odd-balls. This could take more than one post, because I’ve found 3 different lists; one of 8 planets, one of 10 planets, and another of 20 planets.


Yes, this is definitely going to take more than 1 posting, because I scrolled down the google page of search results, and found more lists. I decided I would not bother with other lists of 8 or 10, because they were probably just repeats or rewrites of one of the lists I already had. But I did decide to look at the list of 25 planets, because... well, I didn’t yet have a list that large.

That gives me - potentially - 63 planets to look at. Of course, I am hoping that there are some that are on more than 1 list, just to whittle that number down a bit. I mean, weird is weird, right? So each of the planets on the list of 8 should also be on the larger lists. Right?

Maybe. NASA’s list of 20 planets calls them ‘intriguing exoplanets’, and ‘intriguing’ does not necessarily equal ‘weird.’

Well, Jumping Jupiters. I spent so much time researching these planets that it’s time to post a blog, and all I’ve gotten written is this intro. Which is rather long for an intro to a blog post.

But, being an intro to a series of blog posts, maybe it isn’t too long. Okay, consider this the intro to the entire series of blog posts on ‘weird planets’. Next week, we’ll look at 1 - or maybe 2 - of the exoplanets that show up on the most lists that I’m working with. Exactly what will make them ‘weird’?

I can hardly wait!

Wednesday, August 9, 2017

Just Another Sink Hole

When you live in Florida, you get used to hearing about sink holes. When one opens up, it is filled with sand and rocks and everyone hopes it doesn’t continue to cause problems, especially if it occurred in a road. Before we moved here, I occasionally heard about a sink hole opening in other places, and they always seemed to swallow a car or two. But sink holes can be fickle things; some start out small and continue to grow until they are huge. Some seem to be bottomless pits that refuse to be filled, no matter how much sand and rocks are thrown into them.

Recently, I heard about a ‘sink hole’ in northern Wyoming, near the base of the Bighorn Mountains. Called Natural Trap Cave, it was discovered in 1970, when it was believed to be some 25,000 years old. Theory says that it opened up alongside a migratory trail used by many species, and they just kept falling in.

Located in a National Park, the sinkhole is 15 feet wide and (currently) 85 feet deep. Chances are that once an animal fell in, it wasn’t getting back out again. When it was first discovered, there was some digging of the bottom of the hole for a few years before it was closed up and left alone. In 2014, a new batch of scientists returned to do some more digging. They were only there for 2 weeks during August of that year, and before they could dig, they had to figure out how to safely get themselves and their gear to the bottom and up again. But what they found when they did get there was stunning; North American lions and American cheetahs, both of which went extinct about 12,000 years ago. During the 70s, scientists had discovered mammoths, short-faced bears, giant camels, and collared lemmings in the pit. Also discovered (but I’m not sure when) were dire wolves, tiny rodents that need to be studied by microscope, bison, grey wolves and horses.

Even though it was August, the scientists reported the hole was like a refrigerator. So much so that some of the skeletons still include DNA, so there will be huge strides in our knowledge of prehistoric genetics.

The 2014 group of paleontologists planned to continue their excavations another 2 years. They estimated that the depth of the pile of dead creatures could be 33 feet, and the digs of the 70s and 2014 had barely scratched the surface. With that said, they thought the bottom of this heap might have animals 100,000 years old.

If that turns out to be true, then this sink hole can’t be only 25,000 years old. That would make this one great, great grand-pappy of a sink hole. And amazingly stable for a sink hole, too.

Thursday, August 3, 2017

Unique Argentina Dino

Sometime around 2012, an Argentina rancher found an old bone sticking up out of the dirt. Intrigued, he scratched around, trying to dig it up, then contacted paleontologists at the local museum to come see what he had.

He had found some big bones. And when the paleontologists dug around, they discovered the remains of 6 of the biggest titanosaurs ever discovered.

Titanosaurs lived about 100 million years ago, on all the continents, including Antarctica, which was not covered in snow and ice, and may or may not have been located at the south pole at the time. The ‘Titans’ were herbivores. The most complete skeleton was for a young adult some 122 feet long (its neck was 39 feet) and weighing 70 tons (about the same weight as 10 modern African elephants). One of the femurs uncovered was 8 feet long; long enough to be a living room sofa, if it were more comfortable to sit on. How big would it have gotten when it was fully grown? How did it get that big? And what kind of creature - if any - could consider one of these dinner?

