Friday, November 5, 2010

Mickey Mouse Astronomy 101

Tonight I was working on a novel I am writing in collaboration with a friend of mine. After three hours, I came up with one page! But let me explain....

The one page was a "world description". The novel is a science fiction slash fantasy novel. It is set on a fictional planet that requires certain characteristics, therefore I had to make one up that fit the description; and in the fantasy genre, world-building is an essential part of the process. But being a bit of a literalist, I couldn't just "make one up". I needed to have a semi-scientific basis for these conditions.

Now I would never call myself an amateur astronomer. I don't even own a telescope! But I've always loved space and all things space-related, and am fascinated by astrophysics. As a kid I knew the names of all the planets in the solar system, in order, and what type of planet each one was. As an adult I have enjoyed the abundance of information that is available on the Internet to Mickey Mouse astronomy enthusiast hacks like me. I have very much enjoyed learning how nuclear fusion works. I was excited when I learned that scientists had actually created real antimatter! I am secretly proud that because I know how black holes work, I am no longer afraid that the Large Hadron Collider might accidentally destroy the Universe. I can relate to most of the really nerdy stuff they show on The Big Bang Theory, like getting excited about bouncing lasers off the Moon, and watching science fiction DVDs with the commentary turned on.......

.........I am very worried about myself actually.

Anyhow, tonight, when I created my planet, I had a few things to work out.

Firstly, because most stars in the Universe exist in binary pairs, I decided that my planet should be in a binary star system. But I wasn't interested in the whole "two suns" motif, because 1. it's been done to death, and 2. a planet that orbited two suns at once would more than likely be completely uninhabitable, spending most of it's year in either extreme heat or extreme cold. So my planet is tidally locked to a small, cool, red dwarf star, meaning that one whole hemisphere of the planet is facing the red dwarf star constantly (like the bright side of the Moon to Earth), and only the far side that faces the larger, hotter, brighter and further star is habitable.

Secondly, I had decided that the day-night cycle should go: short day, night, long day, night, with the nights being of equal length. How does this work, I hear myself ask? So my red dwarf star has a highly eccentric orbit around the larger hotter star, meaning it has two very close approaches and two very far approaches, which allows the short day on the close approach, the long day on the far approach, and the night in the equinoxes, making it the same length every time. Of course this assumes that the red dwarf's orbital inclination to the larger star is basically zero, the eccentricity of the orbit is symmetrical, and that my planet has zero axial tilt - no problem. It's my planet, it can have zero inclination, symmetrical eccentricity and no axial tilt if I want.

Thirdly, my planet had to be completely covered in rock, and suffer violent sandstorms, with sandstorms always at night, and infrequently during the day. No problems - it's covered in rock, just like Mars or Venus. But the sandstorms? Aha! This can be caused by convection currents, as air from the temperature-constant bright side interacts with air from the temperature-fluctuating far side. And of course, at night, when the temperature of the two sides would vary the most, the sandstorms would be constant.

Fourthly, it's only a small world, but the gravity has to be the same or very similar to Earth's. How does that work? Of course - the planet has a very large, very massive iron core. This also explains how it creates a magnetic field strong enough to contain an atmosphere thick enough to support human life and minimise temperature fluctuations, whilst at the same time shielding the planet from the ferocious tides of two solar winds. Not only that, but with such a massive iron core, space-faring humans would be crazy not to go there and mine the crap out of it, right?

So now I have a nice little world in a nice little binary star system with all my environmental preferences neatly accommodated by the information I procured from Wikipedia, the NASA website, the Universe Today website, the Popsci website, and some website about Greek mythology (my planets and stars are named after figures from Greek mythology, partly because my collaborator had already given my planet its name, and partly for reasons that I really don't have time to explain in this post).

I'm a bit worried that someone that actually knows something about astrophysics will read it one day and laugh at my Mickey Mouse astronomy. But I'm not going for the "hard science fiction" angle. In fact, my world description is probably already too technical for the everyday Joe Blow fantasy-genre fan, and exists mainly for my own reference when describing certain events, and as a guide to how the environment on the surface would appear to a human observer. It's a science fiction slash fantasy novel, so hopefully it will be a bit more accessible to most people than the kind of stuff the guys off The Big Bang Theory would be interested in.

The next step is the characters. If it took me three hours to do one page about an inanimate lump of rock, I hate to think how long that will take!

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