Category Archives: Science fiction

Back to life on other planets…

Our solar system - comparison of sixes (BBC)
Our solar system – comparison of sixes (BBC)

It’s a while since I added to my occasional series concerning the exploration of life on other planets, so here are some thoughts about the giant planets in our solar system. Largest of all is Jupiter, followed by Saturn, then Uranus and Neptune. Each of these has a collection of moons, but I’ll deal with them another day. We also know of a number of exoplanets of this size circling other stars – big planets being easier to detect than smaller ones, other things being equal – but that’ll be the subject for another day.

These large gas giants are characterised by hugely deep atmospheres, in which the pressure rapidly builds to intolerable levels as you drop down through it. It is unclear whether there is a hard surface at any point, or whether the gases of the upper layers simply get progressively denser and more viscous with depth. With no obstructions to stop them, wind currents circle the planet and stir up giant storms that can last for decades. It is not an obvious place for life to thrive.

Spacehounds of IPC - cover (Goodreads)
Spacehounds of IPC – cover (Goodreads)

Science fiction writers have, nevertheless, speculated about life here. Some authors simply ignore what we know (or were writing at a time when much less was known), while others try to weave their stories alongside the facts as we understand them. Typical of the first is EE (Doc) Smith, who was never shy of hypothesising life anywhere, and took great delight in speculating how environmental pressures would shape an alien race’s outlook on life, as well as their physiology. He placed several races on gas giants, including Jupiter. Such races, in his view, would be not only squat and strong – to cope with the gravity – but arrogant and condescending towards the weaklings of other worlds. A large part of Spacehounds of IPC deals with a long-running war between the hexans and the Vorkuls, inhabiting two opposing cities and fighting an impeccable war against each other. The Earthlings help resolve the fight by siding with the more morally upright side – they have little enough in common with either, but the hexans turn out to be unacceptably vicious and ruthless.

The Algebraist - cover (Goodreads)
The Algebraist – cover (Goodreads)

Iain M Banks, on the other hand, tried to take a more nuanced view. A couple of his books – including The Algebraist, for example – present life on gas giants as essentially floating, by analogy with oceanic creatures here on Earth. Different kinds of life coexist at different levels of the multi-layered atmosphere. Some of these interact, for better or worse, and others never meet.

Current scientific thinking is less optimistic about life of these giant planets, preferring to think about their moons. That’s a subject for another day. But there was a fascinating piece of analysis I read recently, trying to tackle the question of whether denizens of the gas giants would develop space travel. Basically, the rocket problem is that of managing your fuel. You need a certain amount of fuel to send your object of interest – the payload – up from the surface to orbit. But the payload has a protective casing, which you don’t need in orbit but which weighs something. Then there’s the fuel you’ll burn, and the container holding it… and these also weigh something. So you need more fuel to push up all that lot… and so on. Think back to how small the Apollo moon landers were compared to the entire Saturn V launch system.

The most fuel-efficient way to accomplish this is to have booster stages that are used in the early part of the flight, and then detached when empty to reduce weight for the next stage. Until the advent of reusable vessels like the Space Shuttle, and more recently Elon Musk’s launch vehicles that return to a soft landing, all of these lower stages were single-shot throwaway items. Now, that’s a problem for us here, but in turns out to be a much bigger problem if you are starting from a larger planet. Even one twice Earth’s mass would present difficulties, and Jupiter has about 300 times the mass. Musk’s Falcon Heavy rocket can place about 50 tons of payload into low earth orbit. Taking off from Jupiter, the same rocket could only get 40 kilograms into space. Would a race of beings living on one of these gas giants – even supposing they wanted to look through dense layers of cloud to see what was outside and spark their curiosity – have the resources to embark on space exploration?

One of Cassini's last images of Saturn (NASA/JPL)
One of Cassini’s last images of Saturn (NASA/JPL)

Weather – away from Earth

Last week I talked about weather on Earth, both in fact and fiction. This week, suitably enough, it’s time to think about the other planets in our solar system. And there’s plenty to talk about.

Dust storm front, northern latitudes of Mars (ESA Mars Express)
Dust storm front, northern latitudes of Mars (ESA Mars Express)

The obvious first place to start is Mars – the atmosphere is thin there (ground level on Mars is about the same as 30 km altitude here, high above the Himalayan peaks), but it’s well able to have weather patterns. There are seasonal changes, with the polar ice caps (frozen CO2, or dry ice, rather than water ice) growing and shrinking as the planet tilts one pole or the other towards the sun. Then there are erratic changes, such as dust storms which can build up over a substantial area. The Martian opened with one such storm, and the book version had a second which threatened Mark Watney’s journey towards rescue (the film skipped over this one). In the real world, back in the summer, one such storm of vast proportions cut off communication between NASA’s Opportunity rover and mission control. The problem here is not actually caused by fierce winds buffering the craft, but that the dust has blocked its ability to capture sunlight and so generate electricity (the exact problem Watney faced late on in The Martian).

