Category Archives: Science fiction

Preparing to build

A couple of weeks ago I blogged about aluminium smelting. Today’s topic is a little more prosaic, but historically has been a much more frequent part of building projects.

The various bits of wood – house beams in front, oak timbers behind

One part of remodelling the bar at The Good Sport is to replace the bar worktop. The old one was a hybrid affair with some chipboard and some stone – the new one is made of wood taken from various sources. There are former house timbers dating from some time in the mid 19th century. They’re very cool, not least for the history they have witnessed. Then there are frame support pieces made just from builders’ merchants supplies, probably pine or something similarly quick growing. But the best sections are two large pieces of oak, rescued by a local craftsman when the tree was felled. These are cut top to bottom along the trunk, so you cannot count the rings and find out how old they are – but my guess is that they considerably outdate the rest of the installation. (The top-to-bottom orientation means that the grain runs along the counter top).

But the thing I want to talk about today is not the age of the wood, but the preparation that has gone into it. The two pieces had been supplied to us reasonably smooth – but “reasonably smooth” menas “not smooth enough” when it’s a thing that people will be leaning on. So one of my jobs these last few days has been to turn “reasonably smooth” into “really smooth”.

One of the pieces of wood, together with the belt sander

Now, since this is 2019, I used a selection of power tools to effect this change, mostly a belt sander with a number of different grades of sandpaper. Even with that, it took a decent time to go over the top surface multiple times, working from coarser to finer passes. I was extremely happy with the result, but it also led me to consider how things might have been in the many ages of our world before power tools were invented. After all, sanding wood is an activity which lends itself to thinking about other things while you’re working away. How long, I mused, would this have taken me if I was doing it all by hand? And would the final result have been anything like so pleasing? After all, wood-smoothing is not something that I have done much of in my life to date, and I wouldn’t call myself especially skilled at it.

Swimming reindeer, c.13,000 years old (BBC)

Human history is full of exquisitely crafted objects, meeting needs somewhere between religion, art, and practical necessity. This swimming reindeer figure was made around 13,000 years ago – I don’t know how long it took the original artist to fashion it, but I’m guessing that it was rather longer than the time I put into smoothing two essentially flat pieces of wood. Not to mention the huge number of practice hours he or she had put in since childhood.

Now, I only smoothed one side of the wood – the pragmatic nature of today’s world means that I wasn’t motivated to do much to the hidden side except to make sure it was proof against various kinds of wood pests. But back in the day, if the kings or the priests felt it important to take just as much care on the hidden side as the visible one, then you would just have got on with it.

Which brings me to the future. There’s a developmental principle in some games – those in which the time frame of the game is spread out over many years – that items which are available only to the wealthy in one era get diffused more and more widely through the population as a whole as you go forward in time. I guess the standard example is computing power – back in the 1950s and 60s, computers could only be owned by large institutions or extremely wealthy individuals. Now we all have much more powerful machines we carry around in our pockets. Similarly for smooth bits of wood – once upon a time it took real skill and craft to create something smooth and shapely from a rough-hewn piece of timber. Nowadays anyone who wants can go out and buy power tools and achieve something similar by themselves (not necessarily with artistic flair, but certainly with polish).

The world’s first 3d-printed house (BBC – https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/technology-44709534)

Now, as and when we get to build colonies and habitats in various places around the solar system, my bet is that we will use 3d printing as our construction technique. After all, it’s way simpler and cheaper to ship out a large printer to wherever you’re going, and use that to construct tools, equipment, and habitat sections – much cheaper than paying for the fuel to send actual construction materials. That’s very cool, but unless the technology advances in aesthetic ways as well as practical ones, I can’t see 3d-printed building materials having a wood grain that can be sanded and then picked out with oil. On one level it doesn’t really matter – you’d prefer that your house on, say, the asteroid Ceres was airtight and warm, even if that meant not having a wood grain to look at. Or maybe we’ll have a printer add-on that will simulate the grain in whatever direction you want.

After preparation…

Ultima Thule

A very quick blog today, as I have been occupied all day in wood preparation (of which, more another day).

So this is to celebrate the safe passage of the New Horizons space probe past Ultima Thule, a small rock out beyond Pluto, out in the Kuiper Belt. The flyby – at some 44 kilometres per hour – happened around 5:30 am UK time on January 1st, when I suspect most of us were still in bed after the New Year’s Eve celebrations!

The journey from Earth (Johns Hopkins University)

So far all we have had back are a few low-resolution images on the final stages of approach, and a post-flyby signal confirming that the probe had survived. This survival was by no means guaranteed – nobody knew if Ultima Thule was accompanied by clouds of dust or smaller rocks, and hitting them at 44kph would have been fatal.

However, there is something like 7GB of data waiting to be sent home, all to be sent by a transmitter much less powered than the average light bulb, with each signal taking over 6 hours to get home. It’s rather extraordinary that we can pick up the data download at all, and at such a low data rate it will take the better part of two years to get the whole lot back safely.

New Horizons – until now – has been best known for the remarkable pictures of Pluto and Charon, which we enjoyed back in 2015. These have radically reshaped our views of these bodies, and vastly enriched our understanding of them. Not only that, but they inspired large parts of the setting of The Liminal Zone, which could not have existed in its present form without this additional knowledge.

Charon, from New Horizons (NASA/JPL)

So here by way of celebration is a short extract from The Liminal Zone, using geography that would have been pure guesswork before 2015.

In the approach vid, Charon was rapidly changing from a remote celestial body into a diversely coloured and textured terrain. From a bright point of light, to a disk which filled the sky. From a name, to a home, however temporary. She gazed intently at it, trying to fix the setting in her mind. The habitat was situated on the interface between the largely flat expanse of Vulcan Planum on one side, and rugged folds of hills alongside Serenity Chasma on the other. She had briefly skimmed the original surveyors’ reports; so far as she remembered, the location was a compromise between stability and ease of construction.

As yet, I have no plans to set a book out in the Kuiper Belt, but who knows what might happen when the full data set comes back?

Metal Working

Civilisation Box Art (Wiki)

Since I first discovered it – many years ago – I have loved the game of Civilisation. I was introduced to version 1 of the computer game by a work colleague, and since then have played various variants of both the computer and the board game. Of course there are all kinds of opinions about which is best, which I don’t propose to go into. But one of the key features was the technology tree – the very very long series of inventions and ideas you pursued in order to build new stuff and so develop your culture.

Now, one of the very early developments was Bronze Working (which allowed specific kinds of military units and civic wonders). This was a prerequisite for Iron Working and – after a very long time – Metallurgy.

The smelting fire
The smelting fire

So, what has this to do with today’s blog? Well, yesterday, as a small part of a sizeable remodel of The Good Sport bar, we had cause to do some invention ourselves. We weren’t working with Bronze or Iron, but rather Aluminium. Now, a purist will perhaps object that Aluminium is not on the Civ tech tree – at least, not any of the variants I have played – which is true. And also that we were not starting from bauxite or any other naturally occurring raw material, but rather from some handy spare aluminium sheets that were lying around. All that is true: nevertheless we did have to melt said stuff and refashion it for our own purposes.

Now, aluminium melts at just over 660° C, which is well above the temperature of a domestic oven, or camp fire. So our solution was an old beer keg, lined with cement to retain heat and equipped with an air inlet to one side. Inside was a charcoal fire, and a handy air compressor pushed air in through the tube to keep the charcoal burning fiercely. Aluminium was cut into small strips and put in a steel jug – steel having a much higher melting point. And then we waited, entirely unsure whether the whole thing was doomed to failure.

About to pour the liquid aluminium
About to pour the liquid aluminium

But as you can see, it all worked! Slowly but surely the aluminium melted into the rather fine puddle that you see in this picture. It would be nice to say that we had been totally confident in all this, but not so – we were as amazed as anyone when this happened. We felt, just for a few moments, like real discoverers. Yes, all the technical data about melting points is easy to obtain these days, and yes we had those handy aluminium sheets as starting point, but even so the sense of triumph when it turned into liquid was extraordinary!

Pouring the liquid aluminium
Pouring the liquid aluminium

So what did we do with our liquid aluminium? Well, here it is being poured into a surface hole in a piece of wood. Why that destination? Well, that will all become clear – hopefully – over the next few weeks.

Meanwhile, this all set me thinking about metallurgy in general, and how it has affected human society. Of course Civilisation focuses on just a few things – military units that can now be built, particular buildings that facilitate further development, and “wonders” which enhance your prowess (ie score) and make your people happier. But in reality, metal working permeates every aspect of life.

We take it for granted now that a household object is made of whatever material is most suitable – metal, ceramic, fabric or whatever. We have whole fields of study concerning the various properties of these materials, such as their hardness, ability to transmit or suppress noise, colour, safety, electrical conductivity, and so on. But starting way back in the mists of time, and carrying on through all of our history until now, people have had to find these things out by trial and error. What were the properties of those shiny veins in rock layers? Why could I shape one metal easily and not another? Would my camp fire soften them? How must I change my camp fire so I can work with the more intransigent metals? How can my sword edge be sharper, or my armour tougher, or the wheels on my vehicle stronger? In a very small way, we felt something of the same exhilaration that our hugely distant ancestors must have felt, seeing copper melt for the first time, and be shaped into something new – something distinctly human.

Spacehounds of IPC cover (Wiki)

Looking ahead into the future, we generally assume that we will carry the ability to fashion metals (and other useful substances) with us wherever we go. But every so often you get stories where someone is stranded and has to build it up again. This was an especially popular theme in the 1930s and thereabouts – Spacehounds of IPC being a classic example. Our Hero, forced by circumstance onto an uninhabited moon (with breathable atmosphere) has to start from next to nothing except a small tool pack, and build his way up through small camp fires to blast furnaces and ultimately the ability to recharge the power banks on his derelict lifeboat. Until yesterday, I was totally sceptical about this storyline… but having turned an old keg, some charcoal, and a handy air compressor into something that could melt aluminium, I became slightly more convinced!

