The Cronian Incident – Halfway Done!

According to the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America, a work needs to be over 40,000 words long to be classified as a “novel”. This is just one standard, but right now, it’s an important one as far as I am concerned. Why? Two reasons: one, its what the SFSWA uses to classify books when considering them for a Nebula Award. Since science fiction is my chosen genre, I got to think these people know what they are talking about.

Second, and perhaps more importantly, it is because my WIP, The Cronian Incident, just passed this milestone. At present, the novel is 22 chapters and just over 43,000 words in length. And I’m only about halfway done! Problem is, this is where I begin to feel the crunch with most novels. Halfway is a bad point to be in when you’re me, because you’re feeling the weight of all that you’ve created so far, and are really aching to get to the finish line!


In the meantime, I am busy exploring the various aspects of Part III of the book, otherwise known as “Jovians”. In this part, the story’s MC, Jeremiah Ward, has traveled to the Jovian moon of Callisto (the fourth large moon of Jupiter) to meet his associate in the investigation. It is also here that he meets an old contact of his from his police-work days, and tries to learn more about the people he is working for.

One of the things that makes this challenging is that I spent the past few months developing characters and the settings of two different worlds. The story began on Mercury, moved to Mars, and now, its in orbit around Jupiter. From the surface of a cratered, hostile world, to a space elevator in orbit of Mars, and now to a frozen moon around a gas giant. Gah! I think I’ve officially OD’d on setting!

A possible base on the surface of Callisto. Credit: NASA
Artist’s impression of a possible base on the surface of Callisto. Credit: NASA

But I shall persevere. I’ve put too much into this idea to abandon it halfway, and this is one novel that I am determined to see through to completion! So – and I apologize in advance for this – expect to hear me blab a lot about it in the weeks and months to come. And you can bet I will be blabbing non-stop about it once its finished. Thanks to all those who are still paying attention 🙂


News from Space: NASA taking Suggestions on Europa

europa_image_0The Jovian moon of Europa remains a mystery that is just dying to be cracked. Although covered in ice, scientists have long understood that tidal forces caused by its proximity to Jupiter have created a warm interior, one which can sustain warm oceans beneath the surface. In the coming years, NASA wants to fly a mission to this planet so we can finally get a look at what, if anything, is lurking beneath that icy crust.

Perhaps emboldened by the success of the Curiosity Rover and the plans for a manned mission to Mars in 2030, NASA has several possible plans for what a Europa mission might look like. If the budget environment proves hospital, then NASA will likely send a satellite that will perform several orbits of the moon, a series of flybys on it, and scout the surface for science and potential landing sites.

europa_reportTowards this end, they are looking for proposals for science instruments specifically tailored to the task. And within a year’s time, they plan to select 20 from a list of those proposed for the mission. At which point, the selectees will have $25 million to do a more advanced concept study. As John Grunsfeld, associate administrator for NASA’s science mission directorate, stated:

The possibility of life on Europa is a motivating force for scientists and engineers around the world. This solicitation will select instruments which may provide a big leap in our search to answer the question: are we alone in the universe?

The Europa mission is not a guarantee, and it’s unclear just how much money will be allocated to it in the long run. NASA has requested $15 million in fiscal 2015 for the mission, but the mission will naturally be subject to budgetary approvals by Congress. If it passes all obstacles, it would fly sometime in the 2020s, according to information released with the budget earlier this year.

europa-lander-2In April, NASA sent out a request for information to interested potential participants on the mission itself, which it plans to cost less than $1 billion (excluding launch costs). Besides its desire to look for landing sites, NASA said the instruments should also be targeted to meet the National Resource Council’s (NRC) Planetary Decadal Survey’s desires for science on Europa.

In NASA’s words, these are what those objectives are:

  • Characterize the extent of the ocean and its relation to the deeper interior;
  • Characterize the ice shell and any subsurface water, including their heterogeneity, and the nature of surface-ice-ocean exchange;
  • Determine global surface, compositions and chemistry, especially as related to habitability;
  • Understand the formation of surface features, including sites of recent or current activity, identify and characterize candidate sites for future detailed exploration;
  • Understand Europa’s space environment and interaction with the magnetosphere.

