Science fiction writers often benefit from using reality as a springboard. For science fiction, the weirder the bit of reality used, the better. As a public service, I offer a random selection of real astronomical items that are anomalous, suspicious, or downright odd. SF writers are encouraged to use these to brainstorm something interesting.
As I mentioned at the start of this website, these are offered free of charge, I have no claim no them, no strings are attached.
For good examples of science fiction stories based around accurate astronomy, check out the free online anthology Diamonds in the Sky.
In the space environment, water is one of the most valuable things in the universe. You can split it into oxygen and hydrogen and use it for breathing, propellant, and in fuel cells. You can drink it or use it to grow plants and algae in your life support system. It can also be used to shield the crew from space radiation. However, as anybody who has carried a bucket of water knows, it has plenty of mass, which makes it very expensive to ship from Terra into orbit.
Which is why people planning space colonies are so interested in In-Situ Resource Utilization, which in this case is a fancy way of saying "trying to find an ice mine." It would be so much more convenient if the water was already there, so you didn't have to go to the insane expense of importing it.
The closest place to look is Luna. Unfortunately data from the Apollo moon missions suggested that the lunar regolith was drier than an old slab of concrete lying in the Sahara desert. Luna's "day" is 27 or so Terran days long, exposing Luna's surface to the merciless rays of the Sun and baking it to an oven-like temperature of 390°K. Any water-ice on the surface would have evaporated into space a long time ago. Even if an occasional water-ice comet smacked into Luna, the Sun's rays would make it go away.
But wait a minute. What if there were places on Luna that were permanently in shadow? Since there is no appreciable atmosphere, an area in Lunar shadow can drop down to a frigid 35°K. Any comet-ice that landed in such a deep-freeze would be preserved quite nicely.
The walls of lunar craters will provide shadow for part of the lunar day, but eventually the sun will be over head, the shadow will vanish, and the comet ice will evaporate. Except for at the lunar north and south poles. There the angle is steep enough that the sun's rays never penetrate the interior of the craters. See the picture, it shows the illumination of the lunar south pole over an entire lunar day. The dark areas are always dark. Any ice deposited there will still be there, patiently waiting for thirsty lunar colonists.
Lo and behold, it is there!
In In September 2009, India's Chandrayaan-1 space probe got a fleeting glimpse of lunar water-ice. In November 2009, NASA's LCROSS space probe watched as its spent upper stage violently crashed into the lunar south pole at 10,000 km/h, spotting ice crystals in the explosion. Finally in March 2010 the Chandrayaan-1 observed a bit of ice in the lunar north pole, a bit over 600 million tonnes of nearly pure water ice.
The lunar poles are going to be valuable real estate.
Lagrangian Points are orbital positions of peculiar stability that are formed with respect to two given planets, moons, suns, or any combination of the two. In other words, if you put a satellite or space colony in a Lagrangian point, it will tend to stay there. This lets you save on propellant for your attitude jets.
Points L1, L2, and L3 are only partially stable. That is, if you are exactly on the point you will stay there, but if you are nudged off point you will rapidly be flung away (it is possible to "orbit" these points instead of perching on them). L4 and L5 are much more desirable. If you are nudged off-point, you will tend to fall back into the stable position.
Please keep in mind that the L4 and L5 points are on an equilateral triangle. This means that since the distance between Terra and Luna is about 400,000 kilometers, this is the same distance as between the Terra-Luna L5 point and Terra, and between that L5 point and Luna.
You've probably encountered Lagrangian points in reference to Dr Gerard K. O'Neill's L5 orbital colonies. If your colony is a thirty kilometer long cylinder, you don't want it crashing into Luna or something.
In the orbit of Jupiter, the Jupiter-Sol L4 and L5 points are occupied by the Trojan Asteroids. There are other such clusters in the orbits of all other planets in the solar system, but they have nowhere near as many objects as the Trojans. This is due to the size of Jupiter and its proximity to the asteroid belt.
In Larry Niven's novel PROTECTOR, Jack Brennan discovers a valuable collectable piece of space history (a spent solid fuel rocket from Mariner XX) in Uranus's trailing Trojan point. Others have suggested that various Trojan points should be investigated to find hypothetical ancient alien artifacts. The theory is that since things tend to collect in Trojan points, it is worth examining such points to see if any anomalous objects are there. Duncan Lunan has a theory that an alien space probe from Epsilon Boötis is loitering in the Terra-Luna L5 point, but nobody takes him seriously.
The rings of Saturn occasionally exhibit ghostly radial spokes that seemingly defy the laws of gravity. They were first spotted by the Voyager 1 space probe in 1980. When the Cassini space probe arrived in 2004, the spokes were absent, but they turned up in 2005. There are many theories about the spokes, but nobody knows for sure. They are thought to be electrically charged sheets of dust-sized particles but their source is unknown. Some say they are caused by meteors impacting the rings. Others say that lightning bolts in Saturn's atmosphere created electron beams that rake the rings. They do seem to be a seasonal phenomenon, occurring around the Saturnian equinox.
Back in the early 1980's, the Voyager space probe sent back some pictures of Saturn that had astronomers rubbing their eyes to ensure they were seeing properly. Apparently Saturn's north pole was surrounded by a jet stream in the shape of a hexagon. The Cassini space probe went by Saturn in 2007, and yes, the hexagon was still there. Apparently this was not a short-lived phenomenon (or the blasted hexagon can be turned off then on again). Scientists were annoyed, since hexagons are generally constructed by living creatures (like humans or bees) but you'd expect lots of different visible signs of native Saturnians besides a solitary hexagon. Granted there are some naturally occuring hexagonal crystals, but this thing on Saturn was composed of gas and was twice as wide as Terra.
