Saturday, 30 May 2015

Interstellar Flight, E-sails, and the Economy of a Solar System

5.9 LY in 50 years
54,000 tonnes for 500 tonnes payload
can't even catch a ride
The Economic Barrier

   As I and others have frequently noted, space is big.  Very big.  And while it may be the final frontier its exploration is far from an insignificant enterprise.  The technological challenges alone are almost unimaginable, and they are dwarfed by even greater challenges in the form of people.  People like to spend mont and time in their own, direct and immediate, interests.  Although spreading to the stars is, in my own opinion, the best way for humanity to survive in the long run, most people cannot see the need for starships - those in charge, at any rate.  Quite aside from the motivation of the people making decisions, the economics of interstellar travel will prevent it for many years to come.  Something like the Daedalus starship of the British Interplanetary Society, pictured above, would cost ~$175 trillion dollars.  Much of that is research cost, and thus gives back in the long term, but anything spent on the starship itself can never bee recovered.  And as much as scientists may argue the value of good data, few politicians would agree with them.

   The solution is to utilised a design that will result in, if not profit, a greatly reduced cost.  Any large - scale interstellar exploration will need large orbital construction facilities, probably utilise asteroid mining, and even might harvest fuel from gas giants.  All in all there will be a lot of infrastructure that needs to be built, adding to the cost.  However, anything geared to mining the asteroids can be put to commercial use once the starship has departed, and represents an investment, not a purchase.  The trick is to minimise the amount of material and tech that actually leaves the solar system, while maximising the amount of tech that can be later used to develop the solar system at a possible profit.

   And for once the universe is playing fair.  It turns out that one of the best systems for a small interstellar craft also best fits the other requirements I've described: the beamrider.  I talked about beamriders here, so I won't go into too much detail about the specific design.  Personally I think that one utilising a e-sail/mag-sail and a plasma based beam would work best.  The beam can provide more momentum for the same amount of power as a laser, so it gives greater acceleration, countering its short range.  Also, the e-sail and magsail are both very effective at decelerating from high speed, so they can be used at the destination.  Another advantage is that it would be harder to use the plasma beam as a weapon, due to a range smaller than hat of a laser, and inability to penetrate Earth's atmosphere, which makes it more likely that governments would allow it to be built.

   Small scale versions could be perfected and used to explore the asteroids and begin mining operations.  These would then be improved as the need for materials increased.  By the time the starship is complete, perhaps fifty-seventy years after the project is started, their are enough large beam stations in various solar obits to boost it to interstellar velocity.  A good tactic would be to start in a orbit distant from the sun, performing the manoeuvre known as a 'sundive' which combines a gravitational slingshot, Oberth flyby, and can use the sail on the starship as a solar sail close to the sun, where it is most effective.

   In a solar system where this has been set up colonisation becomes a reality.  The beams can provide fast interplanetary transport, and also form the basis of an economy.  Coupled with mining, industries that support the colonists, and a secondary economy based on supplying the stations with the mass for the beams.  As more an more people move to the planets and beam stations the need for more mined resources and transport arises, stimulating the economy.

   From the perspective of a SF world builder this provides a compelling hard science 'Verse in which to set a variety of stories.  The beam stations are the centre of a thriving solar system wide economy.  Each could be the centre of a residential space station, income provided by renting the beam and acting as a transport nexus.  Not only this it means that any colonised star system has in place the means of interstellar travel, even if it is still uncommon.  If each beam station is independent politically, very interesting scenarios could play out, with various factions attempting to gain control of the most vital.  Conflict between Earth and the beam stations could provide a refreshing change to colonists on the moon, Mars, or Asteroids.

   I'm not an economist, but that seems to be to be a lot less handwaving that if people are just sent out to mine the asteroids.  That is likely to lead only to unmanned bases, and robotic ships.  The starship project, as an experimental effort, will need people on-sight, and once the infrastructure is in place there is a incentive to use it to regain some of the cost of the starship.  In any case, it is but one vision of the future.

Thursday, 28 May 2015

Worldbuilding Rambles: Names, Technology, and Socio-technic maturity

Ages of Humanity

   One quintessential desire that lies at the heart of Humanity is a desire to give things names not entirely factual.  One example is in the naming of historical periods.  The 'Dark Ages', the 'bronze age', 'iron age', and 'information age', are preferred over a statement of dates being considered, even when a more specific descriptor might be better(one reason is probably that it is easier to remember names than dates).
   Now, the naming of historical periods is somewhat haphazard, but is often associated with a skill, technology, or trend specific to that time; each representing a level of technological maturity.  Thus we have the Stone Age, Bronze Age, Iron Age, Machine Age(Industrial Revolution), Age of Electronics, Space Age, Age of Information, and many more.  It appears that Human history on a global scale can be outlined as stages of technical progression.  It happens on a smaller scale with individual countries and cultures, although faster and with less consistently.

   For the author or worldbuilder this has interesting possibilities.  Suppose a Species/Planetary Civilisation had to pass through mastery of given technologies in order to profess to a certain level of social/cultural/economic development.  To become more than hunter/gatherers humanity needed to master stone, giving them better hunting and building tools, and weapons with which to defend their group/tribe against the less civilised(although it also implies that the uncivilised have a better method to attack).  Metal was needed to take the step toward technology, a material lasting, strong, and workable with reproducible results.  Without the steam age their could have been no Industrial Revolution, without that their might never have been global transport and communication, and practical science would have foundered for decades.  Some ages have died stillborn; the Atomic Age that was epitomised in works such as 2001: A Space Odyssey with its ubiquitous nuclear technology.  Some had no end, and are his widely unrecognised; it could be said that an Age of Mathematics began at the end of the Enlightenment, one that has continued to this day.

   Currently we have the Age of Information, connecting Earth's children together in a way never dreamed of before.  It was born out of the Age of Computers, and might help to give birth to a true Space Age,  since manned starflight seems unattainable without global cooperation.  Dawning is the Age of Carbon, as we begin to master the manipulation of carbon allotropes.

   Anyhow, that is enough rambling for one time.  Not very clear, I'll have to make a timeline graphic showing the progression of civilisation through the mastery of materials and technologies.  Anyone has ideas of what 'Ages' humanity has yet to pass through, please comment.  

Monday, 18 May 2015

Science Fiction Short # 1: The War

Image retrieved from
on 18-5-2015
   Okay, something a little different this time.  Part of one unit I'm doing at the moment requires us to do an adaption of a ancient Greek or Roman myth/legend, and but it up in the public domain.  Being the person I am there was only one choice, the Trojan War in space.  I said it was a little different.  Anyway, I think it turned out OK so I decided to put it up here.  See if you can spot the parallels and changes between it and the original myth.  Loosely speaking the original could be taken to the version written by Apollodorus, although much of it was based on memory rather than on a text in front of me.

The War


Humanity spread to the stars, but some further and faster than others.  While the bulk of humanity remained much as it ever had, a small group set aside old conceptions of humanity and made themselves immortal.  They called themselves Olympians, and in time were almost godlike in power and knowledge.  Some of this knowledge they shared with the rest of the human race, in particular a life extension treatment.

   The treatment was a retrovirus, a engineered nano-machine that mimicked a part of the host’s body until it had entered every cell, inserted its ubiquitous code into the DNA of every replicating chain and banished old age and weakness forever.  It would not grant immortality, it could only stay ageing; it was enough.  Disease, accident, or the mind’s fatigue could still claim life, and did.  But it gave them time, time to rule well and justly.  Not just on their own worlds, but in every star system that harboured life.  

   For star travel is measured in decades, not hours like most journeys a human could undertake.  Relativity meant that a the crew of a starship would think only a few weeks had passed, only to return home and find their family dead, and the very skyline of their home lost in the past.  Few people were willing to undergo that loss, and so travellers were few, and the stars governed each themselves.  And that held humanity back.   

   Before the Immortals granted them this gift the rulers of each star system had no reason to cooperate.  The years of time lag in communication made remote negations for trade or peace impossible, and who can tract a disembodied voice.  Nor could a trusted negotiator be sent; by the time he returned his world would no longer exist.  For a man or woman whose years numbered in the hundreds the trip was at least endurable.  They had lives long enough that a return to a home unseen for fifty years would not cripple them; they had loved ones who lived just as long as they, people to who they would return.  They became the guardians and benefactors of humanity, calling themselves Speakers; that was what they did, speak for their people.

   It was a golden age for humanity, cooperation between star systems sparking efforts that would never have been dreamed of in ages past.  The Olympians, who before had been the driving force of humanity’s advance, now found themselves unneeded.  Most welcomed this, revelling in the race they had helped to bring to such glory.  Others, however, grew jealous of the decreased dependance of humanity on them, and sought revenge.  And so one of them prepared in secret a trap for humanity. 

   And in that trap they placed the ultimate bait: immortality.  The Olympians gained immortality with a method similar but more extreme than that used to prolong human life.  Instead of recoding the body they replaced it.  A swarm of nano-machines that would slowly turn the human body into an intricate machine of diamond, carbon, and rare metals.  They would never die of age, and few physical accidents could harm them irreparably.  Not only this but they gained far superior mental abilities, greater physical prowess than any mortal.

   The trap itself was simple.  A seamless casket of diamond, holding within it a golden apple, in truth a receptacle for the nano-machines that would grant unending life.  Though only to a few.  After the transformation the nano-machines must remain inside the new body, repairing it as a human body would have repaired itself.  There was in the casket perhaps enough nano-machines for two or three men.  Engraved on the casket were these words to the greatest and it was sent without explanation to the Council of Speaking, and gathering of all the greatest among the speakers.  And so the trap was sprung.

     Almost there was war, the first for a thousand generations.  For of all those gathered at that council none would name any but himself to receive the gift, and likewise there was not a single one among them willing to let another take it.  Argument erupted in what had been a place of rational council for many years.  Each of the forty Speakers making the case for himself, and against the others.  Debate turned to argument, argument to threats.  In orbit around the world where the council was held their ships began to charge their weapons and shields.

   There was one man, however, who still held onto reason.  Odysseus, who was known for his cunning and skill at diplomacy as much as his formidable talent in war.  Seeing that they would all loose if the crisis was not averted he proposed the only possible solution.  

   No one would have it.

   The casket and its apple of discord would be given into the keeping of someone chosen by all gathered there.  This person would hide the casket somewhere among the many uninhabited worlds of the galaxy, and would swear an oath never to reveal its presence to anyone.  Once very hundred years it would be brought from hiding and shown to them all so that it could be seen that the oath was kept.  None outside of the Olympians had the skill to make such a case, or even repair it once opened, so trickery would be nigh impossible.  Last, but not least, they would all swear to hut down anyone who attempted to use the casket to gain immortality.   

   After more argument the Speakers at last gave in to his plan, placing the golden apple into the care of Helen, one of the youngest Speakers, and trusted by all.  Proud as they were, and as hot as was their anger for each other, they were glad of a way to retreat with dignity once reason had returned.  They still mistrusted each other, but this would at least give them the security of knowing an army would be available that could crush any upstart.  For that had been the greatest fear.  A war cannot be fought over a hundred cubic light years of space, not even with a lifetime of centuries.  The times involved are to large; the civilisation that launched a constellation of starships would have been replaced by a new before they returned.  A hollow victory indeed.  But to an immortal that time is but the blink of an eye.  If once there was one man who could guide an assault over the centuries then none without that advantage would have a chance against them, in equal numbers.  Only with crouching force could they be defeated.  And Odysseus had made curtain that army would come.

   And so the threat passed, or so it seemed.  

   But the Olympian watched, cursing the name of Odysseus.  His plan had failed, but his life was long and men are fickle.  

= + = + =

   Most inhabited star systems in the Milky Way were not governed directly by the Speakers.  Their role was one of a trusted advisor, a diplomat, or a representative.  Only in matters that concerned two star systems did they have an official say, although there were few whose advice was not followed as though it were a legitimate command; despite their petty quarrelling they were leaders, and humanity knew it.  It was only in a few systems that this arrangement was replaced by one in which the Speaker held a position within the formal government at the highest level.  Most of the systems that did so were in fact group together in the Troy cluster, many light decades away from the nearest inhabited system.  There they held absolute power and although they ruled as well as any government among the democratic systems, they were dictators nonetheless.  Partly because of this, and partly because of the distance between them and the other systems there was little love lost between the Speakers of Troy and those of the democratic systems.  So it had happened that they knew nothing of the casket until they heard it from the Olympian himself.  

   He came to them posing as on of the wandering librarians, an organisation dedicated to the dissemination of knowledge among the countless inhabited systems.  Each librarian travelled on a small starship along with a handful of assistants, often humans who wished to see the stars more than they feared the effects of time dilation.  In any system they came across they would download the system’s information net backups, storing it in deep archives aboard the starship.  Then they would leave for another star, where that information would be passed to another culture, an different civilisation, and more received.  So valued was the art, science, literature, mathematics, and songs of distant culture that anywhere they went the librarians were welcomed, their starship refuelled and repaired free of charge.

   When the Olympian’s ship braked into orbit about the sun of their capital planet they had no reason to believe he was anything other than what he claimed.  Even his own crew had no inkling of his true intent.  And in all respects but one he might well have been what he said.  The data he brought with him was all real, gathered in the same way as it would have been by a Librarian, except for the matter of the golden apple and the quarrel of the three.  Anything to do with that matter he changed subtly.  Every record of the event, every reference, every comment.  All the words that had been written, all the visual footage, every byte of data was revised and refined to suit his plans.  Without saying a word he would lie to billions, and they would believe him.  Why should they not?

   It was a intricate plan, more complexed than the mind that wrought it, and the Olympian feared that it would fail as had his earlier attempt.  But it was not to be so.  This time all went as he had planned.  The poisoned data was downloaded, he accepted a upload and departed.  The people of the Trojan systems began to search the information, and within a year someone had brought to the attention of Priam, the Dictator, the matter of the golden apple.  And he and his people learnt - as was true - that a Olympian had attempted so sew discord among Humanity with the offer of immortality for a few, and that it had almost brought war.  But they also learnt - or thought they did - that the oath had been sworn as w way for them all to save face, not as a reals precaution.  

   Priam was old, and wise.  His sons, Hector and Paris, both urged him to seek out the casket and use its contents to make their people strong; he refused.  He had no desire for immortality, nor any desire to give to any mortal the chance to wage war without fear of defeat.  Hector heed his council but Paris, firebrand that he was, took a starship and left of his own accord, determined to find the casket.  

   He knew that he could not make any move to take it by force, any incursion into another system would be taken as an act of war, and that he must avoid at all cost if he was to succeed.  Likewise violence would not get the location of the casket from its keeper Helen.  Like many politicians or military officials with secrets worth more than their lives she would have fitted a monitoring chip into her brain which would detonate on command, or if she attempted to divulge protected information under duress.  The only way would be to convince her.  Arguments regarding the good that could come from studying the nano-machines, proofs of the good will of his father Priam.  He gathered reasons that might sway her to his cause.  They were not needed.

   He caught up with her in a star system close to the one in which the Speakers would next meet, an event only a few years away.  Learning this he let it be known that it was also his destination and as he had hoped she soon made contact with him.  Almost a year aboard a starship can grow tedious, and whenever possible the Speakers would travel with strangers in order to combat boredom.  It also presented a way for them to get to know the people with whom they would work for humanity’s best interests.

   But something unexpected happened on that journey.  They fell in love.  For Paris it was at first no more than a way to get closer to his prise, and for her it was a means to get some little enjoyment out of the weary journey.  But at the end of the time aboard Helen had agreed to go back to the Troy cluster with him, after the assembling Speakers had verified that the casket was still intact.  They kept it a secret, Helen fearing that the Speakers would be set against it.  And so when he gathering dispersed she slipped aboard his ship and they fled out into deep space, taking a path that lead them outside of any possible interception.     

   When they reached the Troy cluster Paris was met with rage by his father and brother.  Nor did it help his cause that, unknown to him, Helen had hidden the casket before coming aboard his ship.  Priam feared that the oath might be taken seriously, even with the clear signs that the Librarian’s information had given them.  That it should he so without even the gain of the casket did little to increase Paris’s popularity.  Paris, on his part, was confident that there would be no pursuit, especially since Helen had left word that she would continue to safeguard the casket; and that the speakers would only go to war it direct threatened, and even then not as a unified force.  He was wrong.

   Hardly had it Helen’s flight been discovered than the Speakers met to decide on the best course of action.  The oath aside they feared that if the Dictator Priam should become immortal then democracy in the galaxy would eventually die, even without deliberate hostile action on Priam’s part.  They were divided as to whether or not Helen would keep the secret.  The fact that she had fled in secret instead of turning custody of it over to another did not inspire confidence, even if it could be explained away as rash pride.  Eventually it was decided that they could not afford to take the chance, and the oath was invoked.  From all over the galaxy starships began to gather, armed will all the weapons of war.

   Among many of the Speakers the desire was for a unannounced attack.  Even though it would be seen coming from light years away the velocity of a interstellar fleet meant that they could sweep an entire system clear in one pass with only kinetic weapons.  However, there would be few survivors.  Once again Odysseus raised a voice of reason, and convinced them to let him go ahead to attempt to bargain for Helen and avert the war.

   It was not to be.

   Priam and Hector acknowledged that Helen could be considered to have broken her oath, that she was a defector, and that they should hand her back.  But they also refused to impose their will on Paris, whose heart was too firmly fixed on Helen to ever give her up.  Helen herself feared having to leave him, and having been marked an outlaw by her people, announced that she considered herself Trojan, and as such would not hand over the location of the casket, although she would also keep it from her own people.  The ambassadors of the speaks were no less proud and unyielding.  They demanded that Helen be returned, and Paris he punished.  The treaty meeting turned ugly, and it was only thanks to a Trojan who opposed both sides of the conflict that the delegation escaped alive.

