Image courtesy of NASA/JPL

Image courtesy of NASA/JPL

Congratulations to the China National Space Administration for the successful landing of their Chang’e-4 spacecraft on the far side of the Moon January 3rd (the first time it’s ever been done), as well as the deployment of the Yutu-2 rover. Its tracks in moondust prove China is now a major player in space exploration.

Other than that, recent space news stories are full of exotic names and exotic places—names like the Kuiper Belt, Oort Cloud, Ultima Thule, Farout (which sounds more like the expression of an enthusiastic hippy than a scientific designation!)

In the first minutes of New Years Day 2019 the NASA spacecraft New Horizons hurtled past an object identified as (486958) 2014 MU69, a name that doesn’t fall trippingly from the tongue so it was given a nickname chosen by the public: Ultima Thule, an ancient Greek and Roman phrase meaning the farthest of places, beyond the known world. It isn’t actually even the farthest place in our solar system, but it is now the most distant object ever visited by a man-made device. New Horizons is the craft that sent terrific pictures back from Jupiter and then went on to astonish us with stunning images of Pluto, so it’s a little probe with a great track record. Since Ultima Thule is more than 6.4 billion kilometres from Earth, receiving data from New Horizons is a slow process (it will take many months for all of it to come in), but pictures show what’s called a “contact binary”, meaning two objects that formed separately but then fused together into one, and it looks like a reddish snowman about 30 kilometres long. The scientific community has long expected that the so-called Kuiper Belt beyond Neptune consists mostly of objects like slush balls made of water, ammonia, and methane that orbit the Sun as far away as fifty AU (astronomical units—the distance between the Sun and Earth). Learning more about Ultima Thule will increase our knowledge of how the solar system was formed.

The other trans-Neptunian object to get attention recently is one nicknamed Farout, officially 2018 VG18. Discovered in November 2018, Farout is the most distant object ever observed in our solar system. It’s currently between 125AU to 130AU from the sun—about 3.5 times as far as Pluto—though its orbit will carry it farther and closer to the sun at times. As unimaginably distant as that is, our solar system is thought to extend much farther to include the theoretical Oort Cloud, a spherical area that might extend as far as 200,000 AU from the sun and be composed of more slushy iceballs, remnants of the original cloud from which the solar system formed billions of years ago. The Oort Cloud hasn’t been observed directly, but is thought to be the source of many comets with very long orbits. By comparison, the nearest star to ours, Proxima Centauri, is currently about 268,500 AU away (4.246 light years).

Such distances are incredible when considered in a straight line, but to recognize that they apply in every direction, in three dimensions, the sheer volume of space involved is truly beyond our minds’ ability to process. After all, you could fit all of the planets in the solar system side by side in just the space between the Earth and our Moon with room to spare, so a sphere 100 AU across and more is one heck of a lot of real estate!

What could be “out there”? That’s the domain where theoretical astronomy and science fiction thinking converge. A fertile realm for the imagination.

Could there be a super-Neptune “Planet X”, ten times as big as Earth? Or the proposed brown dwarf star ominously named “Nemesis”? If so, why not a whole second planetary system orbiting in the darkness?

Could there be life? We already know of microbes and other life forms that can survive under the most extreme conditions. We have no reason to assume that life couldn’t arise in those dark realms. Even on Earth some forms of life in the deep oceans depend on chemical energy rather than the sun. At the very least, if all those slush balls and hypothetical dark planets don’t support native life, they could still provide waystations (or hiding places) for visitors from other stars. Are there advanced aliens watching us from the shadowy borders of our home system? Fleets of conquering ships just waiting for the order to strike? Maybe one navy with plans to conquer, battling with another determined to save us from enslavement. (Maybe I’ve been reading too many space operas!) Or what if there are giant life forms, planet-sized or larger, to whom we’re no more significant than bacteria?

If comets can be knocked out of the Oort Cloud by a galactic tide and fall toward the Sun and inner planets, could there be larger, much more dangerous threats lurking beyond sight? Vagabond moon-sized rocks? Maybe wandering black holes remorselessly devouring everything in their paths? (Actually, scientists would probably have spotted such powerful gravitational effects. Phew!)

