For 39 years images and data have been streaming across space. A small flotilla of missions to the TRAPPIST-1 system has begun transmittting. Seven small rocky worlds, all at least nominally Earthlike have drawn their share of attention over the decades. They huddle tightly around an angry little red dwarf star, somewhere in the Aquarius constellation.
Some of these planets sit within the habitable zone of TRAPPIST-1, that sweet spot where the temperature is just right: the proverbial bowl of porridge. Just right for what?
For water to exist in liquid form on the surface. And some of these worlds are very watery. Long ago the James Webb Space Telescope spotted water and indications of seasonal change on several of these worlds. Spectroscopic analysis enabled us to see these worlds with different eyes.
The missions now assigning themselves to various locales in this system show us a family of worlds possibly bearing life. TRAPPIST-1e is the prime target, but each world has a story to tell.
First approach showed us a red planet, with signs of vigorous atmospheric activity. There appears to be a purple tinge to the four large landmasses straddling this globe.
This purple haze is a striking feature of the planet. It may be due to native organisms using a photosynthetic pigment such as retinal. This protein may have been employed by early photosynthesisers on earth. Chlorophyll may have been a later card to be added to the deck.
TRAPPIST-1e appears to possess a diverse set of environments. Overall, it is a temperate world, and any life does struggle with sometimes extreme solar flare activity from TRAPPIST-1 .
Dust storms are a feature of TRAPPIST- 1e. In the above image a drone has spotted one such dust storm on the horizon as it flies over a large inland body of water. It is twilight in this image.
The TRAPPIST-1 worlds are close. The orbits of all seven planets would fit within the orbit of Mercury back home.
Traces of green can be noticed on the slopes of this extinct volcano. TRAPPIST-1 is believed to be ancient: on the order of eight to ten billion years. It’s family of seven worlds may have seen life arise more than once. This may have happened on our own world, with an enigmatic array of creatures known generically as Ediacarans appearing before the more conventional forms we see today.
The proximity of the TRAPPIST-1 planets presents an opportunity for researchers to observe lithopanspermia. The Swedish chemist Svante Arrhenius was one of the earliest scientists to suggest that life or it’s building blocks could travel from world to world, hitching a ride on moving objects such as comets or asteroids. Lithopanspermia builds on this. It’s a big idea, and observations on several of the TRAPPIST-1 worlds is showing us something we’ve only speculated on. Life travels between worlds, carried by rocks sent into space by impacts and volcanic eruptions.
Were a visitor to be admiring the sunset on, say, TRAPPIST-1d, they’d be in for a treat.
In this system, life is not restricted to one world. Here, an ecosystem interconnected by space borne life has given rise to an interplanetary ecosystem.
Next time, we visit a frozen world that may be hiding it’s own life, far beyond the habitable zone of TRAPPIST-1.
Read some other posts and tell me what you think! Also, please do me a favour and check out my YouTube channel:
Sometime in the early 2000s, this place was still a speck of data in some astronomers brain. The announcement of a system of seven earth-sized planets was pretty big. The further revelation of three of those worlds sitting within their stars habitable zone was the icing on the cake.
As the first intelligent explorers approach TRAPPIST-1e, we present to you these images: the culmination of decades of waiting, hoping that return transmissions from the TRAPPIST-1 mission wouldn’t get lost in interstellar space. There were those who worried that anything beamed back by the missions wouldn’t even make it out of the system. TRAPPIST-1 is a red dwarf star: a tiny relic of a thing but incredibly ancient. Age estimates range from 8 to 12 billion years old. Red dwarf stars tend to be nasty little suckers, and TRAPPIST-1 is no exception. Extreme solar flare activity sometimes hits the system, as the parent star has a tantrum. Communication from the system is nothing short of a miracle. Nevertheless, here are some of the better images we’ve managed to glean from the stream of data being sent back. Thirty nine years worth. Thirty nine years of waiting.
