Astronomy Cast Ep. 513: Stellar Fusion

The Sun. It’s a big ball of fire, right? Apparently not. In fact, what’s going on inside of the Sun took us some time and knowledge of physics to finally figure out: stellar fusion. Let’s talk about the different kinds of fusion, and how we’re trying to adapt it to generate power here on Earth.

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Construction Tips from a Type 2 Engineer: Collaboration with Isaac Arthur

Type 2 Civ Tips!

By popular request, Isaac Arthur and I have teamed up again to bring you a vision of the future of human space exploration. This time, we bring you practical construction tips from a pair of Type 2 Civilization engineers.

To make this collaboration even better, we’ve teamed up with two artists, Kevin Gill and Sergio Botero. They’re going to help create some special art, just for this episode, to help show what some of these megaprojects might look like.

I’d also like to congratulate Gannon Huiting for suggesting the topic for this collaboration. We both asked our Patreon communities to brainstorm ideas, and his core idea sparked the idea for the episode. You get one of my precious metal meteorites, which I guarantee will give you a mostly worthless superpower.

We’ll tell you the story of what it took to go from our first tentative steps into space to the vast Solar System spanning civilization we have today. How did we extract energy and resources from the Moon, planets and even gas giants of the Solar System? How did we shift around and dismantle the worlds to provide the raw resources of our civilization?

Lunar Rover Concept. Credit: Sergio Botero

Humanity’s ability to colonize the Solar System was unleashed when we harvested deposits of helium 3 from the Moon. This isotope of helium is rare on Earth, but the constant solar wind from the Sun has deposited a layer across the Moon, though its regolith.

Helium 3 was the best, first energy source we got our hands on, and it changed everything. Although other kinds of fusion reactors can produce more energy with more efficiency, the advantage of helium 3 is that the fusion reaction releases no neutrons. This means you can have a fusion reactor on your starship or on your base with much less shielding.

Multi-dome base being constructed. Credit: ESA/Foster + Partners

We still use helium-3 reactors when living creatures need to be close the reactor, or the ship can’t afford to carry around heavy shielding.

The Helium 3 is found within the first 100 cm of the lunar regolith. Harvesting it started slowly, but in time, our mining machines grew larger, and we stripped this layer completely off the Moon. There are other repositories across the Solar System, in the regolith of Mercury, other moons and asteroids across the Solar System, and in the atmospheres of the giant planets. We later switched to getting our Helium 3 from Uranus and Neptune, but the Moon got everything started.

A huge lunar miner, with astronaut for scale. Credit: Sergio Botero

One of our big problems with building in space was getting raw materials. Just about every place that has the supplies we needed was at the bottom very deep gravity wells which made accessing those materials a lot harder. Asteroid and moons offered us a large supply of material that was not locked inside such deep gravity wells.

These asteroids also gave us a big initial head start on developing space-based infrastructure as they contained a great deal of precious metals that we could bring home to help fund our endeavors.

For all that, the entire Asteroid Belt contains much less material than Earth’s own Moon. The ease of mining and transport on these bodies made them a critical source of raw materials for building up the early Solar Infrastructure and many of them became homes to rotating habitats buried deep inside the asteroid, where millions of people live comfortably shielded from the hazards of space and support themselves mining the asteroid around them.

Artist’s impression of the asteroid belt. Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

These asteroids and moons often contained water in the form of ice, which is vital to creating life-bearing habitats in space, as well as fuel and propellant for many early-era spaceships.

However, even if the entire Asteroid Belt was ice, instead of it being a fairly smaller percent of the mass, that would still only be the approximate mass of Earth’s Oceans. There was a plentiful supply for early efforts but not enough for major terraforming efforts on places like Mars or creating many artificial habitats.

Water is incredibly scarce in the inner Solar System, but becomes more plentiful as we make our way further out, past the Solar System’s Frost Line. Deeper out past the planets we find enough water to make whole planets out of, as hydrogen and oxygen are the first and third most abundant elements in the Universe. Also, for the most part these come in convenient iceberg-sized packages, low enough in mass to have a small gravity well and to be movable.

Mastering the Solar System required moving very large objects in space. For the less massive objects, we could put a big thruster on it, but for the largest projects, such as moving planets with atmospheres (which we’ll get to later in this article), another technique was required.

Concept for a possible gravity tractor. Credit: JPL

To move large objects around, without touching them, you need a Gravity Tractor.

Want to move an asteroid? Use the gravity of a less massive object, like a spaceship. Hold the spaceship close to the asteroid, and their gravity will put them together. Fire your rocket’s thrusters to keep the distance, and you slowly pull the asteroid in any direction you like. It takes a long time, and does require fuel, but you can use this technique to move anything anywhere in the Solar System.

Put a massive satellite into orbit around an asteroid. When the satellite is on one side of the asteroid it fires its thrusters towards the satellite. And then on the other side of its orbit, it fires its thrusters away from the satellite. The satellite will have been pushed twice in the same direction. To an outside observer that satellite has moved, though on the asteroid it will seem to have been nudged closer than put back.

Don’t forget that the satellite pulls on the asteroid with just as much force as the asteroid exerts on the satellite. Earth pulls on the Sun just as hard as it pulls on us, but it’s more massive so it doesn’t move as much. But it does move, and so by pushing on the satellite towards the primary then pushing away on the opposite side, we move the primary body.

We can also take advantage of momentum transfers from gravity to alter the course of an object by making a close flyby. You can use this gravitational slingshot to use the gravity of a planet to change the move large objects into a new trajectory.

Over time, we put gravitational tugs into orbit around every chunk of rock and ice that we wanted to move, shifting their locations to the best places in the Solar System.

Artist view of an asteroid passing Earth. Credit: ESA/P.Carril

Some places gave us raw materials. Other places would serve as our homes.

Earth is the third closest planet to the Sun and it will always be the environment we’re trying to replicate. Earth is, well, it was… home.

For all the millions of other worlds across the Solar System, we made them capable of hosting life  with a little work. Often we could make them habitable just by increasing the amount of energy they received from the Sun.

Creating artificial gravity by spinning a habitat or breathable air by doming it over did us no good if there wasn’t enough light to melt ice into water or let plants grow.

The farther you get from the Sun, the less light you get, but we bounce light that would have been lost, concentrating it to let life flourish. The Sun gives off over a billion times the light that actually reaches Earth, so there’s no shortage in quantity, just concentration.

This was the first sunset observed in color by Curiosity on Mars. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS/Texas A&M Univ.

To double the light reaching a planet like Mars, you would need a mirror surface area of twice the size of Mars. But not twice the mass of Mars. For every square meter of land on Earth, there’s about 10 billion kilograms of mass under our feet. A mirror on Earth wouldn’t weigh much more than a kilogram a square meter, but in space we can go far thinner. Any one of millions of small asteroids in the solar system contains enough material to make a planetary surface’s worth of mirrors.

Lenses or parabolic reflectors let us move light in from far more densely concentrated locations closer to the Sun. Reflecting light also allows us to remove harmful or less useful invisible wavelengths like ultraviolet or x-rays.

This allowed us to make almost any place warm and bright enough. We took distant moons and asteroids far from the Sun, and gave them a collar of thin mirrors bouncing light into a parabolic dish. By bouncing this light into rotating habitats safely buried inside the asteroid, we created warm, lush garden worlds in environments so cold that air itself would condense into a liquid.

Artist’s concept of a Venus cloud city — a possible future outcome of the High Altitude Venus Operational Concept (HAVOC) plan. Credit: Advanced Concepts Lab/NASA Langley Research Center

For most of the Solar System we wanted to warm planets up. But for Venus and Mercury, we needed to cool them down. We did this by placing shades between them and the Sun to reflect away some of the light hitting them.

The easiest way to do this was to position an opaque material between the planet and the Sun, at the L1 Lagrange point. At this point the gravitational pull of the planet counteracts the pull of the Sun allowing a large thin solar shade to remain in position with minimal energy. This way the planet is cooled.

A solar shade above Venus. Credit: Kevin Gill

But we did better than merely cool, we shaped the light to our needs. With a collection of many small shades, we avoided putting a visible dark spot on the Sun. Sunlight comes in many frequencies, from radio to x-rays; some were more valuable to us than others. Plants mostly use red and blue light, while green light doesn’t help with photosynthesis. So blocked a decent amount of green light, some blue, and no red, and cooled the planet without harming plant life and without really altering how the light looked to our eyes.

We engineered the perfect material for our shades which was mostly transparent to the wavelengths of light we wanted and mostly reflective or absorptive to the ones we didn’t.

Ultraviolet is a good example. We wanted some to get to our planet, as it does help as a sterilizing agent to biological processes and it helps make ozone, but we wanted to cut most of that out. Even better, about half of the light coming from the Sun is in infrared, which we can’t see and which plants don’t use.

We blocked most of that and seriously lowered temperatures on Venus and Mercury.

We set up shades to block the light from reaching our planets. And we did the same with dangerous radiation streaming from the Sun. We set up a concentrated magnetic shield at the Mars-Sun L1 Lagrange point, which catches and redirects high energy particles. This protects a world from the Sun, but it doesn’t prevent harmful cosmic rays, which can come from any part of the sky.

Our own planet Earth has a robust magnetosphere, and it’s the main reason we have air to breath and don’t absorb dangerous radiation from the Sun and space.

Places like Mars don’t. For this purpose, we created artificial magnetospheres. We considered trying to get Mars’ core spinning fast and hot so that rapid spinning molten ferromagnetic materials would generate a protective magnetosphere.

But that was too much effort. We didn’t actually care what generated the magnetic field, we just wanted the magnetic field. In the end we deployed a constellation of electromagnetic satellites around every world exposed to space. These satellites could do double duty, harvesting solar radiation and generating an artificial magnetosphere.

Mars used to have a natural magnetic field, but restarting it wasn’t worth it. Credit: NASA/JPL/GSFC

Cosmic rays and radioactive particles from the Sun were captured and redirected safely away from the world, allowing us to roam freely on the surface.

Once we had made acquired the resources of every world in the Solar System, we began our next great engineering effort. To move and dismantle the worlds themselves. To create the optimal configuration that gave us the most living space and the most usable energy. We began the construction of our Dyson swarm.

Moving planets is almost impossible. But not completely impossible. How do you get all that energy to move a world without melting it? The orbital energy of Earth around the Sun is approximately 30 million, trillion, trillion joules. That’s equal to all the energy the Sun puts out over a few months.

Of course, the Sun is slowly warming up, and while estimates vary, it’s generally accepted that in about a billion years it will have warmed up enough that Earth would be uninhabitable. Moving the Earth was inevitable.

To move the Earth outward to counteract the increased solar luminosity, we needed to add orbital energy. A lot of energy.

Earlier, we discussed using gravity tractors and gravitational slingshots to slowly and steadily move objects around the Solar System. This technique works at the largest scales too.

A gravity tractor could slowly and steadily move an entire planet if you had enough time and fuel. Because we already had mastery of all the asteroids in the Solar System, we put them into orbits that swept past worlds.

Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

Each gravitational slingshot gave or stole orbital momentum from the world, pushing it closer or farther from the Sun.

We also used orbital mirrors to bounce sunlight from the Sun. With enough of them, deflecting their light in the same general directional while maintaining an orbit around the planet, we could move worlds without touching them or heating them up from the light beams.

With enough satellites to keep the net gravitational force on the planet homogenous, we didn’t have to worry about tidal heating, allowing us to move a planet far faster.

In the future, we’ll use a king-size version of this to move the entire Solar System, using the star as the power source, called a Shkadov Thruster. We will push the Sun and every star we control into a constellation that matches our needs. But that’s a problem our Type III civilization engineers will have to worry about.

Like a cosmic lava lamp, a large section of Pluto’s icy surface in Sputnik Planum is being constantly renewed by a process called convection that replaces older surface ices with fresher material. Credit: NASA/Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory/Southwest Research Institute.

We always needed ice. For water, for fuel and for air. And the outer Solar System had all the ice we could ever need. We brought comets and other icy bodies in from the outer Solar System to bring water to the planets we’re terraforming – Mars, Venus, and the large moons of the Solar System.

Pushing ice is a tricky process, but the comet itself is the source of fuel, either liquid hydrogen and oxygen as the propellants or using the hydrogen for a fusion torch drive. However we have an alternative trick we can use.

We just talked about using energy beams, focused sunlight, lasers, or microwave beams to push objects outward from the sun. You can also move inward by reflecting the beam off at an angle, removing orbital momentum. This lowers their orbit into the Solar System.

Credit: NASA/Denise Watt

By setting up energy collectors on comets, we could beam power out them, and use that energy to melt atoms into gas and accelerate them away with a magnetic field, just like an ion drive. This let us take high-strength lasers and microwave beams powered from the inner Solar System and use it to tractor comets inward. The propellant melted off the comets could carry away far more momentum than the energy beam added, though at the cost of losing some of your mass in the process.

One by one we identified the icy bodies in the Kuiper Belt and Oort Cloud, installed an ice engine, and pulled them inward, to the places we needed that water the most.

The day to day energy for our civilization comes from the Sun. Solar collectors power the machines, computers and systems that make day-to-day life spanning the Solar System possible.

Just as the ancient Earth civilizations used hydrocarbons as a store of fuel, we depend on hydrogen. We use it for our rocket fuel, to manufacture drinking water, and most importantly, for our fusion reactors. We always need more hydrogen.

Illustration Credit:© David A. Hardy/, Project Daedalus

Fortunately, the Solar System has provided us with vast repositories of hydrogen: the giant planets, Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus and Neptune all made up of at least 80% hydrogen. But harvesting the planets for their hydrogen isn’t without its challenges.

For starters, the gravity on the surface of Jupiter is nearly 25 m/s2, which is nearly three times the surface gravity of Earth. On top of that, Jupiter’s magnetosphere produces intense radiation fields through its entire system. You can’t spend much time near Jupiter without receiving a lethal radiation dose.

Gas Giant Harvesting Concept. Credit: Sergio Botero

We deploy huge robotic scoopers to swoop down into Jupiter’s gravity well, skim across the upper cloud tops, funneling in as much hydrogen as they can. On board compressors liquefy the hydrogen, or refine it into the more energy dense metallic hydrogen. The fuel is then distributed across the Solar System through the interplanetary transport network.

For Uranus and Neptune, where the gravity well is less extreme, we have permanent mining stations which float in the cloud tops, harvesting raw materials for return back to space. These factories are a huge improvement over the more expensive scoop ships. Smaller cargo ships ferry the deuterium, helium-3 and hydrogen up to orbit, for an energy hungry Solar System.

Gas Giant Harvesting Concept. Credit: Gas Giant Harvesting Concept. Credit: Sergio Botero

In order to construct our Dyson Swarm, we will eventually need to dismantle almost all the planets and moons in the Solar System to provide the raw materials to house countless people.

This process has begun, and we we have a number of options. For some worlds, we plan to just keep mining and refining them with robotic factories until they are gone, but this can be quite time consuming and often we would rather do our refining and manufacturing elsewhere.

Instead, we have set up very large mass drivers running around the object to launch material directly towards its desired destination. To avoid building up angular momentum inside the shrinking mass of the planetoid, we run these giant cannons in both directions. This prevents it spinning so fast that it tears itself apart. There’s very little gravity holding these objects together after all.

For the smaller objects that’s actually just fine. When we want to disassemble a smaller asteroid or moon into rock and dirt for the inside of a cylinder habitat, we construct a cylindrical shell around the asteroid, and spray material from the asteroid onto the cylinder, giving it some spin and artificial gravity to hold the material up, or rather down to its surface. We spin the asteroid faster and faster until it flies apart, transferring its material and its angular momentum to the cylinder.

Credit: NASA.

With larger asteroids we send a series of cylinders past them in a chain, painting their interiors with the material we will turn into dirt later on, until we run out of asteroid.

For full blown minor planets and moons, which are much more massive but still fairly low in gravity and lacking an atmosphere, we pump matter up tubes to high above the planetoid to fill freighters, get compacted into cannon balls to be launched elsewhere, or simply pumped into rotating habitats being built nearby.

Mercury is already half consumed. In a few more generations, it will be a distant memory.

Perhaps our greatest accomplishment is the work underway at Jupiter and Saturn. We are now in the process of dismantling these worlds to harvest their resources.

Jupiter and Io. Image Credit: NASA/JPL
Jupiter and Io. Image Credit: NASA/JPL

The largest machines humanity has ever built, fusion candles, have been deployed into the atmospheres of Jupiter and Saturn. These enormous machines scoop up raw hydrogen from Jupiter to run their fusion reactors. One side of the fusion candle fires downward, keeping the machine aloft. The other end blasts out into space, spewing material that can be harvested from orbit.

Not only that, but these candles provide thrust, pushing Jupiter and Saturn slowly but steadily into safer, more useful orbits for our civilization. As we use up the hydrogen, their mass will decrease. Uranus and Neptune will follow slowly, from farther out in the Solar System.

Eventually, eons into the future, we will have dismantled them down to their cores. There is more than a dozen times the mass of the Earth in rock and metal down at the core of Jupiter. More raw materials than any other place in the Solar System.

Credit: Kevin Gill

The long awaited construction of our fully operational Dyson swarm will finally begin. We’ll miss the presence of Jupiter and Saturn in the Solar System, and remember them fondly, but humanity needs room to stretch its legs.

