Category Archives: space


Jupiter is at opposition, rising at sunset, so bright that it looks like a smudge of fire, no longer a point but possibly a plump vastness at an immense distance. A few weeks ago I looked at it with my telescope (a birthday present from C) for the first time and saw the Galilean moons, and with great pleasure made laborious pen drawings of their positions over the next few nights. They are exquisitely tiny when seen through the telescope, compared with their fat sugar daddy.


Jupiter is flanked to either side by the stars Porrima and Spica. After a few hours, when this trio has climbed up the eastern sky, they are followed by Arcturus, hanging directly below them. Some bright stars are red, or really pink, like Betelgeuse and Antares, and Aldebaran is yellow, but to my eyes Arcturus is a scintillating combination of orange and white. I first noticed it last winter: it is the brightest star in Boötes, a northern constellation, but not so far north that, like Polaris, it’s always invisible from Sydney. It’s really beautiful.

Getting favourite stars is something I do: last winter it was Antares. This has been a pretty bad year for my mental health and for my family, and I’m not really ready to blog about it yet, but looking at the stars is something I usually find comforting. Things are getting better, I think.


Castles in the Sky

The Bridge Over the Stars, Philippe Druillet, 1972

The Bridge Over the Stars, Philippe Druillet, 1972

The Kepler satellite, tasked with the meticulous examination of thousands of stars to detect the minute dips in intensity which are caused by the transits of their planets, has detected something odd about the light curve of KIC 8462852. (It’s customary in popular journalistic accounts of this sort of thing to make a sarcastic crack at the fact that the star is known by a catalogue number rather than a name, to which I want to respond, ok, you think up names for the 2.5 million or so stars now known to science, if you’re so smart.) The objects orbiting KIC 8462852 are more numerous than is expected of planets, but inconsistent with the star’s observed age: young stars are surrounded by swarms of dust and rubble, but this star’s spectrum indicates that it’s mature. The objects might be debris from a planetary collision which we are just lucky enough to observe before all the fragments have dispersed, or they might be a large family of comets – the hypothesis favoured by the scientists who, with the help of amateur observers, brought the phenomenon to the press’s attention. But the idea that’s got the article retweeted is far more engaging: alien megastructures.

In a fictional setting, I like a megastructure as much as the next guy: the Death Star, the Other, Larger, Death Star, that big cloud or whatever in the Star Trek film that started out as a space probe. Not to mention the even more grandiose offerings of science fiction novels: Larry Niven’s Ringworld and its descendants in Iain M Banks’ Culture novels, Arthur C Clarke’s Rama, down to the drastic reconfigurations of the Solar System undertaken in Charles Stross’ Accelerando and Hannu Rajaniemi’s Quantum Thief trilogy.

Megastructures, however, straddle that strange territory between science fiction and, if not exactly science fact, then at least science I’ve-got-tenure-so-let’s-see-how-big-these-brain-farts-can-get. The theoretical musings of physicists such as Freeman Dyson, whose eponymous Sphere is a shell constructed in order to capture the entire energy output of a star. Or the Anderson Disk: a circular plate the size of the orbit of Mars, with a hole conveniently placed in the centre in which a sun suffers the indignity of bobbing up and down to provide a day-night cycle. The epitome of this mindset is the Kardashev Scale, formulated by a Russian astronomer in 1964, which rates civilisations on their ability to marshal the energy output of their entire planet (I), their star (II) and their home galaxy (III).

This mode of speculative cosmic architecture is usually recounted with a poker-faced seriousness which goes beyond the fun of science fiction into something stranger and more touching: a deep and unrequited nostalgia for that Heroic Age of Insane Infrastructure, the twentieth century. In a world where both sides of the Cold War contemplated using fission bombs as the world’s least environmentally-friendly earthmoving technology, reprocessing the planet Mercury as the raw material for a sun cosy is just the logical next step. It’s also a displacement of the colonial engineer’s ambitions, thwarted by environmentalism on this world, set free to rend asunder the rest of the Solar System without restraint.