JIMO_Europa_Lander_MissionAccording to the agency, any instrument proposal must meet NASA’s landing scout goal or the NRC goals. The instruments must also be highly protected against the harsh radiation, and meet planetary protection requirements to ensure no extraterrestrial life is contaminated with our own. In essence, this means than any instruments must be safeguarded against carrying bacteria that could play havoc with Europan microbes or (do we dare to dream!) more complex organisms.

Solicitations are due by Oct. 17, so if you’ve got an idea and think it might make the cut, consult the following solicitation page and have a look at what NASA is looking for. Personally, I got nothing. But that’s why they don’t pay me the big bucks! No, like most of humanity, I will simply be sitting back and hoping that a mission to Europa happens within my lifetime, and that it uncovers – to quote Arthur C. Clarke’s 201o: Odyssey Two – “something wonderful”…


News from Space: Full Model of Exoplanet Created

gliese_581gEver since the Kepler space probe began finding hard evidence of the existence of exoplanets – i.e. planets orbiting suns outside of our Solar System – scientists have been working hard to determine what conditions on these worlds must be like. For instance, it is known that planets that orbit closely to their red dwarf parent suns are tidally locked – meaning they do not rotate on their axis.

This, in turn, has led to the proposal that any watery worlds in the vicinity could form what’s called an “Eyeball Earth.” Being directly under the local star, with one side perpetually facing towards it, the light would be intense enough to melt a circular patch of water, while the rest of the planet would remain locked in a deep freeze. In short, not an ideal situation for supporting life.

eyeball_earthHowever, a new three-dimensional model has been created, thanks to the efforts of two researchers at Peking University. In their research paper, they suggest that ice and oceans on these planets would be dynamic, which is both good and bad. Basically, it means an Eyeball Earth has a narrower habitable zone, but that more of the surface has the potential to support life. It also means that the “eyeball” looks more like a lobster!

This paper represents the next step in scientific analysis of exoplanets. Initially, estimates of habitability – i.e. temperatures that could allow liquid water on the planet surface – were based on a single analysis of the planet’s atmosphere to see how much light reaches the surface. But, in the real world, atmospheres form clouds, distribute heat through winds and convection, and exhibit other sorts of complex behavior.

eyeball_earthThese are the sorts of things that are handled in the full, three-dimensional climate models built to study the Earth. Hence, the Peking research team adapted these same models to handle exoplanets that differed significantly from Earth. But these models didn’t capture a critical part of the distribution of heat on the Earth: the ocean circulation. Instead, it treated the entire ocean as a two-dimensional slab.

The new study corrects for that by using a coupled ocean-atmosphere climate model, the Community Climate System Model version 3. For their study, they used Gliese 581 g, a potentially Earth-like planet orbiting in the habitable zone of an red dwarf star 20 light years away. This planet, coincidentally, is ranked by NASA as being the most Earth-like exoplanet yet seen in the known universe.

Gliese_581_-_2010Critically for the model, it’s close enough to its host star to receive 866 Watts/square meter at the top of its atmosphere (whereas the Earth receives 1,366). Since it is not yet known what Gliese 581 g’s atmosphere looks like, the authors assumed an Earth-like composition, but varied the amount of CO2 to change the intensity of the greenhouse effect. From all this, the planet was assumed to be covered in a deep ocean.

After giving the model 1,100 years to come to equilibrium, the authors sampled a century of its climate. With carbon dioxide concentrations similar to the Earth’s (330 parts per million in the model), the “eyeball” vanished. That’s because ocean currents formed along the equator and brought in ice from the west that split the eyeball into two lobes that flanked the equator – which resemble the claws of the lobster.

eyeball_earth1The currents then transferred heat to the eastern portion of the planet, which melted the ice to form the lobster’s tail. In addition to the ocean current that altered ice distribution, an underwater circulation (similar to the one on Earth) formed, which sent warmer water toward the poles. In the atmosphere, a jet stream also formed over the equator, which also distributed some heat to the unlit side of the planet.

