More news on the collaborative writing front! A few weeks back, I found myself tinkering with some of the ideas for the upcoming anthology known as Yuva – the one that deals with space exploration and colonization in the not-too-distant future. As a result of this tinkering, I began to look at some of our concept art and began to ponder making some changes…
Basically, in the anthology me and my writer’s group are crafting, there would be multiple waves of settlers arriving at the planet known as Gliese 581 g (aka. Yuva). Whereas the First Wave would be arriving in ships that relied on relativistic engines (slower than the speed of light), subsequent “waves” would be using something a little more advanced.
Hence the design you see above. Here, the ship is one of three that would be bringing the Second Wave to Yuva. Note the torus ring that encloses the ship. This indicates that the vessel comes equipped with an Alcubierre Drive, a proposed FTL system that is currently being investigated by NASA’s Engineering Directorate.
Based on the field equations of theoretical physicist Miquel Alcubierre, the drive does not exceeding the speed of light within its local frame of reference, but allows a spacecraft to contract space in front of it and expand space behind it, resulting in effective faster-than-light travel.
The design was inspired in large part by the IXS Enterprise designs by Mark Rademaker, an artist who sought to visualize what a spaceship that relied on the Alcubierre Drive might look like. As you can see, he too pictured a ship that would have a ring-shaped torus, but is more suited to our near-future aspirations of exploration.
For the sake of Yuva, the Second Wave ships need to be especially exotic. Which would mean that the vessels have hulls composed of nanofabricated materials that are completely seamless. And whereas the First Wave ships would rely on antimatter engines that would spew energy out the back, the new ships would have no thruster nozzles to speak of.
It’s all in keeping with the idea of rapidly advancing technology, and how the effects of space travel exacerbate the gap between new and obsolete. Whereas the First Wave of colonists would take 100+ plus years to get to a star within our stellar neighborhood, subsequent waves would only need a few years.
This would mean that those who came next would be at least a century ahead in terms of development. And by the 22nd/23rd centuries, when the story is taking place, the leaps and bounds taking place in that amount of time would be immense. New waves of settlers would overwhelm the old with a sense of future shock…
But I’m venturing into spoiler territory here! Rest assured, when the anthology is complete, there’s going to be plenty of these kinds of technological, social and predictive issues being explored. And throughout all that, a sense of high adventure as well. After all, we started this project wanting to capture the awe and wonder that comes from space exploration.
Come hell or high water, that is what we intend to do! Stay tuned for more on this book as it develops…
I love to study this thing we call “the future”, and began to do so as a hobby the day I made the decision to become a sci-fi writer. And if there’s anything I’ve learned, its that the future is an intangible thing, a slippery beast we try to catch by the tail at any given moment that is constantly receding before us. And when predict it, we are saying more about the time in which we are living than anything that has yet to occur.
As William Gibson famously said: “…science fiction was always about the period in which it was written.” At every juncture in our history, what we perceive as being the future changes based on what’s going on at the time. And always, people love to bring up what has been predicted in the past and either fault or reward the authors for either “getting it right” or missing the mark.
This would probably leave many people wondering what the point of it all is. Why not just wait and let the future tend to itself? Because it’s fun, that’s why! And as a science fiction writer, its an indispensable exercise. Hell, I’d argue its absolutely essential to society as a whole. As a friend of one once said, “science fiction is more of a vehicle than a genre.” The point is to make observations about society, life, history, and the rest.
And sometimes, just sometimes, predictive writers get it right. And lately, I’ve been inspired by sources like Future Timeline to take a look at the kinds of predictions I began making when I started writing and revising them. Not only have times changed and forced me to revise my own predictions, but my research into what makes humanity tick and what we’re up to has come a long way.
So here’s my own prediction tree, looking at the next few centuries and whats likely to happen…
Ongoing recession in world economy, the United States ceases to be the greatest economic power
China, India, Russia and Brazil boast highest rates of growth despite continued rates of poverty
Oil prices spike due to disappearance of peak oil and costs of extracting tar sands
Solar power, wind, tidal power growing in use, slowly replacing fossil fuel and coal
First arcologies finished in China, Japan, Russia, India and the United States
Humanity begins colonizing the Moon and mounts manned mission to Mars
Settlements constructed using native soil and 3D printing/sintering technology
NASA tows asteroid to near Earth and begins studies, leading to plans for asteroid mining
Population grows to 9 billion, with over 6 living in major cities across the all five continents
Climate Change leading to extensive drought and famine, as well as coastal storms, flooding and fires
Cybernetics, nanotech and biotech leading to the elimination of disabilities
3D Construction and Computer-Assisted Design create inexpensive housing in developing world
First exploratory mission to Europa mounted, discovers proof of basic life forms under the surface ice
Rome ordains first openly homosexual priests, an extremely controversial move that splits the church
First semi-sentient, Turing compatible AI’s are produced and put into service
Thin, transparent, flexible medical patches leading to age of “digital medicine”
Religious orders formed opposed to “augmentation”, “transhumanism” and androids
First true quantum computers roll off the assembly line
Creation of the worldwide quantum internet underway
Quantum cryptography leads to increased security, spamming and hacking begins to drop
Flexible, transparent smartphones, PDAs and tablets become the norm
Fully immersive VR environments now available for recreational, commercial and educational use
Carbon dioxide in the upper atmosphere passes 600 ppm, efforts to curb emissions are redoubled
ISS is retired, replaced by multiple space stations servicing space shuttles and commercial firms
World’s first orbital colony created with a population of 400 people
Global economy enters “Second Renaissance” as AI, nanomachinery, quantum computing, and clean energy lead to explosion in construction and development
Commercial space travel become a major growth industry with regular trips to the Moon
Implant technology removes the need for digital devices, technology now embeddable
Medical implants leading to elimination of neurological disorders and injuries
Synthetic food becoming the rage, 3D printers offering balanced nutrition with sustainability
Canada, Russia, Argentina, and Brazil become leading exporters of foodstuffs, fresh water and natural gas
Colonies on the Moon and Mars expand, new settlement missions plotted to Ganymede, Europa, Oberon and Titan
Quantum internet expanding into space with quantum satellites, allowing off-world connectivity to worldwide web
Self-sufficient buildings with water recycling, carbon capture and clean energy becomes the norm in all major cities
Second and third generation “Martians” and “Loonies” are born, giving rise to colonial identity
Asteroid Belt becomes greatest source of minerals, robotic foundries use sintering to create manufactured products
Europe experiences record number of cold winters due to disruption of the Gulf Stream
Missions mounted to extra-Solar systems using telexploration probes and space penetrators
Average life expectancy now exceeds 100, healthy children expected to live to 120 years of age
NASA, ESA, CNSA, RFSA, and ISRO begin mounting missions to exoplanets using robot ships and antimatter engines
Private missions to exoplanets with cryogenically frozen volunteers and crowdfunded spaceships
Severe refugee crises take place in South America, Southern Europe and South-East Asia
Militarized borders and sea lanes trigger multiple humanitarian crises
India and Pakistan go to war over Indus River as food shortages mount
China clamps down on separatists in western provinces of Xinjian and Tibet to protect source of the Yangtze and Yellow River
Biotechnology begins to grow, firms using bacteria to assemble structural materials
Fully sentient AIs created and integrated into all aspects of life
Traditionalist communities form, people seeking to disconnect from modern world and eschew enhancement
Digital constructs become available, making neurological downloads available
Nanotech research leading to machinery and materials assembled at the atomic level
Traditional classrooms giving way to “virtual classrooms”, on-demand education by AI instructors
Medical science, augmentation, pharmaceuticals and uploads lead to the first generation of human “Immortals”
Orbital colonies gives way to Orbital Nexus, with hundreds of habitats being established
Global population surpasses 12 billion despite widespread famine and displacement
Solar, wind, tidal, and fusion power replace oil and coal as the dominant power source worldwide
Census data shows half of world residents now have implants or augmentation of some kind
Research into the Alcubierre Drive begins to bear experimental results
Climate Change and global population begin to level off
First “Neural Collective” created, volunteers upload their thought patterns into matrix with others
Transhumanism becomes established religion, espousing the concept of transcendence
Widespread use of implants and augmentation leads to creation of new underclass called “organics”
Solar power industry in the Middle East and North Africa leading to growth in local economies
Biotech leads to growth of “glucose economy”, South American and Sub-Saharan economies leading in manufacture of biomaterials
Population in Solar Colonies and Orbital Nexus reaches 100,000 and continues to grow
Off-world industry continues to grow as Asteroid Belt and colonies provide the majority of Earth’s mineral needs
Famine now widespread on all five continents, internalized food production in urban spaces continues
UN gives way to UNE, United Nations of Earth, which has near-universal representation
First test of Alcubierre FTL Drive successful, missions to neighboring systems planned
Tensions begin to mount in Solar Colonies as pressure mounts to produce more agricultural goods
Extinction rate of wild animals begins to drop off, efforts at ecological restoration continue
First attempts to creating world religion are mounted, met with limited success
Governments in most developed countries transitioning to “democratic anarchy”
Political process and involvement becoming digitized as representation becomes obsolete
“Super-sentience” emerges as people merge their neural patterns with each other or AIs
Law reformed to recognize neural constructs and AIs as individuals, entitled to legal rights
Biotech research merges with AI and nanotech to create first organic buildings with integrated intelligence
Majority of the world’s population live in arcologies and self-sufficient environments
Census reveals over three quarters of world lives with implants or augmentation of some kind
Population of Orbital Nexus, off-world settlements surpasses 1 million
First traditionalist mission goes into space, seeking world insulated from rapid change and development
Labor tensions and off-world riots lead to creation of Solar policing force with mandate to “keep the peace”
First mission to extra=Solar planets arrive, robots begin surveying surface of Gliese 581 g, Gliese 667C c, HD 85512 b, HD 40307 g, Gliese 163 c, Tau Ceti e, Tau Ceti f
Deep space missions planned and executed with Alcubierre Drive to distant worlds
1st Wave using relativistic engines and 2nd Wave using Alcubierre Drives meet up and begin colonizing exoplanets
Neighboring star systems within 25 light years begin to be explored
Terraforming begins on Mars, Venus and Europa using programmed strains of bacteria, nanobots, robots and satellites
Space Elevator and Slingatron built on the Moon, used to transport people to space and send goods to the surface
Earth’s ecology begins to recover
Natural species are reintroduced through cloning and habitat recovery
Last reported famine on record, food production begins to move beyond urban farms
Colonies within 50 light years are established on Gliese 163 c, Gliese 581 g, Gliese 667C c, HD 85512 b, HD 40307 g, Tau Ceti e, Tau Ceti f
Off-world population reaches 5 million and continues to grow
Tensions between Earth and Solar Colonies continue, lead to demands for interplanetary governing body
Living, breathing cities become the norm on all settled worlds, entire communities build of integrated organic materials run by AIs and maintained by programmed DNA and machinery
23rd Century and Beyond:
Who the hell knows?
*Note: Predictions and dates are subject to revision based on ongoing developments and the author’s imagination. Not to be taken literally, and definitely open to input and suggestions.
Back in January, National Geographic Magazine celebrated its 125th anniversary. In honor of this occasion, they released a special issue which commemorated the past 125 years of human exploration and looked ahead at what the future might hold. As I sat in the doctor’s office, waiting on a prescription for antibiotics to combat my awful cold, I found myself terribly inspired by the article.
So naturally, once I got home, I looked up the article and its source material and got to work. The issue of exploration, especially the future thereof, is not something I can ever pass up! So for the next few minutes (or hours, depending on how much you like to nurse a read), I present you with some possible scenarios about the coming age of deep space exploration.
Suffice it to say, National Geographic’s appraisal of the future of space travel was informative and hit on all the right subjects for me. When one considers the sheer distances involved, not to mention the amount of time, energy, and resources it would take to allow people to get there, the question of reaching into the next great frontier poses a great deal of questions and challenges.
