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!
It’s been estimated that a good percentage of planets beyond our solar system may be water worlds.
We here on mother Earth like to think of our blue green marble as a water world. Indeed it is watery, and water is pretty much the reason anything lives here at all. That’s why astrobiologists naturally seek signs of water on exoplanets. “Follow the Water” is a central tenet in the search for extraterrestrial life.
But compared to some worlds, earth really isn’t that waterlogged at all. It’s 0.002 percent water by mass. Only a tiny fraction of that water is available to terrestrial life. That water which isn’t directly involved in biological processes is linked to them, linking life to the planet via seasons and climate.
Some exoplanets are believed to be up to fifty percent water! These are true ocean worlds. To date, up to thirty five percent of exoplanets larger than may be covered by vast layers of water that may or may not harbour life. The jury is well out on that, but the idea is intriguing (and tempting) as the traditional definition of habitable zones is being stretched and reinterpreted.
For now, we have only our imaginations with which to explore these worlds…
The universe is turning out to be a more interesting place with each passing day for me. It’s not all about reading research articles and trawling the internet for interesting news in the vast field that is astrobiology.
I’ve been working on images related to various themes in astrobiology. This field really is a playground for the imagination, and it has something for everyone….
Something really special here: possible traces of limestones found in the fragments of objects orbiting a nearby white dwarf star…
Differing definitions of the Habitable Zone further push the limits of life in the universe..
Svante Arhenius, a swedish chemist and early pioneer of the theory of panspermia..
Ruminations on the code (codes?) that make life possible. How many languages does life have in the Universe?
Does the chemical rich, pitch black seabed of Europa host life? Does that of Enceladus?
The first image I created. I hope you’ve like these. There will be more! By the way, the background for this image comes from an online simulator called Goldilocks, by Jan Willem Tulp. His work can be found here. It’s really cool.
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.
It’s a story that began 20000 years ago, and has been waiting for you. Like something out of a “Star Trek” episode. The vista before you hangs in the black like a portal into the fiery underbelly of all that’s good in the Universe.
“Star Trek” You remember it now. The Battle of Wolf-359. It was a classic episode, in which a tattered human military force took on a vastly superior foe: the Borg. These creatures were bloodless and implacable. Truly unsettling bad guys.
This monster is just as unsettling. Wolf-Rayet-124 is real. It’s huge. You’ve come a long way to encounter it. A small fleet of drone-sats has been dispatched to get up close and personal with this Wolf-Rayet star, to see how extreme extreme sports can get.
As soon as humans got comfortable in space and started calling all kinds of dark corners and odd rocks home they were up to their usual mischief. As soon as all the laws were decreed and the soapboxes were all put away, humans got back to the serious business of finding new and bizarre ways to enjoy themselves.
Space tourism didn’t become big business. It became exponentially big business. Extreme sports fans weren’t interested in scuba diving with great white sharks anymore, or parachuting.
Ha! You recall the stories. The One-G-ers were those quaint old extreme sportsters who couldn’t let go of old mother earth. Most of them were toothless and half nuts decades ago, but they still harped on about climbing Mount Everest or wrestling crocodiles.
You look upon Wolf-124, blazing with a luminosity several million times greater than Earths sun back home. Wolf-124 is huge. How huge? These kinds of stars are rare. Of the millions of stars known to humanity only around 500 Wolf-Rayet stars are known to exist in this galaxy.
Wolf-Rayet stars are thought to be the powerhouses driving many planetary nebula or stellar nurseries. How does this work?
Your little drone sats are tasting the cloud of ionised gas and interstellar gunk that swirls around the star. This cloud is nearly 6 light years across; a dusty miasma flung outwards by the intense solar winds radiating from the star within. From your vantage point out here, looking down into this slow maelstrom you see chunks of the star heading outward. Earth sized pieces of WR-124 soar through the cloud like the volcanic rage of a demon tearing itself apart.
You write that last line down. The tourists will love it.
Sometime around 20000 years ago, when human beings were first discovering Europe WR-124 began tearing itself apart. Scientists never really ascertained why, but it’s made for some great observations over the years. Tourists will love this. You got here first, to set up the first fleet of solar sailing yachts. The winds from the star crack along at 1600 km per second, fast enough to twist the most iron stomachs.
These stars have unusual emission spectra. Many of the space tourists won’t care what this is, but there’s always someone in every group who just has to understand what they’re leaping into. Fair enough. What it means is that like any other star a Wolf-Rayet star burns up fuel. Our star, a relatively youthful star somewhere near middle age, is still burning hydrogen via the process of stellar fusion. As a star ages it’s supply of hydrogen becomes depleted, and it must burn heavier elements in order to survive.Wolf-Rayet stars are often seen to have high levels of quite heavy elements or “metals” such as carbon or nitrogen in their upper atmosphere. This is due to nearly complete depletion of hydrogen fuel so as a result heavier elements are being used up.
What does this have to do with spectra? Well, as elements transition from higher to lower energy states, ie when they’re being burned up inside a star, photons of particular wavelenghts are given off. It’s possible to tell just by analysing the wavelengths of light radiating from a star (it’s emmision spectra) what’s going on in and immediately around the star. This is why scientists know WR stars are old, and what they’re burning off in place of hydrogen. It’s also the reason they can infer the presence of extreme solar winds. The luminosity and heat given off by a WR star is extreme. At it’s surface a WR star can reach temperatures of between 30000 and 200000 Kelvin; hotter by far than most other stars. Such radiative pressure literally manifests as a “wind”, with the abilty to exert pressure on objects, such as solar sails!
Most of the drone sats are keeping a safe distance from WR-124. This might just be an imaginary blog post, but you have imaginary operating costs, you know?
So you’ve staked your claim here. Now, all that’s left to do is wait for the money to fly in!
Still, you’re thinking of your next venture. There’s an exoplanet out there somewhere: HD 189733B where it rains glass! Now that sounds like fun…..
While you’re here, join me on the AstroBiological YouTube channel. I’m hard at work sprucing it up. What do you think of this intro sequence?
One last thing!
Hop onto WeCreateEdu: an online community for educational you tubers. There is a galaxy of stuff to learn and explore here. Very much worth a look: