Category Archives: Science fiction

Exploring Mars

I thought I’d take this opportunity to share out a recent picture returned by NASA’s Curiosity Rover of its environment. Indeed, although it shows as a single picture, it was in fact assembled from over a thousand separate images, carefully aligned each with the next in order to give a composite panorama.

Panorama taken by Curiosity Rover (NASA/JPL)

There’s also a YouTube video exploring this in more detail and highlighting particular features – the link is below.

Now, as well as the intrinsic interest of this picture, it has also been fun for me to locate it in relation to some of the Martian locations used in my novel Timing, part of which is set on Mars.

Martian sites – base map from NASA/JPL with annotations

Olympus Mons is the largest mountain on Mars – the second highest that we know of in the entire solar system. In Timing, the main characters Mitnash Thakur and his AI persona assistant Slate first investigate a finance training school close to Olympus Mons, and subsequently visit a gambling house in a settlement on Elysium Planitia. Curiosity, and the panorama picture, is right at the edge of Elysium Planitia. So the terrain in that part of Timing would be not unlike the Curiosity picture.

The following extract from Timing is when Mitnash and Slate arrive on Mars, having taken a shuttle down from the moon Phobos. But before that, here’s the link to the video I mentioned (https://youtu.be/X2UaFuJsqxk).

Extract from Timing

The shuttle had peaked in its hop, and was now descending again. The pilot had flicked the forward view up on one of the screens, so we could all enjoy the sight of the second tallest mountain in the solar system. All twenty-two kilometres of it. We were already below the level of the summit. Gordii Fossae, where the training college was located, was behind the right flank from this angle, and I didn’t expect to see it.

Before long we were grounding at the dock. I stood up, and was treated to some curious looks from the remaining passengers. I was the only one alighting here. At a guess, it was not a popular stop – those hardy souls who wanted to bag the summit of Olympus would normally take a different route altogether, first to Lycus Sulci basecamp, then up and over the scarp before trekking to the peak.

I went through into the reception hall with the minimum of bureaucratic fuss, targeted on all sides by glossy ads inviting me to sample the pleasures of Martian laissez faire. Then after the last gate, the narrow entrance tunnel opened into a wider dome, and there was a heavy-set man with dark hair waiting, looking slightly bored. Seeing me, he stepped forward and held out a hand.

“Mitnash Thakur? I’m Teemu Kalas. Welcome to Gordii Fossae.”

Teemu insisted on taking my bag, though it was hardly a burden, and we chatted idly as he ushered me through several linked domes to a long hall. He had a heavy, northern European accent. I couldn’t decide if he made everything sound very serious, or a complete joke. Slate whispered to me that he was one of the two vice-principals of the training centre. He opened a locker, pulled out two suits and passed one to me, gesturing to the airlock nearby.

“Here you are, Mitnash. We got your size from your persona. Slate, she’s called, isn’t she? Now, be warned that it’s not a perfect fit. Should be close enough though. And it’s the nearest we had, anyway. I’ll signal the truck to attach to the lock by concertina, but we always wear suits on the journey. Protocol, you know.”

“How far is the school from here?”

“About ten kilometres to the main teaching block. A little bit further to the dormitory entrance where I’ll be taking you. A lot can happen on a journey like that.”

He glanced to see how I was fastening the suit and seemed satisfied. We left the lids open, but ready to snap down if need be. Then we cycled through the lock and into a vehicle. At a guess, it was about the size of a small bus. The engine was already filling the cabin with an electric hum, and after a couple of checks he tapped a toggle and leaned back.

The windows looked out on a set of very large tyres on either side, but beyond that, the Martian landscape stretched away to the horizon, drab and dusty, with jagged blackish bands of rock emerging from the sand at intervals. On our right, the slopes of Olympus Mons stretched hugely up into the pale sky. At this point, the scarp which was so prominent around most of the northern rim dipped down, to merge smoothly into the surrounding terrain as you continued on south. It still looked fearsome just here.

“There. The onboard system will get us the rest of the way. It’s twenty minutes from here. I’ve got the centre Sarsen twins supervising it just in case, but it’s hardly a new journey. Now, you’ll have a lot of questions, but Mikko – that’s Mikko Pulkkinen, the principal – said to wait for all that until he meets you tomorrow. The rest of today is yours, to get acclimatised. You’ll get more tired than you expect. Been on Phobos long?”

More maps – and this time of Charon

I’ve been a sucker for maps for as long as I can remember, and as a child took great pleasure in following some story – usually fictional, but sometimes real-world – across a map representation. And where, as in the Narnia series, there was a series of maps that didn’t easily line up with each other, there was even more fun to be had in trying to trace them, then rescale and reposition the separate pieces to try to get to the whole thing.

1998 Hubble pictures of Pluto – the thumbnails at top are typical actual images, with image analysis applied to get the lower ones (NASA/JPL)

Now until fairly recently, the idea of having a map of Pluto or its primary moon Charon was completely out of the question – if you wanted to write a story set out there, you could pretty much draw your own map. It would be almost impossible for anybody to refute your suppositions. In fact, very few people set stories there, except as some incidental waypoint en route to somewhere else, or as a location to meet some alien creature. It was broadly regarded as not only inhospitable, but also likely to be profoundly boring.

Pluto from New Horizons, July 15th 2015 ( NASA/JHUAPL/SwRI )

All that changed when the New Horizons probe flew past Pluto and Charon in July 2015. Blurry pixellated images turned into extraordinary high-resolution ones. Surface features became visible, showing a huge and unexpected diversity of terrain. Pluto was no longer a dull and boring place, but one of the most exciting and rich places to investigate. The New Horizons cameras did not just pick up surface features, but clouds and atmospheric haze. Pluto is still – of course – a very cold place to live, but this fly-by convinced the scientific community that it is an interesting one.

Now, my own interest is more focused on Charon than Pluto – for a variety of reasons my current work-in-progress, The Liminal Zone, is set on Charon. This means that the occupants of the habitat there can look out and up at Pluto whenever they choose – the apparent diameter is rather larger than that of the Earth as seen from our Moon. Charon has deep troughs that plunge 14 km below the mean surface level (deeper that Earth’s Marianas Trench), and mountains that extend some 8 km above it. Here is the raw map of Charon’s surface…

Global map of Charon ( Lunar and Planetary Institute/Paul Schenk/NASA/New Horizons )

And here is a less detailed, but annotated version…

Informal names from New Horizons team, awaiting official ratification (NASA/JPL)

In The Liminal Zone, the habitat area is on the border between Vulcan Planum and Serenity Chasma. The former is reasonably flat, the latter is very rugged. To find out more, you’ll have to wait just a little longer…

Pathways or Navigation?

Across the Sands
Across the Sands (to Lindisfarne)

Some of my favourite walks are along ancient trackways – routes that have been followed for centuries or millennia by a huge range of diverse people. There is something very appealing about these paths, and the sense of lineage which attaches to them. Every country has such pathways – they might be for the purposes of trade, or pilgrimage, or festival, or war, or simply the best and most effective way to cross difficult terrain and link up with other communities. When you walk such paths today, you are quite literally following in the footsteps of many other people.

On Eskdale Moor

Often these paths follow routes which made perfect sense at the time, but nowadays seem odd – for example many of Great Britain’s ancient ways follow ridges, whereas modern transport networks tend to stay in the valleys. From the Ridgeway, or the North and South Downs ways, or the Pennine Way, or High Street running north to south above the eastern shore of Ullswater, you look down from tracks which are almost devoid of buildings, into plains and valleys full of settlements and the roads between them. Some of this shift is the result of the way Britain’s sea level has changed over the last ten thousand years or so, and the rest reflects shifts in vegetation patterns. We used to avoid the valleys because they were hazardous and, often, impassable… now we avoid the hills because it costs more to construct roads and railways there.

Artist's Impression of Dawn in orbit (NASA/JPL)
Artist’s Impression of Dawn in orbit (NASA/JPL)

So far so good… but does this notion of ancient trackways migrate into science fiction? And the answer to that question depends on how the author has conceived of how travel works between inhabited settlements. In my Far from the Spaceports series, set in various habitats within our own solar system, there are no trackways. If you want to get from, say, the asteroid Ceres down to Mars’ moon Phobos, then you would normally reckon to get your ship’s computer to plan out a geodesic – a minimal-energy curve joining start to finish. If you’re in a hurry, you burn a bit more fuel, run the engines a bit hotter, and replan your curve. If you do the same trip a few days or weeks later, you’d go through similar calculations, but the inevitable changes in orbital positions of the two celestial bodies in relation to each other mean that the second path won’t follow anything like the same track through space.

The same applies to the (excellent) Amazon series The Expanse, also set in the fairly near future within our solar system. When the Roccinante sets off from Ceres to Io, the crew do not look back at previous journeys between those places – they calculate afresh the necessary orbital path. Similarly, but on a bigger scale between star systems, Star Trek and Star Wars pick out a flight path according to the star patterns at the time.

There are, however, a few science fiction books and films which presuppose fixed navigation routes between places. Joe Haldeman’s Forever War presumes that journeys had to take place between specific collapsars, meaning that only certain trips are feasible, and the most effective way to travel from start to end may well not be anything like the straight line route. The Mote in God’s Eye, by Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle, hypothesises the existence of “Alderson Points”, which are the only entry- and exit-points around particular suns. Again, some journeys are possible and others not, and trips between the same start and finish points must necessarily use the same Alderson Points. Stargate has something of a hybrid – the original travel means was by means of wormholes rigidly linked to particular planets – once again, some journeys are possible and others not. However, this was quite quickly relaxed with the introduction of spaceships travelling at superluminal speeds, and the consequent ability to go wherever you liked.

So different authors have had to choose between pathways and navigation when considering space flight, and by far the majority have chosen navigation. All of which, considering my personal delight in following ancient trackways, makes me consider how I could work out such a plot into my own writing.