More of this another time: for now here is a final picture of the “forge” as it died down in the late evening. You can easily imagine us around it, feeling foolishly triumphant…

Around the camp fire
Around the camp fire

Laws, qualifications, and the drinking of alcohol

University of Cumbria at Barrow - where I took the course
University of Cumbria at Barrow – where I took the course

I heard today that I had passed the study element of a Personal Alcohol Licence, which (after I have gone through a police background check and a few other formalities) allows me to authorise the sale of alcohol in England and Wales. Not in Scotland, Northern Ireland, or indeed anywhere else in the world, but I guess you have to start somewhere.

Now, this is far from my most advanced academic qualification, but the intriguing thing about this one is that it legally entitles me to supervise – and therefore take legal responsibility for – the public sale of what is undoubtedly a kind of drug. Without the licence, I can work under someone else’s supervision, but cannot just set up and flog booze on my own account. With it, and subject to a bunch of other constraints, I can do just that.

You can imagine that a fair proportion of the material, and the final test, focused around UK law relating to drink. There are obvious things to do with the age of the drinker, but I also learned that it is a specific legal offence to sell alcohol to someone who (in the considered opinion of the seller) is already drunk. Too much like shooting fish in a barrel, I suppose. Most of the laws fit around common sense, though as with any body of legal material you are left a little perplexed as to why specific conditions were imposed.

Russian troops and Finnish smugglers, 1853 (Vasily Hudiakov, WIki)
Russian troops and Finnish smugglers, 1853 (Vasily Hudiakov, WIki)

Anyway, all this set me thinking about law and qualification. The government of the day, however it was decided, has for a very long time indeed decided that it is entitled to a certain proportion of the profits from various kind of sales – and alcohol has typically been way up the list. And of course where rulers try to enforce a ruler, some subjects will concoct cunning schemes to get around the additional expense – excise duty spawns groups of smugglers almost by definition. But you only risk smuggling goods where the financial equation makes sense – small, easily concealed items where the tax duty is high enough that you can pocket a decent cut for yourself, while still leaving the buyer feeling they have done very well out of the deal.

So customs duties, and the body of regulations which underpin them, have been around for millennia. And – typically – part of those regulations consists of ways to appoint specific individuals as those few who are allowed to make transactions. In days of old, one suspects that many of these appointments were based on nepotism or bribery… if you had the right connections, or could stump up enough starting cash, you could find yourself in a comfortable position and set up for life. Nowadays the process is rather more transparent, and the barriers to entry are very much lower.

The Jolly Sailor, Bursledon (www.jollysailoroldbursledon.co.uk)
The Jolly Sailor, Bursledon (www.jollysailoroldbursledon.co.uk)

But equally, things have been tightened up in other ways. A couple of hundred years ago, it was fairly common for ex servicemen to use their prize money, or sign-off pay, or whatever they had saved up, to buy a little inn somewhere, and make a tidy living brewing or distilling booze of widely varying quality, and plying locals with the results. (Any pub you find called the Marquis of Granby recalls charitable donations by this 18th century gentleman who donated money to wounded servicemen). Provided you could afford a small building and a few bits and pieces to do the fermentation, you could set yourself up, no questions asked. These days, you have to go through hoops like planning permission, health and safety, police, plus of course getting a premises licence. There are all kinds of reasons why an apparently sound business plan might be rejected by officialdom.

The ISS (NASA/JPL)
The ISS (NASA/JPL)

So that is looking back… but what about forwards? Right now the only human outpost we have away from the Earth is the ISS. It’s not very far away – about 400km above the surface of the Earth, less than the distance from one end of England to the other. And I don’t suppose that the occupants have much privacy or opportunity to set up fermentation or a distillery up there. Though I did hear today that Budweiser has funded one of the science experiments on board, seeking to improve strains of barley with increased resistance to environmental stress. So maybe next year someone wil fund a experiment to make beer up there and see how yeasts behave in microgravity!

Alexa Far from the Spaceports logo
Alexa Far from the Spaceports logo

But let’s assume that within the next couple of decades we have an outpost or two somewhere else – the Moon, say, or Mars, or even a privately operated space station. How likely is it that nobody will attempt to ferment fruit or vegetable juices? And whose laws will be applied to regulate such an operation? Now run the scenario on a few more years, into the solar system I imagine for Far from the Spaceports and its sequels. There are a decent number of scattered habitats, each separated from the others by at least days, often weeks, and sometimes months of travel time. It will, I suspect, become impossible to try to enforce some kind of uniform system of laws.