But scientist were spared the necessity of postulating the existence of powerful space aliens turning Saturn into a titanic wargaming hex map by physicists Ana Claudia Barbosa Aguiar and Peter Read. They managed to reproduce the hexagonal flow pattern in a container of water. The effect seen is easy to create when a jet stream of fast moving fluid is inserted inside a slower spinning field. The ratio causes the polygons.
Having said that, the phenomenon is still suspicious. The jet stream composing the hexagon has to be maintained at a fairly constant speed. Any energy loss has to be replaced, and replaced pretty exactly. Not too much and not too little. And over a prolonged period of time. Hard to see how such precision can be maintained with natural causes.
The other suspicious aspect is the fact that not only does this seem to be unique to Saturn, it is unique to Saturn's north pole. If it was a natural phenomenon, you'd expect to see it in more places.
Saturn's moon Titan is the largest of the Saturnian moons. Indeed it is much larger than Luna. It is the only satellite known to have a dense atmosphere, and the only solar system object other than Terra where there is clear evidence of lakes.
Oh, did we forget to mention that on Titan it rains natural gas, the lakes are made out of petroleum, and the snad dunes are like coal? As a matter of fact, just the visible lakes of Titan are estimated to contain 300 times the volume of Terra's proven oil reserves.
Saturn's moon Iapetus looks like a giant walnut. Or like something formed in a giant mold, with a noticeable seam line. It is also suspicious that the ridge is precisely on Iapetus' equator. Iapetus is white on one side, and rock-colored on the other, with the ridge only on the rock side (though the white side does have a series of isolated mountain peaks along the equator). The ridge is about 1,300 kilometers long, 20 kilometers wide, and varies in height from 12 to 20 kilometers. The ridge does have lots of craters in it so it must be fairly ancient.
As always there are many theories but nobody knows for sure. Other than the UFO fans who are sure this is a second Death Star.
One theory holds that Iapetus was semi-molten due to the decay of aluminum-26 and had a rapid rotation of 17 hours. The rotation made Iapetus bulge at the equator. As Saturn's tidal forces braked Iapetus' rotation to the current 79 days, it cooled down fast enough to preserve the ridge bulge.
Another theory had that the ridge is an upwelling of icy material. If it was not along the equator, it would destabilize the moon's rotational axis. The Iapetus would wobble until the ridge was along the equator.
A third theory is that Iapetus originally had its own ring system, which would naturally have formed over the equator. As the ring material fell down, it would naturally fall on the equator.
Phil Plait is a famous astronomer, lecturer, and author. He runs the Bad Astronomy blog. When it comes to astronomy, he knows what he is talking about.
For a moon that is only 270 kilometers in diameter, it sure has lots and lots of craters. The craters are bizarre as well. The rims are sharp, the slopes are shallow, and the bottoms are flat. Astronomers are (pretty) sure this is because Hyperion is so un-dense that meteors do not blast out craters so much as they compress them (like sticking your finger into a block of Styrofoam). The result is quite strange, just look at the photo. Looks like a huge sponge.
Hyperion is one of the largest know object that is irregularly shaped (Proteus is the largest). If it was much larger, gravity would have crushed it into the shape of a sphere. Hyperion has a porosity of about 46%, which means it is less a solid moon and more a collection of rocks that happen to be flying in the same orbit.
And to top it off, its rotation is chaotic. Its axis of rotation wobbles so much that it is impossible to predict where it will be pointing at any given time. It wildly tumbles as it orbits around Saturn.
P/2010 A2 was initially thought to be a comet, since it had a tail. But after closer examination, it was noted that the tail was not composed of cometary ices, it was actually rock dust. And unlike all comets, the nucleus was not in the center of the dust halo. It wasn't even on the axis of the tail.
P/2010 A2 is now thought to be an asteroid about 150 meters in diameter that was struck by a smaller asteroid about one meter in diameter. Or this is a snapshot of a Klingon battle cruiser whizzing through the asteroid belt: you decide.
Horseshoe orbits occur when something small (like an asteroid) is in almost the same orbit as something large (like Terra). The orbit is only horseshoe shaped when plotted relative to the large body and the Sun (in the "rotating reference frame"). But it still is weird.
Saturn's moons Epimetheus and Janus occupy horseshoe orbits with respect to each other, but the ones SF authors will be interested in are the asteroids that have horseshoe orbits with respect to Terra. These include 54509 YORP, 2002 AA29, and most recently 2010 SO16. 2010 SO16 is unusual because it is exceedingly stable compared to the others. According to simulations it will probably be stable for at least the next 120,000 years, and maybe for more than a million years.
From the view point of 2010 SO16, it travels in its orbit, and eventually sees Terra approaching from the front (in the direction of motion). Terra will come quite close, then Terra will seem to reverse course and start to receed into the distance. About 175 years later, 2010 SO16 will see Terra coming close in the rear view mirror. Again Terra will come quite close, then suddenly seem to reverse course and start to receed. 175 years later the cycle repeats. 2010 SO16 never gets closer to Terra than about 50 times the distance between Terra and Luna.
