...a blog by Richard Flowers

Friday, April 27, 2007

Day 2308: New Earth discovered; Beware of the Cat Monsters!


Space… the way the news treats it these days, you would think it was less like the FINAL FRONTIER and more like the CORNER SHOP.

But, as Mr DOUGLAS ADAMS once said, you might THINK it's a long way down the road to the corner shop, but that's just PEANUTS to space.

Take this new planet that scientists have discovered. Already the newspapers are all calling it "New Earth".

People are talking about it being ONLY twenty light years away. ONLY! That means that even at the speed of LIGHT it would take twenty years to get there! They don't even know Doctor Who GOT CANCELLED yet, let alone know that it is back on! They haven't even seen Mr Sylv!

Not that we CAN travel at the speed of light!

But even supposing we invented some REALLY swishy rocket drive, probably something with ANTI-MATTER, it would be really, really difficult to get anywhere. Accelerate at one gravity (or ten metres per second per second, daddy tells me) for a whole MONTH and you'll still not get as fast as a tenth of the speed of light – at that speed, it would still take you 231 years to get to "New Earth"!

Keep going for 4 months and you might get up to about a third of the speed of light. So the new world is still sixty years away. Not to mention the fact that you've already burnt up at least 6% of your ship's mass – and remember, you've still got to slow down and stop at the other end. And you might want to come back!

But as you keep on accelerating, the effects of RELATIVITY will make it harder and harder to get any more speed out of your spaceship. The laws of physics just end up squishying your nose back into your face as all your relative distances seem to get shorter. On the plus side, this means that FOR YOU the trip seems to fly by… but to people back on Earth you seem to be moving slower so from our perspective you will ALWAYS take more than 20 years to get there.

All of which means that even if we go visiting, we're not getting any postcards back any time soon!

But that's not to say that we cannot concentrate a lot of effort on seeing if there is anything to see.

We could build robot space probes, like the ones that we already send to the planets. Perhaps they could be powered with an ion drive that can accelerate slowly but over very long periods. Even so, we are probably talking CENTURIES to get any kind of signal back. And that's assuming we CAN build a machine that will LAST for that long, especially in the UNPREDICTABLE environment of space where anything from a micro-meteorite to the Great Green Arkleseizure could smash it.

That's quite an investment. Who knows if anyone would even still be here to get the information when the probe robot starts sending it? Still, Darth Vader tried sending probe droids all over the galaxy and it worked for him!

But even from Earth we can use our POWERFUL GESTAPO BINOCULARS TELESCOPES to probe the mysteries of space.

As though it wasn't AMAZINGLY clever enough already, figuring out a way to work out where the planets in outer space ARE just from seeing how their tiny gravity tugs on the stars, now scientists are working on plans to detect whether there might be any LIFE on those planets. By measuring the PLANET-SHINE (which is like MOON SHINE, only I mean the light reflecting from the moon, NOT the BOOZE!) they can try to detect any of the chemical indicators that are caused by living processes – stuff like water, oxygen and methane. All the signs of farting space cows… er…

Even so, the BBC are already speculating what life on the new planet would look like.

(I suspect that this might just be another excuse to use a DALEK photo!)

To be honest, it is very difficult to guess. Obviously there will be ELEPHANTS, but what else is harder to know. This is because we only have one solar system to go on so far, namely our own!

So we have no idea whether life in the universe is very common, very rare, or unique to planet Earth.

The last option would SEEM quite unlikely because Earth's solar system does not seem especially special. Or rather our SUN doesn't seem special, as we can compare it to lots of other stars and go, yup normal. Though it might be that systems with small rocky planets ARE rare. Even though we have now detected many planets around other stars, they are by and large HUGE. That is because it is much harder to detect small Earth-sized ones. And that is what makes this new discovery so SPECIAL – it is the first time we have spotted a planet of the right sort of size in the right sort of place, not too close to its sun and not too far away (what scientists insist on calling the GOLDILOCKS ZONE).

Even if we DO find evidence of life up there – and I do not think it is possible to understate how BIG a discovery that would be! – even if we do find some, it may only be very primitive, like bacteria or amoebas and stuff, just like the life on Earth was very simple single-celled creatures for like three-and-a-half out of the four billion years that life has existed. Or it may be millions of years MORE ADVANCED than we are – remember, life on Earth got a nasty kick in the dinosaurs when that asteroid hit us sixty-five million years ago! The chances of life on another planet being even a bit like us… well, let's just say that there are plenty of OTHER options.

But the fact that we seem to have found a planet so like Earth only – look at me, there I go doing it – only twenty light years away, could be a GOOD SIGN though. A sign that in fact it is not a RARE FLUKE that rocky planets form in the right place, but that maybe LOTS of stars have Earth like planets.

In which case the chances of finding life in the planet-shine seem a lot brighter!

I started with Mr Douglas Adams but I will finish with another SCIENCE FICTION WRITER, Mr Professor Davros Hawking, who is planning on going into space personally.

He thinks that we need to be ready to move to other planets.

The truth may not be orange, but the future is out there! Watch the skies!


Does ANYONE know: what planet is Mr Boy George Oboe on?

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