Storm on Saturn seen by Cassini probe, 2010 (NASA)
Storm on Saturn seen by Cassini probe, 2010 (NASA)

Venus has ferociously fierce winds, and if ever we try to build a permanent settlement on the surface there (which personally I doubt, since orbital or high atmospheric bases would probably suffice) then they will need immensely strong anchors, and extraordinary resistance to high levels of heat and acidity. There are outline plans at present for building a lander able to survive for a few months, rather than the few hours which is all that has been achieved to date. Jupiter and Saturn have no discernible surface – probably one exists, but the pressure would be intolerable well before you reached it. They also have huge storms spreading thousands of miles across.

Artist's impression, dust storm on Titan (PGP/Labex UnivEarthS/University Paris Diderot – C. Epitalon & S. Rodriguez)
Artist’s impression, dust storm on Titan (PGP/Labex UnivEarthS/University Paris Diderot – C. Epitalon & S. Rodriguez)

But several of the moons of the giant planets are more promising. Recently, dust storms were spotted on Saturn’s moon Titan… not sand as might be on Earth or Mars, but great clouds of organic hydrocarbon molecules are stirred up into its atmosphere. So there’s definitely weather on Titan, and pretty much everywhere else we look.

Moons like Titan have been known to have atmospheres for some time, but as well as this, our solar system contains a lot of small bodies which used to be thought of as entirely airless. Closer investigation has shown that many of these actually have very thin layers of air around them. In some cases these are probably generated by underground deposits of liquid and gas which slowly ooze to the surface and evaporate. In others, we don’t yet know how they came into being. But these discoveries are reshaping how we think of our sibling worlds, and by extension the worlds we are spotting around other stars.

New Horizons image of clouds on Pluto (NASA/JPL)
New Horizons image of clouds on Pluto (NASA/JPL)

Back in 1950, EE (Doc) Smith, in First Lensman, could describe Pluto as being rocky and entirely barren. We couldn’t say that any more, not after the New Horizons probe sent back this fantastic image of air and clouds above Pluto. In Liminal Zone, my protagonists on Pluto’s moon Charon witness such changes both outside the dome where they live, and also when they look up at Pluto. Weather, it seems, is pretty universal, and will go on forming a topic of conversation for a lot of years to come.

And in a final stop-press, the existence of a new dwarf planet has just been announced. The finders were actually looking for the enigmatic Planet Nine, whose existence is suspected from a variety of gravitational anomalies in the orbits of other far-out objects. That has still not been detected, but instead they found 2015 TG387, dubbed The Goblin for simplicity. This newly recognised member of our solar system has a fantastically elongated orbit. At closest approach it is still well outside the orbit of Pluto, and at aphelion it strays 35 times as far away. It takes around 40,000 years to complete an orbit: last time it was in its present position we were sharing much of the planet with Neanderthals.

Orbit of 2015 TG387 (Roberto Molar Candanosa and Scott Sheppard, courtesy of Carnegie Institution for Science)
Orbit of 2015 TG387 (Roberto Molar Candanosa and Scott Sheppard, courtesy of Carnegie Institution for Science)

Red dwarf stars, and life away from Earth

After a few weeks in which I have been thinking about ancient Cumbria, this week I’m back in space again. In particular, this post looks at some possible locations for alien life which, until recently, were considered most unlikely. Over the last few years, thousands of planets have been identified by equipment both on Earth’s surface and in orbit. We now know that planets are exceedingly common in the galaxy, and that on average, each star has more than one planet. There are more planets near us than stars. Many of these are large in size, gas giants like our own Jupiter and Saturn – larger planets are obviously easier to detect than smaller ones – but a great many are small and rocky, more like Earth.

Artist's impression - the seven planets of TRAPPIST-1 (ESO)
Artist’s impression – the seven planets of TRAPPIST-1 (ESO)

The most extreme case we know of is designated TRAPPIST-1 (the acronym originating from the Chilean telescope which first detected them). This has seven planets, so the system is broadly like our own. And a very recent analysis suggests that each of them has liquid water at its surface, and in some cases considerably more water than we enjoy here. If we were to travel the forty light years to get there, we might well find a world which is entirely ocean.

But as well as the striking nature of the planetary system, the sun itself is interesting. Up until fairly recently, the search for life elsewhere was focused on stars which were as similar to our sun as possible. It was assumed that this was necessary in order for the associated planets would be like Earth. But TRAPPIST-1 is not at all like our sun – it is a comparatively cool red dwarf star. Red dwarfs are extremely common in space, but they are small and dim, and until modern orbital telescopes revealed the true situation, were thought to be rare.

Comparison of solar system sizes (ESO)
Comparison of solar system sizes (ESO)

Now, red dwarf stars are much cooler than our sun, between 1/3 and 2/3 of the effective temperature, so for a planet to be in the Goldilocks Zone – neither too hot nor too cold – it must be much closer to its sun. But that’s OK – in the TRAPPIST-1 system, all seven planets orbit well within the distance that super-hot Mercury circles our sun. Indeed, that system is not much larger than that of the moons of Jupiter. Red dwarfs are miserly with their energy, so you have to huddle in close to the fire to get any warmth. But along with that, they burn at their low rate for a hugely longer time than our sun will last. The hotter and brighter the star, the less time it shines for. Too short a stellar lifetime, and their might not be time for life to develop on whatever planets are around. Red dwarfs give their planets massive amounts of time to develop.

