Space Sunday: solar systems, flying telescopes, and spaceplanes

An artist’s impression of the Epsilon Eridani system, which might be very similar to our own. Credit: NASA/JPL

To Babylon 5 fans, Epsilon Eridani is (will be?) the home to our “last, best hope for peace”. To some loosely versed in Star Trek lore, it is credited as being the star orbited by the planet Vulcan (although somewhat more officially, Vulcan is placed in the 40 Eridani star system). To astronomers, it is a very Sun-like star some 10.5 light years away, which may be the home of two (or more) planets. And now it appears it is something of a younger version of our own solar system.

The star has long been of interest to astronomers as  the possible location of exoplanets, and in 1987, it appeared as if a Jupiter-sized planet had been discovered orbiting Epsilon Eridani at roughly seven times the distance of the Earth from the Sun, and with an orbital period of some 7 terrestrial years. Initially called Epsilon Eridani b, the planet has been strongly contested over the decades for assorted reasons – even though in 2016 it was granted a formal name: AEgir (sic).

Observations of the system also revealed that the star appears to be surrounded by a cometary ring, somewhat akin to out own Kuiper Belt, and in 2008, the Spitzer Space Telescope revealed that the Epsilon Eridani system may have two major asteroid belts. the first of which correlates to the position of the asteroid belt in our own system, and the second, much broader and denser belt lying roughly at the same distance from the star as orbit of Uranus around the Sun.

The Epsilon Eridani system compared to our own. Credit: NASA/JPL

Like Epsilon Eridani’s planets, the existence of the debris material surrounding the star as two distinct asteroid belts has been contested.Because the Spitzer data failed to indicate a clearly defined band of “warm material” of gas and dust within each of the rings, it has been hypothesised that rather than being two individual belts, they might actually mark the inner and outer boundaries of a single accretion disk.

The difference here is important. If the debris exists as to separate rings of material, it raises the prospect that there are planetary bodies orbiting Epsilon Eridani which may have both helped order the rings and remove debris from the space between them. If there is only one extended accretion disk around the star, it reduces the potential for planets having formed. Now the results of a 2-year study, published in the April edition of Astronomical Journal, sheds new light not only on the asteroid belts, but on the Epislon Eridani system as a whole.

The study, led by Kate Su, an Associate Astronomer with the Steward Observatory at the University of Arizona, used data gathered during a 2015 observation of Epsilon Eridani by the remarkable Stratospheric Observatory For Infrared Astronomy (SOFIA) observation platform developed by NASA and the German Aerospace Centre, DLR. This is a specially modified 747 jet aircraft designed to carry out extended studies of celestial targets.

The Stratospheric Observatory for Infrared Astronomy (SOFIA) observation platform developed by NASA and the German Aerospace Centre, showing the open observation bay at the 2.5 optical telescope. Credit: NASA

Operating at almost 14 kilometres (45,000 ft) altitude, SOFIA flies well above the major distorting effects of Earth’s atmosphere, allowing it to use a 2.5 metre optical telescope with 3 times the resolution power of Spitzer, together with an ultra-sensitive infra-red imaging system called FORCAST, the Faint Object infraRed CAmera for the SOFIA Telescope, to observe targets.

Su and her team used the data gathered by SOFIA’s 2015 observations of Epsilon Eridani, coupled with the Spitzer data and the results of other ground-based observations of the star to build a series of computer models of the system. The results of the models tend to very much confirm that Epsilon Eridani does have two asteroid belts, each with its own distinct “warm band”, and that there could be at least three Jupiter-sized planets within the system helping to organise the rings.

Inside SOFIA. Credit: USRA / NASA / DLR

Not only that, but the study suggest that the Epsilon Eiridani system might be directly comparable to our own as it was not long after the inner planets formed.  If this is the case, the study of Epsilon Eridani could help astronomers gain greater insights into the history of our own Solar System.

Continue reading “Space Sunday: solar systems, flying telescopes, and spaceplanes”

Detectives, animal tales, expeditions, magic and archives

It’s time to kick-off another week of storytelling in Voice by the staff and volunteers at the Seanchai Library. As always, all times SLT, and events are held at the Library’s Second Life home at Bradley University, unless otherwise indicated.