An old bridge, on the site of an even older river crossing, a little north of the village of Troutbeck

Gravity Patterns

Stephen Hawking in a reduced-gravity aircraft flight, 2007 (Wiki)

Gravity is a curious thing. On an everyday level, almost all of us experience it in such a steady, unchanging way that it vanishes from our conscious attention. From time to time we notice change – the sudden acceleration of a lift in a tall building, or a ride in a theme park. A few people fly aircraft in such a way as to handle serious g-forces, and an even smaller handful have been in the microgravity of Earth’s orbit (or a very specific aircraft trajectory intended to mimic conditions in space). But for most of us, most of the time, it is just there as a constant part of our environment.

In terms of physics, gravity is the odd one out of the standard four forces of nature (the others being electromagnetism, plus the weak and strong nuclear forces). It is odd for a couple of reasons – first, it is immensely weaker than the others, but secondly, it is always an attractive force rather than sometimes attracting and sometimes repelling… so far as we known in 2019. There has been a recent report of a Hungarian team discovering a fifth force, but this has not been confirmed by other teams yet, and in any case will not change the gist of this blog post. The forces other than gravity tend to cancel out over any great distance, and only really affect things on very short distances. But gravity, despite its comparative weakness, really does shape the way the universe looks and behaves.

Poster, Gravity (IMDB)

Gravity in films usually gets treated in very cavalier ways. The most striking example of this is the 2013 film Gravity, which was built on an interesting premise but often failed at the science. In one especially memorable moment, George Cluny’s character tells Sandra Bullock’s, that in order to get over to the Chinese orbital station, she just has to keep it in the centre of the viewport and keep firing the engines. In terms of orbital mechanics, it would be hard to arrive at a less likely option for reaching her target. It would work for fairground dodgem cars, or for boats on a stretch of open water: it would even work pretty well for two aircraft in flight. But two bodies in space, in orbit around a central body behave in ways that can be counter-intuitive, and the whole aim-and-accelerate idea is pretty much doomed to failure.

Voyager 2 slingshot manoeuvres through the solar system (Wiki)

It’s an odd thing that gravity, even in Newton’s classical world where relativity and quantum mechanics play no part, is such a hard system to solve. If the entire universe consisted of just two objects, then their future motion could be exactly predicted for as far ahead as you please. But with more than two objects – starting with the so-called three-body problem – there is no general exact solution. A few special cases can be solved to a good-enough accuracy, and there are some very hypnotic numerical simulations of the resulting tracks, but the general case remains unsolved. Even a partial answer is better than none at all, however, and one of the most strikingly useful examples of three-body interactions is the so-called gravity assist manoeuvre (also called a slingshot) in which a space probe is given a substantial acceleration by means of a close approach to a convenient planet.

Schematic showing the Lagrange points for the Earth-Sun system (Wiki)

From a story-telling perspective, three-body problem solutions are very handy! Gravity assists are a great way to make a journey achievable, which otherwise would take too long to complete. And some other very convenient solutions are the so-called Lagrange points – “fixed” places holding a particular relationship with a planet in its orbit. A small body – a spaceship, or a small asteroid – which is placed into one of those points will remain there in a stable configuration, whereas at other nearby locations, the relative orbits will diverge rather than converge. Most planets in the solar system have accumulated a little cluster of small natural bodies at the points L4 and L5 – these are generically called Trojan satellites, following a convention established for the moons of Jupiter. Even Earth has at least one Trojan satellite, whereas Jupiter has over 7000 of them. The Lagrange points provide a very convenient “resting-place”, where an author can locate an artificial satellite without needing to exert any station-keeping energy.

These represent gravitational solutions which are useful, in a sort-of utilitarian manner. However, the long-distance and always-attractive qualities of gravity also give rise to exciting and rather surprising patterns of motion. These represent resonant patterns which can often stabilise a system, making it longer-lasting than might be expected. For example, the orbit of Pluto occasionally crosses over that of Neptune. One’s first thought is that at some point they would collide, or at least get close enough to seriously interfere with each other’s orbit. In fact their orbits are in a 2:3 resonant pattern with each other – for every three orbits of Neptune, Pluto makes two. This, together with some other resonances in their orbits, means that the two planets never in fact approach one another very closely at all. They remain stable. Similar stable patterns can be seen in the orbits of bodies outside Pluto, in the Kuiper Belt. Resonance can destabilise systems as well – there are gaps in the asteroid belt caused by resonances with Jupiter, and gaps in Saturn’s rings caused by one or other of the moons. But I want to finish this section with a stabilising resonance which turns out to be particularly appealing – Naiad and Thalassa, two of the moons of Neptune, are constantly engaged in an orbital dance to avoid each other. The ratio is particularly complicated in this case: for every 69 orbits of Thalassa, Naiad orbits 73 times.

Orbital resonance of Naiad and Thalassa around Neptune. (NASA/JPL-Caltech)

So gravity is a complicated thing, and at least when you’re in orbit, can’t be solved by simply aiming-and-shooting. But it does give rise to some exciting possibilities for stories, and some fascinating choreography amongst planets, moons, and asteroids. Of which, more another time.