Right now we have absolutely no idea whether any of the TRAPPIST-1 planets supports life – or indeed any of the myriad other red dwarfs and their planets in our quadrant of the galaxy. But if you were a betting person, you’d be more likely to bet on life arising around a red dwarf than a super-hot star like Sirius.

Artist's impression, Ross-128b (ESO)
Artist’s impression, Ross-128b (ESO)

Now, 40 light years is inconveniently far away from Earth for exploration in reality or fiction. Our current generation of telescopes can find out a decent amount of information about the 7 planets of circling TRAPPIST-1, but not nearly as much as one would like. And if you consider near-future science fiction, without warp drives, wormholes, or other exotic ways to travel around space -as I do – then 40 light years is well beyond a realistic journey time. Happily, there are other red dwarfs much closer to us. One of these, which has been studied with great excitement for a few years now, is called Ross 128 (the rather boring name coming from a catalogue number). It has at least one planet (Ross 128-b) which appears to be a little larger and more massive than our Earth, and some calculations suggest that its surface temperature may well be around 21C. Ross 128 is only about 11 light years from Earth, so is getting towards the we-might-send-something-there territory.

I thought about using Ross 128 as the focus of interest in my in-progress novel The Liminal Zone, but in the end pitched for the even-closer Gliese 411 – another catalogue name, which for fictional purposes has been rebranded something more interesting. Gliese 411 is under 9 light years away, and is the 4th-closest star system to us. The planet Gliese 411b is, so far as we can tell, larger than Earth, and almost certainly rather hotter, but (probably) not so hot as to preclude interesting things there. And its proximity to us makes it a credible target for the Breakthrough Starshot project, in which tiny “spacecraft” with roughly the capability of a mobile phone are boosted towards their target by a laser beam shining against a light-catching sail. The miniature spaceships are called Sprites, and last year were tested for their ability to communicate from space after being launched from Earth. Each is just a few centimetres square, weighs just 4 grams, and costs a few tens of dollars. The entire actual cost of the mission is in the devices needed to boost these Sprites to their final speed.

Starshot’s current plans are for Proxima Centauri as target – the nearest star to us, a little over 4 light years away – and a boost to 1/5 light speed. Proxima Centauri is in fact another red dwarf star, and a very recent theoretical study suggests its planet may have a large ocean and survivable temperatures… though so far we lack real observations which might confirm or refute this, and other studies have suggested that the radiation levels are uncomfortably high for life to thrive.

My fictional version is a little more ambitious – Gliese 411 and 1/2 light speed. A journey time of about 17 years, plus the time taken for the homeward bound signal on arrival, means about a 25 year lag from lift-off to analysis of results. It’s still a long time, but less so than some space projects – it is now over 41 years since the two Voyager spacecraft left Earth, and we are still following them. A very recent theoretical study

As to what happens in The Liminal Zone once these little ships get there – well, it’s still work in progress, but hopefully you’ll get a chance to see for yourself early next year!

The Liminal Zone (temporary cover)
The Liminal Zone (temporary cover)

Life on Mars in fiction

For today I am going back to my series looking at how writers have thought about life elsewhere in the solar system… and it’s the turn of Mars this week.

Cover - The War of the Worlds (Goodreads)
Cover – The War of the Worlds (Goodreads)

It’s fair to say that Mars has been a firm favourite of writers for a long time. The discovery by the 19th century astronomer Schiaparelli of surface markings which he called canali – immediately if incorrectly Anglicised to canals – spurred a vision of Mars as a dying planet. In this vision, the inhabitants were desperately husbanding their dwindling water resources to delay their inevitable fate. This picture of a dying world drove HG Wells’s The War of the Worlds, and a host of other books including CS Lewis’s Out of the Silent Planet, though in his religious reworking, the cause of decline had less to do with natural process than spiritual.

The question that authors faced, then, was how long ago had the surface been benign and habitable? Authors like Leigh Bracket pictured open lakes and oceans in the past, providing a lush surface life  a few million years ago, but all now swallowed up by the deserts.

Cover - Sea Kings of Mars (Goodreads)
Cover – Sea Kings of Mars (Goodreads)

Oddly enough, this is not a very different picture to that painted by scientists from the data returned by surface and orbital probes… though the timescale is hugely different. Yes, it seems that Mars did once have running water, but instead of the time period that Leigh Brackett (Sea Kings of Mars) proposed, we are looking at an interval much longer, more on the scale of billions of years. Surface features such as rocks formations shaped by running water have been found, as well as exposed layers of ice threading in between rock strata. Most recently, evidence has been shown that a large salt-water lake may still exist at a considerable depth below the Martian south pole. All this water has kickstarted the debate about life on Mars, by analogy with microbial life found here on Earth in the seemingly inhospitable cold under the Antarctic ice.

A number of authors have tackled the question of terraforming Mars – Kim Stanley Robinson for one, with his (extremely long) trilogy beginning with Red Mars.  This basically looks the other way at the situation – rather than how a once-habitable Mars declined into its current state, how might we reverse this process and restore a decent atmosphere and surface water? If possible, it would be a very long-term goal, and it’s not clear how the process would resolve some of the other Martian issues such as excessive radiation. It seems more likely to me that, at least for the foreseeable future, living on Mars will have to be done under domes, not out in the open air.