Leaving aside the fact that no known or even hypothetical material has the strength to throw hoops around stars or build artificial moons, none of the scientists, and very few of the science-fiction writers, ever address the social or economic transformations which would be needed to organise any of this. The further we get from the fever of the Cold War, the more the prospect of industrial societies organising any project larger than a cluster of skyscrapers seems to dwindle; on a planet where the nation with the largest economy seems to be forgetting how to maintain its road bridges, it’s hard to imagine, even if we were given the technology and an unlimited budget, how we could sustain the focussed attention required to build even a modest space elevator before we got bored and switched over to Netflix.

Which is why, of course, megastructures are almost always built by aliens (or, in the admirable works of Finnish sf author Hannu Rajaniemi, a particularly brutal and industrious clade of post-humans). Tatlin’s Monument to the Third International stands as the minatory architectural ghost of utopian communism, and it could be that the space-entrepreneurial plans of Elon Musk and Richard Branson will serve future generations as a virtual memorial of capitalism. But aliens—who, like robots, are a sort of dumping-ground of wistful but incorrect ideas about our own capacities—never faced these disappointments; their Tatlin’s Towers reach all the way to the stars.

In fiction, megastructures are usually abandoned, enigmatic and perilous, and when we read pop-sci articles which treat them as a serious possibility, we should remember their true nature as aesthetic objects: the grandest incarnation of the statue of Ozymandias that our culture has yet produced. In his novel The Pastel City, M John Harrison wrote of the empires that preceded his beautiful and melancholy city of Viriconium:

The last of them left its name written in the stars, but noone who came later could read it.

Catalogus Stellarum

I have started a new series of obsessive science tweets at @FSVO. This time it’s stars. All stellar names and designations are real; almost all facts are transparent lies. Go, follow!

(Many science fiction and fantasy texts have a linguistic other: even in the less oppressively upholstered worlds without an invented langue such as Elvish or Klingon or Dothraki, there are neutrinos and quarks and haploids and all the strange jargon of science itself. One of the great strokes of genius of Dune is that its second language is Arabic, bypassing the hybrid Greek and Latin tags attached to the stars by the first modern astronomers and setting up resonances with the ancient and beautiful stellar names which are more evocative of wandering tribes and magicians than of rockets or telescopes.)

A Messier Sydney

M2: a globular motorway in the Hills District 37,500 light years from Earth.

M4: a toll-free cluster with the apparent diameter of the full Moon.

M5: located in the Serpent, one of the oldest motorways associated with the Milky Way galaxy.

M7: also known as the Ptolemy Cluster, this open group of more than 80 stars has gateless tolling and connects with the M4 at the Light Horse stack interchange.


NASA gets close look at asteroid Vesta

The motion, about equal to the pressure of a sheet of paper on the palm of your hand, is so gentle it would be useless on Earth.

But in space, where there is no counteracting gravitational force, momentum builds up over time.

A: no counteracting gravitational force: an old misconception that in space there is “no gravity” as opposed to “everything is in free fall so whoops there goes my pen”, but!

B: is so gentle it would be useless on Earth. Useless? Then why aren’t all the bits of paper on your desk drifting up to the ceiling, Mr Smarty-Pants Journalist?

Exhalations whizzing in the air

Life imitates art!

Cathode-ray Jupiter

The new, improved solar system, 4

Jupiter’s magnetosphere is a strange mixture of the impressive and the disappointing: a vast, wobbly pancake of ionised gases, hundreds of millions of kilometres wide and large enough to hold the Sun several times over, it would be wider than a full Moon in Earth’s sky, if it radiated any visible light.

But it doesn’t.  Talk about wasteful.  The largest single structure in the whole solar system is just sitting there, like an invisible Mount Everest.  And all it takes is a sprinkling of the right ingredients and a bit of a kick to get something truly worthwhile.

Io, the innermost of Jupiter’s larger moons, is our base of operations.  This highly volcanic moon is already pumping megatonnes of dust and gases into the magnetosphere, and its molten interior will be a handy energy source for our arrays of high-wattage lasers.

These beams will light up the plasma – cunningly doped by dumping suitable chemicals into Io’s magma – in all the gorgeous colours of sodium-green, oxygen-red and sulphur-blue, turning Jupiter into a huge near-vacuum tube with pixels the size of minor planets.

Io’s orbital period of 42 hours will give our display a refresh rate of 0.000006542 Hz, not the best on the market, but as it’s all powered by Jupiter’s rotation and gravity, it’s completely carbon-neutral.