Things man will never do 1: Rebuild the Sun

There are certain themes that arise in Astronomy Cast comments and fanmail. Most of the themes are happy, good, warm fuzzies. There are also your typical cranks. There are also, in the humorous category, a regular stream of well-meaning, highly hopeful people saying my mind isn’t open enough who accuse me of not talking to the right experts.

I actually laughed loudly enough to scare the dog when I read the following earlier today from here:

Please! Get your facts straight, people!
Your original assumption is faulty, the Sun does not need to heat up and expand in a billion years, it will not “run out of fuel” in a billion years.

The reason the Sun is predicted to heat up and expand in a billion years, is not lack of fuel, but the interference of the ash products, iron and silicon, with the internal fusion processes. There will still be 95 percent of the current amount of Hydrogen in the sun then, as there is now. Please talk to a knowledgeable Solar Physicist.

Removing those ash products so they will not interfere with the normal operation of the Sun, is merely an engineering problem.

Any person who uses a fireplace realizes that occasionally you need to remove the ash products.

Please talk to a knowledgeable Solar physicist before you go making simplistic unthinking fearmongering statements for the sake of entertainment. Yes, it is a danger. No, it is not an inevitability. Currently we don’t know how to fix it, but in 1910, we didn’t know how to make manned Moon landings, either. We know about the problem, we can work on the engineering solutions.

Let me say, it is not my habit to laugh out loud at comments. Nor is it my habit to share my dog scaring laughter publicly. This comment was posted publicly however, and I have to admit that the idea that we over hyped the eventual expansion of the Sun for the sake of entertainment is hilarious.

No, um, we weren’t fear mongering. Sorry.

So here’s the facts of physics. The Sun is a plasma gas. As it creates heavier elements, they fall to the center. Currently, in the center of the Sun there is a region that is of sufficient density and temperature that  hydrogen is fusing into helium. The helium, weighing more than hydrogen, has no desire to leave the core. When this region of burning is completely filled with helium, burning will stop, the Sun will collapse a bit, and a shell of hydrogen will end up burning around the core (causing the Sun to expand back out).

Now, in the above comment the idea is put forward that we should be able to clear this “ash”, the helium, out of the way to keep the Sun on the main sequence burning hydrogen. Let’s just disregard the fact that you can’t exactly fly a spacecraft into the center of a star even in the Star Trek universe. Ignoring the problem of building something that will function under pressures and temperatures that turn everything into plasma, my question is, move the helium to where? This is like saying you’re going to swim to the 10ft deep bottom of a swimming pool (that is undergoing nuclear reactions), and pick up all the rocks some little kid threw in and just leave them 3 feet up from the bottom of the pool. Yes, you can pick them up and hold them there, but when you let go, they kind of fall straight back down to the bottom. Now, in general I would tend to carry the rocks up from the bottom and just set them on the side of the pool, but the Sun doesn’t exactly have an edge and it seems very silly to remove the helium all together. This helium is a non-trivial amount of mass, and the energy requirements to move it (F=ma, and W=Fd, even in the future) are HUGE. If you have this kind of energy and technology, wouldn’t it be easier to just move Earth? (Which after all weighs less then all that helium). And if you’re tired of Earth, if you have that much energy, you can probably grab a few asteroids or a small moon, hollow them out, and make them a colony vessel that can just go somewhere else altogether.

I do firmly believe their is a bright technological future of unimaginable wonder in front of us. I also believe in particle physics and know that things (like space craft) tend to melt in the centers of stars. So… I vote for taking Earth to Alpha Centauri.

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19 Comments

  1. Anonymous May 7, 2008 at 1:22 am #

    If wormholes turn out to be anything more than a mathematical curiosity in some of the stranger corners of physics, it could be possible to drain excess helium out of the Sun by dropping a wormhole mouth into it. The engineering aspects of creating a very small wormhole, dropping one mouth into the center of the Sun, accelerating the other mouth to beyond solar escape velocity, and then expanding the wormhole it to a large enough size to have a meaningful effect on solar chemistry are left as an exercise for the implementer.

  2. Colin J May 7, 2008 at 8:51 am #

    Yoinks Scoob. I always get amazed at the lengths that the human imagination can go and then claim that because we can imagine it, then it’s inevitable. Some things are wildly behind comprehension, even in a million years. Not to mention the basic misunderstanding of physics.

    Good explanation Pam.

  3. Jay Parkhill May 7, 2008 at 10:24 am #

    I think we should use the helium to float Earth to Alpha Centauri- maybe in a really big balloon. 😉

    Love the podcast. Keep up the good work.

  4. HoosierHoops May 7, 2008 at 11:18 am #

    The solution is simply using a high tech version of a chimney sweeper. Like the giant robot cleaning lady in the movie ‘spaceballs’. It’s very doable..If i could just get my hands on one of those NASA charge cards i could get the R&D completed in no time. ( plus i need a replacement iPod )

  5. SF Reader May 7, 2008 at 12:50 pm #

    Re: using a wormhole to shovel out the He: no need to accelerate the other end, the He shooting out under *extreme* pressure should do the job rather nicely.

