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?

Wednesday, June 21, 2017

Space Pollution

For millennia, mankind has used Earth’s resources however it wanted, and when we were done with something, we simply abandoned it. Most of this stuff will - eventually - return to its component parts, thanks to weather and other natural events.

But there is no weather in space, so what happens to stuff that gets abandoned there?

Mostly, it stays where we left it, usually in some kind of orbit around Earth. Lose contact with an old satellite? That’s okay, we need a new one anyway; we’ll just put the new one in a new orbit. Somebody lost their wrench while working outside? I think the job can still be done with this other wrench and a little ingenuity. The lost wrench? Oh, just move the station another kilometer higher, and you should be fine.

Yes, we’ve been cavalier about the junk we’ve left out there. Some gets sent into a ‘graveyard orbit’ at the end of its usefulness. Other stuff eventually is pulled toward the Earth and (hopefully) burns up before it hits the ground. Remember Skylab? That was scary, to know this big thing was coming down, that it would not burn up completely, but not know exactly where it would hit. Then it broke into pieces, some of which still made it to the surface, and even more uncertainty where they would hit.

Some satellites had a nuclear reactor to power their equipment. At the end of their ‘life’, many were sent to a graveyard orbit, but others fell to Earth, where they became a problem. Even those in the graveyard could be punctured by a micro-meteor and leak coolant from the reactor. The coolant would solidify and become droplets of more junk.

So, let’s see, we have dead satellites, booster stages, fragments of booster stages that have exploded, fragments caused by collisions, and lost equipment, just to name a few categories of space pollution. Now, the movies always depict (these days) a tool as having a tether to connect it to the astronaut, but it apparently took time to think of doing that. The ‘lost equipment’ category includes: a glove, 2 cameras, a thermal blanket, bags of garbage, a wrench and a toothbrush. Okay, those bulky space suit gloves can make it difficult to maintain a grip, but how does an astronaut lose one of his gloves?

People try to keep track of all this stuff, try to avoid collisions with equipment still in use. I don’t know who supplied these numbers, but there are over 170,000,000 pieces of debris smaller than 1 cm, as of July 2013. Additionally, there are 670,000 pieces between 1 and 10 cm (3.9 inches), and 29,000 pieces larger than 10 cm.

So, who cares? Most of it’s tiny, and if it’s big enough to do damage, you just move your ship or satellite out of the way. Yes, most of it is tiny, but at the speeds they travel, even the tiny ones pack quite a punch. And the equipment can’t always move out of the way.

The Kessler syndrome theorizes that once space debris reaches a particular density, there will be a chain reaction of collisions, each breaking its components into smaller pieces, which go on to have more collisions... It’s uncertain whether the Earth has already reached that point, but it’s not something we want to happen. The Earth could become completely swaddled in debris to the point that we could no longer launch ourselves into space. There goes our glorious dreams of a Space Empire! Or even of just getting off this rock to colonize... any place else.

Would such a debris cloud cut the amount of sunlight that reaches us? That might help mitigate global warming! If not, then I guess we’ll just bake ourselves on the ground as we kick ourselves for making it impossible to move away.

There have been many suggestions on how to remove space debris. At least one country has built their idea and sent it up for testing, but couldn’t get it to work. Most don’t see it as ‘cost effective’.

So, here’s my idea. If you have a big problem, you need to think big. Build a space station. I know, we have one, but that’s not big enough. We need a big one, with manufacturing capabilities and housing/entertainment for the workers. Use a small space tug to go out, grab debris and bring it back as ‘raw material’ for building interplanetary space ships.

Or maybe you prefer to sit back and wait for ‘nature to take its course’?

By the way, have you seen the movie Gravity? That was the Kessler syndrome in action.

Wednesday, June 14, 2017

Swords - Fantasy or Fact?

A Guest Entry by Ta’Yant bilora vi Grrrck (of Floya 4 - There are other Ta’Yant bilora vi Grrrcks, but they aren’t from Floya 4!)

A common occurrence in the genre ‘high fantasy’ or ‘epic fantasy’ is the use of swords, some of which had or are said to have had magical powers. Since many of these stories appear to be set on Old Earth and include other items that also appear in ancient Earth myths and legends - such as elves, dwarves, dragons, magic and the like, I decided to search the ancient texts from the Home Planet to determine how much of the legend of ‘swords’ might be purely imaginary.

