Visualizing the skies on other planets

Sunday, July 29, 2012

I have a strong suspicion that moons around gas giants should be the most likely possibilities for any spacefaring life in the universe, for a few reasons (among others):

- red dwarfs are the most common stars in the universe, and planets tidally locked to a gas giant around such a star would not be tidally locked to the star itself, giving them a fairly even cycle of day and night
- moons around gas giants vastly outnumber planets in our own solar system
- any intelligent life that were to develop on such a moon would have a much more intimate connection with space.

That last point is the most interesting. When one looks at creation stories from thousands of years ago one finds references to space, but not in too much detail. There is a big light called the Sun and a smaller one called the Moon, then there are stars, and if the author has been paying attention then he will also mention that there are some wandering stars that we call planets. Besides that and the shape of the constellations though, there is not much else to mention.

Now change the setting and imagine a sky that looks something like this:



This is what the sky would look like on a planet orbiting a gas giant in a binary red dwarf system. Note the shadow of one or more moons on the planet's surface at night, how it lights up on this night (daily lighting would change depending on the position of the two stars), and how both stars are obscured by the planet for a few minutes, providing a sudden night right in mid-afternoon.

Any civilization that made it to space would have a few dozen targets to explore instead of one, and even before making it there it would be very easy to learn about the atmosphere of the large planet and any other moons due to the large number of transits. The variety of transits that could happen here is impressive: Star 1 passing behind the planet, Star 2 passing behind the planet, Moon 1 transiting Star 1, Moon 1 transiting Star 2, Moon 1 transiting the planet, Moon 2 transiting the planet, and so on. On such a moon it is hard to imagine anyone not knowing the basics of astronomy with so many prominent examples of celestial phenomena in the sky.

Cometary and asteroidal collisions with the planet would certainly have also happened throughout history, and would be well documented, and the changing weather patterns on the main planet would be watched and recorded, and would be easy to track.

In short, the sky on such a moon would simply be too interesting to ignore.

How was this video created? With something called Space Engine, a program I don't dare subject my netbook to.

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