Editor’s Note: Time to rewrite the textbooks

Welcome to the first quarterly issue of Cosmos

magazine. I hope you’re sitting down, because
there’s a lot of head-spinning stuff in here. So many
things you thought you knew that just ain’t so.

Here are a few samplers.

At high school you probably learnt the Solar
System had nine planets. Eleven years ago, with the
banishment of Pluto, we were down to eight. Now
astronomers believe there’s almost certainly a ninth
after all. Quaintly, they are using the same logic that
led them to search for Pluto a century ago.

Pluto’s existence was deduced from the skewed
orbit of Uranus; now it’s oddities in the orbits of
objects in the Kuiper belt (where Pluto resides) that
point to a lurking lone giant up to 1,200 times more
distant from the Sun than the Earth. Ten teams
are training giant telescopes on its likely orbit and
expect to nab it within the year.

So you may soon be learning new planet
mnemonics along with the kids. You’ll also be
discussing our new sister solar system: that of the
red dwarf star Trappist-1, just 8% the size of our
sun, and its seven “Earth-like” planets.

Trappist-1 is 39 light years or 369 trillion
kilometres away – too far to travel to but close
enough for space telescopes to get a good view
of it while its planets whirl by, dimming its light.
What is so exciting is that at least three of the seven
planets are the right distance from the star for liquid water to exist. Life has a chance – especially since
red dwarves, being so small, burn very slowly. Ten
trillion years from now, when our solar system is
long gone, Trappist -1 and its seven planets will still
be around.

While we’re in space, let’s think about black
holes. Hard to fathom, but at least I thought I
understood one thing about them: they were the
final stage of a very large star, after it had exploded
and contracted its mass down to the size of
something less than an atom. In other words, black
holes were presumed to be the final chapter in the
life of stars and galaxies.

Now, however, astrophysicists have evidence
that supermassive black holes existed in the infant
universe when galaxies were just being born.
Instead of being epitaphs, black hole behemoths
seem to have shaped our baby universe.

Finally to dinosaurs. Most of us know them
from Steven Spielberg’s 1993 blockbuster Jurassic
Park. Velociraptor was sort of accurate at the
time (though about twice as large as the true
Mongolian Velociraptor, more like North America’s
Deinonychus). But the Jurassic sequels should have
made the raptors fluffy, like baby chicks. Of course,
that might have taken away their star power.

We know this largely from shocking discoveries
that have taken place in China since 1996. The
shocks have kept on coming.

Just when we thought dinosaurs couldn’t get any
weirder, in 2015 Chinese palaeontologist superstar
Xu Xing discovered a bird dinosaur with bat wings.
It’s a brave palaeontologist who dares write a
textbook these days.

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