Hey folks! As always, I feel like I’m overdue in posting an update and letting you know what’s going on. I guess it’s just the nature of my work, but at the end of the day, I just seem to have very little energy left to write anything. But that’s no excuse. So as always, allow me to apologize for not posting this sooner!
As the headline says, my first series of novels – which includes The Cronian Incident and The Jovian Manifesto – is nearing completion. It’s been quite the long road and there’s been plenty of peaks and troughs. But now that the finish line is finally in sight, I’m feeling excited! So let’s do this right and start by talking about this final installment in the series…
I’ve been busy over at Universe Today of late. In fact, as part of a promotional thing for my upcoming book – The Cronian Incident – I’ve been doing a series of articles about terraforming. And it’s actually kind of an interesting story, which I already touched on in a previous post. In any case, the series is now complete, with articles that cover everything from terraforming Mercury to terraforming the moons of the gas giants in the outer Solar System:
To give people the Cliff Notes version of this series, it is clear that at this point, humanity could colonize and terraform certain worlds in our Solar System. The only real questions are where could we? How could we? And why should we? To answer the first two, we could terraform Mars and Venus, since both planets are terrestrial (like Earth), both exist in our Sun’s habitable zone (like Earth), and have either abundant atmospheres or abundant sources of water we can work with. In any other case, the matter becomes impractical, except within certain contained environments (paraterraforming).
As for the third question – why should we? – that was one of the main reasons I tackled this subject. When it comes to terraforming, the questions concerning ethics and responsibility are unavoidable. And while I did my best to cover this in the course of writing the series, the real debate happened in the comments section. Again and again, people asked the following questions:
How can we live elsewhere when we can’t even take care of Earth?
Shouldn’t we take care of our problems here before we settle other worlds?
Wouldn’t those resources be better spent here?
All good (and predictable) questions. And rather than simply avoiding them or dismissing them as pedestrian, I wanted to seriously have an answer. And so I chose to reply whenever these questions, or some variation, popped up. Here’s the basics of why we should terraform other worlds in this century and the next:
1. Increased Odds of Survival: As Elon Musk is rather fond of sharing, colonizing Mars was one of the main reasons he started SpaceX (which recently made their second successful landing of the reusable Falcon 9 rocket!) His reason for establishing this colony, he claims, is to create a “backup location” for humanity. And in this, he has the support of many policy analysts and space enthusiasts. Faced with the threat of possible extinction from multiple fronts – an asteroid, ecological collapse, nuclear war, etc. – humanity would have better odds of survival if it were a multi-planet species.
What’s more, having other locations around the Solar System decreases the odds of us ruining Earth. So much of why Earth’s environment is threatened has to do with the impact human populations have on it. Currently, there are over 7 billion human beings living on planet Earth, with an additional 2 to 3 billion expected by mid-century, and between 10 and12 by the 2100. But it’s not just the number of people that matters. In addition to every human being constituting a mouth to feed, they are also a pair of hands that need to given something productive to do (lest they turn to something destructive).
Every human also requires an education, a place to live, and basic health and sanitation services to make sure they do not die prematurely. And providing for all of this requires space and a great deal of resources. As it stands, it is becoming more and more difficult to provide for those we have, and our ability to do so is dwindling (i.e. thanks to Climate Change). If we intend to survive as a species, we not only need new venues to expand to, we need other resource bases to ensure that our people can be fed, clothed, housed, and employed.
So simply put, creating permanent settlements on the Moon, Mars, and elsewhere in the Solar System could ensure that humanity survives, especially if (or when) our efforts to save Earth from ourselves fail.
2. Testing out Ecological and Geological Engineering Techniques:
Basically, there is no way humanity is going to be able to address Climate Change in this century if we do not get creative and start relying on techniques like carbon capture, carbon sequestration, solar shades, and artificially triggered global dimming and fungal blooms. The problem is, any or all of these techniques need to be tested in order to ensure that the results are just right. Altering our environment would not only threaten to disrupt systems human being depend upon for their livelihood, it could also threaten the lives of many people.