Approach: A New Red Planet
The very first direct images of TRAPPIST-1 and it’s rocky retinue were messy little blobs of pixels.
Of course, many exoplanets (and exomoons) had been imaged directly using a variety of techniques. The use of coronagraphs to scrape together images from points of light across impossible distances was revealing new vistas for a long time. The following image was taken all the way back in 2004:
A disc of debris around the red dwarf star AU Microscopii. Image: Hubblesite.org
Of course, progress marched on, and as missions approached the system the world waited for new images. A first blurry image sped across the galactic neighbourhood:
This image was a first test. As the mission approached the system, we began seeing more. High quality imaging was held off until final approach, in the interests of energy efficiency.
An infrared and monochromatic direct light image, taken from a distance of approximately 11 AU. Images: Ben Roberts
TRAPPIST-1e was waiting for us.
Imaging of exoplanets is explored in a new video, presenting the concept of coronagraphy. Help astrobiology reach the world (this and others) by checking it out. Subscribe and share if you like.
This post is the first of a series taking us on a trip to a real alien world, and speculating on just what it could be like, using real world astrobiology. I hope you like it!
If anyone has read “The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy” quadrilogy they would have been struck by some of the big ideas hidden within Douglas Adams’ deadpan humour. One of the heavy concepts that stuck with me was the idea of planet building. According to the story, Earth as we know it today is a planet sized super computer, built to perform one task: to figure out the meaning of life. A planetary architect named Slartibartfast is entrusted with overseeing the rebuild of Earth after it’s destroyed due to a galactic scale clerical error.
Possible? Why not? According to prevailing theories, planets mainly form via the process of accretion. Simply put, particulate matter adrift in molecular clouds clumps under the inexorable pull of gravity, forming ever larger clumps that clump to ever larger clumps and so on. Eventually a planet or star is the inevitable result.
Why couldn’t this be done artificially? Would it be even possible? If it’s just a matter of throwing lumps of crud at other lumps of crud and hoping they stick, then why couldn’t it be?
It’s the future. Humanity lives and works in space. The asteroid belt is the new frontier or wild west. Chunks of formerly useless rock are now homesteads or villages. Distances are not overly tyrannical. An asteroid is typically only a few light seconds from another. However, asteroids can be moved. Bigger asteroids like Ceres, Vesta or Eros would comprise the main hubs of commerce and trade in this new world.
Smaller settlements such as these “homesteads” could make life easier for themselves in terms of travel times (and therefore fuel costs) to larger, more important settlements by moving closer. In the frictionless, zero gravity environment that is space this wouldn’t be too technically difficult.
Time has moved on. The asteroid belt is a thriving collective of trade networks and conglomerates of smaller settlements. Smaller asteroids now cluster around larger ones like space junk in low earth orbit. Economically, this proximity is making things easier for everyone, and lots of people are getting rich.
Just imagine though if humans disappeared. The zombie apocalypse hit outer space and spread to all corners of the solar system.
(That’s the fun explanation)
Every living human is gone, and the asteroid belt is now a vast ghost band, forming a wreath around the sun, somewhere between Mars and Jupiter. There are all these swarms of asteroids now adrift, all artificially brought closer together by generations of enterprising human beings No course corrections keep them from colliding and so many of them are doing just that. Orbits decay, and tiny chondrite specks plough slowly into larger planetesimals.
See where I’m going with this? Over time, natural accretion would naturally lead to planets forming, or at least a large moon sized object. In millions of years the solar system could have a tenth planet (let’s just sneak Pluto back into the club. Don’t tell anyone!)
Planet Building! Essentially a garbage planet could form from the artificially placed asteroids and other objects now in very close proximity and drawn by the slow but inescapable pull of gravity.
I think it’s an exciting idea: a real megastructure! The ultimate megastructure!
