What do you get out of science fiction? We’d all answer that question differently, I suppose, and surely the breadth of concepts and startling ideas is at the top of the list. But for me, the real beauty of the form is landscapes. I sometimes find myself reading a paragraph and then just putting the book down to mull over what I’ve just ‘seen.’ As in this passage from Jack McDevitt’s 2004 novel Polaris. Here, Jack is describing Sacracour, the inhabited moon of the gas giant Gobulus, which orbits its star at a distance of 160 million kilometers:
Most of the planet’s contemporary inhabitants — there are fewer than three hundred thousand altogether — live along a seacoast that’s usually warm and invigorating. Lots of beach and sun. Great sky views. They haven’t yet achieved tidal lock, so if you time things right you can sit out on the beach and watch Gobulus, with its rings and its system of moons, rise out of the ocean.
Small descriptions like that dazzle me, the off-hand observation that brings home the staggering variety of planetary settings we’re likely to encounter. I could fill a book with passages from science fiction stories that create such moments, but this is the one I had at hand yesterday when the feeling hit me again. And the more I think about it, the more I realize that feeling goes all the way back to childhood, where it emerged from writers like Heinlein, Clarke and Andre Norton.
The first Carnival of Space of the new year is now available via Cheap Astronomy. Those with a deep space interest will want to see the post on Triton on the Supernova Condensate site, where the intriguing moon is examined in terms of its tenuous atmosphere and its surprising geysers, some of which Voyager 2 observed to be rising fully eight kilometers, the liquid nitrogen analog to Yellowstone National Park. But it’s that atmosphere and its properties that gets my attention:
Nitrogen ices encrust the planet’s surface, with some evaporating to form a thin nitrogen atmosphere. Surprisingly, there’s a little more in common with Earth here than you might realise. Specifically, Triton’s atmosphere has a troposphere — a region with weather. Rising a mere 8 km high, this region is thought to have prevailing seasonal winds. Clouds of nitrogen ice particles form here, and a haze of nitrogen rich hydrocarbons (such as nitriles) has also been found, alongside clouds of condensing nitrogen gas lower down. This starts to paint a nice little picture of nitrogen snow falling amid the gassy plumes. Triton could be said to have a nitrogen cycle, with a tenuous parallel to the cycle of water on Earth. Above the troposphere, the rest of Triton’s atmosphere extends for another 800 km above the surface, forming a neatly structured thermosphere, ionosphere and exosphere.
With a surface that is apparently the scene of extensive slush flows from cryovolcanism (consider how young the surface looks, with few impact craters on display in the areas Voyager could see), Triton’s ‘cantaloupe’ terrain could keep geologists occupied for years once we get out there for a closer look. Remember that Voyager was able to image only about forty percent of the surface and you realize how much there remains to be discovered on this enigmatic object.
And speaking of astronomy blogs, if you’re looking for the ultimate list, check out the Top 100 Space and Astronomy Blogs recently published on the Find Schools Online site. We all try to keep up with the constant activity of bloggers around the globe, but new talent emerges quickly and it’s all too easy to keep revisiting the same places without looking around at what’s new. I find many old friends here but quite a few newcomers whose work will surely wind up in my RSS feeds. A blog devoted to Spaceports? Why not, or how about the Space Elevator Blog? The beauty of the format is that we can tackle a single topic with passion, as the many fine bloggers represented on this list continue to do.