Archive for the 'Astronomy' Category

Mar 15 2017

Launch Pad, and a Countdown sale

Published by under Astronomy,T-Space,Writing

A couple of quick notes. I’ve been accepted to this year’s Launch Pad Writers Astronomy Workshop this summer in Wyoming. Really looking forward to it, other writers who have been enjoyed it. And yes, even though I write occasionally on astronomy and try to get it right in my stories, back when I took astronomy and astrophysics in college, Pluto was still a planet and didn’t have any moons. Among other discoveries since.

The Countdown Sale is at Amazon, for Alpha Centauri: First Landing. Tomorrow (Thursday, 3/16) it goes on sale for 0.99, and the price will bump up about every 27 hours until Monday evening. Welcome in Spring with an e-book ;). Might also be just the thing to help you forget about the snow if you’re in the north-eastern US.

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Feb 22 2017

TRAPPIST-1 the UltraCool

Published by under Astronomy,T-Space,Writing

By now probably anyone paying attention is aware of NASA’s announcement of seven Earth-sized exoplanets, three possibly in the Habitable Zone, surrounding the “ultracool dwarf” star TRAPPIST-1 (aka 2MASS J23062928-0502285), about 39 light years away. Now, ultracool as having seven terrestrial (rocky) exoplanets is, that word really refers to the fact that it’s a fairly dim red dwarf star (type M8, for those counting). That means those planets in the hab zone? They’re really close. Like roughly 7-day orbit close. (Three of the others are even closer to their sun.)

That doesn’t rule out life. Habitable Zone means, that, well, they might be habitable. The temperatures could be right for liquid water. No guarantees, of course; technically, Venus and Mars are within (barely) Sol’s habitable zone. But still.

In the context of my T-Space series, this is also ultracool. At 12 parsecs, it’s not far beyond the 10-parsec limit that very loosely defines T-Space (in fact, it’s about the same distance as Zeta Reticuli, but off in a different direction). Because it’s not a G-type star like our sun (or nearly so like some K and F stars), it’s very unlikely to have had planets altered by the Terraformers. Earth life probably wouldn’t grow there because the sunlight and seasons would be all wrong. But that’s not to say that something else couldn’t grow there. There’s actually a fair body of serious speculation as to what life on a planet orbiting a red dwarf might be like.

Remember the degkhidesh? (Well, if you haven’t read The Reticuli Deception yet, you wouldn’t.) They came from somewhere. And although not yet explicitly stated in print, there’s a good chance they’re not from yet another terraformed planet orbiting a Sol-like star. We may have found their home world, or one of their systems near T-Space. Time to send an expedition to check it out.

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Dec 31 2016

2016 – I’ve had worse

Published by under Astronomy,T-Space,Writing

Speaking of reviews (see below), this seems like as good a time as any to do a “year in review” entry.

A lot of people are moaning about how awful 2016 was. (It’s worse than you thought — not only was it a leap year, meaning it was 366 days, we also get a leap second just before midnight, so it’s 366 days and one second long.)

Yes, a lot of well-loved celebrities died (as did my ex’s mom), but so did a few not-so-well-loved folks did too. Fidel Castro comes to mind, for one.

And yeah, a lot of folks griped about the results of various elections. Face it, in any presidential election there are going to be millions unhappy with the outcome, whoever wins. I’ve got no particular brief on Brexit — I left Britain long before it became part of the EU, so in some ways for me it’s just a return to the status quo ante.

But now for the good stuff.

After their first brief successes at the end of 2015, both SpaceX and Blue Origin went on to successfully launch vehicles to space and return them intact several times in 2016. SpaceX did their first, second and third successful ocean landings on their drone ship Of Course I Still Love You as well as a couple more on land. (Alas, the unfortunate cryo tank detonation in September put a damper on that for the rest of the year, the good news is that they’ve figured out the problem and will be flying again as early as before January is out. Blue Origin, while facing a much easier flight regime (they’re not trying to put something in orbit) not only had several successful landings, but they reflew the same vehicle several times. SpaceX is still working towards this, and while DC-X did it twenty-five years ago, DC-X didn’t get anywhere near space, unlike Blue Origin’s New Shepard. So, in general a very good year for reusable spacecraft.

