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February 2016

The Astrobiologist’s Guide to the Galaxy

In my last post, I detailed some of the hottest locations for astrobiology in our Solar System. Today, however, we’re going to be going farther afield- outside the Solar System entirely, in fact.

The discovery of exoplanets – planets that orbit other stars- has been one of the great scientific success stories of the last century. In less than 20 years, we’ve gone from a handful of early detections to literally over a thousand (plus thousands more “candidates” that are awaiting verification). Obviously, astrobiologists have been more than a little excited by this pace of discovery.

Detecting an exoplanet is no mean feat- such bodies are usually a million times dimmer than their host star, and the light of the star tends to overwhelm such faint emissions. However, several techniques have been developed to get around these limitations.

exoplanets.jpg

The earliest used, Doppler spectroscopy,takes advantage of the fact as a planet orbits a star, it “tugs” on its center of mass, causing it to “wobble” ever so slightly. The motion due to this wobble can be detected by looking for the resulting Doppler shift in the star’s spectra. However, this method is generally most effective in determining extremely large planets that orbit close to their parents stars (so called “hot Jupiters”), which are unlikely to host life.

The most successful method used to date has been transit photometry, which looks for tiny dips in the star’s light output as the planet crosses in front of it. This method does have some limitations- the star, the planet, and Earth have to be precisely aligned for the transit dip to be visible- but it’s a relatively easy signal to look for otherwise. Transit photometry has been used by a number of different observing missions, the most famous example being the spectacular planet-hunting Kepler space telescope.

A few other planets have been detected using more esoteric methods, such as gravitational microlensing or timing pulsations in stars and pulsars. A scant handful have even been directly imaged, although this only feasible if the planet is extremely large, hot, and widely separated from its host star.

Using these methods, a whole zoo of exoplanets has been detected. Most of them are likely to be uninhabitable- but let’s take a look at the ones that might be a bit more promising for seekers of extraterrestrial life.

Keplers

Kepler-296e

One of the most Earth-like planets (at least in terms of mass and theoretical surface temperatures) yet discovered, Kepler-296e is 1.75 times the size of Earth.   It orbits a red dwarf star 1089 light years away, which is part of a binary system. It is located within the habitable zone of the star, where the temperature is warm enough for water to be liquid on the surface. Kepler-296’s habitable zone is much closer than the Earth is to the sun, owing to the cooler temperature of the host star; the planet orbits its star in only 34 days.

Kepler-442b

Located 1,120 light years from Earth, Kepler-442b also orbits a cooler red dwarf star. It’s 2.34 times the size of Earth, and would have a surface gravity about 30% greater (definitely the planet to go to if you want to get a good workout).

Kepler-62e

Detected 1,200 light years from Earth in the Lyra constellation, Kepler-62e is a member of an older star system, being likely billions of years older than Earth. It is thought to have a rocky composition (like Earth’s), and computer modeling suggests the planet could be largely covered by oceans. It’s considered a strong enough candidate for habitability that it’s been targeted for observation by the SETI program.

Gliese 832 c

Gliese.jpg

One of the closest potentially habitable planets detected, Gliese 832 c is a scant 16.1 lights away. It is thought to have an extremely elliptical orbit, as planets go- that is to say, the distance from its star varies considerably. Consequently, the surface temperature may swing from -40 degrees Celsius to 7 degrees Celsius, depending on where the planet is in its orbit; on average, however, the temperature is warm enough to allow liquid water. However, it is possible the planet may have developed a dense atmosphere, leaving it in an uninhabitably hot state similar to Venus. Further observation will be required to determine how friendly to life the planet really is.

KIC 8462852

KIC.png

Unlike the other entries in this list, KIC 8462852 isn’t a planet. In fact, we’re not entirely sure what it is.   The star first became well-known when analysis of Kepler data detected a intermittent, massive drop in the amount of light produced by the star- equivalent to covering up over half the star’s visible surface- something that had never been observed before. Furthermore, no dust or debris cloud has been detected around the star.

Initially, it was thought that the dimming could be due a mass of comets pulled inwards by a passing star- and, indeed, there’s another star in the local area that could’ve done such a thing. However, an examination of historical images showed that KIC 8462852 has been dimming for the last century- far too long a timescale for the comet explanation.

