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

The Future of Space Exploration

spacex-icarus-670Back in January, National Geographic Magazine celebrated its 125th anniversary. In honor of this occasion, they released a special issue which commemorated the past 125 years of human exploration and looked ahead at what the future might hold. As I sat in the doctor’s office, waiting on a prescription for antibiotics to combat my awful cold, I found myself terribly inspired by the article.

So naturally, once I got home, I looked up the article and its source material and got to work. The issue of exploration, especially the future thereof, is not something I can ever pass up! So for the next few minutes (or hours, depending on how much you like to nurse a read), I present you with some possible scenarios about the coming age of deep space exploration.

MarsOneSuffice it to say, National Geographic’s appraisal of the future of space travel was informative and hit on all the right subjects for me. When one considers the sheer distances involved, not to mention the amount of time, energy, and resources it would take to allow people to get there, the question of reaching into the next great frontier poses a great deal of questions and challenges.

Already, NASA, Earth’s various space agencies and even private companies have several ideas in the works or returning to the Moon, going to Mars, and to the Asteroid Belt. These include the SLS (Space Launch System), the re-purposed and upgraded version of the Saturn V rocket which took the Apollo astronauts to the Moon. Years from now, it may even be taking crews to Mars, which is slated for 2030.

ESA_moonbaseAnd when it comes to settling the Moon, Mars, and turning the Asteroid Belt into our primary source of mineral extraction and manufacturing, these same agencies, and a number of private corporations are all invested in getting it done. SpaceX is busy testing its reusable-launch rocket, known as the Grasshopper, in the hopes of making space flight more affordable. And NASA and the ESA are perfecting a process known as “sintering” to turn Moon regolith into bases and asteroids into manufactured goods.

Meanwhile, Virgin Galactic, Reaction Engines and Golden Spike are planning to make commercial trips into space and to the Moon possible within a few years time. And with companies like Deep Space Industries and Google-backed Planetary Resources prospeting asteroids and planning expeditions, it’s only a matter of time before everything from Earth to the Jovian is being explored and claimed for our human use.

Space Colony by Stephan Martiniere
Space Colony by Stephan Martiniere

But when it comes to deep-space exploration, the stuff that would take us to the outer reaches of the Solar System and beyond, that’s where things get tricky and pretty speculative. Ideas have been on the table for some time, since the last great Space Race forced scientists to consider the long-term and come up with proposed ways of closing the gap between Earth and the stars. But to this day, they remain a scholarly footnote, conceptual and not yet realizable.

But as we embark of a renewed era of space exploration, where the stuff of science fiction is quickly becoming the stuff of science fact, these old ideas are being dusted off, paired up with newer concepts, and seriously considered. While they might not be feasible at the moment, who know what tomorrow holds? From the issues of propulsion, to housing, to cost and time expenditures, the human race is once again taking a serious look at extra-Solar exploration.

And here are some of the top contenders for the “Final Frontier”:

Nuclear Propulsion:
Project-Orion-Spacecraft
The concept of using nuclear bombs (no joke) to propel a spacecraft was first proposed in 1946 by Stanislaw Ulam, a Polish-American mathematician who participated in the Manhattan Project. Preliminary calculations were then made by F. Reines and Ulam in 1947, and the actual project – known as Project Orion was initiated in 1958 and led by Ted Taylor at General Atomics and physicist Freeman Dyson from the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton.

In short, the Orion design involves a large spacecraft with a high supply of thermonuclear warheads achieving propulsion by releasing a bomb behind it and then riding the detonation wave with the help of a rear-mounted pad called a “pusher”. After each blast, the explosive force is absorbed by this pusher pad, which then translates the thrust into forward momentum.

Though hardly elegant by modern standards, the proposed design offered a way of delivering the explosive (literally!) force necessary to propel a rocket over extreme distances, and solved the issue of how to utilize that force without containing it within the rocket itself. However, the drawbacks of this design are numerous and noticeable.

Orion SchematicF0r starters, the ship itself is rather staggering in size, weighing in anywhere from 2000 to 8,000,000 tonnes, and the propulsion design releases a dangerous amount of radiation, and not just for the crew! If we are to rely on ships that utilize nuclear bombs to achieve thrust, we better find a course that will take them away from any inhabited or habitable areas. What’s more, the cost of producing a behemoth of this size (even the modest 2000 tonne version) is also staggering.