Of course, as huge as the gas giants are compared to Earth, the Sun is far bigger, and contains not just hydrogen and helium but thousands of planets worth of heavier elements, which are spread around the sun, not just concentrated deep down.

Trying to scoop matter off a star is much harder than out of gas giant, though conveniently, we can take advantage of all that energy the Sun is giving off to power our extraction.

The Sun loses mass via the solar wind, mass ejections and simply by emitting energy (Credit: NASA)

The material on the Sun is also ionized, so it reacts strongly to magnetic forces, and the Sun generates a massively powerful magnetic field too. In fact, our Sun ejects about a billion kilograms of matter a second as solar wind. We have a few ways to increase this flow and harvest it.

The first is called Thermal Driven Outflow. We hover mirrors over the surface, reflecting and concentrating light down on spots on the Sun’s surface to heat it up and increase the mass being ejected. This kicks up an eruption much like a solar flare, feeding more solar wind.


We then place a large ring of satellites around the Sun’s equator, connected to each other by a stream of ionized particles generating a huge current, themselves running that stream off solar power. This ring creates a powerful magnetic field pushing outward toward the Sun’s poles, and sending the super-heated matter in that direction.

Hovering over the poles further out, we have a giant ring sucking up sunlight and generating a huge toroidal magnetic field. All the matter we stir up on the sun and off the poles is sucked through that and slowed down for collection. It’s a lot like the VASIMR Drive, using a magnetic nozzle, so that nothing has to touch the ultra hot plasma. Giant Plasma Thrusters essentially acting as the pump to gather the matter, it stays in place using the momentum it’s stealing from the particles it is slowing down, again it’s a giant plasma thruster.

We will eventually build far more of these rings around the Sun, spaced up and down from the equator, and intermittently shut off the power beam holding them aloft. As all the satellites in that ring drop, building up speed, we switch the power for the beam back on and their plummet stops and they push back up to their original position. We do this with all the rings, in sequence, pushing much larger waves of matter toward the poles than the Thermal Driven Outflow method provides, and we call this option the Huff-n-Puff Method.

A montage of planets and other objects in the solar system. Credit: NASA/JPL

And there you have it, our tips and techniques to harvest all the resources from the Solar System. To push and pull worlds, to heat them up, cool them down and use their raw materials to house humanity’s growing, ever expanding population.

As we nearly achieve our Type II civilization status, and control all the energy from our Sun and all the resources of the Solar System, we set our sights on a new goal: doing the same thing for the entire Milky Way Galaxy.

Perhaps in a few million years, we’ll create another guide for you, to help you make this transition as efficiently as possible.

Good luck!

Colonizing the Outer Solar System

Colonizing The Outer Solar System

Okay, so this article is Colonizing the Outer Solar System, and is actually part 2 of our team up with Fraser Cain of Universe Today, who looked at colonizing the inner solar system. You might want jump over there now and watch that part first, if you are coming in from having seen part 1, welcome, it is great having you here.

Without further ado let us get started. There is no official demarcation between the inner and outer solar system but for today we will be beginning the outer solar system at the Asteroid Belt.

Artist concept of the asteroid belt. Credit: NASA
Artist concept of the asteroid belt. Credit: NASA

The Asteroid Belt is always of interest to us for colonization. We have talked about mining them before if you want the details on that but for today I’ll just remind everyone that there are very rich in metals, including precious metals like gold and platinum, and that provides all the motivation we need to colonize them. We have a lot of places to cover so we won’t repeat the details on that today.

You cannot terraform asteroids the way you could Venus or Mars so that you could walk around on them like Earth, but in every respect they have a lot going for them as a candidate. They’ve got plenty for rock and metal for construction, they have lots of the basic organic elements, and they even have some water. They also get a decent amount of sunlight, less than Mars let alone Earth, but still enough for use as a power source and to grow plants.

But they don’t have much gravity, which – pardon the pun – has its ups and downs. There just isn’t much mass in the Belt. The entire thing has only a small fraction of the mass of our moon, and over half of that is in the four biggest asteroids, essentially dwarf planets in their own right. The remainder is scattered over millions of asteroids. Even the biggest, Ceres, is only about 1% of 1% of Earth’s mass, has a surface gravity of 3% Earth-normal, and an escape velocity low enough most model rockets could get into orbit. And again, it is the biggest, most you could get away from by jumping hard and if you dropped an object on one it might take a few minutes to land.

Don't blink... an artist's conception of an asteroid blocking out a distant star. Image credit: NASA.
Don’t blink… an artist’s conception of an asteroid blocking out a distant star. Image credit: NASA.

You can still terraform one though, by definition too. The gentleman who coined the term, science fiction author Jack Williamson, who also coined the term genetic engineering, used it for a smaller asteroid just a few kilometers across, so any definition of terraforming has to include tiny asteroids too.

Of course in that story it’s like a small planet because they had artificial gravity, we don’t, if we want to fake gravity without having mass we need to spin stuff around. So if we want to terraform an asteroid we need to hollow it out and fill it with air and spin it around.

Of course you do not actually hollow out the asteroid and spin it, asteroids are loose balls of gravel and most would fly apart given any noticeable spin. Instead you would hollow it out and set a cylinder spinning inside it. Sort of like how a good thermos has an outside container and inside one with a layer of vacuum in between, we would spin the inner cylinder.

You wouldn’t have to work hard to hollow out an asteroid either, most aren’t big enough to have sufficient gravity and pressure to crush an empty beer can even at their center. So you can pull matter out from them very easily and shore up the sides with very thin metal walls or even ice. Or just have your cylinder set inside a second non-spinning outer skin or superstructure, like your washer or dryer.

You can then conduct your mining from the inside, shielded from space. You could ever pressurize that hollowed out area if your spinning living area was inside its own superstructure. No gravity, but warmth and air, and you could get away with just a little spin without tearing it apart, maybe enough for plants to grow to normally.

It should be noted that you can potentially colonize even the gas giants themselves, even though our focus today is mostly on their moons. That requires a lot more effort and technology then the sorts of colonies we are discussing today, Fraser and I decided to keep things near-future and fairly low tech, though he actually did an article on colonizing Jupiter itself last year that was my main source material back before got to talking and decided to do a video together.

Jupiter with Io and Ganymede taken by amateur astronomer Damian Peach. Credit: NASA / Damian Peach
Jupiter with Io and Ganymede taken by amateur astronomer Damian Peach. Credit: NASA / Damian Peach

Hydrogen is plentiful on Jupiter itself and floating refineries or ships that fly down to scoop it up might be quite useful, but again today we are more interested in its moons. The biggest problem with colonizing the moons of Jupiter is all the radiation the planet gives off.

Europa is best known as a place where the surface is covered with ice but beneath it is thought to be a vast subsurface ocean. It is the sixth largest moon coming right behind our own at number five and is one of the original four moons Galileo discovered back in 1610, almost two centuries before we even discovered Uranus, so it has always been a source of interest. However as we have discovered more planets and moons we have come to believe quite a few of them might also have subsurface oceans too.

Now what is neat about them is that water, liquid water, always leaves the door open to the possibility of life already existing there. We still know so little about how life originally evolved and what conditions permit that to occur that we cannot rule out places like Europa already having their own plants and animals swimming around under that ice.

They probably do not and obviously we wouldn’t want to colonize them, beyond research bases, if they did, but if they do not they become excellent places to colonize. You could have submarine cities in such places floating around in the sea or those buried in the surface ice layer, well shielded from radiation and debris. The water also geysers up to the surface in some places so you can start off near those, you don’t have to drill down through kilometers of ice on day one.

Water, and hydrogen, are also quite uncommon in the inner solar system so having access to a place like Europa where the escape velocity is only about a fifth of our own is quite handy for export. Now as we move on to talk about moons a lot it is important to note that when I say something has a fifth of the escape velocity of Earth that doesn’t mean it is fives time easier to get off of. Energy rises with the square of velocity so if you need to go five times faster you need to spend 5-squared or 25 times more energy, and even more if that place has tons of air creating friction and drag, atmospheres are hard to claw your way up through though they make landing easier too. But even ignoring air friction you can move 25 liters of water off of Europa for every liter you could export from Earth and even it is a very high in gravity compared to most moons and comets. Plus we probably don’t want to export lots of water, or anything else, off of Earth anyway.

Artist's concept of Trojan asteroids, small bodies that dominate our solar system. Credit: NASA
Artist’s concept of Trojan asteroids, small bodies that dominate our solar system. Credit: NASA

We should start by noting two things. First, the Asteroid Belt is not the only place you find asteroids, Jupiter’s Trojan Asteroids are nearly as numerous, and every planet, including Earth, has an equivalent to Jupiter’s Trojan Asteroids at its own Lagrange Points with the Sun. Though just as Jupiter dwarfs all the other planets so to does its collection of Lagrangian objects. They can quite big too, the largest 624 Hektor, is 400 km across, and has a size and shape similar to Pennsylvania.

