The Fate of Humanity

the-futureWelcome to the world of tomorroooooow! Or more precisely, to many possible scenarios that humanity could face as it steps into the future. Perhaps it’s been all this talk of late about the future of humanity, how space exploration and colonization may be the only way to ensure our survival. Or it could be I’m just recalling what a friend of mine – Chris A. Jackson – wrote with his “Flash in the Pan” piece – a short that consequently inspired me to write the novel Source.

Either way, I’ve been thinking about the likely future scenarios and thought I should include it alongside the Timeline of the Future. After all, once cannot predict the course of the future as much as predict possible outcomes and paths, and trust that the one they believe in the most will come true. So, borrowing from the same format Chris used, here are a few potential fates, listed from worst to best – or least to most advanced.

1. Humanrien:
extinctionDue to the runaway effects of Climate Change during the 21st/22nd centuries, the Earth is now a desolate shadow of its once-great self. Humanity is non-existent, as are many other species of mammals, avians, reptiles, and insects. And it is predicted that the process will continue into the foreseeable future, until such time as the atmosphere becomes a poisoned, sulfuric vapor and the ground nothing more than windswept ashes and molten metal.

One thing is clear though: the Earth will never recover, and humanity’s failure to seed other planets with life and maintain a sustainable existence on Earth has led to its extinction. The universe shrugs and carries on…

2. Post-Apocalyptic:
post-apocalypticWhether it is due to nuclear war, a bio-engineered plague, or some kind of “nanocaust”, civilization as we know it has come to an end. All major cities lie in ruin and are populated only marauders and street gangs, the more peaceful-minded people having fled to the countryside long ago. In scattered locations along major rivers, coastlines, or within small pockets of land, tiny communities have formed and eke out an existence from the surrounding countryside.

At this point, it is unclear if humanity will recover or remain at the level of a pre-industrial civilization forever. One thing seems clear, that humanity will not go extinct just yet. With so many pockets spread across the entire planet, no single fate could claim all of them anytime soon. At least, one can hope that it won’t.

3. Dog Days:
arcology_lillypadThe world continues to endure recession as resource shortages, high food prices, and diminishing space for real estate continue to plague the global economy. Fuel prices remain high, and opposition to new drilling and oil and natural gas extraction are being blamed. Add to that the crushing burdens of displacement and flooding that is costing governments billions of dollars a year, and you have life as we know it.

The smart money appears to be in offshore real-estate, where Lillypad cities and Arcologies are being built along the coastlines of the world. Already, habitats have been built in Boston, New York, New Orleans, Tokyo, Shanghai, Hong Kong and the south of France, and more are expected in the coming years. These are the most promising solution of what to do about the constant flooding and damage being caused by rising tides and increased coastal storms.

In these largely self-contained cities, those who can afford space intend to wait out the worst. It is expected that by the mid-point of the 22nd century, virtually all major ocean-front cities will be abandoned and those that sit on major waterways will be protected by huge levies. Farmland will also be virtually non-existent except within the Polar Belts, which means the people living in the most populous regions of the world will either have to migrate or die.

No one knows how the world’s 9 billion will endure in that time, but for the roughly 100 million living at sea, it’s not a going concern.

4. Technological Plateau:
computer_chip4Computers have reached a threshold of speed and processing power. Despite the discovery of graphene, the use of optical components, and the development of quantum computing/internet principles, it now seems that machines are as smart as they will ever be. That is to say, they are only slightly more intelligent than humans, and still can’t seem to beat the Turing Test with any consistency.

It seems the long awaited-for explosion in learning and intelligence predicted by Von Neumann, Kurzweil and Vinge seems to have fallen flat. That being said, life is getting better. With all the advances turned towards finding solutions to humanity’s problems, alternative energy, medicine, cybernetics and space exploration are still growing apace; just not as fast or awesomely as people in the previous century had hoped.

Missions to Mars have been mounted, but a colony on that world is still a long ways away. A settlement on the Moon has been built, but mainly to monitor the research and solar energy concerns that exist there. And the problem of global food shortages and CO2 emissions is steadily declining. It seems that the words “sane planning, sensible tomorrow” have come to characterize humanity’s existence. Which is good… not great, but good.

Humanity’s greatest expectations may have yielded some disappointment, but everyone agrees that things could have been a hell of a lot worse!

5. The Green Revolution:
MarsGreenhouse2The global population has reached 10 billion. But the good news is, its been that way for several decades. Thanks to smart housing, hydroponics and urban farms, hunger and malnutrition have been eliminated. The needs of the Earth’s people are also being met by a combination of wind, solar, tidal, geothermal and fusion power. And though space is not exactly at a premium, there is little want for housing anymore.

Additive manufacturing, biomanufacturing and nanomanufacturing have all led to an explosion in how public spaces are built and administered. Though it has led to the elimination of human construction and skilled labor, the process is much safer, cleaner, efficient, and has ensured that anything built within the past half-century is harmonious with the surrounding environment.