First, let me say that it is very difficult to discern whether a particular text is truly factual. So many texts either gave no references or referred to texts that are no longer part of what records we still have, so cannot be verified. Since the chances of finding additional texts seems impossible, with Earth (and indeed, that entire system) in their current inhospitable state, I can only present what I found as a series of supposed truths, with the understanding that it might be completely contaminated with ‘facts’ that are nothing more than ‘beliefs’ of the time.

One source text came to be a wealth of knowledge to me, or would have, if the links to its sources had been intact, or if I had been able to verify anything it said from some other source. Even the title of this reference text was incomplete, consisting of “”. Ancient historians (meaning those who study ancient history, who or may or may not be ancient in their own right) believe this title places it in the ‘wikipedia’ reference source of the 22nd century, which is either famous for being so large and all-inclusive, or infamous for having no basis in fact, depending on which historian is speaking. This article stated that a spatha was a long, straight sword, originally used by the ‘germanic’ people against the ‘romans’, who started with swords that were shorter. The ‘romans’, however, adopted the longer version so that they could stab opponents from a longer distance.

So, if this information is correct, swords were real, and came in different lengths. In my efforts to double-check everything, I could not find ‘germanic’ or ‘romans’ on any maps within the available wikipedia texts. I did find a map (circa 2100) that showed an area called Germany, and somewhat south of that, a city called Rome. If these are the areas of the peoples referenced, further study of even more texts indicate that Germany was a source of many huge wars involving the entire planet, and that the highly religious Rome people were led by a Grand Priest, alternately referred to as ‘The Pope’ and ‘Ceasar’. I personally have trouble with the thought of a ‘deeply religious’ people who carried and used weapons, but I am not versed in all types of religion. Perhaps their religion called on them to dominate others. In that case, I can not be surprised that they eventually came to blows with the war-faring germanics.

I ran across 2 ‘news articles’ from 2015 and 2016. As ‘news stories’, they had no links to any reference materials, but I include them here because I found them so interesting. In 2015, a ‘hiker’(?) found an ‘ancient viking’ sword on the side of the road in Norway, and a specialist from a local museum (?) stated the sword was from 750 AD, approximately 1200 years before it was found. (I can’t make any sense of their calendar! I thought these dates were in the same calendar era, but 750 plus 1200 equals 1950, not 2015!) The specialist went on to say that if given a new handle, the sword could be used ‘today’ (meaning 2015). 

In 2016, a local ‘couple’ found an ‘amazingly preserved’ sword in a ‘field’ near their home in Denmark. This sword, a museum representative stated, was 3,000 years old. Apparently, swords were in use for more than 3000 years, since one of these was that old, and the other only needed some minor repairs before it could be used again! And yes, Norway and Denmark were both on that map, Norway north of Denmark, with a strip of water between them. But research indicated that Norway was colonized by Denmark, so why would they be at war with each other?

My head is spinning, just trying to keep all these ‘facts’ straight and get them presented in a logical sequence. And I’ve just barely begun telling you all that I found in those old replicas! My time for this entry is up, but as soon as I can pick up two thoughts and put them together, I’ll see about writing another entry.

Wednesday, June 7, 2017


I’ve talked before about our solar system as if it were a family, with the sun as the parent, and the planets as the children. The moons, asteroids and other bits would be the grandchildren, I suppose.

I am quite fascinated with our solar system. Until scientists find facts about other solar systems, this is the only one I’ve got to study; these are the only planets I can use as a springboard when my imagination wants to design one for a story. So I keep looking for new things about them that I didn’t know before. Luckily, NASA and scientists keep looking at them, too.

Today’s subject is Saturn and its rings.

You’d think the solar system was a big family, with 9 8 planets and several dwarf planets. But for Saturn, 8 or 9 was not enough. Saturn has 62 moons that have names, and another 9 that have not yet been named. Wow! Can you imagine 71 kids? I’d have lots of trouble remembering half their names, not just 9 of them. I had a couple batches of cousins who had 8 siblings in each family. Gram gave up trying to remember our names; all the girls became ‘Pigtails’ and the boys were ‘Junior’.

I didn’t realize just how many moons Saturn has. One day I will have to start looking more closely at them, but today, I’m looking at the rings.

There are 7 rings. They don’t exactly have names, but each is designated by a letter. I suspect the letters were assigned as the individual rings were discovered, because otherwise, there doesn’t appear to be any rhyme or reason for the assignments.

