ESA Citizens’ Debate

Today was the historically first ESA Citizens’ Debate: an event spanning two continents (ESA member and cooperating states in Europe, and Canada, working with ESA under their cooperation agreement) and including about 2000 citizens discussing the future directions of European space activities.

The Czech debate had a good attendance of around 100 people. Now, the results of the debate in each country and polled together are just being processed and you can already see some at www.citizensdebate.space/results.

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But the part of our discussion about getting people to become more interested in space has inspired me to make a short list of space-related popular science magazines, websites, organizations or contests in the Czech Republic. It’s not comprehensive, so if you think I’ve omitted something, let me know. I’ll try to include as many relevant entries as possible. I haven’t included space-themed popular science books so far, because they’re so many, but I’ll eventually add them.

So, here we go…

Print magazines

Websites or online magazines

Contests

Organizations

Not solely about space, but you’ll find it there too…

  • Vesmír.cz (popular science magazine + website)
  • Přírodovědci.cz (popular science magazine + website)
  • Osel.cz (popular science website)
  • Technet.cz (popular science website)
  • Nedd.cz (popular science website)
  • Věda z kufru (science experiments for schools)
  • …and many more e-zines or outreach programs I’ll keep adding!

Norway, Aeronautilus Awards & IAC16

You may have noticed some silence on my social media in the last couple of weeks. I’ve been on a vacation and tried to avoid the internet during that time. I wouldn’t have much time for it anyway – Norway was too amazing. I have more than a thousand pictures to go through, this is just a tiny sample snapped on my phone…

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I barely had time to unpack and pack again to go to Festival fantazie after my return from Norway. The convention was certainly worth it, and a pleasant surprise awaited me there in the list of nominations for the Aeronautilus Awards (imagine something between Locus and Hugo Awards in a Czech context): My novel Elysium and my anthology Terra nullius were both nominated for the best SF book of 2015. Stories from Terra nullius dominated the short story category: Three of the five nominations were from there, one of them my own story. Website of magazine XB-1, for which I work as a writer and translator, was nominated for the best SF-related site. XB-1 won this category for the fifth time in a row. Congratulations, especially to its editor Martin Šust! Without his hard work and dedication, the site wouldn’t thrive in the way it does.

Elysium won the best book category, and Zaříkávač lodí (The Ship Whisperer, published also in English in the March issue of Asimov’s and in Chinese in last September’s issue of ZUI Found) got the best short story award. Big thanks to all the readers voting in the awards! I’m immensely happy that so many people liked the stories and supported them, and even more so that it’s the second time I’ve won an Aeronautilus for the best short story. Last year, my Šeré město (The Dusk City, not yet published in English but working on it) got the award.

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Last but certainly not least, I was notified that I’m among the students selected for ESA sponsorship for the attendance of this September’s International Astronautical Congress in Guadalajara. I’m looking forward to it very much and I’ll be sure to write at least a few reports from there. I’m very grateful to ESA for selecting me!

It doesn’t look so promising with the DPS-EPSC in Pasadena, but at least I’ll have some colleagues there and I’ll be following the news. I may attend the Evolution of Chemical Complexity conference in Liblice (not that far from Prague) in September, if all goes well (and if it does, some reports will certainly appear here).

That’s all from me now; after the vacation, I should get to writing some papers, popular science articles, stories and novels, editing, transcribing interviews, translating, preparing a part of the program of two science-themed summer camps and so on. Being busy is quite good if I enjoy the work, and this I do.

FameLab & LPS16

Last Sunday, the Czech FameLab finale was held in the Ypsilon theatre in Prague. Eleven finalists; eleven great and fun science talks. I imagine it was difficult to choose which ones to reward, and it’s all the greater honor to me that my talk about the manipulation hypothesis, specifically the effects of toxoplasmosis, was awarded with the Czech Centers’ Award, including a one-week stay in a selected Czech Center in Europe and meeting scientists from the particular city. I’m looking forward to it immensely.

The Czech Republic will be represented at the international finale by Eliska Selinger from the First Faculty of Medicine. Her talk about epigenetics (specifically methylation) was great fun and really captivating. Wish her good luck in the world finale! She’ll travel with Lenka Zychova, whose talk about gamma rays and their impact on life on Earth in the past was also great.

In other news, this year’s Living Planet Symposium has started yesterday. It’s being held in the Congress Center in Prague. I’ve only seen a few talks and the exposition so far, but hopefully expect some highlights later. In the meantime, I have a few quickly snapped pictures at least.

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Edit: Eliska will go through the semi-finale first, so let’s wish her good luck so that we can do the same later in the world finale :).

AFO 2016

This year’s Academia Film Olomouc has ended on Sunday and has been just as awesome as the last one, perhaps even more. I’ve interviewed several guests of the festival: Mark McCaughrean, Doug Vakoch, and Jim Kakalios. The interviews will appear in Přírodovědci and XB-1 in Czech. They may also appear later in English here; we’ll see.

As usual, the combination of interesting documentaries, movies, talks and additional program was great, as well as meeting the people of AFO. See you in Olomouc next year!

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Credit: The image belongs to Academia Film Olomouc.

Upcoming stories in Alien Artifacts and Futuristica II

I have upcoming short stories in two anthologies to be published this summer/fall. Alien Artifacts, edited by Joshua Palmatier, are coming out in August. Here’s the full TOC:

Introduction by Patricia Bray
“Radio Silence” by Walter H. Hunt
“The Nightside” by Julie Novakova
“The Familiar” by David Farland
“Me and Alice” by Angela D. Penrose
“The Other Side” by S.C. Butler
“The Hunt” by Gail Z. Martin & Larry N. Martin
“The Sphere” by Juliet E. McKenna
“Shame the Devil” by Sharon Lee & Steve Miller
“The Captain’s Throne” by Andrija Popovic
“Weird is the New Normal” by Jacey Bedford
“And We Have No Words to Tell” by Sofie Bird
“Titan Descanso” by James Van Pelt
“Alien Epilogue” by Gini Koch
“The Haint of Sweetwater River” by Anthony Lowe
“Music of the Stars” by Jennifer Dunne
“The Night You Were a Comet” by Coral Moore
“The God Emperor of Lassie Point” by Daniel J. Davis
“Pandora” by C.S. Friedman
“Round and Round We Ride the Carousel of Time” by Seanan McGuire

My story “The Nightside” takes place on a mining station built on a barren remnant of a planet. The protagonists must face the harsch environment, difficult decisions, their own fear and each other in the story of a unique discovery.

Check out the awesome cover art here.

The second story, “Etude for An Extraordinary Mind”, is set in very near future and centers around an autistic teenage girl whose parents decide to try a new approach to help her connect with other people. But is it what she wants – and, in the end, who is she?

Metasagas Press released the first volume of their Futuristica anthologies in March. The second volume, featuring my story, should be published sometime in November.

I also have great news concerning my anthology Terra nullius (published in Czech in 2015). It has been nominated in two categories of the Academy of science fiction, fantasy and horror awards! I’m very happy that readers as well as critics liked the anthology so much, and I hope that at least some of the stories will appear in English too. (One of them already has – my story “The Ship Whisperer”, published in the March 2016 issue of Asimov’s. However, many more of them deserve to appear in translation.)

Asimov’s, baby!

ASF_MARCH2016_400x580I’m proud to announce that I have a short story, titled “The Ship Whisperer”, in the new March issue of Asimov’s. It makes me very happy to share the issue with so many great authors, and I’ve had good feedback on the story so far. I hope you like it too! Let me know.

What happens when people find an object that should not exist in our universe for at least a trillion more years? How could it be there, and what does its existence mean for the future of humanity? A “ship whisperer” Icarus Caille is trying to find out, but so do other people whose motivation is far from pure curiosity.

Here’s the full table of contents.

The story first appeared in Czech in the anthology “Terra nullius”, and also in translation by Geng Hui in the Chinese magazine ZUI Found.

The Astrophysics of Planetary Habitability, Days 4 and 5

The Astrophysics of Planetary Habitability has ended yesterday, and during its 5-day run, it has brought forward many interesting questions along with approches to find their answers. Can M dwarfs host Earth-like habitable planets? How severely do various stellar properties impact the prospects of habitability? How do orbital dynamics in different kinds of system constrain what worlds could stably exist there? What role do radioisotope abundances play in the evolution of potentially habitable planetary environments? What processes shape planetary atmospheres and how do they interact? How does interior structure of a planet influence its habitability? Although we don’t and perhaps for a very long time won’t know exact answers to most of them, research presented here can at least point us to some directions to explore observationally when we can, give us some notions about what to expect, and provide testable hypotheses that will help us assess which models approximate the reality better and how do they connect to other measured evidence.

The fourth day of the conference hosted two main topics: interiors of planets, and search for exoplanets. The former started with an invited talk by Paul Tackley, who spoke about long-term evolution of planetary interiors and factors that can affect it, such as large impacts, viscosity of the mantle, internal heating or water content. His simulations resulted in plate tectonics on super-Earths equally or more likely than on Earth-mass planets. That is a very interesting result and a compelling one when considering the habitability of super-Earths. However, the model assumed apriori differentiation into core and mantle and then just calculated with the mantle. But would super-Earths undergo differentiation comparably to Earth-like planets? When I asked him during the coffee break, Dr. Tackley said that most likely yes, as differentiation would go quickly enough in the molten material. Sufficiently large impacts may induce enough melting. Zeng and Sasselov (2013) previously argued that differantiation would depend on the redox state and not all terrestrial-composition planets may undergo it. I had also seen David Stevenson’s lecture about how super-Earths may not be Earth-like (https://m.youtube.com/watch?v=e8ieGwpWeRg). It’s an interesting topic and one of which we’ll hopefully know more with more models such as these and most importantly much more precise measurements in the future.

Lena Noack, whose previous work I had seen at last year’s EPSC, set to answer the question whether terrestrial planets ranging from Mars-sized to super-Earths can outgas enough CO2 to be able to support liquid water at the outer edge of the classically defined HZ. She estimated the mantle depletion by partial melting of the mantle, and found that bigger radii and also relatively larger cores than Earth’s would lead to lower outgassing rates. Earth-sized or slightly smaller planets with a bit smaller cores may outgas their CO2 more efficiently. Plate tectonics, if present, also help outgassing a lot.

Constraining planetary composition from existing crude measurements was the topic of Caroline Dorn’s talk. She used observational evidence of Fe/Si and Mg/Si ratios of the host stars to estimate the relative sizes of core and mantle for planets whose size and mass had been measured. Although all of the used values have huge uncertainties at this time, it’s a very promising and potentially highly useful work for future study of exoplanets. Dorn’s and Noack’s talks also had somewhat pessimistic conclusions about the habitability of currently known planets – both concluded that known HZ-located planets seem unlikely to host conditions similar to Earth’s. If they’re right – and both studies seemed very thorough, although laden with similar limitations as all of them – our search is still to yield the results some people wish to see so badly. They certainly provide useful tools how to conservatively estimate a planet’s habitability.

The latter topic, search for extrasolar planets, was summed up very nicely in two invited talks, one by Heike Rauer about space-based telescopes and the other by Stephane Udry about Earth-based search. Telescopes such as CHEOPS, TESS or PLATO should provide us with far more (quantitatively as well as with respect to completeness and precision) measurements in the near future, and Earth-based projects such as HARPS, ESPRESSO, CARMENES or MEarth cannot be neglected. All of them have or will have an important place in the search for exoplanets. We missed the talk by Eike Günther about the Graz-Tautenburger-Imager (GTI), as we went to visit Ruth-Sophie Taubner’s workplace in a different part of the University of Vienna. She cultivates methanogens under different gas and nutrient mixtures resembling those we could possibly find on Enceladus. She had a great poster here at the Astrophysics of Planetary Habitability, as well as last year’s EPSC. I’m very much looking forward to the papers that are going to stem from this research. Last year, Ruth-Sophie also had a review about ecophysiology of methanogens with respect to astrobiology in the Life journal. The whole ExoLife project group at the University of Vienna seems very promising.

The final day of the conference was focused on orbital dynamics and their role in habitability. The role of Kozai-Lidov mechanism, scattering (especially by different number, orbital properties and mass distribution of giant planets in a system), dynamical stability, use of dynamical simulations to constrain the possible presence of other massive planets in currently known systems and the possibility of eccentric planets with life-supporting climates were discussed by the speakers.