As I stated, there were (at least) 6 individuals found at this dig site, which at the time these Titans died, would have been the flood plain of a river. ALL of them were young adults. But they didn’t die as one group; there were at least 3 separate events that took lives, which may have been a few years to centuries apart. A theory is that the youngsters got separated from their herd and died from stress and hunger.

Wednesday, July 19, 2017

Pick a Flavor

Several years ago, I heard about this very strange tree that produced 40 different kinds of fruit. On one tree! That sounded pretty weird, but it turned out the tree was produced - over a number of years - by grafting, which has been done for... centuries? Millennia? A very long time.

Sam Van Aken is a sculpture artist who grew up on a farm. In 2008, he began grafting ‘donor’ branches onto a ‘stock tree’. He was looking to create a tree that would bloom in various colors. It was an art project, for him. After about 5 years, he had a tree that bloomed in shades of red, pink and white flowers. The picture I saw was gorgeous.

But the real fun, I think, would be in harvesting the bounty. The types of fruit include almond, apricot, cherry, nectarine, peach and plum varieties. Each ripens at a specific time, starting in July and ending in October (in the US). I’m guessing that you could be picking several different varieties at the same time. A true cornucopia of plenty!

Sam didn’t make just one tree. As of 2014, he had installed 16 trees of 40 fruits around the country. But he wasn’t done. That article showed his plan for producing ‘tree 71’ and a picture of ‘tree 75’. He’d like to make an entire city orchard with these trees.

No 2 trees are alike. First, he starts with a stock tree that thrives in the area where the tree will live. You can’t put an aspen in a place where there are no other aspen trees, and expect it to thrive. Then, over several years, he grafts on branches from various fruit trees.

Sam has 250 varieties to choose from in his nursery, some of them of heirloom, antique, and native varieties of fruit that are no longer produced in any quantity. He also goes to local farmers in the tree’s home area to get local branches to add to the tree. In this way, he introduces diversity to the area, and conserves old varieties that might otherwise be lost.

Wednesday, July 12, 2017


 I thought I’d take a look at Tyrannosaurus Rex. We all remember Tyra, right? Always represented as having a mighty roar and sharp, pointy teeth, and teeny, tiny forearms that wouldn’t even reach its mouth. Why would it evolve with such useless arms?

The first thing I discovered was that those tiny arms were quite strong, and each ‘hand’ had 2 sharp claws. So in a fight, if its mouth was already full of opponent, or it was still looking for the chance to sink its teeth into an opponent, those claws could be used to protect its belly, maybe? Well, not its abdomen, but the chest area. Any attack below that would call for leg action, either to stab or slice with its bigger foot claws, or to back up and get those fearsome teeth involved.

Other uses for these arms have been suggested; that they were used to grasp the female during sex, or that they assisted Tyra in rising from resting on the ground. Or from falling down, or being knocked down, or whatever. But one suggestion is actually supported by biomechanical analysis, and that is that the arms held Tyra’s struggling prey as the teeth did the work of killing it. Those arms are almost always shown bent at the elbow and held close to the body. And there’s a reason for that; Tyra’s shoulders could only move 40°, and its elbow only moved a maximum of 45°. So, no charades or sign language for this creature! To help you think about that, a healthy human shoulder can move 360°, while the elbow allows 165° of movement.

I had trouble picturing these restrictions. If you want, try this: Hold your arm down along your body and bend your elbow to make the forearm perpendicular to your body. This is your starting position. Now, keeping the elbow stiff in that position, raise your upper arm to not quite half-way to being perpendicular to your body. That is about how much Tyra’s shoulder could move. Now, extend your forearm to halfway between where it is and it being straight at the elbow. Imagine all the things you and I would not be able to do if that was all the further we could move those joints!

Okay, so these tiny arms may have been somewhat useful, but why did they evolve that way? What were Tyra’s ancestors like? And are there any descendants still around?