And as these asteroids are at stable Lagrange Points, they orbit with Jupiter but always ahead and behind it, making transit to and from Jupiter much easier and making good waypoints.

Before we go out any further in the solar system we should probably address how you get the energy to stay alive. Mars is already quite cold compared to Earth, and the Asteroids and Jupiter even more so, but with thick insulation and some mirrors to bounce light in you can do fairly decently. Indeed, sunlight out by Jupiter is already down to just 4% of what Earth gets, meaning at Jovian distances it is about 50 W/m²

That might not sound like much but it is actually almost a third of what average illumination is on Earth, when you factor in atmospheric reflection, cloudy days, nighttime, and higher, colder latitudes. It is also a good deal brighter than the inside of most well-lit buildings, and is enough for decently robust photosynthesis to grow food. Especially with supplemental light from mirrors or LED growth lamps.

But once you get out to Saturn and further that becomes increasingly impractical and a serious issue, because while food growth does not show up on your electric bill it is what we use virtually all our energy for. Closer in to the sun we can use solar panels for power and we do not need any power to grow food. As we get further out we cannot use solar and we need to heat or cold habitats and supply lighting for food, so we need a lot more power even as our main source dries up.

So what are our options? Well the first is simple, build bigger mirrors. A mirror can be quite large and paper thin after all. Alternatively we can build those mirrors far away, closer to the sun, and and either focus them on the place we want illuminated or send an energy beam, microwaves perhaps or lasers, out to the destination to supply energy.

We also have the option of using fission, if we can find enough Uranium or Thorium. There is not a lot of either in the solar system, in the area of about one part per billion, but that does amount to hundreds of trillions of tons, and it should only take a few thousand tons a year to supply Earth’s entire electric grid. So we would be looking at millions of years worth of energy supply.

Of course fusion is even better, particularly since hydrogen becomes much more abundant as you get further from the Sun. We do not have fusion yet, but it is a technology we can plan around probably having inside our lifetimes, and while uranium and thorium might be counted in parts per billion, hydrogen is more plentiful than every other element combines, especially once you get far from the Sun and Inner Solar System.

So it is much better power source, an effectively unlimited one except on time scales of billions and trillion of years. Still, if we do not have it, we still have other options. Bigger mirrors, beaming energy outwards from closer to the Sun, and classic fission of Uranium and Thorium. Access to fusion is not absolutely necessary but if you have it you can unlock the outer solar system because you have your energy supply, a cheap and abundant fuel supply, and much faster and cheaper spaceships.

Of course hydrogen, plain old vanilla hydrogen with one proton, like the sun uses for fusion, is harder to fuse than deuterium and may be a lot longer developing, we also have fusion using Helium-3 which has some advantages over hydrogen, so that is worth keeping in mind as well as we proceed outward.

Since NASA's Cassini spacecraft arrived at Saturn, the planet's appearance has changed greatly. This view shows Saturn's northern hemisphere in 2016, as that part of the planet nears its northern hemisphere summer solstice in May 2017. Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Space Science Institute.
Since NASA’s Cassini spacecraft arrived at Saturn, the planet’s appearance has changed greatly. This view shows Saturn’s northern hemisphere in 2016, as that part of the planet nears its northern hemisphere summer solstice in May 2017. Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Space Science Institute.

Okay, let’s move on to Saturn, and again our focus is on its moons more than the planet itself. The biggest of those an the most interesting for colonization is Titan.

Titan is aptly named, this titanic moon contains more mass than than all of Saturn’s sixty or so other moons and by an entire order of magnitude at that. It is massive enough to hold an atmosphere, and one where the surface pressure is 45% higher than here on Earth. Even though Titan is much smaller than Earth, its atmosphere is about 20% more massive than our own. It’s almost all nitrogen too, even more than our own atmosphere, so while you would need a breather mask to supply oxygen and it is also super-cold, so you’d need a thick insulated suit, it doesn’t have to be a pressure suit like it would on Mars or almost anyplace else.

There’s no oxygen in the atmosphere, what little isn’t nitrogen is mostly methane and hydrogen, but there is plenty of oxygen in the ice on Titan which is quite abundant. So it has everything we need for life except energy and gravity. At 14% of earth normal it is probably too low for people to comfortably and safely adapt to, but we’ve already discussed ways of dealing with that. It is low enough that you could probably flap your arms and fly, if you had wing attached.

On the left is TALISE (Titan Lake In-situ Sampling Propelled Explorer), the ESA proposal. This would have it's own propulsion, in the form of paddlewheels. Credit:
On the left is TALISE (Titan Lake In-situ Sampling Propelled Explorer), the ESA proposal. This would have it’s own propulsion, in the form of paddlewheels. Credit:

It needs some source of energy though, and we discussed that. Obviously if you’ve got fusion you have all the hydrogen you need, but Titan is one of those places we would probably want to colonize early on if we could, it is something you need a lot of to terraform other places, and is also rich in a lot of the others things we want. So we often think of it as a low-tech colony since it is one we would want early on.

In an scenario like that it is very easy to imagine a lot of local transit between Titan and its smaller neighboring moons, which are more rocky and might be easier to dig fissile materials like Uranium and Thorium out of. You might have a dozen or so small outposts on neighboring moons mining fissile materials and other metals and a big central hub on Titan they delivered that too which also exported Nitrogen to other colonies in the solar system.

Moving back and forth between moons is pretty easy, especially since things landing on Titan can aerobrake quite easily, whereas Titan itself has a pretty strong gravity well and thick atmosphere to climb out of but is a good candidate for a space elevator, since it requires nothing more sophisticated than a Lunar Elevator on our own moon and has an abundant supply of the materials needed to make Zylon for instance, a material strong enough to make an elevator there and which we can mass manufacture right now.

Titan might be the largest and most useful of Saturn’s moons, but again it isn’t the only one and not all of the other are just rocks for mining. At last count it has over sixty and many of them quite large. One of those, Enceladus, Saturn’s sixth largest moon, is a lot like Jupiter’s Moon Europa, in that we believe it has a large and thick subsurface ocean. So just like Europa it is an interesting candidate for Colonization. So Titan might be the hub for Saturn but it wouldn’t be the only significant place to colonize.

Clouds tower into a twilight sky on Saturn. The planet’s glowing rings seem to bend at the horizon because of the dense air. (painting ©Michael Carroll)
Clouds tower into a twilight sky on Saturn. The planet’s glowing rings seem to bend at the horizon because of the dense air. (painting ©Michael Carroll)

While Saturn is best known for its amazing rings, they tend to be overlooked in colonization. Now those rings are almost all ice and in total mass about a quarter as much as Enceladus, which again is Saturn’s Sixth largest moon, which is itself not even a thousandth of the Mass of Titan.

In spite of that the rings are not a bad place to set up shop. Being mostly water, they are abundant in hydrogen for fusion fuel and have little mass individually makes them as easy to approach or leave as an asteroid. Just big icebergs in space really, and there are many moonlets in the rings that can be as large as half a kilometer across. So you can burrow down inside one for protection from radiation and impacts and possibly mine smaller ones for their ice to be brought to places where water is not abundant.

In total those rings, which are all frozen water, only mass about 2% of Earth’s oceans, and about as much as the entire Antarctic sheet. So it is a lot of fresh water that is very easy to access and move elsewhere, and ice mines in the rings of Saturn might be quite useful and make good homes. Living inside an iceball might not sound appealing but it is better than it sounds like and we will discuss that more when we reach the Kupier Belt.

Uranus and Neptune, the Solar System’s ice giant planets. Credit: Wikipedia Commons
Uranus and Neptune, the Solar System’s ice giant planets. Credit: Wikipedia Commons

But first we still have two more planets to look at, Uranus and Neptune.

Uranus, and Neptune, are sometimes known as Ice Giants instead of Gas Giants because it has a lot more water. It also has more ammonia and methane and all three get called ices in this context because they make up most of the solid matter when you get this far out in the solar system.

While Jupiter is over a thousand times the mass of Earth, Uranus weighs in at about 15 times the Earth and has only about double the escape velocity of Earth itself, the least of any of the gas giants, and it’s strange rotation, and its strange tilt contributes to it having much less wind than other giants. Additionally the gravity is just a little less than Earth’s in the atmosphere so we have the option for floating habitats again, though it would be a lot more like a submarine than a hot air balloon.

