Stephen Gaskell is a British science fiction writer whose work has been published in Nature, Interzone, and Clarkesworld. A graduate of the Clarion East writing workshop, he recently released Strata, co-written with Bradley P. Beaulieu.
In many ways the interior of a star would be an ideal place to live for an advanced species. A near limitless source of energy. Camouflage from interstellar predators. And sunshine three hundred and sixty five days a year.
In our new novella, Strata, Bradley P. Beaulieu and I didn’t travel so far into the future that humankind had migrated to the sun, but we did imagine giant solar mining platforms that orbit through the sun’s chromosphere. Of course, at present such a feat of engineering is beyond the technological and economic reach of humanity, but we wondered if this might one day be a scientifically feasible enterprise. Here are 10 features of the extremely hostile solar environment that had to be overcome:
You might think your boss is putting you under enormous pressure for next week’s deadline, but it ain’t got a patch on the kind of stress that the center of the sun’s under. At its core, the pressure of the sun is equal to 340 billion times the Earth’s surface atmospheric pressure. That’s a lot of elephants standing on your head. Fortunately for the future of humankind’s solar mining adventures, the sun’s internal structure is not uniform. The outer regions from the photosphere up (the chromosphere and corona) are actually very thin, with pressures generally 1% or less of Earth’s surface atmospheric pressure. Still, I wouldn’t hang out there.
The sun’s big. Big like you can’t imagine. You thought Jupiter was big, but the sun makes Jupiter look like some snotty-nosed Mummy’s boy on his first day at school. And what does all that matter do? It does what gravity tells it, creating one serious gravitational well about which the planets orbit like toy ducks around a discharging plughole. Mercury completes one whole orbit every eighty-eight days. The orbital period for a mining platform situated in the sun’s chromosphere would be around one-tenth of a day. That’s a fair zip! And there’s an additional problem; any solar miners would be effectively weightless in the freefall orbit—the mass of the platform being negligible compared to a planet or moon.
In a fixed position the problem would be worse, the surface gravity of the sun some 28 times greater than the Earth. Even fighter pilots get nowhere near those g-forces. In the best traditions of science fiction we came up with an as yet undiscovered technology: gravity inhibitors, an idea first floated (ahem) in H.G. Wells’ The First Men in the Moon with Dr. Cavor’s invention of the fictional material cavorite.
You might think seafaring Vikings–who traveled hundreds of miles on rough seas between 750 and 1050 AD–would be adrift on cloudy days: not only did they lack compasses, but they were often traveling so far north that the sun never set, and thus couldn’t use stars to navigate. But scientists are finding new evidence to support the existence of what was once considered a mythical navigational tool: the sólarsteinn, or sunstone.
It all starts with an Icelandic legend about a man named Sigurd. As Nature News reports:
The saga describes how, during cloudy, snowy weather, King Olaf consulted Sigurd on the location of the Sun. To check Sigurd’s answer, Olaf “grabbed a sunstone, looked at the sky and saw from where the light came, from which he guessed the position of the invisible Sun.” In 1967, Thorkild Ramskou, a Danish archaeologist, suggested that this stone could have been a polarizing crystal such as Icelandic spar, a transparent form of calcite, which is common in Scandinavia.
Poolside at Las Vegas’s Vdara hotel is a dangerous place to be. That’s according to one tourist who claims he almost had his hair singed off by a “death ray”—the term used by some hotel employees—reflected from hotel’s shiny facade.
The hotel’s spokesperson would understandably prefer to use the term “hot spot” or “solar convergence” to describe the spot near the pool where the sunlight reflects off the building’s side. Hotel guests say they have seen plastic cups and bags melt from the heat of the ray. The Review-Journal was tipped off to the problem by the story of a poolside lounger named Bill Pintas from Chicago:
[Pintas] became so uncomfortably hot that he leaped up to move. He tried to put on his flip-flop sandals but, inexplicably, they were too hot to touch. So he ran barefoot to the shade. “I was effectively being cooked,” Pintas said. “I started running as fast as I could without looking like a lunatic.” Then he smelled an odor, and realized it was coming from his head, where a bit of hair had been scorched.
According to its developer, Tomasso, a Droid app called Solaris weaves together data from several satellites that monitor the Sun’s activity and its effects on our planet’s magnetic field.
NASA satellite team STEREO (Solar TErrestrial RElations Observatory) provides information on “Earth-directed solar ejections.” NASA’s SDO (Solar Dynamics Observatory) also gives stats on what the Sun is sending our way in the forms of solar wind and energetic particles. Finally, the NOAA’s polar orbiter satellites provide information on the Earth’s weather.
Combining this information, the app allegedly can show (almost) real-time changes in the Earth’s magnetic field from solar activity and even indicate when trapped, Sun-spewed subatomic particles are making a spectacular show, in the form of the northern or southern lights.
The app can also tell you when to look up since, as reported by Gizmodo, the “Phone vibrates when geomagnetic storm level rises or aurora may be overhead at your location.”
Discoblog: NASA iPhone App Lets You Drive a Lunar Rover (Just Try Not to Get Stuck)
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Image: Solaris / Tomasso via AndriodPIT
An Irish eye surgeon has noticed a dramatic rise in the number of patients with damaged retinas this year. The condition is called solar retinopathy, and Dr. Eamonn O’Donoghue, a consultant ophthalmologist surgeon, thinks he knows what’s causing the rise.
Via BBC News:
Thousands of people have been travelling to the County Mayo pilgrimage shrine of Knock after hearing that the Virgin Mary would appear there. Some claimed to have seen the sun “dancing in the sky”.
O’Donoghue believes the pilgrims at the holy shrine—as many as 7,000 gathered on October 31st—are staring into the sun while waiting for the Virgin Mary to appear, and damaging their retinas in the process.
High-speed passages between the Earth and the sun that open up every eight minutes? No, it’s not a figment of science fiction. Scientists have confirmed that these portals, known as flux transfers events (FTEs), occur surprisingly often.
David Sibeck, a space scientist at the Goddard Space Flight Center who presented the new findings at the 2008 Plasma Workshop in Alabama, describes FTEs as “brief, bursty, and very dynamic.” When the sun-facing side of Earth’s magnetosphere overlaps with the sun’s, a magnetic cylinder about as wide as the Earth connects the 150 millions kilometers between Earth and the sun. The portal stays open for about 15 to 20 minutes and multiple portals can form at once. Inside FTEs, high-energy particles to zoom through easily and particles from the sun provide an influx of energy for the Earth’s magnetosphere (also called its magnetic field, which has a stronger attractive force than gravity.)