On the exploration front, NASA’s Juno spacecraft reached Jupiter in July, and has sent back some great new data on the gas giant’s atmosphere and magnetosphere. The Asteroid Sample Return mission, OSIRIS-Rex, is successfully on its way to asteroid Bennu (expected return in 2023). The James Webb Space Telescope was completed this November, and will undergo a year of testing with expected launch in 2018. And by no means least, especially considering the fiction I write, in May of 2016 the Kepler team announced 1,284 additional exoplanets found, of which at least nine are in their stars’ habitable zones. (That’s 1,284 more than the 951 already discovered by Kepler and brings the total to about 3,200.)

Also in 2016, the New Horizons probe spent most of the year (up to October) sending back the data it gathered in its fast flyby of Pluto et al. back last December. The tough little robot is now on its way to a rendezvous with Kuiper Belt Object “2014 MU69” in 2019.

So while 2016 may have sucked for some here on Earth, it’s looking good as far as us becoming a spacefaring species. Ad astra!

Cover image: Alpha Centauri: First Landing
And oh yeah, speaking of spacefaring species, this year I had another book published, Alpha Centauri: First Landing. If you’re still bummed about 2016, or even if you’re not, you may enjoy it. I promise, no mention at all is made of the events of this past year. Available from, among other places, Amazon.

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Sep 15 2013


Published by under Astronomy

Exactly seven months ago today, on February 15, a large fireball exploded over Chelyabinsk, Russia. The shockwave damaged buildings and injured as many as 1,200 people (mostly from falling/flying glass). Meteorite fragments showered the area, although the main mass may be at the bottom of a nearby lake. Thanks to KD Meteorites and the Colorado Coliseum Mineral and Fossil show, I now own one of those fragments.

picture of meteorite

It’s a small piece, 10.5 grams and about an inch across, with an almost complete fusion crust except for a small chip showing the interior. Under a magnifier, you can easily see the grains — including tiny grains of nickel-iron — that make up this chondrite.

Pretty cool.

What I think is really cool, though, is this: a year ago this little piece of rock was in space somewhere out around the orbit of Mars. The track of the meteor (aside: the atmospheric phenomenon of a meteoroid or asteroid burning up in the atmosphere is meteor, when it’s still in space it’s either a meteoroid (small) or asteroid (over 10 meters — at 18m Chelyabinsk was an asteroid), and any pieces that survive entry and hit the ground are called meteorites) was well recorded on many security cameras and dashboard cameras in the nearby town, as well as by an earth observation satellite. Projected backwards, it is highly likely that the Chelyabinsk asteroid was one of the Apollo group of Earth-crossing asteroids*. Meteorite orbit, from Wikimedia It was about 40 days past perihelion when it slammed into Russia. A year ago — five months before impact — it was roughly in the vicinity of Mars’s orbit. (I haven’t worked out where Mars itself was at the time, it could have been on the other side of the sun.)

This is not my first meteorite. Some years ago I was given a nice 87 gm (about 1/5 pound) fragment of the Canyon Diablo meteorite, which formed the famous Meteor Crater in Arizona, impacting some 40,000 years ago. It’s awesome to have a piece of what blew a mile-wide hole in the Arizona desert. It is awesome to own a piece of the meteorite which we saw a few months ago on TV, one of the largest in a century. It’s even more awesome to hold a rock in your hand and know that a year ago it was deeper in space than any one, and few robots, have been before.

I think I’ve found a new hobby.

*(The largest member of this group, 1866 Sisyphus, is estimated at 8.5 km diameter, 472 times the diameter of Chelyabinsk … or over 100 million times the mass. If — or when — it hits us, the impact would be equivalent to that of the Chicxulub dinosaur-killer. Nervous yet?)