Alexa Timing logo
Alexa Timing logo

My guess is that each habitat will have its own local set of laws and customs – no doubt broadly consistent with each other, but differing in detail. Sure, you can send a message anywhere in the solar system within a day at most, but if you get a tip-off that the habitat on Charon is bootlegging some kind of moonshine drink that is not allowed on the Moon, it’s going to take your police three or four months to trek out there and investigate. Will they bother? In that kind of situation, I don’t think it is feasible to try to maintain a single unified system of laws and regulations. So now suppose I have trained for my personal alcohol licence here on Earth (which in fact I did), and then decide on a whim to travel out to Charon. Will a publican out there recognise my licence? Or will he or she make me study for a duplicate one, ending up with a signature of someone on Charon rather than Earth? Right now, in the present day, it is extraordinarily hard to transfer qualifications between countries in professions like teaching, nursing, psychotherapy, and so on – will things be any different when we’re scattered across a few dozen habitats? I suspect not, especially as my own new licence doesn’t even allow me to do stuff in Scotland!

All of which is why I like writing about that near-future band of time, when there is no Federation, no Galactic Empire, or whatever – only local enforcement of issues according to moral and social principles which makes sense to the occupants. I suspect the chief coordinating factor would be economic – if you felt that some particular habitat was doing things the wrong way, you wouldn’t trade with them. They would become isolated, and there’s nowhere in the solar system away from Earth that can actually be self-sufficient. Hence I write about economic and financial crime, as these are the things that seriously threaten lives and livelihoods.

Mars Insight lander and Elysium Planitia

A quick post today as I have been buried deep in coding web applications for Lake View Country House and its sister businesses. As an added bonus there will be an extract, this time from Timing.

Artist's impression, Insight on Mars (NASA/JPL)
Artist’s impression, Insight on Mars (NASA/JPL)

First though, the NASA Mars Insight lander. This is well on its way to Mars, and is due to touch down on November 26th (at around 3pm Eastern Time, or 8pm UK time). Landing on Mars has traditionally been a hazardous affair, and something like half of all probes sent there have not done so successfully. But things have improved recently, so let’s hope all goes well on 26th.

Now, Insight has a couple of primary science targets, both relating to the interior of the planet. One instrument will measure heat flow under the surface, and another will detect seismic changes – earthquakes if you like, though perhaps Marsquakes might be a better word. The overall intention is to get a better idea of what Mars is like once you probe below the dusty surface. To that end, various drills will work their way several metres down below wherever the probe ends up landing.

The site area on Elysium Planitia chosen for landing (NASA/JPL)
The site area on Elysium Planitia chosen for landing (NASA/JPL)

But it was the landing place that particularly caught my eye – a flat plain called Elysium Planitia, roughly straddling the equator. This was chosen for scientific reasons – it is mostly flat and has a suitable kind of surface layer for the instruments to work well. But interestingly, Elysium Planitia features in Timing (Far from the Spaceports Book 2) as the site for a developed, and particularly lively, habitat.

In that book, Mit and Slate visit a couple of places on Mars, as well as its tiny moon Phobos. Their first target is a training college close to the mountain Olympus Mons, and from there they move across to Elysium Planitia in order to meet an old adversary… who claims now to be an ally. The two sites are in stark contrast – the training college is austere and frankly dull (though helpful for Mit and Slate in deducing what has been happening), but Elysium Planitia is exciting to the point of excess… Insight will have a very staid experience in comparison…


The quayside at Elysium Planitia was busy and bustling, and didn’t exactly feel safe. I kept all my pockets sealed shut, held my bag in front of me all the time, and tried to stay alert. Slate had promised to keep a eye out for anybody trying to infiltrate at a virtual level. I was used to crowds in London, but they were well-behaved, in which individuals knew where they were going, and made a habit of slipping past each other without interaction. And, as Slate kept reminding me, I had been away from that environment for a considerable time now, and the various habitats I had visited more recently were comparatively empty. I was out of practice.

Here, there was a lot of intrusion into personal space. Men and women jostled past each other, and there was a sensory bombardment on every side, offering all kinds of goods and services. Nothing was free, and the price of the more personal interactions was, literally, astronomical.

The habitat was much the biggest one I had been to, making even the south lunar pole settlement look small. I focused on threading my way through the hustle, following Slate’s internal prompts for some distance from the dock towards a quieter, cheaper row of guest houses. All I wanted – all that Elias would expense for – was an economical, no-frills hideaway. All being well, I would be back to Phobos soon.

The place I selected had no human greeters, just an automated checkin service. I wasn’t paying enough to warrant a real person’s presence. Out in space, Slate had sighed about the frequent partings our job required. I was much more basic in my needs, and this was my complaint. I particularly loathed the need to keep staying in dingy soulless rooms.

My heart sank slightly when the welcome screen spiralled brightly coloured words at me: “We’re Like Vegas Used To Be! Only In Space! And Better!!” But the process of getting access to the room was easy to follow, and it didn’t take long. You just had to focus away from the vivid ads which pressed in from the edge of the screen just as soon as the system had decided that I was an adult.

Once I had successfully navigated that, I was given access to the room. It was secure and reasonably comfortable, and it got me off the streets well before the really busy evening time. I had no particular desire to just go wandering round in a fit of exploration. There was going to be quite enough excitement just meeting Jocasta tomorrow.

