Some of my earliest gaming memories come from city building simulators. I can remember sitting behind my desk at home, glued to the monitor as I struggled to build my fledgling city up in the original SimCity so that I could beat my friend who was doing the same. Our school even had a computer for the kids to share, giving us a precious 30 minute block every so often which nearly all of us would spend playing SimCity 2000. The idea of strategy was utterly lost on me at that point as all I really wanted to do was build the biggest buildings leading me to abuse the porntipsguzzardo cheat endlessly. I still have something of a soft spot for these kinds of games and Reus, a title which I had had my eye on during the Steam Summer Sale, evoked enough nostalgia that I couldn’t help but give it a go.
You have been asleep for a long time planet and your surface has become barren, devoid of all notions of life. With the strength that you have left you summon forth your 4 giants of creation who are then set to task covering your land with plants, animals and riches. Soon humans began to return, nomads who had been wandering the dusty plains endlessly began to settle on the fertile land your giants created and began working on great projects to exploit the resources you laid before them. However the humans’ lust for more power often turns them against each other, and sometimes even you, necessitating swift action to teach them humility once again. Soon you grow weary and it is time to slumber once again but will the work you’ve done allow life to flourish without your hand?
Reus is a beautifully styled game with its bright color palette, cute animations and wonderful music. The style is reminiscent of flash games of yore although with a truckload more polish than any of those titles ever had. The style of game is also similar to an iOS title I remember my wife playing a long time ago called GodFinger, although thankfully devoid of the awful social features and limitations that came along with it. Reus is also only been released on PC so far, Linux and Mac ports are in the works, but I wouldn’t be surprised if I saw it on iOS eventually as it seems pretty well suited to that interface.
On the surface Reus is a deceptively simple game. Much like city builders of the past you start of with a land that doesn’t have anything in it but you’re given the tools to shape it as you will. Your ocean giant can create vast oceans which saturate the nearby land with water allowing your forest and swamp giants to create their respective types of land on top of it. Whilst the capabilities of your mountain giant would then seem obvious raising mountains actually results in desert on either side of it. Each of the different types of land results in a different set of resources that you can place on them and also influences what kind of town will settle there once you put some resources down for them.
There’s 3 different primary resources that you’ll strive to create in the game: food, technology and wealth. Each of the different types of settlements have different priorities for what kind of resource they’d like (forest = food, swamp = technology and desert = wealth) which gives you a guide to the kinds of resources you should be placing. Those resources are placed by your giants and each giant has their own selection to make use of. The ocean giant can place domesticated animals, the mountain giant precious and advanced minerals, the swap giant exotic animals and herbs and the forest giant can plant fruit trees. Each of these generates a specific type of primary resource and will differ dramatically depending on where they’re placed.
In the beginning it’s pretty simple, you pretty much just use the giant that’s directly associated with that land type in order to create the resources required for the town that’s settled there. You’ll need to do this as the town creates developments which are essentially projects that, when completed, grant the area a bonus to those resources as well as granting you one ambassador of that type of town. These ambassadors then unlock further abilities and upgrades of your giants, allowing you to do a lot more with the same amount of land. Once you’ve got a few ambassadors though they’ll stop being granted for the easy projects and so you’ll have to work the harder ones to get better upgrades.
Then there comes the synergies as when certain resources are placed next to other certain resources they will get a bonus to resource generation which becomes key later on when you’re trying to reach the high amounts of food required to achieve the next development. This is where the complexity of Reus really starts to come through as the tech trees that drive all of this are horrendously complicated, to the point where after the amount of time I’ve spent with it I still don’t know anything past the second tier. The wiki can help you with this of course but that will mean a lot of pausing to figure out what the ultimate resource combo is in order to create the resources you require. Indeed this is what I ended up doing towards the end as otherwise I found myself replacing resources far too often, wasting precious time.
