Wanderers by Erik Wernquist

Terrarium. Credit: Erik
Terrarium (unnamed asteroid, Main Asteroid Belt). Credit: Erik Wernquist

This has to be one of the most inspiring short films of the year. Erik Wernquist = a digital artist and animator from Stockholm, Sweden – released this movie this past fall, and its made quite the impact already! Addressing the idea of future space exploration, Wernquist uses stunning visuals to show how human beings may one day fly to Jupiter, float walk on the surface of Mars, skate on the frozen surfaces of Europa, and fly through the skies of Titan.

One thing I myself loved was the attention to detail and little accuracies. Within each impressive visual, there are hints that give away the locations. For example, the blue sunset is from Mars, as pictured by NASA’s many rover missions over the past few years. The frozen lake where people are skating on shows Jupiter looming in the sky, indicating that it is Europa. And an overhead shot of Titan shows the “Mini Nile River” observed there by the Cassini space probe. And while the asteroid is unnamed, I would bet dollars to donuts that Vesta!

Including in these visuals are a number of speculative science fiction ideas pioneered by writers like Arthur C. Clarke and Kim Stanley Robinson, not the least of which have to do with space elevators and habitats built into hollowed-out asteroids. But above all is the contribution of Carl Sagan, who’s narration from his own book “Pale Blue Dot: A Vision of the Human Future in Space” (1994) provides the voiceover for the film.

You can watch the short film below, and be sure to check out Wernquist’s website for more info and his stunning gallery of images:

News from Mars: Soil Good for Growing!

Mars_GreenhouseWith numerous plans for a manned mission to Mars, some of which are scheduled to one-way settlement projects, the question of how and what people on Mars will eat is an important one. What will the Martian diet look like? How will they grow their food? Will it people subsist on endless supplies of freeze-dried rations, or will they get all the veggies, fruits and protein they need from hydroponic produce?

Well, according to Dutch ecologist Wieger Wamelink, the Martian settlers might just be able to grow their food in the local soil. In a series of experiments using soil tailored to fit extra-terrestrial environments, Wamelink was able to make a mustard seed sprout. The soil was provided by NASA, a sample which they had collected from the desert, dried out, and cleansed of certain nutrients that’s meant to replicate what Martian and lunar soil would be like.

martian_plantWamelink had ordered more than 100 pounds of each type to his research greenhouse in the Netherlands to see what kinds of plant life might prosper in greenhouses on other planets. He and his team planted tomato seeds, stinging nettle, carrots, rye, and a host of other wild species in the soils in a series of 840 pots, then published their results in PLOS One late last month.

As Wamelink, who works for the Alterra Institute at the University of Wageningen, explained:

I think we’re really the first to do that. We have looked at how plants see what [nutrients are] available in these soils, and it was unknown to NASA. They were very happy when we sent our results.

MarsGreenhouse2What was perhaps most impressive about the results was how well some plants fared in the imitation Mars soil. Some seeds germinated after just 24 hours and flowered within 50 days, something Wamelink had never expected. He knew that nitrogen might not be available in alien soils, but when he analyzed the Martian soil compared to nutrient-poor sand from the banks of the Rhine, he found that Mars actually had much more going for it than he thought.

The Martian atmosphere contains nitrogen, and gusts of gases from the sun charge the nitrogen into a form that is digestible for plants. The planet also contains phosphorus, ammonium, and nitrates – all essential for plant growth. Field mustard and a tough, wild Dutch species called “reflexed stone crop” produced some of the best results. Lunar soil, by contrast, didn’t provide very friendly turf for earthling plant species.

apollo_11_bootprint-e1405838911229Soil on the moon is thin, dusty, and full of aluminum and other heavy metals. Martian soil also contains lots of heavy metals, but it is aluminum that most plants don’t do too well in the presence of. So for the time being (or rather, if and when we settle the Moon), Lunar greenhouses will have to look to imports of Earth soil while Martian settlers can simple scoop the soil they need from outside their airlocks.

However, there are a few snags. For starters, even though Wamelink’s study provided some of the first evidence that species of Earth plants can grow on planets other than Earth, it still doesn’t show how eating those plants might affect humans. The Martian surface experiences lots of radiation, and eating radioactive plants full of heavy metals might not be the best idea for the human digestive system.

mars_growopNevertheless, Wamelink believes that some aspects of the Martian climate might actually be beneficial for plant growth. On a planet with a third of the gravitational pull of Earth, he suspects that plants might be able to grow taller than they ever would on their home planet. In his mind’s eye, he pictures plants encased in skyscraper Martian greenhouses. Alas, not all scientists agree with him, and he admits its an unresolved issue.

Still, its an exciting one that is loaded with potential. And who’s to say that after a little processing and decontamination, Martian soil would have everything the settlers need to grow their own food? The very fact that it is being considered and examined so seriously shows our commitment to making an enduring human presence on Mars a reality someday. And as that day get’s closer, more and more questions are likely to be addressed.

terraformingAnd figuring out how to grow our own crops in Martian soil will provide inevitable feedback on how we could use Earth plants to one day convert the ecology of the Red Planet and make it into something a little more suited to full-scale habitation. Who knows? In a few centuries time, Red Mars may become Green Mars. And perhaps even Blue Mars. Oh, Kim Stanley Robinson, you daring dreamer, you!

Source: fastcoexist.com

Buzz Aldrin: Let’s Go to Mars!

Apollo11_Aldrin1This past weekend was the 45th anniversary of the Moon Landing. To mark that occasion, NASA mounted the @ReliveApollo11 twitter campaign, where it recreated every moment of the historic mission by broadcasting updates in “real-time”. In addition to commemorating the greatest moment in space exploration, and one of the greatest moments in history, it also served to draw attention to new efforts that are underway.

Perhaps the greatest of these is one being led by Buzz Aldrin, a living-legend and an ambassador for current and future space missions. For decades now, Aldrin has been acting as a sort of elder statesman lobbying for the exploration of the cosmos. And most recently, he has come out in favor of a mission that is even grander and bolder than the one that saw him set foot on the Moon: putting people on Mars.

mars_spaceXmissionIt’s no secret that NASA has a manned mission planned for 2030. But with space exploration once again garnering the spotlight – thanks in no small part to commercial space companies like SpaceX and Virgin Galactic – Aldrin is pushing for something even more ambitious. Echoing ideas like Mars One, his plan calls for the colonization of Mars by astronauts who would never return to Earth.

To be sure, the spry 84 year-old has been rather busy in the past few years. After going through a very public divorce with his wife 0f 23 years in January of last year, he spent the past few months conducting a publicity blitz on behalf of the 45th anniversary of Apollo 11. In between all that, he has also made several appearances and done interviews in which he stressed the importance of the Martian colonization project.

Mars_OneA few months ago, Aldrin wrote an op-ed piece for Fast Company about innovation and the need for cooperation to make a new generation of space exploration a reality. During a more recent interview, which took place amidst the ongoing crisis in the Ukraine, he once again stressed the importance of cooperation between the United States, Russia, China, and their respective space programs.

As he told Fast Company in the interview:

I think that any historical migration of human beings to establish a permanent presence on another planet requires cooperation from the world together. That can’t be done by America competing with China… Just getting our people back up there is really expensive! We don’t compete but we can do other things close by with robots, which have improved tremendously over the past 45 years (since Apollo 11). You and I haven’t improved all that much, but robots have. We can work together with other nations in design, construction, and making habitats on both the near side and far side of Mars. Then when we eventually have designs, we’ll have the capacity to actually build them.

SLS_launchSimilarly, Aldrin took part in live Google Hangout with Space.com’s managing editor Tariq Malik and executive producer Dave Brody. This took place just eight days before the 25th anniversary of the Landing. During the broadcast, he discussed his experiences as an astronaut, the future of lunar exploration, future missions to Mars and beyond, and even took questions via chatwindow on Google+’s webpage.

At this juncture, its not clear how a colonization mission to Mars would be mounted. While Mars One is certainly interested in the concept, they (much like Inspiration Mars) do not have the necessary funding or all the technical know-how to make things a reality just yet. A possible solution to this could be a partnership program between NASA, the ESA, China, Russia, and other space agencies.

terraformingSuch ideas did inform Kim Stanley Robinson’s seminal novel Red Mars, where an international crew flew to the Red Planet and established the first human settlement that begins the terraforming process. But if international cooperation proves too difficult, perhaps a collaboration between commercial space agencies and federal ones could work. I can see it now: the Elon Musk Martian Dome; the Richard Branson Habitat; or the Gates colony…

With that in mind, I think we should all issue a prayer for international peace and cooperation! And in the meantime, be sure to check out the video of the Google Hangout below. And if you’re interested in reading up on Aldrin’s ideas for a mission to Mars, check out his book, Mission to Mars: My Vision for Space Exploration, which is was published by National Geographic and is available at Amazon or through his website.

fastcompany.com, buzzaldrin.com, space.com

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…

space_elevator_conceptSources: en.wikepedia.org, gizmag.com, io9.com, forbes.com, universetoday.com, futuretimeline.com

What’s On…

If you’re like me, and suffer from what I assume is a form of literary ADD – where you can’t seem to commit to reading, or writing, one thing at a time – then it helps to take stock once in a while and make a list. At other times, its disconcerting, like whenever I check out my Goodreads account and see that a book I cracked over a year ago is still on my “Currently Reading” list.

