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Tuesday
Aug182015

GOING UP...IN A SPACE ELEVATOR

Photo from thothx.com

 

A Canadian company has just received a US patent for a new invention. It made headlines because it’s big news. Big, as in, twenty kilometres tall. Thoth Technology of Pembroke, Ontario has designs to build a free-standing tower to the sky, not to touch the face of God, but to house a space elevator.

The reason for a space elevator is to remove the need for expensive and wasteful rockets to reach Earth orbit and, from there, the rest of outer space. The usual concept, as promoted by science fiction master Arthur C. Clarke and others, is to have a large terminus in a geo-stationary orbit (travelling at the same speed as the spin of the Earth so it remains over the same spot on the planet’s surface). From the terminus a cable would be lowered until it reached the ground (like Jack’s beanstalk in reverse). Then cargo and passengers would travel up and down the cable by magnetic or other means. That’s the plan put forward by the Japanese Obayashi Corporation in an announcement last year. They hope to build such an elevator by 2050. The biggest challenge to overcome is the cable, especially since their plans include extending the cable beyond geosynchronous orbit to a counterweight about a quarter of the way to the Moon. You probably can’t imagine the weight of a cable 96,000 kms long. I can’t either. In nanofibres made of Carbon 60 they might have a material with the strength to handle the load at a manageable weight, but so far such fibres have only been made in lengths of a few centimetres. Technology has some catching up to do.

The Thoth Technology plan is very different. Their scheme would involve building a twenty-kilometer-tall tower out of giant inflatable modules stacked on top of one another. Computers would control the inflation of individual gas cells within the modules to keep the whole thing balanced. In the face of a wind, for example, they would presumably increase the inflation on the leeward side and lean the tower into the wind. On top of the tower would be a runway from which space planes could take off and land. This would remove the need for the initial vertical portion of most rocket flights which uses up a third of their fuel.

That’s the advantage. The disadvantages?

Well, remember the last time you went to the airport to catch a flight? Now imagine all that plus a twenty kilometre elevator ride, after which you still wouldn’t be in space —you’d still have to catch a plane. Your luggage would just have twenty extra kilometres in which to get lost.

I imagine they’d be required to build it at least twenty kilometres from any inhabited area, just in case it ever did fall over. Not to mention fools dropping quarters from the observation deck.

And I keep trying to picture a pilot attempting a take-off from something like a gigantic version of one of those bouncing inflatable amusement rides for kiddies.

Personally, I think the original space elevator concept is more workable, in spite of the engineering challenges. But I’ve been wrong before. In any case, Thoth Technologies estimates it could cost five to ten billion US dollars to build their tower. That may be a little rich for Kickstarter. Possibly for Richard Branson, and even Elon Musk, too. On the other hand, if the current Canadian government loses the upcoming election, their successors would probably cancel plans to spend $29 billion on F35 fighter jets. Just sayin’.

They might even be able to subsidize some of the tower’s cost by incorporating a department store:

“Going up! Next floor: space toys, mining equipment, and women’s lingerie…” (A little flash of Sandra Bullock in Gravity there.)

Monday
Aug102015

THE SCIENCE FICTION TAKE

Writers get our ideas in different ways. We may not even know where an idea came from. But for science fiction writers it’s fun to take a look at the newest science stories and try a “science fiction take” on the story—imagine what kind of fictional tale could make use of the new facts. Here are a few examples:

The news story: The New Horizon spacecraft’s flyby of Pluto was the biggest space story of the past month. Although it will still take a long time for NASA to receive all of the data, we’ve learned that the surface of Pluto includes glaciers of nitrogen ice, as well as frozen methane and carbon monoxide. The mission has reawakened interest in the dwarf planet and how it came to be part of our solar system, with its wonky orbit so far from the sun (most of the time).

The science fiction take: Two centuries from now, human crews are mining nitrogen and methane on Pluto when it’s discovered that another body the size of a dwarf planet is swooping out of the far reaches of the Oort Cloud on a collision course for Pluto. Engineers try desperately to come up with a plan to deflect the newcomer, and colonists are just about to evacuate Pluto when the incoming planetoid slows down and it’s found to be home to an ancient race of explorers who use rogue planets to travel the galaxy.

The news story: Out of the nearly 2,000 planets that have now been discovered orbiting other stars, it seems as if every other week a new candidate is being named “most earth-like”. Generally that means that it’s a rocky planet (as opposed to a gas giant) orbiting a star not too different from our own sun in the “habitable zone” (not too hot, not too cold because it must have liquid water) and is somewhat close to the Earth in size. The most recent most earth-like is known as Kepler-452b, but here’s a good look at some of the best candidates by Scientific American.

The science fiction take: Fleeing an exhausted home planet, human colonists travel to colonize new planets called New Earth, Earth 2, and Terra Nova around other stars. But because of the impediments of slow space travel and a lack of resources among struggling new colonies, the planets lose touch with each other. On one of them, a catastrophe knocks the civilization down a few rungs and space technology (and knowledge) are lost. When progress once again permits the inhabitants to venture into space, they try to find planets like their own. The most promising candidate found is (drum roll please) the original Earth, refreshed and once again able to host its human children. (Awwww.)

