This time we answer two questions from the same person. Laurie asks if other solar systems are likely to be similar to ours, and about the risk of pregnancy in space.

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Chris

Hello and welcome to the Astroholic Podcast. I’m Chris

Alfredo

and I’m Alfredo, the Astroholic.

Chris

And today we are going to be answering a few fan questions.

Alfredo

Very excited about today. How are you feeling about the questions?

Chris

I think there are a couple of really good questions and they both come from the same person.

Alfredo

Did we say that it was okay to send us two questions?

Chris

I think it’s fine. Both questions today come from Laurie, and she is @choiceirregular on Twitter.

Alfredo

Hey, Laurie!

Chris

So I will, first of all, read you just one question. And then a bit later on, we will get to the second question.

Alfredo

Awesome.

Chris

So Laurie says: First of all, as a disclaimer, I just realized, I don’t know if we know what the inside of other galaxies looks like. But here’s the question anyway. If we find a solar system In another galaxy, would we expect it to be similar in terms of an inner/outer solar system with terrestrial planets near a star, and gas giants on the outside? What would happen if there were two stars in that system?

Alfredo

This is an awesome question because allows me to go quite philosophical on a lot of things. But we need to remember that science and philosophy go hand in hand.

Chris

Sounds like Star Trek?

Alfredo

Absolutely. Sounds like Star Trek, if you’ve been keeping up with Chris’s journey into sci-fi, is just foraying into Star Trek. So it’s really science and philosophy at the moment. So first of all, the disclaimer, ‘the inside of other galaxies look like’… The idea that we have is that the Milky Way, that the solar system, that Earth that humans, and that anything we know shouldn’t be special. Although for as far as we can tell we’re the only place with life, listen to our last episode. Although we seem so unique, we need to pretend that the laws of physics and everything in the universe is not made for us, that we’re not special. So that life could be very common. And the thing we see here, they should also be very common elsewhere. So as far as we can tell galaxies, although there is variation in the type of galaxies and their composition, etc, they are more or less the same. The main component is dark matter or there is something wrong with the laws of physics. There’s something that keeps them together and we cannot see it and we call that dark matter, but of the things that we can see, there is stars, there is gas. There is dust. And there are black holes, regular variety the size of stars, or supermassive. And those are common in almost every galaxy. So on that assumption, we should expect to see the same type of star system in other galaxies as we see in ours.

Chris

That’s really cool. It’s because it’s always bound by the laws of astrophysics or physics in general

Alfredo

The laws of science. And there should not be any reason, at least we cannot see any reason why this location is special. But, and there is a but, Laurie asks a very specific question.

Chris

Yeah, she said what would happen if there were two stars?

Alfredo

Before that, before that…

Chris

Laurie asked: If we find a solar system in another galaxy, would we expect it to be similar in terms of an inner/outer solar system with terrestrial planets near a star and gas giants on the outside. So I would have assumed that judging by what you just said, yes, we should expect it to be the same.

Alfredo

Hmm. Okay. Now, it’s quizzing Chris time. (Chris groans)

Chris

I’ll try and find a jingle…

Alfredo

What do you think of this inner-outer solar system distribution of terrestrial planets and gas giant planets, is it common? Is it not common? From what you know.

Alfredo

Terrestrial would include water-worlds that are Earth-sized. Very good.

Chris

I actually don’t know anything about it. No, no wait I do… Well, maybe. From memory, the only other solar system that springs to mind is the Trappist One Solar System with its seven planets. I think they were all terrestrial.

Chris

I don’t think there were any gas giants in that so you had terrestrial planets going from the inner to the outer solar system.

Alfredo

Absolutely correct.

Chris

So what Laurie’s asking is not necessarily correct in the first place. Unless, no actually the way she’s wording it is, because she’s saying, ‘should we expect it to be similar, like ours?’ which is correct. I apologize, Laurie. Sorry. So we shouldn’t expect it to be the same. Because we know that they’re not the same.

Alfredo

Well, that is very good with the jump. A few conclusions…

Chris

[Laughing] Join us next time on our next episode…!

Alfredo

No, no, that was good! Seriously, I’m very proud that you are learning remember? You remembered and that was very, very good. Yes, the Trappist One system has seven planets and they’re all terrestrial, which is great, because it’s fairly nearby, and they think that it could be a place where life could exist. We’re not sure, because it’s complicated that the Trappist One star is a red dwarf, which tend to be a lot more active compared to the Sun. So the atmosphere of these planets might have been blown away.

Chris

They found out pretty soon after this discovery that they wouldn’t have been habitable.