Flights of fantasy aside, I’m kind of partial to the idea of giant forms of life “out there”. SF writer Robert J. Sawyer described mega-beings made of dark matter in his novel Starplex. It just feels right that such vast spaces should be inhabited by something and not simply empty voids. I also think it’s quite possible that alien visitors would bide their time in the dark reaches, observing us before deciding to make contact.

Some people may wonder why we go to such effort and cost to send a machine six billion kilometres to look at an oversized slushball. The fact is, in investigating things we expect to find in the great beyond, we really have no idea what we might find. That’s what makes it so exciting.


Image Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

Image Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

Unless you keep up with current space news, it may be easy to feel that the Golden Age of space exploration is behind us. After all, the last time humans set foot on the Moon was the Apollo 17 mission in 1972. Heady stuff, but really, there hasn’t been much going on since, has there?

Actually, the amount of space exploration that’s been happening in recent decades is astonishing. It’s just that almost none of it has involved human crews. The one major exception is the International Space Station, which recently marked twenty years in space (its first components and first occupants were launched in November 1998). It’s been continuously manned since November 2000, and has hosted 227 crew and visitors, some as many as five times. It’s operated by a partnership of five space agencies (representing 17 countries) and has been visited by citizens of seventeen different nations. I’m not sure which is its most important contribution: the amount of data the ISS accrues every single day about how humans can live and work in space, or what it teaches us about the international cooperation needed to make us a spacefaring species. Nonetheless, because the ISS has been around for twenty years, and we can even watch it go by overhead, the general public probably underestimates its importance and may simply have lost interest.

So what else has been going on?

2004 may seem like a long time ago, but do you remember the European Space Agency’s Rosetta mission to comet 67P/Churyumov–Gerasimenko? We watched its Philae lander drop toward the barbell-shaped object with fascination, and held our breath as it bounced and ended up at a angle that prevented it from collecting solar energy, which spelled its doom. But we did witness comet off-gassing and a snowstorm. Then in January 2005 NASA’s Deep Impact mission visited two other comets, 9P/Tempel and 103P/Hartley.

The Dawn spacecraft was deactivated just one month ago after visiting the asteroid Vesta and the dwarf planet Ceres (in the asteroid belt), producing amazing photos and detailed maps of these remnants of the solar system’s formation (or possibly fragments of a planet that broke up). It was also an important test of ion thrusters for propulsion instead of standard rocket motors.

NASA’s New Horizons mission to Pluto was a huge success in 2015 when it sent back photo after brilliant photo of the icy world and its moon Charon, after already providing fantastic imagery and data from Jupiter and the Jovian moons in 2007 en route. But New Horizons isn’t done yet. It’s speeding its way toward a Kuiper Belt object designated as 2014 MU69 (nicknamed Ultima Thule, meaning beyond the farthest horizon) and will reach it this coming New Years Day (Jan. 1, 2019). Such objects are also thought to be leftover material from the solar system’s formation, probably slush and ice balls—after all, that’s the region most comets come from.

Although it met its end a little over a year ago (Sept. 15, 2017), deliberately plunged into Saturn’s atmosphere, can we forget the awesomely majestic pictures provided by the Cassini-Huygens probe? It spent thirteen years exploring Saturn, its moons and its rings, and the results were astounding.

Fast forward to this year: NASA’s Parker Solar Probe was launched in August 2018 and will fly through the outer atmosphere of the sun, known as its corona, seven times closer to our star than any spacecraft before it. But the big attention this week was the successful arrival of the InSight lander on Mars, which is tasked to penetrate into the Martian soil and probe the crust of the planet for the first time. Because of the high risk of failure, the landing got ‘live’ coverage and lots of media attention when it succeeded.

Yet we shouldn’t forget two more asteroid missions: the Japanese Hayabusa2 spacecraft, which has dropped a small lander onto an asteroid named Ryugu and is still in orbit there, and the NASA OSIRIS-REx probe that will arrive this Monday Dec. 3, 2018 at the asteroid Bennu. (Both of these asteroids are called “diamond-shaped” but they remind me of those old pressed charcoal briquettes for the barbecue!)

