The Lovely Lost Landscapes of Luna

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The Lovely Lost Landscapes of Luna

#1  Postby lpetrich » Jun 19, 2019 2:37 am

From Isaac Asimov's book of science essays, "Is Anyone There?" Though published in 1966, what we have learned in the half-century since still agrees with it. IA grew up with early 20th cy. science fiction, and much of it featured lots of adventures on other Solar-System planets. I recall that someone once claimed that the first SF writer to break out of the Solar System was likely E.E. "Doc" Smith, with his "Skylark of Space" (1928).

A curious consequence of the discovery that other planets were vaguely Earthlike worlds was the belief that every planet was inhabited, because God would presumably not let a world go to waste.

The Sun - In 1800, astronomer William Herschel proposed that the Sun was inhabited. Sunspots were breaks in an outer fiery layer, he proposed. Through them one could see the habitable parts of the Sun. But sunspots are actually hot enough to glow very brightly (3800 K) -- just not as bright as the surrounding photosphere or "surface" (5800 K). That's where outgoing light can escape the Sun rather than be absorbed by the Sun's material. The Sun gets hotter and hotter the farther one goes inward, reaching 16 million K at its core.

The Moon - In 1835, the New York Sun entertained everybody with the Great Moon Hoax, alleged discoveries of inhabitants on the Moon by astronomer John Herschel. But over 1834 - 1837, astronomers Wilhelm Beer and Johann Heinrich Mädler concluded that the Moon has no bodies of water or noticeable atmosphere. They presented their conclusion in their 4-volume book "Mappa Selenographica" and their book "Der Mond nach seinen kosmischen und individuellen Verhältnissen" (The Moon according to its cosmic and individual circumstances). Nevertheless, H.G. Wells in his 1901 story "The First Men on the Moon" had the Moon carpeted with plants. But the moonmen lived underground.

But what about the far side of the Moon? Could the Moon be egg-shaped, with the narrow end pointing to the Earth? That would allow the far side's surface to have low enough gravitational potential to retain an atmosphere without it leaking over to the near side. That would be *very* difficult. Also, when spacecraft reached that side, they revealed it to be like the near side: airless, waterless, barren, cratered, mountainous, though for some reason, with much fewer lava plains, those familiar blotches.

Mars - There seemed like a possible indicator of habitability: its canals. Percival Lowell proposed that they were huge engineering works built by sentient Martians. It was also often believed that Mars was older than the Earth and gradually drying up. Thus those canals to handle that water. Science-fiction writers had fun with scenarios like:
  1. The Martians were a wise and advanced race that was resigned to the inevitable, a race that was willing to offer its wisdom to brash youngsters like Earthlings.
  2. The Martians noticed a nice planet to live on, but a planet that already had inhabitants -- the Earth. So they tried to conquer it so they could move there. IA recalled enjoying stories of valiant Earthlings defeating villainous Martians.
  3. The Martian race had died out, leaving its artifacts behind, including canals. Arriving Earthlings then built colonies and puzzled over these ruins.
But bad news kept coming in. Mars had a very thin atmosphere. The Mariner 4 spacecraft in 1965 saw craters but no canals, and the Mariner 9 spacecraft saw not a trace of canals over the planet's entire surface. But Mariner 9 in 1971 returned pictures of lots of interesting things, like a rift valley, huge volcanoes, numerous riverbeds, and evidence of former oceans. A geological version of #3 has become accepted, including Mars having enough liquid water to carve those riverbeds and fill those ocean basins.

Venus - it was often believed that Venus was younger than the Earth, and the planet was often pictured as an overgrown jungle. IA recalls stories of mold threatening the plants or the plants fighting each other.

Or else Venus was covered by a planetwide ocean of water. For a Lucky Starr novel, IA liked the idea enough to populate it with lots of weird sea creatures, including an octopuslike monster a mile in size.

Or else a planetwide ocean of hydrocarbons. Or a desert.

Astronomers kept on finding disquieting things about that planet, like evidence of great heat. Venera 4 entered the planet's atmosphere in 1967 and reported back mostly carbon dioxide. Its last transmission was of temperature 262 C. When its successors landed they reported some 450 C and 90 times Earth atmospheric pressure.

Mercury - Very close to the Sun, with the sunlit side very hot. It used to be thought that Mercury's rotation was synchronous, like the Moon's. This suggested a mild zone between the day and night sides. But radar observations showed that Mercury's rotation period relative to the stars is 2/3 of its year, and thus its period relative to the Sun is 2 Mercury years.

The outer planets and their moons
- "In the Thumping Thirties, we peopled them all." Including Jupiter and Saturn. IA recalled some stories where Saturn's surface had big Wild West prairies with huge herds of cattle. He also wrote some stories about menaces from Ganymede and Callisto, two of Jupiter's four big moons. Titan was another favorite. Distance was no obstacle. One of the great stories in 1930 was the Solar System facing doom from villains inhabiting Neptune.

But neither the outer planets nor any of their moons is very habitable, though Europa, Enceladus, and possibly other moons have big subsurface oceans.

Comets, the Earth, etc. - Jules Verne once wrote a novel in which a comet bounced off the Earth and some people ended up living on it for a while. But the visible parts of comets are dust and gases released from their nuclei, and those parts resemble small asteroids. More-or-less resemble, because Comet Churyumov-Gerasimenko has very a very complicated surface, more like what a planet would have.

No El Dorado in Central America, no She in Africa, no Shangri-La in Tibet. The Earth isn't hollow, as is evident from earthquake waves traveling all the way through it.

Other stars' planets? We are only beginning, and we've discovered several oddities. Hot Jupiters. Super-Earths. Mini-Neptunes. Earth-sized planets with super oceans. But an Earthlike planet orbiting a Sunlike star continues to be difficult to detect.
No, no, the stars are not enough. It's the solar system we want, the solar system they took away from us thirty years ago.

The solar system we can never have again.
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Re: The Lovely Lost Landscapes of Luna

#2  Postby don't get me started » Jun 27, 2019 11:30 pm

That was a nice read. Great stuff.

Humans puzzling over the ancient ruins of long-gone aliens is a very well worn trope in science fiction... and I love it every time.
I think my favorite evocation of this is Schar's World in Iain M Banks's 'Consider Phlebas'. A cold, dark world, barren of sentient life after the inhabitants wiped themselves out in cataclysmic wars. The remnants and ruins are preserved as a kind of museum by some hyper-dimensional being, presumably as a warning. Brilliantly done by Banks.
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Re: The Lovely Lost Landscapes of Luna

#3  Postby Hermit » Jun 28, 2019 12:18 am

A still from Georges Méliès's 1902 documentary "Voyage to the Moon".


The movie:

It's very scientific, featuring a bevvy of busty women, a spectacular earthrise and a lunar society among many other things.
God is the mysterious veil under which we hide our ignorance of the cause. - Léo Errera

God created the universe
God just exists
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