Lacking any other explanation, some researchers have begun speculating that the dimming could be due to the construction of megastructures in orbit around the star- perhaps a swarm of solar power satellites to capture the maximum amount of the star’s energy (popularly referred to as a Dyson sphere or Dyson swarm).

Admittedly, there are some problems with the aliens-did-it hypothesis- the laws of thermodynamics dictate that such structures would generate a large and detectable quantity of waste heat, which has yet to be observed. Observing campaigns by SETI also haven’t turned up any signs of intelligent life. Nonetheless, the sheer weirdness of the system means it will likely be a target of investigation for the foreseeable future. Whatever’s going on out there, it’s not like anything we’ve seen before.

Conclusion

These are just a handful of the potential living worlds that might be found throughout our galaxy. Undoubtedly more will be detected by upcoming missions, such as the James Webb Space Telescope, PLATO, and Kepler’s successor TESS. Get your travel itineraries ready- because the list of possible cosmic vacation hotspots is only going to keep growing!


TessTessa is a 28 year old PhD student, and perhaps the world’s only queer trans astrobiologist. A nerd going way back, her interests include science fiction, space exploration, sustainability, science communication, and feminism and gender. Her hobbies also include horseback riding, playing the flute, social dancing, knitting, and occasional attempts at writing fiction. She currently resides in Tempe, AZ with her even nerdier fiancee and a mastiff mix who thinks he’s a lapdog. She tweets occasionally @spacermase.

 

I Zombie, You Zombie, We All Zombie

When I was in college, I signed up for a popular lit and culture class. Not because I wanted to or I thought it sounded interesting. Because I needed more English credits and I’d already taken Comp 1 and 2. In reality, I thought it was going to be a big waste of my time.

I was strongly opinioned back then.

I thought it was going to be a ‘cake’ class where we read whatever was popular at the time and talked about it. I couldn’t have been further from the truth. The professor posed a different approach to how we look at pop culture – which was that it tended to reflect our biggest fears and misgivings about the progress of any one generation.

BladeRunner
AI that indulges in a human vice. Weird!

We watched Blade Runner, for instance, and talked about the fear of AI. We watched and read sci-fi movies and stories from the 50s that seemed to clearly reflect fears about radiation and nuclear technology. We read Vampire stories from the 70s that paralleled drug culture and how it seemed to be all-consuming. We read short stories from African authors that explored magic that was supposed to represent the darkness or purity in all of us.

Ants
Ooh no..! Radioactive ants!

I ended up thoroughly enjoying the class and it’s helped me look at popular culture and media in a different way. Fast forward to the end of last year when I was having a casual conversation with a colleague of mine – I was telling him about my book, Colony One, and how it explores overpopulation’s impact on our future.

And my colleague, who has roots and family in the South, informs me that his uncle always used to say when a squirrel population became too large, they would all go insane. This intrigued me, and when I inquired into what, exactly, he meant by ‘insane’ he explained that they’d kill and eat each other. I found this fascinating, if not a little traumatizing. It was the first I’d heard of it, and being the kind of person I am, I went home and Googled – trying to understand if there was any known science around this, or if it was just an observation of rural living.

I couldn’t find anything substantial about squirrels, but I did find this concept of Behavioral Sink, which describes the collapse in behavior in overcrowding situations as observed in rats through experiments. When a population of rats was purposefully overcrowded, maternal behaviors plummeted – mothers were not taking care of their young (if their young survived birth), while males displayed sexual deviancy and cannibalism.

CalhounJ - Rat Experiment
A photo from the experiment that brought about the concept of Behavioral Sink.

Now, my Popular Lit and Culture class predated the zombie craze that was most recently popularized by The Walking Dead. So this discovery of Behavioral Sink got me thinking about the implications of speculative writing where overpopulation is a huge factor. And while many zombie stories do not always speak to the element of overpopulation, the ‘zombie craze’ feels like a direct ripple of the innate fears of overpopulation. We use mice and rats in experiments because we can parallel many of the behaviors between theirs and ours. If we take the overcrowding experiments on rats as reflective of what could happen in the same situation with humans, zombies make a lot more sense.