But today I thought I’d combine that list with my list of upcoming reviews. As I’m sure I mentioned in a previous post or two, this vacay has been pretty good for scoring new books. I got some long 0verdue ones and managed to find at least one that has come highly recommended. To ensure that they don’t wind up in my pile, partially read and collecting dust, I thought I’d make a definitive list. That oughta help my ADD!

Editor’s Note: The author of this article is not a physician or psychiatrist and has no medical credentials whatsoever. He is thus in no position to diagnose, either in himself or others, any form of ADD or its hyperactive cousin, ADHD.

  1. Mona Lisa Overdrive – the final book in the Sprawl Trilogy by William Gibson. Due to diversions in reading The Hunger Games, Second Foundation and a slew of others, this book has remained opened far longer than it had to have been. I hope to finish it this or next week.
  2. Second Foundation – the third installment in the Foundation series, which I have been meaning to read for some time. As the (sort of) conclusion to the Foundation saga, and after reviewing the first two, it was only fitting that I find and tackle the third book. I say sort of because decades after finishing this third novel in the series, Asimov would finally cave to demands that he return to the series with three more books. Fans and publishers, what can you do?
  3. Martian Chronicles – this book I just picked up last week. After years of hearing great things and wanting to get into it, I finally procured a copy and began devouring it. I got half way through before the wife and I got back to civilization and it was forced to take its place in the queue. It’s a testament to Bradbury’s old school, accessible, yet still high-minded style that you can read through his works quickly and still feel like you’ve digested a lot. I look forward to finishing this one and borrowing freely from it 😉
  4. A Feast for Crows – my reading of this fourth installment in the Game of Thrones series has stalled for a few reasons. One, I got a little tired after the first three books, especially since all the main characters keep dying! Second, after three books of excitement and climactic battles, George RR Martin seemed to think that was needed was a book that contained all the scraps. Not a bad read by any measure, but it’s kind of like a serving of leftovers after three sumptuous banquets.
  5. We – the classic of classic by Yevgeny Zamyatin. Again, I cracked this book a long time ago and haven’t been able to get into it due to the myriad of books that have entered and left my reading pile in the interim.  I want nothing more than to finish it and give it its long overdue due! For crying out loud, this man practically invented the dystopian satire and inspired my heroes – Orwell and Huxley. If that doesn’t warrant a read, I don’t know what does!
  6. The Giver – here’s a book that my wife has been recommending for ages! Considered to be a classic of YA fiction, this novel is certainly a must-read for those looking to stay current on the genre. Having found a copy at my local Coles, right next to City of Ember, I decided it was time to have a looky-loo so that I knew what I was talking about next time I chose to include it in a review of current utopian/dystopian lit.
  7. Red Mars – holy crap has this one been on my shelf for a long time! I can’t tell you how many times I’ve picked it up and put it down. Which is really too bad. It’s definitely one of the more profound sci-fi books that I’ve ever read, but somehow, the style lends itself to a certain inaccessibility for me. I do enjoy reading it, but find that it doesn’t quite happen easily or organically. In that respect, Kim Stanley Robinson is not unlike William Gibson for me. I know I want to hear from them, and I do get through their books, but not with the ease and grace that I would something by Bradbury or Asimov.
  8. Ready Player One – this one I bought alongside The Giver because I thought it was time to invest in something new. I tend to be reserved about buying the works of new authors, mainly because I don’t invest time and money in something which might prove to be disappointing or a flavor of the month kind of thing. However, I said ‘screw it’ this time around and picked this one up. And lo and behold, I discovered that it is actually a quite famous read, with the entire back of the dust jacket dedicated to the heaps of accolades that have been piled on it. Not only was it a manager’s pick at the Coles, it also comes recommended by my peeps over Io9.com. Them folks know their sci-fi, so I’m glad I went with my gut and checked this one out!
  9. Starfire – this hard sci-fi novel, by Charles Sheffield, is actually one I picked up in a laundry room at the park where my wife and I were staying in Lund. We had just returned from camping, were in the process of returning to civility (with showers and other amenities) and realized we still didn’t have anything to read! So I took a gander at this one, and after seeing that it was endorsed by Kim Stanley Robinson, I gave it a chance. I only got about 70 pages in before we had to leave and I chose not to take it (having nothing to exchange), but I was wrapped up enough in the plot that I decided I’d get a copy as soon as I could. Still looking, might have to go Amazon or Kindle on this bad boy, but I don’t intend to let it slip. The plot, which involves the creation of a massive orbital shield after A/B Centauri goes supernova, is quite interesting, and constructed using the latest in astronomical data. Check it out if you can!

Well, that about does it for me. Nine books in the reading list, not so bad. I could think of some more but… seriously, who the hell wants that kind of responsibility 😉