News From Space: Space Planes and Space Colonies

skylon-orbit-reaction-enginesThe year of 2013 closed with many interesting stories about the coming age of space exploration. And they came from many fronts, including the frontiers of exploration (Mars and the outer Solar System) as well as right here at home, on the conceptual front. In the case of the latter, it seems that strides made in the field are leading to big plans for sending humans into orbit, and into deep space.

The first bit of news comes from Reaction Engines Limited, where it seems that the Skylon space plane is beginning to move from the conceptual stage to a reality. For some time now, the British company has been talked about, thanks to their plans to create a reusable aerospace jet that would be powered by a series of hypersonic engines.

Skylon_diagramAnd after years of research and development, the hypersonic Sabre Engine passed a critical heat tolerance and cooling test. Because of this, Reaction Engines Limited won an important endorsement from the European Space Agency. Far from being a simple milestone, this test may prove to be historic. Or as Skymania‘s Paul Sutherland noted, it’s “the biggest breakthrough in flight technology since the invention of the jet engine.”

Now that Reaction Engines has proven that they can do this, the company will be looking for £250 million (approx $410 million) of investment for the next step in development. This will include the development of the LapCat, a hypersonic jet that will carry 300 passengers around the world in less than four hours; and the Skylon, which will carry astronauts, tourists, satellites and space station components into orbit.

sabre-engine-17Speaking at the press conference after the test in late November, ESA’s Mark Ford had this to say:

ESA are satisfied that the tests demonstrate the technology required for the Sabre engine development. One of the major obstacles to a reusable vehicle has been removed. The gateway is now open to move beyond the jet age.

The Sabre engine is the crucial piece in the reusable space plane puzzle, hence why this test was so crucial. Once built and operational, Skylon will take off and land like a conventional plane, but still achieve orbit by mixing air-breathing jets for takeoff, and landing with rockets fueled by onboard oxygen once it gets past a certain speed.

Skylon-space-plane-obtains-breakthrough-new-engines-2The recent breakthrough had to do to the development of a heat exchanger that’s able to cool air sucked into the engine at high speed from 1,000 degrees Celsius to minus 150 degrees in one hundredth of a second. It’s this critical technology that will allow the Sabre engine to surpass the bounds of a traditional jet engine, by as much as twofold.

Alan Bond, the engineering genius behind the invention, had this to say about his brainchild:

These successful tests represent a fundamental breakthrough in propulsion technology. The Sabre engine has the potential to revolutionise our lives in the 21st century in the way the jet engine did in the 20th Century. This is the proudest moment of my life.

And of course, there’s a video of the engine in action. Check it out:


Second, and perhaps in response to these and other developments, the British Interplanetary Society is resurrecting a forty year old idea. This society, which came up with the idea to send a multi-stage rocket and a manned lander to the moon in the 1930’s (eerily reminiscent of the Apollo 11 mission some 30 years later) is now reconsidering plans for giant habitats in space.

o'neil_cylinderTo make the plan affordable and feasible, they are turning to a plan devised by Gerard O’Neill back in the 1970s. Commonly known as the O’Neill Cylinder, the plan calls for space-based human habitats consisting of giant rotating spaceships containing landscaped biospheres that can house up to 10 million people. The cylinder would rotate to provide gravity and – combined with the interior ecology – would simulate a real-world environment.

Jerry Stone of BIS’s SPACE (Study Project Advancing Colony Engineering) is trying to show that building a very large space colony is technically feasible. Part of what makes the plan work is the fact that O’Neill deliberately designed the structure using existing 1970s technology, materials and construction techniques, rather than adopting futuristic inventions.

Rama16wikiStone is bringing these plans up to date using today’s technologies. Rather than building the shell from aluminium, for example, Stone argues tougher and lighter carbon composites could be used instead. Advances in solar cell and climate control technologies could also be used to make life easier and more comfortable in human space colonies.

One of the biggest theoretical challenges O’Neill faced in his own time was the effort and cost of construction. That, says Stone, will be solved when a new generation of much cheaper rocket launchers and spaceplanes has been developed (such as the UK-built Skylon). Using robot builders could also help, and other futuristic construction techniques like 3-D printing robots and even nanomachines and bacteria could be used.

RAMAAnd as Stone said, much of the materials could be outsourced, taking advantage of the fact that this would be a truly space-aged construction project:

Ninety per cent of the material to build the colonies would come from the Moon. We know from Apollo there’s silicon for the windows, and aluminium, iron and magnesium for the main structure. There’s even oxygen in the lunar soil.