Already, NASA, Earth’s various space agencies and even private companies have several ideas in the works or returning to the Moon, going to Mars, and to the Asteroid Belt. These include the SLS (Space Launch System), the re-purposed and upgraded version of the Saturn V rocket which took the Apollo astronauts to the Moon. Years from now, it may even be taking crews to Mars, which is slated for 2030.
And when it comes to settling the Moon, Mars, and turning the Asteroid Belt into our primary source of mineral extraction and manufacturing, these same agencies, and a number of private corporations are all invested in getting it done. SpaceX is busy testing its reusable-launch rocket, known as the Grasshopper, in the hopes of making space flight more affordable. And NASA and the ESA are perfecting a process known as “sintering” to turn Moon regolith into bases and asteroids into manufactured goods.
Meanwhile, Virgin Galactic, Reaction Engines and Golden Spike are planning to make commercial trips into space and to the Moon possible within a few years time. And with companies like Deep Space Industries and Google-backed Planetary Resources prospeting asteroids and planning expeditions, it’s only a matter of time before everything from Earth to the Jovian is being explored and claimed for our human use.
But when it comes to deep-space exploration, the stuff that would take us to the outer reaches of the Solar System and beyond, that’s where things get tricky and pretty speculative. Ideas have been on the table for some time, since the last great Space Race forced scientists to consider the long-term and come up with proposed ways of closing the gap between Earth and the stars. But to this day, they remain a scholarly footnote, conceptual and not yet realizable.
But as we embark of a renewed era of space exploration, where the stuff of science fiction is quickly becoming the stuff of science fact, these old ideas are being dusted off, paired up with newer concepts, and seriously considered. While they might not be feasible at the moment, who know what tomorrow holds? From the issues of propulsion, to housing, to cost and time expenditures, the human race is once again taking a serious look at extra-Solar exploration.
And here are some of the top contenders for the “Final Frontier”:
Nuclear Propulsion: The concept of using nuclear bombs (no joke) to propel a spacecraft was first proposed in 1946 by Stanislaw Ulam, a Polish-American mathematician who participated in the Manhattan Project. Preliminary calculations were then made by F. Reines and Ulam in 1947, and the actual project – known as Project Orion was initiated in 1958 and led by Ted Taylor at General Atomics and physicist Freeman Dyson from the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton.
In short, the Orion design involves a large spacecraft with a high supply of thermonuclear warheads achieving propulsion by releasing a bomb behind it and then riding the detonation wave with the help of a rear-mounted pad called a “pusher”. After each blast, the explosive force is absorbed by this pusher pad, which then translates the thrust into forward momentum.
Though hardly elegant by modern standards, the proposed design offered a way of delivering the explosive (literally!) force necessary to propel a rocket over extreme distances, and solved the issue of how to utilize that force without containing it within the rocket itself. However, the drawbacks of this design are numerous and noticeable.
F0r starters, the ship itself is rather staggering in size, weighing in anywhere from 2000 to 8,000,000 tonnes, and the propulsion design releases a dangerous amount of radiation, and not just for the crew! If we are to rely on ships that utilize nuclear bombs to achieve thrust, we better find a course that will take them away from any inhabited or habitable areas. What’s more, the cost of producing a behemoth of this size (even the modest 2000 tonne version) is also staggering.
Antimatter Engine: Most science fiction authors who write about deep space exploration (at least those who want to be taken seriously) rely on anti-matter to power ships in their stories. This is no accident, since antimatter is the most potent fuel known to humanity right now. While tons of chemical fuel would be needed to propel a human mission to Mars, just tens of milligrams of antimatter, if properly harnessed, would be able to supply the requisite energy.
Fission and fusion reactions convert just a fraction of 1 percent of their mass into energy. But by combine matter with antimatter, its mirror twin, a reaction of 100 percent efficiency is achieved. For years, physicists at the CERN Laboratory in Geneva have been creating tiny quantities of antimatter by smashing subatomic particles together at near-light speeds. Given time and considerable investment, it is entirely possible this could be turned into a form of advanced propulsion.
In an antimatter rocket, a dose of antihydrogen would be mixed with an equal amount of hydrogen in a combustion chamber. The mutual annihilation of a half pound of each, for instance, would unleash more energy than a 10-megaton hydrogen bomb, along with a shower of subatomic particles called pions and muons. These particles, confined within a magnetic nozzle similar to the type necessary for a fission rocket, would fly out the back at one-third the speed of light.
However, there are natural drawback to this design as well. While a top speed of 33% the speed of light per rocket is very impressive, there’s the question of how much fuel will be needed. For example, while it would be nice to be able to reach Alpha Centauri – a mere 4.5 light years away – in 13.5 years instead of the 130 it would take using a nuclear rocket, the amount of antimatter needed would be immense.
No means exist to produce antimatter in such quantities right now, and the cost of building the kind of rocket required would be equally immense. Considerable refinements would therefore be needed and a sharp drop in the cost associated with building such a vessel before any of its kind could be deployed.
Laser Sail: Thinking beyond rockets and engines, there are some concepts which would allow a spaceship to go into deep space without the need for fuel at all. In 1948, Robert Forward put forward a twist on the ancient technique of sailing, capturing wind in a fabric sail, to propose a new form of space travel. Much like how our world is permeated by wind currents, space is filled with cosmic radiation – largely in the form of photons and energy associated with stars – that push a cosmic sail in the same way.
This was followed up again in the 1970’s, when Forward again proposed his beam-powered propulsion schemes using either lasers or masers (micro-wave lasers) to push giant sails to a significant fraction of the speed of light. When photons in the laser beam strike the sail, they would transfer their momentum and push the sail onward. The spaceship would then steadily builds up speed while the laser that propels it stays put in our solar system.
Much the same process would be used to slow the sail down as it neared its destination. This would be done by having the outer portion of the sail detach, which would then refocus and reflect the lasers back onto a smaller, inner sail. This would provide braking thrust to slow the ship down as it reached the target star system, eventually bringing it to a slow enough speed that it could achieve orbit around one of its planets.
Once more, there are challenges, foremost of which is cost. While the solar sail itself, which could be built around a central, crew-carrying vessel, would be fuel free, there’s the little matter of the lasers needed to propel it. Not only would these need to operate for years continuously at gigawatt strength, the cost of building such a monster would be astronomical, no pun intended!
A solution proposed by Forward was to use a series of enormous solar panel arrays on or near the planet Mercury. However, this just replaced one financial burden with another, as the mirror or fresnel lens would have to be planet-sized in scope in order for the Sun to keep the lasers focused on the sail. What’s more, this would require that a giant braking sail would have to be mounted on the ship as well, and it would have to very precisely focus the deceleration beam.
So while solar sails do present a highly feasible means of sending people to Mars or the Inner Solar System, it is not the best concept for interstellar space travel. While it accomplishes certain cost-saving measures with its ability to reach high speeds without fuel, these are more than recouped thanks to the power demands and apparatus needed to be it moving.
Generation/Cryo-Ship: Here we have a concept which has been explored extensively in fiction. Known as an Interstellar Ark, an O’Neill Cylinder, a Bernal Sphere, or a Stanford Taurus, the basic philosophy is to create a ship that would be self-contained world, which would travel the cosmos at a slow pace and keep the crew housed, fed, or sustained until they finally reached their destination. And one of the main reasons that this concept appears so much in science fiction literature is that many of the writers who made use of it were themselves scientists.
The first known written examples include Robert H. Goddard “The Last Migration” in 1918, where he describes an “interstellar ark” containing cryogenic ally frozen people that set out for another star system after the sun died. Konstantin E. Tsiolkovsky later wrote of “Noah’s Ark” in his essay “The Future of Earth and Mankind” in 1928. Here, the crews were kept in wakeful conditions until they reached their destination thousands of years later.
By the latter half of the 20th century, with authors like Robert A. Heinlein’s Orphans of the Sky, Arthur C. Clarke’s Rendezvous with Rama and Ursula K. Le Guin’s Paradises Lost, the concept began to be explored as a distant possibility for interstellar space travel. And in 1964, Dr. Robert Enzmann proposed a concept for an interstellar spacecraft known as the Enzmann Starship that included detailed notes on how it would be constructed.
Enzmann’s concept would be powered by deuterium engines similar to what was called for with the Orion Spacecraft, the ship would measure some 600 meters (2000 feet) long and would support an initial crew of 200 people with room for expansion. An entirely serious proposal, with a detailed assessment of how it would be constructed, the Enzmann concept began appearing in a number of science fiction and fact magazines by the 1970’s.
Despite the fact that this sort of ship frees its makers from the burden of coming up with a sufficiently fast or fuel-efficient engine design, it comes with its own share of problems. First and foremost, there’s the cost of building such a behemoth. Slow-boat or no, the financial and resource burden of building a mobile space ship is beyond most countries annual GDP. Only through sheer desperation and global cooperation could anyone conceive of building such a thing.
Second, there’s the issue of the crew’s needs, which would require self-sustaining systems to ensure food, water, energy, and sanitation over a very long haul. This would almost certainly require that the crew remain aware of all its technical needs and continue to maintain it, generation after generation. And given that the people aboard the ship would be stuck in a comparatively confined space for so long, there’s the extreme likelihood of breakdown and degenerating conditions aboard.
Third, there’s the fact that the radiation environment of deep space is very different from that on the Earth’s surface or in low earth orbit. The presence of high-energy cosmic rays would pose all kinds of health risks to a crew traveling through deep space, so the effects and preventative measures would be difficult to anticipate. And last, there’s the possibility that while the slow boat is taking centuries to get through space, another, better means of space travel will be invented.
Faster-Than-Light (FTL) Travel: Last, we have the most popular concept to come out of science fiction, but which has received very little support from scientific community. Whether it was the warp drive, the hyperdrive, the jump drive, or the subspace drive, science fiction has sought to exploit the holes in our knowledge of the universe and its physical laws in order to speculate that one day, it might be possible to bridge the vast distances between star systems.
However, there are numerous science based challenges to this notion that make an FTL enthusiast want to give up before they even get started. For one, there’s Einstein’s Theory of General Relativity, which establishes the speed of light (c) as the uppermost speed at which anything can travel. For subatomic particles like photons, which have no mass and do not experience time, the speed of light is a given. But for stable matter, which has mass and is effected by time, the speed of light is a physical impossibility.
For one, the amount of energy needed to accelerate an object to such speeds is unfathomable, and the effects of time dilation – time slowing down as the speed of light approaches – would be unforeseeable. What’s more, achieving the speed of light would most likely result in our stable matter (i.e. our ships and bodies) to fly apart and become pure energy. In essence, we’d die!
Naturally, there have been those who have tried to use the basis of Special Relativity, which allows for the existence of wormholes, to postulate that it would be possible to instantaneously move from one point in the universe to another. These theories for “folding space”, or “jumping” through space time, suffer from the same problem. Not only are they purely speculative, but they raise all kinds of questions about temporal mechanics and causality. If these wormholes are portals, why just portals in space and not time?
And then there’s the concept of a quantum singularity, which is often featured in talk of FTL. The belief here is that an artificial singularity could be generated, thus opening a corridor in space-time which could then be traversed. The main problem here is that such an idea is likely suicide. A quantum singularity, aka. a black hole, is a point in space where the laws of nature break down and become indistinguishable from each other – hence the term singularity.
Also, they are created by a gravitational force so strong that it tears a hole in space time, and that resulting hole absorbs all things, including light itself, into its maw. It is therefore impossible to know what resides on the other side of one, and astronomers routinely observe black holes (most notably Sagittarius A at the center of our galaxy) swallow entire planets and belch out X-rays, evidence of their destruction. How anyone could think these were a means of safe space travel is beyond me! But then again, they are a plot device, not a serious idea…
But before you go thinking that I’m dismissing FTL in it’s entirety, there is one possibility which has the scientific community buzzing and even looking into it. It’s known as the Alcubierre Drive, a concept which was proposed by physicist Miguel Alcubierre in his 1994 paper: “The Warp Drive: Hyper-Fast Travel Within General Relativity.”