    In fact, we could use that as the rocket engine to move other things, like a habitat or small planet.

    Of course, before we do that, we’ll make a similar wormhole bridge to move a bunch of Venus’ atmosphere to Mars.

    Ah, planet-scale engineering. I look forward to it.

  6. Freiddie May 7, 2008 at 11:11 pm #

    That was so funny [LOL]. I like your explanations.

  7. Drew May 8, 2008 at 12:57 am #

    No, no you’re wrong alternative scientific theories guy. You’re not even a good paranoid conspiracy theorist. We NEVER actually went to the moon. It was filmed on a Hollywood back lot, next to the set of “I dream of Jeannie”. Neil Armstrong is a Freemason, NASA is controlled by the Freemasons, therefore, we never actually got there. However, they actually did orbit the moon in “Apollo 13”, which starred Tom Hanks and Kevin Bacon. And if you do your research, then you can trace Neil Armstrong back to Kevin Bacon through his mother’s grandmother’s sides cousin twice removed…..

  8. Spartan May 8, 2008 at 1:59 pm #

    Invader ZIM has the solution! Mars is really a giant space ship. Zim was going to destroy the Earth by rolling Mars all over it, but he was stopped by his nemesis Dib! Dib realized that Mercury was also a giant space ship and used it to defeat Zim’s plan!

    Since Mars will survive the solar holocaust, I say we hijack it and fly it to a new star! Bring blankets because the trip will get cold. Go to the bathrooom before we leave, I am not stopping along the way for bathroom breaks!

  9. Professor R May 8, 2008 at 3:44 pm #

    Hi Pamela, great post, very well explained.

    I read about your blog in Physics World (super magazine), had to check it out.I like the way the log is aimed at a lay audience, can’t understand why so few physics blogs do this…

    I’m encouraged to hear you’re not afraid to tackle the boundary between science and religion – I’ve been getting some stick from colleagues for reporting on a theology conference on my effort(www.coraifeartaigh.wordpress.com). To *hell* with it – I heard John Polkinghorne give an excellent talk at a conference last year and it really got me interested in the area (not that I entirely agree with him).

    Have I been here before? the fields seems to remember me…Cormac

  10. Professor R May 8, 2008 at 3:55 pm #

    Apologies – no should be no www in the address I gave above (you can tell I’m new to this, any comments welcome)..Cormac

  11. Helio George May 9, 2008 at 11:33 am #

    You silly astronomer, it’s “turtles all the way down”. *wink*

  12. HoosierHoops May 9, 2008 at 4:46 pm #

    professor R:
    Have I been here before? the fields seems to remember me…Cormac

    That’s the funniest line of the day on so many levels..
    I tried that once in class and almost got flunked.. Yet you pulled it off without a hitch..
    🙂
    ps. I’ll check your blog out

  13. Skunkwaffle May 10, 2008 at 11:45 am #

    The solution is obvious.

    We’ll have to move all the helium to Earth. We’ll all sound like the MGM Munchkins for the rest of our lives but we get a few more billion years for our planet. Seems like a decent trade off don’t you think?

  14. Chase Scott May 12, 2008 at 12:17 pm #

    Well said Pamela… Three Cheers!!! Some people’s explanations often seem ridiculous to say the least. Likely casualties of ‘armchair physics’. It is bizarre that someone would accuse you of scaremongering about something that won’t happen in our lifetimes, and probably not during the existence of humans as a species… its just plain, old fashioned stupid.

    Do we really want to go through all that effort to remove helium? It sounds like a alot of effort to me. Even if you did that, I’m sure the sun would die someday in the future… Lets face it – the time spans mentioned are hardly even mildly concerning.

    Science is scary, fact. There’s no point hiding behind lovely idyllic concepts to give people a false yet hopeful future. What would be the point in science if that was the case? There’d be no point discovering anything in case it upset our ‘sensitive’ predispositions. Hmmmm….

    I’ll remember to worry about the sun and make a date to remind my possibly fossilized bones in a billion years to take cover, where’s my diary?….

  15. Jeff May 14, 2008 at 8:17 pm #

    I’m a big fan of scifi (more the literature than TV and movies), and the above blog post reminded me of something I’d read about Isaac Asimov’s “The Gods Themselves,” which Asimov accounted as his favorite of his books. I looked the book up on Wikipedia, and I’ll quote the relevant portion of the article:

    “Asimov describes a conversation in January 1971 when Robert Silverberg had to refer to an isotope — just an arbitrary one — as an example. Silverberg said Plutonium-186. “There is no such isotope”, said Asimov, “and such a one can’t exist either.” “So, what?”, said Silverberg. Later Asimov figured out under what conditions Plutonium-186 actually could exist, and what complications and consequences it might imply. Asimov reasoned that it must belong to another universe with other physical laws, specifically different nuclear forces would be necessary to allow a Pu-186 nucleus to hold itself together. He wrote down these ideas, which gradually grew into the novel.”

