Archive for November, 2008

Nov 23 2008

A good week for planetology

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It’s been an interesting week, okay, week-and-a-half since my last post. Although I haven’t made as much progress on the NaNoWriMo novel as I’d have liked, I have got two more short stories out for consideration. I’m not counting those in my NaNoWriMo word counts. It’s also been an interesting time for planetology. We’ve photographed (or perhaps “imaged” might be a more accurate term) planets around no less than three other star systems, and discovered interesting things about the history of water on Mars.

On Nov. 13, NASA announced that the Hubble Space Telescope had succeeded in photographing a planet orbiting the star Fomalhaut, a mere 25 light years away (putting it just within T-Space). Fomalhaut is a youngish star (100 to 300 million years old), with about twice the mass and twenty times the luminosity of our Sun. The planet is Saturn-sized and extremely distant from its sun.

Almost simultaneously, scientists at the Herzberg Institute of Astrophysics announced that, using the Keck and Gemini telescopes, had imaged (in infrared) three planets orbiting the star HR 8799. This star is younger than Fomalhaut (perhaps 60 million years old) and further away, about 130 light years. The planets of younger stars may be easier to spot, especially in infrared, because they’re still glowing with the heat of their own formation.

On Friday, Nov. 21, a team at ESO announced that images of a previously suspected planet around Beta Pictoris had been obtained with the Very Large Telescope. Apparently the image was captured a while back but not noticed until the data was recently re-examined. Beta Pictoris is about 64 light years away and again, bigger and hotter than our sun, and perhaps even younger than HR 8799.

Being so young, none of the above planetary systems are particularly likely to have any life at all, let alone complex or intelligent lifeforms. (The upper age range of Fomalhaut would put it at just about the age where the chemical soup on Earth may have started to favour complex molecules that could replicate.)

Closer to home, and much older, glaciers have been found on Mars much closer to the equator than expected, protected from evaporation by layers of soil, and analysis of gamma-ray spectrometer results from Mars Orbiter adds further evidence that early Mars once had an extensive ocean, or oceans.

So, places that may one day have Earthlike (loosely speaking) planets, and a neighbor planet that was once much more Earthlike than it is now. The hunt is still on for currently Earthlike planets.

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Nov 11 2008

Veterans Day, Remembrance Day

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[I originally posted the following in response to comments by Howard Tayler and others on Howard’s Shlock Mercenary blog. I’ve made a few minor changes here.]

Happy US Veterans Day. I have great respect for US veterans — my father-in-law numbers among them, and US forces helped save Britain during WW II — but I’d like to gently point out that this is also Remembrance Day in Canada and Britain (and indeed all of the Commonwealth; in France it is celebrated as Armistice Day). So if you’ll forgive me, a few personal remembrances:

Lest_we_forget - Poppy
My mother’s father suffered lasting effects from being gassed in a trench in WW I; by that war my father’s father had already served with the British Army in the Sudan and South Africa, and was in Home Guard during WW II. One of my mother’s brothers was a commando during WW II, another spent most of that war in a Japanese POW camp in Burma. (You’ve seen/read “Bridge on the River Kwai”? He worked on that railroad, not the bridge.)

My Dad was “drafted” to work on radar and countermeasures during that war; sadly I didn’t learn much about what he did until after he died, some of it wasn’t declassified until the 1990s. I know he was on a mission that involved him and a pilot, in a small plane, flying toward the continent with radar-spoofing gear making them look like a fleet of bombers, with the expected (and hoped for) Luftwaffe reaction. (Idea being to get the Luftwaffe alert planes to scramble and burn fuel, so they’d be on the ground refueling when the real bomber fleet flew over.)

I spent a few years in the Canadian Forces Reserves, and spent much of my duty time deep in a NORAD bunker minding teletype machines — pretty safe. Some of my fellow reservists volunteered to serve with regular forces assigned to UN peacekeeping duty in the middle east. Fortunately, all my buddies came back.

I’ve had the privilege to be born, raised, and live in free countries (England, Canada, and the United States, respectively.) To all those of freedom-loving nations who have served in defense of that freedom, thank you.

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Nov 05 2008

Elections, and Guy Fawkes

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Well, it’s the day after the US Presidential (and many other) elections. I’m not going to dwell on the politics, other than to say I’m not thrilled that Obama won but I wouldn’t be thrilled if McCain had won, either. The country is in for interesting times ahead, let’s just hope that we as a nation and we as a planet don’t do anything to screw up our long term — meaning centuries and millennia, not merely the next ten years — prospects.

Coincidentally, today is Guy Fawkes Day, a British (and some other parts of the Commonwealth) celebration of the capture of Guy Fawkes, apprehended on this day in 1605 trying to blow up Parliament (specifically, the House of Lords) and assassinate King James I during the Opening of Parliament. In other words, he was a terrorist, and the Gunpowder Plot (as the scheme became known) was devised by religious extremists (Catholic, in this case). Sounds depressingly familiar, with only a few details changed.

The punishment for Fawkes and his co-conspirators, by the way, was to be hanged, drawn, and quartered, the traditional punishment for treason. It’s rather unpleasant: hung until not quite dead, disembowelled, and then the body cut into four parts, plus the head. (It’s even worse than that, see Wikipedia for the gory (literally) details.) After they were found guilty at trial, of course. (The confession forced by torture perhaps excusable by Fawkes having been caught in the act of attempting to detonate the powder.)

And on that cheery thought about how far we’ve come in just over 400 years, I’ll observe that the last time a Presidential Election actually fell on Guy Fawkes Day was 1996, and the next time will be 2024.

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