At first I simply tried to meet the various resource goals of my towns so that they’d complete their projects. However I found later, more advanced projects seemed to require more space than I had access to which frustrated me. However this was an artifact of the way I was playing as you can’t just have 1 town of each type and get very far in the game because you just won’t be able to generate the required number of ambassadors to unlock the upgrades you need. Indeed the best tactic I found so far was to have 2 of each and whilst this does make the micro management of these economies a little insane it is the fastest way to get the upgrades you need which then allows you to get more upgrades with the more advanced projects. If there was one piece of advice I would give to anyone looking to play this it would be to go straight for the Tier 2 resources on all your giants first as once you have that the rest of the game becomes quite a bit easier.
Reus is for the most part glitch free although I did have one incident where my forest giant got stuck doing something on a mountain and just refused to move. I could move all my other giants however so there was something weird going on. Saving and reloading fixed the bug however which I was quite thankful for given I was 51 minutes into a 60 minute game. Apart from that the only other gripe I have is that when your giants are close to each other sometimes it can be a little hard to select them by clicking on them as Reus has a tendency to keep the one you have selected rather than switching over. This can be worked around by using the portraits instead but I guess the habit of clicking directly on things is just ingrained in me from all my RTS gaming.
I’ll be honest and say that I didn’t get Reus at first as the mechanics, whilst simple enough to begin with, rapidly evolved into something much more complicated than I had first expected. However after experimenting around with different builds I finally figured out the resource tiers and some of the more rudimentary synergies and suddenly everything clicked, allowing me to complete project after project without the struggles I had before. Whilst it hasn’t drawn me in enough to want to slog through the 123 achievements it has it’s still a great game to pass some time and one that rewards players who dive deep into its mechanics to find the ultimate resource combinations.
Reus is available on PC right now for $9.99. Total game time was approximately 6 hours with 39% of the achievements unlocked.
In the short time that I’ve been enamoured with all things space our understanding of the universe has changed significantly. Just a few years ago we had no idea how common multi-planet systems like our own were but today we know that a star is far more likely to have several planets than just a few. At the same time we’ve discovered so many more exoplanets that their discovery is now just routine and the count has tripled from the couple hundred to well over 600 confirmed discoveries (not including the multitude of current candidates). At the same time our understanding of how planets form has also been called into question and today brings news that may just turn our understanding on its head yet again.
Astronomers at the Kavli Institute for Particle Astrophysics and Cosmology released a paper back in February that detailed a very interesting idea. Using the observable effects of gravity in our galaxy combined with the observable mass (detected via microlensing events) they’ve deduced that there needs to be many more planets than what can be accounted for. What’s really curious about these planets is that they would have formed without a parent star:
But how can this be? Every star can’t have tens of thousands of planets ranging from Pluto-sized to Jupiter-sized. This planetary “excess” actually suggests the existence of planets that were born without a star – nomad planets. These planetary vagabonds somehow went through the planet-forming process in interstellar space, not in the dusty proto-planetary disk surrounding a young star.
This astonishing number was calculated by extrapolating a dozen “microlensing” events of nomad worlds passing in front of distant stars. When these nomad planets drifted in front of distant stars, they briefly focused the starlight with their gravity, causing the star to brighten. This brightening was captured by astronomers and the microlensing events could be analysed to reveal the characteristics of the nomad planets.
The idea of planets forming sans a parent star is an interesting one as it turns our current ideas of planet formation on their head. The generally accepted idea of planet formation is that a large accretion disk forms a star first, sweeping away a lot of matter away from it. After that the left over accretion belt begins coalescing into planets, asteroids and other heavenly bodies. Nomad planets then would have formed in smaller accretion disks without the required matter to form a star. If the paper is anything to go by this happens extremely often, to the tune of 100,000 times more often than there are stars in our galaxy.
Such planets are incredibly difficult to detect as we have no beacon to observe for wobbles (the radial velocity method). The only way we have to detect them currently is via microlensing and that means that the planet has to pass between us and another star for us to be able to see it. Even with so many planets and stars out there the chances of them all lining up are pretty slim which explains why we haven’t detected any to date. What we have found though are Brown Dwarfs and they’re quite interesting yet again.