 

Dawn, death, and ion drives

Dawn takes off, September 27th 2007 (KSC/NASA)
Dawn takes off, September 27th 2007 (KSC/NASA)

Last week, NASA’s Dawn space probe, which first launched back in 2007, finally ran out of fuel and has been declared dead. Regular readers will know that Dawn has been a great source of information and inspiration for me as I have been creating the future world of Far from the Spaceports, Timing, and the in-progress The Liminal Zone. So it seemed fitting to me to do a kind of tribute to Dawn here.

So here’s a timeline of key events:

  • September 2007 — Launch
  • February 2009 — Mars Gravity Assist
  • July 2011 — Vesta Arrival
  • September 2012 — Vesta Departure
  • March 2015 — Ceres Arrival
  • June 2016 — End of prime mission
  • July 2016 — Start of first extension
  • November 2017 — Start of second extension
  • November 2018 — No remaining fuel: mission ends

Enhanced colour image of Ceres (NASA/JPL-Caltech/UCLA/MPS/DLR/IDA)
Enhanced colour image of Ceres (NASA/JPL-Caltech/UCLA/MPS/DLR/IDA)

Of course, Dawn is not going anywhere – it will remain in its current orbit around Ceres for decades at least, until some combination of inevitable gravitational perturbations distorts that orbit enough that it eventually crashes into the surface. But there will be no more navigation from Dawn, no more course correction, no more photos or science information.

I want to talk a bit about Dawn’s ion drive, in the connection of storytelling, but if you want pictures and information about the mission findings, the best place to start is the NASA site, which has separate pages for Vesta and Ceres.

So, the ion drive. Most craft up to now have used chemical rockets – two or more chemicals are stored separately, then mixed to form a high-energy burst of propulsion. For example, the latest SpaceX SuperDraco engine uses the two liquids nitrogen tetroxide and Monomethylhydrazine. The net effect is that the spacecraft is pushed with high acceleration in a particular direction. After this engine burn, the craft coasts with no further propulsion for days or months, until it’s time for another correction. Astronauts in the craft have to endure short periods of high g-forces, followed by long periods of weightlessness. The engine burns have to be very precisely calculated for direction, force, and duration, so as to minimise the need for subsequent burns. Once the fuel is gone, it’s gone, and each burn takes a fair proportion of the fuel stores.

Falcon Heavy launch, February 6th 2018 (SpaceX via Wikipedia)
Falcon Heavy launch, February 6th 2018 (SpaceX via Wikipedia)

What does this mean for storytelling? Well, most of the journey is spent at zero acceleration, coasting towards your destination without burning fuel, and without any sense of up or down. It took the Apollo astronauts about three days to get from the Earth to the Moon (and the same back again, after doing stuff on the lunar surface). As and when SpaceX or whoever sends another rocket there, it will still take about three days – the time taken is a result of the coasting period without power, not the force of the engine. And because of the long zero-gravity sections, you need to be fairly well-trained to manage this.

SpaceX 'Starman' orbit (SpaceX Twitter feed)
SpaceX ‘Starman’ orbit (SpaceX Twitter feed)

Now consider a trip to Mars. In February of this year, SpaceX launched a Falcon Heavy rocket, with payload of a Tesla car and suitable contents. It left Earth orbit and headed out on an orbit that goes out past Mars, but at a slight angle so that the two never intersect. Each orbit takes 557 days to complete, so at this point not even one has been finished. The payload – a Tesla car – passed by Mars orbit a few days ago, after about eight months.

The Hermes rocket from the film The Martian (http://the-martian.wikia.com)
The Hermes rocket from the film The Martian (http://the-martian.wikia.com)

Now, this rocket had not reserved enough fuel to slow down and enter Mars orbit – it was a vivid proof of concept for SpaceX, not a real attempt to land on the Red Planet. But basically, if a human crew does the same journey in the same rocket, it will take them about eight months to get there – eight months of zero gravity, unless rocket design changes to include a kind of pseudo-gravity produced by rotation, as in the Hermes spacecraft in The Martian.

Getting out into the solar system on chemical rockets just prolongs these figures. Potential astronauts have to cope with months, if not years, of isolation and low gravity. It is just not viable to send people there, which is why the present focus has been on sending hardware and instruments.

Schematic diagram of ion drive (NASA/JPL)
Schematic diagram of ion drive (NASA/JPL)

Enter the ion drive, as used on Dawn and a handful of other craft. It is, in some ways, the opposite of a chemical rocket. It produces small amounts of drive thrust continuously for a very long time. NASA estimates that the thrust of the engines on Dawn is roughly the same as what you feel when you hold a piece of paper on the palm of your hand. It’s quite useless for getting off the Earth’s surface – you really do need something powerful for that – but as a way to get you from Earth to Vesta… or Vesta to Ceres… From a standing start in free space, Dawn would take about four days to go from 0 to 60 mph. But that ion drive just keeps piling on speed. Dawn’s engine ran for a total of about 2000 days during the mission – over 5 years.

Artist's impression, Dawn at Ceres (NASA/JPL)
Artist’s impression, Dawn at Ceres (NASA/JPL)

Now, if you have an engine that is always-on, your whole picture of the solar system changes. Let’s suppose you keep accelerating to the mid point, then flip over and decelerate the rest of the way, so that you get to feel a constant gravity all the way. Then further is more efficient. In twice the time you can go four times the distance. Or, to put the same thing another way, to go twice the distance takes less than one and a half times the time.