The equations and theory behind his concept postulate that since space-time can be contracted and expanded, empty space behind a starship could be made to expand rapidly, pushing the craft in a forward direction. Passengers would perceive it as movement despite the complete lack of acceleration, and vast distances (i.e. light years) could be passed in a matter of days and weeks instead of decades. What’s more, this “warp drive” would allow for FTL while at the same time remaining consistent with Einstein’s theory of Relativity.
In October 2011, physicist Harold White attempted to rework the equations while in Florida where he was helping to kick off NASA and DARPA’s joint 100 Year Starship project. While putting together his presentation on warp, he began toying with Alcubierre’s field equations and came to the conclusion that something truly workable was there. In October of 2012, he announced that he and his NASA team would be working towards its realization.
But while White himself claims its feasible, and has the support of NASA behind him, the mechanics behind it all are still theoretical, and White himself admits that the energy required to pull off this kind of “warping” of space time is beyond our means at the current time. Clearly, more time and development are needed before anything of this nature can be realized. Fingers crossed, the field equations hold, because that will mean it is at least theoretically possible!
Summary: In case it hasn’t been made manifestly obvious by now, there’s no simple solution. In fact, just about all possibilities currently under scrutiny suffer from the exact same problem: the means just don’t exist yet to make them happen. But even if we can’t reach for the stars, that shouldn’t deter us from reaching for objects that are significantly closer to our reach. In the many decades it will take us to reach the Moon, Mars, the Asteroid Belt, and Jupiter’s Moons, we are likely to revisit this problem many times over.
And I’m sure that in course of creating off-world colonies, reducing the burden on planet Earth, developing solar power and other alternative fuels, and basically working towards this thing known as the Technological Singularity, we’re likely to find that we are capable of far more than we ever thought before. After all, what is money, resources, or energy requirements when you can harness quantum energy, mine asteroids, and turn AIs and augmented minds onto the problems of solving field equations?
Yeah, take it from me, the odds are pretty much even that we will be making it to the stars in the not-too-distant future, one way or another. As far as probabilities go, there’s virtually no chance that we will be confined to this rock forever. Either we will branch out to colonize new planets and new star systems, or go extinct before we ever get the chance. I for one find that encouraging… and deeply disturbing!
As Dec. 31st fast approaches, I find myself thinking about New Years resolutions. And part of that is taking stock on what’s been accomplished in the past year. For me, one of those resolutions was to stay current and share all the new and exciting news from the field of science and tech all my followers people; to the best of my abilities, that is.
In keeping with this, I wanted to create a list of the most important developments of the last year. Many sites have produced a top 10, top 12, even a top 7, list of what they thought the most significant accomplishments were. Well, I wanted to do one of my own! Opinion varies as to what the biggest leaps and bounds were over the course of the last year, and I’ll be damned if I don’t get my say in. Lord knows I’ve spent enough time reading about them, so here’s my comprehensive list of the greatest inventions, developments and advances made during 2012.
I think you’ll all agree, the list packed with stories that are intriguing, awe-inspiring, and even a little scary! Here are the top 12, as selected by me, in alphabetical order:
3D Printing: As far as tech trends go, this one has been in the works for some time. However, 2012 will be remembered as the year that 3D printing truly became a reality. From tree-dimensional models to consumer products to even guns, 3D printers have been featured in the news many times over for their potential and frightening abilities.
However, one of the greatest potential uses will be in the field of artificial cartilage, organs, and even food. As the technology is refined and expands to the field of organic molecules, just about anything can and will be synthesized, leading to an era where scarcity is… well, scarce!
Bionic Implants: Perhaps the years biggest achievement came in the form of bionic prosthetics, artificial limbs which are calibrated to respond to the nerve impulses of the user. As a result, amputees, veterans and accident victims are able to receive artificial limbs that act like the real thing.
The most notable case was Zak Vawter who scaled the 103 flights of Chicago’s Willis Tower using an artificial leg. In addition, two men in Britain had their sight restored after undergoing the first ever case of retinal surgery where bionic implants were placed in their eyes.
Brain Implants: In September of 2012, scientists grafted an implant onto the brain of Chimpanzee, enhancing its brain power by ten percent. This consisted of an electrode array that was attached to the cerebral cortex of several monkey subjects, researchers were able to restore and even improve their decision-making abilities.
The implications for possible therapies is far-reaching, such as with brain injuries and cognitive disorders. But additionally, it also heralds the beginning of an era where human beings will be able to enhance their intelligence, recall, and memory retention.
Commercial Space Flight: Though not yet fully realized, 2012 was a big year in terms of commercial space flight. For example, Richard Branson and Virgin Galactic announced the first successful fully-loaded “glide test” of SpaceShipTwo, the rocket craft that will be taking passengers into low orbit as soon as all the kinks are worked out of the design.
In addition, Reaction Engines announced a breakthrough with the design of their hypersonic engine, which they claim will be fitted to their proposed spaceship – the Skylon. Capable of achieving speeds of up to Mach 5, this new craft is expected to be able to take off from conventional airfields, propel itself into low orbit, and deliver supplies to the ISS and make commercial trips around the world. No telling when either company will be conducting its first real suborbital flights, but the clock is ticking down!
Curiosity Rover: One of the years biggest announcement was the deployment of the Curiosity Rover on the Martian surface. Since it landed, the rover has provided a constant stream of scientific updates and news on the Red Planet. Though the Mars Science Team did not find the “earthshaking” proof organic molecules, it did make a number of important discoveries.
Amongst them was solid evidence that Mars was once home to large rivers and bodies of water. Furthermore, the x-ray lab on board the rover conducted studies on several rock and soil samples, determining what the chemical and mineral composition of Mars surface is.
Faster-Than-Light Travel: In the course of speaking at the 100 Year Starship, scientists at NASA began working on the first FTL travel system ever. Long considered to be the stuff of science fiction, physicist Harold White announced that not only is the math sound, but that his team at NASA had actually started working on it.