Antimatter Engine:
NASA_antimatterMost science fiction authors who write about deep space exploration (at least those who want to be taken seriously) rely on anti-matter to power ships in their stories. This is no accident, since antimatter is the most potent fuel known to humanity right now. While tons of chemical fuel would be needed to propel a human mission to Mars, just tens of milligrams of antimatter, if properly harnessed, would be able to supply the requisite energy.

Fission and fusion reactions convert just a fraction of 1 percent of their mass into energy. But by combine matter with antimatter, its mirror twin, a reaction of 100 percent efficiency is achieved. For years, physicists at the CERN Laboratory in Geneva have been creating tiny quantities of antimatter by smashing subatomic particles together at near-light speeds. Given time and considerable investment, it is entirely possible this could be turned into a form of advanced propulsion.

In an antimatter rocket, a dose of antihydrogen would be mixed with an equal amount of hydrogen in a combustion chamber. The mutual annihilation of a half pound of each, for instance, would unleash more energy than a 10-megaton hydrogen bomb, along with a shower of subatomic particles called pions and muons. These particles, confined within a magnetic nozzle similar to the type necessary for a fission rocket, would fly out the back at one-third the speed of light.

antimatter_shipHowever, there are natural drawback to this design as well. While a top speed of 33% the speed of light per rocket is very impressive, there’s the question of how much fuel will be needed. For example, while it would be nice to be able to reach Alpha Centauri – a mere 4.5 light years away – in 13.5 years instead of the 130 it would take using a nuclear rocket, the amount of antimatter needed would be immense.

No means exist to produce antimatter in such quantities right now, and the cost of building the kind of rocket required would be equally immense. Considerable refinements would therefore be needed and a sharp drop in the cost associated with building such a vessel before any of its kind could be deployed.

Laser Sail:
solar_sail1Thinking beyond rockets and engines, there are some concepts which would allow a spaceship to go into deep space without the need for fuel at all. In 1948, Robert Forward put forward a twist on the ancient technique of sailing, capturing wind in a fabric sail, to propose a new form of space travel. Much like how our world is permeated by wind currents, space is filled with cosmic radiation – largely in the form of photons and energy associated with stars – that push a cosmic sail in the same way.

This was followed up again in the 1970’s, when Forward again proposed his beam-powered propulsion schemes using either lasers or masers (micro-wave lasers) to push giant sails to a significant fraction of the speed of light. When photons in the laser beam strike the sail, they would transfer their momentum and push the sail onward. The spaceship would then steadily builds up speed while the laser that propels it stays put in our solar system.

Much the same process would be used to slow the sail down as it neared its destination. This would be done by having the outer portion of the sail detach, which would then refocus and reflect the lasers back onto a smaller, inner sail. This would provide braking thrust to slow the ship down as it reached the target star system, eventually bringing it to a slow enough speed that it could achieve orbit around one of its planets.

solar_sailOnce more, there are challenges, foremost of which is cost. While the solar sail itself, which could be built around a central, crew-carrying vessel, would be fuel free, there’s the little matter of the lasers needed to propel it. Not only would these need to operate for years continuously at gigawatt strength, the cost of building such a monster would be astronomical, no pun intended!

A solution proposed by Forward was to use a series of enormous solar panel arrays on or near the planet Mercury. However, this just replaced one financial burden with another, as the mirror or fresnel lens would have to be planet-sized in scope in order for the Sun to keep the lasers focused on the sail. What’s more, this would require that a giant braking sail would have to be mounted on the ship as well, and it would have to very precisely focus the deceleration beam.

So while solar sails do present a highly feasible means of sending people to Mars or the Inner Solar System, it is not the best concept for interstellar space travel. While it accomplishes certain cost-saving measures with its ability to reach high speeds without fuel, these are more than recouped thanks to the power demands and apparatus needed to be it moving.