Timing Kindle cover
Timing Kindle cover

Meanwhile, here’s an extract from my own vision of a near-future Mars, taken from Timing. Mitnash and Slate are on Mars, at a financial training school. One of the staff members, Linnea, has come to them and is describing a recent hack during which the school was held to ransom…

She hesitated for a long moment, then nodded.

“That will have to do. That night, the system locked up completely. The infra team tried their best to recover, but they had no idea what was wrong. Neither of the main hubs would boot up. It’s some sort of paired system, I don’t know the details, but they’re twins, certainly. One of the technicians said it was like they had gone catatonic. In a coma. Now, four or five days before that, every staff member had received the same message, an ultimatum threatening to close us down if we didn’t pay a ransom. Principal Pulkkinen told us all to ignore it, said it was just a prank. Well, we all thought he was right. Nobody would have done anything different.”

She glanced around. I tried to look reassuring.

“So what happened then?”

“Well, that night, just when the message predicted, that’s when the system crashed. And all the staff screens showed just one message which couldn’t be cleared, with a countdown timer and a single button labelled ‘Pay Now’. And there was a ticker showing that the credit being demanded was going up every second that the clock went down. Look, nobody wanted to find out what would happen when the timer ran out. The principal got the department heads together, and they decided quickly enough they would just pay up.”

“But you have backups, surely? Why not call their bluff and let the timer run out?”

“That was the first thing we thought of. You don’t get it, any more than we did at first. The whole system was locked, everything. We couldn’t get at the backup storage, or the main comms network, or anything. The techies had no idea what to do. Then we started wondering about the life support. If that was compromised, it’s not just teaching records that would be gone. They say you can’t survive more than about a minute unprotected on Mars. You couldn’t get anywhere safe in that time. And your body would be ruined long before the minute was up. We don’t have suits for everyone. I think we could all get into the trucks at a pinch, just squash in together on the way over to the shuttle groundstation. But what if the trucks wouldn’t work either? What if they had been hacked and wouldn’t go where we wanted? It was a nightmare.”

She shivered at the memory, her arms wrapped round herself. I could empathise with her. I was imagining the situation – the teachers at a loss what to do, the students still oblivious, the senior staff ensconced in a room trying to make a difficult decision. With a deeply inhospitable world just outside the dome, and no guarantee that the environmental controls would continue to function.

“So Mikko decided to pay?”


And I couldn’t possibly close this blog without linking to Dave Bowie… Life on Mars?

 

Embleton Bay (and an extract from Far from the Spaceports)

Dunstanburgh Castle, from Embleton Bay
Dunstanburgh Castle, from Embleton Bay

Last weekend I was up in Northumberland, and on the last day – Sunday – visited Embleton Bay. The last time I was here I was walking the Northumberland coastal path, heading north towards Lindisfarne. This time it was just a short walk along the beach, and for some of the family, a splash in the sea.

Embleton Bay is one of the many scallop shaped dips in the northeast coastline. It is low, with dunes on the landward side rather than cliffs, and the view to the south ends with the splendid ruins of Dunstanburgh Castle, dark against the vivid blue sky.

Embleton Bay, looking south
Embleton Bay, looking south

Embleton Bay happens also to be the location of one of the flashback scenes in Far from the Spaceports. Here, we meet Mitnash and Shayna camping (in what is admittedly a very high-tech tent), before Mit gets sent offworld to the asteroids called The Scilly Isles. Looking at the view last Sunday, it was not too difficult to imagine the two of them pitched here on the border between dunes and beach. It was a last opportunity to enjoy each other’s company – and in Mit’s case, the delights of open air and water – before being parted. I’ve added an extract below…

Shayna has probably had the thin end of the story so far, but as and when I write the third book in the series, provisionally called The Authentication Key, she should get more narrative attention!

And just to keep the Northumberland theme going, here’s Mark Knofler from YouTube, with a rather different mood than his better known riffs…


And here’s the extract…

I was away in the Northumbrian national park, walking the Bernician Way with nothing but one of the recent model v-tents and Shayna. Neither of us were at all interested in walking long-distance footpaths, but we both liked the absence of neighbours. A couple can make a lot of noise out in a national park, without thinking someone else might be disturbed.

But there it was, that morning, the message alert blinking silently on my shirt lapel where I’d discarded it for swimming in the North Sea last night, almost hidden by Shayna’s NuFleece. She might not like long distance walking, but she loved the prospect of skinny-dipping in sea water not far above freezing, and then thinking of inventive ways to warm up. That was so much easier when you could come out of the water and straight into a v-tent micro environment set at whatever climate you wanted. Right now we were in a Middle Egyptian May – temperature, humidity, everything.

Shayna liked to say that the chosen location was part of her genetic heritage, and she was in search of her roots. I was never sure about that, but I had no great preference myself. She had configured it just as soon as I had set the tent up, and it had taken under a minute to climatise itself.

So all through the night, with a North Sea winter gale blowing up and down outside, there we were in the Valley of the Kings. You didn’t mind so much going into cold water with all that warmth waiting. We’d polarised the fabric, silver from the outside and clear from the inside, and we lay together watching the half moon slide in and out of the curving clouds.

We’d arrived at low water, but I’d pitched the tent well up the beach, on a strip of pale sand between some levels of flat rock. High tide was in the early hours of the morning, and the waves had washed close up against us in the cosy dark.

I scowled at the lapel badge, wondering if there was any way to pretend I had not seen it. There wasn’t, not really. Slate would have acknowledged receipt of the incoming at the same time as redirecting it, and would have tagged its reception with all kinds of logging. It was far too late for me to try hacking anything. The real question was whether I could get away with avoiding it for more hours than I had already, but I already knew the answer to that one as well.

I tapped the lapel, and listened to the message sullenly. Recalled to London… first opportunity… Twelve hour SLA. I sighed, and entered the release commit. Slate would do the rest for me. Then I turned to look at Shayna. There she was in the morning light: brown skin enjoying the warm air, dark hair spilling over the pillow, and dark eyes opening with an air of frustration as she saw me working the lapel.

“I suppose you’re going to say there’s no more holiday now.”

I nodded.

“Recall at first available. Back to London for me.” I paused. “You could stay here?”

“Oh, Mit. Where’s the fun in that?”

She closed her eyes again briefly, but I could see the little muscle movements in her face as she interrogated her Stele. Rocky, she called him, and he was male in persona as well as voice. It was fair enough: Slate was undeniably female.

“We have three hours before the east coast express stops at Alnmouth. A quarter hour to pack up, half an hour to Craster, quarter hour transfer. That gives us another swim and time to warm up again afterwards.”

I loosened a vent a notch or two, listened to a sudden gust of wind, imagined what the air and water would be like.

“We could miss out the swim and just stay warm?”

She reached past me and tapped the door release, inviting the gust inside the tent where it contended unsuccessfully with the thermal regulation.

“Wherever it is they are going to send you now, you won’t have water like this. Out you go and enjoy it one more time.”

I shook my head, but got out and stood up anyway, naked in all that volume of cold rushing air. The tide had fallen again, and the sea froth was a little way down the beach. Shayna pushed past me and ran, arms waving above her head, shrieking with excitement as the wildness of the wind encircled her soul. I followed on, but she reached the water well before me, and threw herself in to the tumble of the waves.

Twenty years ago I would never have done this, but things had changed. Anyway, she was right: wherever I was going, it wouldn’t have wind and waves like this. I followed her.

It had been a long day. An icy bathe first thing in Embleton Bay, followed by Egyptian warmth. Then down to London for the first briefing, and some intense training sessions on commodities. Slate had uplinked a whole library of reading material on the subject, from finding the stuff right through to trading it. But I stopped at the point of trading, and even today I have very little idea how rare earths are actually used. But by the end of the journey I would sound totally convincing on the important parts of the subject. Finally, a second briefing with Elias, and a scramble to Euston to catch the overnight to Findhorn.

I had intended to gaze forlornly out of the window as I hurtled past Alnmouth again, this time heading north. However, fatigue had got the better of me and I was dozing at the time, propped up in a corner. I surfaced again somewhere well north of Dundee, just as it was getting light. On the east coast line, most of the trains stopped in Edinburgh, but this was the Spaceport Special, non-stop right the way through.

 

AI in space… or, how close are we to Slate?

There has been a whole bundle of space news this week – so much, in fact, that I had to temporarily postpone my series of going through how the different planets have been portrayed in fiction. Instead, I picked a couple of key stories which most appealed.

The western side of Cerealia Facula, from an altitude of about 21 miles (NASA/JPL-Caltech/UCLA/MPS/DLR/IDA)
The western side of Cerealia Facula, from an altitude of about 21 miles (NASA/JPL-Caltech/UCLA/MPS/DLR/IDA)

The first – and much the shorter – is to do with the Dawn space probe. Readers may remember that a few months ago, the decision was taken to use the remaining fuel to lower the orbit as far as safely feasible. This means better images (and results from other instruments) as the orbit now goes down as low as about 20 miles. The first pictures have started to appear, and very striking they are, and over the next few months I expect that we’ll be hearing a lot more about the surface chemistry. The first approach to Ceres revealed enigmatic bright spots on the surface (known as faculae), which are now recognised as salty deposits of carbonates – the largest such deposits away from the Earth, in fact. But do they ooze up through cracks and fissures from deep underground, or is there a reservoir of brine just below the surface? It is possible that the new low orbit wil shed light on this.

But the main story-telling event of interest was part of the contents of the Soyuz shuttle which docked with the ISS a little while ago. As well as three crew and a bunch of science experiments, a mobile AI called CIMON (Crew Interactive MObile Companion) arrived…

CIMON - the first AI crew assistant for spaceflight crews (Airbus/NASA)
CIMON – the first AI crew assistant for spaceflight crews (Airbus/NASA)

CIMON is powered by the IBM Watson software, has a digital “face”, and is capable of interacting with the Station crew via facial expressions, emotions, and voice.  Excitingly – so far as I am concerned – CIMON is European in origin, having been developed by Airbus. The enclosing shell was 3d printed, and weighs about 5kg (which only matters if it collides with something, as the ISS is routinely in microgravity). It wil remain free-flying and able to navigate to the various parts of the ISS at need.