This explosion is geological engineering is due in part to settlement efforts on Mars and the terraforming of Venus. Building a liveable environment on one and transforming the acidic atmosphere on the other have helped humanity to test key technologies and processes used to end global warming and rehabilitate the seas and soil here on Earth. Over 100,000 people now call themselves “Martian”, and an additional 10,000 Venusians are expected before long.

Colonization is an especially attractive prospect for those who feel that Earth is too crowded, too conservative, and lacking in personal space…

6. Intrepid Explorers:
spacex-icarus-670Humanity has successfully colonized Mars, Venus, and is busy settling the many moons of the outer Solar System. Current population statistics indicate that over 50 billion people now live on a dozen worlds, and many are feeling the itch for adventure. With deep-space exploration now practical, thanks to the development of the Alcubierre Warp Drive, many missions have been mounted to explore and colonizing neighboring star systems.

These include Earth’s immediate neighbor, Alpha Centauri, but also the viable star systems of Tau Ceti, Kapteyn, Gliese 581, Kepler 62, HD 85512, and many more. With so many Earth-like, potentially habitable planets in the near-universe and now within our reach, nothing seems to stand between us and the dream of an interstellar human race. Mission to find extra-terrestrial intelligence are even being plotted.

This is one prospect humanity both anticipates and fears. While it is clear that no sentient life exists within the local group of star systems, our exploration of the cosmos has just begun. And if our ongoing scientific surveys have proven anything, it is that the conditions for life exist within many star systems and on many worlds. No telling when we might find one that has produced life of comparable complexity to our own, but time will tell.

One can only imagine what they will look like. One can only imagine if they are more or less advanced than us. And most importantly, one can only hope that they will be friendly…

7. Post-Humanity:
artificial-intelligence1Cybernetics, biotechnology, and nanotechnology have led to an era of enhancement where virtually every human being has evolved beyond its biological limitations. Advanced medicine, digital sentience and cryonics have prolonged life indefinitely, and when someone is facing death, they can preserve their neural patterns or their brain for all time by simply uploading or placing it into stasis.

Both of these options have made deep-space exploration a reality. Preserved human beings launch themselves towards expoplanets, while the neural uploads of explorers spend decades or even centuries traveling between solar systems aboard tiny spaceships. Space penetrators are fired in all directions to telexplore the most distant worlds, with the information being beamed back to Earth via quantum communications.

It is an age of posts – post-scarcity, post-mortality, and post-humansim. Despite the existence of two billion organics who have minimal enhancement, there appears to be no stopping the trend. And with the breakneck pace at which life moves around them, it is expected that the unenhanced – “organics” as they are often known – will migrate outward to Europa, Ganymede, Titan, Oberon, and the many space habitats that dot the outer Solar System.

Presumably, they will mount their own space exploration in the coming decades to find new homes abroad in interstellar space, where their kind can expect not to be swept aside by the unstoppable tide of progress.

8. Star Children:
nanomachineryEarth is no more. The Sun is now a mottled, of its old self. Surrounding by many layers of computronium, our parent star has gone from being the source of all light and energy in our solar system to the energy source that powers the giant Dyson Swarm at the center of our universe. Within this giant Matrioshka Brain, trillions of human minds live out an existence as quantum-state neural patterns, living indefinitely in simulated realities.

Within the outer Solar System and beyond lie billions more, enhanced trans and post-humans who have opted for an “Earthly” existence amongst the planets and stars. However, life seems somewhat limited out in those parts, very rustic compared to the infinite bandwidth and computational power of inner Solar System. And with this strange dichotomy upon them, the human race suspects that it might have solved the Fermi Paradox.

If other sentient life can be expected to have followed a similar pattern of technological development as the human race, then surely they too have evolved to the point where the majority of their species lives in Dyson Swarms around their parent Sun. Venturing beyond holds little appeal, as it means moving away from the source of bandwidth and becoming isolated. Hopefully, enough of them are adventurous enough to meet humanity partway…


Which will come true? Who’s to say? Whether its apocalyptic destruction or runaway technological evolution, cataclysmic change is expected and could very well threaten our existence. Personally, I’m hoping for something in the scenario 5 and/or 6 range. It would be nice to know that both humanity and the world it originated from will survive the coming centuries!

News from Space: New Horizons Passes Neptune

new-horizons-neptuneIt certainly has been a momentous few weeks for space exploration! Between the final weeks of August and the month of September, we’ve seen the Curiosity rover reach Mount Sharp, the Rosetta spacecraft created the first full map of a comet’s, the completion of the Orion space module, and the MAVEN orbiter reach Martian orbit. And before the month is out, India’s Mars Orbiter Mission (MOM) will also arrive in orbit around the Red Planet.

Despite all these developments, that occurred (relatively) close to home, there was even more news to be had, coming all the way from the edge of the Solar System no less. At the tail end of August, NASA announced that the New Horizons space probe passed Neptune orbit and is on its way to Pluto. Launched back in 2006 for the purpose of studying the dwarf planet, the probe is expected to arrive on July 14th of next year.

new-horizons-neptune-8NASA says that the the craft passed the Neptunian orbit at 10:04 pm EDT on Monday August 25th, which coincided with the 25th anniversary of Voyager 2’s flyby of Neptune in 1989. But where Voyager came within 4,950 km (3,080 mi) of the gas giant, the New Horizons craft passed by at a distance of 3.96 billion km (2.45 billion mi). The spacecraft is now almost 4.42 billion km (2.75 billion mi) from Earth, and is the fastest man-made object ever sent into space.

