Previously in ‘Beginners’ Astronomy’, I highlighted a number of howlers – major mistakes – in space films, comic strips etc. (ON 25th September, 2nd and 9th October, 2022.) So it’s only fair to point out some examples that I thought were equally wrong, and more recently have turned out not to be wrong after all, to everyone’s surprise including mine. It’s not without precedent: in 1930 Sir James Jeans suggested a model for the formation of the Solar System in a very close encounter between the Sun and a passing star – an event so unlikely that it might happen only once in the history of a galaxy. That hypothesis held sway until 1955, when Fred Hoyle and others came up with a new model for star and planetary formation in which they would originate together, and planetary systems would be common. But starting with the first interstellar novel (The Skylark of Space, by E.E. ‘Doc’ Smith in 1928), science fiction writers had simply ignored the scientific consensus, and eventually proved to be right.
It’s worth noting that Sydney Jordan’s Jeff Hawke strip started in the Daily Express in 1954, when Sir James’s views still dominated the field, yet it involved consequences of a stellar encounter. Jeff Hawke began as a squadron leader, an RAF test pilot sent up to investigate a UFO over southern England (Fig. 1). After colliding with it, he was rescued by the occupants (‘The Shining Ones’) and after recovering from his injuries, he was offered the chance to become a kind of special agent, touring the Milky Way to sort out problems on planets (a bit like Doctor Who, but not freelance). The strip had been backed by Lord Beaverbrook’s nephew, Max Aitken (a World War 2 fighter pilot), but he and the readers preferred the RAF background, and after the first story Hawke was returned to Earth and became the senior astronaut in the space programme Britain never had.
In that first story, he was taken to a planet called Kalgar, orbiting Proxima Centauri, which had an intriguing back story. In the relatively recent past, a few million years at most, but probably a lot less, its system had been passed through by ‘a dying sun’, leaving most of the habitable planet a desert (Fig. 2). A rocky fragment, though having a strong magnetic field, was captured into orbit around Kalgar’s existing moon (Fig. 3), and as satellites of satellites are unstable, that can’t have been much more than a million years before, at most. ‘The Old Ones’, evidently high-tech outsiders, evacuated the planet and left the inhabitants with a fleet of spaceships which they didn’t know how to use.
Evidently the minor moon’s orbit has shifted since the autopilot of the ship Hawke takes over was programmed, because it undergoes a grazing collision and veers off into space. When Hawke regains consciousness, it is already in a decaying spiral around Proxima Centauri (Fig. 4) and needs all its power to escape. Hawke’s method, turning the ship tail-first to the star and engaging full power, was used years later in a Thunderbirds episode to rescue the crew of a manned solar probe, but it won’t work, only putting the ship on what ancient astronomers would have called an epicycle, and bringing it back into the danger zone at perihelion. What he needs to do is to accelerate along the line of flight into a new orbit away from the star. ‘The most effective way to get anywhere in the Universe is to go off at a tangent.’ Nevertheless the ship breaks away and gets back to Kalgar in a matter of hours, which seemed impossible to me even when I was 8 years old, and I wrote it up as such when I began publishing notes on the stories with the reprints of them in Jeff Hawke’s Cosmos, 2004-2020.
In August 2017, however, there was exciting news from the European Southern Observatory. Between January and April that year, a team of astronomers conducted a search programme called Pale Red Dot (Fig. 5), by analogy with Carl Sagan’s description of Earth from Voyager 1 as a ‘Pale Blue Dot’. The object was to seek a planet orbiting Proxima Centauri, the nearest star to the Sun at 4.2 light-years. Proxima is a red dwarf star, invisible to the naked eye from here, and it orbits at 0.1 light-years from the bright double star Alpha Centauri, whose smaller component seemed to have a planet which was earth size, but orbiting too close to be habitable. That discovery has now been called into question.
Amazingly, though, the Pale Red Dot search found definite proof of a Proxima planet, with 1.3 times the mass of the Earth, orbiting with a period of 11.1 days at a distance of 7 million kilometres (4.5 million miles), well within the ecosphere, the distance from the star at which liquid water could exist on a planet with a suitable atmosphere. (That has interesting possibilities for the mystery of the Green Children of Woolpit, [ON, June 19th and 26th, 2022], because the planet could well fit the description of the children’s world.) Proxima-b’s distance from the star is only 18 times the Moon’s distance from Earth (Fig. 6), so under continuous 1g acceleration, the Old Ones’ ship could hit the star in only an hour and a half!
No sooner did I write that than another red dwarf system came into prominence, again making Sydney possibly right. The Jeff Hawke story ‘The Book of the Worlds’, (Daily Express 17/9/70 – 10/1/71, reprinted in Jeff Hawke’s Cosmos Vol. 6 No.1), began in ‘the Empire of the Seven Planets of Kandar’, which I said in my Notes were ‘implausibly close together’. In May 2016 there was a small sensation when the Transiting Planets and Planetesimals Small Telescope in Chile discovered three Earth-sized planets skirting the habitable zone of a red dwarf designated TRAPPIST-1, 40 light-years away. Their orbital plane allowed multiple transits of the star, seen from here, and follow-up infrared observations allowed NASA’s orbiting Spitzer telescope to detect four more Earth-sized planets by February 2017, at least three of them in the habitable zone (Fig. 7), with volcanic activity possibly making the outer ones habitable as well. And volcanic activity was likely, due to tidal effects, because they were so closely grouped that they would be seen from one another as discs, large enough to show continents and cloud features. NASA’s artists lost no time in adding a TRAPPIST-1 poster to their series of retro travel posters, featuring objects in the Solar System and exoplanets (Fig. 8).
Sadly, further observations from the Konkoly Observatory in Budapest seem to rule out habitability for any of the new planets. TRAPPIST-1 is an exceptionally active flare star, with events hundreds of thousands of times more powerful than the Carrington Event of 1859, the most powerful solar flare on record. At that intensity a planet’s atmosphere might take 30,000 years to recover, and for the TRAPPIST-1 planets, they happen every 48 hours. (Evan Gough, ‘TRAPPIST-1 Is Showing a Bit Too Much Flare’, Universe Today, April 4th, 2017). No sooner had those conclusions been published, than the Hubble Space Telescope detected water vapour in the TRAPPIST-1 system, suggesting that the ecosphere planets might have earthlike conditions after all, and even that some of them might be water-worlds with no solid surface (Fig. 9). It was suggested that the James Webb Space Telescope could even detect the presence of life (Fig. 10), and first reports said that water had indeed been detected at TRAPPIST-1b, the innermost planet, which would be a little surprising since it’s the closest one to the star. However, full observations have now been made public, and no atmopshere has been detected there, which dents the chances for the planets further out being habitable, but isn’t conclusive. (Tereza Pultarova, ‘James Webb Telescope Finds No Atmosphere on Earth-Like TRAPPIST-1 Exoplanet’, Space.com, 27th March 2023.)
When the Daily Express suddenly terminated Jeff Hawke in 1974, at the end of a 20-year run, they allowed Sydney only a brief wind-up in which he brought back the Shining Ones, without their flying saucer, to remind Hawke of their promise that one day he would ‘dwell with them among the stars’. Three more stories had been completed (‘The Winds of Mars’, ‘Morrotorro’ and ‘Heir Apparent!’), and these continued to run in syndication overseas. ‘Morrotorro’ and the beginning of ‘The Winds of Mars’ appeared in the Scottish Daily News, during its brief existence, and when that folded the late Chris Boyce tried to persuade the Daily Record to take it on. They wouldn’t take what they saw as the Daily Express‘s cast-off, but they were persuaded to commission a new strip called Lance McLane, which began in 1976. It was set a hundred years in the future, after the inner Solar System had been wrecked by an explosion on the Sun. A ‘near solid’ plasma ball the size of the Earth had grazed the Earth-Moon system, moving the planet bodily outwards in its orbit, causing the Moon to rebound from the Earth with a great divot broken off to form a ring, and causing the Earth to revert to a ‘snowball’ condition with open water only in a narrow band round the equator (Fig. 11). The singer-songwriter Ian Davidson, who was editing Nuclear Free Scotland at the time, asked me to write an article called ‘Great Science Fiction Disasters’, contrasting some of them with nuclear war. I illustrated it with the flashback to C-Day (‘C’ for ‘Collision’) in the first Lance McLane story (‘Final Frontier’), and captioned it ‘Nothing trivial, I hope’, pointing out that it happened before the story even got going (Fig. 12).
The first five McLane stories were collected by the Jeff Hawke Club as a book, Earthspace, and in it I said that the ‘near-solid’ plasma ball wasn’t physically possible – but 40 years after the story appeared, the Hubble Space Telescope found similar fireballs being ejected from the star V Hydrae, 1100 light-years away. Each is twice as hot as the Sun and has more than twice the mass of Mars, enough to cause even more damage than ‘Final Frontier’s’. At their speed, they would reach the Earth-Moon system from the Sun in just 30 minutes, and the evidence suggests it’s been happening every 8.5 years for the last four centuries at least. (‘Hubble Detects Giant “Cannonballs” Shooting from Star’, JPL News, Jet Propulsion Laboratory, 6th October 2016.) But to be fair, it seems that the events are due to an extraordinary set of circumstances. V Hydrae is a red giant star, partly obscured every 17 years by some unknown object, and it’s thought that a companion star in an elliptical orbit is actually plunging through the giant’s outer atmosphere every 8.5 years and firing off the blobs from an accretion disc as it scoops up captured material (Fig. 13). To do that with the Sun you’d need the penetrator to be a superdense object like a mini-black-hole. There had been a suggestion back in the 1970s that the Tunguska explosion of 1908 might not have been an asteroid or comet impact, but a mini-black-hole passing through the Earth, but it was soon realised that the effects at the emergence point in the Atlantic would have been equally dramatic (Fig. 14).
It might suggest that the C-Day event was no accident, and Sydney Jordan began to imply that in later McLane stories such as ‘Frozen Assets’ (1982) and ‘Virus’ (1986). I put this to him when I was writing Notes on them, but he insisted that if so, he wasn’t aware of it. Sydney wasn’t always aware of the implications of his stories, and as the Daily Record terminated the strip without warning in 1988, we’ll never know if this would have led to a showdown with the aliens who seemed to be in the frame for it (I might well have written one, once I’d worked it out).
The McLane stories ran as a sequence, always 100 years from the date of publication, and in them Lance McLane was surgeon-commander on a starship called Hope, one of three (Faith, Hope and Charity, like the Gloster Gladiators which defended Malta in World War 2, Fig. 15) which were holding civilisation together on Earth, Moon, Mars and outlying outposts. I had been in touch with Sydney Jordan for years (I was the one who pointed out in 1969 that he had predicted the date of the Moon landing almost exactly, ten years earlier.) When we first met, at the British Easter Science Fiction Convention in 1978, his first words were, “Oh, you’re Duncan Lunan – I want you to write stories for me.” I wrote or contributed to 10 stories over the next ten years.
Meanwhile, unknown to me, there had been a major development. As ‘Heir Apparent!’ approached its conclusion in foreign syndication, the newspapers and magazine publishing Jeff Hawke expressed their unhappiness to the Daily Express. The Express wouldn’t agree to restarting the strip, so what happened was that overseas, at the end of ‘Heir Apparent!’ (never published in the UK at the time), Jeff Hawke died when the starship he was in was hit by a mini-black hole (Fig. 16). The Shining Ones, looking on, decided that his story wasn’t over and he was reincarnated in Lance McLane’s shoes, forgetting his earlier life within moments (Fig. 17). So for the next ten years I was actually fulfilling a lifetime’s ambition to write stories for Hawke, without knowing it, even though the story in which it happened (‘The Dear, Dead Days’, 1979) was the first one I’d suggested to Sydney.
Writing Notes on all the stories as they appeared, for Jeff Hawke’s Cosmos, allowed me to make the first complete tally of Jeff Hawke episodes. It came to 10,209 in all, in 114 stories, depending on just how you count the latter. When I relayed that result to Sydney Jordan, his comment was, “No wonder I feel so tired!” But that is how Jeff Hawke came to be the longest-running science fiction comic strip in the world, a record not likely to be broken any time soon.
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