Like Venus, Uranus has very long days, at least in terms of places receiving continual sunlight, the poles get 42 years of perpetual sunlight then 42 of darkness. Sunlight being a relative term, the light is quite minimal especially inside the atmosphere. The low wind in many places makes it a good spot for gas extraction, such as Helium-3, and it’s a good planet to try to scoop gas from or even have permanent installations.

Now Uranus has a large collection of moons as well, useful and colonizable like the other moons we have looked at, but otherwise unremarkable beyond being named for characters from Shakespeare, rather than the more common mythological names. None have atmospheres though there is a possibility Oberon or Titania might have subsurface oceans.

Neptune makes for a brief entry, it is very similar to Uranus except it has the characteristically high winds of gas giants that Uranus’s skewed poles mitigate, meaning it has no advantages over Uranus and the disadvantages of high wind speeds everywhere and being even further from the Sun. It too has moons and one of them, Triton, is thought to have subsurface oceans as well. Triton also presumably has a good amount of nitrogen inside it since it often erupts geysers of nitrogen from its surface.

Neptune's largest moon Triton photographed on August 25, 1989 by Voyager 2. Credit: NASA
Neptune’s largest moon Triton photographed on August 25, 1989 by Voyager 2. Credit: NASA

Triton is one of the largest moons in the solar system, coming in seventh just after our Moon, number 5, and Europa at number 6. Meaning that were it not a moon it would probably qualify as a Dwarf Planet and it is often thought Pluto might be an escaped moon Neptune. So Triton might be one that didn’t escape, or didn’t avoid getting captured. In fact there are an awful lot of bodies in this general size range and composition wandering about in the outer regions of our solar system as we get out into the Kuiper Belt.

Pluto and its cohorts in the icy-asteroid-rich Kuiper Belt beyond the orbit of Neptune. Credit: NASA
Pluto and its cohorts in the icy-asteroid-rich Kuiper Belt beyond the orbit of Neptune. Credit: NASA

The Kuiper Belt is one of those things that has a claim on the somewhat arbitrary and hazy boundary marking the edge of the Solar System. It extends from out past Neptune to beyond Pluto and contains a good deal more mass than the asteroid Belt. It is where a lot of our comets come from and while there is plenty of rocks out there they tend to be covered in ice. In other words it is like our asteroid belt only there’s more of it and the one thing the belt is not very abundant in, water and hydrogen in general, is quite abundant out there. So if you have a power source life fusion they can be easily terraformed and are just as attractive as a source of minerals as the various asteroids and moons closer in.

Discovered in 2005, Makemake, a Kuiper Belt Object (KBO) has . Credit: NASA
Discovered in 2005, Makemake, a Kuiper Belt Object (KBO) has . Credit: NASA

We mentioned the idea of living inside hollowed out asteroids earlier and you can use the same trick for comets. Indeed you could shape them to be much bigger if you like, since they would be hollow and ice isn’t hard to move and shape especially in zero gravity. Same trick as before, you place a spinning cylinder inside it. Not all the objects entirely ice and indeed your average comet is more a frozen ball of mud then ice with rocky cores. We think a lot of near Earth Asteroids are just leftover comets. So they are probably pretty good homes if you have fusion, lots of fuel and raw materials for both life and construction.

This is probably your cheapest interstellar spacecraft too, in terms of effort anyway. People often talk about re-directing comets to Mars to bring it air and water, but you can just as easily re-direct it out of the solar system entirely. Comets tend to have highly eccentric orbits, so if you capture one when it is near the Sun you can accelerate it then, actually benefiting from the Oberth Effect, and drive it out of the solar system into deep space. If you have a fusion power source to live inside one then you also have an interstellar spaceship drive, so you just carve yourself a small colony inside the comet and head out into deep space.

You’ve got supplies that will last you many centuries at least, even if it were home to tens of thousand of people, and while we think of smaller asteroids and comets as tiny, that’s just in comparison to planets. These things tend to be the size of mountain so there is plenty of living space and a kilometer of dirty ice between you and space makes a great shield against even the kinds of radiation and collisions you can experience at relativistic speeds.

Artists' impression of the Kuiper belt and Oort cloud, showing both the origin and path of Halley's Comet. Image credit: NASA/JPL.
Artists’ impression of the Kuiper belt and Oort cloud. Credit: NASA/JPL

Now the Oort Cloud is much like the Kupier Belt but begins even further out and extends out probably an entire light year or more. We don’t have a firm idea of its exact dimensions or mass, but the current notion is that it has at least several Earth’s worth of mass, mostly in various icy bodies. These will be quite numerous, estimates usually assumes at least trillion icy bodies a kilometer across or bigger, and even more smaller ones. However the volume of space is so large that those kilometer wide bodies might each be a around a billion kilometers distant from neighbors, or about a light hour. So it is spread out quite thinly, and even the inner edge is about 10 light days away.

That means that from a practical standpoint there is no source of power out there, the sun is simply too diffuse for even massive collections of mirrors and solar panels to be of use. It also means light-speed messages home or to neighbors are quite delayed. So in terms of communication it is a lot more like pre-modern times in sparsely settled lands where talking with your nearest neighbors might require an hour long walk over to their farm, and any news from the big cities might take months to percolate out to you.

There’s probably uranium and thorium out there to be found, maybe a decent amount of it, so fission as a power source is not ruled out. If you have fusion instead though each of these kilometer wide icy bodies is like a giant tank of gasoline, and as with the Kupier Belt, ice makes a nice shield against impacts and radiation.

And while there might be trillions of kilometer wide chunks of ice out there, and many more smaller bodies, you would have quite a few larger ones too. There are almost certainly tons of planets in the Pluto size-range out these, and maybe even larger ones. Even after the Oort cloud you would still have a lot of these deep space rogue planets which could bridge the gap to another solar system’s Oort Cloud. So if you have fusion you have no shortage of energy, and could colonize trillions of these bodies. There probably is a decent amount of rock and metal out there too, but that could be your major import/export option shipping home ice and shipping out metals.

That’s the edge of the Solar System so that’s the end of this article. If you haven’t already read the other half, colonizing the inner Solar System, head on over now.

What is a Nova?

What Is A Nova?

There are times when I really wish astronomers could take their advanced modern knowledge of the cosmos and then go back and rewrite all the terminology so that they make more sense. For example, dark matter and dark energy seem like they’re linked, and maybe they are, but really, they’re just mysteries.

Is dark matter actually matter, or just a different way that gravity works over long distances? Is dark energy really energy, or is it part of the expansion of space itself. Black holes are neither black, nor holes, but that doesn’t stop people from imagining them as dark tunnels to another Universe.  Or the Big Bang, which makes you think of an explosion.

Another category that could really use a re-organizing is the term nova, and all the related objects that share that term: nova, supernova, hypernova, meganova, ultranova. Okay, I made those last couple up.

I guess if you go back to the basics, a nova is a star that momentarily brightens up. And a supernova is a star that momentarily brightens up… to death. But the underlying scenario is totally different.

New research shows that some old stars known as white dwarfs might be held up by their rapid spins, and when they slow down, they explode as Type Ia supernovae. Thousands of these "time bombs" could be scattered throughout our Galaxy. In this artist's conception, a supernova explosion is about to obliterate an orbiting Saturn-like planet.   Credit: David A. Aguilar (CfA)
In this artist’s conception, a supernova explosion is about to obliterate an orbiting Saturn-like planet. Credit: David A. Aguilar (CfA)

As we’ve mentioned in many articles already, a supernova commonly occurs when a massive star runs out of fuel in its core, implodes, and then detonates with an enormous explosion.  There’s another kind of supernova, but we’ll get to that later.

A plain old regular nova, on the other hand, happens when a white dwarf – the dead remnant of a Sun-like star – absorbs a little too much material from a binary companion. This borrowed hydrogen undergoes fusion, which causes it to brighten up significantly, pumping up to 100,000 times more energy off into space.

Imagine a situation where you’ve got two main sequence stars like our Sun orbiting one another in a tight binary system. Over the course of billions of years, one of the stars runs out of fuel in its core, expands as a red giant, and then contracts back down into a white dwarf. It’s dead.

Some time later, the second star dies, and it expands as a red giant. So now you’ve got a red dwarf and a white dwarf in this binary system, orbiting around and around each other, and material is streaming off the red giant and onto the smaller white dwarf.

Illustration of a white dwarf feeding off its companion star Credit: ESO / M. Kornmesser
Illustration of a white dwarf feeding off its companion star Credit: ESO / M. Kornmesser

This material piles up on the surface of the white dwarf forming a cosy blanket of stolen hydrogen. When the surface temperature reaches 20 million kelvin, the hydrogen begins to fuse, as if it was the core of a star. Metaphorically speaking, its skin catches fire. No, wait, even better. Its skin catches fire and then blasts off into space.