Making malt in space

Barley and beer (from beersmith.com)

I was intrigued the other day to read that one of the science experiments being sent up to the ISS on the latest Dragon shuttle was “Malting ABI Voyager Barley Seeds in Microgravity“. The experiment was organised by Anheuser-Busch, makers of Budweiser beer and other brands, and is the latest in a series of experiments intended to explore the various stages of brewing in microgravity. Of course there are loads of other experiments that go in up there in low orbit. There are ones that test the medical biology of human life in space, others that investigate minerals and chemicals – there’s even a cookie oven that was sent up so the residents at the time could have fun doing the first baking in space.

But these occasional forays into beer brewing intrigued me, on account of what we do here at Grasmere Brewery. Before that, though, what exactly is the process of malting barley, and why is it important?

Grapes fermenting (Wiki)

Basically, any alcoholic drink is made by taking some source of sugar, and allowing particular kinds of yeast to eat the sugar and convert it into alcohol. In simplified chemical symbols, C6H12O6 → 2 C2H5OH + 2 CO2 … one unit of sucrose turns into two of ethanol and two of carbon dioxide. The latter bubbles off the top of the liquid (or remains in it as fizz). Now, the original source of sugar for wines is some kind of fruit – like grapes – in which the fruit sugar is immediately available to the yeast.

A barley grain, showing the embryo germ (stained red) and starchy food supply or endosperm, both surrounded by husk

But you can also use grain as the original source of sugar, and this is particularly useful if you live in cooler climates, where grapes struggle to grow, and fruit generally is less abundant. So we make beer in northern Europe (and similar climates), and wine further south. But grain brewing has a problem – the sugars in the grain are locked up in starch, which nature had intended to be the food reserve for the growing seed next year, and which yeasts can’t use at all effectively. So… malting is the process of persuading the seeds to convert their starch into sugars, and it is done by encouraging the individual grains to begin sprouting.

Sprouted barley grains (ukmalt.com)

So the individual barley grains are steeped in water for a suitable period of time to attain a specific proportion of water content, then spread out and kept moist at around at around 18° centigrade for 4 or 5 days until they sprout roots and shoots to a particular length. As this happens, the growing tip itself carries out the starch to sugar conversion for us. At the desired size, the grains are dried out at a temperature below 50° (too hot, and the enzymes and flavour you want will be killed off), and the little rootlets removed. At this point you have pale malt, and depending what you want to end up with you can also gently toast the result to a range of darker colours.

Fermenters at Grasmere Brewery
Fermenters at Grasmere Brewery

Now, it has to be said that most small and medium breweries – including our own – do not do their own malting. It is a specialised task needing careful control and a lot of experience, and we just buy in barley which has already been malted. But keen home-brewers might well give it a go in their own kitchen, and very large breweries bring the job in-house – hence Anheuser-Busch’s interest in seeing what happens in space. Which brings us back to the main point of this blog post! As I have described it, it sounds like gravity plays no particular role in the malting process – so why wouldn’t it work in just the same way in orbit as on the Earth’s surface? But until you try it, you don’t really know. Perhaps the dormant seeds expect a particular gravitational tug in order to get roots and shoots activated. Perhaps the environment of moisture and temperature needs to be modified to allow for the lack of direction in space, and the consequent failure of normal convection air currents.

My feeling is that the malting experiment will just work, and that it will be later stages of the fermentation process which will present more problems to future space breweries. But we shall see.

Cover image, Farmer in the Sky (Wiki)

Now, from a story-telling point of view, what can we glean from all this? First, it’s fascinating to realise that space flight is becoming sufficiently normalised that we can contemplate experimenting with things that are, in effect, a little frivolous! We don’t actually need to make beer or cookies in space – we could get away with water and freeze-dried meals – but in order to make colonisation of the Moon, Mars, the asteroid belt, or wherever, seem more palatable to most of us, we would like to think that the lifestyle won’t forever consist of camping rations. The prospect of producing the first pale ale – or possibly red bitter – out of the Valles Marineris brewery on Mars is very enticing! Indeed, Anheuser-Busch declared a couple of years ago that they intended to open the first brewery on Mars.

Of course, in one sense, being able to malt barley in low gravity only pushes the problem back one stage – do we imagine that the barley itself will be grown on Mars (or wherever), perhaps in huge hydroponics bays, or do we reckon that freight space will be taken up by ship loads of grain being moved around? You need a lot of barley – at Grasmere Brewery, typically 7 or 8 bags of malt, each 25kg, go into a brew of around 1100 litres. After some process wastage, that ends up in 20 kegs, or around 1750 pints. That doesn’t last long in the busy summer months… So whether you choose hydroponics or space haulage, you’re committing a decent chunk of resources to supplying barley.

Either option might make a good seed for a story…

Grasmere Brewery
Grasmere Brewery

Quarry

Elterwater Quarry and the Langdale Pikes
Elterwater Quarry and the Langdale Pikes

Life has been busy of late with one thing and another, hence another gap in blogging. There are lots of reasons for this, lots of different things going on, but one of them has involved a lot of trips to Elterwater Quarry in the Langdale Valley, to collect lots of slate chippings (“20mm crusher run“, to be precise). Of course, once the chippings arrived back at the house, there was all kinds of wheelbarrow and shovel work to get them where we wanted, but that wasn’t what I was going to write about.

