’s best space discoveries of the year

December 26th, 2007

Here they are.

I’m not so wild about them all being the “best.” It is hard to sift through so many stories and rank them, picking only the best. And everyone has their own criteria.

I thought I might try to make this post have a little more value by sharing my perspective on these stories. As a professional astronomer and science fiction writer, I have two strong biases that probably make me different from the typical reader. As an astronomer, I’m a little jaded about the solar system since we know it so well, relatively speaking, compared to more distant objects. Discoveries about Mars or Jupiter have to be pretty spectacular to qualify. I’m also jaded about some stories that are closer to my field that may sound cool, but are old news to me.

As a science fiction writer, a discovery that suggests a story or a novel gets +2 points.

Planet Palooza: This is a story about a star system in 55 Cancri. I don’t care for it that much. Why not? This system was already known to have at least three planets. That’s upped to five now. Cool, but not spectacular.

Death Ray: I blogged about this one myself recently. Also not impressed. Why not? I’ve seen other similar discoveries myself many years past, where jets have slammed into other galaxies and spurred on star formation. Cool, but not that new.

Dark Finding: Ok, this one is cool. We’ve discovered something new about how dark matter clumps, and how the ratio of normal baryonic matter to dark matter varies. This is difficult, cutting edge work, and it’s new.

Magellanic Clouds: Mixed for me. On the one hand, it’s really a cool new result that these nearby galaxies may not be bound to the Milky Way after all (I’ve seen talks with simulations showing them orbiting us some dozen times in the history of the universe). On the other hand, it isn’t fundamentally cool. I mean, if we didn’t live in the Milky Way, we wouldn’t care. It’s sort of like, “Oh, now we see which way they’re going.”

Today’s High, 1,700 degrees!: This is a cool, first of a kind observation, so I like it from that perspective. I also like it from a science fiction writer’s perspective. The boundaries are being pushed.

Mars Fell Over: For a solar system discovery, I like this one, probably a bit more as a science fiction writer.

Catch a star…by a tail: This is a Mira star with a wind being swept back making a big-ass tail. It is really cool. I like this one. Can’t immediately think of any stories based on the discovery though.

A Ray of Hope: This is the discovery of a planet orbiting a red giant star, the first such found. But I don’t think people have been looking too hard. The story is misleading to me. This isn’t an Earth-sized planet. Earth is still going to be toast. Unless our descendants do something like the Argonauts did in my new novel Spider Star. It gets those +2 points for that.

Theory-busting black hole: A black hole has been identified in a binary system, and that black hole is 16 solar masses. That’s pushing limits, so it’s of some interest, but I don’t think stellar evolutionary theory is so well developed that anyone is terribly surprised to find the mass limit pushed. Some more complicated scenarios (e.g., starting with a triple system) could also explain things. +2 for a story idea.

Cosmic Bullets: This one is an important discovery. People have been trying to find the origin of the most energetic cosmic rays for years. Conventional wisdom said they couldn’t be from extragalactic sources, that interactions would sap their energy over such long journeys. But they do seem to come from distant active galaxies. Cool.

Anyway, I do like articles like this. It’s nice to look back at the progress we’re making. It’s also interesting to me what the pop science publishers think are the most important discoveries. It gives me perspective about how I should consider my own work, and continually try to be thinking of what’s the next important thing for me to work on (constrained in my own subfield — it’s very hard to work in very many areas of expertise with much speed, wisdom, or skill).


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