If you start at Saturn and move away from the planet, you arrive at Ring D, then Ring C, Ring B and Ring A. Continue outward, and you will find Ring F, Ring G and Ring E. Between each pair of rings is a gap, a space that is not absolutely empty, but is relatively empty compared to the rings. (I haven’t figured out if any of the gaps is home to a moon, but I do know that some of the moons are somewhere in the ‘rings’. Some day, I have to figure that out.) Each ring and gap is its own width, meaning the distance between the side closest to Saturn and the side furthest from Saturn.

But they are also thin, meaning the distance from the ‘top’ of the ring to the ‘bottom’. Thickness for all the rings is less than 1 km.

If there is one thing Saturn’s rings are, it’s not consistent. The various rings are made up of water ice particles (with a trace of rock for flavoring), but those particles range from the size of a grain of sugar to the size of a house.

The rings are a very busy place. With 71 moons of various sizes orbiting around this big ol’ gas giant, the gravity and magnetic fields are forever fluctuating. The latest probe documented ‘lines’ in some rings, which are called spokes. The spokes come and go, and they aren’t sure what causes them, but they suspect they are a temporary ‘pile-up’ (traffic jam) of particles caused by the gravity or magnetic fields. Or maybe by electricity leaking from storms in Saturn’s upper atmosphere.

And spokes are not the only oddity in the rings. Ring F seems to be ‘braided’. Who taught those particles how to do that?

But don’t worry about Saturn’s rings. Some of the moons (bigger siblings) act as shepherds for the rings, using their gravity/magnetic fields to keep the ring particles where they belong. More or less.

I’ve just barely touched on Saturn, but that’s all for today. After all, it is a gas giant, with a huge family; too big a subject for me to explore the entire thing in one sitting.

Thursday, June 1, 2017

What’s Up, Doc?

I’ve reached that ‘special’ age where parts of me stiffen and ache. When I get tired of putting up with this nonsense, and I don’t feel a medical doctor is doing enough for me, I start researching the cause and what I can do about it. Yes, I’ve been known to dabble in alternative medicines, but only if it made a kind of sense to me AND had next-to-no side effects.

Aromatherapy? Sure. That’s just a matter of smell, and most of the essential oils have a pleasant odor, so why not?

Chiropractics? I’m a firm believer. It seems most medical doctors only worry about bones if they’re broken or completely out of place, but those x-rays can show a chiropractitioner that a particular bone is ‘in place’ but slightly twisted. For years, I would off and on see a chiro for a low-back pain that would radiate down one leg. It would take a few weeks for him to convince that bone to stay untwisted, but then I was good for another year or so.

Acupuncture? I don’t like needles, so I’ve only had the electronic kind, but it seems to help, at least with sinuses and headaches.

But a person has to be careful. Some ‘remedies’ or ‘procedures’ are nothing but a scam.

For instance, let’s look at a company called Theranos. Stanford University student Elizabeth Holmes created a wearable patch that could adjust the dosage of drug delivery and notify doctors wirelessly of variables in the patient’s blood. At the age of 19, she founded Theranos and worked to develop chip technology that would make blood tests quicker and cheaper, requiring only the blood from a pin prick, similar to a blood sugar test.

In 10 years, she had raised over $400 million in funding, but her work was done in secret, which did not sit well with some health groups. Also, Theranos did the testing themselves and did not allow their work to be peer-reviewed. Problems ensued, and grew, as Theranos labs failed inspections, the small-dose blood test equipment apparently required test tubes full of blood, and it was found that the labs actually used the exact same equipment that other labs used.

Why does this matter? It’s left a bitter taste in mouths of many people, from investors to corporations who chose to ‘partner’ with the new company to government agencies who were shocked when they inspected Theranos labs, right down to the patients who thought things were really changing, only to find out everything was the same. Oh, maybe one thing might have changed; the work done at Theranos labs may or may not have been less accurate than that of other labs.

That’s why I carefully study ‘alternatives’ to regular medicine, whether they involve ‘ancient knowledge’, a new ‘break-through’, or something in between. I did not work up any enthusiasm for Holmes’ blood-lab chip for a number of reasons:
1. Holmes was a chemical engineering student, which - in my mind - is nowhere near a medical professional.
2. She dropped out of school after one year even though her school adviser - when she explained her plans for a blood-lab chip - told her it wouldn’t work.
3. She ran her company in complete secrecy, which is apparently standard for tech start-ups, but NOT for medical companies.
4. She filled the company board with politicians and military types. She filled the company with engineers. I suppose for a product like she wanted, you would need some engineers, but... where were the physicians?
5. Ten years in, there was still NO SIGN of these blood-lab chips. Really? After 10 years, they could do nothing any differently from anybody else? They couldn’t even come up with a desk-top-sized machine that could take a smear of blood and test for something?