This post was inspired by a chance statement in a video discussing space colonies on Isaac Arthur’s Science and Futurism youtube channel. Check it out. Isaac has a huge catalogue of lengthy discussions on some really interesting concepts. Here is a link to the relevant video if you’re interested:
Last but not least, here are links to the social media for Maciej Rebisz, the talented artist behind some fantastic space artwork, including the asteroid colony about halfway down the post.
I’m always interested in podcasting, and I’ve created an episode of a tentative series on the Anchor app. It’s just this blog post read out. Convenient for those whom listening is a better way to digest content. Here’s the link:
Imagine this. It’s the distant future. Space travellers have discovered a huge structure in deep space. Let’s assume the travellers aren’t human. These beings have stumbled upon the greatest discovery in their history. A vast megastructure, hundreds of kilometres long, it’s a huge cylinder spinning slowly across interstellar space. The structure is a riotous collection of cyclinders, and other smaller structures seemingly thrown together. Tests on the structure reveal it’s very old: several thousand years at least. No signals or signs of current occupation can be found, and it’s determined after several years of examination and debate that the structure is abandoned.
The very first team is sent on board…
What do they find?
The structure is derelict, to say the least. The team can safely determine this. There are no signs of intelligent life.
Mechanisms keeping the cylinder habitable are still somewhat operational. By some miracle of engineering the cylinder still has gravity as well.
But that’s not to say that life hasn’t found a way.
The structure is exploding with life!
The structure is essentially intact. It continues to rotate, driven by some unknown energy source and mechanism. It orbits a medium sized yellow star, lying just beyond the orbital path of the second planet out from this sun. The second planet is completely uninhabitable.
There is a third planet from the Sun which seems habitable. Other expeditions are already exploring that world, and it seems this cylinder was built by whatever sentient beings once lived there.
The structure is an oasis of life, all alone in the night. The builders may have long vanished, but the other organisms they brought on board: whether they be pets, food or pests, don’t seem to know they shouldn’t be here claiming this place as their own. It’s become an accidental ecosystem that has no business being out here and yet out here it is.
A couple of weeks I decided to do something different with all the video stuff I do. I did a livestream on facebook and periscope. The topic of my stream was the very question addressed above: what new ecosystems and organisms could arise in an abandoned, livable space station were the human occupants to disappear?
It actually really got me thinking. The whole thing began as a random question on Isaac Arthur’s Science and Futurism facebook group. To my surprise there were a lot of great comments and ideas in response to this question.
I’ve addressed this subject matter before. A blog post explored the nature of interactions between the natural world and those sad, abandoned places on the periphery of civilisation. It’s like discovering a completely new world when I stumble upon these “transitional” places. Imagine finding such a world like the cylinder orbiting Venus. Just how and in what direction would any life on board manage?
It’s a really interesting question, and ties into the nature of life and how it has spread across our own planet. Most life existing today hasn’t arisen spontaneously from the firmament. Nothing’s done that for around 4 billion years. No, life has migrated, hitched rides or been tossed about by catastrophe and happenstance. It has essentially gone where the wind blows, and taken root wherever it has landed. The theory of panspermia relies on this vagrancy to offer an explanation for how life might have appeared here in the first place. I personally think Panspermia is very plausible.
In some ways we’ve seen panspermia in action, from a certain point of view.
This is of course, a very tenuous observation I make, but the principle is the same, using the example of Ascension Island in the Atlantic Ocean. This tiny little mound of dirt popping up from the waves is a giant ecological lab, an ongoing experiment that began over 150 years ago. All manner of species: some introduced, some native, were thrown together, on a barren little rock. Within decades, the island was a lush green paradise, with new ecosystems and new equilibriums. Quite amazing really, and Ascension Island represents a window into the greening of a dead planet such as Mars.