Relying on the concept of the Alcubierre Drive, the system involves expanding and contracting space time around the ship, allowing it to move faster than the speed of light without violating the Law of Relativity.
Geo-engineering: In October, the world’s first – and illegal – act of geo-engineering took place off Canada’s West Coast. The product of a “rogue geohacker” named Russ George, who was backed by a private company, the project involved the dumping of around 100 tonnes of oron sulphate into the Pacific Ocean. This technique, known as ocean fertilization, was meant to stimulate the growth of algae which metabolize carbon and produce oxygen.
The experiment, which is in violation of two United Nations moratoria, outraged many environmental, legal, and civic groups, many of whom hail from Haida Gwaii, the traditional territory of the Haida nation, who had enlisted by George as part of a proposed “salmon enhancement project”. Though illegal and abortive, the act was the first in what may very well become a series of geoengineering efforts which will be performed the world over in order to stay the progress of Climate Change.
Google’s Project Glass: 2012 was also the year that augmented reality became… well, a reality (oh dear, another bad pun). Back in April, Google unveiled its latest concept device for wireless and portable computing, known as Project Glass. Combining an active display matrix, a wireless internet connection and a pair of shades, Google managed to create a device that looks like something straight out of cyberpunk novel.
HIV and Flu Vaccines: When it comes to diseases, HIV and the Flu have two things in common. Until 2012, both were considered incurable, but sometime in the near future, both could be entirely preventable. In what could be the greatest medical breakthroughs in history, 2012 saw scientists and researchers experiment with antibodies that have been known to fight off HIV and the flu, and to good effect.
In the former case, this involved using a new process known as Vectored ImmunoProphylaxis (VIP), an inversion of the traditional vaccination method, where antibodies were introduced to mice. After allowing the antibodies to reproduce, researchers at Caltec found that the mice were able to fight off large quantities of the virus. In the latter, researchers at the Friedrich-Loeffler Institute in Riems Island, Germany used a new RNA-based vaccine that appeared to be able to fight off multiple strains of flu, not just the latest mutation.
Taken together, these vaccines could bring an end to a common, but potentially deadly ailment, and signal the end of the plague of the 20th century. In addition, this could be the first in a long series of developments which effectively brings all known diseases under our control.
Medical Implants: 2012 also saw the culmination of several breakthroughs in terms of biomedical research. In addition to the world’s first medimachine, there were also breakthroughs in terms of dissolving electronics, subdermal implants that dispense drugs, and health monitoring patches.
Little wonder then that Cambridge University announced the creation of the Center for the Study of Existential Risk to evaluate future technologies, or that Human Rights Watch and Harvard University teamed up to release a report calling for the ban of “killer robots”. With all the potential for enhancement, it could be just a matter of time before non-medical enhancements are a reality.
Mind-controlled prostheses: Researchers at BrainGate created a brain-machine interface that allows users to control an external device with their minds. The first person to use this revolutionary new system was Cathy Hutchinson, a stroke victim who has been paralyzed from the neck down for 15 years, who used the robotic arm to drink a cup of coffee.
This news, combined with other advances in terms of bionic prostheses, could signal the end of disability as we know it. Henceforth, people with severe injuries, amputations and strokes could find themselves able to make full recoveries, albeit through the use of robotic limbs.
Self-driving cars: 2012 marked an important year as three states (California, Nevada, and Florida) made autonomous vehicles legal. Self-driving cars, once perfected and produced en masse, will help with traffic congestion and significantly reduce the chance of auto accidents through the use of GPS, radar, and other technologies.
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All in all, it’s been an exciting year. And with all that’s been accomplished, the future is certainly looking a lot more interesting and even frightening. What is clear is that predictions made for some time now are becoming realizable, including replication, a cure for all known diseases, advanced robotics, implants, cybernetics, and even post-humanism. Regardless of where one sits on these developments, be you pro, con, or neutral, I think we can all agree that it is an exciting time to be alive!
Happy New Year to all, and here’s hoping 2013 proves just as interesting, and hopefully a lot more peaceful and sound. And may we ALL find ourselves able to keep our New Years resolutions and build upon all we’ve accomplished so far. And of course, with all the potential for medical and technological enhancements that are coming, I sincerely hope we can find ways to improve ourselves on a personal level too!
A few months ago, physicist Harold White shocked and stunned the world when he announced that he and his team at NASA were beginning work on the world’s first faster-than-light warp drive. Naturally, this produced a whole slew of questions, not the least of which was what model his team would be considering. After all, there have been countless theories put forth over the years as to how humanity could one day break the “light barrier”. Which theory White and his team would pursue was naturally the first on everybody’s mind.
Apparently, White’s proposed design will be a re-imagining of the Alcubierre Drive, a concept which has already been extensively popularized in science fiction and pop culture. Proposed by Miguel Alcubierre in 1994 in his seminal paper: “The Warp Drive: Hyper-Fast Travel Within General Relativity,” Alcubierre suggested a mechanism by which space-time could be “warped” both in front of and behind a spacecraft. After going over the equations in detail, White believed he found a way to make the theory work.
All of this began in October of last year, where White was preparing for a talk he was to give as part of the kickoff of the 100 Year Starship project in Orlando, Florida. While putting together his presentation on warp, he began toying with Alcubierre’s field equations, mainly out of curiosity. After making some adjustments, he came to the conclusion that something truly workable was there, and presented his findings this past October in Atlanta, where the 100 Year Starship project was meeting once again.
The equations and theory postulates that since space-time can be contracted and expanded, empty space behind a starship could be made to expand rapidly, pushing the craft in a forward direction. Passengers would perceive it as movement despite the complete lack of acceleration, and vast distances (i.e. light years) could be passed in a matter of days and weeks instead of decades. What’s more, this “warp drive” would allow for FTL while at the same time remaining consistent with Einstein’s theory of Relativity.