The news story: In recent years, China and Russia have put a lot of effort into developing anti-satellite weapons, and have had no interest in negotiating the peaceful use of space, so the Obama administration in the US has budgeted $5 billion over the next five years to enhance the American military space program. “Space wars” could become a reality.

The science fiction take: An orbital war sparks and the major powers destroy each other’s satellites thereby killing all GPS systems and causing most telecommunications and the internet to collapse. The resulting financial fallout causes a full-blown global economic collapse too. The warmongers still have their conventional and nuclear weapons, but only those that can be guided without satellites. Devastated populations worldwide know who’s to blame, rise up against the makers of war, and forge new alliances, heralding an unprecedented era of peace (but poor availability of TV channels).

Call these ideas cheesy or dumb or maybe brilliant, I have no plans to write any of them into stories (at present). Some of them have probably already been done. The point is, it’s a good exercise for the imagination and it’s fun.

Try it yourself. There might be a science fiction writer lurking inside you. (And for heaven’s sake let him out, because it’s dark in there.)

Thursday
Jul302015

SCIENCE FICTION FOR FUN OR ENLIGHTENMENT?

Childhood's End coming to the SyFy channel in December 2015.

 

What do you look for in science fiction? Pure fun? Escape? New knowledge?

My impression these days is that a lot of the SF being published is pure space opera, or quasi-paranormal scifi-fantasy, alternate history just for the steampunk gadgetry, or TV and movie series spinoffs. There’s nothing wrong with reading that’s just for fun—I choose it sometimes too, although I don’t feel inclined to write it.

Ideally, though, the escape SF provides is fun even when it’s dealing with something serious. It should be entertaining even as it compels us to learn something about ourselves. The SF novels with staying power do this well—they raise the genre to the level of provocative literature while still giving the inner child in us a big kick.

Classic SF from the likes of Arthur C. Clarke and Larry Niven often explored the “big crazy artefact”: Clarke’s mega-spaceship Rama or Niven’s Ringworld, Greg Bear’s Eon series asteroid and, more recently, the Bowl Of Heaven from Niven and Benford. They set up a mind-boggling concept and then explored all of its dramatic possibilities while finding ways to reflect our human foibles and challenges. As if Newtonian and Einsteinian physics were a muse.

Then there were the sociological treatises of Isaac Asimov (the Foundation series) and Ursula K. Le Guin (The Dispossessed). Thought provoking, but still absorbing stories. And, of course, the outright cautionary novels like 1984, Brave New World, and Fahrenheit 451 which forced us to examine the implications of political and technological developments. These days, a good number of post-apocalyptic stories, like Margaret Atwood’s MaddAddam trilogy follow the same path (as did Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale). I could add Hugh Howey’s Wool series to the list.

Since the earliest days of the computer revolution, and especially the coming of the internet, there’s been a big trend from William Gibson, Charles Stross and others to examine technological saturation in society to extreme degrees, as well as the politics of surveillance and the death of privacy. In these books we face quandaries that we’ll have to face in real life very soon.

It’s interesting that Philip K. Dick’s stories, most featuring some form of altered reality, have inspired more movie treatments than any other SF author I can think of. Movies like Blade Runner, Total Recall, Johnny Mnemonic, and The Adjustment Bureau haven’t always been that faithful to Dick’s original material, but they’ve provided food for thought along with the special effects and other movie magic.

Military SF from Robert Heinlein and others reflected and commented on military conflicts of their day. Modern examples include the Forever War series from Joe Haldeman and Old Man’s War by John Scalzi. Even stories about aliens like Stranger In A Strange Land and Clarke’s Childhood’s End ( now becoming a TV event) are mostly about humans. Educational, you could say, but math class never held my attention so well.

Then there are the “what if” novels that writers like Robert J. Sawyer do so well, tackling issues that are just on the horizon: what if rejuvenation treatments worked for one person but not their spouse? What if everyone in the world could get a glimpse of their future? What if the World Wide Web became self-aware? We can learn something about ourselves, our society, our priorities and morals from all of these, but they are so much more than intellectual exercises.

By all means enjoy a good romp in space, a clever time travel tale, or a Nazis-won-the-war alternate history. But don’t be afraid to order a richer fictional meal that’s brain food as well as comfort food. You might find it even more satisfying.

Tuesday
Jul212015

CLIMATE AND SCIENCE FICTION

Photo from Architecture 2030

Climatologist James Hansen of Columbia University has sounded the alarm: the rate of melting of Antarctic ice as recently measured means that, if rising levels of atmospheric carbon dioxide aren’t soon reversed, large coastal areas of the planet could be flooded within as little as fifty years due to increases in sea level as much as nine meters.

