Little Us: Tiny Planets, Giant Suns, Enormous Galaxies & Black Holes

Artist's impression of the planet orbiting Proxima Centauri
Artist's impression of the planet orbiting Proxima Centauri, Photo: ESO/M. Kornmesser

There’s been quite a lot of news these past few weeks about the universe and our attempts to delve its depths and say hi to those living on some of the other planets.

First of all, there is the news that flying off to meet these extraterrestrials, or even taking a shorter visit to the space station, might be bad for you—even if lots of precautions have been taken. One of our astronauts, Scott Kelly, spent 340 days on the International Space Station before coming down in early April, and because he has a twin brother, Mark, who also is an astronaut but didn’t go, it occurred to NASA scientists ahead of this mission to constantly monitor both of them—taking blood samples, examining urine and testing them for cognitive alertness by having them play computer games, memory challenges and reaction speeds—during this nearly one year when one of them would be in space. They even measured the changing shape of their eyes during this period.

NASA astronaut twins Mark and Scott Kelly
Astronaut twins Mark (L) and Scott Kelly (R), Photo: NASA

What they found was rather alarming. Scott, up in space, became a lot slower with memory, speed of reaction and games. He started out the equal of his brother, he returned with a mental deficit that had not shown much improvement even six months later. There were also some sort of mutations going on with Scott’s DNA. His immune system fired off a lot of new signals. And his microbiome was found to host a new species of bacteria, although after his return most of these physical and biological changes faded away.

It suggests, however, that if we discover a new planet and they say hi and we say hi, and we send off some astronauts to get there to make further contact, they may not remember why they were sent there when they arrive.

Meanwhile, there is a photograph of a black hole. It’s being reprinted all over the internet and in newspapers. The picture was made through a scientifically weird process for a long exposure time—three years—because black holes had been thought to be invisible. Turns out, if you really work at it, they are not invisible. The black hole in the photo is the shape of a Dunkin’ Donut or Cheerio, standing on end. The upper side is black and the underside is fiery red. It’s pretty clear that you really don’t want to be in the hollow center of this thing or otherwise anywhere near it. It will swallow you up in a flash. And then YOU will be invisible. Maybe.

First black hole photo
First black hole photo, Photo: Event Horizon Telescope collaboration et al, via National Science Foundation

The scientists who wanted to photograph this black hole did find a way to get it to stand still long enough to have its picture taken, that is clear. So having done so, they felt themselves responsible enough to get to name it. They have called it M87*. The (asterisk) is silent. So just say M87.

Others, however, are not happy giving such a nothing name to something that has never been seen before. They think it deserves more. One professor, the AP reports, wants it named after a Hawaiian chant—call it “Powehi.” This means “the adorned fathomless dark creation” in that language, which now that the black hole has been photographed is technically not true. The Hawaiian name was suggested because some of the work photographing it was done at the Maxwell Telescope atop a volcano on Mauna Kea, Hawaii.

There is a naming contest going on for another entity, that tiny, icy planet circling our sun. Let the public choose between three names that this important astronomical outfit known as the IAU (International Astronomical Union) has apparently been unable to agree on amongst themselves. One choice is “Gonggong,” which is the name of a Chinese water god with red hair and a tail. Or call it “Ville,” which is a Nordic deity and brother of Odin. Or maybe call it “Holle,” a European winter goddess of fertility. Your vote counts!

Vote Here through 11:59 p.m. PDT on May 10, 2019.

Whether the black hole should get a name, though, is another matter and is probably not a good idea, though. Whatever this is, it is big and can get angry. It gobbles up everything, even light, and all of it is never seen again. Better if we got it to take a selfie and send it our way with a friendly note indicating what he likes himself to be called, or what she likes herself to be called.

Other things we have discovered in the last few weeks include a far-away dead star being forlornly circled by a fragment of the remains of a planet that got torn apart. It’s a macabre scene. The dead star, now officially known as a white dwarf, has done its best and is now freezing to death, perhaps waiting for that black hole to suck it and its fragment away. Oh, how awful to be helplessly stranded on that fragment. The New York Times says that the fragment could be a mile across or a hundred miles across—I guess there was a problem getting the camera focus right—and the white dwarf that it is circling is “a smoldering cinder.” Most of it is very cold, but around the edges it still burns. Sort of like food that got microwaved badly.

Artist’s impression of Proxima b orbiting Proxima Centauri
Artist’s impression of Proxima b orbiting Proxima Centauri, Photo: ESO/M. Kornmesser

Finally, scientists have reported on something happening to a formerly friendly and nearby red dwarf star called Proxima Centauri—only a few million light years away. They’ve detected a wobble, what appears to be its reacting to the gravity of a circling planet they found in 2016, National Geographic reported, and now mathematicians and astronomers say there is evidence that there may be two alien planets circling it, both bigger than us. The newer of the two they call Proxima c, and if it’s there, it’s six times larger than us. It’s also pretty cold there, but there is also evidence of signals that scientists have detected, which are possibly being shared among the planets circling Proxima Centauri.

How dare these planets send messages to one another and not to us.

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