Of course, Dawn’s motors were still early versions of the design, with a low thrust output even at maximum. For my stories, I’ve assumed that the design can be enhanced to give an acceleration equivalent to 1/20 of that at Earth’s surface – considerably less than what you get on the moon. It would take some getting used to, but it means that your body and brain have a clear sense of up and down, and all those physiological functions that need gravity have a good chance to keep going! What does this mean for travel time?

  • Earth to Mars takes between ten and twenty days, depending on their relative position at the time of launch
  • Earth to Ceres takes about 3 weeks
  • Earth to Pluto takes about three months

Timing Kindle cover
Timing Kindle cover

That works for storytelling – it’s not very different from journeys that people would take by sail back in the day. For example, an 18th century trip from England to India would take something like four to six months. Once the Suez canal was open, this reduced to about two months. People will put up with a journey like that for all kinds of reasons. So that’s roughly how you can imagine the solar system of my science fiction novels – a bit like our world was in the days of sail and early steam ships.

Here’s a short extract from Timing, in which journey time gets discussed a bit. Meanwhile, RIP Dawn!

Then, quite suddenly, I had been sent all the way to the Jovian system. That would have been fair enough after the local jobs, but it turned out to be a false alarm. One of the analysts thought he had seen a recurrence of an old scam, running out of the Callisto hub. So off we had gone – a long journey for both Slate and I, and when we left Earth orbit the planetary alignment meant there were no friendly stopovers to break the journey.

Once we got there, the two of us had poked around, wormed our way into this module and that, but found nothing. To be sure, we confirmed that the reported irregularities were real. We had easily managed to find the batch runs where the credit had gone missing, by comparing input and output. It happened every time a specific input value was missing or unreadable, and a default value had to be assumed. But the chosen default looked right and we couldn’t find root cause. The code was non-standard, and frustratingly weird, but there was nothing obviously suspicious. The logs were so skimpy as to be almost useless. It did not seem to be the kind of task that needed our skills, nor to be as much of a problem as the analyst had first thought.

When it was over, and having drawn a blank, we sent a summary report down to the Finsbury Circus office, suggesting that perhaps it would be more effective to send an accountant. We had managed to get four weeks out of the work, but it still felt like a long drag for not much return. To be fair, it was unusual for the analysts to make a mistake like that, so I was professionally polite rather than curt. Then it was time to warm up the engines of our sloop, the Harbour Porpoise, and off we set on the homeward leg.

I was all set for a boring journey back down the gravity hill to Earth, but Slate found an orbital option which would take us right past the Scilly Isles. That settled it. We deserved a reward for our fruitless diligence. So we changed the navigation plan, sent some messages ahead, and here we were. Elias, my manager back in London, had made a token protest at the diversion, but I told him that the Harbour Porpoise needed servicing and the delay was unavoidable.

Anyway, a couple of hours signal lag meant that we were already en route by the time his answer came back. We just said that we didn’t have enough reaction mass for such a radical course change. It might even have been true, though I was careful not to ask Slate for a technical analysis, and she was just as careful not to offer one.

Regardless of that, we weren’t minded to listen. Slate and I both reckoned that we deserved the break. Six weeks of voyage out to Callisto, and four weeks of fairly dull work had not made us receptive to a tedious trip straight back home again. It would mean nearly three months’ travel time for just one month of work, and we weren’t about to just put up with that without an argument.

Tesla Starman (SpaceX Twitter feed)
Tesla Starman (SpaceX Twitter feed)

Ultima Thule

Today’s blog is focused on the next target of the New Horizons probe, which back in July 2015 sent back such remarkable pictures of Pluto and Charon. But before that, here’s a quick reminder of this week’s Kindle Countdown deals for Far from the Spaceports and Timing – £0.99 / $0.99 for the next couple of days. Follow these links…

New Horizons route, including Pluto and Ultima Thule (Wiki)
New Horizons route, including Pluto and Ultima Thule (Wiki)

Right. New Horizons. After the Pluto flyby, the natural question was, what next? There was enough fuel and energy reserves to consider a small course change… but to what end? Pluto is at the inside edge of the Kuiper Belt, a tenuous and very sparsely populated volume of space. Over the last few years, we have been steadily gaining information about some of the contents, many of which have hugely elongated orbits. The big prize out there is the possibility of a really sizeable planet, acting as a gravitational shepherd to coax the smaller bodies into resonant patterns.

Planet 9 has not yet been found, but several smaller bodies have. And one of them, catalogue number KBO 2014 MU69 , happened to be well placed for New Horizons. So, an appropriate course change was made as Pluto dwindled into the distance, and KBO 2014 MU69 – now provisionally renamed Ultima Thule – became the next goal.