The whole conference tied the diverse topics – host stars, planet formation, HZ concept, atmospheres, planetary interiors, search for exoplanets, and architecture and dynamics of planetary systems – together very nicely and made it apparent that none of these variables are totally independent of the other ones and scientist studying them with respect to habitability should speak to their colleagues from different habitability-related fields.

The Astrophysics of Planetary Habitability was a great conference full of interesting talks and posters. I want to thank the organizers for making it happen, and I hope that there will be another similarly-focused conference in 2018, as they had mentioned this possibility yesterday. As to discussions during coffee breaks, the “mixing ratio of people” seemed lower to me than on EPSC, but it was always possible to find the people I wanted to ask something, and we’ve also met many new interesting people during the breaks and social events. And I also thank the Department of Geophysics (MFF UK) for enabling me and my colleague to come here. The conference was certainly worth it and I’m looking forward to seeing advances in the research presented here!

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Tomas Petrasek, I and Michaela Kanova from the Department of Geophysics, standing above the stairs leading to the conference room. Photo taken by Dr. Jeff Linsky.

The Astrophysics of Planetary Habitability, Day 3

Principles of Habitability session opened today’s Astrophysics of Planetary Habitability. In the first talk, Ravi Kopparapu reviewed the concept of habitable zone, or rather surface liquid water zone, as he emphasized – it’s a very helpful concept for assessing the likelihood that a given planet may be habitable, but the actual habitability depends on many factors, as already stressed in previous talks. The number of HZ studies has rocketed up in the last three years, providing different estimates based on the used models and input parameters. Kopparapu himself favors the conservative HZ limits, which provide a useful framework for choosing targets for transmission spectroscopy and other methods. He was quite pessimistic about hydrogen greenhouse HZ extension – not that it wouldn’t work, but it would be extremely hard to detect more distant terrestrial planets and explore their properties.

However, I hope that they may be of interest, and framework for their exploration exists: Sara Seager et al. provide two excellent papers (both from 2013 in The Astrophysical Journal) related to the possibility of biosignature gases in H2 atmospheres of super-Earths (for the case of a Sun-like star and an M5V dwarf). Nevertheless, the semi-major axes of the planets considered in the detection model are still near the stars and the atmospheric pressure is 1 bar. Detecting and observing much more distant planets with thicker atmospheres would certainly remain difficult for some time.

Seager et al. (2013b) say: “Is there any hope that the next space telescope, JWST could be the first to provide evidence of biosignature gases? Yes, if–and only if–every single factor is in our favor. First, we need to discover a pool of transiting planets orbiting nearby (i.e., bright) M dwarf stars. Second, the planet atmosphere should preferably have an atmosphere rich in molecular hydrogen to increase the planetary atmosphere scale height. Third, the M dwarf star needs to be a UV-quiet M dwarf star with little EUV radiation. Fourth, the planet must have life that produces biosignature gases that are spectroscopically active.”

These articles are certainly worth reading, and especially 2013a is fascinating in exploring the possible biosignature gases and biomasses of putative life on planets with hydrogen-dominated atmospheres. I must admit I hope we detect a Haber World some day.

Two talks about binary system habitable zones were the highlights of today’s program. More than half the stars in our neighbourhood are multiple systems, so we need to understand the stability and habitability of their planets. We know from observational data that they can have planets around one component (S-type orbit) as well as around both stars in other cases (P-type). Siegfried Eggl from the University of Paris stressed the importance of orbital evolution on habitability, because if it’s accounted for, the permanent HZ shrinks to barely half the usual estimates without this parameter. However, the extended and average HZ still remain quite large. It seems a nice framework for estimating the likelihood of habitable planets in binary systems.

Manfred Cuntz of the University of Texas, Arlington, presented a new approach to habitability of binary systems. His model did not assume an S-type or P-type HZ up front – its results showed that. Nearly circular orbits and high luminosities seem favorable for both, the resulting type of course depends on the separation. In the follow-up work, he’d also like to explore HZs for different solvents than water. It seems a demanding work; some proposed alternative solvents, such as formamide and hydrazine, would need basically water-free environments, which makes me very skeptical about their existence as solvents for life. However, this isn’t a problem for solvents liquid under different conditions or forming a solution with water. Climate models assuming the abundance of different solvents would also be interesting, but that is a completely different future work someone will hopefully try to do.

