How much realism is too much realism?

So there’s a science fiction story that I kind of want to work on that involves a crew living in a stellar system where a large number of the planets and moons have been terraformed.

Brief sidenote, I found out recently, the reason our solar system is a solar system is because our sun’s name is sol.  So if you’re in another stellar system you apparently either have to call it a stellar system, or use whatever name it has.  I’m currently planning on their sun Luyt, thus making it a luytar system, but I digress.

Anyhow, one of the things that’s frustrating me is determining the weather on these worlds.  I mean, in order to have them survivable I’m just basically going to pretend like humans come up with some kind of system of custom building atmospheres so if you live closer to the sun, it reflects and refracts a lot of the light, and if you live a long way off, they build up the greenhouse gasses to keep as much heat as possible in the atmosphere.  I’m willing to make that leap, or more accurately I’m wiling to assume that my readers will take that leap of faith with me.  But even so,there are questions that need to be answered, like what would the sky look like on a world that has to block out that much sunlight?  Probably opaque and light colored?

But let’s forget about that, the big question, the one that’s driving me nuts, is what life would be like on a moon.  First off, it’s going to spend half its time behind the planet it’s orbiting.  It won’t necessarily be hidden from the sun for all of that, but for some of it, certainly.  Especially if it’s orbiting, let’s say, a gas giant.  And what would the weather and seasons be like?  The earth tilts back and forth creating the seasons, right?  So what would a moon do?  it would tilt even more because of its planet, but it would also be moving closer and farther from the sun as it circles the planet.  Would that make it notably hotter and notably colder, or is the only important question how much sunlight it’s getting?

Part of me wants to ignore these things.  I certainly haven’t read anything about it in any other books I’ve come across, and even if i do figure this out, I’m honestly not sure if it will play a part in the story i want to write, but dammit, it could be incredibly important!  And how the hell do you find something like that out?!


2 thoughts on “How much realism is too much realism?”

  1. If you check the definition of “solar system” on, the second possible definition is any star with its attendant orbiting bodies. From the American Heritage dictionary.
    In response to terraforming: some research on proposed terraforming techniques for various planets in the solar system: Mars, Venus, Europa (moon), Titan (moon), should give you plenty of material for very interesting quirks for each of the planets in your system. From my own personal experience as a writer I have always found that doing the research and coming up with a basic, logical framework for technology, culture, law, etc. and then sticking to that framework leads me to interesting folds in the story that I never would have thought of without the research, adding an important layer of depth, so I encourage you to do so.

    That said, some starting points: First, google each of the planets/moons I mentioned along with the word “terraform” and/or “colonize”. That should get you something.

    Additional starter ideas:
    -One way of heating a world too far from its star is to have orbiting mirror satellites. Large ones of these would be very obvious and look like additional very-bright moons. Howard Tayler of Schlockmercenary (great Sci-Fi comic which strikes the right balance between realism and fun. Read it all and you’ll learn lots.) refined this idea further by having a Saturn-like ring of mini-mirror satellites circling the Earth and programmed to provide additional diffuse sunlight wherever it was needed. Again, very distinctive, and his could even display messages in the sky on the giant golden ring.
    -Greenhouse gasses are one way of heating of a planet, definitely. Getting the right atmosphere on Mars would heat it considerably. However, a magnetosphere (look that up) is partly required to protect that atmosphere and the occupants of the planet from solar winds. Getting a magnetosphere requires an iron core to the planet, like Earth has and Mars probably does not (at least, not to the extent Earth does). I have pondered the possibility that a culture with enough power could drill into a planet and drop iron mined from asteroids into the hole (filling the core and heating it at the same time) until there was enough there to melt together and form a core. Of course, this is crazy-powerful terraforming in some ways.
    -Venus has an atmosphere so dense that one option for colonizing it is to make floating colonies that would ride in a cultivated oxygen layer up in the clouds. Look up “venus floating habitat” for that idea.
    -Some planets are tidally locked. This means one side always faces the star while the other faces away. At the right distance terraforming could be possible around the twilight band circling the planet between dark and light side. Makes for a very interesting colony. However, tidally locked planets also have drawbacks (in theory). Our moon is an example of something that is tidally locked.
    -Planets with moons are different from planets without moons. Look up “moon benefits earth” for a bunch of articles on what the moon does for us. After that, consider how a moon might be provided for a planet that has no moon. One possibility is by rounding up several larger asteroids or just one really big one (some of them, like Ceres, are so big they are round like a planet or big moon) and carefully routing them into a safe orbit with explosives, space drives, or by bank-shotting them with smaller asteroids in an astronomical billiards game.
    -For keeping light OUT you could have a layer of outward-facing mirror satellites that surround the entire planet, or, better, outward facing solar-power satellites that gather power and then ship it either to nearby space stations, directly to the planet below by microwave, or to an anchored space-elevator station which would then route it very safely to the planet below through solid powerlines. These would look very interesting in the sky and would eliminate basic power concerns entirely.
    -You could also have a gigantic solar-array that sits between the planet and its star and absorbs SOME of the light through a translucent solar cell (we have these already in the form of windows that absorb 1% of the light passing through them for power). However, keeping that gigantic satellite, or network of satellites, on station would probably be more difficult than getting a similar network to settle into a geostationary orbit around the planet itself. We already have one of those in the form of all our GPS satellites.
    -Some very cold planets or moons might have icy surfaces that cover liquid seas. People could live in sub-marine habitats under the ice and farm marine life in those seas.
    -One author, I hate to not give credit but I can’t remember who right now, wrote about genetically engineered algae with built-in hydrogen-gas-pods that allowed it to float in the upper atmosphere and gather sunlight before it came near the ground. That would make another option for a slightly-too-close planet. The sky would probably be very green.
    -It could be possible to maintain a continuous cloud cover in the upper atmosphere. Imagine having 90% coverage by cirrus or stratus clouds every day. The planet would look very white from space, and would have a very hazy sky always. Would probably be maintained by weather satellites, although you CAN use a ground-based network of antennae to bounce microwave signals off the ionosphere and heat portions of the ocean, theoretically providing weather control. Look up “HAARP” and prepare to feel like you’ve entered crazy town.

    Moving on from there, here is some thinking on living on a moon.
    First, how hot or how cold or how much sun depends on the period of rotation of the moon itself (how often it turns all the way around, if it DOES turn independent of its orbit around its planet, which ours DOES NOT), the orbital period around the planet, and the planet’s orbital period around the star. Also, how many stars, because you can have some crazy binary and trinary star systems. There may be a calculator or simulator somewhere that can do the math or flat-out show you simulated skies. I’m not sure. Google is your friend. Here is Wikipedia’s article on extraterrestrial skies to get you started:

    In response to the question of how much light a moon will get when it’s behind its planet, that depends on the planet. If the planet is, say, Jupiter, then the answer is probably none. HOWEVER, in the case of Jupiter, Jupiter itself puts off a considerable amount of heat, so its moons DO get infrared when they go behind.
    If the planet is like Earth, then the amount of light will be almost zero when the planet is directly in between the moon and the star (there would be some light refracted around the planet through its atmosphere, if it has one) and all kinds of different amounts of light at other times.
    It IS a mindboggling question and probably something you will want to track down an astronomer for, unless you can find a simulator of some kind.
    On the question of how important it is, do you think that three or so days (72 hours) of pitch black every 27 days would affect how people live? That’s how important figuring out the amount of light on a moon is. The reward for figuring out that crazy level of detail is that, once you figure out how to convey it in the story, it will really give people the sense that this is taking place on another world that is very different from our own.


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