Okay, there are problems with the ‘old’ technology; the patient has to be stuck with a needle and have a significant amount of blood drawn (depending on how many and what tests are to be done), and both patient and doctor have to wait for the results to come back from the lab. It would be exciting to have a blood-lab chip that would eliminate both of these, but we don’t. Even after 14 (almost 15) years, we don’t.

In this case, I guess... Tried and true will have to do.

Thursday, May 25, 2017

Prehistoric Groundhog

Groundhog Day happens in February, when everybody - it seems - wants to know ‘Will this winter never end?’ How groundhogs ever got associated with predicting the end of winter is a mystery to me. Did any of them ever get a degree in climatology? No, not a one. They just lay in their borrow, blissfully sleeping through the cold when someone sticks his hand in, grabs one and pulls it out. Still blinking, the confused and shocked groundhog is held up high as a display, a crowd cheers and claps, and then... I don’t know, maybe they stuff the rodent with sweet treats as a reward for being a good sport. Not that the poor guy had any choice in the matter.

I started thinking, ‘Where do groundhogs come from?’ Yes, I know, from mommy and daddy groundhogs. What I mean is, millions of years ago, human ancestors were about the size and shape of a mouse, and they lived underground. Humans are a lot bigger now, and very few of us live underground. So, if we went back to that time - roughly 66 million years ago - would our ancestors be sharing burrows with ancient groundhogs? What would a groundhog from that long ago be like?

66 million years ago, all the southern hemisphere landmasses were gathered together into one supercontinent called Gondwana. Dinosaurs were still around, so I can’t blame our ancestors for seeking safety underground. Groundhogs of that day weighed 20 pounds (about twice the size of today’s groundhogs), had a skull 5 inches long and massive chewing muscles. Let’s see somebody pull one of those out of a sound sleep and hold it aloft!

A sample skull of the creature was found in a rock from Madagascar. This ancient groundhog was probably the largest mammal known for that time period, and lived on seeds, roots and nutty fruits. Its teeth included sharp incisors and wear-proof molars. Large eyes let it see in low light, and the intricate inner ear indicates it could hear higher frequencies than modern man can. A large nasal cavity means it had a keen sense of smell, and most likely it was agile. (The better to dodge large dinosaur feet?)

Alas, that particular rodent has gone extinct. So I’m not sure why it’s called a groundhog. I would assume a ‘prehistoric groundhog’ would be an ancestor of today’s groundhogs, but apparently, it’s only another branch on the family tree of groundhogs. A branch that broke, leaving other branches to fill in the hole.

Well, it did live in Madagascar, so it might have fallen prey to a blind snake, predatory frog or vegetarian crocodile, which were also Madagascar specialties.

Thursday, May 18, 2017

Planets Around Failed Stars

Stars can (but don’t necessarily) have a family of planets surrounding them. Planets can (but don’t necessarily) have moons surrounding them. What about the so-called ‘failed stars’? Do they have anything as a family?

Jupiter is sometimes called a failed star. If it had just a bit more mass, fusion could start, goes the argument. Well, not really. It would take 13 Jupiters combined to have enough mass to reach the minimum needed for a brown dwarf, AKA failed star. Also, Jupiter was created within the disk of dust that surrounded our infant sun, which is how planets are made, not stars. Not even failed stars. So we can’t take any clues from Jupiter about the possibility of planets around dwarf stars.

Okay, so exactly what is a failed star? A close apparent brown-dwarf-type object to Earth is SIMP0136. It lies 21 light-years away and is 13 times the mass of Jupiter. Theoretically, it could be a brown dwarf. Brown dwarves form like other stars, but fail to get big enough. They may have some fusion of deuterium for a relatively short time inside them, but it doesn’t last. Any light they produce tends to be in the red and infrared spectrums, so despite being called brown dwarves, they would probably appear magenta or possibly red-orange. And the older the brown dwarf is, the more it cools and contracts, until it can seem to be just another planet. Scientists have recently decided SIMP0136 is just a planet, after all. A rogue planet, big enough and close enough for them to study its weather patterns.

It could have gone the other way. The size of brown dwarves range from a minimum of 13 Jupiter masses to a maximum of 80 Jupiter masses. If it managed to gather more than 80X Jupiter’s mass, it would have made it to actual stardom.

