Sunday, October 18, 2015

My First Science Fiction Story Published

As some of you know, I have long enjoyed science fiction, both as fascinating reading and also as a nice addition to my introductory astronomy classes. For 30 years, I also kept a diary of science fiction ideas that occurred to me, and might make the basis of good stories.
In the last year or two, I have joined a writing group and am trying to create some SF short stories of my own. I have a full bulletin board of eloquent rejection slips from some of the finest science fiction magazines in print (as, I gather, all beginning writers must collect,) But now, one of my stories has been published, in a Mars-theme anthology called "Building Red," from a small independent press in St. Louis called Walrus Publishing (and the book is available on Amazon:…/…/1940442079 )
The story, based on a real discovery about Mars, takes place in part inside a cave on the flanks of one of the four giant volcanoes on Mars' equatorial bulge. Instead of the sanitized, squeaky-clean NASA version of a future Mars colony, I tried to imagine one that's crowded, smelly, and has its share of loners and misfits.
The story is entitled "The Cave in Arsia Mons" and it appears together with Mars stories by a number of writers, some of whom have a longer publishing record in SF than I do.

More generally, for a topical index to science fiction stories that have good astronomy in them, see my web page at: 

Sunday, October 11, 2015

Blue Skies on Pluto

The New Horizons team just released a great new image of Pluto in front of the Sun. If Pluto had no atmosphere, it would just have blocked the Sun's light for the camera. But Pluto's thin (but significant) atmosphere scatters blue light more than red, just like Earth's air does, and so we can glimpse blue skies (or at least blue haze) around Pluto in the picture.

The haze layers in Pluto's atmosphere (seen more clearly in the black and white photo below) are made of slightly larger particles than Earth's haze layers, a kind of alien soot.

The lower image, showing Pluto at sunset, shows how the haze has several layers in it. The atmosphere is a thin mixture of nitrogen, carbon monoxide, and methane. Not a place where you want to (or can) take a deep breath! Astronomers think the atmosphere of Pluto is a bit thicker when it's closer to the Sun in its 250-year orbit, and then freezes out when it moves away from the distant sun for most of its plutonian year.

Also on the lower image, you can see the contrast between the mountainous higher lands on Pluto, and then in the middle of the picture, the smoother frozen plains that interrupt them. Only about 10% of the images and data have been sent back by New Horizons so far, so we have much more to learn about the little planet we visited briefly in July.

(As always, click on the photos, to see more detailed versions. Feel free to pass the pictures and information on, if you like them.)

Sunday, October 4, 2015

"The Martian" and Other News of the Solar System

If you've seen, read, or heard about "The Martian" film or novel, you may know that it's a story by an engineer about survival on Mars. If you'd like some background on how author Andy Weir tried to make the story realistic, using known science, check out his talk at NASA's Ames Research Center at:

The image accompanying this post is a selfie of a real "martian" -- the Curiosity Rover on Mars, which took the pictures from which this great Mars image was assembled in August. If you click on the picture, you get a bigger version.

For a listing of other Mars science fiction stories with reasonable astronomy, you can download my one-page resource guide at:

A fantastic new image and movie of Pluto's giant moon Charon (with its mysterious red polar cap) can now be seen at: 

For those of you who are in the Northern California area, or have friends there, there are two exciting events coming up this week:
1) Dr. Carolyn Porco, the head of the imaging team for the Cassini mission at Saturn, is giving a free public lecture (with fabulous pictures) at Foothill College Wednesday night:

2) The Astronomical Society of the Pacific and Chabot Space Science Center are sponsoring an all-day Family Astronomy Festival in Oakland Saturday Oct. 10. See: