Friday, 16 January 2015

Fast Interstellar Travel: External Propulsion

Project Daedalus, a actual design proposal 
The Problem
   'Space is big, mindbogglingly big.  You may thing it is a long way to the chemists, but that's peanuts to space...'  says the Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy, and it's true.  Not only is space big in size, but anything associated with interstellar space grows to enormous proportions; spacecraft, cost, political resistance, fuel, mass ratio.   This is, quite simply, the problem.  To reach even a nearby star in a reasonable amount of time requires a vast expenditure of effort and money.  We could have dispatched a probe to another star system by now, if humanity was prepared to work together and use the entire world supply of nuclear explosives for Orion pulse drive charges.  Proposed designs continue the theme of big and expensive.  Daedalus, 190 meters long, 54,000 tonnes initial mass, and fifty years to take a 450 tonne payload to a target six light years away; it also does not have enough fuel to stop at the destination.  The Enzmenn Starship, 600 meters long and needing three million tonnes of deuterium fuel to deliver a colonising expedition of 200 people to a nearby star.  The Valkyrie, only 2100 tonnes initial mass, but ten kilometres long, and needing a thousand tonnes of antimatter, the most expensive and dangerous substance in the world.  I could go on, but I think you get the point.
   Although much of the cost of the first starship built is likely to be research and development, successive starships will have budgets dominated by the sheer unyielding bulk of raw and processed materials, not to mention skilled and unskilled labour, needed to construct and supply such a vessel.  Normally there are two basic types of starship, big vessels like worldships, and smaller starships that take advantage of high speed to cut down on supply mass and crew size.  With fuel measured in the hundred thousand tonnes, an smaller vessel is obviously the preferred option; but with a smaller vessel the trip must be faster in order to be completed within the vessels endurance.  As performance is increased, mass ratios and needed exhaust velocities become prohibitive, pushing the boundaries of physical possibility.  It reaches the point where it becomes clear not conventional rocket propelled starship will ever provide the transport needed by a truley interstellar humanity.  But what can?  Enter the concept of External Propulsion, the main classes of which I explain below.


   There are two kinds of beamed propulsion, beamed power, and beam-riders.  The idea of the first is to rid a spacecraft of the mass of a nuclear power supply.  As most interplanetary spacecraft have a large amount of the mass budget allocated to this, it drastically increases performance.  The same technique can be used with either a thermal engine, using a laser beam, or a electric engine, using a microwave beam.  Although great for interplanetary applications, as well as powering missiles, it is not as good for interstellar work as the fuel mass for a starship would still be prohibitive, due to the engines performance being the same, just with a lighter spacecraft to push.  The second removes the remass as well as the fuel, using a beam to transfer momentum to the starship.  As the entire propulsion system is no longer on the spacecraft, this frees the starship from the tyranny of the Tsiolkovsky rocket equation.  The mass ratio becomes infinite, and the top speed the craft can reach is limited only by the velocity of the beam that is transferring momentum.  Thus, with the correct technology, even a small spacecraft can make rapid interstellar transits.  Well, relatively rapid.
   First we'll look at the pros and cons of beamed propulsion in general, then look at specific systems and their foibles.
Pros: the interstellar craft itself can be smaller, and more of it devoted to crew and life support or cargo, making the trip more endurable.  The velocity attained is likely to be higher than an independent starship, and so the voyage is easier as a result.  The fact that the propulsion stations remain in the departure system means that they are not throwaway like many starship designs, but can be used to launch other missions, or as part of an interplanetary transport network, paying back some of the construction cost, which increases the chance of colonisation ever occurring.  Although it ight take a whole system to build the launching network, anyone with the mont might be able to by a starship, leading to interesting scenarios.
Cons: initial cost of the propulsion installations is likely to be similar to that of a starship.  All the stations must be coordinated, requiring a good deal of organisation and logistics, but then, perhaps no more than a starship.  The beams, have to be aimed over possibly lightyears, and kept running for years.  The starship is at the mercy of the people controlling the beams, and sabotage may be a bigger danger.  Also, a set of beams capable of accelerating a starship will be awesome weapons, and it is unlikely any government will want another government to own them.  So either everyone is basically at ware anyway, or there is a single government with power in space.  The most annoying downside is that for an exploratory starship there is no network of beam-stations to help it slow down, and so either rockets or some kind of Solar Sail must be used.