Nevertheless, New Horizons’ Long Range Reconnaissance Imager (LORRI) was still able to capture images of Neptune and its giant moon Triton. As you can see from the image below, Neptune appears as the large white disc in the middle, while Triton is the small black dot passing in front and sitting slightly to the ride. NASA says that Triton may be very similar to Pluto and the information gathered by Voyager 2 may prove helpful in the coming encounter.

new_horizons_plutoRalph McNutt of the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory.

There is a lot of speculation over whether Pluto will look like Triton, and how well they’ll match up. That’s the great thing about first-time encounters like this – we don’t know exactly what we’ll see, but we know from decades of experience in first-time exploration of new planets that we will be very surprised.

The first mission in NASA’s New Frontiers program, the New Horizons mission was launched on January 19, 2006 atop an Atlas V rocket from Cape Canaveral, Florida. It broke the record for the fastest man-made object on lift off with a speed of 58,536 km/h (36,373 mph). The 478 kg (1,054 lb) spacecraft was sent on a 9.5-year mission to fly by Pluto – a distance so far that radio signals from the nuclear-powered probe take four hours to reach Earth.

new-horizons-neptune-7Sent on a slingshot trajectory using the gravitational pull of Jupiter, which tacked on another 14,480 km/h (9,000 mph) to its speed, New Horizons will pass Pluto in July of next year at a distance of 13,000 km (8,000 mi). After this encounter, it will continue on out of the Solar System, during which it will be in the distant Kuiper belt studying one or more Kuiper belt objects (KBOs).

Though this will still not rival Voyager 1’s accomplishments, which left our Solar System last year, New Horizons promises to gather far more information on the Outer Solar System and what lies beyond. All of this will come in mighty handy when at last, humanity contemplates sending manned missions into deep space, either to Alpha Centauri or neighboring exoplanets.


NASA’s Proposed Warp-Drive Visualized

ixs-enterpriseIt’s no secret that NASA has been taking a serious look at Faster-Than-Light (FTL) technology in recent years. It began back in 2012 when Dr Harold White, a team leader from NASA’s Engineering Directorate, announced that he and his team had begun work on the development of a warp drive. His proposed design, an ingenious re-imagining of an Alcubierre Drive, may eventually result in an engine that can transport a spacecraft to the nearest star in a matter of weeks — and all without violating Einstein’s law of relativity.

In the spirit of this proposed endeavor, White chose to collaborate with an artist to visualize what such a ship might look like. Said artist, Mark Rademaker, recently unveiled the fruit of this collaboration in the form of a series of concept images. At the heart of them is a sleek ship nestled at the center of two enormous rings that create the warp bubble. Known as the IXS Enterprise, the ship has one foot in the world of science fiction, but the other in the realm of hard science.

ixs-enterprise-0The idea for the warp-drive comes from the work published by Miguel Alcubierre in 1994. His version of a warp drive is based on the observation that, though light can only travel at a maximum speed of 300,000 km/sec (186,000 miles per second, aka. c), spacetime itself has a theoretically unlimited speed. Indeed, many physicists believe that during the first seconds of the Big Bang, the universe expanded at some 30 billion times the speed of light.

The Alcubierre warp drive works by recreating this ancient expansion in the form of a localized bubble around a spaceship. Alcubierre reasoned that if he could form a torus of negative energy density around a spacecraft and push it in the right direction, this would compress space in front of it and expand space behind it. As a result, the ship could travel at many times the speed of light while the ship itself sits in zero gravity – hence sparing the crew from the effects of acceleration.

alcubierre-warp-drive-overviewUnfortunately, the original maths indicated that a torus the size of Jupiter would be needed, and you’d have to turn Jupiter itself into pure energy to power it. Worse, negative energy density violates a lot of physical limits itself, and to create it requires forms of matter so exotic that their existence is largely hypothetical. In short, what was an idea proposed to circumvent the laws of physics itself fell prey to their limitations.

However, Dr Harold “Sonny” White of NASA’s Johnson Space Center reevaluated Alcubierre’s equations and made adjustments that corrected for the required size of the torus and the amount of energy required. In the case of the former, White discovered that making the torus thicker, while reducing the space available for the ship, allowed the size of it to be greatly decreased – from the size of Jupiter down to a width of 10 m (30 ft), roughly the size of the Voyager 1 probe.

alcubierre-warp-drive-overviewIn the case of the latter, oscillating the bubble around the craft would reduce the stiffness of spacetime, making it easier to distort. This would reduce the amount of energy required by several orders of magnitude, for a ship traveling ten times the speed of light. According to White, with such a setup, a ship could reach Alpha Centauri in a little over five months. A crew traveling on a ship that could accelerate to just shy of the speed of light be able to make the same trip in about four and a half years.

