Over a thousand light from Earth, there is a decidedly odd planet. It orbits the star WASP-12 — named so because it was the 12th star found to have a planet by the Wide Angle Search for Planets consortium. The star is somewhat more massive and hotter than our own Sun, and the planet is called WASP-12b, as is the convention.
This is no planet like we have in our own solar system. The closest analogue would be Jupiter; WASP-12b is about 40% more massive. But a funny thing was discovered immediately upon its discovery: It’s much larger than Jupiter, almost twice its diameter. That is very peculiar. When planets get to be around the mass of Jupiter, an odd quirk of physics called degeneracy kicks in, which changes how the material inside the planet behaves under pressure. When you add mass to such a planet, it actually gets smaller, not larger.
So, why is WASP-12b more massive than Jupiter, and larger? Because it’s hot. Really hot. It orbits its star a mere 3 million kilometers above its surface, far closer even than Mercury orbits or Sun! Its proximity means the planet is broiled by the star, and may have a temperature of 2300° Celsius (almost 4200° F) at its cloud tops. That heat puffs up the outer atmosphere, making the planet larger than you’d expect for its mass.
And now, astronomers have discovered something else that’s bizarre about the planet: It’s dark. Like really unusually so. Most planets reflect quite a bit of light that falls on them from their star; for example, Earth is about 40% reflective (in astronomer lingo this is what we’d call an albedo of 0.4). However, new observations of WASP-12b show it reflects a mere 6% of the light that hits it (an albedo of 0.06), roughly the same albedo as asphalt. And that’s an upper limit! It might even be darker.
This was discovered in a clever set of observations using the Space Telescope Imaging Spectrograph (STIS) — a camera on board the Hubble Space Telescope that can break light up into separate colors and analyze it. In a sense, it spreads the light out like a rainbow, but a rainbow with hundreds or thousands of colors. By examining the resulting spectrum, we can learn a lot about the object giving off that light.
WASP-12b lends itself well to this type of camera. That’s because, due to a favorable geometry, we see it orbiting its star edge-on from Earth. That means, once every orbit, it passes directly in front of its star, blocking a fraction of the light. But that also means that, half an orbit later, it passes directly behind its star. Most of the time during its orbit, we see the light from the planet and the star together, but, for that short time while it’s eclipsed, we see only the light from the star.
The star is bright enough that seeing the dip in light when the planet blocks it isn’t too hard. But the planet is faint — literally a billion or so times fainter — so seeing the light from the system drop when the planet is in eclipse is extremely difficult. However, STIS is quite an amazing machine, and is capable of making this observation*.
The observations were made right before, during, and after an eclipse. Right as the planet slips behind the star, the light should drop, and then it should come back up when the eclipse is over. And what they found was...nothing. As in, the amount of light they saw in every color was fairly steady, when it should have dropped a bit. The only explanation is that the planet is absorbing nearly all the star’s light that falls on it, reflecting almost none. It’s dark.
That’s interesting right away. A couple of previous observations made of the planet indicated that it might not have any clouds in it (not water clouds like on Earth — at those temperatures, water gets ripped apart into its individual hydrogen and oxygen atoms — but some other material that can condense in the upper atmosphere), or it might have an atmosphere of aluminum oxide haze. However, either of these two cases would show a change not only in brightness during the eclipse, but also a change in color (for example, clouds in the planet’s atmosphere would reflect more blue light, so the spectrum would show a bigger drop in blue light than red if the clouds were there). Yet neither of those two models fits the STIS spectra. Instead, it’s more likely WASP-12b has an atmosphere of hydrogen and helium. Those gasses absorb all the light coming from the star, which is why it’s so dark.
Another interesting thing: The planet orbits so close to its star that it should be tidally locked to it; that is, spin once for every time it orbits (this happens naturally over time when any object closely orbits another, like our own Moon). That means one side always faces the star, and the other faces away. When it’s about to be eclipsed, we only see the day side of the planet (it’s on the other side of the star from us, so we see it fully illuminated) where it’s very hot. But temperatures on the night side may be much lower, by as much as 1000°C. That means different chemistry can occur there, and there may yet be water vapor and other materials that can condense to form clouds. We just don’t see them in this observation because they’re on the other side of the planet.
What an odd place.
And there’s yet one more thing. The press release for this news says the planet is “pitch black”, which is fair enough. But by that they mean the planet is dark, non-reflective. This doesn’t refer to the actual color of the planet, just the brightness! My friend Kiki Sanford (who runs the wonderful This Week in Science podcast) asked me about this, and makes a good point: At 2300° C, the planet should actually glow under its own heat.
She’s right. Anything above a temperature of absolute zero emits light, and the warmer it is, the higher energy the light is. At WASP-12b’s temperature, it should peak in the infrared, just outside what our eyes can see. But that’s just where it would emit the most light; it still should emit some light in visible colors. It does, but not much. The STIS spectra are consistent with it being very slightly red, which is what I’d expect for such an object, but they’re not conclusive.
Still, that’s a funny thing to think about: It’s emitting its own light, faintly, but at the same time, it’s so absorbent it reflects almost none from the star. If it had a reflectivity like Earth it would look far brighter due to reflected starlight than from its own internal heat.
So, if you were floating next to it, would you see it? Almost certainly yes. Unless it reflects absolutely no light at all, it’s so close to the star that a lot of light is falling on it, so even if the albedo is, say, 0.01 (and it’s hard to see how anything could be that dark), it would still reflect enough light to see.
So, “pitch black” is an accurate term, but a little misleading. It’s not black, per se. It’s reddish, but it’s dark.
Hmmm. “Dark planet” is actually a rather more foreboding term, isn’t it? I like it better. It’s cooler (though not literally).
And it’s weird. The only other exoplanet we’ve been able to observe via reflected light is HD189733b (which, like WASP-12b, is a hot near-Jupiter-mass planet), but it’s far cooler and tends to reflect light better in the blue. This means its atmosphere must be very different than WASP-12b’s.
We’ve observed two planets like these in this way, and they’re very different. That’s exciting: It means that “hot Jupiters” are diverse, and that, in turn, means that every one we observe will tell us something important. Studying exoplanets in this way is a very new science; we’ve only just started here. I can’t wait to see what else we’ll discover!
* If I sound like I’m bragging, why, yes, I am: I was on the team that built STIS and I helped calibrate before and after launch. Despite that, it works very well.0
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Plenty of good stuff for me! As I mentioned last time, Rejseholdet, Sinbad, Master & Commander, and Almost Human are there. Shetland is there. Hap & Leonard is there. Someone also nominated the Aubrey/Maturin books (including Stephen and Jack, of course, but then also Diana, my personal landmine).
Movies include The Sting, Spy Game, the Ocean's movies, Hot Fuzz, Casablanca, Big Eden, The Eagle.
And so much more! Smoke Signals, Homicide: Life on the Street, Hustle (interestingly, the characters include Mickey and Ash ♥, Albert, and also Eddie for some reason, but no Danny), Justified, Longmire, Nero Wolfe. The Persuaders, yay, although someone persists in nominating Judge Fulton, which, why. Quantum Leap. A handful of Mary Renault books. Horatio Hornblower (books only). Looks like a comparative lot of people nominated Lord Peter Wimsey this year--there are a ton of characters.
Someone nominated Rubicon! Someone who isn't me!! The only characters they nominated are Kale and Walter--on the one hand, I feel like leaving out Will leaves out a lot of the interesting conspiracy-related/mentor-related/slashy vibe between him and Kale. But on the other hand, Kale is my bulletproof fave from that show, so I'd read about him all day, with Walter or without.
Now comes the DECISIONMAKING. I mean, yes, first the frolicking in the tagset as in a sweet grass meadow...but then? D e c i s i o n m a k i n g. Hmmmmm.