It was hard to find anything definitive about ancestors. The family tree that includes Tyra has many branches in that same time period, and they all seemed to have ‘stunted’ arms. A recent discovery from an earlier epoch held an almost complete skeleton of a very similar creature, possibly an ancestor of Tyra and/or other branches of that family tree. That article did not include much description - only that it was ‘horse-sized’ compared to Tyra’s ‘elephant-size - but the ‘artist’s rendering’ showed that ancestor as a skinnier Tyra, with somewhat longer and looser arms. That article stated that the ancestor already had a big brain, keen eye-sight, and sharp hearing at lower frequencies, and deduced that the Tyra family had developed these ‘smarts’ before it developed the brawn.

And of course, when the meteor hit and killed almost all the herbivores, a few Tyras - out of sheer desperation - shed over 99% of their weight, sprouted feathers and became birds. No, not really. When the herbivores died, Tyra’s family tree died, too. But some distant relatives - the maniraptoriformes family - did live on, and some of those did develop into modern birds. Which is good, because those tiny, practically frozen arms of the Tyra family were not going to launch a Tyra into the air, no matter how many feathers it had!

And now I’ll be shoving all this information into the grist mill that is my day-dreaming mind. Perhaps, on another planet, the end of the dinosaurs did not happen quite so fast, and the Tyras did manage to slim down and learn to fly. What do you think? Some kind of bird? Or dragon? Or something else entirely?

Wednesday, July 5, 2017

Fireballs Are Flying!

Try to imagine you are an astronomer, studying another star some 2,000 light years away, V Hydra. It’s an odd star; bloated, red, old, and pulsing - getting brighter, then dimmer, and sometimes getting much dimmer. It may be nearing the end of its life, to start again as a planetary nebula, and if that happens during your lifetime, you want to see it.

And then it throws fireballs.

No, it doesn’t explode. No, these aren’t corona ejections. They are fireballs.

How did it do that?

In October 2016, astronomers were left scratching their heads as Hubble revealed that’s exactly what happened. They studied the star and its surroundings, and eventually they came up with a theory.

V Hydra has a visible companion star (we’ll call it NNS - No Name Star, because they never mentioned a name for it). NNS is an orange dwarf about 46” distance from V Hydra. Yeah, I know, 46 inches doesn’t make any sense to me, either, but that’s actually 46 arcseconds in astronomy notation. They ‘measure’ the distance between these 2 stars by noting the angle change from looking at one to looking at the other. An arcsecond is 1/60th of an arcminute, which is 1/60 of a second... Look, take 2 meter sticks and lay one on top of the other. Stick 2 pieces of paper between them at one end. The angle at the opposite end is about 50 arcseconds. So V Hydra and NNS look like 2 bumps together from Earth, but being 20,000 light years away from us, there’s a good bit of distance between them. Chances are anything NNS might be doing would not cause V Hydra to throw fireballs around.

It appears that V Hydra has a second companion star, this one too dim to be seen directly from Earth, but astronomers have their magic math formulas to figure these things out. We’ll call this one DIM, because it’s so dim. Anyway, DIM orbits V Hydra every 8.5 years in a very elliptical orbit. This orbit is so elliptical that - now that V Hydra is bloated in its death throes - DIM no longer comes close to V Hydra, it actually travels through V Hydra’s outer atmosphere. Wow. Hot enough for ya?

As DIM travels through V Hydra’s outer atmosphere, it greedily grabs a bunch of V Hydra’s material and stores it in a disk about itself. Remember, planets are born from left-over materials in a disk around the new-born star, so I guess maybe DIM wants to start a family.

But, alas, DIM just isn’t very smart, and starts sending its ‘fledgling planets’ away long before they actually make planets. When DIM emerges from V Hydra’s atmosphere, its storage disk breaks apart, forming superhot blobs of plasma about twice the size of Mars that are tossed into the unknown at a speed that they could travel from the moon to Earth in about a half hour.

Poor DIM. Heart-breaking, isn’t it? Now consider that astronomers believe this has been happening every 8.5 years for about 400 years.

The mind boggles, right? But what can we do? I mean, sending DIM a sympathy card every 8.5 years is a bit much, don’t you think? Probably doesn’t want to talk about it, anyway.

How much would it cost to send a card 20,000 light years? Will a regular stamp do?