Sunday, May 7th

13:30: The Thin Man

New York, 1932. Nick Charles, a retired west coast private detective, and his wealthy socialite wife, are in the Big Apple for Christmas. It’s a place where Nick is perfectly happy getting drunk in their hotel room or in speakeasies.  Which is not to say the couple are unhappy; far from it. They enjoy witty repartee and banter with one another, and Nora is every inch Nick’s match in wit and intelligence.

Things change when Nick is visited by Dorothy Wynant, the daughter of a former client, businessman Clyde Wynant, who has apparently vanished ahead of his daughter’s wedding. Nick reluctantly – and to Nora’s amusement – agrees to find the missing businessman (the titular Thin Man). But what starts as a search for a missing man quickly turns into the hunt for a murderer after Wynant’s secretary is found dead, with all the evidence points to Wynant himself as her killer.

Corwyn Allen, John Morland, Kayden Oconnell, and Caledonia Skytower read Dashell Hammett’s 1933 classic, which became the first in a series of films following Nick and Nora’s adventures, as played by the inimitable William Powell and Myrna Loy.

19:00: The Wind in the Willows

Meet little Mole, wilful Ratty, Badger the perennial bachelor, and petulant Toad. Over one hundred years since their first appearance in 1908, they’ve become emblematic archetypes of eccentricity, folly, and friendship. And their misadventures – in gypsy caravans, stolen sports cars, and their Wild Wood-continue to capture readers’ imaginations and warm their hearts long after they grow up.

Begun as a series of letters from Kenneth Grahame to his son, The Wind in the Willows is a timeless tale of animal cunning and human camaraderie – although some in current times unkindly see it as a kind of allegory for the privileged ne’er-do-well upper class (in the form of Toad) with the aid of the middle class (Badger, rat and Mole) to keep the proletariat (weasels and stoats) in their place.

I suggest you join Caledonia Skytower for Magicland Storytime, and go with Mr. Grahame’s intention with the tales – as a ripping yarn for young hearts and minds.

Monday, May 8th 19:00: Architects of Hyperspace

Humour, hard science and speculative science fiction all combine in this novel by Thomas R. McDonough, who has worked with both the SETI Institute and The Planetary society.

A trio driven by personal ambitions comes together after a dying man’s last words send them in search of the secrets of a lost alien civilisation.

A wonderful tongue in cheek story backed by great speculative science. The combination of the sometimes screwball comedy with the specifics of how hyperspace could work and the details of the time lags of space communication, etc, made for a believable and well-formed diegesis. There were times reading this book that I just had to stop to laugh. The book reminds me a great deal of Red Dwarf. 

Join Gyro Muggins as he reads this unusual story.

Tuesday, May 9th 19:00: Of Mice and Magic

Faerie Maven-Pralou reads the first in the Ravenspell series by David Farland

More than anything, Benjamin Ravenspell wants a pet. But when he buys a mouse named Amber, he gets more than he bargained for. No sooner does Ben take her home, than Amber turns him into a mouse too.

You see, Amber has magical abilities, and it so happens that Ben is a familiar, a creature that stores magical energy. Together they each form half of a powerful wizard. Alone, they’re just vermin.

Soon Ben and Amber find themselves pitted in an epic battle against a magical enemy who is as crazed as he is evil, and the fate of the world will rest on them learning to work together.

Wednesday, May 10th 19:00 The Atrocity Archives Part 2

atrocity-archivesBob Howard is a low-level techie working for The Laundry, a super-secret government agency. While his colleagues are out saving the world, Bob’s under a desk restoring lost data. None of them receive any thanks for the jobs they do, but at least a techie doesn’t risk getting shot or eaten in the line of duty. Bob’s world is dull but safe, and that’s the way it should have stayed; but then he went and got Noticed.

Now, Bob Howard is up to his neck in spycraft, alternative universes, dimension-hopping Nazis, Middle Eastern terrorists, damsels in distress, ancient Lovecraftian horror and the end of the world.

Only one thing is certain: it will take more than control-alt-delete to sort this mess out…

Join Corwyn Allen as he resumes relating stories involving Charles Stross’ unlikely hero, Bob Howard.

Thursday, May 11th

19:00: Hitchcock – Tales that Send Chills Down Your Spine

With Shandon Loring (also presented in Kitely hop://


Contemporary Sci-Fi Adventures with Finn Zeddmore.

Please check with the Seanchai Library’s blog for updates and for additions or changes to the week’s schedule.

The featured charity for May through July is Alex’s Lemonade Stand, raising awareness of childhood cancer causes and funds for research into new treatments and cures.