Whither the Circumstellar Habitable Zone?

sweetspotDynamite’s Flash Gordon is the most recent in the many attempts to revive the character and the franchise from its early days of pulp science fiction.  Although there have been other recent attempts at resurrection, this is the first attempt from Dynamite which has been so successful with a number of public domain properties. The jury is still out on how the series will progress as it is only one story arc in, but perhaps there are some aspects of the pulp past which can be left behind.

The pulp period of science fiction and comics was one of great imagination, and helped give rise in large part to the medium of comics as we know it today.  One of the problems with the early years of science fiction was that it was a lot more fiction than it was science. As we as a civilization were still decades away from reaching outer space, no one really knew what that entailed, and so the scientific rules of outer space were replaced by the made-up rules of the imagination of the writers. While this gave birth to some amazing concepts and stories, it also resulted in a lot of material which is often unreadable by modern standards, unless one is after only camp and not really after what passes for modern science fiction. A setting such as Flash Gordon’s is a little difficult to operate within because of this, as the modern science fiction reader expects a bit more realism, but it equally has to pay homage to the past.

Flash01-Cov-ShalveyAn obvious example of this is in the newest issue to hit the market, issue #5 (set to be released on August 27). After escaping the planet of Arboria, the trio of heroes is on the way to find Sky Planet. Dale Arden suggests to the professor and Flash that they need to find the sweet spot around the sun where they might find Sky World. This “sweet spot” is better known in astronomy and astrobiology as the Circumstellar Habitable Zone, and serves as the main area in which real life humans search for planets in outer space which might support life or our own race. The zone is a bit tricky to define, and that we only have one example of a planet in the Habitable Zone (that being Earth) does not help us much. Some astronomers have suggested conditions which might include Venus in this list, but Venus is very much not ready at all for any kind of habitation by any type of living creature.

As a scientific concept though it makes sense that they would look there for another planet, and this is an aspect of the good science behind this idea. What follows next is not so good. Flash states that they will use small Q-Jumps to follow the around through the habitable zone in the hopes that they catch up with the supposed planet. While this logic kind of holds in one sense it very much falters in another. Any planet which is that close to the center of the solar system is going to be reflecting light, a lot of light. Take for example Venus, it is easily the third brightest object in the sky, behind the sun and the moon, so much so that when it is at its brightest that it will outshine even the brightest star. Venus is equally visible from almost anywhere in the inner solar system providing of course that it is not directly in front of us or if it is behind the sun. This becomes the problem of being a planet chaser though and where this issue becomes pulpier than it is scientific.  The easiest way to find such a planet would be to fly above the orbitals plane and to look downwards. One Q-Jump might get them closer to a planet that was rapidly speeding away from them (the Earth for instance travels 108,000 kilometers per hour) but one Q-Jump above the plane would allow them to look down on the plane and to spot any planets easily based on their albido. That Dale is the one to figure this out is out-of-place as well, as the doctor knows much about science and Flash knows much about navigating in space. Presumably between the two of them, they would figure that the easiest way to find this planet would be to think in the three dimensions of outer space.

This is perhaps the biggest problem which writers face in writing both extraordinary and engaging science fiction. There are bigger filters on in the modern day for these observations and they have to balanced against the fantastical nature of these voyages.