CIMON has several purposes – first, it gives the internal neural networks plenty of new material to learn from, but the intention is that the crew will work with the AI to find collaborative solutions to problems. The science objectives are listed as:

The Pilot Study with the Crew Interactive MObile companioN (Cimon) is a technology demonstration project, and an observational study, that aims to obtain the first insights into the effects on crew support by an artificial intelligence (AI), in terms of efficiency and acceptance during long-term missions in space. Spaceflight missions put the crew under a substantial amount of stress and workload, and it is thought that AI could provide operational support to crew members.

So although CIMON can certainly provide early warning of particular categories of technical problems, and will assist with a number of predefined experiments, the goal is to provide social interaction.

Far from the Spaceports cover
Far from the Spaceports cover

Which brings me, naturally, to Slate! Slate, the main persona AI in Far from the Spaceports, is several generations of AI beyond what we enjoy today. Voice assistants like Alexa, Google Home, Siri, Cortana and so on are currently Earth-tethered in the sense that the software and database needed to comprehend and respond to a user’s request lives in cloud-based servers here on the planet. Even a trip to the moon (just over a second light signal time each way) would seriously strain conversational ability, and a trip out to the asteroids – say half an hour signal lag – is entirely out of the question. I don’t know whether CIMON relies on Earth-based data to understand what the astronauts will say, or whether a data source has been uploaded to the ISS itself. Keeping tethered to Earth would certainly be feasible at the ISS orbital height – but to go further afield we will need to crack the problem of large-scale localised data storage (maybe using DNA?).

I’ve never committed to an exact year for the events of Far from the Spaceports or Timing, but my feel is something like a century. I feel that probably I have been a little too cautious with this, and that in reality there’s a fair chance that AI having close to Slate’s capabilities could be around within my lifetime. On the other hand, my guess is that human colonies out at and beyond the asteroids won’t be around for a few years after my guess, so maybe it evens up!

Meanwhile, here’s a YouTube video (at https://youtu.be/KnpJI3WeiBg for those getting this through email) showing part of CIMON’s development…

 

 

Mercury and fiction

Last week we looked at how views of Venus had changed in fiction: this time it’s Mercury’s turn. Like Venus, Mercury is never visible far above the horizon – indeed, it never gets above 17 degrees here in London, less than half that of Venus. It’s another morning and evening star candidate, though far fainter than Venus, and far easier to miss unless viewing conditions are good. In classical times, Mercury was the swift messenger of the gods, presumably because of his elusive presence, rapid shift across the sky, and proximity to the sun.

North polar region of Mercury, false colouring showing (probable) water ice (NASA/Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory/Carnegie Institution of Washington)
North polar region of Mercury, false colouring showing (probable) water ice (NASA/Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory/Carnegie Institution of Washington)

Once telescopic study of the planets began, it became obvious that Mercury was going to be pretty inhospitable. It orbits at just over 1/3 of the Earth-Sun distance, has virtually no atmosphere, and experiences temperatures up to 450°C on the sunlit side (oddly,  that is much the same as Venus, but for quite different reasons). Lead, zinc, and a whole bunch of other metals would melt under these conditions. Bizarrely, even here, there are a few shady places where water ice can still exist on the surface – water is one of the most persistent and universal features of our solar system.

“Lava Falls on Mercury”, cover art by Ken Fagg for If magazine, June 1954

For a long time it was thought that Mercury was tidally locked, always showing the same face to the sun. More recently we have found that this is not the case – Mercury’s day is 59 Earth days, while its year is 88 Earth days – 2 Mercury years contain just 3 Mercury days. The combination means that every time Mercury is closest to the Earth, we see the same surface features… one of those mutual rhythms which appear all over the solar system.

Cover, The Worm Ouroboros (Goodreads)
Cover, The Worm Ouroboros (Goodreads)

You’d think that fiction writers would struggle to place a story on Mercury, but numerous people have tried. ER Eddison, in his fantasy series starting with The Worm Ouroboros, located his events there – though he was singularly unconcerned with the real planet, and simply used “Mercury” as a handy, mysterious location, at which very Earthlike deeds took place. In his writing, Mercury is simply an elsewhere location outside his readers’ everyday life.

When it was thought that Mercury was tidally locked, several authors assumed that humans would build a settlement somewhere on the dividing line between unbearable heat and implacable cold. Plots often revolved around the (supposed) vast difference between light and dark sides. For example, Hugh Walters’ Mission to Mercury supposes that the extreme heat (and cold) would lead to different personality problems (interestingly, this book also features another occasional trope, that of identical twins who can communicate telepathically).