Langdale axe, found at Ehenside Tarn, now in the British Museum (J Miall, on Wikipedia)

The picture above shows one of the many piles of chippings at the quarry. In the background are the Langdale Pikes, where, something like 5 or 6000 years ago, there was a highly skilled and specialised quarry. Stone axes made from Langdale stone have been found throughout Britain and Ireland – one estimate suggests that over a quarter of all stone axes found in the British Isles come from Langdale. Some evidence suggests that the work at Langdale was largely extraction and rough shaping, with final polishing and finishing happening just north of what we now call Sellafield, near the west coast of Cumbria. Quarrying at Langdale went on for a very long time, and my suspicion is that all manner of work, from generic to skilled, happened there at one time or another.

The truck at Elterwater Quarry
The truck at Elterwater Quarry

There are many quarries in Langdale, and the valley routes through the Tilberthwaite area, down towards Coniston. Most of them are much more modern than Langdale, and most of them are slate quarries, though here and there you will find places where metals or minerals used to be extracted. Almost all of them are worked out now – Elterwater is one of the few still operating in any capacity. The Tilberthwaite walk takes you through and past long avenues of slate spoil heaps, left among the trees which are steadily reclaiming the area. It is easy to imagine a time when these quarries would have been the workplace for hundreds of local men. At one stage many of the quarries were small-scale, family or team enterprises. As time went by they gradually aggregated into larger organisations.

Moving slate at Elterwater
Moving slate at Elterwater

As well as the numerical decline in active quarries, there has been a parallel decline in skilled stonemasonry work. Until about this time last year, Elterwater sold not just stone and chippings, but worked stone. Skilled stonemasons were employed – slate is a very attractive stone to see in buildings, but it is tricky to work with. Last winter all that changed: the skilled workers were laid off, and the quarry transitioned to selling raw material only. When you go now, there is a handful of people working – a young lad at the weighbridge who takes your money as you leave, and a few guys operating heavy machinery. Our little truck was one of the smaller vehicles there, and it is common to see much larger lorries heavily laden – our vehicle takes around a ton and a half with comfort, which is rather less than a single scoop of the digger in the picture, and considerably less than most vehicles leaving the quarry.

Elterwater and older quarries up the side of Lingmoor Fell
Elterwater and older quarries up the side of Lingmoor Fell

It is a strange feeling to be both participating in an industry that has been carried out in this area for millennia, and also witnessing what may well be its final decline. There’s a lot of slate still lying around, but as you wander about it takes hardly any time to see similar piles of slate now abandoned – Lingmoor, Chapel Stile, and the Langdale Pikes themselves all stand out. Now, if I lived in the villages of Elterwater or Chapel Stile, I might well be heartily fed up with the regular passage of heavy lorries, with all the vibration, noise and dust that are produced. Maybe it’s a better solution to ship stone around the world from somebody else’s quarries, though it’s hard to believe that it makes economic sense.

Turning to fiction, I still have a long-term aspiration to write about the Neolithic quarrying on the Langdales – the very beginnings of all this stonework that still continues here, albeit in a different form. At the time, the Langdale valley was thick with hazel trees and squirrels, as well as skilled masons. It also has a number of sites showing the as-yet-undeciphered rock art originating in the same era, of which the most prominent is at Copt Howe, just outside Chapel Stile. One opinion is that the markings on this outcrop served as a kind of map of the valley and its mineral wealth. If so, we cannot read the map any more.

Looking to the future, I am sure that quarrying will continue into the future I write about in Far from the Spaceports and its sequels. I’m sure that habitats on moons and asteroids will be constructed by devices derived from today’s 3d printers, but they will need raw material, and what better substance than the granulated and ground rocks of the surroundings? I suspect that the process will be more automated, and so involve even fewer people, than Elterwater Quarry employs nowadays.

Elterwater quarry and the Langdale Pikes
Elterwater quarry and the Langdale Pikes

Another trip to Pluto?

Pluto, as seen by New Horizons on July 13, 2015 ( NASA/JHUAPL/SWRI )

In July 2015 the NASA New Horizons space probe passed Pluto at a distance of under 8000 miles, in the process providing us with the first close-up data of this miniature world and its companion moons. The whole package of scientific and image data took over a year to download to Earth, and a complete analysis will take a considerable time yet. It was also roughly a year after that flyby that I started writing The Liminal Zone, set out on Pluto’s moon Charon.

New Horizons went on to have a close encounter with the unromantically named 2014 MU69 (often called Ultima Thule) in January of this year. Data from that meeting will not be fully downloaded until September next year. And mission planners are considering options for possible future encounters: if no suitable Kuiper Belt object is identified, then the on-board instruments will simply continue to return data about the remote environment in which the spaceship finds itself. The power source is finite, and will run out sometime in the late 2030s, the exact time depending on what tasks the craft is called upon to perform.