Such is the threat Climate Change poses, so we want to make sure the ways in which we address it helps the environment instead of screwing it up further. The best way to do that is to have testing grounds where we can try out these techniques, and where a misstep won’t result in the loss of innocent lives or billions in damages. Ergo, testing our methods on Mars and Venus will give us a chance to measure their effectiveness, while avoiding any of the political barriers and potential hazards using them on Earth would present.
3. Mars and Venus are Perfect Testing Grounds: Astronomers have been aware for some time that Mars and Venus are similar to Earth in many ways. As previously mentioned, they are both terrestrial planets that are located in our Sun’s habitable zone. But of course, they are also different in several key respects. Whereas Mars’ atmosphere is very thin, it has no magnetosphere, and its surface is extremely cold and dry, Venus has an atmosphere that it extremely dense, hot enough to melt lead, and where sulfuric acid rains are common.
The reasons for this? Mars sits at the outer edge of the Sun’s habitable zone and receives less warmth. Combined with its eccentric orbit – and a lack of a protective magnetosphere that caused it to lose its atmosphere billions of years ago – this is what has led to it becoming the very cold and dry planet we are familiar with. Venus, sitting on the inner edge of the Sun’s habitable zone, suffered a runaway Greenhouse Effect early in its history, which caused it to become the extremely hot and hellish world it is today.
Terraforming Mars would therefore require that we thicken the atmosphere and warm it up. This means triggering a Greenhouse Effect by pumping lots of CO2 and nitrogen (probably in the form of ammonia) into its atmosphere and then converting them using cyanobacteria and other species of bacteria. So basically, to make Mars more Earth-like, we could build heavy industry there to pollute the hell out of the place – something we’ve been doing here on Earth for hundreds of years! – and then test out techniques designed to convert the atmosphere into something breathable. What we learn could then be applied here at home.
The same holds true for Venus. In order to terraform that world into something livable for humanity, the first challenge will be to arrest the runaway Greenhouse Effect there and convert the carbon dioxide/sulfur dioxide-rich atmosphere into one composed of nitrogen and oxygen gas. There are many ways to do this, and testing one or more of them out will yield crucial data for using similar techniques on Earth. In a nutshell, transforming Mars and Venus will help us save Earth.
4. Our Solar System has Abundant Resources: Between the Moon, Mars, Venus, Mercury, the Asteroid Belt, and the systems of Jupiter, Saturn and beyond, there are literally enough resources to last humanity indefinitely. And while we can’t hope to possess them all at once, every step in colonizing the Solar System offers us the chance to expand our resource base, conduct scientific research and exploration, add more land which we can develop and use for human settlement, and ultimately grow as a species.
To break this process down piecemeal, we must start with the Moon. By establishing a colony in its southern polar region, we could leverage the local resources to create a permanent settlement and use it as a refueling base for mission deeper into the Solar System (a move which would save billions on all future missions). Solar operations could also be built on the surface to beam energy to Earth, the Moon’s rich minerals could be mined for Earth industries, and the mining of Helium-3 could power fusion reactors all over the world.
Already, NASA is eying the Shakelton Crater as a possible location, where there is an abundance of water ice and a dome could be built over it to create a contained atmosphere. The moon’s stable lava tunnels also present a good site, since they are large enough to fit entire cities within them and would hold an atmosphere nicely. And from there, humanity could mount missions to Venus and Mars, which would in turn add their abundant supplies of minerals to our economy.
Mercury would also present a major opportunity for mining and solar operations. And like the Moon, colonies could be built in the permanently shaded regions around the northern and southern polar regions (where there are abundant supplies of water ice) and in underground stable lava tubes. The Asteroid Belt literally has enough minerals and ices to keep humanity supplied indefinitely (hence the interest in asteroid prospecting of late), and the outer Solar System has enough ice, volatiles, and organic compounds to do the same.
In short, step by step, the colonization and/or terraforming of our Solar System offers humanity the opportunity to become a post-scarcity race. While many decry the idea of our species expanding because of the greed and abuse we have demonstrated in the past (and continue to demonstrate today), much of this greed and abuse comes from the fact that our current economic models are based on scarcity. By removing that from the equation, it would be that much more difficult for human beings to hoard resources for themselves while denying their neighbor.