Fans of Arthur C. Clarke’s Rendezvous with Rama, the series Babylon 5 or the movie Elysium out to instantly recognize this concept. In addition to being a very real scientific concept, it has also informed a great deal of science fiction and speculation. For some time, writers and futurists have been dreaming of a day when humanity might live in space habitats that can simulate terrestrial life.

Elysium_conceptWell, that day might be coming sooner than expected. And, as O’Neill and his contemporaries theorized at the time, it may be a viable solution to the possibility of humanity’s extinction. Granted, we aren’t exactly living in fear of nuclear holocaust anymore, but ecological collapse is still a threat! And with the Earth’s population set to reach 12 billion by the 22nd century, it might be an elegant solution to getting some of those people offworld.

It’s always an exciting thing when hopes and aspirations begin to become feasible. And though aerospace transit is likely to be coming a lot sooner than O’Neill habitats in orbit, the two are likely to compliment each other. After all, jet planes that can reach orbit, affordably and efficiently, is the first step in making offworld living a reality!

Until next time, keep your eyes to the skies. Chances are, people will be looking back someday soon…

Sources: IO9, skymania, (2)bbc.com

New Trailer: Elysium!

ElysiumHey folks. Here we have the third trailer for the upcoming movie Elysium, which is set to be released on August 9th. I’m sure everyone’s familiar with the plot already. And if not, this trailer does a pretty good job of getting you up to speed. So enjoy it, because after the disappointing Man of Steel and an adaptation of Ender’s Game which I don’t plan on seeing, this movie may be all that’s left to fill my quota of summer sci-fi blockbusters!

New Trailer: Elysium!

elysium_posterLast weekend, while the wife, our friend and I were all watching the new Star Trek movie, a number of trailers came on that made us antsy for other “coming attractions”! One of them was one I instantly recognized and began saying the title of long before they flashed it across the screen. Months back, when this movie was first announced, I posted the trailer here because it looked to have all the things I love in sci-fi story. And they have since come out with a longer, more detailed trailer which I share now…

Elysium tells the story of a dystopian future, set in 2154, where the wealthy and privileged live in an orbital colony that is peaceful, serene, idyllic, and sees to all their needs (and looks a lot like the station from Space Odyssey). Meanwhile, the remaining 99% of humanity live planetside, where pollution, environmental collapse and economic ruin have made Earth into a veritable hellhole.

elysium_stationEnter into this Max De Costa (played by a cueballed Matt Damon), a man who is near death who comes to learn of a secret that could topple the whole system and achieve a degree of social justice. In order to do this, he has to break into Elysium, a facility that is heavily guarded and run by Secretary Rhodes (Jodie Foster), and undergoes a radical surgery to get an exoskeleton and some powerful weaponry permanently attached.

Directed by Neil Blomkamp – the South-African director who brought us District 9 and provided visual effects for such shows as Star Gate: SG-1, Smallville and Dark Angel – this movie clearly boasts the same kind of gritty, realistic texture he has come to be known for. And after the 2008 Financial Crisis and the subsequent Occupy Movement, it’s message is pretty timely and likely to be well-received.

elysium-1As for me? You can keep your social commentary and comparisons to other movie franchises, I wanna see me some exoskeleton battles! Enjoy the trailer:

Movie Trailer Monday: Elysium

ElysiumHello people and welcome back to another installment of MTM! Today, its a full-length trailer for the upcoming movie Elysium, a dystopian tale that takes place in the year 2159, where the class divide between rich and poor extends into orbit. The very wealthy live on a man-made space station (named Elysium) while the rest of the population resides on a ruined Earth.

Into this, a cybernetically-enhanced man from Earth takes on a mission that could bring equality to the polarized worlds. Written and directed by Neil Blomkamp, who wrote District 9, and starring Matt Damon, Jodie Foster and Sharlto Copley (who played the protagonist of District 9), the sci-fi makes use of a lot of classic dystopian themes and showcases some very impressive looking sets.

I for one shall bookmark this movie as a must-see/must rent/catch on Netflix/worst-case-scenario must download. Stuff happens, what can I say?

Star Wars News!

Big news from a Galaxy far, far away… Sorry, couldn’t resist! There has been some new industry buzz regarding the upcoming relaunch of the Star Wars franchise of late. Ever since the media giant bought out Lucasfilm from Mr. Lucas himself, there has been plenty of speculation about what the focus of the new trilogy will be. According to Marketsaw, an entertainment and movie blog, the primary focus will be none other than Luke Skywalker himself.

