Weird Planets


This year has produced some amazing discoveries in the planet-hunting arena.

Notable among these is the announcements of more ‘super-Earths’.

The planet HD 40307g is the most distant from its sun of six planets found in its system, and takes 200 days to orbits its star. At seven times Earth-mass, bets are on as to whether this planet is rocky or a Neptune-like world. Astronomers put it at about 50:50. The system is around 42 lightyears away. Not only does it orbit in a habitable zone, the target system is also close enough to potentially image directly in the future using the next generation of space-based telescopes. Bring it on!

Gilese 163c is another planet in its stars habitable zone, also estimated at seven times the mass of the Earth. The planet orbits a red dwarf slightly dimmer than old Sol and zips around it in 26 days [red dwarfs are the most common star type in the Milky Way].

Other discoveries showed planets where you least expect to find them – in multiple star systems. Solving multiple-body problems like that give even the most brilliant mathematicians a severe headache. But that does not stop us from seeing what’s out there.

The gas giant PH1orbits a pair of stars that are part of a four-star system [in this case it would orbit the centre of mass of the two stars]. The first planet found in a four-star system. It is bigger than Neptune, and easily big enough to host rocky moons approaching Earth-size. Unfortunately its location makes it too hot for liquid water – its temperature is estimated to range between 251C to 340C (484-644F).

The best thing about PH1 is that it was discovered by two amateur astronomers as part of the Planet Hunters program. So non-professionals get to play too!

A number of binary systems with planets have now been found, some with planets near the habitable zone, such as Kepler-34b and Kepler 35b. Each would get that double-star sunrise, just like Tatooine. Both planets are big, and around 5000 lightyears from Earth. So no exploring just yet.

As for the closest planet, that is a rocky planet orbiting Alpha Centauri B, 4.2 lightyears from Earth. No need to pack the swimsuit – unless you like doing laps in lava. It orbits its sun in a little over 3 days at a distance one tenth of Mercury’s orbit. Ouch.

Find more info and some good pics here.

What were your favourite discoveries of the year?

Opportunity Still Rolling on Mars

Almost nine years old and still going strong – Opportunity – one of the twin rovers sent to Mars almost a decade ago is still turning its robotic wheels on the red planet. It is continuing its mission to learn about the history of wet environments on Mars.

Spirit and Opportunity were the twin rovers that exceeded all expectations by hanging on well past their planned life and going above and beyond the call of scientific duty. Both landed in January 2004. Each had a primary mission of 90 Martian sols (92 days in Earthspeak).  So Opportunity at 3244 days of mission life is a long-lived explorer indeed.

Spirit got bogged in soft soil on 1st May 2009 and finally gave up the electronic ghost on 22nd March 2010 (2695 days) after long and valuable service.

Opportunity has been exploring a crater-rim where orbiting Mars spacecraft have detected traces of clay minerals that may indicate a wet, non-acidic geology with favourable conditions for life. The hill its investigating – Matijevic Hill – is on the western rim of Endeavour Crater, a 22km wide impact crater dating back more than 3 billion years. This impact site is of particular interest to scientists because deep rocks have been pushed to the surface within reach of the intrepid rover. One of the puzzles to solve is sorting out the age of local outcrops.

The rover drove 354 metres around the hill in a counterclockwise circuit for its initial reconnoitre. This initial survey will be used by mission scientists to determine the best place for further investigation. Two areas of particular interest were identified: Whitewood Lake shows a light-toned material that scientist believe may contain clay, while Kirkwood contains small spheres with composition, structure and distribution that are different from iron-rich sphericules (aka blueberries) Opportunity saw at its landing site.

The final target for further investigations has not been chosen. Meanwhile Opportunity is flexing its robotic arm, ready for action.

Curiosity, Opportunity’s  newer, larger cousin, is also having fun. Here is an article about the organic non-signal that NASA was eager not to announce. To me, this is strangely reminiscent of the Viking ‘false positive’ – anyone remember that one?


Hi, everyone. A recent post earlier in the week got me thinking about breaking the ice on your current work-in-progress.  As a rule I tend to be pretty disciplined, and most writers are dedicated above and beyond the call of duty. But anyone can get burnt out.

So. Icebreakers. Techniques for overcoming a reluctance to sit down at the computer and write.

I think all these techniques relate to the key problem of being crushed under the weight of too great a goal.

You start off with small goals and as you cruise along – when the words of flowing – two hours becomes four hours, becomes six hours. When you are getting stronger it’s easier to keep adding weight. Yet sooner or later, those muscles give out: through illness, fatigue, overwork, whatever.

Pretty soon if you don’t meet that 4000k, or 6000k daily goal it seems like you are failing.

So as basic as it is (and I can probably hear people gritting their teeth), it’s a case of breaking down the big lump into small lumps. Hopefully nice little tasty, sweet lumps that keep you coming back to the nectar-fountain of creativity.

One icebreaker is to write 200 words. The beauty of less intimidating goals like this is that it is just enough to break through the creative deadlock. Nine times out of ten you will find that when the word target comes along you will be in the middle of a key scene, or a particular paragraph and want to continue to finish things off. Before you know it you’ve written 500 words, or even a thousand without breaking a sweat. The beauty of this is that the whole icebreaker is set up for you to over perform – and you cannot help but feel good about that.

The second key aspect of an icebreaker target is that you should do it first. This is worth stressing. Writing is infinitely easier to break the ice on if it’s done as the very first activity in the day. Procrastination is a force that gathers in strength the more it is fed. The earlier in your day you can break through the hesitations and mental deadlock and restore the creative flow the better. It is then so much easier to come back to your work for another go later.

I personally tend to use time blocks rather than word targets. For me it’s 20 minutes. Since I usually write in 2hr blocks, this really seems like a walk in the park. Taking away the aspect of a word limit also frees me up to think about potential plot problems. It really works. The best thing about it is that when I take the pressure away like that I start to enjoy writing again.

What are your favourite icebreakers?