Faced with all of this, the question no is longer one of “why should we”, but rather “why shouldn’t we?” Why shouldn’t we establish a human presence elsewhere in the Solar System, knowing that it could not only help us to save Earth, but ensure our survival as a species for the indefinite future? This of course does not address all the challenges that remain in doing so, but it does tackle one of the biggest arguments there is against space exploration and colonization.
As for the rest? Well, I’m sure we’ll tackle those questions, and then some, when the time comes. In the meantime, I encourage everyone to keep looking up at the stars and saying the question, “why not?”
Hey again, all. I find myself with some spare time for the first time in awhile. So I thought I might take a moment to share an idea I’ve been working with, in a bit more detail. Last post I made, I talked about the bare bones of a story I am working on known as Reciprocity, the successor to the story known as Apocrypha. But as it turns out, there are a lot of details to that story idea that I still want to share and get people’s opinion on.
You might say this is a story that I am particularly serious about. Should it work out, it would be my break from both space-opera sci-fi and zombie fiction. A foray into the world of hard-hitting social commentary and speculative science fiction.
The Story: So the year is 2030. The world is reeling from the effects of widespread drought, wildfires, coastal storms, flooding, and population displacement. At the same time, a revolution is taking place in terms of computing, robotics, biomachinery, and artificial intelligence. As a result, the world’s population finds itself being pulled in two different directions – between a future of scarcity and the promise of plenty.
Space exploration continues as private aerospace and space agencies all race to put boots on Mars, a settlement on the Moon, and lay claim to the resources of the Solar System. India, China, the US, the EU, Russia, Argentina, Brazil, and Iran are all taking part now – using robotic probes and rovers to telexplore the System and prospect asteroids. Humanity’s future as an interplanetary species seems all but guaranteed at this point.
Meanwhile, a new global balance of power is shaping up. While the US and the EU struggle with food and fuel shortages, Russia remains firmly in the grips of quasi-fascist interests, having spurned the idea of globalization and amicable relations with NATO and the EU in favor of its Collective Security Treaty, which in recent years has expanded to include Iran, Afghanistan and Pakistan.
Meanwhile, China is going through a period of transition. After the fall of Communism in 2023, the Chinese state is lurching between the forces of reform and ultra-nationalism, and no one is sure which side it will fall on. The economy has largely recovered, but the divide between rich and poor is all too apparent. And given the sense of listless frustration and angst, there is fear that a skilled politician could exploit it all too well.
It’s an era of uncertainty, high hopes and renewed Cold War.
The MacGuffin: The central item of the story is a cybervirus known as Baoying, a quantum-decryption algorithm that was designed by Unit 61398 in the early 2020’s to take down America’s quantum networks in the event of open war. When the Party fell from power, the Unit was dissolved and the virus itself was destroyed. However, rumors persisted that one or more copies still exist…
Notable Characters: For this ensemble to work, it had to represent a good cross-section of the world that will be, with all its national, social and economic boundaries represented. And so I came up with the following people, individuals who find themselves on different sides of what’s right, and are all their own mix of good, bad, and ambiguous.
William Harding: A privileged high school senior with an big of a drug problem who lives in Port Coquitlam, just outside of the Pacific Northwest megalopolis of Cascadia. Like many people his age, he carries all his personal computing in the form of implants. However, a kidnapping and a close brush with death suddenly expand his worldview. Being at the mercy of others and deprived of his hardware, he realizes that his lifestyle have shielded him from the real world.
Amy Dixon: A young refugee who has moved to Cascadia from the American South. Her socioeconomic status places her and her family at the fringes of society, and she is determined to change their fortunes by plying her talents and being the first in her family to get a comprehensive education.
Fernie Dixon: Amy’s brother, a twenty-something year-old man who lives away from her and claims to be a software developer. In reality, he is a member of the local Aryan Brotherhood, one of many gangs that run rampant in the outlying districts of the city. Not a true believer like his “brothers”, he seeks money and power so he can give his sister the opportunities he knows she deserves.
Shen Zhou: A former Lieutenant in the People’s Liberation Army and member of Unit 61398 during the Cyberwars of the late teens. After the fall of Communism, he did not ingratiate himself to the new government and was accused of spying for foreign interests. As result, he left the country to pursue his own agenda, which places him in the cross hairs of both the new regime and western governments.