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Apr 29 2012

Conspiracy theories

Published by under Astronomy,T-Space,Writing

Readers of The Chara Talisman (and there are a bunch of you out there, thank you!) already know that the sequel, The Reticuli Deception (working title) touches on mysteries in addition to those of the millions of years ago Terraformers and the more recent Spacefarers. Namely, whether there was anything to some of the UFO contacts reported in the 1960s. Since these books are set 150 years after that, there’s some question as to whether the original Blue Book files can still be located, and they do try, although that’s a side story to the main plot. In particular, they’re curious about the Betty Hill incident, and the star map she drew. Hill star map

Sometimes, though, truth can be stranger than fiction. I’d heard that the Project Blue Book files were all transferred to the National Archives when the project was shut down in 1969 (or 1970, depending on which report you read). It’s not quite that simple. They were first transfered to the Air Force Archives at Maxwell AFB in Alabama, where they resided for about five years, although nominally available to the public. It was in 1975 that they were transferred to the National Archives, but only after redacting witness names and similar personal information. The Air Force kept a microfilm copy (also censored) for their own use.

It turns out, though, that uncensored microfilms also exist, discovered in the National Archives in 1998, and that “these rolls also contain some pages that are not on the NARA [National Archives and Records Administration] rolls” (– Curiouser and curiouser.

Eagerly I began to browse through Blue Book Archive’s list of microfilms. These are on line. Fantastic! I’d love to read the actual Betty Hill files. Pages one through four of their listings cover the pre-Blue Book projects, Sign and Grudge, as well as all the Blue Books up to 1954. The Hill contact was in 1961, I’m getting close. Page five … begins in mid-1968. Wait, what?.

So I dig a little deeper. Flip back and forth through various rolls. Search for “Betty Hill”, and find nothing relevant. Search for “Pease Air Base” (where they supposedly reported the incident) and find many interesting reports … from 1965. Ah, but what’s this? One of the first rolls has an index to all the cases. Great! Skip ahead 25 pages at a time: 1954, 1956, 1958, 1960… I’m getting close, slow down. Page 498, 16-30 April, 1960. Page 499, 1-15 May, 1962. Nineteen sixty two? What the…?

Okay, flip back and forth some more. Ha! Page 497 of the index is also 1962, page 498 must have been misfiled. Not a good sign (and at this point all the microfilm images are very faint, it’s near impossible to make out the text), but I’ll keep looking. Page 489 looks like it might be August, 1961, but the typewritten text is ghostly, and there’s an ominous hand-scrawled “missing” beside several of the cases listed. The next few pages are even less legible. (For example.)

I incline toward the sentiment “never ascribe to malice that which can be explained by incompetence,” and that’s probably what’s going on here (not, let me hasten to add, on the part of Blue Book Archive, who are doing an admirable job, but on the part of whatever bored Airman or clerk was microfilming this stuff in the first place, and other clerks who may have misfiled things). On the other hand, as Ian Fleming supposedly said, “Once is happenstance. Twice is coincidence. Three times is enemy action.” I wonder.

For the record, I don’t really think Betty and Barney Hill were abducted by aliens. On the subject of UFOs as alien spacecraft overall, I’m a skeptical agnostic. I’ve seen enough strange things in the sky that I couldn’t identify at the time to have no doubt that plenty of people see unidentified flying objects. I think that to immediately identify them as alien spacecraft is silly. Some might indeed be, but the burden of proof is pretty high as far as I’m concerned. I think it’s also silly to say flat out that alien spacecraft are impossible. We just don’t know enough.

As far as research for The Reticuli Deception goes, I may not be learning anything new about the Hill incident or the supposed Zeta Reticuli starchart, but I am gaining a good insight as to how my characters feel when they’re looking for this stuff: frustrated.

Readers know that none of my characters take frustration well, and they tend to come up with creative solutions to it. This is gonna be fun.

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Feb 18 2011

Y a vowel? Why not?

Published by under Astronomy,Writing

Sorry about the delay between posts — I was wiped out for most of a week with the flu. Fortunately the only symptoms were high fever and extreme fatigue (to the point of sleeping 20+ hours a day), but it pretty much precluded me from doing anything else. Except perhaps dreaming a few weird fever-dreams, which may be where the rest of this post came from…

In elementary school, at least in the three English-speaking countries I’ve lived in, we’re taught that the vowels are “A, E, I, O, U and sometimes Y”. That’s drummed into us. Y has only second-, maybe even third-class status as a vowel. It’s not a real vowel. But, why the frack not?

Recently I used the word “syzygy” — it’s an astronomy term meaning that three or more bodies are in a line, like the Sun, Earth and Moon when the latter is new or full — in a discussion about the effect of multiple moons on tides. There aren’t many other places to use a word like that – even Scrabble doesn’t have enough Y tiles, you’d have to use a wild card. But look at the word: S Y Z Y G Y. By the strange classification of the letter Y as only “sometimes” a vowel, that word only sometimes has vowels in it.

Technically that’s not correct, of course, all the Y’s in syzygy are all vowel all the time. The vowel-ness of the letter is like the alive/dead-ness of Schroedinger’s cat; in the abstract it is neither a live vowel nor a dead consonant, it is only until it is observed in a word that the wave function collapses and it resolves to one or the other.

Or such, it would seem, is the thinking of whoever came up with the “and sometimes Y” in the list of vowels, and all those who believe and teach this particular dogma.

But, just at the moment, with probably neither enough sleep or caffeine in the wake of my Schroedinger’s-cat-like flu-induced zombie state, I’m having difficulty thinking of a word in which Y is ever unarguably not a vowel. So why the second- (or third-) class status?

(And don’t get me started on W. It should be twice the vowel that U is. But perhaps there’s some Welsh in me.)

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Feb 05 2011

Miscellaneous musings

Published by under Astronomy,Physics,Writing

I spent a bit of time last night getting three e-books up on Pubit, the Barnes & Noble Nook equivalent to Amazon’s Kindle store. This went pretty quickly, since I’d already prepped the files for Smashwords. Basically I just needed to change the line “Smashwords edition” to “Nook edition” on the title page. A reminder, you can get versions for Kindle (.mobi) and Nook (.epub) from Smashwords too, if you want to take advantage of the coupon offer in the update below.

Small Penalties
My story in the current (April) issue of Analog seems to have struck a chord, with a 4.5 (of 5) star review on cxPulp, and a strong recommendation from a commenter in the Usenet group The latter says I write like I’ve been lurking in that group for years. 😉 (No need. I’ve dealt with more than enough spam on the job and on my home systems.)

Fun astrophysics
Last week a paper on arXiv suggested that black holes may not be affected by dark matter. Since spiral galaxies are now believed to all have massive black holes at their center, and since dark matter was “invented” to explain the otherwise anomalous rotation of such galaxies (they rotate too fast for their apparent mass to hold them together), this is a puzzlement … or an argument for Modified Newtonian Dynamics.
This week, an analysis by cosmologists suggests that the universe may be 250 times bigger than the mere 14 billion light-year distance we can see. So much more room to play in! (If we could only get there in something less than the age of the universe.)

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Aug 27 2010

Weird Science

Published by under Astronomy,Physics

I love it when researchers turn up new data or new theories to explain old data that expose some interesting new gap in what we think we know about the universe. It’s from those interesting new gaps — like absorption lines in what should be a smooth spectrum — that lead to new science and new technologies. (Those absorption lines, in 19th century observations of the Sun, ultimately led to quantum theory — and modern electronics and lasers.) This week we’ve had several instances of this.

You’re probably aware that the universe is expanding, and even that it seems to be expanding at an increasing rate. This somewhat counter-intuitive observation has been explained by “dark energy”, some unknown force that is accelerating the expansion. But many scientists aren’t comfortable with dark energy; the numbers for the vacuum energy don’t work out, and it seems to violate conservation laws. Now, this presumed expansion acceleration is based on measurements of very distant (edge of the universe distant) supernovas. If there’s another explanation for those measurements, then the acceleration may not really be happening and thus we don’t need dark energy to explain it.