Cover, Mission to Mercury (Wiki)
Cover, Mission to Mercury (Wiki)

The discovery that Mercury actually does rotate put paid to the idea of a temperate band, leaving us with a largely undesirable planet! It is a long way “down” in the sun’s gravity well, so needs a disproportionate amount of fuel to get there and back. Unless there turns out to be plentiful and easily accessed resources of some kind – gloopy patches of pure platinum, or some such – then it’s hard to see why it would ever be more than a solar research base. Authors and technologists have contemplated terraforming Mars (of which more next time) or Venus (AE van Vogt suggested that it could provide an exotic home for the elite in The World of Null-A) – I can’t think of anyone who has suggested terraforming Mercury! Kim Stanley Robinson, in several novels and short stories, suggested one solution would be a city built on rails which very slowly moved around the planet and hence always stayed in the twilight zone.

In fiction, it has become, and most likely will remain, a hostile place which might contain or provoke mystery. And in keeping with that, I’m not (currently) planning any books in my science fiction series which are set there.

Finally, you’re not (quite) too late to take advantage of the giveaway offer on the audio version of Half Sick of Shadows – details in a former blog post

The changing view of Venus in storytelling

Before starting, a quick reminder of the giveaway competition currently running for the audio version of Half Sick of Shadows. There are just a few copies left on Audible UK and US available free. Just follow this link, listen to the sample snippet, and get back to me with the answer. Some copies have already gone but others remain to be won! It’s absolutely free – if you don’t currently have Audible membership then you can sign up for a trial month at no cost, then cancel if you don’t like it.

Venus beside the moon, with Jupiter nearby, December 4th 2008 (NASA)
Venus beside the moon, with Jupiter nearby, December 4th 2008 (NASA)

The planet Venus has played an important part in our imaginative view of the solar system. Originally recognised and personified as the Morning or Evening star, visible at certain times of the year as a bright companion to the sun, it came to represent something beautiful but elusive. The logic of orbital movements means that it never rises more than about 36 degrees above the horizon (here in London), and is frequently much lower. It is also easily lost in cloud, haze, or the ambient glow of the sun as it rises and sets. All of which added to its allure and air of secrecy.

The early telescopic age only added to the mystery. Unlike the other planets, Venus revealed no constant surface features, and so allowed no mapmaking. Astronomers knew that Venus was like a sister planet to Earth – the size is about 3/4 of our own, the year is about 2/3, the surface gravity is 90% – but came to realise that the surface was hidden behind a dense veil of clouds. Indeed, the cloud cover is so sustained that Venus is the most reflective body in the entire solar system.

Cover, Lucky Starr and the Oceans of Venus - Paul French was a pen name of Isaac Asimov (Wiki)
Cover, Lucky Starr and the Oceans of Venus – Paul French was a pen name of Isaac Asimov (Wiki)

Many early science fiction authors – including authors such as Robert Heinlein and Isaac Asimov as late as the 1940s and 50s – envisioned the planet as covered by ocean – in keeping with some scientific models of their day. Others chose a desert planet, or one covered in swamp: all trying to make sense of the perpetual cloud cover.

One example is the second book in the science fiction series by CS Lewis, Perelandra. Lewis trod a middle road regarding accuracy – quite apart from any astronomical input, he wanted the veil of cloud cover as a vivid symbol of the secrets held within. He wanted Perelandra to represent a younger planet than Earth, in contrast to Mars (Malacandra) which he paints as older, more long-suffering. So Perelandra is almost entirely an ocean planet, with almost no fixed land. Perhaps one of the most striking descriptions of the planet is “the queen of those seas views herself continually in the celestial mirror“.

Compositie picture of Venusian atmosphere as seen by Japan's Akatsuki spacecraft (JAXA)
Compositie picture of Venusian atmosphere as seen by Japan’s Akatsuki spacecraft (JAXA)

When space probes like the Soviet Venera and American Mariner series started exploring the solar system, a wholly different picture of Venus started to emerge. The idea of an aquatic world was so prevalent that early Venera probes were designed to splash down in water. However, as data began to arrive, the surface was exposed as vastly inhospitable. Air densities up to 90 times that of Earth, average temperatures over 450°C,  typical wind speeds up to 200 mph, and an atmosphere containing acidic gases like sulphur dioxide all added up to a seriously inhospitable environment. The winds at ground level are sufficiently strong that they cause changes in the day length where they rush over mountain ranges.

This looked like the end of the line for fictional life on Venus… but recently there have been suggestions that although the surface may be uninhabitable, the upper atmosphere might be a suitable habitat. You might imagine rafts of tiny organisms, drifting in sheets well above the rigours of the surface. We don’t yet know, but it’s a sufficiently real possibility that science teams have started thinking how we might detect and recognise life in that floating environment. If we ever decided to colonise Venus, then high above the ground might be a better bet than contending with the surface conditions!

But maybe our better bet for habitats is in orbit anyway. Given that conditions on Venus – or Mars, for that matter – are so difficult as to need major levels of protection, why go to the effort of constructing some sort of protected dome, when we necessarily have such a thing in orbit anyway? I read an interesting statistic the other day. There are at most a few hundred people living in Antarctica. But at any time, there are something like a million people travelling on air flights. The environment outside a plane is even less hospitable than the south pole, but large numbers of us are willing to move about in it, with only the comparatively frail protection of an aircraft. Perhaps – at least until we can pursue exotic solutions like terraforming – orbital stations are the way to go.