Arthur Banks: A major industrialist and part-owner of Harding Enterprises, a high-tech multinational that specializes in quantum computing and the development of artificial intelligence. For years, Banks and his associates have been working on a project known as QuaSI – a Quantum-based Sentient Intelligence that would revolutionize the world and usher in the Technological Singularity.
Rhianna Sanchez:Commander of Joint Task Force 2, an elite unit attached to National Security Agency’s Cyberwarfare Division. For years, she and her task force have been charged with locating terror cells that are engaged in private cyberwarfare with the US and its allies. And Shen Zhou, a suspected terrorist with many troubling connections, gets on their radar after a mysterious kidnapping and high-profile cyberintrusion coincide.
And that about covers the particulars. Naturally, there are a lot of other details, but I haven’t got all day and neither do you fine folks 😉 In any case, the idea is in the queue and its getting updated regularly. But I don’t plan to have it finished until I’ve polished off Oscar Mike, Arrivals, and a bunch of other projects first!
NASA’s return to manned spaceflight took a few steps forward this month with the completion of the Orion crew capsule. As the module that will hopefully bring astronauts back to the Moon and to Mars, the capsule rolled out of its assembly facility at the Kennedy Space Center (KSC) on Thursday, Sept. 11. This was the first step on its nearly two month journey to the launch pad and planned blastoff this coming December.
Orion’s assembly was just completed this past weekend by technicians and engineers from prime contractor Lockheed Martin inside the agency’s Neil Armstrong Operations and Checkout (O & C) Facility. And with the installation of the world’s largest heat shield and the inert service module, all that remains is fueling and the attachment of its launch abort system before it will installed atop a Delta IV Heavy rocket.
The unmanned test flight – Exploration Flight Test-1 (EFT-1) – is slated to blast off on December 2014, and will send the capsule into space for the first time. This will be NASA’s first chance to observe how well the Orion capsule works in space before it’s sent on its first mission on the Space Launch System (SLS), which is currently under development by NASA and is scheduled to fly no later than 2018.
The Orion is NASA’s first manned spacecraft project to reach test-flight status since the Space Shuttle first flew in the 1980s. It is designed to carry up to six astronauts on deep space missions to Mars and asteroids, either on its own or using a habitat module for missions longer than 21 days. The development process has been a long time in the making, and had more than its share of bumps along the way.
As Mark Geyer, Orion Program manager, explained:
Nothing about building the first of a brand new space transportation system is easy. But the crew module is undoubtedly the most complex component that will fly in December. The pressure vessel, the heat shield, parachute system, avionics — piecing all of that together into a working spacecraft is an accomplishment. Seeing it fly in three months is going to be amazing.
In addition to going to the Moon and Mars, the Orion spacecraft will carry astronauts on voyages venturing father into deep space than ever before. This will include going to the Asteroid Belt, to Europa (to see if there’s any signs of life there), and even beyond – most likely to Enceladus, Titan, the larger moons of Uranus, and all the other wondrous places in the Solar System.
The two-orbit, four and a half hour EFT-1 flight will lift the Orion spacecraft and its attached second stage to an orbital altitude of 5,800 km (3,600 miles), about 15 times higher than the International Space Station (ISS) – and farther than any human spacecraft has journeyed in 40 years. It will be an historic occasion, and constitute an important step in what is sure to be known as the Second Space Age.
And be sure to watch this time-lapse video of the Orion Capsule as it is released from the Kennedy Space Center to the Payload Hazardous Servicing Facility in preparation for its first flight:
NASA’s Space Launch System, the US’s first exploration-class spacecraft since the Space Shuttle, is a central component in the agency’s plan to restore its ability to independently launch missions into space. An after a thorough review of cost and engineering issues, NASA managers formally approved the mammoth rocket past the whiteboard formulation stage and moved it into full-scale development.
As the world’s most powerful rocket ever built and is intended to take astronauts farther beyond Earth into deep space than ever before possible. This includes the first-ever manned mission to Mars, the Asteroid Belt, and perhaps other planets and moons throughout the Solar System as well. The first SLS mission should lift off no later than 2018, sending the Orion capsule around the Moon, with asteroid and Mars-bound missions following after 2030 or 2032.
