Monthly Archives: December 2012

The Unknown Solar System


Just beyond Neptune is the Kuiper Belt, a torus of comet-like objects, which includes a few dwarf-planets like the Pluto-Charon dual-planet system. Despite being lumped together under one monicker, the Belt is composed of several different families of objects, which have quite different orbital properties. Some are locked in place by the gravity of the big planets, mostly Neptune, while others are destined to head in towards the Sun, while some show signs of being scattered into the vastness beyond. Patryk Lykawka is a one researcher who has puzzled over this dark, lonely region, and has tried to model exactly how it has become the way it is today. Over the last two decades there has been a slow revolution in our understanding of how the Big Planets, the Gas Giants, formed. They almost certainly did not begin life in their present orbits – instead they migrated outwards from a formation region closer to the Sun. To do so millions of planetoids on near-misses with the Gas Giants tugged them gently outwards over millions of years. We know what happened to the Gas Giants, but what of the planetoids? A fraction today form the Kuiper Belt and the Oort Cloud beyond it (how many Plutos exist out there?) But a mystery remains, which Lykawka convincingly solves in his latest monograph via an additional “Super-Planetoid”, a planet between 0.3-0.7 Earth masses, now orbiting somewhere just beyond the Belt.


Such an object would be a sample of the objects that formed the Gas Giants, a so-called “Planetary Embryo”. Based on the ice and silicate mix present in the moons of the Gas Giants, the object would probably be half ice, half silicates/metals, like a giant version of Ganymede. However such an object would also have gained a significant atmosphere, unlike smaller bodies, and being cast so far from the Sun, it would have retained it even if it was composed of the primordial hydrogen/helium mix of the Gas Giants themselves. This has two potentially very interesting consequences. David Stephenson, in 1998, speculated on interstellar planets with thick hydrogen atmospheres able to keep a liquid-water ocean warm from geophysical heat-sources alone. Work by Eric Gaidos and Raymond Pierrehumbert suggests hydrogen greenhouse planets are a viable option in any system once past about ~2.0 AU. A precondition that obtains for Lykawka’s hypothetical Super Trans-Neptunian Object.

So instead of a giant Ganymede the object is more like Kainui, from Hal Clement’s last novel, “Noise”. Kainui is a “hot Ganymede”, a water planet with sufficiently low gravity that the global ocean hasn’t been compressed into Ice VII in its very depths. Kainui’s ocean is in a continual state of violent agitation, lethal to humans without special noise-proof suits, but Lykawka’s Super-TNO would probably be wet beneath its dense atmosphere, warmed by a trickle of heat from its core and the distant Sun.


Gravitational perturbation studies of planetary orbits by Lorenzo Iorio constrain the orbital distance of such a body to roughly where Lykawka suggests it should be. A Mars-mass object (0.1 Earth-masses) would exist between 150-250 AU, while a 0.7 Earth-mass body would be between 250-450 AU. If we place it at ~300 AU, then its equilibrium temperature, based on sunlight alone, would be somewhere below 16 K. That’s close to the triple-point of hydrogen (13.84 K @ 0.0704 bar), suggesting a frozen planet would result. However geophysical heat, from radioactive decay of potassium, uranium and thorium, could elevate the equilibrium temperature to over ~20.4 K, hydrogen’s boiling point at 1 atm pressure. Thus a thick hydrogen atmosphere should stay gaseous.

To keep liquid water warm enough (~273 K) at the surface, the surface pressure will need to be ~1,000 bar, the equivalent of the bottom of Earth’s oceans. An ammonia-water eutectic mixture would be liquid at ~100 bars and 176 K. With a higher rock fraction and higher radioactive isotope levels (as seen in comets, for example), liquid water might be possible at ~300 bars. Such a warm ocean would seem enticingly accessible since a variety of submarines and ROVs operate in the ocean at such pressures regularly. While the prospects for life seem dim, the variety of chemosynthetic life-styles amongst bacteria suggest we shouldn’t be too hasty about dismissing the possibility.

A primordial atmosphere also invites thoughts of mining the helium for that rare isotope, helium-3. At 0.3 Earth masses and 1:3 ratio of ice to rock, such a body has 75% Earth’s radius and just 40% the gravitational potential at its surface – even less at the top of the atmosphere. Such a planet would be incredibly straight-forward to mine and condensing helium-3 out of the mix would be made even easier by the ~30-40 K temperature at the 1 bar pressure level. There’s no simple relationship between the size of a planet and its spin rate, but assuming Earth’s early spin rate of 12 hours, then the synchronous orbital radius is just 2 Earth radii above the operating altitude of a mining platform. A space-elevator system would be straight-forward to implement, unlike the Gas Giants or even Earth.

Travelling to 300 AU is a non-trivial task, ten-times the distance to Neptune. A minimum-energy Hohmann trajectory would take 923 years, while a parabolic orbit would do the trip in 390 years. Voyager’s 15 km/s interstellar cruise speed would mean a trip of 95 years. A nuclear saltwater rocket, with an exhaust velocity of 4,725 km/s, could be used to accelerate to 3,000 km/s, then flip and brake at the destination. The trip would take six months, which is speedy by comparison.