Ultimately, the new model suggests the habitable zone of watery planets near red dwarfs is a bit more narrow than previous studies had suggested. The good news is that, in this model, the ice never got more than 3m thick on the dayside of the planet. That’s thin enough to allow light to reach the water underneath, meaning photosynthesis is a possibility over the entire dayside of the planet.

OceanPlanetAlthough this model is a major improvement, it still lacks a key feature that’s likely to exist on planets – namely continents, or at least features on the seafloor that differ greatly in height. These will radically alter the currents on the planet, and thus radically alter the distribution of heat within the ocean. Unfortunately, this information is even harder to come by at present than atmospheric conditions.

So for the time being, all we really know about Gliese 581 g and other similar exoplanets is that their surfaces are icy, but habitable – not unlike the Jovian moon Europa. However, that is not to say that we won’t have more information in the near future. With Kepler still in operation and the Gaia space observatory now in space, we might be able to construct more detailed models of nearby exoplanets in the near future.

Also a coincidence, Gliese 581 g just happens to be the setting of my writers group’s upcoming anthology, known as Yuva. And with this latest bit of info under our belts (basically, that the entire planet is a big, watery ball), I imagine we’ll have to adjust our stories somewhat!


News From Space: 200 km Water Jets on Europa

europa-landerAs the prime candidate for extra-terrestrial life, the Jovian moon of Europa has been the subject of much speculation and interest over years. And while our understanding of the surface has improved – thanks to observations made by several space probes and the Hubble space telescope – what lies beneath remains a mystery. Luckily, Europa may yet provide Earth scientists with a chance to look at its interior.

Earlier this month, data collected from the Hubble space telescope suggested that enormous jets of water more than 200 kilometers tall may be spurting intermittently from the moon’s surface. The findings, presented last week to the American Geophysical Union, await independent confirmation. But if the jets are real, the frozen world would join the tiny number of others known to have active jets, including Saturn’s moon Enceladus and Neptune’s moon Triton.

europa-lander-2What’s more, should these newly observed water plumes be tapping into some Europan sea, they could be bringing material to the surface that would otherwise stay hidden. Follow-up observations from Earth or with probes around Europa could sample the fountains, hunting for organic material and perhaps finding the evidence need to prove that living organisms exist beyond Earth.

Scientists spotted the plumes thanks to ultraviolet images taken by Hubble in December 2012. The research team, which hails from the Southwest Research Institute in Texas, then published their research in Science magazine. In the paper, astronomer and co-author Lorenz Roth explained their findings:

We found that there’s one blob of emission at Europa’s south pole. It was always there over the 7 hours we observed and always at the same location.

Previous observations from NASA’s Galileo mission, which visited the Jupiter system in the 1990s and early 2000s, suggest that Europa’s south pole is full of ridges and cracks quite similar to features called tiger stripes on Enceladus that spew water.

europa_chaosterrainLorenz and his team looked back through previous Hubble data to see if the plumes could have been spotted earlier but saw nothing, suggesting that they are likely transient. At the time, Europa was at its farthest from Jupiter, which could explain why the jets appeared only then. Researchers recently determined that Enceladus’ plumes are weakest when the moon is closest to Saturn, likely because the ringed planet’s gravity squeezes the tiger stripes shut.

Astronomer Kurt Retherford, also of SwRI and another co-author, claimed that the case of Enceladus helped them to make a connection with what they were observing:

We actually saw this press release on Enceladus. And we thought, ‘Oh my god! This is the explanation’” for why Europa’s plumes might only appear when it’s far from Jupiter.

