Thursday, 23 February 2017

The Worlds of TRAPPIST-1

The internet is alight with people sharing the news of NASA's latest announcement. After teasing us with talk of a discovery "beyond the solar system," NASA announced the existence of a seven-planet star system located less than forty light years away. What's most exciting about the discovery is that most of the planets are considered potential habitats for life.

The star known as TRAPPIST-1 is, like many modern stellar discoveries, named after the device used to detect it, in this case, the TRAnsiting Planets and Planetesimals Small Telescope in Chile. You may notice that this doesn't quite spell out TRAPPIST, but the inventors are obviously Belgian beer fans and I can support that. Located 39 light years away in Aquarius, TRAPPIST-1 is described as an ultra-cool dwarf star, on the borderline of a red dwarf and a sub-stellar brown dwarf. Three planets were discovered there and announced back in 2015, and since then, the NASA Spitzer telescope and the Very Large Telescope at Paranal have detected four more. The extent of the system was announced last night (Feb 22nd).

In spite of being such a cool, dim star, TRAPPIST-1 may make an effective sun for life-bearing planets due to their extremely close orbits. All seven known planets orbit the star closer than Mercury orbits the Sun, and at least three of them are considered right within the system's habitable zone. This makes the planets astonishingly close together; the first and second planets are only slightly further apart than the Earth and the Moon. Finally, elaborate skies hanging with enormous sister planets can be considered a reality, not just science fiction. 

OK, this is Vulcan, but you get the idea

The planets are named TRAPPIST-1b through to -1h, and, unusually for discoveries of this type, are labelled in order of distance from their star. Each of them is within Earthlike mass and radius, with at least three of them estimated as being smaller than the Earth, and all are considered to be rocky, terrestrial-type planets. TRAPPIST-1b and -1c are the closest, with featureless spectra that indicates either a cloudless, water vapour dominated atmosphere, or a thicker, Venus-type atmosphere. They most likely lost the bulk of their surface water while their star was still cooling, and are less likely as abodes for life. TRAPPIST-1d is more likely habitable, although still closer than the calculated Goldilocks zone. TRAPPIST-1e, -1f and -1g are right within this zone, and are probably fairly cool in comparison to their inner brethren, far more likely to hold liquid water, Depending on the thickness of the atmosphere, they may be cooler than the Earth, or more comfortably terrestrial. TRAPPIST-1h is less well analysed so far, but is likely cold and less hospitable.

While the relative positions of planets to the star suggest potentially life-supporting temperatures, we shouldn't jump to conclusions. As always, Earthlike is a relative term. Red dwarf stars, let alone ultra-cool dwarfs, are debatable as life-supporting stars, due to the extreme proximity of their planets. The year on these planets will be very rapid, in the manner of a few days (-1b's year lasts only a day-and-a-half in Earth terms, with -1h at no more than 35 days, probably less). They are also likely to be tidally locked, with one side of each planet permanently facing the star. Both facts would lead to extreme weather conditions on the surface. Equally, radiation from the star, including X-rays and extreme energy ultraviolet radiation, would bombard the planets constantly at that proximity, depleting the atmospheres and making it harder for life to form.

Still, there is reason to hope. Even if the planets are lifeless now, they may not be always. Stars' longevity is inversely proportional to their size and temperature, and an ultra-cool dwarf like TRAPPIST-1 is likely to last a thousand times as long as the Sun, remaining stable for trillions of years. TRAPPIST-1 is estimated at only 500 million years old at present, but it could become a host for life for many thousands of millions of years in the future. 

Click the link here for NASA's announcement and an artist's impression of planet TRAPPIST-1d.

Friday, 17 February 2017

Comics to TV: Supergirl 2-9


You could be forgiven for expecting something rather special from this, Kevin Smith's first episode of Supergirl. After all, his directorial debut on The Flash, season two's "The Runaway Dinosaur," was a thing of beauty. What's more, as the title hints, "Supergirl Lives" is loosely based on Smith's script for the troubled and long-dead feature film Superman Lives, although, from what I've read of that production, the only thing that has really survived is Kara being left powerless due to the lack of a yellow sun. 