Alfredo

So there is a lot of research saying that it’s unlikely that they are habitable.

Chris

At least I guess by our standards.

Alfredo

But they also had the idea that if one of the planets has a strong magnetic field, they could be. We can not say they’re definitely inhabitable.

Chris

How far away was Trappist?

Alfredo

I think 39 light-years.

Chris

Okay, so we’re never going to get there..

Alfredo

Well, we’re never going to get to a lot of places, but ultimately, it doesn’t really matter. Laurie’s question is very interesting because we need to push that [our solar system] is not special. Like, obviously other galaxies need to be like ours, we should expect that the solar system is not special and that there are plenty of other systems just like ours.

Chris

Yeah..

Alfredo

But we are yet to find something quite like it. So we have seen a system with some super-Earths so planets a little bit heavier, sometimes potentially water worlds, and even a system that has super-Earth and some giants or something slightly smaller than Neptune. But something like our solar system is yet to be found. So there are some reasons why they’re yet to be found. Some have to do with how we look for exoplanets. So we tend to look at how a planet shakes their star, or the light blocked by those planets. Two very good methods. But it’s very good to find planets that orbit very quickly around their stars, because for example, if you want to find Jupiter using the transiting method, you would have to observe a star for decades because Jupiter orbits every 11 years. And obviously, you cannot base it on one data point, you need to have repeated observations. So, this is why it’s been very complicated finding something like the solar system, but we need to believe that [it isn’t special]. And what would happen if there were two stars in the system? Again, we have nothing as analogous as the solar system so we cannot tell. We have planets in binary systems. Some planets orbit a single star in the system, some planets orbit two stars.

Chris

Is there anything to be said for whether or not the stars in a solar system will affect terrestrial or gas? Is there any common denominator with just one star in terms of the layout of that solar system?

Alfredo

Aah, no, we’re still trying to understand how a planetary system forms. We find gas giants that are very, very close to their stars. We call them ‘Hot Jupiters’. And there are some incredible planets. There’s one that is leaking heavy metals in this space because it’s so hot. And it’s so close to its star, that the star’s stripping it of hydrogen and helium, which are the lighter element, but it’s so hot that magnesium and iron, is actually evaporating and is being lost into space.

Chris

It’s an amazing image!

Alfredo

So it’s very important to understand that there’s such variety that we cannot, at the moment, find a sort of complete theory of planet formation. We haven’t found the instruction manual, yet, but we know that it’s possible for a planet to be in a binary system if they’re orbiting a single star. If the two stars are quite far apart like for Proxima Centauri, which is actually in a triple star system. Proxima has a planet orbiting that is called ‘Proxima b’. And I’m quite certain that they found planets orbiting two stars that are very close to each other. So there are possible orbits. There are even some weird, complicated helical orbits that are allowed by gravity around two stars, but we know that is possible, obviously, the helical orbit I think it would be very unlikely for it to happen. But we don’t have a full understanding of the system. And I hope that this answers Laurie’s first question.

Chris

I would guess that it does. I think that was absolutely fascinating to learn about that. Onwards to question two?

Alfredo

Onwards to question two!

Chris

We know that space agencies won’t allow pregnancy in space because it’s not safe, especially not an actual birth. But eventually, this will have to be considered if we want long-distance space travel and to set up bases on other worlds. So how far can this be put off? How far off can they stop pregnancies and space births?

Alfredo

I think this should be put off for as long as possible. I think that it’s extremely risky to become pregnant in space to be pregnant in space. And certainly childbirth. It would be incredibly dangerous.

Chris

Is that because of low gravity situations?

Alfredo

Yeah, and I’m not sure if low gravity might be, I don’t know, better, or like similar to having a water birth, but it’s the risk, that we cannot really help, we cannot do any type of procedure safely in microgravity.

Chris

Has not ever been attempted?

Alfredo

No!

Chris

Not even on lab animals?

Alfredo

I am actually not sure about that. But we know that all the plans for like potential necessary future surgeries in space like a long-distance mission, they are very, very “Oh, this is if there is no other choice.” They’ve even started trying to design what surgery units would look like because obviously, we know gravity, blood, organs as well, floating around, bumping into people. There are other issues that we need to consider. Any astronaut loses muscle mass because they don’t have to fight gravity, but they also lose bone density. They’re losing calcium. About 1 to 2% of their bone density every month.

Chris

As in their bones just waste away.

Alfredo

Yeah, become more brittle.

Chris

They dry up from the inside or something and they just as humans, they get lighter? A little bit lighter, I guess. So that makes it more dangerous. For, I guess, speeding up the aging process effectively.

