I’ve started plotting my next sci-fi novel, which means a lot of work has to be done on where things are. I want the book to seem real, and in order for that to happen, the stars that the spaceship in the story travels to have to be real as well—actual stars, like Barnard’s Star, Luyten’s Star, or Gliese 163. The problem is that using the internet to figure out where nearby stars are located and how far apart they are from each other is incredibly frustrating. At least for me, imagining where stars and planets are located in four-dimensional space, their distances and relationships—it’s almost impossible. There’s a reason that a lot of the best sci-fi is written by actual scientists, the people who live and breathe this stuff their wholes lives. Unfortunately, much as I love science, the last real experiment I did was probably in high school.
My new book is the third in a series about mankind’s early forays into the cosmos—in this case, the first colonization of nearby stars. Now, even if you’re not really into astronomy or science fiction, you might know that the nearest star to our sun is Alpha Centauri—and you might even know that it’s a binary star system (in which case you would be wrong; a third star, Proxima Centauri, is also probably part of the system).
So far we haven’t discovered any planets orbiting either Alpha Centauri A or B, the two bigger stars that orbit each other close enough so that nighttime as we know it on any imaginary Centaurian worlds would be nonexistent—wikipedia states that if you lived on a planet orbiting Alpha Centauri A, Alpha Centauri B would be bright enough, most nights, to allow you to read without any candles or artificial lights, making the system an excellent choice for book lovers.
Indeed, you might expect that, since it seems like planets are pretty common in the universe, a few of them at least are probably hanging around in that area.
Enter Space Engine—a free, four-dimensional interactive map of the entire cosmos, which was (and is continuing to be) designed by just one guy.
For education of any sort—parents who want to intrigue their children, or teachers who want to show their students just how the universe works—the program is perfect. Anyone with even the slightest interest in space should download the program and support the creator immediately.
It’s also perfect for writing science fiction. I was tempted to place a colony somewhere in the Alpha Centauri system, until I had a look at the two stars orbiting each other in fast motion. Again, I’m no expert, but the stars swing really close together, then fling themselves apart, then swing together again—and on and on—which made me suspect that any planets which formed there may have been thrown out into the cosmos. But, again, not a scientist.
I was therefore forced to have a closer look at our stellar neighborhood. I discovered that most of the closest stars to the Solar System are red dwarfs, like the recently-discovered “ultracool” TRAPPIST system—named, apparently, for a beer, which was itself named after an order of monks. Anyway, many planets have been discovered orbiting these stars; the problem is that the stars are so cool (compared to our sun) that the planets have to be incredibly close in order to be warm enough for water to exist in a liquid state on the surface, and at that distance (around the distance from Mercury to the sun) the solar radiation is intense enough to make life as we know it unlikely. But the debate as to whether life and exist in these places is, obviously, ongoing.
Brown dwarfs, or small, cool pseudo-stars that are like larger versions of Jupiter—large enough to fuse certain elements in their cores, they mostly give off infrared radiation—abound as well. Some of these also have planets, although they’re all so cold and dark that they probably wouldn’t work well for anything but penal colonies, military bases, or hiding spots (although what do I know?). Interestingly, while they’re called brown dwarfs, they apparently look kind of purple when you’re within spitting distance—although nothing made on Earth has ever been within spitting distance of such places.
The closest star I could find that might possess an Earth-like planet truly in the goldilocks zone is Tau Ceti, about 12 light years away from us, a star already well-tred by science fiction writers. 12 light years seems not so far, but it is actually an incredible, painful, ridiculous distance; our fastest rockets would take tens of thousands of years to travel there. Still, Tau Ceti is fairly similar to our own sun, though it’s a a billion years older—which means that any life which might have gotten started there has had a billion-year head-start on us, naturally prompting the question: where the hell are they? The answer may be that all the dust and debris present in the system makes extinction events so common as to prevent life from becoming complex or multicellular.
Different sizes and ages of suns, however—different distances of planets in their systems—mean that finding a planet like our own, where liquid water can exist almost everywhere, is like trying to find a needle in a needle stack. Even though almost all the planets I looked at were imaginary, it still helped me appreciate how unique Earth is. Really, the conditions here are exactly perfect if you want liquid water (and if you’re planning on doing cellular metabolism, few other elements or compounds come close). A few degrees centigrade hotter, and the water boils away. A few degrees cooler, and the planet is encased in ice. Nearly all the planets I found in Space Engine (including all the simulated planets in the Tau Ceti system) are hundreds of degrees warmer or cooler than Earth.
That still won’t stop me from setting up colonies, both alien and human, all over the place. Realism can only take you so far. At some point, fiction does have to come into play. But his program makes the fakeness seem way more believable, in my opinion, anyway.