Generation/Cryo-Ship:
ringworld2Here we have a concept which has been explored extensively in fiction. Known as an Interstellar Ark, an O’Neill Cylinder, a Bernal Sphere, or a Stanford Taurus, the basic philosophy is to create a ship that would be self-contained world, which would travel the cosmos at a slow pace and keep the crew housed, fed, or sustained until they finally reached their destination. And one of the main reasons that this concept appears so much in science fiction literature is that many of the writers who made use of it were themselves scientists.

The first known written examples include Robert H. Goddard “The Last Migration” in 1918, where he describes an “interstellar ark” containing cryogenic ally frozen people that set out for another star system after the sun died. Konstantin E. Tsiolkovsky later wrote of “Noah’s Ark” in his essay “The Future of Earth and Mankind” in 1928. Here, the crews were kept in wakeful conditions until they reached their destination thousands of years later.

enzmann_starshipBy the latter half of the 20th century, with authors like Robert A. Heinlein’s Orphans of the Sky, Arthur C. Clarke’s Rendezvous with Rama and Ursula K. Le Guin’s Paradises Lost, the concept began to be explored as a distant possibility for interstellar space travel. And in 1964, Dr. Robert Enzmann proposed a concept for an interstellar spacecraft known as the Enzmann Starship that included detailed notes on how it would be constructed.

Enzmann’s concept would be powered by deuterium engines similar to what was called for with the Orion Spacecraft, the ship would measure some 600 meters (2000 feet) long and would support an initial crew of 200 people with room for expansion. An entirely serious proposal, with a detailed assessment of how it would be constructed, the Enzmann concept began appearing in a number of science fiction and fact magazines by the 1970’s.

RAMA2Despite the fact that this sort of ship frees its makers from the burden of coming up with a sufficiently fast or fuel-efficient engine design, it comes with its own share of problems. First and foremost, there’s the cost of building such a behemoth. Slow-boat or no, the financial and resource burden of building a mobile space ship is beyond most countries annual GDP. Only through sheer desperation and global cooperation could anyone conceive of building such a thing.

Second, there’s the issue of the crew’s needs, which would require self-sustaining systems to ensure food, water, energy, and sanitation over a very long haul. This would almost certainly require that the crew remain aware of all its technical needs and continue to maintain it, generation after generation. And given that the people aboard the ship would be stuck in a comparatively confined space for so long, there’s the extreme likelihood of breakdown and degenerating conditions aboard.

Third, there’s the fact that the radiation environment of deep space is very different from that on the Earth’s surface or in low earth orbit. The presence of high-energy cosmic rays would pose all kinds of health risks to a crew traveling through deep space, so the effects and preventative measures would be difficult to anticipate. And last, there’s the possibility that while the slow boat is taking centuries to get through space, another, better means of space travel will be invented.

Faster-Than-Light (FTL) Travel:
???????????????????????Last, we have the most popular concept to come out of science fiction, but which has received very little support from scientific community. Whether it was the warp drive, the hyperdrive, the jump drive, or the subspace drive, science fiction has sought to exploit the holes in our knowledge of the universe and its physical laws in order to speculate that one day, it might be possible to bridge the vast distances between star systems.

However, there are numerous science based challenges to this notion that make an FTL enthusiast want to give up before they even get started. For one, there’s Einstein’s Theory of General Relativity, which establishes the speed of light (c) as the uppermost speed at which anything can travel. For subatomic particles like photons, which have no mass and do not experience time, the speed of light is a given. But for stable matter, which has mass and is effected by time, the speed of light is a physical impossibility.

Galactica_newFor one, the amount of energy needed to accelerate an object to such speeds is unfathomable, and the effects of time dilation – time slowing down as the speed of light approaches – would be unforeseeable. What’s more, achieving the speed of light would most likely result in our stable matter (i.e. our ships and bodies) to fly apart and become pure energy. In essence, we’d die!

Naturally, there have been those who have tried to use the basis of Special Relativity, which allows for the existence of wormholes, to postulate that it would be possible to instantaneously move from one point in the universe to another. These theories for “folding space”, or “jumping” through space time, suffer from the same problem. Not only are they purely speculative, but they raise all kinds of questions about temporal mechanics and causality. If these wormholes are portals, why just portals in space and not time?