From a science fiction author's viewpoint, you start with the absurdity of 2010 SO16 being so perfectly stable. Obviously some intelligent agency moved the asteroid into that orbit. Brainstorm the identity of the intelligence (secret super-scientific conspiracy, aliens, space creature disguised as an asteroid), the motive for the 175 year period, and you will be well on the way to having a nice background for your novel.
Haumea is a dwarf planet orbiting beyond Neptune's orbit. But this thing is not spinning like a top, no, it's spinning like a jet engine turbine.
Blasted planet rotates in a mere 3.9 hours, which is faster than any other known equilibrium body in the entire solar system, and faster than any known body larger than 100 kilometers in diameter. Spins so fast the planet is an ellipsoid twice as long as it is wide (1,920 × 1,540 × 990 km). Not bad for a planet with a mass of 4 × 1021 kilograms.
If you stood somewhere on Haumea's equator the centrifugal force from its rotation would almost entirely counteract its force of gravity. Reminds me of the planet Whirlygig from Charles Sheffield's Between the Strokes of Night
NASA's EPOXI space probe flew by comet Hartley 2 to do some observations of the hyperactive comet. The skittish thing was moving most erratically, which gave NASA a real challenge to intercept it with the space probe.
However, the probe did spot something extremely odd.
"...on its larger, rougher ends, the comet's surface is dotted with glittering blocks that can reach approximately 165 feet (50 meters) high and 260 feet (80 meters) wide. The block-like, shiny objects, some as big as one block long and 16 stories tall, appear to be two to three times more reflective than the surface average."
Astronomers are not as lucky as chemists or physicists. They can do experiments, astronomers cannot. A chemist can mix a few chemicals and see what happens, but an astronomer cannot, say, set Jupiter and Saturn on a collision course.
Or at least they couldn't before the invention of computer modeling. Using equations and lots of computer time, they can set Jupiter and Saturn on a collision course and see what happens.
This works marvelously for all sorts of astronomical questions. Until one tries to model the early evolution of our solar system. If you try to model a solar system like ours with four gas giants (Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus, and Neptune) when the simulation settles down, it does not look like our solar system. Not even close.
SwRI researcher David Nesvorny wrestled with this problem, and might have found a solution. Four gas giants won't work in the simulation. But five will. The simulation settles down into a something that remarkably resembles our solar system, and in the process the fifth planet is flung into interstellar space.
So if Dr. Nesvorny is correct, there is a primordial planet from the birth of the solar system in the abyss of deep space. And it is still out there. Waiting.
Oh, and did I mention that researchers from the University of Louisiana discovered that the spacing of comets in the Oort cloud is not as it should be? They calculate that this can be explained if there exists an as-yet undiscovered gas giant planet lurking in the fringes of the Oort cloud. Shades of the Nemesis theory!
Kapteyn's Star was considered to be a rather run-of-the-mill red dwarf star about 3.9 parsecs (12.8 light years) away from Terra (though Jacobus Kapteyn was sufficiently impressed by its high proper motion that he named it after himself. It has the second highest proper motion after Barnard's Runwaway Star).
Then astronomers discovered it was freaking old, 11.5 billion years old or a mere 2 billion years younger than the entire universe. Sol is only about five billion years old.
Its high proper motion, the fact it is moving retrograde, and its range of elemental abundances lead astronomers to conclude that it was originally part of Omega Centauri, the old dwarf galaxy that the Milky Way grabbed and gobbled up.
Kapteyn's Star 3.9 parsecs (13 light years) away from Terra. But it was only 2.2 parsecs (7 light year) away a mere 10,800 year ago, about the time our Mesolithic ancestors were busy inventing agriculture.
Well, better Kapteyn's Star than Cthulhu's Star.
Scholz's star (full designation WISE J072003.20-084651.2) is a binary star system with a dim little spectral class M9 and an even dimmer T5 brown dwarf. It is currently about 17 to 23 light-years away.
But it wasn't always. About 70,000 years ago it came screaming past the solar system at about 80 kilometers per second, narrowly missing Sol by only 0.82 light-years (52,000 AU). While the stars proper only passed through the fringe of the Oort Cloud, their gravitation field probably perturbed every comet on this side of Sol.
Scholz's Star was within 100,000 AU of Sol for about 10,000 years. Unfortunately even at its closest it would have been far too faint to see (apparent magnitude of about 11.4, about 100 times fainter than the dimest star visible to the naked eye). However M-dwarf stars often flare, so it might have been visible for periods of minutes to hours.
Comets perturbed from the Oort cloud will require roughly 2 million years to get to the inner Solar System. So you can expect a deadly hail of comets to plaster every planet in the system in about 1.93 million years.
Scholz's star passage probably did not have anything to do with the Population bottleneck that happened during the Toba Catastrophy, though both happened suspiciously at about the same time. It would be perfectly acceptable for a science fiction author to postulate a connection for the sake of their novel, since it is enough of an unbelievable coincidence that the author will have plenty of justification. Besides it might actually be true. There is a difference between "it is flat out impossible" and "scientists can think of no known mechanism which could cause it."
HIP 85605 is a star that (may be) currenly 16.1 light-years from Sol. If that distance measurement is correct (which is a big if) in about 350,000 years (240,000 to 470,000) it will come plowing through the solar system and wreck the place.