So. To return to the premise of this post. Explorers find a derelict space colony, now overrun by non human life. We’ve seen this on Earth too. Life is especially good at exploiting new niches. When the dinosaurs perished, the mammals that had lived in their shadow for 180 million years suddenly had an entire planet all to themselves. This resulted in the Tertiary radiation, a speciation event rivalling the Cambrian Explosion in the profusion of new species of mammal that suddenly appeared to exploit all this open space. Disaster ecology is an area of study devoted to this knack life has of adapting to catastrophe and finding new balances. Places like Ascension Island are one example of this. Others, like Chernobyl, are another.
So what of my superstructure, adrift in orbit around Venus? It would take several posts to really give it some justice, and so that’s what I’m going to do. A few posts on the post human world in a self contained semi functional space colony.
I must admit I have not been active with this blog lately. I have been busier than usual with new work and things in personal life shifting and changing constantly. It’s never forgotten. This will be attended to, and posts are going to start going up on a more frequent basis. Stay tuned, keep reading and I’ll be writing soon.
I’ve been absent for a couple of weeks, working on a new Facebook group devoted to Astrobiology. So far it’s been fun, and people are responding to it. It’s not massive but there’s definitely a level of engagement which I’m enjoying. Hopefully others are enjoying it too!
“We live in a Universe that seems to be unsure of its rules sometimes. Is everything preordained, folded and tucked into the very tiny recesses of whatever quantum realm underpins our own world? Is everything an emergent property, constantly cycled and coded in real-time? Writers and thinkers have pondered this question and its countless variations since thought began. I’m not arrogant to declare I have the answers, and honestly, at this point in time could anyone?
Whatever viewpoint you have on the universe and how it all stacks up, there are some things no body can deny. Everything works the way it works, no matter what explanation you put forward for it.”
Staring at traffic gets me in a pensive mood sometimes. It makes me wonder (as an aside) how much thinking is done at windows, watching the world rush by? Right now I’m thinking about several hours just spent at some local wetlands. Just near my home, they have been virtually rebuilt by local councils over the last fifteen years or so, in a bid to clean up the environment a little bit. It isn’t really a token gesture. The wetlands have been a beacon of success amid the constant flood of tales of environmental woe. I visit them all the time when I get time off work, and love nothing more than wandering for hours at a time, taking photos of insects and whatever else takes my fancy.
You see, I really like science. I even studied it, slogging through five years of university, so I could get a nice big certificate to put on my wall. It was fun, but I’ve realised that for me science is all about wandering around in lonely places and just paying attention to things that others sometimes don’t see. It’s all about where you feel at home, and I’ve always felt at home in my imagination.
Today’s walk took me through the Paddocks Wetlands. They’re an area set aside by local government for environmental remediation. They constitute a fairly large chunk of land, set behind factories and commercial precincts.
The open space didn’t interest me today. I was armed with a bunch of cameras and a cheap little macro lens for my smart phone. Today, I went bug hunting. I went yesterday as well, just a boy and his smartphone.
Today’s trek through the wilderness was initially not panning out. With some pretty miserable weather, insects seemed to be sleeping in that day. I was getting a little bored. I was streaming my walk on Periscope, and getting a little distracted, clowning around for the viewers.
Then, a tree happened.
Trees hold a powerful place in world mythology. The mighty Ents of J.R.R. Tolkien’s Middle Earth are derived from ancient European myth. Trees are sacred in many cultures. This probably found its greatest expression in Norse mythology, with the World Tree Yggdrasil.
According to Norse legend, Yggdrasil was a mighty Ash (sometimes Oak) tree, whose branches extended beyond the heavens into the nine realms of existence. It’s roots extended far below, into the homes of Gods and demons. I personally have always loved this tale. It’s always given trees a certain mystique. When I was younger I used to believe they could think and feel just as we do, and wondered what secrets they kept to themselves…
In a way this assumption wasn’t far off. At the paddocks wetlands today I was able to focus on a single tree, finding a host of life and drama within.