    My point being that taking the given impossibility – rejuvenation of the Sun – and building a story around what could make it possible could, in turn, make for an enjoyable and (dare I say it?) educational book. I know I’d be interested in reading such a book.

  16. Bernard May 15, 2008 at 6:24 pm #

    Great post Pamela, I just spilled my beer on my lap reading this guy’s argument. They say you must laugh out loud 3 times a day to stay healthy, thanks for the help 🙂

    I can see this turned into a sci-fi movie. We could model it after ‘Armageddon’ and send Bruce Willis and his happy crew of roughnecks to drill some kind of big pipe into the Sun’s core and pump all the helium and fire it away. I’m sure by then NASA will have worked out all the details.

  17. Exordium May 16, 2008 at 2:55 am #

    This move FAILED, although it appears to be dealing with a fundamentally different problem. Some decent visuals but horrendously ridiculous plot.

  18. Exordium May 16, 2008 at 3:02 am #

    Oops, lost half that post. The movie was
    Sunshine.

  19. Syed Moin Doja August 25, 2008 at 4:07 pm #

    common guys if you all are into really out there sifi this isn’t even half of it. in a billon years?!! hell in a few centuries or millenia at the most, humanity will probably be totally unrecognisible to us, what with genetic engneering and advances in cybernetics implants.
    For example it will probably be possible (given a few centuries) with gene manipulation to grow wings, feathers, horns, talons, bug like eyes that have xray, ultraviolet, infrared …and whatnot visions, maybe get multiple limbs, tails that act as additional limbs, a few extra eyes say behind the head (360 degree vision?), multiple genetalis of both kinds, chlorophyll dyed skins, furs,…the list is endless. again some or all of these maybe implemented by artificial/inorganic cybernetic methods too. now who would want these anyway? well not every body obviously , but then the world is full of wierdos already, really dont wanna bet on what freaks the future will breed.
    also as humanity slowly colonises more and more planets (perhaps after several millenas) and go deeper into well …deep space , and start to learn to adapt to very low gravity envoirments our physique will change too , growing longer and thinner in low gravities and shorter and thicker in high gravity planets( again ‘PROBABLY’, I am no expert). if i live in a low grav planet why not get a pair or two of wings – flight maybe easier( then again atmosphere maybe more rarified), if my planet is far from the sun why not get some infrared sensetive eyes and some full-body fur to keep out the cold. if a planet gets enough sunlight why not get some chlorohyll skins – no need to grow any food anymore and also nobody ever goes hungry ever again. hi grav planet? get some extra strong lungs and couple of more pair of legs to aid locomotion. no grav at all? living in a space station? why not swap those useless pair of legs for an extra pair of hands? (actually got this idea from Discovery Channel).

    then again some heck of an advanced species of alien might just show up and decide to bump us of in their very own highly imaginative ways…..alien eggs implanted in your brain anyone? a billon years is long enough time for that.

    not that we humans are much dependent on some friendly alien’s free offer for annilation, we too have our very own home grown methods for that….world war 3, anyone? chemical warfare, biological warfare? terrorists with dirty nukes…well this list too is endless.

    then there are the technological uncertainties…..nano matter plague? hostile artificial intelligence? virtual worlds were we might choose to spend eternity ….

    heck in a billon years we might just be advanced enough to leave the physical existance altogether and go live in some spritual realm (getting psuedo-spritual here). or we may get so advanced that we might start playing around with multiple dimensions and realities which today belongs in only maths thesis papers. we might discover some really wierd weird science….think what sense will quantum mechanics make to Euclid or string theory to Newton?

    what i have been raving about in all this while is that the future is a strange place and none of us knows whats gonna happen to us humans in few millenas, let alone in a billion years….no wait its -in a ‘BBBIIILLLIIIOOONNNNN’ YEARS! if humanity exists then, the fate of our little old sun will probably be least of humanities worries by then, we would probably have even forgotten in which solar system humanity arose in…even if we are able to remember what it was to be human.

    (anybody rememeber what it felt like when we were homo erectus?)

    this blog is a pretty level headed place (my post being the exception.hehe) and nobody in their right mind will accuse Doctor Gay of ‘fear mongering’, she only has written a wonderful article about the fate of the sun. fear mongering ha ! if you want some real pure unadultrated fear mongering come to me i say.

    p.s -sorry for the sloppy spelling, lazy enough not to spellcheck, shameless enough to just beg for your indulgence. hehe

    pps – my post is probably even funnier and more ridiculous than that which made doc gay to laugh out and scare the dog , this one
    will probably have her laughing and rolling on the ground. so in case this has the same effect on you …well they say laughter is the best medicine.wink.

    ppps – probably gonna regret this post in the morning, but what the hell , the night is young and i feel daring , i am just gone dare myself and click that Submit button , here goes….

    1.30 am
    Calcutta, India.

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