Rademaker’s renderings reflect White’s new calculations. The toruses are thicker and, unlike the famous warp nacelles on Star Trek’s Enterprise, their design is the true function of hurling the craft between the stars. Also, the craft, which is divided into command and service modules, fits properly inside the warp bubble. There are some artistic additions, such as some streamlining, but no one said an interstellar spaceship couldn’t be functional and pretty right?

ixs-enterprise-2For the time being, White’s ideas can only be tested on special interferometers of the most exacting precision. Worse, the dependence of the warp on negative energy density is a major barrier to realization. While it can, under special circumstances, exist at a quantum level, in the classical physical world that this ship must travel through, it cannot exist except as a property of some form of matter so exotic that it can barely be said to be capable of existing in our universe.

Though no one can say with any certainty when such a system might be technically feasible, it doesn’t hurt to look ahead and dream of what may one day be possible. And in the meantime, you can check out Rademaker’s entire gallery by going to his Flickr account here. And be sure to check out the video of Dr. White explaining his warp-drive concept at SpaceVision 2013:


Space Elevators!

space_elevatorWhen it comes to classic and hard science fiction, there are few concepts more inspired, more audacious, and more cool than the Space Elevator. Consisting of a cable (or tether) attached the Earth near the equator and a station in geosynchronous orbit, a structure of this kind would allow us to put objects, supplies and even people into orbit without the need for rockets and space ships.

And perhaps I am a bit biased, seeing as how one of the writer’s featured in the Yuva anthology happens to have written a story that features one – Goran Zidar, whose story “Terraformers” includes an orbital colony that is tethered to the planet by a “Needle”. But I’ve found the concept fascinating for as long as I have known about it, and feel like its time for a conceptual post that deals with this most awesome of concepts!

Here goes…

The first recorded example of the space elevator concept appeared in 1895 when Russian scientist Konstantin Tsiolkovsky was inspired by the Eiffel Tower in Paris. He considered a similar tower that extended from the ground into geostationary orbit (GSO) in space. Objects traveling into orbit would attain orbital velocity as they rode up the tower, and an object released at the tower’s top would also have the velocity necessary to remain in orbit.

space_elevator1However, his concept called for a compression structure, which was unfeasible given that no material existed that had enough compressive strength to support its own weight under such conditions. In 1959, another Russian scientist named Yuri N. Artsutanov suggested a more feasible proposal, a tensile structure which used a geostationary satellite as the base from which to deploy the structure downward.

By using a counterweight, a cable would be lowered from geostationary orbit to the surface of Earth, while the counterweight was extended from the satellite away from Earth, keeping the cable constantly over the same spot on the surface of the Earth. He also proposed tapering the cable thickness so that the stress in the cable was constant. This gives a thinner cable at ground level that becomes thicker up towards the GSO.

space_elevator_liftIn 1966, Isaacs, Vine, Bradner and Bachus, four American engineers, reinvented the concept under the name “Sky-Hook”. In 1975, the concept was reinvented again by Jerome Pearson, whose model extended the distance of the counterweight to 144,000 km (90,000 miles) out, roughly half the distance to the Moon. However, these studies were also marred by the fact that no known material possessed the tensile strength required.

By the turn of the century, however, the concept was revitalized thanks to the development of carbon nanotubes. Believing that the high strength of these materials might make an orbital skyhook feasible, engineer David Smitherman of NASA put together a workshop at the Marshall Space Flight Center and invited many scientists and engineers to participate. Their findings were published in an article titled “Space Elevators: An Advanced Earth-Space Infrastructure for the New Millennium”.

carbon-nanotubeAnother American scientist, Bradley C. Edwards, also suggested using nanotubes to create a 100,000 km (62,000 mile) paper-thin cable that would be shaped like a ribbon instead of circular. This, he claimed, would make the tether more resistant to impacts from meteoroids.  The NASA Institute for Advanced Concepts began supporting Edwards’ work, allowing him to expand on it and plan how it would work in detail.

In Fiction:
arthurcclarke_fountains-of-paradiseIn 1979, the concept of the Space Elevator was introduced to the reading public thanks to the simultaneous publications of Arthur C. Clarke’s The Fountains of Paradise (1979) and Charles Sheffield’s The Web Between the Worlds. In the former, engineers construct a space elevator on top of a mountain peak in the fictional island country of Taprobane, which was loosely based on Clarke’s new home in Sri Lanka, albeit moved south to the Equator.

In an interesting and fact-based twist, the purpose for building the elevator on Earth is to demonstrate that it can be done on Mars. Ultimately, the protagonist of the story (Dr Vannevar Morgan) is motivated by his desire to help a Mars-based consortium to develop the elevator on Mars as part of a massive terraforming project, something which has been proposed in real life.

Sheffield- The Web Between the WorldsSimiliarly, in Sheffield’s Web, which was his first novel, we see a world famous engineer who has created extensive bridge networks all over the world using graphite cable. In hoping to achieve the unachievable dream, he begins work on a space elevator code named the “Beanstalk”. This brings him into an alliance with a corrupt tycoon who wants to make rockets obsolete, and intrigue ensues…

Three years later, Robert A. Heinlein’s novel Friday features a space elevator known as the “Nairobi Beanstalk”. In Heinlein’s vision, the world of the future is heavily Balkanized, and people exist in thousands of tiny nation states and orbital colonies which are connected to Earth via the Beanstalk, which as the name suggests, is located in equatorial Africa.

ksr_redmarsIn 1993, Kim Stanley Robinson released Red Mars, a sci-fi classic that remains a quintessential novel on the subject of Mars colonization. In the novel, the Martian colonists build a space elevator that allows them to bring additional colonists to the surface, as well as transport natural resources that were mined planetside into orbit where they can be ferried back to Earth.