2312: Terraforming the Solar System, Terraforming the Earth

Kim Stanley Robinson’s latest book “2312″ is set in that titular year in a Solar System alive with busy humans and thousands of artificial habitats carved from asteroids. Earth is a crowded mess, home to eleven billion humans, but no longer the home of thousands of species, now only preserved, flourishing in fact, in the habitats. Spacers, those living in space, are long-lived, thanks to being artificially made “bisexual” (male & female) and some are living even longer by virtue of small size. Humans live from the Vulcanoids – a belt of asteroids just 0.1 AU from the Sun – out to Pluto, where a quartet of starships are being built for a 1,000 year flight to GJ 581. Mars has been terraformed, via Paul Birch’s process of burning an atmosphere out of the crust to make canals, while Venus is snowing carbon dioxide (another Birch idea.) The larger moons of Jupiter and Saturn are extensively inhabited and debating their terraforming options.

On Mercury Stan introduces us to the moving city Terminator, which runs along rails powered entirely via thermal expansion of the rails as they conduct heat from Mercurian day and radiate it away in the Mercurian night. Mercury is a planet of art museums and installations of art carved out of the periodically broiled and frozen landscape. Sunwalkers walk forever away from the Sunrise, braving the occasional glimpse of the naked Sun, which can kill with an unpredictable x-ray blast from a solar flare.

The two main protagonists are Swan, an Androgyn resident of Mercury, a renowed designer of space-habitats whose mother, Alex, has just died; and Wahram, a Wombman resident of Titan, who is negotiating access to solar energy for the terraforming of his home world. Due to a freak “accident” the two must journey through the emergency tunnels underneath Mercury’s Day-side, an experience which draws them together inspite of being literally worlds apart in personality and home-planets.

There’s a lot going on in 2312 and Stan only shows us a slivver. Plots to reshape the worlds and plots to overthroe the hegemony of humankind. But for our two interplanetary lovers such forces can’t keep them apart.

Of course, I’m not here to review the book. This being Crowlspace, I’m looking at the technicalities. Minor points of fact have a way of annoying me when they’re wrong. For example, Stan mentions Venus wanting to import nitrogen from Titan, which is rather ridiculous. The atmosphere of Venus is 3.5% nitrogen by volume, which works out as the equivalent of 2.25 bars partial pressure. Or about 3 times what’s on Earth. So importing nitrogen would be the equivalent of the Inuit importing ice.

Stan is critical of interstellar travel being portrayed as “easy” in Science-fiction. He mentions a fleet of habitats being sent out on a 1,000 year voyage to a star 20 light-years away – given the uncertainties of these things and the size of habitats, that’s not an unreasonable cruise speed. Yet he describes it as being “a truly fantastic speed for a human craft.” But at one point he mentions that a trip to Pluto from Venus takes 3 weeks, an unremarkable trip seemingly, yet that requires a top-speed of 0.022c – significantly higher than the starships!

He’s a bit vague about the pace of travel in the Solar System via “Aldrin cycles” – cycling orbits between destinations, timed to repeat. Buzz Aldrin developed the concept for easy transport to Mars – have a space-station with all the life-support in the right orbit and you only have to fly the passengers to the station, rather than all their supplies. The station either recycles everything or is resupplied by much slower automated freighters using electric propulsion. Stan’s mobile habitats do the former, with some small topping-up. But such Cyclers are slow. Stan mentions a Mercury-Vesta Cycler trip taking 8 days. Not possible for any Cycler orbit that’s bound to the Sun (i.e. cycling) – a straight-line parabolic orbit would take a minimum of 88.8 days. A proper Cycler needs to be on an orbit that can be shaped via the gravity of the planets to return it to the planets it is linking together, else too much fuel will be expended to reshape the orbit. Preferably an orbit that isn’t too elliptical else the shuttle fuel bill is too high. A minimum-energy Hohmann orbit would take 285 days to link Mercury and Vesta.

These are quibbling points. The real meat of the book is the optimistic future – a dazzlingly diverse one – that is basically plausible. Enticingly possible, in fact. Yet the optimism is tempered by the fact that not everyone is living in a wise, open society. Earth, even in 2312, remains a home to suffering masses, their plight made worse by the greenhouse effect’s flooding of low-lying parts of the Globe, and the Sixth Great Extinction’s erasure of most large animals from the planet (fortunately kept alive or genetically revived in the mobile habitats.) New York is mostly flooded, becoming a city of canal-streets, something I can imagine New Yorkers adapting to with aplomb.

The real challenge of the 24th Century, in Stan’s view, is the terraforming of the Earth, remaking a biosphere that we’ve ruined in our rush to industrialise. Perhaps. We certainly have many challenges ahead over the next 300 years…