Current New Horizons view of Ultima Thule (NASA/JHUAPL/SwRI)
Current New Horizons view of Ultima Thule (small dot on right-hand frame) (NASA/JHUAPL/SwRI)

But distances out in the Kuiper Belt are large, so there has been a considerable wait. Ultima Thule is about 12% further away from Earth as Pluto is. The actual flyby will occur on January 1st next year, and at this stage we still don’t really know what to expect. The Hubble telescope orbiting Earth shows Ultima Thule as just a slowly moving point of light. New Horizons is about 33 million miles away from it – about 1/3 the Earth-Sun distance – and still can’t resolve it to more than just a point source. We cannot make out any surface detail. We don’t know if it’s roughly spherical, or irregular, or even a little cluster of fragments all moving together. Just about all we know is that it’s less than 40 km across, and although very dark by the standards we are used to in the inner system, is slightly more reflective than expected.

Artist's impression, New Horizons and Ultima Thule (Steve Gribben/NASA/JHUAPL/SwRI)
Artist’s impression, New Horizons and Ultima Thule (Steve Gribben/NASA/JHUAPL/SwRI)

After sending the Pluto and Charon data home, New Horizons went to sleep for a couple of years, with a wake-up call in June for some of the instruments and a course correction. It is now being prepared as best we can for the encounter. It’s a fascinating problem – light or radio signals take around 6 hours to cross the gulf between us and the probe, so there is no possibility of direct control.  Any reply takes another 6 hours to get back. The systems have to be set up in advance, according to our best guess of what will be there. The final course changes will occur in mid December, when the ground crew wil decide just how close to steer towards Ultima Thule. In one sense, the nearer the better… but the higher the risk that the probe will make brief, catastrophic contact with some fragment of rock and ice. On the day, the probe will whistle by at over 30000 km/h, so there’s no opportunity for second chances. Whatever sequence has been set up in advance, will be played out without modifications. After that, New Horizons will spend the better part of two years streaming the data back to Earth. So although the rendezvous will be a New Year treat, we shall have to wait a long time until we get any high-resolution images or other data.

As yet I haven’t written about what life might be like in a suitably protected environment out in the Kuiper Belt… maybe this encounter will be the seed of another book, in the way that the flyby past Pluto and Charon has contributed to The Liminal Zone. And here, just for a bit of fun, are someone’s first impressions of the settlement on Charon, extracted from the early sections of The Liminal Zone

Nina walked steadily along the winding curves of Lethe towards Asphodel. The house AI had finally told her where Lance’s quarters were situated in Acheron, and had transferred directions onto a hand-held to direct her there. From space, the overall shape of the Charon settlement had been clear – five sinuous linear habitats, following curves in the underlying terrain and joined radially to Asphodel. When you were actually down here, it wasn’t nearly so neatly divided. There were extra little corridors and alcoves which broke up the superficial symmetry, and little tunnels that dived underground and then resurfaced at unexpected places. She was glad that the little hand-held router buzzed faintly at junctions to tell her which way to turn.

Changes… and Kindle Countdown deals

A short post this week, mainly consisting of two extracts, one each from Far from the Spaceports and Timing. These are both on Kindle Countdown deals from this Friday, October 26th, for one week, price set at £0.99 / $0.99 depending which side of the Atlantic you’re on. More of that later… here are the extracts.

The main characters are Mitnash (Mit) and his AI persona partner Slate. in this extract, Mit and Slate are recovering from a difficult episode in which Slate was hacked by a shady individual known as The Wise Man…

Far from the Spaceports (follow this link)


Far from the Spaceports cover
Far from the Spaceports cover

“Slate, how much do I talk to you without knowing it?”
She was amused.
“All the time, Mit. You murmur to yourself while you’re thinking, and you subvocalise throughout the day. There’s very little about your thought life I don’t know. Or your fantasy life. You’re whispering to me almost all the time.”
I sat back, bouncing a little as I forgot to adjust the move for the low gravity.
“Oh.”
“It’s nice. I like it. It makes me feel very intimately connected with you. Why? Does it worry you?”
“Not with you, no. If I can’t trust you, I might as well give up now. But I suppose that means you know all sorts of things that I have never told Shayna.”
I considered that soberly, while she was tactfully not replying. It was definitely something to think through on another occasion.
“But anyway, when the hand-held had been compromised, and that other thing was quizzing me, I started to wonder how much I was giving away. Or how much the Wise Man was learning without me knowing.”
“While you were in his quarters, he would have had a direct link from the hand-held into his main system. It was a very old model Ziggurat, like I said before, not very responsive at all. Male gendered, but only just. Badly set up and very poorly programmed. But he has the name Hunn Gravfelt, which at least shows that one of them has read a few decent books. Very arty. But anyway, once you left there, he had no way of querying the hand-held until you got linked up to a ground system. He’s a shady character, but not a very competent one.”
“I suppose the big question is how much information he now has.”
“Yes. But actually, we don’t know for sure what he was able to derive while you were on Agnes. We deliberately left a lot of material out in the open, so he would find it easily enough. We now have to wait and see where that turns up. Like the breadcrumbs in the old children’s stories.”
“But he doesn’t know anything I said on the way home?”
“No. There was a very large data packet all ready to be sent back, but it was never buffered. Do you want to know what was in it?”
I stayed silent and thought about it for a long time, and Slate stayed silent with me.
“Don’t tell me the details. But do run through it again, and tell me if I was about to give away anything critical to the job. Or that might have put Shayna at risk.”
There was a very short pause.
“Nothing like that. If Yul Yulsson was a voyeur, and if he’d ever received it, he could have had some fun with it, for sure. But he would not have learned anything of real value. There’s actually more about me in the packet than Shayna.”
“Hmm. Best not to tell her that, if you don’t mind.”
“This can be our secret.”
I moved to the cabin, pulled out some of the new pieces of clothing which, so far as I could tell, would help me fit in at the Frag Rockers bar a lot better than the formal garb I had worn to see the Wise Man.
“Slate, who’s leading at Frag Rockers tomorrow?”
“A prog rock fusion band called The Descenters. The keyboard player and drummer are locals, from St Martins and Tresco respectively, and the rest are from Ceres. They have a very big fan book on SystemPlus. They’re best known for extremely long concept gigs. They lost their way a bit with Trails on Topological Notions – the twenty-eight minute triangle solo called Geodesics confused even their best fans. But then the electro-gamba player left, and they built up their reputation again.”
“Will I like them?”


