"It’s 20 light years away. We can go there."


Now that’s the kind of attitude I like to see coming from a legitimate authority– to wit, Dimitar Sasselov of the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics, quoted in today’s NY Times. He was talking about Gliese 581c, a potentially earth-type planet orbiting a dim red dwarf in the constellation of Libra. 1.5 time Earth’s radius; 5 times the mass. Mean temperature somewhere between 0 and 40°C, solidly in the Goldilocks Zone for liquid water. A type of planet thought by Sasselov to be not only congenial to life, but more congenial than Earth.

Of course, you probably know this already. It’s on boingboing, after all, and Yahoo, and Space.com and Nature, and a thousand other websites. (Science, my usual go-to source for this kind of thing, is still asleep at the wheel as of this posting.) What you probably don’t know, however, is that there’s a pretty specific real-world connection between Gliese 581c and Blindsight.

You see, we don’t really know all that much about 581c yet. We got a mass, and we got a distance-from-primary, and we got an orbital period (11 days), and we got all of that by watching Gliese 581 wobbling slightly as its planets tugged gravitationally on its sleeve. We don’t even know if 581c has an atmosphere, and if so, whether it’s closer to ours or Venus’s.

But there are plans to find out, and they involve the use of a suitcase-sized Canadian satellite called MOST (also known as “The Humble”, by virtue of its teensy dinner-plate of a mirror). Despite its small physical size, MOST is well-suited for picking up the atmospheric signatures of extrasolar planets, and it’ll be turning its glassy eye towards Libra in the near future. The Principle Investigator behind the MOST is a guy name of Jaymie Matthews, who acted as my unpaid astrophysics consultant (well, paid in pizza and beer, I guess) for Blindsight.

And now, after helping me chase aliens through my own brainstem, he’s gonna be looking for real ones at Gliese 581. How cool is that?

This entry was written by Peter Watts , posted on Wednesday April 25 2007at 05:04 am , filed under astronomy/cosmology, blindsight, extraterrestrial life, science . Bookmark the permalink . Post a comment below or leave a trackback: Trackback URL.

11 Responses to “"It’s 20 light years away. We can go there."”

  1. In related news, Starbucks executives were reportedly incensed to discover that there was habitable land somewhere in the scope of human awareness not yet served by several overlapping outlets.

    I guess I should be excited about this, but it makes me queasy. With NASA kneecapped by budget and politics, Asia’s growing space race, Russia’s space-ferry for hire, and corporate interests deciding they should now be going into space as well…by the time this becomes feasible, we’re likely to see all sorts of competing factions aiming for this “non-branded” geo-mass at the same time, in whatever form they eventually morph into. Starbucks and a cryogenically frozen Richard Branson are likely to make it there before whatever is serving as the NASA of that age, and by then Starbucks will have its own official standing military.

    I’m being too pessimistic though. I’m sure we can sit down and settle all the eventual land “ownership” issues amicably, without resorting to gunplay. There’s precedent for that, right? That’s happened before…hasn’t it…? Oh well, at least I can rest easy with the thought that gives me comfort in an increasing number of issues these days; I’ll be dead by then.

  2. …by the time this becomes feasible, we’re likely to see all sorts of competing factions aiming for this “non-branded” geo-mass at the same time, in whatever form they eventually morph into. Starbucks and a cryogenically frozen Richard Branson are likely to make it there before whatever is serving as the NASA of that age, and by then Starbucks will have its own official standing military.

    I’m being too pessimistic though.

    Huh. I was taking your list of likely outcomes as optimistic, myself. Unless they’ve started really enhancing their coffee, Starbucks is still composed of Homo sapiens, no?

    Actually, given the likely time horizon before settlement of 20-light-year distant planets, I’d be very impressed if Starbucks survived that long as a corporation. The previous record for a publicly-owned corporation (i.e. they sell voting shares) was about 400 years, if I’m not mistaken. Hudson’s Bay corporation at one point owned 1/12 of the Earth’s land area, and directly participated in a war (a HBC ship attacked a German U-boat in WW one).

    I’m much more worried about lots of other things before I worry about any currently-extant corporations doing anything really unpleasant.

  3. TheBrummell: You’re right of course. I’ve read too much Max Barry, and was just being silly. Still, it was interesting that I assumed Starbucks would outlast NASA.