I was a bit irked - apart from my previously stated historical-accuracy nitpicks - by the representation of women in The Limehouse Golem - no positive ties between any of the women characters, apparently either bitches or victims (even if the denouement complicated that), and the idea that Gay Men Were Their (unsuccessful and even deluded) Saviours.
And then I read some interview with I think Peter Ackroyd himself about the original novel and the film (cannot remember whether it was in the paper or online somewhere), and the opinion was expressed that in 1880, only a man dressed as a woman could speak for women.
A dubious proposition, I contend, in that there is also a tradition of drag as a way of expressing misogyny.
But women in 1880 were not silenced: this was a mere 3 years before the campaigns against the Contagious Diseases Acts (and when people are talking about statues of women, when will we have one for Josephine Butler?) obtained the suspension of the Acts, which were repealed in 1886. The 'Shrieking Sisterhood' as they were described in the hostile press, were very much not silent and not inarticulate.
Nor was this entirely about middle-class women. I'm pretty sure that women music hall performers expressed certain dissatisfactions with the state of things as they were in gender relations. There were also the drag kings of the day sending up men, if only by gentle subversion.
I can see it makes for a powerful narrative to have a woman so silenced that she can only make a protest by violent physical means, but I don't think that can be turned into a master-narrative for the entirety of society at that era.
My Big Idea schedule says I was supposed to run the Big Idea for Fran Wilde’s Horizon today, but I already ran it last week. Which means that I screwed up, because today is the release day. So: If you missed the Big Idea when I posted it early, here it is today. Also, congrats to Fran for the release of her third book!
Also, a small public service message: Hey, if you ever want to just see Big Idea posts, there’s a way to do that: Use the BigIdeaAuthors.com URL. It works! Try it!
Also, also: I’m sending out my final batch of October Big Idea slots today. If you sent me a request for October and have not yet heard from me, check your email accounts. If you haven’t heard from me by the end of the day, I’m all slotted out.
I really liked this book a lot.
Taking place just before Leia gets in the mess, Gray has written a powerhouse book about destiny, privilege, friendship, family, emotionally fraught tea parties, and possibly the most awkward dinner party sequence of all time.
I thought Gray did a good job of balancing Leia's Action Girl and her Princess aspects. For example: Leia isn't a huge fan of her personal attendant droid, which is programmed to dress her and do her hair, but by the end of the book, realizes that 1. it's part of what/who she is, and 2. it's another tool she can use to operate.
Leia's reach frequently overextends her grasp in this book, but I didn't mind it. No one ever makes her feel stupid for messing up when she acts on the information she has. Instead they all talk about it like REAL PEOPLE, which I liked a lot.
ALSO ALSO ALSO
no spoilers, but JESUS CHRIST that tea party. I was on an airplane, and I had to keep setting the book down so I wouldn't freak out and alarm the flight attendants.
Also, you meet the woman who'll become Vice Admiral Holdo, and she's wonderful.
I JUST I JUST
...i just really miss Carrie Fisher. But this helps.
I’m keeping an eye on him; if he starts going over to the comment threads of my friends who don’t know him, he’s cut. The frustrating thing is that I barely spoke to him in high school, we just ran in the same circles, but I feel like I have to keep him on my page out of some combination of old loyalties and fear that ignoring him will just “prove I’m living in an intellectual bubble,” or something. Smarter heads than I have pointed out that the latter is a fallacy trolls often use to force themselves on people. But I don’t believe he’s an actual troll, just that he’s had more personal experience with one problem with the other.
On a lighter note, has anyone ever written a Terry Pratchett/Don Marquis crossover? Because I’m picturing a page of interaction between Archie the Cockroach and Death, and... well, if nothing else, there’d be no trouble telling whose dialogue is which.
Didn't end up feeling well enough to write at all yesterday, woe, but I've made up for it today but turning my femslashex zero draft into a full first draft in one go. It's rough, and will need a bit more shaping before it's ready for a proper going over and edit, but I think I have a good handle on it and I quite like the direction it took. So yay for that.