Over the course of a few months, the star brightens significantly in the sky. Sometimes a star that required a telescope before suddenly becomes visible with the unaided eye. And then it slowly fades again, back to its original brightness.

Some stars do this on a regular basis, brightening a few times a century. Others must clearly be on a longer cycle, we’ve only seen them do it once.

Astronomers think there are about 40 novae a year across the Milky Way, and we often see them in other galaxies.

Tycho Brahe: He lived like a sage and died like a fool. He also created his own cosmological model, the Tychonic system.

The term “nova” was first coined by the Danish astronomer Tycho Brahe in 1572, when he observed a supernova with his telescope. He called it the “nova stella”, or new star, and the name stuck. Other astronomers used the term to describe any star that brightened up in the sky, before they even really understood the causes.

During a nova event, only about 5% of the material gathered on the white dwarf is actually consumed in the flash of fusion. Some is blasted off into space, and some of the byproducts of fusion pile up on its surface.

Tycho's Supernova Remnant. Credit: Spitzer, Chandra and Calar Alto Telescopes.
Tycho’s Supernova Remnant. Credit: Spitzer, Chandra and Calar Alto Telescopes.

Over millions of years, the white dwarf can collect enough material that carbon fusion can occur. At 1.4 times the mass of the Sun, a runaway fusion reaction overtakes the entire white dwarf star, releasing enough energy to detonate it in a matter of seconds.

If a regular nova is a quick flare-up of fusion on the surface of a white dwarf star, then this event is a super nova, where the entire star explodes from a runaway fusion reaction.

You might have guessed, this is known as a Type 1a supernova, and astronomers use these explosions as a way to measure distance in the Universe, because they always explode with the same amount of energy.

Hmm, I guess the terminology isn’t so bad after all: nova is a flare up, and a supernova is a catastrophic flare up to death… that works.

Now you know. A nova occurs when a dead star steals material from a binary companion, and undergoes a momentary return to the good old days of fusion. A Type Ia supernova is that final explosion when a white dwarf has gathered its last meal.

How Can We Save The Sun?

Remember the movie Sunshine, where astronomers learn that the Sun is dying? So a plucky team of astronauts take a nuclear bomb to the Sun, and try to jump-start it with a massive explosion. Yeah, there’s so much wrong in that movie that I don’t know where to start. So I just won’t.

Seriously, a nuclear bomb to cure a dying Sun?

Here’s the thing, the Sun is actually dying. It’s just that it’s going to take about another 5 billion years to run of fuel in its core. And when it does, Cillian Murphy won’t be able to restart it with a big nuke.

But the Sun doesn’t have to die so soon. It’s made of the same hydrogen and helium as the much less massive red dwarf stars. And these stars are expected to last for hundreds of billions and even trillions of years.

Is there anything we can do to save the Sun, or jump-start it when it runs out of fuel in the core?

First, let me explain the problem. The Sun is a main sequence star, and it measures 1.4 million kilometers across. Like ogres and onions, the Sun is made of layers.

The interior structure of the Sun. Credit: Wikipedia Commons/kelvinsong
The interior structure of the Sun. Credit: Wikipedia Commons/kelvinsong

The innermost layer is the core. That’s the region where the temperature and pressure is so great that atoms of hydrogen are mashed together so tightly they can fuse into helium. This fusion reaction is exothermic, which means that it gives off more energy than it consumes.

The excess energy is released as gamma radiation, which then makes its way through the star and out into space. The radiation pushes outward, and counteracts the inward force of gravity pulling it together. This balance creates the Sun we know and love.

Outside the core, temperatures and pressures drop to the point that fusion can no longer happen. This next region is known as the radiative zone. It’s plenty hot, and the photons of gamma radiation generated in the core of the Sun need to bounce randomly from atom to atom, maybe for hundreds of thousands of years to finally escape. But it’s not hot enough for fusion to happen.

Outside the radiative zone is the convective zone. This is where the material in the Sun is finally cool enough that it can move around like a lava lamp. Hot blobs of plasma pick up enormous heat from the radiative zone, float up to the surface of the Sun, release their heat and then sink down again.

The only fuel the Sun can use for fusion is in the core, which accounts for only 0.8% of the Sun’s volume and 34% of its mass. When it uses up that hydrogen in the core, it’ll blow off its outer layers into space and then shrink down into a white dwarf.

The radiative zone acts like a wall, preventing the mixing convective zone from reaching the solar core.

If the Sun was all convective zone, then this wouldn’t be a problem, it would be able to go on mixing its fuel, using up all its hydrogen instead of this smaller fraction. If the Sun was more like a red dwarf, it could last much longer.

GJ1214b, shown in this artist’s view, is a super-Earth orbiting a red dwarf star 40 light-years from Earth. Credit: NASA, ESA, and D. Aguilar (Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics)
Red dwarf stars burn for much longer than our Sun. Credit: NASA, ESA, and D. Aguilar (Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics)

In order to save the Sun, to help it last longer than the 5 billion years it has remaining, we would need some way to stir up the Sun with a gigantic mixing spoon. To get that unburned hydrogen from the radiative and convective zones down into the core.

One idea is that you could crash another star into the Sun. This would deliver fresh fuel, and mix up the Sun’s hydrogen a bit. But it would be a one time thing. You’d need to deliver a steady stream of stars to keep mixing it up. And after a while you would accumulate enough mass to create a supernova. That would be bad.

But another option would be to strip material off the Sun and create red dwarfs. Stars with less than 35% the mass of the Sun are fully convective. Which means that they don’t have a radiative zone. They fully mix all their hydrogen fuel into the core, and can last much longer.

Imagine a future civilization tearing the Sun into 3 separate stars, each of which could then last for hundreds of billions of years, putting out only 1.5% the energy of the Sun. Huddle up for warmth.

But if you want to take this to the extreme, tear the Sun into 13 separate red dwarf stars with only 7.5% the mass of the Sun. These will only put out .015% the light of the Sun, but they’ll sip away at their hydrogen for more than 10 trillion years.

Stick the Earth in the middle and you'd have some very odd sunsets, not to mention orbital dynamics. Created with Universe Sandbox ²
Stick the Earth in the middle and you’d have some very odd sunrises and sunsets, not to mention orbital dynamics. Created with Universe Sandbox ²

But how can you get that hydrogen off the Sun? Lasers, of course. Using a concept known as stellar lifting, you could direct a powerful solar powered laser at a spot on the Sun’s surface. This would heat up the region, and generate a powerful solar wind. The Sun would be blasting its own material into space. Then you could use magnetic fields or gravity to direct the outflows and collect them into other stars. It boggles our imagination, but it would be a routine task for Type III Civilization engineers on star dismantling duty.

So don’t panic that our Sun only has a few billion years of life left. We’ve got options. Mind bendingly complicated, solar system dismantling options. But still… options.

Why Do Red Dwarfs Live So Long?

While our Sun will only survive for about 5 billion more years, smaller, cooler red dwarfs can last for trillions of years. What’s the secret to their longevity?

You might say our Sun will last a long time. And sure, another 5 billion years or so of main sequence existence does sound pretty long lived. But that’s nothing compared to the least massive stars out there, the red dwarfs.

These tiny stars can have just 1/12th the mass of the Sun, but instead of living for a paltry duration, they can last for trillions of years. What’s the secret to their longevity? Is it Botox?

To understand why red dwarfs have such long lifespans, we’ll need to take a look at main sequence stars first, and see how they’re different. If you could peel back the Sun like a grapefruit, you’d see juicy layers inside.

In the core, immense pressure and temperature from the mass of all that starstuff bears down and fuses atoms of hydrogen into helium, releasing gamma radiation.

Outside the core is the radiative zone, not hot enough for fusion. Instead, photons of energy generated in the core are emitted and absorbed countless times, taking a random journey to the outermost layer of the star.

And outside the radiative zone is the convective zone, where superheated globs of hot plasma float up to the surface, where they release their heat into space.

Then they cool down enough to sink back through the Sun and pick up more heat. Over time, helium builds up in the core. Eventually, this core runs out of hydrogen and it dies. Even though the core is only a fraction of the total mass of hydrogen in the Sun, there’s no mechanism to mix it in.

A red dwarf is fundamentally different than a main sequence star like the Sun. Because it has less mass, it has a core, and a convective zone, but no radiative zone. This makes all the difference.

Red dwarf convection. Credit: NASA
Red dwarf convection. Credit: NASA

The convective zone connects directly to the core of the red dwarf, the helium byproduct created by fusion is spread throughout the star. This convection brings fresh hydrogen into the core of the star where it can continue the fusion process.

By perfectly using all its hydrogen, the lowest mass red dwarf could sip away at its hydrogen fuel for 10 trillion years.