Its closest approach to Sol will be from 0.13 to 0.65 light-years (8,200 to 41,000 AU), passing between the Oort Cloud and the Kuiper belt. This is going to savagly perturb every single comet in the Oort cloud and every asteroid in the Kuiper belt. In less than 2 million years the barrage of comets and asteroids will make every planet and moon in the entire solar system look like it has terminal acne and Terra's biosphere will suffer the mother of all mass extinctions.
Or maybe not. The distance of 16.1 looks suspiciously close to astronomers, it would fit the Hertzsprung-Russel diagram much better if it was about 200 light-years away. The distance was determined by the Hipparcos detector, which might have been confused by glare from a nearby star. If the latter distance is the correct one, HIP 85605 will never get closer to Sol than a very safe 30 light-years, and that in a remote 2.8 million years.
What has a spectral class of K7V, a mass of 60% of Sol, a velocity of 18.8 kilometers per second, and is heading straight at us? Why, the star Gliese 710, of course. But don't panic, it is about 19 parsecs away (62 light years), so we won't have to worry for another 1.4 million years.
As nearly as the astronomers can calculate, Gliese 710 is not going to pass closer than about 0.88 light-year (0.27 ± 0.17 parsecs). This will send it right through the Oort cloud on the edge of the Solar System, sending a barrage of incoming comets. This will create results ranging from a mild 5% increase in cratering to extinction-level carpet bombing of every single planet and moon. Keep in mind that it will take about 2 million years for the perturbed comets to reach the inner Solar system, so the fun won't start until about 3.4 million years from now.
But the astronomers are not really sure since that is a long trajectory to calculate and they do not have much of a back trace. It is not impossible for Gliese 710 to actually penetrate the Solar system, passing within 1,000 AU of the Sun. Or even closer.
And in any event, the fact that Gliese 710 is aimed so closely at the Sun is quite suspicious. In his novel Eternal Light, author Paul McAuley suggests that the star was indeed aimed at the solar system by alien intelligences.
The weirdness is that the freaking planet is covered in red-hot ice.
There is plenty of water, but the planet's gravity smashes it into something called Ice X (ice-ten). Among its many amusing properties, it has a melting point of over 725°C.
Therefore, despite the fact that the planet's surface is broiling at about 439°C, the blasted ice refuses to melt.
This is because the primary star has an asteroid belt twenty times as dense as the one in our own solar system. Some estimates put it at one thousand times as bright as our zodiacal light, which would make the the Milky Way in the sky look about as bright as a half-dead firefly.
Of course such a dense asteroid belt means that in addition to nightly meteor showers, the planet will probably be at risk for Dinosaur Killer asteroid strikes on alternate Thursdays.
But it will be a big attraction for asteroid miners, looking for the mother load.
A simplistic analysis of its age leads one to believe it is 14.3 billion years old, which does not make sense since the universe is only 13.83 years old. Astronomers, after refining (i.e., fudging) their analysis now conclude it is 13.6 billion years old, or a mere 230 million year younger than the universe.
Since the Milky Way galaxy is only 13.2 billion years old, HD 140283 must have formed elsewhere and was later swallowed by our galaxy.
It is only 58 parsecs (190 light years) way, which is far too close if it contains some eldritch cosmic horror from the dawn of creation.
The planet has the misfortune of being far too close to its parent star, only 0.01 AU away. By way of comparison, the solar system's innermost planet Mercury orbits at a healthy 0.39 AU. Mercury takes 88 days to orbit Sol, WASP-12b orbits its primary in only 26 hours.
WASP-12's gravitational tides are squeezing the planet into an egg-shape. The squeezing causes so much internal friction that the hot planet has inflated in size. The size has increases so much that the planet's gravity cannot hold it together. The star is sucking off the planet's surface at the rate of six billion metric tons per second. The material does not immediately fall into the star, instead it forms a ring which is gradually spiralling down to its doom.
At this rate the entire planet will be gobbled up in a mere ten million years. As usual, this sounds like a long time to a human being, but it is only about 1/500th the current age of Terra.
Back in 1968, Sir Arthur C. Clarke noticed something odd.
Before he wrote that article, he had used the idea in a short story called "Crusade" in 1968. In the story, something powerful and xenophobic is blowing up stars, and is gradually approaching Earth.
Erik Max Francis did an analysis with Mathematica. He pretty conclusively proves that the clustering in Aquila is due to the fact that it denotes an area of the sky that overlaps part of the galactic core. So there are more novae in Aquila because thare are more stars of any kind in that general area.
This was a bit of blue-sky speculation from David Brin that he wrote up in a half-serious article in the May 1984 issue of Analog magazine.
He used the (then current) data to infer that Earth suffered a mass extinction event with suspicious regularity, apparently happening every 197 million years (plus or minus 12 million years). There are no known natural terrestrial phenomenon that will happen with such regularity over such time scales. So he started examining astronomical phenomenon.
Sol (and Earth) takes 230 million years to orbit the center of the galaxy. This is close to 197 million years, but not close enough. But try postulating a Deadly Thing (such as a gamma ray burster or a large black hole with its radiation jets spraying the plane of the galaxy with glowing blue death) orbiting closer to the galactic center. If it orbits at a certain distance, the Sun will approach it every 197 million years. By taking reciprocals, you can determine that the Deadly Thing will have to have an orbit with a radius of 2.4 kiloparsecs (about 8,000 light years). Sol has an orbit with a radius of about 10 kiloparsecs (about 33,000 light years).