There was also a highly interesting poster by Mason et al., taking into account the rotational evolution of the binary system and its effect on habitability. Under some range of separation of the components, the tidal effects dampen the stars’ rotation rates and thus decrease the XUV and stellar winds, making the surrounding environment more friendly to planetary atmosphere and possibly life. It works for similar-mass as well as different-mass components. They have a calculator at bhmcalc.net.

Feng Tian from the University of Beijing began the Planetary Atmospheres session with his great review of processes in work in the evolution of atmospheres. He discussed many factors influencing it, both from the host star and the planet itself, and one of his final remarks really hit the spot: “We’ve talked about liquid water habitable zones, but maybe it’s time to talk about more kinds of habitable zones.” The UV environment, stellar winds and activity… all could produce its kind of HZ, although the definitions would not be as nice and simple as the surface liquid water HZ. Special HZs may be a hyperbole, but after finding a planet in the classical HZ, these are the factors we certainly cannot neglect.

A potentially very important lecture was delivered by Andrew Lincowski who researched the effects of CO2 clouds on the planetary climate and found that current outer HZ limits, based on CO2-derived warming even with CO2 clouds, may be too optimistic.

Giada Arnay talked about “pale orange dots”, late archean Earth analogs with prominent organic hazes. Around stars with too high UV flux, hazes would likely not form because of the oxygen radicals from photolysis in the upper atmosphere, but otherwise, with the CH4/CO2 ratio above approx. 0.1, hazes seem likely and could serve as biomarkers for worlds with Earth-like CO2 levels, because abiotic methane would not be sufficient for haze formation – life would need to produce it. Organic haze would also act as an UV shield – by far not as efficient as ozone layer, but nevertheless very helpful for the prospects of surface life.

That wraps up today’s highlights. Although all the talks were interesting, it would be impossible to mention all of them. I’m coming down with a cold and in addition, there is the conference dinner tomorrow, so I may clump days four and five together and post another mini-summary on Friday. We shall see.

I’m also curious how many times we’ll see the HZ diagram by Chester Harman (below). It has been shown five times so far. I’m counting.

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Many thanks to the Department of Geophysics (Charles University) which enabled me and my colleague Tomas to attend the conference!

The Astrophysics of Planetary Habitability, Day 2

The first whole day of the Astrophysics of Planetary Habitability conference has been quite fruitful. The first session, The Host Star, was concerned mainly with the stellar environment of potentially planet-hosting stars. The talks especially explored the relationship between stellar age, rotation period, magnetic fields and activity. Several of them addressed the question whether M dwarfs could host habitable planets. The answer is by no means clear yet, as the question is very complex, our observational knowledge can constrain only some parameters and M dwarfs come in many flavors. Rotation rate, through the related intensity of the stellar wind, can have a big impact on whether a planet loses or retains its atmosphere. Slow rotators seem far more habitability-friendly – but what’s their actual abundance?

Stellar flares and coronal mass ejections are another potential problem for the atmosphere and any putative life on the planet’s surface. Modeling the effect of flares on the ozone layer has had mixed results so far. We haven’t observed any CMEs directly so far, but the radio observation Starburst Program, presented by Jackie Villadsen, could change that quite soon. Also, properties of the planet – particularly its magnetic field – are important in whether it keeps its atmosphere, how much stellar activity-related heating it undergoes and what radiation doses the surface receives.

We also talked to Jeffrey Linsky from the MUSCLES survey, providing complex stellar flux data for several M and K dwarfs based on the data from Hubble and Chandra. Using the coupled data enabled to reconstruct the flux across the spectrum, and Lyman alpha and EUV could be calculated. No UV inactive M dwarfs have been observed in the survey. The data may be instrumental in assessing the impact of M and K stars’ environment on planetary atmospheres.