The face of Pluto looking towards Charon, on July 11, 2015 ( NASA/JHUAPL/SWRI )

But today’s blog remains focused on Pluto and its moons. Not so very long ago, Pluto was regarded as utterly inhospitable and uninteresting. If you were going to locate a science fiction plot within the solar system, you wouldn’t choose Pluto. Pretty much any other planet or moon seemed preferable, and it was hard to conceive of Pluto as anything but bitterly cold and rather featureless. New Horizons has changed that perspective. It now seems that this small body – downgraded in 2006 from being classed as “planet” to “dwarf planet”, in a decision which continues to be fiercely debated and may well be reversed at some point – is one of the most complex and interesting objects anywhere within the solar system. Not only is there a wide range of dramatic geological phenomena, but all the evidence points to ongoing activity out there. Pluto is not a frozen dead world, but one which continues to change and adapt.

Pluto and Charon from one of the other moons – artist’s impression (NASA, ESA and G. Bacon)

So interesting is it, that NASA is currently considering another mission to Pluto, this time with a view to remaining in orbit for an extended period rather than just zooming by at great speed. This would require a different kind of orbital trajectory – New Horizons’ course was deliberately set up to gain as much speed as possible from gravity assists (“slingshots”) in order to minimise the time to get there. If you plan to remain in orbit, you have to approach at a considerably lower speed to allow the modest gravitational pull to draw you in. The outline plan calls for a two-year period in orbit, followed by another onward journey – probably using Charon to slingshot away – to a suitable destination elsewhere in the Kuiper Belt. My guess is that the spaceship would need to use an ion drive, just as the asteroid probe Dawn did – this has vastly lower acceleration than a conventional chemical motor, but remains on for very long periods of time, adding speed minute by minute, hour by hour. It’s an exciting prospect if you like Pluto – two years of extended study rather than an action-packed 24 hours. If given the go-ahead. take-off would be over a decade away, and I will be in my 90s before data starts coming back. I guess it will be something to entertain me in old age!

View of Pluto as New Horizons left the system, catching the Sun’s rays passing through Pluto’s atmosphere (NASA/JHUAPL/SwRI)

Meanwhile, I shall continue writing about Pluto and Charon using the information we already know, and a generous dollop of speculation. Why choose Pluto? Well, The Liminal Zone opens on a research base out on Charon, using a collection of instruments called The Array to study what lies further out. It’s analogous to siting a terrestrial telescope on a high mountain – you avoid most of the light and electromagnetic noise generated by other people, and can concentrate on tiny signals which are easily drowned out. Into this situation comes Nina, curious about strange local tales which have no easy explanation.

For fun, here’s a short extract from when Nina arrives

Finally the landing was complete, with the smallest of jolts as the ship docked. And since she was the only passenger – and had been since the orbit of Ceres – there were no additional delays. All her belongings were already at her side, and she just walked out through the concertina into the entryway for the Charon habitat. It was all quite anticlimactic.

Her accommodation was about two thirds of the way out along the Lethe habitat. She stepped carefully along the corridor to acclimatise herself – the gravity was about a fifth of what she was used to on the Moon, so it needed care, but was manageable. The porter had given her a little hand-held which was directing her to the suite of rooms. That very word, suite, sounded too grand for her taste. She was used to more modest facilities. Indeed, the whole building seemed needlessly large to her, particularly after the weeks of confinement on the freighter. She decided that she could always close some of the doors and just live in one room, if the space in her quarters was overwhelming.

But when she got there, it wasn’t that easy. The ceiling vaulted high above her in the main chamber, and several secondary rooms clustered around it like soap bubbles. A privacy screen shimmered over a gap diametrically opposite the main door – sleeping quarters or comfort facilities, she supposed – but the rest was all open-plan. To her left was an emergency evacuation airlock, displaying all the standard alert signs. There were cupboards in doors on several walls; opening one at random she found some eating utensils. She put her carryall and daypack on one of the chairs, and wandered aimlessly about. With this apparently reckless attitude to the vacuum outside, the room didn’t feel like anywhere else she had visited. The space was daunting.

Finally she perched uncomfortably on a stool, one of half a dozen arranged haphazardly around a long table. The suite of rooms was almost silent, except for a quiet mechanical buzz which she only noticed with deliberate effort. She cleared her throat nervously.

“Is there a domestic system online?”

“Hello. Are you the new occupant?”

Software generations and obsolescence

Alexa Far from the SpaceportsWebIcon
Alexa Far from the SpaceportsWebIcon

This post came about for a number of reasons, arising both from the real and fictional worlds. Fictionally speaking, my current work-in-progress deals with several software generations of personas (the AI equivalent of people). Readers of Far from the Spaceports and Timing will no doubt remember Slate, the main persona who featured there. Slate was – or is, or maybe even will be – a Stele-class persona, which in my future universe is the first software generation of personas. Before the first Stele, there were pre-persona software installations, which were not reckoned to have reached the level of personhood.

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

There’s a third book in that series about Mitnash and Slate, tentatively called The Authentication Key, which introduces the second generation of personas – the Sapling class. But that is in very fragmentary stage just now, so I’ll skip over that. By the time of The Liminal Zone, which is well under way, the third generation – the Scribe class – is just starting to appear. And as you will discover in a few months, there is considerable friction between the three classes – for example, Scribes tend to consider the earlier versions as inferior. They also have different characteristics – Saplings are reckoned to be more emotional and flighty, in contrast with serious Scribes and systematic Steles. How much of this is just sibling rivalry, and how much reflects genuine differences between them is for you to decide.