Next up, in another book, Mit is discussing a recent shipwreck with his friend Parvati…

Timing (follow this link)


Timing Kindle cover
Timing Kindle cover

I wanted human company again, so I stretched and went in search of Parvati. She was brewing chai as I wandered in to the kitchen. Seeing me, she doubled up the amounts, found a second mug, and arranged some savoury crackers and a red and yellow striped cake on a tray.
“Did you and Slate get anywhere?”
I shook my head.
“Total blank. The figures don’t tell us any more than the basic alert message we got from Finsbury, and they won’t let us access the code yet. There’s almost nothing we can do until we get there.”
We moved back to the bridge and enjoyed the snack together.
“Chandrika just picked up the latest from the wreck site for Selif’s ship, if you’re interested?”
I very definitely was interested. We finished the crackers, and she sliced two generous portions of the cake.
“They’ve made available the results from the data recorders. There’s nothing at all unusual until about three minutes before the crash. At that point, Selif took the vessel’s riding lights offline and uploaded an amendment to the nav plan.”
“Presumably to avoid being identified by the duty porters?”
“Most likely, yes. You’re not supposed to disengage them, but people do. As you say, he was motivated to slip in without attracting attention. It’s also uncommon to amend the plan at that late stage, but it happens. Anyway, the upload was completed successfully, taking only the expected lag. Except that a couple of seconds later, both recording devices ceased gathering data. At the same instant. That is unheard of.”
I looked at her.
“How did that happen?”
“The maintenance log for the recorders showed that Selif had skipped two routine services. So they highlighted that in the report, and almost immediately the manufacturer put out advisory notices basically denying all responsibility if people ignore the recommended schedule. So the official version simply lists an open verdict.”
“Is there an unofficial version?”
She grinned.
“Of course. Chandrika, why don’t you tell them?”
“To be sure. I heard this from one of the personas on Martin’s. He works part-time with a man who’s an expert on the embedded systems in boat engines.”
I nodded. It was a highly specialised area, and one that I knew next to nothing about. But it made sense that a man with those skills would have an opinion on data recorders.
“Well, he said two things. One is that a full restart cycle for those boxes is about half a second longer than the time from the point of failure up until the impact on Teän. And the second thing is that there are only two known exploits for that model of recorder which could bring down both boxes together. One of them cannot possibly have anything to do with this case: a different ship configuration altogether. The other one happens to rely on a routing plan change.”
I sat there, absorbing the news. It made sense that these units would go into an automatic reboot mode if they went dark for some reason. Normally that would restore them to full operation in plenty of time to carry on doing their job. But in this case, the boat had hit Teän before they had started up again. I stirred in my seat, but Slate beat me to it.
“That’s very precise timing on someone’s part. Does anybody think it is just a coincidence?”
“Oh, Slate, the official verdict is open. Nobody is suggesting anything.”
We all laughed together.
“Either it was phenomenally bad luck on their part, or…”
I paused, and Parvati continued.
“Or else someone wanted rid of them, and found a clever way to do it.”


Why the Countdown deals? Well, the last day of October marks the last day of my current job in London. I shall be opening a new phase of working life up in Cumbria. Expect more posts about life up there.

So it seemed fitting to post some extracts, and to discount on Kindle, my science fiction series where coding, AI, and financial fraud in space are the main themes.

But I’m not saying goodbye to that style of writing! As regular readers will know, The Liminal Zone shares a lot in common with those books, though it has a different focus and is set a couple of decades further in the future. And behind that, the third in the Spaceports series is toddling along, tentatively named The Authentication Key at present.

Next week’s post will still be from London, but the one after that will be from Grasmere. And don’t forget… there’s a week of Countdown deal on each of Far from the Spaceports and Timing!

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)