Life is Grim on the Galactic Rim

The White Star approaches the Shadow's homeworld of Z'ha'dum on the Galactic Rim.
The White Star approaches the Shadow’s homeworld of Z’ha’dum on the Galactic Rim.

It would appear that scientists have confirmed that the outer edge of the Milky Way is a bad location for life to even think about existing.

This research reminded me of the “Galactic Rim” in the 90’s sci-fi TV series Babylon 5. The Rim is the mysterious region of space right at the edge of our galaxy where only the hardiest of explorers dared to venture. As explained in the season 2 episode of B5, “In the Shadow of Z’ha’dum,” Captain Sheridan (Bruce Boxleitner) discovers that his wife (when exploring The Rim) went missing on a planet called Z’ha’dum. It turns out that an angry ancient alien race — called the Shadows — lived on this mysterious world and their discovery led to them being used in all kinds of plots during the latter four seasons of this awesome sci-fi show.

However, the existence of any kind of life (let alone life as complex as the evil Shadows) in the badlands of the Milky Way is looking very unlikely.

Located some 62,000 light years from the core of our galaxy (over twice the distance of the Earth from the galactic centre), two very young star clusters in the constellation of Cassiopeia have been studied. Chikako Yasui, Naoto Kobayashi and colleagues at the University of Tokyo, Japan, found these clusters in a vast cloud of gas and dust called Digel Cloud 2. The stars inside these clusters are only half a million years old, and the majority of them should possess proto-planetary disks (which is characteristic of local star-forming regions). However, it would appear that these stars contain very little oxygen, silicon or iron (i.e. they have very low metallicity) and only 1 in 5 of the 111 baby stars analysed in both clusters have disks.

If proto-planetary disks are rare, this means there will be a rarity of planets. This is an obvious bummer for life to form. After all, Life As We Know It™ is quite attached to evolving on Earth-like planets.

So why are these young stars lacking proto-planetary disks, when local star forming regions don’t seem to have this affliction? The authors of the paper, soon to be published in the Astrophysical Journal, suggest that these stars did have disks, but some mechanism is rapidly eroding them.

The most likely scenario is that low metalicity proto-planetary disks are more susceptible to photoevaporation. Simply put, these disks evaporate when exposed to EUV and X-ray radiation from their parent stars far more rapidly than disks that are metal-rich.

Therefore, if an alien race was able to form, they’d be very rare or they’d be very different from what we’d expect “life” to be like (i.e. they thrive in low metalicity star systems). Sounds like the mysterious Shadow homeworld of Z’ha’dum would be a very rare sight on The Rim of our Milky Way after all.

Publication: The Lifetime of Protoplanetary Disks in a Low-Metallicity Environment, Chikako Yasui et al., 2009. arXiv:0908.4026v3 [astro-ph.SR]
via New Scientist

If I Was A TV-Loving Alien, I’d Live In 40 Eridani


16.5 light years away, a revolution in sci-fi television programming is about to explode to life… Yes, it really is that exciting. Almost like a tsunami approaching a peaceful shore, island inhabitants totally unaware of its impending arrival, the triple star system of 40 Eridani is about to be bathed in a very special terrestrial signal…

So why am I getting so excited for this random star system? Well, 15 years ago, the awesome five-season show Babylon 5 aired in the US and the UK. For me, B5 formed a watershed of my love for sci-fi. In fact, you could say I was a teenage Babylonoholic, I couldn’t get enough of it.

Today, I see the superb graphic on Obtuse Goose (after being pointed to Phil’s Bad Astronomy post by Greg “Weird Things” Fish), showing the local star systems to the Solar System and what they are watching.

Watching? Yes.

As we transmit electromagnetic signals over the airwaves for our television viewing pleasure, we’ve also been leaking it into space. As the signal travels at the speed of light, the maximum distance our TV signal would have travelled is about 80 light years (we started leaking in the 1930’s). By that reasoning, our TV shows should have reached Aldebaran by now.

Unfortunately, the aliens of Aldebaran have a rather limited choice of TV shows… at the moment they’re probably putting up with Nazi Germany’s propaganda broadcasts (like in Jodie Foster’s Contact). Things are far more exciting in 40 Eridani… they’re about to get flooded by the first season of Babylon 5! Sure, there’s lots of other things to watch in the expanse of 80 light years, but if I had to choose, I’d be prepping my TV aerial and stocking the fridge in time for 5 years of awesome sci-fi on a world orbiting one of the three 40 Eridani stars…

Source: Obtuse Goose, via Bad Astronomy, via Greg.