This wasn’t just some boring old gum tree. On walking past it, I immediately noticed something I don’t see very often:
I was truly excited to find this little beastie. It was in the midst of eating the still twitching halves of a European wasp. It’s not every day we get to see nature at its violent best, and my camera was at the ready. The mantis was on to me, I’ll give it that. About the only important thing to heed when trying to photograph or film insects is that they are 1: extremely alert, and 2: extremely timid as a rule. They’ve been around for a very long time, and they’ve been on everyone’s menu for a long time. They’ve become very good at evading big clumsy beasts like myself. If you are, however, very quiet and move really slowly, you can get decent shots.
Or at least Twitter worthy shots.
The tree was home to so many. Dramas were unfolding before my eyes, and that was what was so great! From blood thirsty evisceration amid large gum leaves hanging like drapes to the aftermath of pitched battles:
Yggdrasil continued to unfold before me. Fire ants were foraging in the tree branches, coming down to investigate the praying mantis. The mantis actually tossed the wasp away, on realising I wasn’t going to leave it alone! That, and the inquisitive ants coming down to assess the situation and the mantis went into lock down, assuming it’s well-known posture of supplication. As I’ve said, insects are incredible survivors. On turning away for a few moments to further explore the tree the mantis was gone forever, melting into the greens and browns of the branches drooping down to the ground.
Note: My identification of these ants may be completely wrong. Feel free to correct me.
The ants only numbered in the dozens. They were like a scouting party, sent from their command centre to gauge the lay of the land before invasion day. One explorer to another, I watched them go about their business.
When going on these kinds of walks, I have found that you can’t go out intending to find something. Most times the only times I find things worth capturing on film is when some random glance leads me to a new discovery. Even knowing where to look is not enough sometimes. Insects are extremely elusive. Their size and alertness has kept them alive for hundreds of millions of years. Like Tolkien’s Hobbits, it seems that insects and their arthropod cousins will only be seen by us big folk when they want to. This is when we go out using only our eyes to look.
One tree was full of dramas and epic struggle. A fight for survival, a loser vanquished by a stronger foe and rent asunder like a bloody trophy. The first tendrils of conquest, seeking new worlds, coming into contact with the natives. These first contacts not going so well for some; even for combatants from both sides. Perhaps there’s a lesson in that for those who care to see it.
For these tiny creatures, this eucalyptus tree was their world. Like the Norse stories, the tree was their Yggdrasil, their entire cosmology. Branches swept up out of sight into the heavens, where only the foolhardy would ever travel, risking swooping birds. The tree’s roots grasped deep, clenching around the foundations of their universe. Some branches were reaching out, entwined with those from other universes, where brave travellers would cross over, meeting inhabitants of the neighbouring universes. Unknown to them all, they were all being watched by higher powers, hovering over them.
The crackling airwaves reverberate with the ethereal radio noise of the universe. You’re sitting cross-legged in fine regolith staring out into the big empty. You reach down and tune the receiver on your space suit, trying to lock in some broadcasts from Mars.
It’s pretty quiet down there today. Traffic is slow. There sure as hell isn’t too much happening here today. Not even commercial vessels hover over the skyline of this tiny moon. Phobos is alone with its thoughts on this Martian Sol, and so are you.
It’s a good place to get away. When you’re after some quiet time, you don’t mess around. Mars is a hub of busy-busy, as a melting pot of factions; corporate, government and private explore and carve it up. Maps are being drawn down there, maps of the future.
Mars rolls slowly beneath you. Phobos’ orbit brings it close to the red planet. With a semi-major axis of 9377 kilometres, Phobos makes a closer approach to its parent body than any other satellite or moon in the Solar System. By contrast, Phobos’ little brother; Deimos has a semi-major axis of 23460 kilometres. IF you were standing on the surface of Mars you might just see Deimos as a point of light, something like the folks back on Earth see Venus in the morning and at dusk.
So, why “Sons of War?”