In 1999, Sid Meier’s, creator of the famed Civilization gaming series, released the sci-fi based Sid Meier’s Alpha Centauri that deals with the colonization of the planet “Chiron” in the Alpha Centauri system. In the course of the turn-based strategy game, players are encouraged to construct special projects as a way of gaining bonuses and building up their faction’s power.

One such project is the Space Elevator, which requires that the faction building first research the technology “super tensile solids” so they have the means of building a super-tensile tether. Once built, it confers bonuses for space-based unit production, allows orbital drop units to be deployed over the entire planet, increases production rates for satellites, and removes the need for aerospace facilities. spaceelevator_alpha_centauriIn David Gerrold’s 2000 novel, Jumping Off The Planet, we are again confronted with an equatorial space elevator, this time in Ecuador where the device is once again known as the “beanstalk”. The story focuses on a family excursion which is eventually revealed to be a child-custody kidnapping. In addition to this futuristic take on domestic issues, Gerrold also examined some of the industrial applications of a mature elevator technology.

Chasm_City_coverIn 2001, Alastair Reynolds, a hard sci-fi author and creator of the Revelation Space series, released Chasm City, which acted as a sort of interquel between the first and second books in the main trilogy. At the opening of the novel, the story takes place on Sky’s Edge, a distant world where settlers travel to and from ships in orbit using a space elevator that connects to the planetary capitol on the surface.

And in 2011, author Joan Slonczewski presented a biological twist on the concept with her novel The Highest Frontier. Here, she depicts a college student who ascends a space elevator that uses a tether constructed from self-healing cables of anthrax bacilli. The engineered bacteria can regrow the cables when severed by space debris, thus turning the whole concept of tensile solids on its head.

Attempts to Build a Space Elevator:
Since the onset of the 21st century, several attempts have been made to design, fund, and create a space elevator before the end of this century. To speed the development process, proponents of the concept have created several competitions to develop the relevant technologies. These include the Elevator: 2010 and Robogames Space Elevator Ribbon Climbing, annual competitions seeking to design climbers, tethers and power-beaming systems.

space_elevator_nasaIn March of 2005, NASA announced its own incentive program, known as the Centennial Challenges program, which has since merged the Spaceward Foundation and upped the total value of their cash prizes to US$400,000. In that same year, the LiftPort Group began producing carbon nanotubes for industrial use, with the goal of using their profits as capital for the construction of a 100,000 km (62,000 mi) space elevator.

In 2008, the Japanese firm known as the Space Elevator Association, chaired by Shuichi Ono, announced plans to build a Space Elevator for the projected price tag of a trillion yen ($8 billion). Though the cost is substantially low, Ono and his peers claimed that Japan’s role as a leader in the field engineering could resolve the technical issues at the price they quoted.

obayashi-2In 2011, Google was reported to be working on plans for a space elevator at its secretive Google X Lab location. Since then, Google has stated that it is not working on a space elevator. But in that same year, the first European Space Elevator Challenge (EuSEC) to establish a climber structure took place in August.

And in 2012, the Obayashi Corporation of Japan announced that in 38 years it could build a space elevator using carbon nanotube technology. Their detailed plan called for a 96,000 long tether, supported by a counterweight, that could hold a 30-passenger climber that would travel 200 km/h, reaching the GSO after a 7.5 day trip. However, no cost estimates, finance plans, or other specifics were made at this point.

space-elevator-schematics-largeDespite these efforts, the problems of building are still marred by several technical issues that have yet to be resolved. These include the problems of tensile strength, dangerous vibrations along the tether line, climbers creating wobble, dangers posed by satellites and meteoroids, and the fact that such a structure would be vulnerable to a terrorist or military attack.

Other Possibilities:
Though we may never be able to resolve the problems of building a space elevator on Earth, scientists are agreed that one could be made on other planets, particularly the Moon. This idea was first devised by Jerome Pearson, one of the concepts many original proponents, who proposed a smaller elevator that would be anchored by Earth’s gravity field.

LiftPort1This is a necessity since the Moon does not rotate and could therefore not maintain tension along a tether. But in this scenario, the cable would be run from the moon and out through the L1 Lagrangian point. Once there, it would be dangled down into Earth’s gravity field where it would be held taught by Earth gravity and a large counterweight attached to its end.

Since the Moon is a far different environment than planet Earth, it presents numerous advantages when building a space elevator. For starters, there’s the strength of the materials needed, which would be significantly less, thus resolving a major technical issue. In addition, the Moon’s lower gravity would mean a diminished weight of the materials being shipped and of the structure itself.

space_elevator_lunarAs Pearson explained:

[T]o lift a thousand tons per day off the lunar surface, it would take less than 100,000 tons of elevator to do it — which means it pays back its own mass in just 100 days, or somewhere between three and four times its own mass per year — which is not a bad rate of return… You don’t need nanotubes and very, very high strength materials. But the higher the strength, the more of the ratio you can get for hauling stuff on the moon.