   This uses a beam of plasma to push the spacecraft.  It can work at much longer ranges than expected because the spacecraft uses a MagSail to capture and focus the plasma beam, preventing it from dissipating as much as it would otherwise.  Current designs have a maximum mass of ten tonnes, but this might be possible to increase.  If not, it could be used to launch and accelerate smaller masses as part of a mass-beam station.
   In this design a beam of solid particles of conceivably any size are fired at the rear of the spacecraft.  There they are deflected by the spacecraft, either using magnetic or electric fields, or a solid bumper.  Many devices can be used to create the Mass-Beam, rail guns, coil guns, particle beams, ram accelerators, or even small laser propelled LightSails.  It is also possible to use Orion nuclear pulse charges as the masses in the beam, detonating them in the normal way.  This combines the power of Orion with the mass ratio and delta-Vee of a beamrider, so is a plausible choice.  However, a particle beam, perhaps combined with an orion booster, is most likely for an interstellar application, as it can have high velocity and energy content.
   The spacecraft for this is a solar sail, reflecting the light from a battery of lasers.  Although the lasers have the highest possible velocity(3E8 m/s), they also need the highest power per unit of acceleration.  This makes me think that a particle beam starship is much more likely, but like the MagBeam, a LightBeam could accelerate hundreds of A4 sized foil sails as the mass in a MassBeam spacecraft.  The advantage of a LightBeam is the range over which it can be focused, and the possible maximum velocity attainable is as close to c as the energy budget can afford, as the beam itself naturally travels at the speed of light.  The disadvantage is the very low acceleration per unit of power in the beam.  A mass beam of the same input energy will transfer a lot more momentum.  But because of the advantages and disadvantages of both it is likely a MassBeam will be used for initial acceleration, and a LightBeam for reaching high cruising speeds.

Solar Sails
   There are various kinds of solar sails - magnetic, plasma, photon - but they all share common traits. Each depends on the output of the Sun or another star to create a reaction force.  Like a beamrider they have an infinite mass ratio, and a very high delta Vee.  Unlike a beamed propulsion vessel they do not depend on a station and the difficulty of supplying it, running it, aiming it, and so on.  If a Sail with high enough performance could be built it would easily become a likely candidate for interstellar travel, quite aside from being far more romantic than several hundred thousand tonnes of complicated pluming.  The main disadvantage with the designs that have been considered or proposed in real life are low accelerations and huge engineering challenges in building a sail of potentially hundreds of kilometres.  If the spacecraft dips closer to the sun in order to accelerate faster, in a kind of Oberth boot, then it is difficult to make the spacecraft strong sough to survive that close to the sun.

   Photon, or LightSails, are the simplest of all spacecraft.  Face a large enough mirror toward the sun and the momentum transferred by the impinging photons will provide a infinitesimal amount of thrust, although more than an unboosted sail of the other varieties.  It is small, but with an infinite mass ratio and steady thrust very high performance is possible.  A LightSail might not be able to reach a fast interstellar cursing speed alone, but with laser stations throughout the solar system it should be possible.  Like other sails it is also a good option as a potentially lightweight deceleration system when travelling to an uninhabited system.
   A MagSail acts against the solar wind, the steady stream of charged and uncharged particles that stream out from the sun at 900 km/s.  The sail itself is a huge superconducting magnetic ring that acts against the particles to create thrust.  Although it has more less(Edited; sorry to anyone who this misled) thrust than a solar sail, it also requires advanced high temperature superconductors, and an onboard power supply.  Originally conceived as a 'parachute' of kinds to decelerate an interstellar probe, the MagSail is often consider in that role for starships, and also ties in nicely with a particle peak based MassBeam launching plan.
   Known as the Mini-magnetospheric plasma sail(M2P2), this Solar Sail is basically a recreation of the Earth's magnetic field.  Instead of using a massive superconducting ring like a MagSail it uses very low density plasma to inflate a magnetic field, creating an enormous area for the solar wind to push against.  Although it needs an onboard supply of hydrogen for the plasma it is achievable with today's technology with some development, and advantage over the MagSail.  It should also prove to be more controllable, than the other forms of Solar Sail.

Space Train
   Somewhat whimsically named, the Space Train is a variant of a Beamrider.  However, the beam itself does not provide the impulse needed for DeltaV, it is merely the fuel and/or reaction-mass.  The 'track' is a path of Orion nuclear pulse units that have been laid over a expanse of relatively flat space.  As the spacecraft passes each charge it detonates, providing acceleration.  Alternately, the track can be a path of particles or plasma used to feed a Bussard Ramjet style craft.  Admittedly I cannot see the benefits of this system, and it is unusual to say the least.  Laying the 'track' could prove as difficult as building beam stations for a conventional BeamRider.  Note that this is quite obscure and hard to find on the internet compared to the other systems in this blogpost.

