Friday, April 27, 2007

A distant twin of Terra

Daily Kos Open Science Thread

When the Southern European Observatory reported the discovery of "the most Earth-like planet" yet outside the solar system -- orbiting a red dwarf star named Gliese 581 -- DarkSyde posted about it on Daily Kos three days later, on April 28. Of course, he needed a shot of its surface, and so he asked me to jump in the spaceship equipped with the camera of my imagination.

DarkSyde's caption:
In this artist’s conception courtesy of our own Karen Wehrstein, the sun would never move as seen from the surface of a tidally-locked world, but the sky is an ever-changing show greater than any on earth. Observational data and theoretical models suggest that stars like Gliese 581 might have a dynamic, granular surface and sport enormous starspots. It could be engulfed in perpetual solar storms, seen here as faint plasma arcs and visible surface flares. The star is shown as it might appear above a hypothetical waterworld’s horizon from just sunward of the terminator, distorted and dimmed through a blanket of CO2 five times thicker than our own atmosphere. With less than 7 million miles separating star and planet, Gliese’s solar wind easily plows through the planet’s (presumed) weak magnetic field and slams into the upper atmosphere to produce brilliant displays. Shimmering cascades of what on earth might be called colorful sprites, blue jets, and dazzling aurora mingle so completely with high, wispy clouds as to be virtually indistinguishable. Fat cumulus clouds hang low over the water eerily backlit by the brooding red-dwarf. One lone iceberg represents the assumed many which calve off from the great unseen ice-sheet dominating the planet’s dark side and drift slowly to their eventual destruction on global currents through a deep, planetary ocean of carbonated water. High overhead the barest hint of shorter wavelengths are scattered by the thick air, coloring the zenith a deep twilight blue. Could life evolve in such an alien environment?

But that's only how the daylit half of the planet looks. Please, DarkSyde asked guiltily, half-hiding, could I do one of the night side, too?

He knows darn well what drives me. It's wondering, "What would that look like?"

But part of the fun of this work is the extracurricular activity. Let's pretend the watery planet has a breathable and not-too-cold atmosphere, and certain people are younger again, for this next picture -- triggered by my own comment to DarkSyde that the planet boasts the "galaxy's biggest skating rink."

Eerily lit by the brilliant auroras of a distant world, British ice-dance legends Jane Torvill and Christopher Dean perform their classic Olympic-gold-medal-winning routine to the music of Ravel's Bolero (video). No need to worry that they'll fall through the ice as it's scores of miles thick; however, they've had to undertake a gruelling regimen of extra conditioning to perform with their characteristic grace -- in gravity twice as strong as Earth's.


Steven C.Raine said...

Superluminous (ie. "beyond mere brillant') artwork there Karen.


Yvonne said...

Hi, just found you via Astronomy Picture of the Day. I love your artwork, it's great.

MorganJLocke said...

Karen, I am another SF writer and a friend of Steve Stirling's. I came across your Gliese 581c artwork on Astronomy Picture of the Day, and loved it!

I did a post about it here, and used your image, assuming the art was public domain, but on closer inspection I see that it is copyrighted.

May I have your permission to leave the image up? If you are uncomfortable with me using the larger image, I would be willing to make it a thumbnail with a link directly to your blog, rather than linking to the site where I first found it.

Thanks in advance.

saurabh said...

The spaceship of imagination guided by laws of physics lends an alien plausibility to this conception, however distant and simplistic it may seem.

Brian A. J. Salchert said...


This is my first time here. I
have a link to Astronomy Pik of
the day. I do not visit it each
day, but I did today, and I have
shared your stunning conception
with a photographer/poetry critic
friend. I knew about the newly-
discovered planet through an AOL
article. Also, thank you for
including Torvill and Dean in one
of your paintings. I've been
trying to recall their names for
several days. My companion wife
(who passed in 2002) and I saw
them do their Bolero routine on

Thank you,
Brian A. J. Salchert
thinkinglizard AT

Farrell J. McGovern said...

Hey, congrats on making it as the NASA Astronomy Picture of the Day (, Jim pointed it out last night on his Live Journal.


galaxial said...

you have made wonderfull creations. The feeling of depth and 3d are great. I like your comments.
sorry my blog is in french but you can see wonderful pictures of cosmos.

Larry said...

Nice work. Inspirational.
But if I may be so bold as to offer a small criticism of the first image...
Since the sole source of illumination in this scene is the red dwarf star, there would be no white fringes on clouds, no white reflections in the sea and no whitish tones on the iceberg. The "whitest" color available in this seascape is rRED.

Larry said...

Why, in the bottom two images of the 'frozen side' of Gliese 581c (it desperately needs a more 'planet-appropriate' name) is there no reflection in the ice of the ringed planet shining so brightly in the sky -- brighter than the aurora which IS reflected?

Karen Wehrstein said...

Dear Larry:

Because it's up too high in the sky. I use a water-generation program to produce reflections, and what it came out with is what you get. Reflections fade out and become more defuse as the surface gets closer to you, and at the point where the planet would be reflected, there's really no reflection. You'll notice the higher parts of the aurora aren't reflected either...

But thanks for being pernickety, it's viewers like you who keep me on my toes!

dlocicero said...

Karen -

I'd like to talk to you about using your artwork for a documentary on Gliese 581c.


Nomad 581 D said...

Really beautiful pictures and well thought out too ! 581 C it seems however is not in the habitable zone of it's star. It is .07AU away and the habitable zone starts at .11AU. 581 D lies mostly in the stars' habitable zone but at the outer fringe so temperatures would be extreme by earth standards. Both worlds are tidally locked but due to their relative high mass would still retain their atmospheres. 581 C is probably like Venus and 581 D could be similar to Mars as it was 4Gyr ago when it had liquid water and a much thicker atmosphere. 581 D would be the better candidate for at least microbial life. It has 8 earth masses so surface gravity would be greater than 2G.

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