In fact, LiftPort is already deep into developing a “Lunar Elevator”. Plans to build one by 2020 were announced back in 2010, and since that time, the company launched a Kickstarter campaign to get the funding necessary to conduct tests that will get them closer to this goal. These consisting of sending a tethered robot 2km from the surface to conduct stress and telemetry tests.

Ultimately, the company estimates that a Lunar Elevator could be made at the cost of $800 million, which is substantially less than a “Terran Elevator” would cost. Similarly, it is likely that any manned missions to Mars, which will include eventual settlement and plans to terraform, will involve a Martian elevator, possibly named the “Ares Elevator”.

Much like SpaceX’s attempts to resolve the costs of sending rockets into space, the concept of a space elevator is another means of reducing the cost of sending things into orbit. As time goes on and technology improves, and humanity finds itself in other terrestrial environments where resources need to be exported into space, we can expect that elevators that pierce the sky will become possible.

In the meantime, we can always dream…


News From Space: The NASA-Funded Fusion Rocket

fusion-rocket-university-of-washington-640x353NASA scientists have been saying for some time that they plan to send a manned mission to Mars by 2030. At the same time, space adventurist Dennis Tito and his company Inspiration Mars want to send a couple on a flyby of the Red Planet in 2018. With such ambitions fueling investment and technological innovation, its little wonder why people feel we are embarking on the new era of space exploration.

However, there is one sizable problem when it comes to make the Mars transit, which is the wait time. In terms of Tito’s proposed flyby, a trip to Mars when it is in alignment with Earth would take a total 501 days. As for NASA’s round-trip excursions for the future, using current technology it would take just over four years. That’s quite the long haul, and as you can imagine, that longer transit time has an exponential effect on the budgets involved!

Mars_landerBut what if it were possible to cut that one-way trip down to just 30 days. That’s the question behind the new fusion rocket design being developed at the University of Washington and being funded by NASA. Led by John Slough, this team have spent the last few years developing and testing each of the various stages of the concept and is now bringing the isolated tests together to produce an actual fusion rocket.

The challenge here is to create a fusion process that generates more power than it requires to get the fusion reaction started, a problem which, despite billions of dollars of research, has eluded some of the world’s finest scientists for more than 60 years. However, researchers continue to bang their head on this proverbial wall since fusion alone – with its immense energy density – appears to be the way of overcoming the biggest barrier to space travel, which is fuel weight and expense.

spacecraft_marsUltimately, the UW fusion rocket design relies on some rather simple but ingenious features to accomplish its ends. In essence, it involves a combustion chamber containing rings made of lithium and a pellet of deuterium-tritium – a hydrogen isotope that is usually used as the fuel in fusion reactions. When the pellet is in the right place, flowing through the combustion chamber towards the exhaust, a huge magnetic field is triggered, causing the metal rings to slam closed around the pellet of fuel.

These rings then implode with such pressure that the fuel compresses into fusion, causing a massive explosion that ejects the metal rings out of the rocket and at 108,000 km/h (67,000 mph) and generating thrust. This reaction would be repeated every 10 seconds, eventually accelerating the rocket to somewhere around 320,000 km/h (200,000 mph) — about 10 times the speed of Curiosity as it hurtled through space from Earth to Mars.

NASA_fusionchamberHowever, things still remain very much in the R&D phase for the fusion rocket. While the team has tested out the imploding metal rings, they have yet to insert the deuterium-tritium fuel and propel a super-heated ionized lump of metal out the back at over 100,000 kilometers and hour. That is the next – and obviously a very, very – big step.

But in the end, success will be measured when it comes to two basic criteria: It must work reliably and, most importantly, it must be capable of generating more thermal energy than the electrical energy required to start the fusion reaction. And as already mentioned, this is the biggest challenge facing the team as it is something that’s never been done before.

However, most scientific minds agree that within 20 years at least, fusion power will be possible, and the frontiers it will open will be vast and wonderful. Not only will we be able to fully and completely lick the problem of clean energy and emissions, we will have rockets capable of taking us to Mars and beyond in record time. Deep space flight will finally become a possibility, and we may even begin considering sending ships to Alpha Centauri, Bernard’s Star and (fingers crossed!) Gliese 581!


The Future of Space Exploration

spacex-icarus-670Back 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.

MarsOneSuffice 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.

ESA_moonbaseAnd 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.

Space Colony by Stephan Martiniere
Space Colony by Stephan Martiniere

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.

Orion SchematicF0r 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:
NASA_antimatterMost 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.

antimatter_shipHowever, 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:
solar_sail1Thinking 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.

solar_sailOnce 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.

ringworld2Here 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.

enzmann_starshipBy 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.

RAMA2Despite 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.

Galactica_newFor 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?

The supermassive black hole at the center of the Milky Way galaxy.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…

alcubierre-warp-drive-overviewBut 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!