Actually, since Brin wrote his article, the new figure for the galactic orbital radius of Sol is 8.33 ± 0.35 kiloparsecs.
As you would imagine, there are lots of questionable assumptions in this hypothesis. With these orbital radii, the closest the Deadly Thing ever comes to Earth is 7 kiloparsecs (about 23,000 light years), so it has an unreasonably long range. It is also hard to imagine what could be so powerful and yet be undetectable by astronomers. Even more of a problem is that many scientist say there is no strong evidence for a regular occurrence of mass extinction events, and others have different values for the cycle length.
But this is a good example of how starting with a few facts and interpolating using the laws of science can lead to entertaining results. SF authors are free to postulate other types of Deadly Things besides black holes, such as the Cthulhu star with its telepathic death broadcast, or the Planet of Life-force Eaters.
Rogue planets wandering the cold depths of space far from any star are very romantic in a science fictional sort of way. However, such planets are highly unlikely to contain life, unless said life forms enjoy living at a chilly 3°K.
But scientists Dan Hooper and Jason H. Steffen have an intriguing notion. One type of exotic particle (WIMPs) postulated as being behind the dark matter phenomenon would mutually annihilate other such particles, creating heat energy (i.e., WIMPs are their own anti-particle). WIMPs generally only rarely encounter each other, but they can be captured by the gravity of a planet. In the planet's core, WIMPs scooped up by the planet would quickly find other WIMPs and annihilate themselves, heating up the planet.
Earth is in a WIMP poor part of the galaxy, Hooper and Steffen calculate that WIMP annihilation would contribute a totally negligible one megawatt to Earth's heat. By contrast, Earth absorbs 100 quadrillion watts of heat from the Sun.
However, in the WIMP rich center of the galaxy, the heat goes up dramatically. They calculate that within 30 light-years of the galactic center, a planet with ten times Earth's mass could absorb enough WIMPs to generate 100 quadrillion watts. Thus such a rogue planet would be warm enough for life as we know it even with no sun nearby.
For people who take the long view, this would be ideal. A planet in a WIMP high region could be kept toasty warm for trillions of years, long after all the stars in the entire universe had burnt out.
A runaway star is young star, usually of spectral type O or early B, with an unusually high space velocity relative to the surrounding interstellar medium (on the order of 100 kilometers per second). If you trace its path backward, you will find the star cluster that it got ejected from. They generally occur when two binary systems pass too close to each other, or if the star has the misfortune to be orbiting a star that goes supernova. Such stars are not traveling fast enough to escape the gravitational pull of the galaxy.
The best known are Naos (Zeta Puppis), and the trio AE Aurigae, 53 Arietis, and Mu Columbae, all of which are racing away at 100 kilometers per second on diverging paths from a comparatively small region in the Orion nebula. They probably were orbiting the star that went supernova about two million years ago, forming Barnard's Loop.
Hypervelocity stars are runaway stars that are traveling fast enough to escape the gravitational pull of the galaxy, typically on the order of 1,000 kilometers per second. All currently known hypervelocity stars are over 50,000 parsecs away from Earth.
Hypervelocity stars are probably created when a galactic core star suffers a close encounter with the Sagitarius A* supermassive black hole at the center of the galaxy.
SF authors can postulate that such stars are created by incredibly advanced aliens who like to travel. But there are implications. Consider, if there was a civilization powerful enough to accelerate their home star to 1000 km/sec; they must be running scared from something even more powerful.
Novae are stars that periodically explode, generaly a white dwarf devouring hydrogen from a companion star and getting indigestion. They typically emit about 6 x 1037 Joules of energy, and our galaxy has about 30 to 60 Novae explosions per year.
Supernovae are much worse.
Unlike the periodic burp of a nova, a supernova destroys the entire star, leaving nothing but a neutron star or a black hole (actually, a type Ia supernova leaves behind nothing). A supernova typically emits about 1 x 1044 Joules (roughly ten million times as much as a nova) or more than all the other stars in the galaxy put together. That amount of energy is termed one FOE (ten to the Fifty-One Ergs), which is a unit of supernova strength.
You don't want one of these detonating anywhere near Earth, not if you care about the place. Scientists figure that a supernova explosion occurs within 10 parsecs of Earth every 240 million years or so. Possibly the most recent one was Geminga, which occured about 300,000 years ago, and was probably the reason that Sol is near the center of a low hydrogen void called the Local Bubble.
Here is a handy-dandy list of supernova candidates which are due to explode anytime from several million years from now to this time tomorrow.
WR 104 is a Wolf-Rayet star, 2400 parsecs from Earth, and supernova candidate. Ordinarily that would be far enough away to be harmless. Unfortuantely WR 104 just mght be large enough to create a lethal gamma-ray burst. And there is some evidence that Earth is staring straight down WR 104's gun barrel, so to speak.
Gamma ray burst emerge along a supernovae's rotational axis. Astronomers measured WR 104's axis, and were nonplussed to discover that it was pointed within 16° of Earth. Right between the eyes. Later data suggested that the axis was only pointed within 30 to 40°, but they are still not sure.
Star MWC 922 is dying, and like many such stars it is spewing gas. But unlike many such stars, it is forming a rectilinear square. The theory is that it is emitting gas in two cones, with the cones being almost perfectly at ninety degrees to our line of sight.