Meanwhile, I’m waiting for a story to appear based around finding upper atmosphere life on Venus…

Dunes

With The Liminal Zone foremost in my writing mind just now, I’m always eager to read space news about Pluto. And just recently another paper has been published analysing the surface features as revealed by the New Horizons flyby back in July 2015.

Audiobook cover
Audiobook cover

But before that, a quick reminder of the giveaway competition currently running for the audio version of Half Sick of Shadows. There were 5 copies each on Audible UK and US available free. Just follow this link, listen to the sample snippet, and get back to me with the answer. Some copies have already gone but others remain to be won! It’s absolutely free – if you don’t currently have Audible membership then you can sign up for a trial month at no cost, then cancel if you don’t like it.

Back to Pluto. The specific surface feature that the report found was dunes. Not, of course, sand dunes, but ones made of ice granules, moved about very slowly by the extremely light winds which stir the extremely thin atmosphere there. It’s a remarkable tribute to the way physical phenomena tend to mirror each other. The conditions on Earth and Pluto are radically different in ever so many ways, yet they share the ability for dunes to form on their surfaces. Like everything on Pluto, it all takes place on an immensely slow timescale – I doubt that these dunes move appreciably over a human lifetime. But nevertheless, there they are, adding to the richness and complexity of the surface features of a world which, not so long ago, was assumed to be utterly boring.

Cover - Dune (Goodreads)
Cover – Dune (Goodreads)

A science fiction reader’s first reflex, on hearing of dunes, is naturally to jump to Frank Herbert’s Dune. That world was bakingly hot, dry, and life was absolutely dominated by the survival need for water. The dunes there – sand dunes – covered the vast majority of the desert world’s surface, and concealed both exotic wildlife and a radical human culture. It seems unlikely that much life frequents Pluto, with a surface temperature around -230° Centigrade. But these days, it would be a brave person who would say it’s impossible. And The Liminal Zone is – among other things – about the human settlement on the margins of our solar system.

Finally – and since my main enthusiasm is not so much for Pluto as for its largest moon Charon, here is a video put together by NASA from the New Horizons flyby. It’s partly for fun, and partly because next week – June 22nd – is the 40th anniversary of the discovery of Charon! It’s only short, but quite cool.

After enjoying that, don’t forget the giveaway for Half Sick of Shadows!

Where would be a good place to live?

Cover - Perelandra (Goodreads)
Cover – Perelandra (Goodreads)

It’s a question which besets many science fiction writers! Now, in the former days of the 20th century, when not nearly so much was known about other star systems, writers were free and easy with their destinations. C.S. Lewis, who anyway had other motivations in his writing than script scientific accuracy, cheerfully placed parts of his science fiction trilogy on Mars and Venus. E.E. (Doc) Smith had alien habitations all over the solar system, with a wild array of biological adaptations to high gravity, strange atmospheres, or whatever. And when writers got their characters out of the solar system into the galaxy at large, the diversity just kept on growing (except for those authors like Asimov, who for various reasons carefully avoided alien life altogether).

But these days we have a vast amount of data to steer our fiction. In some cases this means that environments get excluded – it would be a brave author indeed who would place a novel like Perelandra on the surface of Venus these days (unless they have a back-story of extensive terraforming). On the other hand, new opportunities for life in previously unconsidered places have emerged – like high up in the Venusian atmosphere, or in liquid oceans underneath the ice coatings of various outer system moons. These are not likely to be, as they say, life as we know it…

Schematic of habitable zone sizes (Penn State University)
Schematic of habitable zone sizes (Penn State University)

On a wider scale, we have a good idea what to look for as regards planets that might support life. Most thinking on the subject supposes that liquid water would be necessary – it’s just too useful a chemical in all kinds of ways to see how it wouldn’t participate in life’s chemistry. So we can plot the Goldilocks Zone for any given star (too close in, and water boils and evaporates… too far out, and it freezes)… but we know from our own solar system that this does not cover all the bases. Close-in planets are probably tidally locked to their sun, and so have a cooler side. Far-out planets may well have orbiting moons with sub-surface water, kept from freezing by a variety of factors.

Back in the day, people used to look for stars relatively similar to our own sun, on the grounds that we kind of knew what we were looking for. But these days, following the extraordinary success of planet-hunting space missions like Kepler (soon to be followed by TESS), we know that many planets circle dim red dwarf stars. For sure, the heat output is much less, but that just means that the Goldilocks Zone huddles close in. And red dwarf stars are immensely long-lived, which gives life time to develop. On the other hand, many red dwarfs also go through erratic flare cycles, potentially blasting their associated planets with X-rays. But for my money, the first place we may find life elsewhere is likely to be circling a red dwarf.

So from the writer’s point of view, it’s a great time to be postulating life elsewhere, but also a rapidly-changing one. New data is pouring in, and new ways of analysing and comprehending that data. It all adds up to a wealth of new ideas and imaginative leads…

Artist's impression, planets discovered by TRAPPIST orbiting a red dwarf star about 40 light years from Earth (NASA/JPL)
Artist’s impression, planets discovered by TRAPPIST orbiting a red dwarf star about 40 light years from Earth (NASA/JPL)