It’s not science fiction. If you live in a coastal city, you should be concerned, along with millions upon millions of the world’s citizens.

This is far faster and much more drastic than earlier predictions of sea level rise, and it’s based on a global average temperature increase of just 2 Celsius degrees. That figure could go much higher if something isn’t done soon to reduce CO2 in the atmosphere. Yet when it comes to supporting solutions to the problem, governments lumber like dinosaurs in a tar pit (one of the sources of planet-heating fossil fuels perhaps?)

There are a number of web resources that show reputable assessments of how coastal population centres will suffer as sea levels rise. The NOAA has a good one here, and there’s a more complicated one here. National Geographic has a page to show what the world would be like if all of the ice melted, but that’s not likely to happen anytime soon (and even that won’t make you think you’re in a certain Kevin Costner movie). All of these will give you a chill, or possibly a thrill in a disaster-movie kind of way. Looking at them reminded me of all of the science fiction that has dealt with climate over the years.

One of the first to make an impact on me was J.G. Ballard’s The Wind From Nowhere, a 1961 novel that painted the terrible effects on human civilization of a non-stop hurricane force wind. It was probably one of the first books to get me hooked on apocalyptic scenarios. But it was far from alone. The Encyclopedia of Science Fiction offers a pretty good overview of the SF written on the subject of climate disasters, and you can find other pop culture references here. Maybe we’re fascinated with the topic of weather disasters just because we’re obsessed with the weather. We talk about it every time we have nothing else urgent to say, and much of the rest of the time too. It’s so prevalent in fiction that “man vs. nature” is one of the four main types of conflict taught in every literature class. (In case you’ve forgotten, the others are man vs. man, man vs. society, and man vs. himself.)

Perhaps there’s a special poignancy in vicariously witnessing a human being’s struggle against something awesomely powerful for which he or she is not to blame. Ah, except this time there’s plenty of evidence that, collectively, we are to blame. The climate change James Hansen warns about isn’t caused by solar flares, or a black alien cloud that blocks the sun, or an asteroid strike. We’re doing it to ourselves, and to others. Each of us could do something to stop it, but we have to make that choice. Which means that the current climate scenario incorporates all four of the classic forms of conflict mentioned above.

That makes for a heck of a story, but it’s one I’d rather read than live, thanks very much.

Tuesday
Jul142015

WHY ALL THE FUSS ABOUT NEW HORIZON?

NASA photograph--The last taken before the New Horizon spacecraft flew past Pluto.

 

On July 14, 2015 one science news story dominated all others: the NASA New Horizon spacecraft’s flyby of Pluto. Considering that the last time Pluto got so much attention was when it was demoted from full planet status to the demeaning designation of “dwarf planet”, you might easily wonder why there was so much excitement about New Horizon. Commentators have even sometimes neglected to stress the dwarf planet thing, almost as if the former ninth planet had regained its status. It hasn’t. But it is a star in terms of fame.

New Horizons was launched in January 2006 (ironically, the same year as Pluto’s demotion) and after traveling nearly five billion kilometres finally raced past Pluto at a speed of more than forty-five-thousand km/h, so there wasn’t a lot of time for sightseeing. Much like your last budget bus tour of Paris. It couldn’t even send pictures “live”—NASA was forced to wait a while for them (remember dropping off the film of your bus tour at the drug store for processing?) In fact, New Horizons is gathering so much data that it will require sixteen months to send it all back to Earth. That’s what you call shutter happy.

Why so much interest? If you ask me, most of us still think of Pluto as the ninth planet, and it was the only one left that hadn’t received the up-close-and-personal paparazzi treatment. Even in the Hubble telescope, Pluto was little more than a blurry white ball. Now we’ve seen its cracks and craters, wrinkles and blemishes, in high resolution, finally completing our solar system postcard collection. But Pluto has had a special allure because it was the most distant of the planets and so the most mysterious. It also has an orbit very different from the rest of the family, leading to speculation that it’s an adopted child born somewhere else and then captured by our sun. If so, learning as much as we can about Pluto will also help us to learn about things much farther away.

Pluto is part of the outer fringe of the solar system, known as the Kuiper Belt. If we ever hope to travel to other stars we should know as much as we can about that stretch of space and the more distant Oort Cloud. Our spacecraft will have to travel through them. Maybe we’ll want to use Kuiper Belt objects as fuel depots or rest stops, or maybe we’ll just want to know how to avoid all of them, but knowledge is the key. It could be that Pluto and other dwarf planets like Eris (almost twice as far away) will actually become launch stations from which freshly-fuelled interstellar spaceships will begin their long voyages.

Pluto might seem too far away to consider it as a candidate for industrial mining, but then we don’t know what’s there. It might turn out to be rich with resources. If it really did come to our system out of interstellar space, it might have significant quantities of elements that are otherwise rare in our neighbourhood. Exploratory missions like New Horizons will help to provide those answers.

So let’s give Pluto its time in the spotlight. The poor demoted planet deserves a break.