Or we are watching a Kardashev type II civilization building a Dyson sphere. The rule of thumb is that almost all natural objecs are curved, only artificial ones have square angles.
The Sun has the misfortune to be located near the center of a huge region about 330 to 490 light-years in diameter called "The Local Bubble". The interstellar medium within the Local Bubble has a density of about 0.07 atoms/cm3, which is about ten times lower than in the rest of the galaxy. This makes a thin fuel source for a Bussard ramjet. The Local Bubble is thought to have been caused when the star Geminga went supernova about 300,000 years ago.
You see, the more astronomers studied Omega Centauri, the less it looked like a globular cluster. It is by far the largest of all of the Milky Way's globular clusters, about ten times as massive as all the other globular clusters. It does have an intermediate sized black hole in the core (4.0 × 104 solar masses). But the smoking gun is the population of stars it is composed of.
You see, apparently all globular clusters are formed at the birth of their parent galaxy, so all their stars are the same age, and all of them are metal poor. Since the stars of Omega Centauri are of wildly different ages and metallicities, most astronomers are sure it is not a globular cluster at all.
Instead, they have concluded that Omega Centauri is the core of a dwarf galaxy that the Milky Way galaxy grabbed and devoured several billion years ago.
A science fiction author could not help but wonder if some alien race living in the former Omega Centauri galaxy holds a grudge against the Milky Way galaxy, or considers the Mily Way a juicy vulnerable host organism Omega Centauri has infected. If either of these scenarios are true, the fact that Omega Centauri is about 4,840 parsecs (15,800 light years) away is no comfort. You see, Kapteyn's Star was once a part of Omega Centauri, and that star is only 3.9 parsecs (13 light years) away.
And Kapteyn's Star was only 2.2 parsecs (7 light year) away a mere 10,800 year ago, about the time our Mesolithic ancestors were busy inventing agriculture.
Charles H. Lineweaver, Yeshe Finner and Brad K. Gibson wrote an interesting paper entitled "The Galactic Habitable Zone and the Age Distribution of Complex Life in the Milky Way". Science 303 Issue 5654: 59-62 (January 2004). According to their analysis, if you are interested in regions of the galaxy where life as we know it can exist, there are good regions and there are bad regions. Specifically, the "Goldilocks zone" where life can develop is a torus shaped region centered on the galactic core. The inner edge is 7 kiloparsecs (23,000 light years) from the core, and the outer edge is 9 kiloparsecs (29,000 light years) from the core. Earth's sun Sol orbits right in the middle, at 8.33 ± 0.35 kiloparsecs (about 27,000 light years).
Inside 7 kiloparsecs, the incidence of supernovae is so large that the radiation would fry any planets developing life. Outside of 9 kiloparsecs, there are not enough heavy elements to form any planets. So the galactic habitable zone is the only place where life as we know it can develop. At least according to the paper.
Keeping in mind that if one is dealing with life unlike we know it, all bets are off.
Sagittarius A* (pronounced "Sagittarius A-star") is an object visible by radio waves at the core of our own Milky Way galaxy. It is probably the accretion disc around the supermassive black hole which probably exists at the core as well. The presumed black hole is about 8,000 parsecs (26,000 light years) away from us, and has a mass of about 4.1 million solar masses.
Unlike Sagittarius A*, we cannot actually see the black hole, because there is too much interstellar gas and dust in the way, along the spiral arms (yes, I know black holes are invisible because light cannot escape them, but the flood of space debris impacting the hole is not). But we are reasonably sure it is there. Astronomers have plotted the orbits of quite a few stars near the core, and determined that they are frantically orbiting something incredibly massive in the heart of Sagittarius A*. They can calculate the mass of the object, and its maximum radius, and the only possible natural object is a black hole. Possible artificial objects are left as an exercise for the reader.
The supermassive black holes at the cores of other galaxies are prone to emit large flares that last for several months. This is because about every 100,000 years the core black hole manages to pull in a hapless star close enough so it can be eaten. Astronomers have not seen Sagittarius A* flare like that, but one hundred thousand years is a long time between flares.
What they have seen are much smaller flares, which last only a few hours but occur daily. These are probably asteroids being consumed. And there was a larger flare about 300 years ago (inferred by the presence of a "light echo", nobody actually saw it happen). That flare was probably the death cry of a full sized planet.
Science fiction authors are free to speculate about a radiation-proof species of alien who have the misfortune to inhabit a planet spiralling into Sagittarius A*. They are likely to be all emo, angsty and depressed.
A team of astronomers lead by Rubab Khan stumbled over something strange in the Triangulum galaxy (M33) about three million light years away. The object had been known about for decades, but was considered just another dim uninteresting object. They were shocked to discover that while it was quite dim in the visible light and near-infrared spectrum, in the mid-infrared spectrum the blasted thing is the most luminous object in the entire freaking Triangulum galaxy. Nobody had ever bothered to look at it in mid-IR before, because as a general rule things that are dim in the near-IR are also dim in the mid-IR. Looking back at old astronomical photographic plates, they know that whatever it is, it has been dim since at least 1949.
A gentleman who goes by the handle TME points out that an object that is very dim in the visible spectrum but unusually bright in the IR spectrum is the signature of a Dyson sphere. Freeman Dyson himself pointed out the possibility in his paper Search for Artificial Stellar Sources of Infrared Radiation, and proposed that SETI scientists should conduct a sky survey for such anomalous objects.