Apparently, the source of this news is an industry insider who reported earlier this year that there would be an episode 7, 8, and 9, so fandom is treating this rumor as canon! Though Luke would be the main focus, they claim the rest of the original cast will also play a prominent role. As such, we can expect that Disney will be veering away from prequels and will be either taking the Thrawn Trilogy approach, or just picking up the story where it left off after Return of the Jedi.

What’s more, the age of the original actors was acknowledged as a bit of a hurdle, but the studio still seems committed to working with them. So perhaps a sequel that takes place many years later would be more the goal here. Or, as the source put it: “The main problem was the age of the cast, and the tone of the story. Now I do believe that Walt Disney intend on playing to the cultural significance of that original trilogy. You will see a tone more in line with the original trilogy, and specifically featuring that cast, if everything shakes out as intended. Which it will, I promise you.”

Promise, eh? Wow, that’s a bold statement!

Also of interest was the role that Lucas himself would be taking in the new trilogy. According to the source, the Disney made this decision after they “realized that George Lucas and STAR WARS are one and the same, so George will certainly have a voice on any angle taken, in fact I believe it’s one of many stipulations. However he will no longer have creative control, and as I said before George was already looking at other creative talents to bring his canon to life…”

Interesting. The source went on to say that the new movies were being “rewritten from previously secret drafts from way back during the making of the original trilogy.”

Well… this sounds like good news! In short, the new movies will feature the original cast and will be trying to strike a tone similar to the original trilogy. What’s more, while Lucas would have input and they would be working from his original notes, he would be relying on others to help bring his vision to life. If I recall correctly, it was this combination which made the original trilogy so enduringly awesome, and Lucas’ straying from it which made the prequels suck!

So really… score!

And that’s not all. The source also gave some information as to who would be starring in the new movie and who would be attached to direct. Apparently, many of the original actors have already been approached, and Mark Hamil is said to be “a certainty”. In terms of directors, the studio is apparently considering Steven Speilberg, Neil Blomkamp (District 9, Elysium), Alfonso Cuarón (Children of Men, Gravity), Matthew Vaughn (Kick Ass, First Class), Darren Arnofsky (The Fountain, Noah) and Joss Whedon (Buffy, Firefly, Serenity, Avengers). Personally, I don’t know who would be best suited, as every name in this dossier seems like a winner!

All I can say is, this is exciting news indeed. A new dawning for the Star Wars franchise, with plans to make not just one, but a series of trilogies that turn the story into a multi-generational saga – which is apparently what Lucas originally hoped for. And since the studio is planning on mounting a very aggressive marketing strategy – a la Harry Potter- we can expect to be hearing plenty more before the first movie is set to air in 2015.

And may the Force be with us! Again, sorry!

New Movie: Elysium!

Yet another cool aspect of the recent Comic Con was the trailers for new movies previews that fans were treated to. One such movie was Neil Blomkamp’s (director of District 9) new film, entitled Elysium. According to IO9 magazine, the movie stars Matt Damon in the lead role and is scheduled for release in 2013.

Based on the video reel Blomkamp offered, the movie is still very much in development. Rough place holders had to stand in for many of the visual effects, which are as of yet incomplete. However, the fans were given a precis of the storyline, which is decidedly dystopian and cyberpunk in nature.

Set in 2159, the plot revolves around the eponymously named space station of Elysium, an apparently utopian retreat where the ultra-rich and beautiful live and have access to the most advanced medical technology. The rest of humanity lives planet-side, where overcrowding, disease and radiation have resulted from overpopulation and pollution. Enter into this Max (Matt Damon), a criminal who’s suffering from radiation sickness and must make it to Elysium’s medical facilities at all costs.

In time, Max’s mission becomes complicated as he comes into information which could shut down Elysium and usher in an age of equality for the human race, or at least a less polarized division of wealth. Additional concept art was also released, like an interior shot of the station featured below. Given the layout, Elysium appears to be based on an Island Three design, a circular space station and rotates to provide gravity. Echoes of 2001: A Space Odyssey there. Good for Blomkamp, referencing a classic!

Additional cast members will include Jodie Foster, District 9‘s Sharlto Copley, and Alice Braga (of City of God, Predators, Repo Men and I Am Legend fame). Think I might catch this one!