In the meantime, there have been lots of missions within the Earth-Moon system, and the U.S. is working with private companies and other countries toward a return by humans to the Moon by 2023. Closer to home, there have been important advances in rocketry, especially from Elon Musk’s company SpaceX. The SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket is capable of launching satellites, and then landing safely back on Earth, enabling it to be re-used (most recently on Nov. 15th). This is a vital advancement toward making commercial uses of space affordable. And, of course, the SpaceX Falcon Heavy rocket, the most powerful launch vehicle in current use, ostentatiously launched a Tesla Roadster into space Feb. 6, 2018 on its first test flight, carrying a mannequin nicknamed Starman in a space suit at the wheel.

Why is all of this important? What are the benefits?

If you’re reading a blog like this, you probably don’t need a sales pitch. But the more we learn about how the cosmos, our world, and our species came about, the more we can predict where we will all go from here. That’s just good survival protocol. Exploratory missions to comets and asteroids in particular are potential goldmines of information about the early solar system, but also may answer the question of how life arose on Earth, since scientists speculate that life here may have come from “out there”. They could also bring us closer to understanding how to protect ourselves from extraterrestrial microorganisms drifting down onto our planet from the far reaches of space. Not to mention identifying potential collision risks to our home from all of the celestial objects whizzing through the solar system.

The more we can learn about how humans can survive, thrive, and work in space environments, the closer we come to making use of them in ways that will benefit all of us. Conditions of zero-gravity, readily-available vacuum, and deep cold can facilitate the production of medicines and other exotic substances very difficult to make on Earth. Mining of asteroids, the processing of ores, and other manufacturing processes performed in space could bring much needed relief to the stressed environment of Earth. If we can find other places to live, or adapt other places to make them liveable for humans, we can help ease the population pressure on our home planet and, maybe more importantly, ensure that humanity would no longer be at risk of extinction from a planet-wide disaster.

Even the process of all this exploration is beneficial. Partly because of the cost in resources, material, monetary, and mental, large-scale endeavours like these demand international cooperation at government and corporate levels, but also one-on-one between members of space crews. Our best hope of survival as a species is to curb our tendency toward conflict and live together peaceably.

Exploration? Oh yes! And I haven’t even mentioned astronomical endeavours like the Hubble and Kepler telescopes that have peered into the farthest depths of the universe and confirmed the existence of planets around other stars.

A Golden Age? Actually, that’s selling it short. This kind of exploration is priceless.


NASA New Horizons image of Pluto's moon Charon

I recently listened to a podcast interview with science fiction writer David Brin in which he proclaimed that the past year was the best year ever for space exploration.

He made a good case for the claim: perhaps the biggest space story of the year was the New Horizons spacecraft’s flyby of Pluto in July that offered some truly stunning photos of our one-time ninth planet. But it was far from the only story. After visiting the asteroid Vesta a few years ago, NASA’s Dawn spacecraft went into orbit in March around the other major dwarf planet in our system, Ceres, the largest object in the asteroid belt. The European Space Agency’s Rosetta craft continued to follow the Comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko in its path around the sun, even briefly regaining contact with its lander Philae on the surface of the comet. A Japanese probe successfully made orbit of Venus (on its second try) and an Indian Mars probe was a thorough success.

Private space companies had a couple of setbacks, but significant successes too. Blue Origin was able to safely land a rocket booster on its tail, like something out of 1950’s space movies, and then SpaceX topped that by launching eleven satellites using its Falcon 9 rocket which was then successfully landed back on the launch pad for re-use. That technology should reduce the cost of sending things into space by a huge margin, which could well kick-start a revolution in the exploitation of space.

It’s been an amazing year.

Did anyone notice?

Oh, I know there were always some trending stories on Facebook and Twitter, but did anybody except science nerds and science fiction writers actually get excited—really celebrate the milestones being achieved? I don’t think so, not to the extent that they deserved. It seems as if, in these times when almost the whole of human knowledge is available to us through the internet, we take for granted that everything worth knowing is either already known or soon will be. Through digital media we’re constantly bombarded with new discoveries (many not yet substantiated) in the fields of medicine, physics, biology and, yes, astronomy…so the extraordinary achievements of space engineers who manage to hurtle high tech robots over ten-year-long trajectories to planets nearly five billion kilometers away just become more of the same. Expected. Not quite routine, but not life-altering. Not landmark events in the fabric of our lives.