Object X probably is not actually a Dyson Sphere, but it is not totally impossible. It certainly is the closest thing spotted to date. Which is close enough for Science Fiction purposes.
The Sloan Digital Sky Survey took images of zillions of galaxies. So many that astronomers despaired at ever classifying them all. So they decided to enlist the help of civilians via the Galaxy Zoo project. Anybody could sign up, and do some simple classification of a few hundred galaxies. In most cases, the civilian volunteers were the first human beings to view the images.
This paid off, big time, in August of 2007. Hanny van Arkel, a Dutch school teacher, had been happily classifying galaxies for a few weeks. She classified IC 2497 as an anti clockwise spiral galaxy. Galaxy Zoo gave her a new galaxy, but she hesitated, then returned to the previous galaxy. IC 2497 was a spiral galaxy, but what in the universe was that green thing below it?
She asked on the Galaxy Zoo online forum and asked the other volunteers if they knew what it was. They didn't. As they discussed it, they started calling it "Hanny's Voorwerp", where voorwerp is the Dutch word for "object".
In January 2008, some of the real scientist behind the Galaxy Zoo got around to trying to identify Hanny's Voorwerp. They were flabbergasted to discover that they couldn't identify it either. University of Alabama astronomer Bill Keel said: "As far as we can tell, it's an unprecedented thing." Throughout the known universe "there is nothing else that's quite like it."
Naturally the voorwerp and the neighboring galaxy are the object of active astrophysical research, including a close in photo from the Hubble Space Telescope. The latest hypothesis is that it's the remnants of a small galaxy that was flash-illuminated by a quasar lurking in the core of IC 2497. But they are still not sure.
Everything seems to be on a collision course with everything else. Even our Milky Way galaxy and the Andromeda galaxy are due to collide in about three to five billion years. Some calculations suggest that there is a 50% chance that the Solar System will have its orbit altered so it is three times as far from the core, and a 12% chance that it will be ejected from the galaxy entirely.
But we won't care, because by that time the Sun will have swollen enough so that all the oceans of Earth will have evaporated.
This is M64, the "Sleeping Beauty" or "Black Eye" galaxy. At first glance, it looks like an ordinary run-of-the-mill spiral galaxy, 17 million light years from Terra.
However, in 1994 astronomer Vera Rubin made the astonishing discovery that, unlike every other known galaxy, the interstellar gas in M64 is not rotating in the same direction that the stars are. Well, most of it. As it turns out, the gas within 3,000 light years of the center rotates starwise, but freakishly the gas from 3,000 to 40,000 light years rotates counter to the stars. And right at the edge between the two regions is an area of intense star formation, as the gas in the two regions collide and are compressed. All the stars there are young, blue, and incredibly hot.
Astronomers are pretty sure this counter-rotation is due to M64 colliding with a smaller galaxy millions of years ago. The smaller galaxy was long ago gobbled up, only the rotating gas remains.
Or...it could be a rather huge example of astroengineering done by an alien Kardashev type III civilization.
Astronomers want to know how far away various astronomical objects are, because otherwise you can't get any work done. Since we can't take a tape measure to the Andromeda galaxy, indirect methods have to be used.
In 1848 French physicist Hippolyte Fizeau noticed that the light from some stars was red-shifted. In 1912, Vesto Slipher discovered that practically all galaxies also had a red shift. And in 1929 Edwin Hubble formulated his famous Hubble's Law. The law basically said that by measuring a galaxy's red shift, you could calculate it's distance. A majority of astronomers were quite pleased. Now they could figure galactic distances.
However, the rest of the astronomers were quite angry.
You see, there are two major theories of cosmology: the Big Bang theory and the Steady State theory. Big Bang predicts that galaxies and other objects that are close to us will be different from those that are far away. Steady State on the other hand, predicts that they will be the same regardless of distance. If you arrange galaxies as if their distances were according to Hubble's Law, the close galaxies are different from the distant ones. Which should tell you the proponents of which theory were angry at Hubble's Law. There were other problems with the Steady State theory, but this problem was far to big to sweep under the carpet.
Desperate to salvage the Steady State theory, the proponents embarked on an all out effort to discredit Hubble's Law. And soon they discovered Stephan's Quintet.
They look like a nice group of five galaxies, wildly colliding with each other. They had been discovered in 1877, but the fun started in the 1960's when Geoffrey and Margaret Burbridge got around to measuring their red shifts. They all had a red shift indicating a distance of 340 million light years or so. Except for NGC 7320, its red shift said it was at a distance of only 39 million light years. So the other galaxies were ten times as far away, even though they appear to be interacting and therefore adjacent. Oops.
The Steady Staters started waving Stephan's Quintet like a bloody shirt, claiming it was proof positive that Hubble's law was baloney and Steady State was right after all. But other astronomers took a closer look at NGC 7320, re-examining the assumption that it was indeed associated with the other four. Yes, all the galaxies appear to be embedded in filaments torn from each other, but is it not possible that NGC 7320 is just a nearby galaxy that is upstaging the distant ones?
In 2000 the ironically named Hubble space telescope produced evidence that Hubble's law was correct after all, and the Big Bang theory was king. The telescope could resolve individual stars in NGC 7320, while the other galaxies were a distance-blurred mess. All main-stream astronomers accept the Big Bang theory, and Steady State has been relegated to the dust-bin of history.