In the past, scientists have looked for evidence of jets coming from Europa’s surface. When the Voyager probes flew by in the 70s, one image showed a fuzzy spot that some thought to be a plume, though most considered it an artifact of imaging. Galileo also saw a row of dark spots on a ridge of Europa which looked similar to spots seen on planet Earth before an eruption begins.

europaBecause of these previous false positives though, scientists are likely to be cautious when interpreting these newest results. But even with these reservations, Robert Pappalardo – who leads the planning team for the Europa Clipper Pre-Project (a proposed mission to Europa) – said that he’s already discussing with other scientists how these new results should affect their study priorities.

For instance, some future orbiter headed to Europa could carry detectors specifically designed to search for heavy organic molecules that could be indicative of life in the subsurface. When it passed over the geyser’s spray, it would be bathed in material from the moon’s interior, giving scientists a window into Europa’s ocean. Pappalardo also hopes that the finding will help push Europa to a place of high priority in NASA’s exploration agenda.

Due to budget constraints, a manned mission is not yet feasible, but NASA has indicated that it would be willing to send a robot lander there in the near future. In addition, recent computer models provided from the University of Texas showed that the ice is likely to be thinnest at the equator. Between the possibility that the oceans might be most accessible in this region, and the likelihood that some of that water escapes into space, unlocking the mysteries of the Jovian satellite might be easier than previously thought.


News From Space: Manned Europa Mission!

europa-landerWith so much attention focused on Mars in recent years, the other planets of the Solar System have a hard time getting noticed. But lately, Europa has found itself the subject of some interest. In addition to NASA proposing to send a lander there in the near future, a private space organization is thinking of mounting a manned mission to the Jovian moon in search of knowledge and extra-terrestrial life.

This organization is known as Objective Europa, a group made up of  volunteer scientists, conceptual artists, and social-media experts. At the moment, they exist only on the internet. But with time and financial backing, they hope to form a volunteer corps of settlers that would make a one-way trip to Europa and settle the planet while they researched it.

europa-lander-2Inspired by the recent missions to Mars, Objective Europa also believes a mission to this moon would be worthwhile since it is a far better candidate for extra-terrestrial life. Mars, though it is thought to have once hosted life, is a barren and dry world in its present state. Though many are holding out for the discovery of organic particles in the near future, the likelihood of finding any complex organisms larger than a microbe remains extremely low.

Not surprisingly, their group has attracted some big-name celebrities. This includes Kristian von Bengtson, a Danish architect and co-founder of Copenhagen Suborbitals, a nonprofit focused on launching humans into space. Then there’s Michele Faragalli, a rover mobility specialist for a NASA private contractor. Scientist and diver Pierre-Yves Cousteau, son of legendary explorer Jacques Cousteau, is also on the team as an ambassador for the group.

europa_reportCurrently, the group is in Phase 1 of their plan, which is geared towards the gathering of ideas. Towards this end, they have opened up a variety of research topics for discussion on their website. These include investigating the feasibility of a manned mission versus a robotic mission, launch vehicle studies, and cost analysis.Future phases would involve raising funds, and prototyping and testing technology.

What’s more, while they have not yet stated outright how they plan to fund the mission, it seems likely at this point that crowdfunding and sponsorship will come into play. As the goal statement reads on their site:

“Our purpose is to establish the foundation for and carry out a crewed mission to Jovian ice moon Europa through international crowd-research and participation.”

mars-one-brian-versteegIf this is beginning to sound a little bit like Mars One – a similar space organization looking to send volunteers to Mars – then chances are you’ve been paying attention! In terms of their purpose, objectives, and the fact that the trips they are planning would be a one-way, the two organizations are very similar. But even more interesting is what these and other space organizations like them represent.

In an age when private space travel and exploration are beginning in earnest, crowdfunded, volunteer groups are emerging with the common goal of making things happen ahead of anyone else’s schedule. Whereas space was once the exclusive province of government-sanctioned and funded agencies, now the public is stepping in to assume a measure of control.

And thanks to new media and communications, the money, talent, and energy needed are all available. It’s just a matter of bringing them all together!