This is the part where I admit that I am not all about the zombie craze. Zombies have always been 100% terrifying and unappealing to me. It’s one of those story tropes that really get under my skin – I always used to assume it was because having a bunch of mindless, brain-obsessed people-shaped things that had no hope for redemption running around was terrifying enough. But now I’m beginning to think it speaks to a deeper psychological fear that reflects the natural inclination to go insane in overcrowding situations.

TheWalkingDead
Seriously, this is terrifying.

And while I can promise that the subsequent sequels to Colony One will not feature zombies, there will be plenty of evidence of insanity – when populations are pushed to the brink, terrible things can happen. Group think, combined with discontented desperation and competition for resources will always be a recipe for disaster. As I write this, and as I’ve had these revelations, I find it increasingly ironic that a class I so resisted at first, I am now possibly contributing to future iterations of. My books could easily be toted as cautionary tales, a clear indication of present-day speculative fears and underlying unease.

Most zombie lore involves some kind of virus and a ‘Patient Zero’. I pose a more horrifying supposition; which is there will be no virus. Nothing that strips us of our agency – rather a tipping point of psychology and circumstance.

Those zombie books, TV shows and movies may never be the same again…


Eve2Eve is the founder of Some Nerd Girl and the author of urban fantasy novel Children of the Fallen and science fiction novel Colony One. She has been writing since the age of 13 and has been flying her nerd flag for the past 16 years. Fandoms include Star Wars, Star Trek and Battlestar Galactica. Basically if it has ‘star’ in it, she’ll give it a shot.

26 Why Kylo Ren Turned to the Dark Side, pt 2 – Some Nerd Girl Original Webcomic

I bet Starbucks actually accounts for many people turning to the Dark Side…

Check out all the SNGCs here and join us every Monday for a new original SNG Webcomic!


AlexAlex is our resident Webcomic creator. He grew up in Puerto Rico, but didn’t reach true Nerdom until he came state side when he was in middle school. He’s been drawing since he was five, but has only started posting Webcomics in the past year. You can check out his amazing and original work at tapastic.com/gomezalexj.

Book Review: The Last Station Before Heaven by Peter J. Mylin

The Last Station before Heaven by Peter J. Mylin is set during a time where Christianity has been outlawed. It is narrated by a journalist invited by a former priest to find the last station before heaven – located in a kind of underground. At first our nameless journalist tells us about his story; that he doesn’t know where his wife is, his son is gay and doesn’t know if he survived the persecution of homosexuals and he hopes that this journey to find the last station before heaven will be worth it.

He meets the former priest, John Campbell, and his cat, Eva, and they spend the rest of the book decoding messages in hidden CDs that play hymns. Our journalist and John talk about John’s former life, being the head of a massive corporation-like church.

As the road trip continues we learn more about why Christianity was outlawed, and why most people wouldn’t like it; churches ruled like governments, and basically sucked the money out of their parishioners and spit them back out when they didn’t have any more money.

I thought the world described by Mylin was believable, and more than that, it was interesting. I read this book online, and I couldn’t stop clicking to advance the page. Usually I find a lot of fault in books that have a clear stance on religion and why we as a society should or shouldn’t have it, but the story was engaging and well developed. I also thought that the main characters were developed and weren’t just the two sides of the story. They were hilarious, and confusing, and weird and sad. I myself preferred John’s frank manner of speaking about all the mistakes that he had made in his life, and whether he felt that his actions were justified.

I was on the edge of my seat throughout the entire story even though the characters went through a cycle of getting a secret disc, cracking the code, and then going to the next location there was enough variety at each destination to keep me interested.

Although I really enjoyed this story I thought that it could have used more female characters, and the female characters like Jael could have been more developed. I won’t spoil it, but I felt the ending was too perfect. As a reader I felt like I had followed this story, this journey about characters that I cared about, for no reason.

All in all, I really enjoyed reading this book and I would give it three out five stars.

3outof5


MirandaMiranda is a college student studying Adventure Education and Sustainable Agriculture. Don’t let all that outdoorsy-ness fool you, when the Deathly Hallows came out Miranda was at the release party. Other nerdy credits include having deep discussions about various book series on reddit, tumblr, and twitter. She loves Harry Potter, the Hunger Games, the Delirium series, basically anything dystopian and the community of Nerdfighteria. You can find her on twitter @genderisweird, check her out on her blog and tumblr.

 

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