( Days 1-20 )
Day 21: alexseanchai, auroracloud, cornerofmadness, esteliel, miss_morland, navaan, sylvanwitch, trobadora, ysilme (9/18)
Day 22: alexseanchai, auroracloud, cornerofmadness, esteliel, fangirlishness, miss_morland, navaan, shopfront, sylvanwitch, trobadora, ysilme (10/18)
Day 23: alexseanchai, auroracloud, cornerofmadness, esteliel, fangirlishness, navaan, shopfront, sylvanwitch, trobadora, ysilme (10/18)
Day 24: alexseanchai, auroracloud, cornerofmadness, esteliel, fangirlishness, navaan, shopfront, sylvanwitch, trobadora (9/18)
Day 25: alexseanchai, auroracloud, cornerofmadness, esteliel, fangirlishness, navaan, sylvanwitch, trobadora (8/18)
Let me know if you forgot to check in and need me to add you to the tally! And new people are welcome to join us at any time, if you wrote today just hop into the comments.
Dear readers! The basil is flourishing! It has put forth a bounteous new crop of rich green leaves, and only grows more fervently when we take some of those leaves to adorn French bread pizzas or tomato crostinis.
Did I tell you we made bat-shaped crostinis when we watched LEGO Batman? (Julie had not seen it so of course we had to remedy this.) They turned out much more bat-shaped than the bat sugar cookies, which spread in the oven, as sugar cookies do. Next time I need thematically shaped food, crostinis are clearly the way to go!
Also, the cherry tomatoes from the garden are so much better than cherry tomatoes from the store that I have begun to wonder if I am experiencing subpar versions of all the vegetables, and ought to try growing more next year. After the unfortunate strawberry experience, it's probably best to stick to easy vegetables; a zucchini plant perhaps: I've heard those grow like gangbusters without much help. Also, zucchini fritters.
The rosemary, which I transplanted at the same time as the basil, has not burst forth in quite the same manner - but then rosemary is a more retiring plant, and when I needed rosemary the other night for rosemary chicken salad and rosemary sweet potato fries (it was a very rosemary dinner), I found plenty of tender young rosemary shoots. The unseasonable heat, unpleasant though I find it, seems to be good for the herbs.
Location: Wales, UK
Describe yourself in five sentences or less: I'm Lucy, I'm a 38-year old woman who is trying to figure out this whole 'life' thing. I'm bisexual and poly, living in Wales with my partners. I'm a home maker, love to bake and cook, and am a huge sci-fi fan. I really enjoy playing board games, I'm learning to knit, trying to learn German and I'm also a little obsessed with journals/planners right now.
Top 5 fandoms: OK as of right now? Doctor Who, Stargate, Marvel/DC, MacGyver and Lucifer. There's loads more and I will happily chat your ears off about the things I love :)
I mostly post about: My family, mental health, movies/tv and just... life in general
I rarely post about: I always try not to post about politics and religion. I was always taught never to discuss them.
My three last posts were about: Star Trek Discovery, moving house, a random compliment from one of my partners.
How often do you post? Usually a couple of times a week but I've been absent recently due to moving house
How about commenting? Probably about 75% of the time, if I've got something to say, I'll say it :)
( It is long, so I will cut it )
Meanwhile in other language news, a much worse crisis: when I accepted Firefox's invitation to speed it up by "refreshing" it (which has indeed worked), it didn't mention that this would include getting rid of Adblocker and my add-on for pretending to be in Norway so I can watch the skiing when it is not at a convenient time on Eurosport (or I need more skiing). This would be a minor annoyance were it not that the new version of Firefox is incompatible with said widget. Aargh! Apparently there is something similar I can do with Chrome so I will try that, but I do feel that "By the way, you will lose everything you customised to make it work for you" was something they could have mentioned.
*At least once I had done the Deutsche Welle test myself to check I'm at the required level, because I'm not sure I believe it really.
**Students get much cheaper classes through the university. I could do them too, except I can't because they are when I am at work.
***There were a couple of people last year who might potentially work in Germany or Austria one day, but they would be doing so in English.