Alfredo

In a way yes. But it’s already like doctors here on earth warn women who suffer from brittle bones to avoid a natural birth because the pelvis could fracture in the process. And I’m not sure there’s ever been some investigation about bone repairs if bones managed to fuse back together [in space].

Chris

Wow. Yeah, broken limbs. Surely someone must have had… Okay, this is going to sound terrible, but surely someone must have had a horrific accident onboard the ISS or something that required urgent medical attention. Surely.

Alfredo

Hmm, no. Nope.

Chris

They can’t all be that careful at all times? Surely there must have been some. It’s like an accident. What if one of them goes to reach for something and they trip over and smack into a wall? Or I don’t know..

Alfredo

Wait, wait a minute.. Chris? Tell me how would they trip over in the ISS.

Chris

Don’t they have some areas that aren’t low gravity, they have some… Was that not real?

Alfredo

No..!

Chris

..is that just in films..?

Alfredo

That is just in films!

Chris

Fake gravity?

Alfredo

Fake gravity is just in films! So no, nobody has ever tripped and fallen somewhere on the ISS.

Chris

Okay, okay. Okay. Okay, what if? What if they didn’t fall anywhere because they can’t but what if they accidentally like floated into a knife or something?

Alfredo

At what speed do you think them and the knife are going?!

Chris

What if it went in their eye? I mean, okay, okay, we’re getting off-topic. Sure. There must have been a record of some physical medical accidents on the ISS.

Alfredo

I am not sure and I never heard of anything serious enough.

Chris

Okay. I’m going to investigate this.

Alfredo

Investigate, and you can report back in the next episode. So I think that another issue is infection, you might be familiar with the concept of antibiotic resistance. So bacteria have become used to our antibiotics and cannot be killed easily. Usually, at the moment, we are using combinations of antibiotics to try to kill them off. But there is the potential that eventually we’re going to get to bacteria that cannot be killed off with anything that we have so far.

Chris

That’s the thing that’s basically going to kill everyone if climate change doesn’t get there first.

Alfredo

Yeah, I was about to say that the climate crisis is going to hit us first. Yes, it’s another possibility or I wouldn’t say that is going to be devastatingly deadly. But it would bring us back on how life was before antibiotics. But in space, things are worse because bacteria are even sturdier. So infections that we can treat here on Earth might be untreatable up there.

Chris

I see. Are there any investigations or experiments being done in that field?

Alfredo

Yes. There’s a lot of investigation also looking at special coatings for material that bacteria cannot grow on, which is absolutely fascinating. And they think that potentially a coating that bacteria found extremely toxic, and they think that that could be a potential avenue like you can coat surgical instruments with, and a spacecraft that we’re sending to potentially look for life elsewhere. It’s very exciting. I think they have a few results, but I don’t think there’s anything revolutionary just yet.

Chris

Would bacteria not do exactly the same as they do with antibiotics, would they not evolve a resistance to this toxic material and grow on it?

Alfredo

I think it’s not the molecules. But it’s the structure of the material? I can’t remember the study precisely. But the idea is that this material doesn’t allow bacteria to grow on it, rather than killing them off.

Chris

It’s more about not letting them take hold rather than about them being alive. Okay.

Alfredo

So this is going to be my answer. I think that I think it would be an unnecessary risk to become pregnant, be pregnant and giving birth in space.

Chris

So to finish off the question, how long do you think that could be put off? Do you think it can be pushed quite far into the future because we’re not there yet in terms of medical support?

Alfredo

Yeah. And there is still so much that needs to be solved. This is just another of the many, many challenges that will have to be addressed and not the childbirth specifically, but in terms of advanced medical care in a long term mission to another planet. So it’s something that needs to be addressed before we seriously plan to go to Mars. The fact that there’s not been serious discussion on how to address this… It’s a point of concern. But there are many points of concern on how can we guarantee that we’re sending people to Mars, and we’re going to get them back alive.

Chris

That’s actually really good food for thought. And actually, again, much like the first question, not something that I had ever considered, especially in terms of where we’re at medically and technologically in terms of giving support to that sort of thing. So we’re going to finish it there for this episode. Thank you very much, Laurie for both those questions.

Alfredo

I hope that answered your question. Although the ending wasn’t too cheery about our prospect in expanding beyond Earth.

Chris

Do you have any burning questions for the Astroholic? If so send them into me @illucifer on Twitter, and I will spring it on him in an upcoming episode.

Alfredo

See you next time!

Main Photo by Allef Vinicius on Unsplash