NASA began the SLS’s design process back in 2011. Back then, the stated goal was to try and re-use as many Space Shuttle components and get back into deep space as quickly and as cost effectively as possible. But now that the formulation stage has been completed, and focus has shifted to actually developing and fabricating the launch system’s millions of constituent components, what kind of missions the SLS will be capable of has become much clearer.
At a press briefing that took place at their Operations Mission Directorate in Washington, Aug. 27th, NASA officials shared details about the maiden test launch. Known as EM-1, the launch is targeted for November 2018 and will involve the SLS carrying an uncrewed Orion spacecraft on a journey lasting roughly three weeks that will take it beyond the Moon to a distant retrograde orbit.
Previously NASA had been targeting Dec. 2017 for the inaugural launch from the Kennedy Space Center in Florida. But the new Nov. 2018 target date has resulted from the rigorous assessment of the technical, cost and scheduling issues. The decision to move forward with the SLS comes after a wide ranging review of the technical risks, costs, schedules and timing known as Key Decision Point C (KDP-C).
As Associate Administrator Robert Lightfoot, who oversaw the review process, said at the briefing:
After rigorous review, we’re committing today to a funding level and readiness date that will keep us on track to sending humans to Mars in the 2030s – and we’re going to stand behind that commitment. Our nation is embarked on an ambitious space exploration program. We are making excellent progress on SLS designed for missions beyond low Earth orbit. We owe it to the American taxpayers to get it right.
The SLS involved in the test flight will be configured to its 70-metric-ton (77-ton) version. By comparison, the Saturn V — which took NASA astronauts to the Moon — had a max Low-Earth Orbit (LEO) payload capacity of 118 metric tons, but it has long since been retired. SpaceX’s Falcon Heavy, which is a much smaller and cheaper rocket than the SLS, will be able to put 55 metric tons into LEO.
With the retirement of the Space Shuttle, there aren’t really any heavy lift launchers in operation. Ariane 5, produced by commercial spacecraft manufacturer Arianespace, can only do 21 metric tons to LEO, while the Delta IV (United Launch Alliance) can do 29 metric tons to LEO. In short, NASA’s Space Launch System should be by far the most powerful operational rocket when it arrives in 2017-2018.
SpaceX could decide to scale-up the Falcon Heavy, but the rocket’s main purpose is to compete with United Launch Alliance and Arianespace, which currently own the incredibly lucrative heavy lift market. A payload capacity of 55 tons is more than enough for that purpose. A capacity of 150 tons is only for rockets that are intended to aim at targets that are much farther than geostationary orbit — such as the Moon, Mars or Europa.
The SLS’s primary payload will be the Orion Multi-Purpose Crew Vehicle (MPCV), though it will undoubtedly be used to send other large spacecraft into deep space. The Orion capsule is what NASA will use to land astronauts on the Moon, captured asteroids, Mars, and any other manned missions throughout the Solar System. The first manned Orion launch, to a captured asteroid in lunar orbit, is scheduled to occur in 2021.
Combined with SpaceX’s crewed Dragon spacecraft, Boeing’s CST-100, and a slew of crowd-funded projects to place boots on Mars and Europa in the next few decades, things are looking up for human space exploration!
Deep Space Industries, a private aerospace company, has been making a big splash in the news lately. Alongside SpaceX, they have been pioneering a new age in space exploration, where costs are reduced and private companies are picking up the slack. And in their latest bid to claim a share of space, the company announced plans late in January to begin asteroid prospecting operations by 2015.
For some time, the concept of sending spaceships to mine asteroids and haul ore has been explored as a serious option. Within the asteroid belt that lies between Mars and Jupiter, countless tons of precious metals, carbon, silicates, and basaltic minerals. If humanity could tap a fraction of a fraction of that mineral wealth, it would be able to supply Earth’s manufacturing needs indefinitely, without all the harmful pollutants or run off caused by mining.
So to tap this potential goldmine (literally!) known as the Asteroid Belt, DSI plans to launch a fleet of mini spacecraft into solar orbit to identify potential targets near to Earth that would be suitable to mine. Lacking the resources of some of the bigger players in the space rush, DSI’s probes will ride-share on the launch of larger communications satellites and get a discounted delivery to space.