Or maybe I’m blaming the wrong thing. Maybe we’ve become so used to seeing science fiction movies and TV shows with exceptionally realistic special effects that the actual pictures of a real place like Pluto fill us with aaah but not awe. We see rugged Plutonian plains of nitrogen ice, geysers on Jupiter and Saturn’s icy moons, rocky planetoids spinning in the vastness of space, and we say, “That’s cool” and move on to an article about the next iPhone, or ads for the next model of aerial drone. I don’t really know the reason. I know that in the middle of the last century each new achievement in space made us think of gleaming cities with tube trains or monorails, passenger rockets to Mars, and fantastic floating colonies in high Earth orbits. Now they only lure our minds away for a few minutes from thoughts of climate crises, terrorist threats, and burgeoning epidemics.

When did hope and wonder give way to fear and gloom anyway, and why? Hope and wonder are a lot more fun.

The next time you see photos of a new space discovery, take a few moments to really picture the scene. Picture the incredibly talented team of dedicated people that made it happen, the vastness of space and the incredible unlikeliness of the amazing objects out there, and our being alive at this time in history to witness it. Let the wonder really take hold.

Of that feeling are bright futures made.




We live in an era when a spacecraft can send us pictures of the surface of Pluto that are nearly as good as what we’d see out the window of a jetliner flying over our own planet. Take a look at some of the newest images processed by NASA’s New Horizons team—they’re astonishing. Mountains, gulleys, long running cliffs. As a science fiction writer I could place an astronaut on the dwarf planet, maybe climbing out of his crashed utility ship and hiking toward the nearest outpost, and I could describe real ridges and crevasses he’d have to cross on the Sputnik Planum, foothills and passes between ice mountains that he’d have to traverse. No invention necessary, just a close look at some high resolution photographs. What’s more, I would do that to add authenticity. The downside? No playing fast and loose with Pluto’s geography or geology now that we actually know what it is. If I had written such a story a few years ago I’d be second-guessing myself and wondering if I’d blown it by featuring a feature that’s not really there.

Of course, that’s been the case for stories set on Mars for decades now and the Moon before that. Still, Pluto?

Oh well, at least there are other solar systems to play with, right? Sure, except now with the Kepler Space Telescope and new sensing techniques, scientists have found nearly two thousand planets around other stars (as of this writing the count according to NASA’s Exoplanet Archive is 1,916 confirmed with another nearly 5000 candidates). We know a lot about some of these planets, like roughly how big they are, whether they’re likely gas giants or rocky worlds, how close they are to their sun (giving a good idea of their surface temperature) and sometimes more. I’ve written stories and novel manuscripts that feature an expedition to another star system or even a colony there. Until they’re published I have to keep checking to see that reality hasn’t overtaken fiction—if it suddenly turns out that there are no planets where I’ve placed mine, or even that I’ve put an Earth-type world where there’s actually a Neptune-like planet, some major rewriting would be in order (once they are published I’m stuck eating crow, at least until the next edition!) The writers of the new Star Trek series will have to check the latest stats on each star system before the Enterprise warps in and sends an away team down to the surface of a planet that doesn’t exist, because you’d better believe there are viewers who will check (and probably flame them on social media if they screw up).

As if the situation weren’t tricky enough, the James Webb Space Telescope is scheduled for launch in October 2018 and will not only be able to see small planets that Kepler and the Hubble telescope can’t, it’ll be able to study the atmospheres of planets Kepler can barely detect. That’s power. It will be amazing. It could also be responsible for a sudden rash of science fiction writers with strange patches of missing hair.

You might say, no big deal, we still enjoy stories by Arthur Conan Doyle even though we know there are no hidden plateaus in South America where dinosaurs live. True, but no science fiction writer wants their work to be relegated to that category in their lifetime, believe me.

What’s to be done? I suppose we could set our stories farther and farther away from Earth, decreasing the likelihood that new facts will outdate our old fiction, but to my mind the near impossibility of reaching somewhere like the far side of the galaxy would be a more serious breach of scientific knowledge than the odd invented planet. Perhaps we could create tales of human beings placed a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away, but then you’re entering the realm of fantasy rather than science fiction (not that there’s anything wrong with that).

Really, though, it’s no different than having to keep up with the amazing progress being made in other branches of science—all we as writers can do is embrace the excitement of new discoveries, be inspired by them, rejoice in our progress as an ever-curious race, and do our level best to get it right. And readers can forgive us our transgressions. We hope.

Here’s to new eras of scientific discovery and great science fiction.


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.)


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.