New Space: “Sail Rover” to Explore Mercury

zephyr-580x435In addition to their ongoing plans to explore Mars for signs of life, the Jovian moon of Europa, and tow an asteroid closer to Earth, NASA also has plans to explore the surface of Venus. For decades, scientists have been yearning to get a closer look at this world’s pockmarked surface, but the volcanic activity, clouds of sulfuric acid and extreme heat are not exactly favorable to robotic rovers.

But according to NASA’s Innovative Advanced Concepts program, a windsailing rover could be just the means through which the hellish surface environment could be surveyed. This rover, nicknamed Zephyr, would use the high speeds and hot temperatures of Venus to its advantage, deploying a sail after entering the atmosphere and sailing to the ground.

mercury_surfaceThe rover would not be able to move around the surface, but would have electronics inside that are able to withstand the temperatures of 450 degrees Celsius (840 degrees Fahrenheit). Whenever the science team wanted to move some distance, however, they would deploy another sail that could use the wind to transport it across the surface. But mainly, the rover would remain on the ground conducting surface analysis.

Geoffrey Landis, who is with NASA’s Glenn Research Center and a part of the project to develop Zephyr, has long been an advocate of exploring Venus. This has included using solar powered airplane to explore the atmosphere, and colonizing the planet with floating cities. On the subject of Zephyr, he stated that:

A sail rover would be extraordinary for Venus. The sail has only two moving parts-just to set the sail and set the steering position-and that doesn’t require a lot of power. There’s no power required to actually drive. The fundamental elements of a rover for Venus are not beyond the bounds of physics. We could survive the furnace of Venus if we can come up with an innovative concept for a rover that can move on extremely low power levels.

venus_terraformedIn addition to providing volumes of information on the planet’s, exploring the surface of Venus could yield some interesting clues as to how it came to look like something out of Dante’s Inferno. It has been suggested that at one time, Venus may have boasted an atmosphere and surface water similar to Earth’s, but was transformed into a toxic nightmare thanks to a runaway Greenhouse Effect.

Studying how this came to happen would go a long way to helping scientists understand Climate Change here on Earth, and as well as give them the chance to test out possible solutions. And of course, any working solutions might go a long way towards terraforming Venus itself, which is something many scientists are currently advocating since it might be cheaper and less time consuming than transforming Mars.

Then again, if the resources and budget are there, there’s no reason why we can’t try to retool both for human settlement. After all, we might not have much a choice in the coming centuries. Human beings aren’t exactly known for their slow population growth or conservation skills!


New Movie Trailer: Europa Report

europa_reportOrdinarily, I like to show movie previews before the movie has been released. This time around, I’m a little behind the curve. But my thanks to Rami for bringing this movie to my attention, since it seems like just the thing for us sci-fi geeks and buffs. It’s called the Europa Report, a near-future speculative science fiction film that follows in the vein of the 2001: A Space Odyssey and the Blair Witch Project.

Taking place in 2061, the story follows a group of astronauts who are sent on a private venture to Jupiter’s moon of Europa to investigate it for signs of life. Naturally, things go wrong, lives are lost, and the footage of their mission becomes the basis of a “report” that people back at Earth pour over, hoping to find some answers to the mystery of what happened.

The film was officially released just under two weeks ago, on August 2nd, and has received some pretty kick-ass reviews. Over at, they claimed the movie was “One of the most thrilling and realistic depictions of space exploration since Moon or 2001: A Space Odyssey”, while IO9’s Annalee Newitz wrote of the film:

The representations of Jupiter and Europa in this film come directly from real satellite imagery gathered by NASA, and the journey to Europa itself is both realistic and gorgeous. There’s a lesson here about how dramatic tension and brilliant concept design, even on an indie budget, can create a sense of wonder rivaling that of a VFX blockbuster. And the payoff at the end is electrifying.

Hot damn, that’s a good endorsement! As for me, and I imagine Rami, I plan to see it and offer a review of my own! A movie like this couldn’t be more timely. Already, long-term plans are being made to send a lander or a space penetrator to Europa to have a gander at what lies beneath its icy veil. And I look forward to the day when the reality of that planet and all the speculative fiction can get together and compare notes!