Ross 128b a Habitable Planet?

Recently the news has been full of excitement that there may be a habitable planet around the red dwarf Ross 128. What we know about the star is that it has a mass of about 0.168 that of the sun, it has a surface temperature of about 3200 degrees K, it is about 9.4 billion years old (about twice as old as the sun) and consequently it is very short of heavy elements, because there had not been enough supernovae that long ago. The planet is about 1.38 the mass of Earth, and it is about 0.05 times as far from its star as Earth is. It also orbits its star every 9.9 days, so Christmas and birthdays would be a continual problem. Because it is so close to the star it gets almost 40% more irradiation than Earth does, so it is classified as being in the inner part of the so-called habitable zone. However, the “light” is mainly at the red end of the spectrum, and in the infrared. Even more bizarrely, in May this year the radio telescope at Arecibo appeared to pick up a radio signal from the star. Aliens? Er, not so fast. Everybody now seems to believe that the signal came from a geostationary satellite. Apparently here is yet another source of electromagnetic pollution. So could it have life?

The first question is, what sort of a planet is it? A lot of commentators have said that since it is about the size of Earth it will be a rocky planet. I don’t think so. In my ebook “Planetary Formation and Biogenesis” I argued that the composition of a planet depends on the temperature at which the object formed, because various things only stick together in a narrow temperature range, but there are many such zones, each giving planets of different composition. I gave a formula that very roughly argues at what distance from the star a given type of body starts forming, and if that is applied here, the planet would be a Saturn core. However, the formula was very approximate and made a number of assumptions, such as the gas all started at a uniform low temperature, and the loss of temperature as it migrated inwards was the same for every star. That is known to be wrong, but equally, we don’t know what causes the known variations, and once the star is formed, there is no way of knowing what happened so that was something that had to be ignored. What I did was to take the average of observed temperature distributions.

Another problem was that I modelled the centre of the accretion as a point. The size of the star is probably not that important for a G type star like the sun, but it will be very important for a red dwarf where everything happens so close to it. The forming star gives off radiation well before the thermonuclear reactions start through the heat of matter falling into it, and that radiation may move the snow point out. I discounted that largely because at the key time there would be a lot of dust between the planet and the star that would screen out most of the central heat, hence any effect from the star would be small. That is more questionable for a red dwarf. On the other hand, in the recently discovered TRAPPIST system, we have an estimate of the masses of the bodies, and a measurement of their size, and they have to have either a good water/ice content or they are very porous. So the planet could be a Jupiter core.

However, I think it is most unlikely to be a rocky planet because even apart from my mechanism, the rocky planets need silicates and iron to form (and other heavier elements) and Ross 128 is a very heavy metal deficient star, and it formed from a small gas cloud. It is hard to see how there would be enough material to form such a large planet from rocks. However, carbon, oxygen and nitrogen are the easiest elements to form, and are by far the most common elements other than hydrogen and helium. So in my theory, the most likely nature of Ross 128b is a very much larger and warmer version of Titan. It would be a water world because the ice would have melted. However, the planet is probably tidally locked, which means one side would be a large ocean and the other an ice world. What then should happen is that the water should evaporate, form clouds, go around the other side and snow out. That should lead to the planet eventually becoming metastable, and there might be climate crises there as the planet flips around.

So, could there be life? If it were a planet with a Saturn core composition, it should have many of the necessary chemicals from which life could start, although because of the water/ice live would be limited to aquatic life. Also, because of the age of the planet, it may well have been and gone. However, leaving that aside, the question is, could life form there? There is one restriction (Ranjan, Wordsworth and Sasselov, 2017. arXiv:1705.02350v2) and that is if life requires photochemistry to get started, then the intensity of the high energy photons required to get many photochemical processes started can be two to four orders of magnitude less than what occurred on Earth. At that point, it depends on how fast everything that follows happens, and how fast the reactions that degrade them happen. The authors of that paper suggest that the UV intensity is just too low to get life started. Since we do not know exactly how life started yet, that assessment might be premature, nevertheless it is a cautionary point.


Science in fiction II

In my previous post, I tried to show that science is a way of thinking, but that left the main issue of the title, “Science in fiction” more or less free of comment. On television, at least, there has been a glut of programs showing forensic science, with various level of realism, but the general rules of cause and effect are generally followed, and given that most of the audience would know nothing of forensic science before these programs started, and given their apparent popularity, I think this shows that if properly done, there is no reason to suspect that readers would be put off by science. The important point of such forensic science programs is that there is usually someone present, like the policeman, who knows nothing about it, and hence can be told what is going to happen. I think the concept of “No surprises!” is important. If the reader is told in advance what is going to happen, and why, the reader accepts it, provided the explanations are reasonably clear.

However, you cannot do that with a surprising discovery, and sometimes the story needs just that to drive the plot along. Thus in my novel Red Gold, which was about fraud during the colonization of Mars, I needed a very big surprise of considerable economic significance to expose the fraud. Up until the critical point, it was believed that colonization of Mars might be very difficult because the soil, or more specifically, the regolith, is rather nitrogen deficient. At the same time, the atmosphere of Mars has very little nitrogen in it. These are standard facts and are correct, as far as we have been able to find out. Rather remarkably, we have found very few nitrates, which is something of a surprise since we have found perchlorates, and it would be something of a surprise if chloride in the regolith was oxidized to perchlorate, and nitrogen did not convert to nitrates. The obvious conclusion is that there has always been very little nitrogen in the Martian soil, although there is a reason why that reasoning might be superficial.