Interstellar Ramjets
   I'm not sure if the Bussard Ramjet qualifies as external propulsion, but it shares many of the same advantages.  However, the technical achievements needed to make one plausable probably mean that it has few advantages over more brute force methods, and the actual vessel may still be overly large.  However, if one were built, an eternal propulsion method would be ideal for getting it up to the speed where it begins to function effectively, especially the 'railway' method.

Far Future
   All of the methods proposed so far have been ones that lie within the realm of the hardest of 'hard SF'.  But what of a setting in which there is some magitech allowed, but the laws of Relativity still hold?  A force field device may, as I have already explained in another post, make fusion drives of great power mere child's play.  But even so the amount of infrastructure needed to supply a interstellar ship with fuel and remass is staggering, and likely to be prohibitively expensive, so external propulsion is likely to still be considered, especially if routine travel is the goal.  Along with superconductors that work without cryogenic cooling that would allow huge improvements in the performance of most of the above mentioned technologies, all of which rely on some magnetic-based technology.  Another option is a forcefield that can be used as a Solar Sail, reflecting perfectly both light and solar wind, able to closely approach the Sun, and easy to stow or deploy.  The applications in power generation also help to make BeamRiders more practicable.
   In my own fictional 'Verse the richest of the rich routinely travel between stars at relativistic speeds in order to take advantage of time dilation to prolong their effective life, much as Ender does in the Ender's Game universe.  They use ships that are a mix of BeamRiders and Solar Sails, the beams provided by interplanetary transport companies.  This 'effective life' is a measure of social standing, and is the difference in time between what they have experienced, and what time has passed in their home system.  As the 'Verse is nearing Post Scarcity, interstellar flight is one thing the rich can afford that other individuals cannot; a Ferrari supercar is not such a status symbol when anyone with a medium level 'fabber' (a kind of replicator using molecular 3D printing) and a few thousand dollars for raw materials can have one.

What does this mean?
   There are only a few simple constraints that these forms of interstellar transport are likely to impose.  Interstellar commerce will be virtually extinct, except for things which only have value because they cannot be created in the destination system.  Works of art, historical artefacts, information, and talented individuals might therefor be the main items of trade, and it would likely be intermittent and sporadic.  Interstellar war is almost impossible.  To retreat you would need to build quite considerable infrastructure, in the case of a BeamRider, and anyway, what is the point in the first place?  Thus even when known to be doable, interstellar travel is likely to be nigh non-existent in a hard SF universe; but you never know, humanity is never logical at the best of times.

Monday, 12 January 2015

Hard Science Fiction Weapons; Kinetic

Yes, this is what happens when a 2.4g aluminium ball hits a
aluminium plate with 6.8 km/s relative velocity,
~ 14 kJ impact energy
Weapons of Choice: Kinetic

     As I have noted before major warships are unlikely to have a place in a hard SF military constellation( I prefer, when I remember, to use constellation instead of fleet), but this does not mean that warships are non-existent, and those that do exist, will have to be armed.  But in a world where lasers are most commonly found in DVD players, and military units have difficulty taking out fragile missiles, the laser fire that fills the space battles of our imaginations seem no more than dreams.  Then to the technology used in your setting might be such that a spacecraft cannot provide power for a weaponised laser.  Orion drive spacecraft, for example, are fast and powerful, but need separate electric generators as the drive does not produce power like a fission thermal unit can.  Thus if the warcraft are Orion drives or similar, electricity will be at a premium.  Other difficulties include the mass and fragility of radiators needed for large amounts of power generation.
   The solution is both simple and compacted, but has an unexpected advantage for anyone attempting to portray a realistic space battle in a visual medium.  Unpowered kinetic weapons are a must, fuelled by chemical explosives, and self contained missiles and rockets.  While such weapons are the staple of ground warfare in the real world, the designs used are unsuitable for space-based applications, although those that can be used in space often can also be used on the ground.  Due to the shear size of a space conflict the velocity of a projectile must be as high as possible to increase the chance of a hit, and thus lasers, travelling at the speed of light, are preferred.  Fighting with slower kinetic weapons the waring spacecraft must come much closer, making for a more visually dramatic combat. I will look at several systems, and some examples, both real and otherwise, of weapons that can be used without power supplies in a SF military, both in space and on the ground.