This has been a major hurdle for physicists looking for ways around the speed of light, since all previous theories required a cosmic model where Relativity – fundamental to our understanding of the universe – would not apply. At the same time, the physics described in the Alcubierre process sound like something directly out of Star Trek, something all sci-fi geeks are sure to notice! It begins with a spheroid object being placed between two regions of space-time (one expanding and one contracting), which in turn generates a “warp bubble” that moves space-time around the object, effectively repositioning it.
The end result is faster-than-light travel without the spheroid having to move with respect to its local frame of reference. In short, those aboard the object would notice the repositioning of their spacecraft, but would experience no “time dilation”, where their perception of time differs greatly from those in a different frame of reference. Or to put it another way, the Alcubierre drive could transport people from Earth to Mars and back again, and for all concerned (the passengers and people Earthside) there would be little difference in the amount of time experienced. None of this, “I’m a year older, but everybody I knew is dead!” stuff. You have to admit, that’s a real perk!
But of course, there are a lot of challenges ahead for White and his team. For example, in an interview with IO9, White said: “Remember, nothing locally exceeds the speed of light, but space can expand and contract at any speed. However, space-time is really stiff, so to create the expansion and contraction effect in a useful manner in order for us to reach interstellar destinations in reasonable time periods would require a lot of energy.” Luckily, his reworking of the equations has brought that requirement done somewhat, but the amounts required mean that a great deal of research and development is still needed.
Perhaps if we can find a way to work cold fusion in the mix, or build an anti-matter reactor. Maybe some hydrogen ramscoops and a Heisenberg compensator, then we’d be in business! Might we need some dilithium crystals too? I’ll call Jordie LaForge and tell him to get on it! 😉
It’s a popular concept, the fictional technology that could help us break that tricky light barrier. And it’s not hard to see why. The universe is a really, really, REALLY big place! And if we ever want to begin exploring and colonizing our tiny corner of it – and not have to deal with all the relativistic effects of time dilation and long, long waits – we better find a way to move faster.
And this is where various franchises come up with their more creative take on physics and the natural universe. Others, they just present it as a given and avoid any difficult, farfetched, or clumsy explanations. And in the end, we the viewers go along because we know that without it, space travel is going to be one long, tedious, and mind-bendingly complex journey!
Alcubierre Drive: Proposed by Miguel Alcubierre as a way of resolving Einstein’s field equations, the Alcubierre Drive is an untested by possible way to achieve FTL travel. As opposed to Warp, Foldspace, or most other proposed means of FTL that involve some kind of internal propulsion of jump drive, the Alcubierre Drive is based on the idea of generating a wave that a ship would then “surf” in order to travel.
The creation of this wave would cause the fabric of space ahead of the spacecraft to contract and the space behind it to expand. The ship would then ride this wave inside a region of flat space known as a warp bubble and be carried along as the region itself moves through space. As a result, conventional relativistic effects such as time dilation would not apply in the same way as if the ship itself were moving.
The Alcubierre drive is featured in a few different science fiction genres, mainly those of the “hard” variety. This includes Stephen Baxter’s Ark, M. John Harrison’s novel Light, Warren Ellis and Colleen Doran’s Orbiter, and Ian Douglas’s Star Carrier where it is the primary means of transport.
FTL Drive: The primary means of interstellar travel in the Battlestar Galactica universe, where every ship larger than a in-system transport is equipped with an FTL drive. How it works is never really explained, but it is clear that the technology is complex and involves a great deal of calculation. This is not only to ensureolve n accurate relocation through space-time, but also to make sure they don’t up jumping too close to a planet, star, or worse, right in the middle of either.
Whereas Colonial ships use their own computers to calculate jumps, Cylon ships rely on the Hybrid. These “machines” are essentially semi-organic computers, and represent the first step in Cylon evolution from pure machines to organic beings. Apparently, the hybrids were more sophisticated than Colonial computers, especially the aging Galactica. Hence, they were able to calculate jumps more quickly and accurately.
Holtzman Drive: This FTL drive system comes to us from the Dune universe, and is otherwise known as a “Foldspace Engine”. Relying on principles that are not entirely clear to those in the Dune universe, the system involves depositing a ship from one point in space-time to another instantaneously. Though the workings of the drive are never really explained, it is intimated in Chapterhouse: Dune that tachyons are involved.
Another key component in the system is a Guild Navigator, a mutant who has been given natural prescient abilities thanks to constant exposure to spice. Using this prescience, the Navigator “sees” a path through space-time in order to guide the ship safely through. But in time, the Ixians invented a machine that was capable of doing this job as well, thus making the entire process automated and breaking the Guild’s monopoly on spacing.
Hyperspace: Like the Warp drive, the terms hyperspace and hyperdrive have become staples withing the science fiction community. It’s most popular usage comes from Star Wars where it is the principle means of interstellar travel. Though it is never explained how a hyperdrive works, it is made abundantly clear through a series of visuals in the first and subsequent movies that it involves speeds in excess of the speed of light.
In addition, Han Solo indicated in the original movie that the Falcon’s top speed was “point five past light-speed”, indicating that it can travel 1.5 c. All other references to hyperspace speed factors in the franchise are similar, with velocities given in terms of a decimal point value. As a fast ship, the Falcon can reach point five, whereas most of the larger Imperial and Rebel ships can make only point three or four at most.
Though Star Wars is the most popular example of hyperspace, it is by no means the earliest. The first recorded example was in John Campbell’s “Islands of Space,” which appeared in Amazing Stories in 1931. Arthur C. Clarke’s also mentioned hyperspace in his 1950 story Technical Error. However, the most enduring example comes from Asimov’s Foundation universe, where hyperspace is the principal means of travel in the Galactic Republic. In I, Robot, the invention of the “hyperspatial drive” is the basis of one of the short stories, and was meant to provide a sense of continuity with his earlier Foundation series.
Other franchises that feature the concept of hyperspace include Babylon 5, Homeworld, Macross/Robotech, and Stargate. Combined with Star Wars and the Foundation series, it is the most popular – albeit the most ill-defined -form of FTL in the realm of science fiction.