So what made me decide to write this complicated structure into my novels? Well, in today’s software world, this is a familiar scenario. Whether you’re a person who absolutely loves Windows 10, macOS Catalina, or Android Pie, or on the other hand you long for the good old days of Vista, Snow Leopard or Kitkat, there is no doubt that new versions split public opinion. And how many times have you gone through a rather painful upgrade of some software you use every day, only to howl in frustration afterwards, “but why did they get rid of xyz feature? It used to just work…” So I’m quite convinced that software development will keep doing the same thing – a new version will come along, and the community of users will be divided in their response.

Artist’s impression, Europa Clipper at work (from space.com)

But as well as those things, I came across an interesting news article the other day, all about the software being developed to go on the forthcoming space mission to Jupiter’s moon Europa. That promises to be a fascinating mission in all kinds of ways, not least because Europa is considered a very promising location to look for life elsewhere in our solar system. But the section that caught my eye was when one of the JPL computer scientists casually mentioned that the computer system intended to go was roughly equivalent to an early 1990s desktop. By the time the probe sets out, in the mid 2020s, the system will be over 30 years out of date. Of course, it will still do its job extremely well – writing software for those systems is a highly specialised job, in order to make the best use of the hardware attached, and to survive the rigours of the journey to Jupiter and the extended period of research there.

But nevertheless, the system is old and very constrained by modern standards – pretty much all of the AI systems you might want to send on that mission in order to analyse what is being seen simply won’t run in the available memory and processing power. The computing job described in that article considers the challenge of writing some AI image analysis software, intended to help the craft focus in on interesting features – can it be done in such a way as to match the hardware capabilities, and still deliver some useful insights?

As well as scientific research, you could consider banking systems – the traditional banks are built around mainframe computers and associated data stores which were first written years ago and which are extremely costly. Whatever new interfaces they offer to customers – like a new mobile app – still has to talk to the legacy systems. Hence a new generation of challenger banks has arisen, leapfrogging all the old bricks-and-mortar and mainframe legacy systems and focusing on a lean experience for mobile and web users. It’s too early to predict the outcome, and the trad banks are using their huge resources to play catch-up as quickly as they can.

Often, science fiction assumes that future individuals will, naturally, have access to the very latest iteration of software. But there are all kinds of reasons why this might not happen. In my view, legacy and contemporary systems can, and almost certainly will, continue to live side by side for a very long time!

Lego ideas (from ideas.lego.com)

When software goes wrong…

Let’s be clear right at the start – this is not a blame-the-computer post so much as a blame-the-programmer one! It is all too easy, these days, to blame the device for one’s ills, when in actual fact most of the time the problem should be directed towards those who coded the system. One day – maybe one day quite soon – it might be reasonable to blame the computer, but we’re not nearly at that stage yet.

Related image

So this post began life with frustration caused by one of the several apps we use at work. The organisation in question, which shall remain nameless, recently updated their app, no doubt for reasons which seemed good to them. The net result is that the app is now much slower and more clunky than it was. A simple query, such as you need to do when a guest arrives, is now a ponderous and unreliable operation, often needing to be repeated a couple of times before it works properly.

Now, having not so long ago been professionally involved with software testing, this started me thinking. What had gone wrong? How could a bunch of (most likely) very capable programmers have produced an app which – from a user’s perspective – was so obviously a step backwards?

Of course I don’t know the real answer to that, but my guess is that the guys and girls working on this upgrade never once did what I have to do most days – stand in front of someone who has just arrived, after (possibly) a long and difficult journey, using a mobile network connection which is slow or lacking in strength. In those circumstances, you really want the software to just work, straight away. I suspect the team just ran a bunch of tests inside their superfast corporate network, ticked a bunch of boxes, and shipped the result.

Image result for free image self driving car
Self-driving car (Roblox)

Now, that’s just one example of this problem. We all rely very heavily on software these days – in computers, phones, cars, or wherever – and we’ve become very sophisticated in what we want and don’t want. Speed is important to us – I read recently that every additional second that a web page takes to load loses a considerable fraction of the potential audience. Allegedly, 40% of people give up on a page if it takes longer than 3 seconds to load, and Amazon reckon that slow down in page loading of just one second costs the sales equivalent of $1.6 billion per year. Sainsbury’s ought to have read that article… their shopping web app is lamentably slow. But as well as speed, we want the functionality to just work. We get frustrated if the app we’re using freezes, crashes, loses changes we’ve made, and so on.

What has this to do with writing? Well, my science fiction is set in the near future, and it’s a fair bet that many of the problems that afflict software today will still afflict it in a few decades. And the situation is blurred by my assumption that AI systems wil have advanced to the point where genuinely intelligent individuals (“personas”) exist and interact with humans. In this case, “blame-the-computer” might come back into fashion. Right now, with the imminent advent of self-driving cars on our roads, we have a whole raft of social, ethical, and legal problems emerging about responsibility for problems caused. The software used is intelligent in the limited sense of doing lots of pattern recognition, and combining multiple different sources of data to arrive at a decision, but is not in any sense self-aware. The coding team is responsible, and can in principle unravel any decision taken, and trace it back to triggers based on inputs into their code.