Because brown dwarves are a type of star, at least some of them do have a family of planets, such as 2M1207b and MOA-2007-BLG-192Lb. This makes sense, because brown dwarves form the same way as other stars, just in the middle of a smaller dust cloud. Once the center of the cloud collapses into a proto-brown-dwarf, the remainder of the cloud thins into a rotating disk of dust, which would normally form planets. It is thought that this disk would not extend far, since the entire cloud was small to begin with, so any resulting planets would be fairly close to the brown dwarf. It is also believed that these planets would be rocky, like Earth and Mars, rather than gas giants like Jupiter, because most of the gas would be taken by the brown dwarf. So, let's look at some known brown dwarf systems:

170 light years from Earth, planet 2M1207b orbits a brown dwarf. Its mass is somewhere between 3X and 10X that of Jupiter, and it orbits its primary at approximately the same distance as Pluto from our sun. Although there is some indication of water, it is not likely to be habitable.

Occasionally shortened to MOA-192 b, MOA-2007-BLG-192Lb is about 3,000 light-years away. This small planet is 3.3X Earth’s mass, and circles a small brown dwarf in an orbit approximately 2/3 the size of Earth’s orbit around the sun. It is believed to have lots of ice and gases, more like Neptune than Earth.

And then there’s the quadruplets: a small brown dwarf (2MASS J04414489+2301513, with a mass 20X that of Jupiter) has a companion (5X to 10X the mass of Jupiter) that could be either a planet or a sub-brown dwarf. There are also two other brown dwarves in close association. All four objects together only have 26% the mass of our sun, making it the quad system with the least mass. It is 470 light years away.

So yes, it is entirely possible - almost probable - that ‘failed stars’ will have planets. Or possibly siblings, as in the quad system.

Friday, May 12, 2017

Enigmatic Sounds

I hear things.

I’m not talking about rumors, or all the usual sounds most people hear during the course of their daily lives. I’m not even talking about those creaks in the middle of the night as the house relaxes after a long day, though the sounds I am talking about come to me after the dark of night settles in and mostly after everybody else in the house has gone to bed.

The thing is, I’m don’t think these sounds are coming through my ears.

Ghosts? If it is, they have followed me from our old house in Nebraska to our new house in Florida.

What I hear is - frequently - music. I’ll be sitting here, playing games working on my computer, and I’ll become aware of music. Specifically, a radio playing Elvis tunes, or 50s hits, or once in a while, swing. But it’s not a strong signal; it reminds me of when I briefly lived in Cheyenne, and while I did my homework, I would try to tune in a specific radio station from Oklahoma. I frequently couldn’t find it, but if the clouds between us were in the correct positions, I could. Kind of. As I remember it, the static threatened to overtake the music, and that’s what this ‘night serenade’ sounds like. And there isn’t any DJ.

I’ve heard - now, this is a rumor - that some people pick up radio signals because of fillings in their teeth. But for me, this only started a couple years ago, and all my old-type fillings are much older than that. This past decade, my dentists have used ‘composite’ fillings, which don’t have the same minerals in them.

But static-laced music isn’t the only thing I hear. Last night, I listened to a phone ring for about an hour. We don’t have a land line in our house, and neither cell phone sounds like an actual phone ringing. In any case, this was the kind of ringing when you have ‘dialed’ and are waiting for someone to answer. Nobody ever did, nor did it go to voice mail or an answering machine. It just kept ringing.

I’m not the only one who ‘hears’ this kind of stuff. A couple friends have admitted having similar experiences, and all of us are diabetic. I don’t know if that last part has any bearing on it, but I would like to know why my mind does this. Is it so bored, it’s entertaining itself? How does it pick what it’s going to listen to? I’ve enjoyed Elvis as an entertainer, but I never bought any of his records. The 50s songs would have been popular when I was a child, but I don’t remember listening to a radio at that age. Swing music from WWII was definitely before my time. And a ringing phone? Who was it trying to call?

Now, here’s another way to think about it: When I’m all alone, I hear things that aren’t there. Things that aren’t creepy or scary. So I’m wondering if, when space travel becomes ‘fairly normal’, and some people are traveling by space ship but don’t have constant contact with ‘base’, will they hear things that aren’t there? Would it creep them out? Would they inform base of it at their next contact? Will science have an explanation for this strange brain activity by then?

How long has the ‘human’ brain been doing this? Did the brain of an ancient person entertain itself with birdsongs or the chattering of small animals (think squirrels)?

Okay, confess. What does your brain do when you’re all alone and not paying it much attention?