But of course there are plenty of fringe people who still deny the evidence, as a cursory Google search will reveal. Any science fiction author who wanted to use Stephan's Quintet to overturn modern cosmology for plot purposes could find plenty of justification. Authors who want to persue this further will find good material in the websites of Dr. Halton C. Arp which can be found here and here. (thanks to Rhys Taylor for those links)
There are two main types of galaxy: spiral and elliptical. Spiral galaxies are young virile galaxies, with plenty of stellar nurseries giving birth to new stars. Elliptical galaxies are tired old worn-out galaxies, composed of aging and ancient stars with no new stars being born.
Or at least that's what astronomers thought. Since this was common knowlege, nobody bothered to look. Astronomers studied all the light from a given elliptical galaxy at once, smearing together the light of all the individual stars into one spectrum.
Astronomers Alyson Ford and Joel Bregman were using Wide Field Camera 3 on the Hubble Space Telescope. This uses ultraviolet light, which just so happens to be capable of resolving individual stars in distant elliptical galaxies. They were quite startled to stumble over hot newly born stars and stellar nurseries in the decrepit old elliptical galaxy Messier 105. They are still trying to figure out where the heck the hydrogen is coming from. Elliptical galaxies have used up all their interstellar hydrogen. No hydrogen, no stellar nurseries.
Anyway, consider the inhabitants of such a galaxy. The old stars will be full of Kardashev type II civilization (aka "Star Gods") doing their darndest to become type III civilizations. Sprinkled here and there will be a small number of young stars, inhabited by primitive civilizations (like ours) cowering in a galaxy filled with Eldar Gods.
A Blazar is a species of Quazar which are the most powerful known objects in the entire universe. They are supermassive black holes in the cores of giant elliptical galaxies. As with all black holes, their incredibly powerful gravitational attraction sucks in any matter that gets too close. Some of it is swallowed, the rest is accelerated outward in two titanic beams of particles and intense radiation from the two poles of the black hole's rotational axis.
Astronomers are of the opinion that if neither beam is aimed at Terra we just don't see it, if it is aimed somewhat close to Terra we see a quazar, and if it is aimed straight at us we see a blazar. Quazars and blazars are all pretty much the same.
Except for Blazar OJ287. It is about 3.5 billion light years away (and thus 3.5 billion years in the past), which is about average for quazars. It has a mass of 18 billion solar masses, the largest known, about six times larger than the runner-up. It has an eleven year periodic variation in its output which most astronomers agree is due to the fact that the black hole is actually two black holes in close orbit around each other. But none of those things are particularly strange.
What is strange is that there is Some Thing about 14 parsecs (about 49 light years) from the binary black holes, right inside the radiation jet. How do we know it is there? Because the blasted thing is emitting cataclysmic flares of not visible light, not ultraviolet light, not even x-rays. No, it emits monstrous flares of gamma-rays. And astronomers are worried because they can't figure out what the heck it is.
Back in the 1980's a group of astronomers known as the "Seven Samurai" were quite startled to discover that there were a huge number of galaxies converging on a point about 250 million light years away. There was nothing visible at the focus point, but all around it were galaxies madly colliding with each other and radiating large amounts of radio waves. The invisible object was dubbed "The Great Attractor". It had a huge mass (about 5.4 × 1016 solar-masses), and was apparently sucking in every galaxy within 200 million light years or so, including our own.
This sort of fell apart in 2005. The Attractor falls into the part of the sky called the "zone of avoidance", meaning it is very difficult to observe since our own galaxy's spiral arms keeps getting in the way. But a later sky survey managed to do it, using improved equipment. As it turned out, the Great Attractor is still invisible and mysterious, but it has a mass that is only one-tenth the original estimate. Further: our galaxy is not being sucked into the Great Attractor. It is actually being sucked into an even more massive region beyond it called the Shapley Supercluster.
Imagine that you have a cyclic universe, where a universe is born in a big bang, ages, then finally dies in a big crunch. then it is reborn in a new big bang. The paper states that it is possible for some black holes born in one cycle to avoid being gobbled up in the big crunch, and would then be present in the new universe born in the next big bang. The black holes would be older than the new universe since they were born in the prior universe.
There was a second, unrelated paper that suggests that aliens can live inside black holes. That is, if you have a black hole that has an electrical charge and is rotating, in its interior (inside the inner Cauchy horizon) there are stable orbits a planet can occupy. In theory, highly advanced aliens could live on such planets, being unobservable from outside while exploiting the high energies and large time dialtions available. Not to mention the delicious possibilities of causality violations. Probably a Kardashev type III civilization. A pity they cannot escape.
Of course, they can escape if they have faster-than-light starships. The "surface" of a black hole is its event horizon. This is the point where the black hole's escape velocity is equal to the speed of light. Inside, the escape velocity is faster than light. Which presumably a faster-than-light starship is capable of. This makes an appearance in the Heechee novels of Frederik Pohl.
Anyway, Adam Crowl decided to combine these two papers. Imagine black holes older than the universe, containing aliens who are obviously also older than the universe. Elder godlike beings older than time, imprisoned in other dimensions. Oh my god, it's Cthulhu.
But that's OK. They cannot escape from inside the black hole. That is, of course, until some idiot in an FTL starships travels inside just to see whats there. I guess that's "when the stars are right".
(Actually this sounds more like the Cthulhu mythos elder god Yog-Sothoth who is coterminous with all time and space yet is supposedly locked outside of the universe we inhabit.)