One of the biggest surprises in modern astronomy is just how many of these low mass red dwarf worlds have planets. And some of the most Earthlike worlds ever seen have been found around red dwarf stars. Planets with roughly the mass of Earth, orbiting within their star’s habitable zone, where liquid water could be present.

One of the biggest problems with red dwarfs is that they can be extremely variable. For example, 40% of a red dwarf’s surface could be covered with sunspots, decreasing the amount of radiation it produces, changing the size of its habitable zone.

Red Dwarf. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech
Red Dwarf. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

Other red dwarfs produce powerful stellar flares that could scour a newly forming world of life. DG Canes Venaticorum recently generated a flare 10,000 times more powerful than anything ever seen from the Sun. Any life caught in the blast would have a very bad day.

Fortunately, red dwarfs only put out these powerful flares in the first billion years or so of their lives. After that, they settle down and provide a nice cozy environment for trillions of years. Long enough for life to prosper we hope.

In the distant future, some superintelligent species may figure out how to properly mix the hydrogen back into the Sun, removing the helium, if they do, they’ll add billions of years to the Sun’s life.

It seems like such a shame for the Sun to die with all that usable hydrogen sitting just a radiative zone away from fusion.

Have you got any ideas on how we could mix up the hydrogen in the Sun and remove the helium? Post your wild ideas in the comments!

Why Do Red Giants Expand?

We know that the Sun will last another 5 billion years and then expand us a red giant. What will actually make this process happen?

One of the handy things about the Universe, apart from the fact that it exists, is that it lets us see crazy different configurations of everything, including planets, stars and galaxies.

We see stars like our Sun and dramatically unlike our Sun. Tiny, cool red dwarf stars with a fraction of the mass of our own, sipping away at their hydrogen juice boxes for billions and even trillions of years. Stars with way more mass than our own, blasting out enormous amounts of radiation, only lasting a few million years before they detonate as supernovae.

There are ones younger than the Sun; just now clearing out the gas and dust in their solar nebula with intense ultraviolet radiation. Stars much older than ours, bloated up into enormous sizes, nearing the end of their lives before they fade into their golden years as white dwarfs.

The Sun is a main sequence star, converting hydrogen into helium at its core, like it’s been doing for more than 4.5 billion years, and will continue to do so for another 5 or so. At the end of its life, it’s going to bloat up as a red giant, so large that it consumes Mercury and Venus, and maybe even Earth.

What’s the process going on inside the Sun that makes this happen? Let’s peel away the Sun and take a look at the core. After we’re done screaming about the burning burning hands, we’ll see that the Sun is this enormous sphere of hydrogen and helium, 1.4 million kilometers across, the actual business of fusion is happening down in the core, a region that’s a delicious bubblegum center a tiny 280,000 kilometers across.

The core is less than one percent of the entire volume, but because the density of hydrogen in the chewy center is 150 times more than liquid water, it accounts for a freakishly huge 35% of its mass.

It’s thanks to the mass of the entire star, 2 x 10^30 kg, bearing down on the core thanks to gravity. Down here in the core, temperatures are more than 15 million degrees Celsius. It’s the perfect spot for nuclear fusion picnic.

There are a few paths fusion can take, but the main one is where hydrogen atoms are mushed into helium. This process releases enough gamma radiation to make you a planet full of Hulks.

Proton-proton fusion in a sun-like star. Credit: Borb
Proton-proton fusion in a sun-like star. Credit: Borb

While the Sun has been performing hydrogen fusion, all this helium has been piling up at its core, like nuclear waste. Terrifyingly, it’s still fuel, but our little Sun just doesn’t have the temperature or pressure at its core to be able to use it.

Eventually, the fusion at the core of the Sun shuts down, choked off by all this helium and in a last gasp of high pitched mickey mouse voice terror the helium core begins to contract and heat up. At this point, an amazing thing happens. It’s now hot enough for a layer of hydrogen just around the core to heat up and begin fusion again. The Sun now gets a second chance at life.

As this outer layer contains a bigger volume than the original core of the Sun, it heats up significantly, releasing far more energy. This increase in light pressure from the core pushes much harder against gravity, and expands the volume of the Sun.

Even this isn’t the end of the star’s life. Dammit, Harkness, just stay down. Helium continues to build up, and even this extra shell around the core isn’t hot and dense enough to support fusion. So the core dies again. The star begins to contract, the gravitational energy heats up again, allowing another shell of hydrogen to have the pressure and temperature for fusion, and then we’re back in business!

Red giant. Credit:NASA/ Walt Feimer
Red giant. Credit:NASA/ Walt Feimer

Our Sun will likely go through this process multiple times, each phase taking a few years to complete as it expands and contracts, heats and cools. Our Sun becomes a variable star.

Eventually, we run out of usable hydrogen, but fortunately, it’s able to switch over to using helium as fuel, generating carbon and oxygen as byproducts. This doesn’t last long, and when it’s gone, the Sun gets swollen to hundreds of times its size, releasing thousands of times more energy.

This is when the Sun becomes that familiar red giant, gobbling up the tasty planets, including, quite possibly the Earth.The remaining atmosphere puffs out from the Sun, and drifts off into space creating a beautiful planetary nebula that future alien astronomers will enjoy for thousands of years. What’s left is a carbon oxygen core, a white dwarf.

The Sun is completely out of tricks to make fusion happen any more, and it’ll now cool down to the background temperature of the Universe. Our Sun will die in a dramatic way, billions of years from now when it bloats up 500 times its original volume.

What do you think future alien astronomers will call the planetary nebula left behind by the Sun? Give it a name in the comments below.

Can You Kill a Star With Iron?

Since the energy required to fuse iron is more than the energy that you get from doing it, could you use iron to kill a star like our sun?

A fan favorite was How Much Water Would it Take to Extinguish the Sun? Go ahead and watch it now if you like. Or… if you don’t have time to watch me set up the science, deliver a bunch of hilarious zingers and obscure sci-fi references, here’s the short version:

The Sun is not on fire, it’s a fusion reaction. Hydrogen mashes up to produce helium and energy. Lots and lots of energy. Water is mostly hydrogen, adding water would give more fuel and make it burn hotter. But some of you clever viewers proposed another way to kill the Sun. Kill it with iron!

Iron? That seems pretty specific. Why iron and not something else, like butter, donuts, or sitting on the couch playing video games – all the things working to kill me? Is iron poison to stars? An iron bar? Possibly iron bullets? Iron punches? Possibly from fashioning a suit and attacking it as some kind of Iron Man?

Time for some stellar physics. Stars are massive balls of plasma. Mostly hydrogen and helium, and leftover salad from the Big Bang. Mass holds them together in a sphere, creating temperatures and pressures at their cores, where atoms of hydrogen are crushed together into helium, releasing energy. This energy, in the form of photons pushes outward. As they escape the star, this counteracts the force of gravity trying to pull it inward.

Over the course of billions of years, the star uses up the reserves of hydrogen, building up helium. If it’s massive enough, it will switch to helium when the hydrogen is gone. Then it can switch to oxygen, and then silicon, and all the way up the periodic table of elements.

The most massive stars in the Universe, the ones with at least 8 times the mass of the Sun, have enough temperature and pressure that they can fuse elements all the way up to iron, the 26th element on the Periodic Table. At that point, the energy required to fuse iron is more than the energy that you get from fusing iron, no matter how massive a star you are.

Massive Young Stellar Object HD200775 within the reflection nebula NGC7023.
Massive Young Stellar Object HD200775 within the reflection nebula NGC7023.

In a fraction of a second, the core of the Sun shuts off. It’s no longer pushing outward with its light pressure, and so the outer layers collapse inward, creating a black hole and a supernova. It sure looks like the build up of iron in the core killed it.

Is it true then? Is iron the Achilles heel of stars? Not really. Iron is the byproduct of fusion within the most massive stars. Just like ash is the byproduct of combustion, or poop is the byproduct of human digestion.

It’s not poison, which stops or destroys processes within the human body. A better analogy might be fiber. Your body can’t get any nutritional value out of fiber, like grass. If all you had to eat was grass, you’d starve, but it’s not like the grass is poisoning you. As long as you got adequate nutrition, you could eat an immense amount of grass and not die. It’s about the food, not the grass.

The Sun already has plenty of iron; it’s 0.1% iron. That little nugget would work out to be 330 times the mass of the Earth. If you gave it much more iron, it would just give the Sun more mass, which would give it more gravity to raise the temperature and pressure at the core, which would help it do even more fusion.

This image shows iron debris in Tycho's supernova remnant. Credit: NASA/CXC/Chinese Academy of Sciences/F. Lu et al.
This image shows iron debris in Tycho’s supernova remnant. Credit: NASA/CXC/Chinese Academy of Sciences/F. Lu et al.