There’s another problem. Models of the Big Bang that started the universe predict the creation of a certain amount of hydrogen, deuterium (heavy hydrogen), helium, and lithium. Our observations of the first three match pretty closely the predictions — but we only see about one-third the lithium we think we should.

Cosmologists Marco Regis and Chris Clarkson think they have an explanation for both of these discrepancies. Scientists make the assumption that the universe is pretty much the same in every direction we look, that — celestial bodies aside — there’s nothing special about one part space over any other. Regis and Clarkson point out here that the above problems go away if don’t assume the universe is homogenous. But there’s one other thing: if that’s the case, and there’s a huge bubble of space that is lithium-deficient, then why is Earth in the center of it?

Speaking on inhomogeneities in the universe, two different deep sky studies by the Keck telescope in Hawaii and the Very Large Telescope in Chile have turned up unexpected differences in what’s called the fine structure constant, considered to be one of the fundamental constants of nature (it relates to how strongly atoms bind their electrons). The really interesting thing is that while the Keck observations suggest that the fine structure “constant” was once smaller, the VLT observations suggest that it was once bigger. (Papers here and here.) These two telescopes — one in the northern hemisphere, one in the southern — look at two different regions of the sky. This, especially in light of Regis and Clarkson’s conjecture, raises all sorts of interesting questions. (Such as: What affect does this have on chemistry — and biology — in different regions of the universe? Would a space ship travelling such distances drag its own fine structure constant with it, or would it change according to local conditions? And, what causes this “constant” to vary, and could we reproduce that effect locally? Larry Niven had disintegrator guns that worked by “suppressing the charge on the electron”; could that really be possible? If you could reduce the charge on a proton, wouldn’t that make fusion easier?)

Somebody (Asimov?) once said that real scientific discoveries are less often heralded by “eureka!” than by “hmm, that’s odd.” Looks like we have several “that’s odd” moments going on. Cool!

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May 15 2009

Astronomy updates

Published by under Astronomy

It has been another good week for astronomy, in particular for space-based astronomy.

The Hubble Space Telescope repair mission has been the biggest of such news items, and at the moment seems to be going well. This week (yesterday, in fact) saw the successful Ariane launch of two European space observatories, the Planck observatory to investigate irregularities in the cosmic microwave background, and the Herschel telescope, which is essentially a souped-up Hubble (it’s mirror is 1.5 times bigger than Hubble’s). All will add significantly to our knowledge of the universe as a whole and the various planets and stars in it.

But it gets better. This week another space-based telescope, NASA’s Kepler spacecraft, began its formal mission to, as Star Trek puts it, seek out new worlds. It is specifically intended to look for Earth-like (terraform, if not terraformed) planets around other stars. Over the next three-and-a-half years it will examine over 100,000 stars. The observatory itself was launched in March and its telescope saw “first light” in April. Between then and now it has been going through testing and calibration. This past Tuesday (5/12/09) it was pronounced ready for its primary mission. Kepler is designed to look for planets as small as Earth orbiting their stars in the habitable zone (where temperatures could let surface water remain liquid on at least part of the planet). I’m eagerly awaiting results, the first of which will be transmitted from the satellite in mid-June.

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May 07 2009

Tau Ceti

Published by under Astronomy,T-Space

This past week-plus has been pretty hectic. Jill came back from Ohio with a truckload of her parents’ possessions, which we’re still finding homes for (including storage), and we have to get the place prepped for when her mom comes up later this summer.

I did get another T-Space page written, this one about Tau Ceti, a nearby Sun-like star that has been both a popular location in SF and a prime target for SETI (Search for ExtraTerrestrial Intelligence). It occurs to me that I haven’t really written much set in that locale; I’ll be changing that shortly.

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