    I was just observing that even though it’s held as one of the great dreams of science, assuming the following…

    1) The planet does turn out to be habitable (and uninhabited by surly aliens with green, political capitol-detonating particle weapons)

    2) In the next century or so, we actually manage to make a 20 light year trip with a human crew feasible, via life-stasis, magical FTL travel, space vampires, or what have you.

    3) We are still thinking in terms of financial entities and imaginary maplines, and not in terms of species. (the safest assumption on the list)

    …it’s really more of a nightmare scenario in the “short” term: the highest-stakes land rush in the history of the world, a wide open space race with teeth, with no oversight and governed by no enforceable laws.

  4. This is the same “Scott C.” who left me my first official spam a few posts back?

    I feel bad. I thought you were being a dick and so I shot off a snide rejoinder. Judging by your subsequent postings, you were just kidding with that whole “self-loathing” bit and I took it the wrong way. So I guess I was the dick.

    I’m sorry.

  5. I admire Sasselov’s spirit, but we aren’t going there. Not any time soon.

    We can barely lift a few tourists into orbit right now. The fastest thing we’ve got are the Voyager probes and at their speed it would take 400,000 years to go 20 ly. That’s two to eight times longer than our species has been around.

    It’s not impossible of course. Who knows? As long as NASA is going to be diverted into hardware building instead of space science we might as well dream big. Beats the current US “plan” which is to return to the moon in about the same amount of time it would take a human being to walk there.

    Like I should critique. Can’t remember my blogger password. – ElGrande

  6. In al likelihood ElGrande is right. On the other hand, there’s always this new model of physics that talks about getting around the lightspeed barrier by the (relatively simple) expedient of dropping a ship into a rotating magnetic field (abstract here). It seems pretty whacked-out to a layperson like myself, but no more whacked-out than quantum entanglement– it apparently predicts the masses of elementary particles way better than the standard model, and legit authorities rangeing from the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics to the US Department of Energy seem to think it’s worth looking into. And if it does pan out, they say we could have a working prototype ftl drive within a decade.

    (Anybody have any more recent references than the links I’m posting here? They’re over a year old now, and for all I know this whole thing has gone the way of the Fox Alien Autopsy…)

  7. what i like about the planet best is that christmas comes around like every 14 days, and i freaking love christmas!

    sign me up.

  8. The Heim-Dröscher theory sounds a bit like an article I read a while back regarding negative energy from the quantum vacuum being used to power a ship at ftl speeds. I (amazingly) was able to find the article again.

    Negative Energy Drive

    I was rather excited by the news of a possible Earth-like planet when I heard about it. My co-workers were less enthusiastic and generally seemed content to either look at me as though I just turned into a large mushroom or ignore me. Oh well.

    One thing that I found a bit troubling was the fact that it came in at 5 times the mass of earth at 1.5 times the radius. I generally consider myself fit, but not enough to add about 4 more of me onto my frame. Not like I will ever be there anyway, though.

  9. Ooo! Heavy worlders. Anyone want to name the planet Jinx?

  10. it was interesting that I assumed Starbucks would outlast NASA.

    I actually didn’t catch that the first read through, but that is interesting. Are there precedents in history of government institutions falling into obscurity before (apparently unrelated) private enterprises?

    5 times the mass of earth at 1.5 times the radius.

    Phil Plait at Bad Astronomy calculated this to result in a surface gravity of about 2.2 g, so you only have to more-than-double yourself, not quintiple.

    Anyone want to name the planet Jinx?

    Yes, but only if we find Bandersnatchi there.

  11. 5 times the mass of earth at 1.5 times the radius.

    If these numbers are correct, then this is NOT an earthlike world.

    Some math:
    1.5³ = 3.375 × earth volume
    (5×earth mass) / (3.375×earth volume) = 1.48×earth density
    Earth mean density = 5500 kg/m³
    5500 × 1.48 = 8148 kg/m³

    In other words, the average density is higher than pure iron. This world is mostly core, with little if any rocky mantle. It might be habitable, but it won’t be earthlike.

    Imagine…
    …volcanos spewing liquid iron and nickle.

    …a magnetic field 10 to 100 times stronger than Earth’s.

    …granite and other SiO2 based minerals replaceing water as the lubricant for tectonic plates of metal.

    …rust as common as sand.

    On the other hand, this info alone might make it a very interesting place to set a hard SF story.

    I say go for it.