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!


News From Alpha Centauri!

It seems another star system is making the news recently. And much like Gliese 581, the subject is the discovery of a planet that is said to be Earth-like in orientation. Located in Alpha Centauri, a star system just 4.3 light years from our Solar System, this exoplanet is the closest discovery yet to be made by scientists and astronomers.

Those with a penchant for science fiction will be immediately familiar with the name Alpha Centauri. As the closest star system to our own, it has been mentioned and used as the setting for countless science fiction franchises. Star Trek, Transformers, and most recently, Avatar have made use of this binary system and its system of planets. But up until now, speculations as to its ability to actually support life (at least as we know it) have been just that.

Officially, the planet is known as Alpha Centauri Bb, in that it is the second observable planet that orbits Alpha Centauri B, the larger of the stars in the binary system. It took a research team nearly four years to classify the planet and determine that it boasted a mass similar to that of Earth’s. According to Xavier Dumusque, the lead author of the planet-discovering study: “This result represents a major step towards the detection of a twin Earth in the immediate vicinity of the sun.”

But of course, there’s a snag, at least as far as colonization would be involved. According to the same research team, Alpha Centauri Bb is closer to its host star than Mercury is to our Sun, and they estimate that surface temperatures average around 1200 degrees Celsius (2192 Fahrenheit). Forget Pandora, can you say Crematoria? If humans were ever to set foot on this world, it would only be because of terraforming so radical that it completely altered the nature of the planet. Still, it is an exciting find, and is another step along the road to locating nearby exoplanets that humanity might someday call home.

In the meantime, check out this video from the European Southern Observatory. It’s like Google Earth meets the Milky Way Galaxy – Google Galaxy! I like that!


Utopia in Popular Culture

Aeon Flux:
Fans of this animated cult-classic are sure to understand why this show has made the list. In the futuristic setting of the show, events revolve around an ongoing conflict between two societies. On the one side, there is Brenga, a police state run by the autocrat Trevor Goodchild. On the other is the anarchist state of Monica, where the show’s main character – Aeon, a Monican agent and spy – comes from.

Much like the world of the Cold War, these two sides are locked in an ongoing state of detente, where espionage and skirmishes take place back on both sides. The border region between them resembles that of Cold War-era Berlin, where a massive wall separates the two and those trying to cross are either shot or cut down. In one particular episode, people who are missing limbs were a focal point, demonstrating just how many people have fallen victim to the border defenses.

This is a common feature in the story, as it seems that the people of Bregna (known as Breens) would like very much to live the lives of Monicans. Its for this reason that one of Aeon’s duties as an agent is to make regular runs into Bregna to get people out through a series of underground passages. It is also suggested that it is precisely because Monica has no official representatives that it is impossible for Trevor Goodchild to deal with them. He does not seem to understand how their society works, and therefore cannot bribe, threaten, or intimidate them into a peace settlement.

Here is a perfect example of the traditional Edenic civilization being threatened by the evil progress-driven bad guys. Though it was not my favorite movie by any means, it’s undeniable (aka. blatant) utopians themes are quite clear. In short, the Na’vi live a peaceful, contended existence with their environment, and are even telepathically linked to a planetary intelligence known as Eywa.

Borrowing elements from Native American lore, the Gaian hypothesis, and the concept of an ecological utopia, Cameron created a world where paradise was to be found by anyone with appreciative eyes. Whether it was their communion with animals, the trees, or Eywa, the Na’vi elevated the concept of living in harmony with their environment to literal levels.

Demolition Man:
Again, we have what is often classified as a dystopia, but which is made so because of its apparent utopian elements. Set in the not-too-distant future of San Angeles – the mega-city formed from the merger of LA and San Diego – the story revolves around the social experiments of one Dr. Raymond Cocteau.

In addition to being the man who invented the cryo-stasis prison system, which was central to the plot, he is also the man who pioneered the San Angelans “utopian” way of life. In essence, this way of life is bereft of violence, crime, and drug use. The people live what can only be described as a peaceful and contented existence, believing that everything that came before them was characterized by violence and brutality.

The price tag was high, to be sure. People are no longer allowed to swear, play contact sports, own guns, or eat anything remotely unhealthy. Violent and/or sexual entertainment has also been banned, as has real sex. However, the people of San Angeles seemed to accept all this based on the state of society prior to Cocteau’s “revolution”.

The proliferation of violence, chaos, drug use and venereal diseases pretty much left them thinking they had no choice.  Such is the nature of utopian engineering, in the end, where people willingly surrender certain aspects of their lives in order to achieve something better. Much like collectivization, the banning of money, or the elimination of monogamy.

This might seem like a bit of a stretch, but I’ve always felt that anyone who loves science fiction can’t help but notice the classic themes and elements in this show. Usually this takes the form of dystopian elements – suicide booths, career chips, the tax monster, etc. However, at other times, some decidedly cheery and optimistic tones make it in.

For example, in one particular episode (season 1, episode 8: “A Big Piece of Garbage”), Earth finds itself being threatened by a massive ball of garbage. They deduce that only a similar ball would be able to deflect it, but unfortunately, no garbage exists. Everything on Earth is now recycled, used cans are recycled to make robots, and used robots are used to make cans. Nothing goes to waste, which is why Fry must teach them how to litter!