Accordingly, one question is, did Mars accrete with almost no nitrogen, or did it have some, and that nitrogen has disappeared. This is important, because unless nitrogen is plentiful in what is called a reduced form, life is very unlikely to evolve. Suppose the nitrogen was there in the reduced form: that means there was a lot of ammonia around. If it were, as the atmosphere oxidized and carbon species turned into carbon dioxide, the ammonia would be slowly turned into urea, which would then be carried more deeply below the surface by water. Any urea or ammonia left on the surface would be oxidised to nitrogen, and would contribute to the residue in the atmosphere. The surprise could therefore be simply the discovery of urea, which would act as he fertilizer and make the settlement viable. The important point of this, at least for me, was that the story could have the settlement declared viable at a point where the fraudsters were building up a case to cash in on compensation when the settlement failed.

A feature of a genuine scientific discovery is that once you make it, in most cases it also explains a number of other problems that had been a puzzle. In this case, the problem is, where did Martian rivers come from, Mars is too cold for water to flow now, and when these rivers did flow, the sun was only about 2/3 as strong as now. There is significant evidence that Mars has never been above – 60  for any reasonable length of time. Had there been ammonia around, water can flow down to -80,  so the story can be given more credibility. This, admittedly, is something of a special case, but I think there are other options if we do not need to know too many genuine facts. Thus, if something ‘amazing’ only applies to one thing, it looks suspiciously like the proverbial ‘magic wand’, designed to do nothing more than get the author out of a plot hole.

For interested readers, on December 13, and will have promotional specials of both Red Gold and Planetary Formation and Biogenesis, the latter of which gives far more details of this theory.

Bloghop: Red Gold

I have been introduced to the “Bloghop” concept, where an author posts answers to ten standard questions, so here goes. Needless to say, some of my answers will hardly be standard! (I have also cheated a little by including a touch of the greater concept behind my writing, but then again, it is my blog so why not!)

1   What is the title of your book?

My latest is called Red Gold, and is set in 2075-76.It forms part of a “future history”, which starts in 2030 with Puppeteer, proceeds to the early 2050s with Troubles.

 Where did the idea come from for the book?

I started writing a futuristic novel in the 1990s, but it had far too much backstory, so I cut out some bits, and part of those cuttings led to the idea for Red Gold. The cuttings have actually provided material for five further books.

 3   What genre does your book fall under?

Science Fiction and Thriller, although the series itself will include two that would qualify as historical. The series goes to the 24th century before progressing back to the 1st as a “reboot”, and apart from two chapters, one in each book, they would be straight historical, dealing with the life of the main protagonist under the end of the Imperium of Tiberius, through Gaius Caesar, and the invasion of Britain under Claudius.

 4   Which actors would you choose to play your characters in a movie rendition?

I have no idea, but I would love Peter Jackson to direct, and Weta Workshops to do the special effects. With a bit of luck, they might let the author in to see some of what is going on. Part of “Lord of the Rings” was filmed opposite where I was working at the time, and I really wanted to see what was going on behind the huge “fence”.

 5   What is the one-sentence synopsis of your book?

Red Gold is about one man’s need to expose a fraud committed by his business partner during the colonization of Mars.

 6   Will your book be self-published or represented by an agency?

 It is self-published as an ebook.

 7.   How long did it take you to write the first draft of your manuscript?

About 8 months, I think. It was some time ago, because I abandoned it for a number of years.

 8   What other books would you compare this story to within your genre?

Obviously, nothing is exactly similar, but Kim Stanley Robinson’s Red Mars has a certain similarity in terms of genre.

 9.   Who or What inspired you to write this book?

The first of the futuristic novels was written to “see if I could make it”. To explain that, my first attempt at writing a novel was as an undergraduate in the 1960s. I was with a few female students who were going for a BA, and I could not resist saying that at least science was aimed at creating something, while all they were doing was criticizing. They should be doing, like writing novels. Their response was, I could not come up with a plot so . . My response to that was, of course I could; it was them who could not. So they challenged me, and I came up with one. They challenged me to write it, so I did. I posted it off, got four rejections and gave up. About 15 years later, I looked at it again, and the first twenty pages were awful, and nobody got past them. So I tried rewriting, and sent out query letters, but got no response. Then I tried self-publishing, on the basis that (a) I had some sort of platform because I was on nationwide TV from time to time, and (b) I was getting involved with an industrial venture, and I needed to clear the decks, so to speak. I did, but the venture also took off, and financiers forbade me to seek any publicity for anything. With no advertizing, no publicity, sales were only modest, so in the 1990s I decided to try again and see if I could make it.

 10.    What else about your book might pique the reader’s interest?

I got an agent, the book went to a major publisher, but the editor died and his replacement cleared his desk. According to this editor, my plot was too ridiculous. The book is about a fraud during the colonization of Mars, and it is exposed by an unexpected discovery, which involved where the atmosphere of Mars went. The colonization of Mars is hardly too ridiculous for SciFi, fraud is never ridiculous, which meant my science was ridiculous, and that was the prime insult. I then devoted myself to going deeper into this topic, and this ended up as my ebook “Planetary formation and biogenesis”. If Mars rovers ever find a deposit of nitrogen-rich organic material, this will be the first book to have predicted it.

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