Infinite Probability Drive: The perfect mixture of irreverence and science: the Infinite Probability Drive from The Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy. This FTL concept is based on a particular perception of quantum theory which states that a subatomic particle is most likely to be in a particular place, such as near the nucleus of an atom, but there is also a small probability of it being found very far from its point of origin.
Thus, a body could travel from place to place without passing through the intervening space if you had sufficient control of probability. According to the Guide, in this way the drive “passes through every conceivable point in every conceivable universe almost simultaneously,” meaning the traveller is “never sure where they’ll end up or even what species they’ll be when they get there” and therefore it’s important to dress accordingly!
Subspace Jump Drive: Here we have an FTL concept which comes from one of my favorite games of all time, Descent Freespace. Subspace jumps, relying on the drive system of the same name, represent a very quick method of interstellar travel. By relying on subspace “corridors” that run from one point in space-time to another, a ship is able to move quickly from one star system to the next.
The only drawback to this concept is the fact that travel must occur along officially designated “nodes”. These nodes usually pass between large gravitational sources (i.e. between stars systems) but also can exist within a system itself. Virtually all nodes are unstable, existing for mere seconds or minutes at a time. However, nodes which will last for centuries or longer are designated as “stable” and used for transit.
Another favorite franchise which uses a similar concept is the Wing Commander universe. In all versions of the game, particularly Wing Commander: Privateer, interstellar travel comes down to plotting jumps from predesignated points in space. One cannot simply jump from one spot to another provided accurate calculations are made, they have to use the mapped out points or no jump is possible. This, as opposed to hyperspace travel, posits that subspace is a reality that exists only in certain areas of space-time and must be explored before it can be used.
TARDIS: Officially, the Time and Relative Dimension in Space is a time machine and spacecraft that comes to us from British science fiction television program Doctor Who and its associated spin-offs. Produced by the advanced race known as the Time Lords, an extraterrestrial civilization to which the Doctor belongs, this device that makes his adventures possible.
Basically, a TARDIS gives its pilot the ability to travel to any point in time and any place in the universe. Based on a form of biotechnology which is grown, not assembled, they draw their power primarily from an artificial singularity (i.e. a black hole) known as the “Eye of Harmony”. Other sources of fuel include mercury, specialized crystals and a form of temporal energy.
Each TARDIS is primed with the biological imprint of a Time Lord so that only they can use it. Should anyone else try to commandeer one, it undergoes molecular disintegration and is lots. The interior of a TARDIS is much larger than its exterior, which can blend in with its surroundings using the ship’s “chameleon circuit”. Hence why it appears to outsiders as a phone booth in the series.
Warp Drive: Possibly the best known form of FTL travel which comes to us from the original Star Trek and its many spinoffs. In addition to being a prime example of fictional FTL travel, it is also perhaps the best explained example.Though said explanation has evolved over time, with contributions being made in the original series, TNG, and the Star Trek technical manual, the basic concept remains the same.
By using a matter/antimatter reactor to create plasma, and by sending this plasma through warp coils, a ship is able to create a warp bubble that will move the craft into subspace and hence exceed the speed of light. Later explanations would go on to add that an anti-matter/matter reaction which powers the two separate nacelles of the ship are what create the displacement field (the aforementioned “bubble”) that allows for warp.
Apparently, Warp 10 is the threshold for warp speed, meaning that it is the point at which a ship reaches infinite speed. Though several mentions are made of ships exceeding this threshold, this was later explained as being the result of different scales. Officially, it is part of the Star Trek canon that no ship is capable of exceeding Warp 10 without outside help. When that occurs, extreme time dilation, such as anti-time, occurs, which can be disastrous for the crew!
In addition to Star Trek, several other franchises have made mention of the Warp Drive. This includes StarCraft, Mass Effect, Starship Troopers, and Doctor Who.
Having looked through all these examples, several things become clear. In fact, it puts me in mind of a clip produced by the Space Network many years ago. Essentially, Space explored the differences between FTL in past and present franchises, connecting them to developments in real science. Whereas Warp and Hyperspace tended to be the earliest examples, based on the idea of simply exceeding the speed of light, thereby breaking the law of physics, later ideas focused on the idea of circumventing them. This required that writers come up with fictional ideas that either relied on astrophysics and quantum theory or exploited the holes within them.
One such way was to use the idea of “wormholes” in space-time, a hypothetical theory that suggests that space is permeated by topological holes that could act as “shortcuts” through space-time. A similar theory is that of subspace, a fictional universe where the normal rules of physics do not apply. Finally, and also in the same vein, is the concept of a controlled singularity, an artificial black hole that can open a rift through space-time and allow a ship to pass from one point in the universe to another.
Explanations as to how these systems would work remains entirely hypothetical and based on shaky science. As always, the purpose here is to allow for interstellar travel and communications that doesn’t take decades or even centuries. Whether or not the physics of it all works is besides the point. Which brings me to two tentative conclusions.
Explanations Need Not Apply: Given the implausible (or at the very least, inexplicable) nature of most FTL concepts, the best sci-fi is likely to be the stuff that doesn’t seek to explain how its FTL system of choice works. I’st simply there and does the job. People hit a button, push a lever, do some calculations, or fly into a jump gate. Then boom! seconds later (or days and weeks) and they find themselves on the other side, light years away and ready to do their mission!
That’s Hard: Given how any story that involves relativistic space travel, where both time dilation and confusing time jumps are necessarily incorporated into the story, only the hardest of hard sci-fi can ever expect to do without warp drives, hyperspace, jump or FTL drives. Any other kind of sci-fi that is looking to be accessible, and therefore commercially successful, will have to involve some kind of FTL or face extinction.
Well, that’s all I got for the time being. In the meantime, keep your eyes on the skies and don’t stop dreaming about how we’re one day going to get out there. For even if we start sending ships beyond our solar system in the near future, it’s going to be well into the distant future before they get anywhere and we start hearing back from them. At least until someone figures out how to get around Einstein’s Theory of Relativity, damn bloody genius! Until then, I’d like to sign off with a tagline:
This has been Matt Williams with another conceptual post. Good night, and happy spacing!