If you just poured iron into a star, it wouldn’t kill it. It would just make it more massive and then hotter and capable of supporting the fusion of heavier elements. As long as there’s still viable fuel at the core of the star, and adequate temperatures and pressures, it’ll continue fusing and releasing energy.

If you could swap out the hydrogen in the Sun with a core of iron, you would indeed kill it dead, or any star for that matter. It wouldn’t explode, though. Only if it was at least 8 times the mass of the Sun to begin with. Then would you have enough mass bearing down on the inert core to create a core collapse supernova.

In fact, since you’ve got the power to magically replace stellar cores, you would only need to replace the Sun’s core with carbon or oxygen to kill it. It actually doesn’t have enough mass to fuse even carbon. As soon as you replaced the Sun’s core, it would shut off fusion. It would immediately become a white dwarf, and begin slowly cooling down to the background temperature of the Universe.

Iron in bullet, bar, man or any other form isn’t poison to a star. It just happens to be an element that no star can use to generate energy from fusion. As long as there’s still viable fuel at the core of a star, and the pressure and temperature to bring them together, the star will continue to pump out energy.

What other exotic ways would you use to try and kill the Sun? Give us your suggestions in the comments below.

The Journey of Light, From the Stars to Your Eyes

This week, millions of people will turn their eyes to the skies in anticipation of the 2015 Perseid meteor shower. But what happens on less eventful nights, when we find ourselves gazing upward simply to admire the deep, dark, star-spangled sky? Far away from the glow of civilization, we humans can survey thousands of tiny pinpricks of light. But how? Where does that light come from? How does it make its way to us? And how do our brains sort all that incoming energy into such a profoundly breathtaking sight?

Our story begins lightyears away, deep in the heart of a sun-like star, where gravity’s immense inward pressure keeps temperatures high and atoms disassembled. Free protons hurtle around the core, occasionally attaining the blistering energies necessary to overcome their electromagnetic repulsion, collide, and stick together in pairs of two.

Proton-proton fusion in a sun-like star. Credit: Borb

So-called diprotons are unstable and tend to disband as quickly as they arise. And if it weren’t for the subatomic antics of the weak nuclear force, this would be the end of the line: no fusion, no starlight, no us. However, on very rare occasions, a process called beta decay transforms one proton in the pair into a neutron. This new partnership forms what is known as deuterium, or heavy hydrogen, and opens the door to further nuclear fusion reactions.

Indeed, once deuterium enters the mix, particle pileups happen far more frequently. A free proton slams into deuterium, creating helium-3. Additional impacts build upon one another to forge helium-4 and heavier elements like oxygen and carbon.

Such collisions do more than just build up more massive atoms; in fact, every impact listed above releases an enormous amount of energy in the form of gamma rays. These high-energy photons streak outward, providing thermonuclear pressure that counterbalances the star’s gravity. Tens or even hundreds of thousands of years later, battered, bruised, and energetically squelched from fighting their way through a sun-sized blizzard of other particles, they emerge from the star’s surface as visible, ultraviolet, and infrared light.


But this is only half the story. The light then has to stream across vast reaches of space in order to reach the Earth – a process that, provided the star of origin is in our own galaxy, can take anywhere from 4.2 years to many thousands of years! At least… from your perspective. Since photons are massless, they don’t experience any time at all! And even after eluding what, for any other massive entity in the Universe, would be downright interminable flight times, conditions still must align so that you can see even one twinkle of the light from a faraway star.

That is, it must be dark, and you must be looking up.

Credit: Bruce Blaus
Credit: Bruce Blaus

The incoming stream of photons then makes its way through your cornea and lens and onto your retina, a highly vascular layer of tissue that lines the back of the eye. There, each tiny packet of light impinges upon one of two types of photoreceptor cell: a rod, or a cone.

Most photons detected under the low-light conditions of stargazing will activate rod cells. These cells are so light-sensitive that, in dark enough conditions, they can be excited by a single photon! Rods cannot detect color, but are far more abundant than cones and are found all across the retina, including around the periphery.

The less numerous, more color-hungry cone cells are densely concentrated at the center of the retina, in a region called the fovea (this explains why dim stars that are visible in your side vision suddenly seem to disappear when you attempt to look at them straight-on). Despite their relative insensitivity, cone cells can be activated by very bright starlight, enabling you to perceive stars like Vega as blue and Betelgeuse as red.

But whether bright light or dim, every photon has the same endpoint once it reaches one of your eyes’ photoreceptors: a molecule of vitamin A, which is bound together with a specialized protein called an opsin. Vitamin A absorbs the light and triggers a signal cascade: ion channels open and charged particles rush across a membrane, generating an electrical impulse that travels up the optic nerve and into the brain. By the time this signal reaches your brain’s visual cortex, various neural pathways are already hard at work translating this complex biochemistry into what you once thought was a simple, intuitive, and poetic understanding of the heavens above…

The stars, they shine.

So the next time you go outside in the darker hours, take a moment to appreciate the great lengths it takes for just a single twinkle of light to travel from a series of nuclear reactions in the bustling center of a distant star, across the vastness of space and time, through your body’s electrochemical pathways, and into your conscious mind.

It gives every last one of those corny love songs new meaning, doesn’t it?

Could We Terraform Jupiter?

So just what would it take to terraform Jupiter, the largest planet in our solar system?

Just a few videos ago, I blew minds with a “How to” on terraforming the Moon. Once we’ve developed a Solar System spanning civilization and have claimed mastery over the laws of physics, and have common-place technology which staggers and dwarf our current comprehension of what’s possible it should be easy enough.

In fact, it might even be easier than terraforming Mars or Venus, as long as you keep a steady flow of gas to the Moon replenishing the constantly escaping atmosphere.

And in the comments on that video, ABitOfTheUniverse threw down, he wants to know what it would take to terraform Jupiter. All right “ABitOfTheUniverse”, if that is your real name… I’m up for it.

On the surface, this is madness. We already explained how Jupiter is completely and totally inhospitable to life. An alien started a “Build a star kit” and stopped a ? of the way through, because he got bored and wandered away. Just like his Mom said he would.

Jupiter is a ball of hydrogen and helium, which compresses these gasses to almost starlike temperatures and pressures. Fine, Jupiter is the absolute worst. It makes traveling to Venus look like a spa visit.

Jupiter does have something we can work with. Astronomers think below the septillions tons of hydrogen and gas, there’s actually a rocky core. The mass of the core is still a mystery, but recent computer simulations put it at somewhere between 7 and 45 times the mass of the Earth, complete with plenty of water ices and other chemicals you might require on an Earthlike planet.

Furthermore, this core may contain similar constituents as the internal structure of Earth. This means a central core of iron and nickel, surrounded by liquid metal, surrounded by rock.

The problem is you need to strip away 95% of the planet’s mass. It’s all that hydrogen and helium, and that’s pretty much impossible. And almost completely impossible, is still very slightly completely possible.

Cutaway of Jupiter. Credit: Kevinsong
Cutaway of Jupiter. Credit: Kevinsong

Jupiter is made of fuel. It’s like looking at a pool of gasoline and wondering if there was some way to get rid of it all. What good Solar System-spanning civilization hasn’t worked out hydrogen fusion? It’s a technology that’s probably only 30 years away from us now.

You could fly a spacecraft down into Jupiter’s gravity well and scoop up hydrogen fuel from the clouds. Or you could create fusion-powered dirigibles filled with hot hydrogen, which float around the cloud tops of Jupiter, using their fusion reactors to spew hydrogen off into space.

Over untold lengths of time, you could get at that rocky juicy center, once you stripped it of its hydrogen. Then you’ll need to do all that other stuff I mentioned in previous videos, to turn it into a habitable world.

Sure, it’s a world with much higher gravity than Earth, but that’s not my problem. You said “Earthlike”. That’ll teach you to make wishes with a monkey’s paw!

What if you need to move Jupiter first, perhaps a little closer to the Sun. There’s an awesome idea cooked up by Larry Niven in his book, “A World Out of Time”. It’s a fusion candle, and it lets you shift gas giants around.

A Star Trek-inspired space station.
A Star Trek-inspired space station.

You take a long space station, and light up fusion thrusters on both ends. You dip one end down into the upper clouds, where it siphons hydrogen fuel. Both ends of the space station start blasting. One end keeps it from dropping down into the planet, and the other end pushes on the entire planet, pushing it around the Solar System.

Instead of trying to terraform Jupiter, we could just push the planet closer to the Sun, where its icy moons warm up and become habitable themselves.

Well, ABitOfTheUniverse, that sounds a little easier. What do you think? I’ll admit, trying to figure out how to terraform Jupiter was a good exercise in tomfoolery. Fortunately, my imagination is a limitless and renewable source of energy. We’ve done Mars, Venus, the Moon and now Jupiter. What should we terraform next? Tell us in the comments below.