Brown Dwarfs are what you’d call failed stars (or over-achieving planets, take your pick) as whilst they’re quite massive, on the order of 13 times the size of Jupiter at minimum, they still don’t have enough mass to ignite and become a fully fledged star. They do however generate quite a bit of heat which they give off as infra-red light. We can detect this quite readily and have identified many of them in the past. What’s intriguing though is that these Brown Dwarfs (or other nomad planets) could be used as stepping stones to the rest of the galaxy.
There’s a couple things that such planets could be used for. We already know that such planets could be used as a gravity slingshot to give current interstellar craft a speed boost en route to their destination. Another highly theoretical use would be to use these planets as refuelling stops if you were using some kind of hydrogen/helium powered craft. Such planets would also make excellent observation posts as they’d be far away from strong sources of light and radio waves, allowing them an extremely clear view of the universe. Indeed nomad planets could be quite the boon for an interstellar civilization, all we need is the technology to access them.
I’m very interested to see where this theory takes us and hopefully we’ll star seeing some nomad candidates popping up in the exoplanet catalogues in the next couple years. We might not yet be able to make use of them but their mere existence would tell us so much about the formation of heavenly bodies in our universe. At the same time it also raises a lot of questions that we haven’t considered before, but that’s the beauty of science.
Ever since we first discovered a planet outside our solar system way back in 1988 the hunt has been on to find another planet like our own. That’s not a particularly easy quest however as the methods that we currently have at our disposal, namely the radial velocity method (looking for little wiggles in the parent star) and the transit method (dimming of the parent star from our point of view) are heavily skewed towards finding large planets close to their parent stars. Finding a planet like ours by these methods not only requires precision tools but also great lengths of time, on the order of 2 years or so to ensure that what we saw wasn’t a fluke. Thus a planet like our own has escaped our detection because we’re simply unable to detect it.
The start of this year saw some major progress with the data from NASA’s Kepler mission. Back in January I blogged about Kepler-10b which is the smallest exoplanet that had been discovered to date. Unfortunately for planet hopefuls (and the planet as well) Kepler-10b was found no where near the habitable zone of its parent start. In fact the planet orbits its star in just under a day, putting its orbital distance at around 1/20th of the distance between mercury and our sun. The surface temperature there is enough to melt iron, eliminating the possibility for any kind of life as we know it to arise there.
However the astronomers working on the Kepler data didn’t just stop there as there. Within the wealth of Kepler data are some 48 other earth-like candidates, planets with orbital periods that places them squarely in the habitable zone of their parent stars. One of those potential candidates was Kepler-22b, a planet who’s orbit is much closer in than earth to its parent star which is a lot dimmer than our own. This mean that it was just on the edge of the habitable zone and the last piece of the puzzle was how big it was compared to earth. That last piece of the puzzle was just revealed today and Kepler-22b’s radius is 2.4 times the size of earth.
Whilst that makes Kepler-22b sound like some kind of giant it’s still within the boundaries of what we currently believe to be hospitable to life. The real kicker for Kepler-22b will be finding out its mass as currently, whilst we suspect that it’s rocky like our planet due to its position, we have no idea what its actually comprised of. Right now it could be anything from a planet covered entirely in oceans to a giant rock ball with little to no atmosphere. We can find out the mass by using the radial velocity method and I’m sure that’s the next step that NASA is taking in attempting to figure out just what kind of planet Kepler-22b is.
This might be the first exoplanet to be confirmed as being within the habitable zone but what’s more exciting is the prospect that we have another 48 candidates just waiting for their confirmations to come through. What we can infer from this is that our solar system’s composition isn’t unique and that the formation of terrestrial planets like our own is quite common. That means the conditions that brought about life on our planet are also common in other solar systems which leads to the tantalizing prospect that there’s other life out there just waiting for us to discover it. Of course it will be a long time before we manage to get there and see it for ourselves but it’s still incredibly exciting and I can’t wait to see what other kinds of planets we dredge up from the next 48 potentials.
Mercury is a strange little beast of a planet. It’s the closest planet to our sun and manages to whip around it just under 88 days. Its “days” are 59 earth days long and whilst it’s not tidally locked to our parent star (like the moon is to us, always showing the same face to the earth) it is in a 3:2 spin-orbit resonance. This has led to some interesting phenomena when we’ve sent probes to image it as the only probe to ever visit it, Mariner 10, only managed to image 45% of the planet’s surface on it’s 2 encounter trip with the tortured little planet. That all changed a few years ago when MESSENGER (MErcury Surface, Space ENvironment, GEochemistry, and Ranging) made its first approach to Mercury in January 2008 and sent back images of the as of yet unseen side of the planet. Ever since then MESSENGER has been on a long trajectory that will eventually bring it into orbit with Mercury and it will begin it’s year long mission of observations.
It just so happens that that day is today.
MESSENGER has been in space for an extremely long time, almost 7 years. You might be wondering why it has taken this craft so long to reach Mercury and the answer requires that you understand a little about orbital mechanics. You see as a heavenly body, in this case a satellite, moves closer to another body it will tend to speed up. This is known as the conservation of angular momentum and it’s the same principle that governs the increase in speed when you bring your arms in closer whilst you’re spinning. Thus for a satellite that’s launched from Earth to be able to orbit Mercury it has to shed all that extra speed so it can match up to it, otherwise it would just whiz right past it. Since doing this with a rocket is rather expensive (the fuel required would be phenomenal) NASA instead opts to shed velocity by a complicated set of maneuvers between planets, each of which removes a portion of the satellite’s velocity. This is cheap fuel wise but means the space craft will have to endure many years in space before it reaches its destination.
As I write this MESSENGER is making its final preparations to insert itself into an orbit around Mercury. MESSENGER hopes to demystify the diminutive planet by providing hi-resolution imaging of the planet (there’s still 5% we haven’t seen yet), doing chemical analysis to determine the planet’s makeup and attempting to figure out why Mercury has a magnetic field. Probably the most interesting part of MESSENGER will be the last part as our current theories on planet formation point to Mercury being much like our moon with a solid core and no magnetic field to speak of. The presence of one there suggests that part of Mercury’s core is still molten and raises a number of questions over how planets and natural satellites like our moon form. It will also be the first ever artificial satellite of Mercury, something that still eludes many of the other planets in our solar system.
This is the kind of science that NASA really excels at, the stuff that just hasn’t been done before. It’s really amazing to see NASA flex their engineering muscle, designing systems that survive in the most unforgiving environment we know for decades and still function as expected. The next year will be filled with all kinds of awesome discoveries about our tortured little cousin Mercury and I for one can’t wait to see how the analysis of its magnetic field changes the way we model planet formations in the future.
Humanity, for the longest time, has been aware of planets outside the one that we reside on. Ask anyone today about the planets in our solar system and they’re sure to be able to name at least one other planet but ask them about any outside our solar system and you’re sure to draw a blank look. That’s not their fault however as the discovery of planets outside our solar system (which is by definition, not a planet but an exoplanet) is only recent, dating just over 20 years when the first was discovered in 1988. Since then we’ve discovered well over 500 more planets that exist outside our immediate vicinity and whilst their discovery is great none of them have yet been much like the one we currently call home.
In fact the vast majority of the exoplanets that have been discovered have been massive gas giants orbiting their parent stars at the same distance as Mercury orbits from our sun. This threw scientists initially as back then our current theories on solar system formation didn’t support the notion of large planets forming that close to their parent star. However as time we found more and more examples of such planets, these hot gas giants orbiting at velocities the likes we’d never seen before. The reason behind this is simple, the methods we use to find exoplanets are quite adept at finding these planets and not so much those which we’d consider potential homes.
The method by which the vast majority of exoplanets have been discovered is called the Radial Velocity method. As a planet orbits around its parent star the parent star also moves in tandem, tracing out an elliptical path that’s pinned around the common centre of mass between the two heavenly bodies. As the star does this we can observe changes in the star’s radial velocity, the speed at which the star is moving towards or away from this. Using this data we can then infer the minimum mass, distance and speed required to induce such changes in the planet’s radial velocity which will be the exoplanet itself. This method is prone to finding large planets orbiting close to their parent stars because they will cause larger perturbations in the star’s radial orbit more frequently, allowing us to detect them far more easily.
More recently one of the most productive methods of detecting an exoplanet is the Transit method. This method works by continuously measuring a star’s brightness over a long period of time. When an exoplanet crosses in front of its parent relative to us the star’s apparent brightness drops for the time it is in transit. This of course means that this method is limited to detecting planets and stars whose orbits line up in such a way to cause a transit like this. For earth like exoplanets there’s only a 0.47% chance that such planets will line up just right so we can observe them but thankfully this method can be done on tens of thousands of stars at once, ensuring that we discover at least a few in our search. Exoplanets discovered this way usually require verification by another method before they’re confirmed since there are many things that can cause a dip in a star’s apparent brightness.
There are of course numerous other methods to discover planets outside our solar system but for the most part the vast majority of them have been discovered by one of the two methods mentioned above. For both of them they are heavily skewed towards discovering big planets with short transit times as these produce the most observable effects on their parent stars. Still this does not preclude them from finding exoplanets like earth as shown with the recent discovery of Kepler10-b, a small rocky world in torturous conditions:
The planet, called Kepler-10b, is also the first rocky alien planet to be confirmed by NASA’s Kepler mission using data collected between May 2009 and early January 2010. But, while Kepler-10b is a rocky world, it is not located in the so-called habitable zone – a region in a planetary system where liquid water can potentially exist on the planet’s surface.
“Kepler-10b is the smallest exoplanet discovered to date, and the first unquestionably rocky planet orbiting a star outside our solar system,” said Natalie Batalha, Kepler’s deputy science team leader at NASA’s Ames Research Center in Moffett Field, Calif., at a press conference here at the 217th American Astronomy Society meeting.
Kepler-10b is the smallest transitioning planet to be confirmed to date and shows that it’s possible to discover worlds like our own using current technology. As time goes on and the amount of data increases I’m certain that we’ll eventually find more planets like these, hopefully a bit further out so they’ll be in the habitable zone. The Kepler mission is just a few months shy of its 2 year anniversary with at least another 1.5 years to go and if all goes well it should be returning swaths of data for us for the entire time to come.
I’m always fascinated by the latest discoveries in space even when they’re something like a molten mercury 564 light years away. Our technology is becoming more advanced with every passing day and I know that future missions will end up discovering millions of planets at a time with thousands of potentially life supporting worlds. It’s amazing to think that just 3 decades ago we couldn’t be sure that planets existed outside our solar system and today we know for sure there are more than 500 of them out there.
Ain’t science grand?
For all the exploration of space we’ve done to date we have still found no evidence of life outside our own biosphere. We’ve found many of the building blocks scattered around our solar system but all our attempts to find even the most simplistic of life forms have been met with failure. Still with the raw ingredients being so common in just our own back yard it follows that there’s a high likelihood that somewhere in the deep blackness of space lies another planet that teams with life like our own. Still with the number of exoplanets only numbering in the hundreds and the technology strongly skewed to finding large gas giants close to their parent stars we had yet to come across another planet that life as we know it could call home. That was until just recently.
An enticing new extrasolar planet found using the Keck Observatory in Hawaii is just three times the mass of Earth and it orbits the parent star squarely in the middle of the star’s “Goldilocks zone,” a potential habitable region where liquid water could exist on the planet‘s surface. If confirmed, this would be the most Earth-like exoplanet yet discovered and the first strong case for a potentially habitable one. The discoverers also say this finding could mean our galaxy may be teeming with prospective habitable planets.
“Our findings offer a very compelling case for a potentially habitable planet,” said Steven Vogt from UC Santa Cruz. “The fact that we were able to detect this planet so quickly and so nearby tells us that planets like this must be really common.”
Vogt and his team from the Lick-Carnegie Exoplanet Survey actually found two new planets around the heavily studied red dwarf star Gliese 581, where planets have been found previously. Now with six known planets, Gliese 581 hosts a planetary system most similar to our own. It is located 20 light years away from Earth in the constellation Libra.
Gliese 581 is one of the most studied stars in our sky with no less than 6 exoplanets being discovered orbiting it. It’s a red dwarf star meaning it’s much less bright than our sun and is quite a bit less massive. Still the planets that are orbiting it look very familiar with one of it’s planets being very much like Venus (very close to the sun, probably a planetary hot house) and another quite like Mars (much further out, could potentially have or hosted life). The Gliese 581 system provides evidence that our kind of solar system, one with a diverse range of planets and several habitable candidates, is quite possibly very common. Gliese 581g is exciting because unlike it’s two sister planets it’s right smack bang in the middle of the habitable zone, and with that comes the chance of life.
In this picture Gliese 581 resides right near the bottom with the habitable zone being quite close to the parent star, right up to a mere 10% of the distance from earth to our star. Gliese 581g lies right in the middle of this zone and due to the close proximity this leads to a few interesting characteristics. A year on Gliese 581g is a little over 36 days long which is amazing when you consider Mercury, the closest planet to our star, still takes around 88 days to complete one rotation around our sun. Because of this close proximity to its parent Gliese 581g is also tidally locked to it, forcing the same side of the planet to always face the red dwarf star. Because of this I do not believe that life as we know it could exist on this planet. However that does not mean life could not survive (or even thrive) there.
Our version of life is the only model we’ve got to go on right now since we really haven’t come across anything different. Whilst many forms of life might look completely alien to us they all shared the same basics that enabled other life to thrive on earth. The key to all life as we know it is water as nearly everywhere on earth where there’s some form of water we tend to find life teaming there, even in the most inhospitable conditions. Gliese 581g is big enough that it should be able to hold onto a tenable atmosphere and the temperatures at the surface should be sufficient to support liquid water. However the weather on the surface would be anything but calm as cold wind from the night side of the planet would be constantly blowing thanks to the constant heating of the day side. The terminus boundary between eternal night and day could serve as a habitable strip all across the entire planet, but this is where things get tricky.
The day/night and seasonal cycles of this planet have greatly influenced how life formed on this planet. Gliese 581g would have none of these things with no orbital tilt to speak of to generate the seasons and either constant day or night depending on which side of the planet you were on. This means that any life that evolved there would have to cope with such conditions, eliminating the need for a circadian rhythm and any kind of seasonal behaviour. Since nearly all species of life on earth rely on both these mechanisms for survival the life on Gliese 581g would be wildly different from our own, probably lacking the need for sleep and being almost constantly active. Of course there would be other selection pressures at work here as well, leading to even more alien forms of life.
Is life guaranteed to exist there as so many articles claim? Not in the slightest. There are so many factors that lead up to the development of life that we just can’t be certain one way or another. There are some theories that the Moon played a large part in kick starting life on earth and right now we can’t tell if Gliese 581g even has one. There’s also the real possibility that our new celestial cousin has a thick, acidic atmosphere killing any early stages of life well before they had the chance to adapt. Until we can get more data on the planet anything we say about life there is purely speculative and really it will always be that way until we send a probe there to investigate.
Still Gliese 581g means so much to us for what it symbolises. It shows us that our solar system isn’t unique in the galaxy and gives evidence to support the idea that there are untold numbers of planets that are potentially habitable. We’re on the brink on discovering many, many more of planets like Gliese 581g and each one will give us some insight into the formation of our universe and ultimately life itself. We’re still a long way from being able to explore them for ourselves but I know that one day we mere humans will journey to those stars and revel in their beauty.