What we actually get is a fairly low-key start to the semi-season, even as it spans light years. Much of the episode takes place on Slaver's Moon, a hellish planetoid bathed under the light of a red dwarf star, leaving both Kara and Mon-El little better than ordinary humans. (As inhabitants of the same system, it makes sense that they react the same way to stellar conditions. For all we know, Slaver's Moon might even be in the Kryptonian system, although it's probably unlikely.) Much of the purpose of the episode seems to be tying up the loose ends from the previous episode "Survivors," with the villainous Roulette still on the loose. The alliance of Roulette and the Dominators, while tying various elements of the Supergirl/Arrowverse together, feels like an odd mix and doesn't really work.

Where the episode succeeds is in the development of two of its recurring male characters. Jeremy Jordan has really come into his own as Winn, now that the character has been allowed to get away from the confines of CatCo and become more than a second-tier love interest for Kara. Winn's latest role as sidekick to the Guardian is more believable than James becoming the superhero himself, but as a distinctly un-buff, un-powered individual, it's entirely fitting that Winn would be overwhelmed by the threat and violence of the situations in which he finds himself. Jordan portrays Winn's journey from post-traumatic stress through reluctant heroism to true bravery rather wonderfully.

Chris Wood gets more likeable as Mon-El with each episode, and this instalment sees him finally accept his fate as a superhero without losing any of his layabout charm. As well as finally kicking his story into high gear (with more developments in his relationship with Kara to come as a result), the aliens searching for him at the episode's close raise interesting questions about his background. Do we know the truth about his life back on Daxam? There should be some fun revelations to come later in the season.

The real star of the episode, though, is the stupid comedy alien called Joe, who appears to have wandered in from a children's series filming on the same planetoid.

Sunday, 12 February 2017

New from The Doctor Who Project

TDWP have just released the latest in their Brief Encounters line - a series of adventures for Doctors One to Seven. This time it's "Shadow at the Heart" featuring the fifth Doctor and Nyssa, as played by Peter Davison and Sarah Sutton in the hit BBC TV series.

This short was written by me and my compatriot James P. Quick of C.P. Studios, from James's original idea. I think we've come up with something pretty special here, especially if you're a fan of early 80s Doctor Who. I have also been involved with C.P. Studios' upcoming series of Batman audioplays, The World's Greatest Detective. Keep an eye on the website for updates.

You can download the story in PDF format for free here.

Thursday, 9 February 2017

CAPTAIN'S BLOG: TOS 2-23 & 2-24

TOS 2-23) Patterns of Force
Captain Kirk vs. Space Nazis

The Mission: Find missing Federation observer, John Gill, on the planet Ekos.

Planets visited: Ekos, the inner of two habitable planets in star system M43-Alpha. A very Earth-like planet.

Alien life forms: The Ekosians and Zeons  are two humanoid races who inhabit the planets Ekos and Zeon respectively. They seem to be indistinguishable from humans, and from each other. The Zeons are technologically more advanced than the Ekosians, and a number of them arrived on Ekos some years ago in an attempt to "civilise" them. The Ekosians did not welcome the Zeons, and treat them as second-class citizens. Since Gill came to power, the Ekosians have been run as a Nazi state, unaware that Gill is from another world. The Zeons are being rounded up and exterminated, but there is a resistance movement.

Future History: John Gill is considered one of the Federation's greatest historians. Sent to Ekos merely to observe the culture, he has perverted it into a replica of Nazi Germany, right down to the uniforms and weaponry. While Gill sits as Fuhrer, it;s his right-hand man Melakon who wields power, keeping Gill drugged and subdued and communicating his wishes through soundbites. "Gill" has now ordered the "Final Decision," an attack on the planet Zeon and the complete extermination of the Zeon race. Just in case any of this was too subtle, the Zeons all have Hebrew-derived names, like Isak and Abrom.

Future Treknology: The Zeons have quite primitive interplanetary craft. Gill (and perhaps the Zeons, to begin with) has evidently pushed Ekosian technology forward, as they now have nuclear weaponry and the beginnings of space travel themselves.