Asaph Hall, who inadvertently discovered the pair in 1877 after some pushing from his wife (after which Stickney Crater was named), had a penchant for ancient Greece it seems. Phobos and Deimos were the sons of the Greek god of war; Ares! (Mars to the Romans.) Phobos meant panic and Deimos meant fear.
They sounded like a handful for their old man!
The universe is a gift. What else can it be? Every single day seems to bring something new and completely interesting. Sometimes you need to hunt for it, and sometimes it’s right there, hiding in plain sight. You’ve been known to have a fascination with the phenomenon. You never thought sitting up here on this nondescript pile of rubble could be so interesting. All alone with this incredible vista you look down at Mars and think about tossing your tickets back home out into space. It wouldn’t take much. Here on Phobos you are your own launch system. Phobos is the ultimate destination for weight loss. Back on earth you weigh in at just over one hundred kilograms. Here on this tiny little rock you weigh just over 60 grams! That’s right! You and your little sister’s black and white kitten weigh the same right now!
It makes going for a walk tricky though. In the first few years of the Great Mars Rush Phobos was a hotspot. Stickney Crater, that 6 mile wide basin swallowing up one end of the moon became an overnight spaceport, with Hamer Station becoming a sprawl of impossible architecture in a couple of years. People being what they are, didn’t really look before they leapt: literally. Rescuing floating space tourists who’d become new martian moons became a profitable cottage industry. Magnetic boots won’t work here of course. The terrain is almost entirely regolith: powdered rock formed by millennia of impacts. In fact, gravity is so low that with every step you carefully take a cloud of dust slowly puffs up, taking several minutes to descend back to the ground behind you.
You’re holding onto a handrail, one of several hundred which stretch for collectively dozens of miles around the moon. These handrails were the workaround some bright spark came up with in the early days. Straight out of an OH&S* manual, these rails are pretty much all that keeps you from launching yourself into the Big Empty.
Because gravity is so light, you can’t really “feel” the terrain. Probably if you weighed your actual 100 kilos, you’d sink into the several metres of regolith beneath you. It’d be like dry quicksand. Beneath all that are voids; a handy feature of the moon. Phobos is about one-third empty space. It’s a feature of the moon’s formation. Back when Mars was in its infancy something huge crashed into it, like an interplanetary T-Rex.
A lot of Mars was kicked up into space, forming a secondary cloud of dust and rock around what was left of it. Some of this matter clumped and glommed together, under gravity’s inexorable pull, and moons formed. Phobos and Deimos are the last survivors of these martian offspring. They are piles of rubble. Imagine you’re an extra in a disaster movie, where a building has collapsed on your head, and you play a survivor, trapped in the rubble. All the bits of the building don’t fall down in an orderly manner. This would be an entirely different universe if they did.
Just imagine physics lessons!
Anyway. Survivors, trapped under fallen rubble. Girders, chunks of concrete and twisted metal have fallen randomly, strewn in a completely chaotic heap of mess, under which our film extras wait for the heroic star to pull them out. Phobos is like this. Chunks of randomly shaped Mars have simply fallen together, resulting in an odd honeycomb of dark empty caverns and spaces; now used by humanity, which is rapidly filling them up with the detritus of colonisation and industry. Even living quarters. Like some bizarre sentient ant colony humans hide underground here. It’s a refuge from some crazy space radiation, the same as that bombarding and frying electronics down on Mars.
Mars is virtually zipping past. Phobos has an extremely fast orbit. Right now you are sailing around the red planet, completing an orbit in just over seven hours. Deimos, all alone out there lags behind, making the journey in just over thirty hours. You’re holding the handrail tight, but part of you wants to let go, to reach out for the Red Planet. It really is moving fast, now that Humanity is here.
To paraphrase Kim Stanley Robinson: “Once Mars was a dream. Now, it was a place.”
The Japanese Space Agency is currently putting together a mission to not only explore the moons of Mars, but to return samples to Earth. Good luck guys. Follow them on Twitter to keep up with their progress and mission updates: