Shooting Down Earth's Surplus Suns

Houyi shoots down the surplus suns. Yuexiu Park, Guangzhou, China

My visit to China was hardly a vacation. Yet between all the life-changing events and the quest for a decent meal in Nanning, I did manage to absorb some of the nation's rich culture.

We visited museums and parks. I read up on Chinese folktales and mythology. I particularly enjoyed the story of Houyi, who in ancient times saved the world from blistering death by shooting down the Earth's nine surplus suns. With only one G-type main-sequence star burning up the sky, it's actually cool enough to get stuff done.

The details vary depending on who's telling the story, but it's actually a rather interesting take on the Goldilocks principle. Why is everything just right for life on Earth?

It also forces one to ponder an Earth with two suns.

An Earth with Two Suns?

Yes, our solar system houses but a single star and there's really no two ways about it. And if Earth was a circumbinary planet, like the fictional Tatooine or the very-real Kepler-16b? Well, of those two examples we have to focus on the one that's real. According to astrophysicist Alan Boss, if Earth served Kepler-16b's two small stars, we'd experience longer years and abysmally cold temperatures.

But that doesn't mean we'll never glimpse the illusion of two suns burning in Earth's sky. Red giant Betelgeuse should explode in a type II supernova sometime in the next million years, which should burn just bright enough in the sky to look like a second sun. Expect that to last a couple of weeks.

If conditions are right, you can glimpse multiple suns in the sky without the aid of supernovae or powerful hallucinogens. Mock suns or parhelia are a well-established natural phenomenon.

About the Author: Robert Lamb spent his childhood reading books and staring into the woods — first in Newfoundland, Canada and then in rural Tennessee. There was also a long stretch in which he was terrified of alien abduction. He earned a degree in creative writing. He taught high school and then attended journalism school. He wrote for the smallest of small-town newspapers before finally becoming a full-time science writer and podcaster. He’s currently a senior writer at HowStuffWorks and has co-hosted the science podcast Stuff to Blow Your Mind since its inception in 2010. In his spare time, he enjoys traveling with his wife Bonnie, discussing dinosaurs with his son Bastian and crafting the occasional work of fiction.