   So war came.  A war that had its beginning in the trickery of a disgruntled immortal.  That was enflamed by fear.  That was sparked by an untimely love.  And kindled by unyielding pride.  A war that would last ten centuries, and from which only one in a thousand would return.

Saturday, 2 May 2015

Errors in SF Worldbuilding: Flame-throwers


   None has ever accused Hollywood of being scientifically accurate or logical, but some things they can never seem to get right.  For science fiction fans - hard SF especially - the biggest issues are with technology, and most of all, with weapons.  I'm not talking about the lack of reloading and gun safety, the horrible techniques and tactics in gunfights, but rather the actual choice of weapons.  While grenade launchers, miniguns, handguns, and sniper rifles are all regularly abused flame-throwers are frequently the worst offenders.
   Within SF as a whole one genre suffers particularly from the misuse of flame-throwers; Horror.  Sometimes it seems that every second SF horror/thriller movie where the antagonist is an alien or monster fire is its main weakness.
   And that seems reasonable, yes?  Animals are in general afraid of fire, so why not monsters?  Also, the damage caused by a flame-thrower is truly horrific, rivalled only grenades or concentrated machine-gun fire, so it seems a good choice to take down a nigh invulnerable opponent.  Where and when they are used is a little more difficult to accept.

Divergence from Reality

   Flame-throwers in the real world are slightly different to their Hollywood kin.  Almost exclusively used by militaries during the World Wars for clearing bunkers, machinegun nests, and occasionally against tanks, real steel flamethrowers are cumbersome and dangerous.    They are also useless in confined spaces; when used against a bunker they were always fired from outside, as seen in Saving Private Ryan.
   The range of the flame, and the area of effect are governed by the nozzle of the weapon, and the pressures used to pump the fuel.  A spray of fuel will produce a short, intense flame, closer to a directed fireball than anything else.  This would be perfect for clearing machinegun nests or close targets, and is the form most often seen in movies.  This is also closer to the propane/gas fuel devices used for controlled burning in several areas of agriculture.
   Another mode, really seen, is when the fuel is pumped out in a cohesive stream, seen in the lower image to the left, allowing much greater range; it could also coat the target in burning fuel, rather than just flames, making it effective against vehicles.  It is actually a burning stream of fuel, rather than the fireball produced by a spray-type nozzle.
Finally, they carried only a few seconds worth fuel, and that only by using large backpack style tanks.  These tanks, unlike the movie portrayal, did not easily explode from enemy weapons fire, but where significantly heavier than most other weapons systems, restricting the soldiers agility.


Alien & Aliens

   Quite apart from the question of why the cargo tug Nostromo was carrying flame-throwers aboard the 'flame units' shown in this iconic film suffered from the usual failings.  First up the fuel tanks were to small, and even if they were under massive pressure, or contained liquid gas, would not carry enough to fire for the length of time seen in the movie.  Of course, it could just be that we are never shown the tanks being replaced.  Secondly is its use inside the spacecraft.  Aside from the inevitable damage to electrical wiring and other systems the flame-thrower would rapidly consume the oxygen in the room.  While the life support system might be able to replace it fast enough to save the crew's lives, the chances are that after a few bursts of flame they would have fainted from oxygen deprivation.  This would also have killed Dallas in the ducts long before the xenomorph got him, if the sheer temperature of the flame did not do so.  Aliens suffered almost identical problems; namely burn time and usage in close quarters, although it was handled a lot better than in many movies.

The Thing 

   Although The Thing showed a flamethrower with realistic fuel tanks, it still understated the danger of using one inside a confined space.  Unusually for the movies that feature them, there is actually a reason for an arctic base to have flamethrowers, as they can be used to rapidly melt accumulations of snow and ice in an emergency - although as far as I can tell no current arctic base does have them on hand.  That given it is likely that the flamethrower is a weaker than nomad version, making it possible to use inside a building without setting the entire room on fire.  However, it would likely cause severe problems through lack of oxygen in the minutes after its use, and the danger of the fires it starts cannot be overestimated.


   While it is far from the worst world building in it is possible to commit, the unrealistic use of flame-throwers in SF is one that should be easy enough to avoid for the author prepared to put some effort into research.  That being said, flamethrowers are cool, so it is a forgivable error.  If you are trying to create a visually impressive film/movie/animation/etc. then a flamethrower gives a lot of bang for the buck.  A writer, especially if looking to edge in on 'hard SF' should consider it long and carefully.

   But when xenomorphs come knocking, we all know the only true solution is: KILL IT WITH FIRE.