The friction trail and impact flash of a HV
kinetic projectile similar to the one in the previous picture.
Light Gas Guns

   One of many factors limiting the muzzle velocity, and thus effective range, of any conventional gun is the speed of sound in the propellant.  A light gas gun, or LGG, bypasses this problem by using a gas with low molecular density, such as hydrogen or helium with a speed of sound several times greater than in air.    This can give muzzle velocities of up to 8 km/s as opposed to the 1-2 km/s of a conventional gun.  Because the hydrogen or helium working fluid cannot itself provide the energy to fire a small amount of conventional propellant is used, although an electric arc is another possibility, and offers weight savings if the power is available.  In a third variant the hydrogen is combusted with a small amount of oxygen, and this type is the combustion light gas gun.    In the most common type the conventional explosive is detonated behind a piston, super-compressing the working fluid until the pressure ruptures a membrane between it and the projectile.  As the barrel has a narrower bore than the piston the working fluid is accelerated, propelling the projectile out of the barrel.
Image from Wikipedia page on Light Gas Guns
      A LGG could easily be built at any scale, as a personal weapon, or as the main armament of a tank, spacecraft, or warship.  A sniper rifle utilising the technology would be especially effective, and so would anti-armour weapons.  Some prototypes of combustion LGGs have been built, and NASA uses small conventional LGGs in hypervelocity impact research, so it is a proven technology, although with some engineering hurdles like weight, reliability, and accuracy before militarisation could be achieved.

The Ram Accelerator

   Like the LGG the Ram Accelerator is used for research purposes, and is being looked at as a method of non-rocket space launch, shooting one ton cargoes into LEO several times per day at a very low cost.  In operation it acts like a scramjet, as shown in the picture to the left, allowing for continuous acceleration along the length of the barrel.  Unlike the LGG the muzzle velocity is not limited by the speed of sound, although a hydrogen/oxygen gas mixture is used. Velocities stained are likely to be similar to a LGG, but there is a possibility of higher speeds than the LGG can ever reach.
   Although the LGG can be scaled down, the Ram Accelerator is likely to have a fairly large minimum size, offset by the fact it is easier to build a large Accelerator as the barrel is a simple metal tube with relatively low stresses combated to a LGG.  A Ram Accelerator is thus suited as the main weapon of a vehicle, perhaps as a spinal mount, or a long ranged bombardment weapon on the surface of a planet.  Like a Combustion LGG the fuel is hydrogen and oxygen, easily extracted from water, and so likely to be available in any location throughout the solar system.  Payloads can be up to a ton, allowing rounds to carry loads such as guided missiles, nuclear warheads, or others.


   Missiles, self targeting, self powered, long ranged and deadly, have a lot to offer in space combat.  While laser point defence may render them useless in a purely kinetic battlefield they are are force to be reckoned with.  Longer ranged missiles may be field by liquid propellants, and carry submunitions or smaller missiles, and be used to open an engagement from long range, while smaller rockets are used as point defines and close quarters weapons.  They are far to varied a field of weaponry to do justice to without a full blogpost dedicate to it, so I will only make a few points.  The first is that in the majority of cases, as I have said before, no warhead will be needed.  The second is that bigger is not necessarily better.  The Sprint Anti-Ballistic Missile, built during the cold war, massed out at 3500 kg, could accelerate at 100g, and had a top speed of mach 5 in atmosphere.  A space  based version would be deadly as a point defines system, or as a close quarters weapon.  At this level of technology the only plausible torch missiles are stripped down orion drive spacecraft, basically just and engine unit.  These could accelerate at thousands of g, and have impact energies of gigatons, acting as cross system ship-killers.
   As an aside, the fabled Gyrojet weapon may have been an failure in its original iteration, but advanced designs or more research could turn it into an effective futuristic weapon, either as a sidearm or a mounted weapon.  It has the advantage of almost zero recoil, which is a obvious advantage when fighting in free fall, and also masses less than a conventional small-arm.

Other Options

   Although not strictly falling under the heading of this blog are nuclear weapons.  Although conventional nuclear explosives are virtually useless in space, nuclear shaped charges or bomb pumped lasers may well rule the battlefield.  These will form the subject of a future post, after I have completed the Kelvin deigns, and several other posts of a non-military nature.

Note from the author 
   This is the first post for a while, and my schedule has been coming apart at the seems, so sorry to anyone who was expecting new posts sooner.  They should be more regular from now on, and I have made Friday the update day, starting next week.  I also intend to start posting my own SF writing on the blog, both short stories, and analysis of settings, to illustrate the concepts that play into world-building.  That should start in a few weeks.  Another possible addition is the inclusion of free Blender  3D meshes of spacecraft parts and components for downloading, if I can get blogger to allow it.  If not, I will find some other place to put them, and include links.  Meshes will mostly be small components like airlocks, docking rings, engines, truss sections, and radiators.