The Planetary Formation session began with Yan Alibert, who reviewed planetary formation and habitability. Among other parts of the topic, he talked about the water content of planets, and stated that worlds with high-pressure ice at the bottom of the ocean would not be habitable due to the loss of the geochemical carbon cycle working on Earth. On ocean planets, no weathering would be depleting the atmosphere of CO2 and the CO2 released by volcanism would warm the planet and lead it into a moist greenhouse state (and acidify the ocean). However, that is presuming the convection in the HP ice – if present – would not enable sufficient removal of CO2. Weathering in deep sea vents does occur. And if conduction is not sufficient for releasing the planet’s inner heat, convection in HP ice should occur, although its frequency and intensity are difficult to estimate. Alibert also seems to have presumed rates of volcanism comparable to a planet whose rocky mantle is not covered with HP ice. Some models have already shown that it could inhibit volcanic activity. (And the degree of activity should be logically connected to heat release and therefore convection, which could provide some weathering… it’s certainly not as simple as Alibert had put it, although it’s hard not to simplify in the time frame of a conference presentation.) Later in the afternoon, Nader Haghighipour also pointed out that omitting collisions in a model of planetary development could lead to big overestimations of the usual water content. If included, impacts lead to water loss and produce far less water-rich worlds than Alibert’s model. Ocean planets may not be highly common after all.

Maria Lugaro had a fascinating talk about radioactive elements distribution in solar systems. Thorium seems to be more abundant in most solar analogs than the Sun. Why? It likely comes from neutron star mergers, rare events, so we can expect the distribution to be inhomogenous. The implications for more thorium-rich systems I can think of are thought-provoking: more long-lived radiogenic heating could lead to widening of the habitable region around a star, higher abundance and lifetime of subsurface oceans… For other elements and their izotopes, such as aluminum 26, we don’t know the distribution well. This much shorter-lived izotope has been abundant in the solar system and the related heating could possibly lead to more water loss in small building blocks of our system’s objects. The source increasing the solar system’s metallicity is not certain; it could have been a stellar death nearby and recently before the Sun’s formation, but possibly also self-pollution of the original giant molecular cloud.

Eduard Vorobyov had a very interesting lecture on planetary formation by disk fragmentation. A few dozens of planets (or likely brown dwarfs in some cases) several tens to thousands AU from their stars had been detected, but their origin is unclear. Were they scattered into those regions, captured by the star, or formed in situ? Vorobyov modeled gas clumps in the disk surrounding a young star. In his model (including just one forming star), clumps up to 100 Jupiter masses up to hundreds AU from the star formed, but most of them quickly migrated inwards and fell onto the star. However, especially in the later stage of clump formation during the star’s T Tauri phase, some clumps from about 3 to 43 Jupiter masses remained from 178 to 415 AU away from the star. The masses reproduce the observed ones very well, however, the range of semi-major axes is much broader in the observations. The model raises some interesting questions: If the clumps lose material during their inward migration, could their presence lead to smaller, even terrestrial, planet formation? Such a planet would probably accrete a primordial atmosphere (whether it would actually retain it depends mostly on its mass and distance from the star). Distant hydrogen greenhouse worlds, anyone? Also, in a few cases the fall had stopped in the model, but other migrating clumps would either push it onto the star or kick it outward. I wonder what orbits the potential resulting bodies might end up on.

To sum it up, today’s program has been interesting and raised many questions, some of which I hope to pursue further in some future popular science articles. Unfortunately, two lecturers did not arrive. Hans Zinnecker should have talked about the possibility of Earth-mass planets and life around metal-poor stars, Eric Gaidos about the ZEIT project. I was looking forward to meeting Gaidos; I wanted to ask some questions about degassed atmospheres vs. atmospheric collapse on young planets with low insolation, Tomas wanted to ask him about hydrogen atmosphere planets and their significance in astrobiology. Gaidos has contributed to papers on topics related to these, and many more.

Well, there’s e-mail. Even though it’s always more pleasant to just have a short chat during a coffee break.

And to give you some notion of how conferences are done Viennese-style, here’s a glimpse of yesterday’s reception on the university’s observatory, including a string quartet.

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We thank the Department of Geophysics of the Mathematical-Physical Faculty of the Charles University in Prague for enabling us to attend the conference.