Initially, a group of 25kg (55 pounds) cubesats with the awesome designation “Firefly” will be launched on a journey lasting from two to six months in 2015. Then, in 2016, the 32 kilograms (70 pound) DragonFly spacecraft will begin their two-to-four-year expeditions and return with up to 68 kilograms (150 pounds) of bounty each. Beyond this, DSI has some truly ambitious plans to establish a foundry amongst the asteroids.
That’s another thing about the Belt. Not only is it an incredibly rich source of minerals, its asteroids would make an ideal place for relocating much of Earth’s heavy industry. Automated facilities, anchored to the surface and processing metals and other materials on site would also reduce the burden on Earth’s environment. Not only would there be no air to befoul with emissions, but the processes used would generate no harmful pollutants.
In DSI’s plan, the foundry would use a patent-pending nickel gas process developed by one of DSI’s co-founders, Stephen Covey, known as “sintering”. This is the same process that is being considered by NASA to build a Moon Base in the Shackleton Crater near the Moon’s south pole. Relying on this same technology, automated foundries could turn ore into finished products with little more than microwave radiation and a 3D printer, which could then be shipped back to Earth.
Naturally, DSI will have plenty of competition down the road. The biggest comes from Google-backed Planetary Resources which staked it claim to an asteroid last April. Much like DSI, they hope to be able to mine everything from water to fuel as well as minerals and rare earths. And of course, SpaceX, which has the most impressive track record thus far, is likely to be looking to the Asteroid Belt before long.
And Golden Spike, the company that is promising commercial flight to the Moon by 2020 is sure to not be left behind. And as for Virgin Galactic, well… Richard Branson didn’t get crazy, stinking rich by letting opportunities pass him by. And given the size and scope of the Belt itself, there’s likely to be no shortage of companies trying to stake a claim, and more than enough for everyone.
So get on board ye capitalist prospectors! A new frontier awaits beyond the rim of Mars…
Well, it seems Star Trek might have gotten another one right. In addition to warp travel, computer pads, and the possibility of a real-life star ship Enterprise being built by 2030, it seems that ion engines that can propel ships on interplanetary missions are also possible. As a staple of many science fiction franchises, many have wondered whether or not the technology would ever be truly feasible.
For years, NASA has been experimenting with various ionic propulsion drives. But with this latest announcement, they’ve not only indicated success, but broke a world record. On Dec 28th, in one of the last news stories of the year, NASA announced that their Evolutionary Xenon Thruster (NEXT) has operated continually for over 43,000 hours (just shy of five years). Since ion thrusters are believed to be one of the best ways to power long-term deep-space missions, this is a big step towards powering NASA’s next-gen spacecraft.
As the name suggests, ion thrusters work by firing ions (charged atoms or molecules) out of a nozzle at high speed. In the case of NEXT, Xenon (a noble gas) is squirted into a chamber where its molecules are charged via an electron gun, creating a plasma of negative and positive ions. The positive ions diffuse to the back of the chamber, where high-charged accelerator grids grabs them and propel them out of the engine, creating thrust.
The upside of such a thruster lies in its fuel efficiency, in that it uses 10-12 times less fuel than a regular chemical thruster. Unfortunately, the downside lies in the thrust, again relative to its chemical counterparts. Due to this, NASA scientists calculated that an ion engine needs to operate continuously for a minimum of 10,000 hours (roughly a year) to slowly accelerate a spacecraft to speeds necessary to reach the asteroid belt or beyond.
With this test, NASA proved that their new ion thruster would not only be able to propel a spaceship to the asteroid belt, but to the outer planets and their moons as well. That’s good news for people looking forward to visiting Ganymede, Europa, Titan, and maybe even the Kuiper Belt. What’s more, the maximum speed of the spacecraft would be in the region of 321,000 km/h (200,000 mph).
Back in 2011, NASA put out a request-for-proposals for a test mission that will likely use a NEXT engine. Presumably, following this successful engine test, we might be hearing more about this in the near future. And, now that the proof in the pudding, other space agencies are likely to unveil their own prototypes for ion engines, and even equipping the next generation of space craft with them.
Asteroid mining? Mars colonization? Off-world resource and manufacturing allocation? Looks like we got ourselves the means to get us there! Oh, and Star Trek nerds? Looks like you guys got your nacelles! Full impulse ahead!