Kirk and Spock have transponders injected into their skin to allow them to be beamed up should they not report in. An extremely wise precaution that they really should have used as standard. However, they dig out the implants to use the rubidium crystals within to create a laser beam from the lightbulb in their cell in order to affect escape.

Captain James T: Gill tutored him at the Academy. He evidently admires the man, describing him as "gentle," but even Kirk isn't immune to the allure of a well-tailored Gestapo uniform. For once, Kirk doesn't try to shag the sexy blonde he's assigned to work with. He could easily get the Enterprise to intercept the Ekosian warfleet but refuses to go down such a destructive route.

Green-Blooded Hobgoblin: How perfect does Spock look in his beanie? Spock's alien appearance draws attention from the xenophobic Ekosian authorities, even with his cunning beanie disguise. (The fact that Nimoy is Jewish makes these scenes rather more potent than they might otherwise be.) When Spock stands on Kirk to begin his escape attempt, it looks for all the world like he is taking as long as possible on purpose. He also starts to enjoy "gambling" with his life. Spock's lash-marks are, of course, green. He uses the nerve pinch no fewer than three times, and "mind probes" Gill.

The Real McCoy: The entire set-up is worth for when Bones beams down in SS uniform, demanding to know what the hell is going on.

Shirtless Kirk Alert: It's a twofer, as both Kirk and Spock get their tops off. And whipped. This is bordering on slash fic.

Trek Stars: Valora Norland plays Daras, femme fatale who poses as a high-ranking Nazi but is secretly part of the resistance. She gives an excellent performance and isn't reduced to Kirk's fox of the week.

Space Bilge: Kirk and Spock consider the odds of a parallel society like this developing of its own accord virtually impossible. This is after visiting space Rome and a perfect duplicate of Earth.

Quote, Unquote: "To the logical mind, the outlook is somewhat gloomy."

The verdict: A good, old-fashioned "Nazis in America" tale, and about as subtle as they ever get. The script twists itself into a propaganda piece for the Prime Directive, when the actual lesson is the far from surprising "Nazism is bad." Still, it works well, with some excellent costumes brought out from the archives so it looks more expensive than it actually is. With Nazi elements becoming more prevalent in the US and even dominant parts of society sliding towards that way of thinking, "Patterns of Force" takes on a new edge. Gill isn't as bad as Trump.

Tuesday, 7 February 2017

Women's Rights - February 2017 edition

While MPs in the UK have begun petitioning for legal proceedings against employers to fight against sexist dress codes for female employees, President Trump has insisted that his female staff "dress like women."

Trump has also instructed his education team to begin rolling back the Title IX legislation that has slowly been making US universities responsible for the sexual safety of their students. Betsy DeVos has pledged to review whether Title IX is actually necessary, in spite of what has been decribed as "an epidemic of sexual assault on American campuses." In a related move, the religious freedom movement has allowed a number of Christian schools to apply for the right to waiver Title IX. This would allow them to refuse students who are LGBT or pregnant out of wedlock, and would also have the effect of removing any protection they have against sexual violence. 

Arkansas has passed a law that would make abortion legal under any circumstances, which would have the side effect of allowing rapists to sue their victims if they became pregnant, even in cases of incest. While there is still time to block Act 45, the fact that the legislature of the state passed it in the first place is truly horrific.

Due to the continual reduction of funding to NPOs in England, a clinic and support group for the victims of female genital mutilation will soon be forced to close. A petition exists to help try to prevent this.

The Russian courts have effectively decriminalised domestic abuse, a move that has set women's rights back significantly in a country where spousal abuse is commonplace and thousands of women are killed by their partners every year. The move has even been backed by the Russian Orthodox Church.

Amal Clooney and Nadia Murad are fighting to prosecute the crimes of Islamic State militants, who have systematically abused Yazidi women and children during the ongoing conflict in Iraq, Syria and the surrounding territories. While this piece makes for some very upsetting reading, it is also important to highlight the horrific extent of the abuses by IS, and the complete failure of the West to provide a lifeline for the Yazidi.

And this is just the last week or so.