And then again, in season 6, episode 2: “In-A-Gadda-Da-Leela”, Leela and Zapp Brannagan land on what appears to be a mysterious, Edenic planet. Here, Leela and Zapp begin living freely as if they were Adam and Eve, which includes shedding their clothes, talking to a serpent, and living off the land. Of course, it was all a ruse by Zapp who once again just looking to get Leela in the sack, but the illusion was complete!

Sid Meier’s Alpha Centauri:
There’s a reason this game is one of my all-time favorites, and that is because it’s so inspired! One immediately gets the feeling upon playing this all the way through that a lot of classic sci-fi elements went into the making of it, as well as genuine cultural, sociological and scientific research.

For starters, there is the concept of colonizing a new world and the social experiments that it naturally will entail, which is in keeping with KSR Mars Trilogy. Each faction in the game represents a different take on engineering the perfect society. There are the humanitarians, the believers, the Gaians, the hive-mind people, the free-marketeers, the militarists, and the rational empiricists.

What’s more, the technology tree that is featured in the game contains many options for social engineering, the intended end result of which is a perfect society in one form or another. These include Thought Control, Cybernetic, and Eudaimonic, three basic visions of utopia which are dependent upon repression, post-humanism, and a utilitarian, social welfare approach meant to enrich the lives of as many people as possible.

There’s even the option of achieving transcendence, which is one of the victory condition’s of the game. This is achieved by merging with Alpha Centauri’s planet-wide organism, becoming part of its mass consciousness and ensuring a sort of quasi-immortality as it were. This is considered the biggest and best victory option since it ensures planetary peace, as opposed to conquering all the other factions, united them, or cornering the planet’s energy market (the three other victory conditions).

Star Trek:
When it comes to commercial sci-fi, Star Trek pretty much has the market cornered when it comes to utopian elements. Whether it was the original series, TNG, or its subsequent spinoffs, it was clear that humanity had reached a state of technical and social perfection thanks to advances made in science and technology, not to mention good old fashion optimism.

For starters, the United Federation of Planets was an egalitarian democracy where all member races were entitled to representation, a constitution guaranteed extensive rights and freedoms, and all wants and needs were addressed thanks to replicators, abundant energy, transporters and warp technology.

And of course, numerous references are made to the fact that Earth is crime free, all known diseases have been cured, and troublesome things like poverty, slavery, exploitation, inequality and human drudgery have all been eliminated. No real explanations are given as to how, but its clear it happened by the 22nd century.

Star Wars:
Though not a utopian series by any stretch of the definition, there are some tell-tale aspects of the franchise which warrant examination. For example, though the bulk of the story takes place during the “Dark Times”, when the evil Empire rules, numerous allusions are made to a time before the Empire where things are described in somewhat idealistic terms.

For example, here is how Obi-Wan describes the role of the Jedi in the good old days as follows: “For over a thousand generations, the Jedi were the guardians of peace and justice in the Old Republic.” In addition, it is also made clear that the Old Republic was governed by an interstellar democracy known as the Galactic Senate. Between the Jedi and the government, things like slavery, conquest, blatant racism, genocide, and all other forms of behavior common to the Empire were highly illegal.

In having this era of peace and relative prosperity to compare their current circumstances with, Lucas was able to drive home the point of how the Empire was illegitimate and had seized power by unjust means. It also made the heroes current predicament seem that much more emotionally involved.

Wing Commander:
Calling to mind such franchises as Star Trek and Man-Kzin Wars, the Wing Commander series takes place in the distant future when a semi-utopian humanity is engaged in a war with a militaristic foe. As with the violent Kzin, the enemy in this series known as the Kilrathi, are a race of feline anthropoids.

Governed by a strict hierarchy and warrior code, the Kilrathi are driven to war and conquest and have been fighting humanity for generations. Though no formal description is ever made of the Earth government or human customs, many hints are given that suggest that the Terran Confederation is governed by the comparatively enlightened ideals of humanitarianism and democracy.

For instance, in the first Wing Commander it is said that Kilrathi do not place the same importance on alien life as the Confederation. Evidently not, since conquest, slavery and genocide seem to be par for the course for them! In addition, several alien species are allies with the Confederation, usually for the sake of mutual defense against the Kilrathi.

And as with Star Trek, the bad behavior of the enemy species is held in contrast to the comparatively peaceful and egalitarian behavior of humans. And as always, this is designed to illicit a point about history and human nature.

When it comes to popular culture, there never seems to be a shortage of inspired science fiction elements. This is true of movies, television, and the gaming world. However, I can’t help but notice just how more common dystopian movies, shows and games are. For whatever reason, it just seems like tales of dark futures are much more popular. Is it because dark futures seem more realistic, or might it have to do with the proliferation of dystopian literature in the last century or so. Either way, believe me when I tell you that examples of modern utopian sci-fi franchises were much harder to find. No wonder Neal Stephenson challenged the sci-fi writers of the world to come up with something cheerier!