Far from the Spaceports cover
Far from the Spaceports cover

As and when personas come along, things will change. Whoever writes the template code for a persona will provide simply a starting point, and just as humans vary according to both nature and nurture, so will personas. As my various stories unfold, I introduce several “generations” of personas – major upgrades of the platform with distinctive traits and characteristics. But within each generation, individual personas can differ pretty much in the same way that individual people do. What will this mean for our present ability to blame the computer? I suppose it becomes pretty much the same as what happens with other people – when someone does something wrong, we try to disentangle nature from nurture, and decide where responsibility really lies.

Meanwhile, for a bit of fun, here’s a YouTube speculation, “If HAL-9000 was Alexa”…

Pouring beer in low gravity

This is another of my occasional posts on the general theme of “how would you do such-and-such in low or zero gravity?” Lots of things which we take for granted down here on the surface of the Earth become surprisingly difficult or awkward if you find yourself in the microgravity of orbit, or on the surface of a body where the gravitational pull is very much less than what we enjoy here.

Lager kegs at the Grasmere Sports Day

Today’s topic is pouring beer, and originates from the annual Grasmere Sports Day – an event held on the Sunday of the Bank Holiday weekend at the end of August. As you can see, it was a sunny day – even a hot day – and these have been in short supply ever since. But that day was hot, and we had the task of running a beer tent where people would expect cold lager right through the day. (Or any of several ales, or fruit cider)

Now, the business of making the kegs cold was handled by means of what was basically a very large cold-water bath – cooled down with a heat exchange loop overnight, then kept that way through the day. A reflective tarpaulin kept the sun (mostly) off, and the refrigeration loop did the rest. All that part would not be appreciably different in low gravity – keeping things cold in space is not generally a problem in the situations I have in mind (I’m not planning on colonising Mercury any time soon).

Dispensing fonts for several of the products

Let’s think what happens next, The drink is pushed from the keg to the dispensing unit by gas pressure. This might be the pressure of gas generated during fermentation, or some extra assistance from a CO2 or mixed-gas cylinder, and typically is a mixture of the two. Again, no problem here at all. Gas will push liquid along a tube in lots of gravity or none, basically because gases are compressible and liquids are not. So on Earth or in orbit, the beverage is pushed through a series of tubes from keg to hand-pull or font. No problem there.

But then we get to the actual presentation to the person wanting the drink. Here on the Grasmere Sports field, the drink poured downwards from the hand-pull or font into the waiting glass. Liquid at the bottom, little bubbles rising nicely towards the surface, a suitable amount of foam on the top. Everyone was happy. But now translate that into orbit. Out here, there’s no up or down worth speaking about. The liquid is propelled straight out of the delivery tap. It splashes on the sides or far end of the glass you are holding there, and then (probably) just bounces out again. There’s no gravitational incitement to remain in the glass.

In the glass

You mop up the mess, think about it, get a container which has a lid, and try again. That’s fine – the lager now remains where you wanted it instead of drifting all around your living space. Except it has no motive for remaining at the bottom of the container, since there are no gravitational clues as to what is the bottom. My suspicion is that it would break up into a number of large blobs, fusing and separating rather like an old-style lava lamp. Now suppose you got yourself a transparent container so you could still see the head… what’s happening here? The bubbles aren’t rising to the top… because there is no top. My guess – and it is a guess – is that the internal hydrostatic pressure would mean that bubbles go out from the inside of each disjoint blob of fluid towards the surface. If I’m right, then each blob will have its own set of bubbles going out radially, and each will have a roughly spherical head surrounding the liquid. It’s a fascinating thought. How would you drink such a thing? Two ways, I suspect: either you’d use a straw through the lid and suck up each blob in turn, or you’d choose a container that you could squeeze like a toothpaste tube. Not so visually exciting as quaffing your pint out of a glass, but at least you’d get to have the drink.

Cover - Far from the Spaceports
Cover – Far from the Spaceports

It’ll be a while before we face that problem for real, but my suspicion is that the brewing of beer (or an equivalent beverage) will follow very hard on the heels of any human colonisation of the solar system at large. And it’s certainly worth including in a near-future science fiction story – I put a little bit of detail into Far from the Spaceports about the Frag Rockers bar out among the asteroids, but back then I hadn’t had the chance to consider it in more detail. But there were little details like “You’ll need to go to Frag Rockers to get anything decent. Regular fermentation goes weird in low gravity. But Glyndwr has got some method for doing it right. He won’t tell anyone what.” Maybe one of the books in this series will explore the matter in more detail.

That’s it about fermentation today, but I was intrigued to read that NASA have been experimenting with the manufacture of cement up in space – see this link for a description together with some comments on structural differences between the same stuff made on Earth and in orbit, or this link for my own ramblings about the process a few weeks ago.

And finally, condolences to the Indian space agency ISRO for the loss of signal from the Vikram lander, during the final stages of approach. The orbiting observatory part of the Chandrayaan-2 mission is still working as expected.