The supermassive black hole at the center of the Milky Way galaxy.And then there’s the concept of a quantum singularity, which is often featured in talk of FTL. The belief here is that an artificial singularity could be generated, thus opening a corridor in space-time which could then be traversed. The main problem here is that such an idea is likely suicide. A quantum singularity, aka. a black hole, is a point in space where the laws of nature break down and become indistinguishable from each other – hence the term singularity.

Also, they are created by a gravitational force so strong that it tears a hole in space time, and that resulting hole absorbs all things, including light itself, into its maw. It is therefore impossible to know what resides on the other side of one, and astronomers routinely observe black holes (most notably Sagittarius A at the center of our galaxy) swallow entire planets and belch out X-rays, evidence of their destruction. How anyone could think these were a means of safe space travel is beyond me! But then again, they are a plot device, not a serious idea…

alcubierre-warp-drive-overviewBut before you go thinking that I’m dismissing FTL in it’s entirety, there is one possibility which has the scientific community buzzing and even looking into it. It’s known as the Alcubierre Drive, a concept which was proposed by physicist Miguel Alcubierre in his 1994 paper: “The Warp Drive: Hyper-Fast Travel Within General Relativity.”

The equations and theory behind his concept postulate that since space-time can be contracted and expanded, empty space behind a starship could be made to expand rapidly, pushing the craft in a forward direction. Passengers would perceive it as movement despite the complete lack of acceleration, and vast distances (i.e. light years) could be passed in a matter of days and weeks instead of decades. What’s more, this “warp drive” would allow for FTL while at the same time remaining consistent with Einstein’s theory of Relativity.

In October 2011, physicist Harold White attempted to rework the equations while in Florida where he was helping to kick off NASA and DARPA’s joint 100 Year Starship project. While putting together his presentation on warp, he began toying with Alcubierre’s field equations and came to the conclusion that something truly workable was there. In October of 2012, he announced that he and his NASA team would be working towards its realization.

But while White himself claims its feasible, and has the support of NASA behind him, the mechanics behind it all are still theoretical, and White himself admits that the energy required to pull off this kind of “warping” of space time is beyond our means at the current time. Clearly, more time and development are needed before anything of this nature can be realized. Fingers crossed, the field equations hold, because that will mean it is at least theoretically possible!

warp_drive

Summary:
In case it hasn’t been made manifestly obvious by now, there’s no simple solution. In fact, just about all possibilities currently under scrutiny suffer from the exact same problem: the means just don’t exist yet to make them happen. But even if we can’t reach for the stars, that shouldn’t deter us from reaching for objects that are significantly closer to our reach. In the many decades it will take us to reach the Moon, Mars, the Asteroid Belt, and Jupiter’s Moons, we are likely to revisit this problem many times over.

And I’m sure that in course of creating off-world colonies, reducing the burden on planet Earth, developing solar power and other alternative fuels, and basically working towards this thing known as the Technological Singularity, we’re likely to find that we are capable of far more than we ever thought before. After all, what is money, resources, or energy requirements when you can harness quantum energy, mine asteroids, and turn AIs and augmented minds onto the problems of solving field equations?

Yeah, take it from me, the odds are pretty much even that we will be making it to the stars in the not-too-distant future, one way or another. As far as probabilities go, there’s virtually no chance that we will be confined to this rock forever. Either we will branch out to colonize new planets and new star systems, or go extinct before we ever get the chance. I for one find that encouraging… and deeply disturbing!

Source: ngm.nationalgeographic.comnasa.gov, discoverymagazine.com, eng.wikipedia.org, 100yss.org

Generational Ships

systems___cryogenics_1Ever since my writing group and I got on the subject of space and colonization, some recurring themes have come up. For starters, there’s the concept of interstellar space travel, the kind that doesn’t involve fictitious Faster-Than-Light drive systems and therefore cannot exceed the speed of light. In those situations, which are far more likely to happen in this and the next century, the question of how to keep crews alive until your arrival keeps popping up.

One way is to utilize some kind of cryogenic procedure, where passengers are put into “reefersleep” for the duration of the journey and awakened upon arrival. Though it might sound a bit crude, it’s actually a very practical solution to the problems of how to keep a crew preserved and provided for during the incredibly long voyages that space travel entails. This procedure has come up repeatedly in the realm of science fiction, particularly H.P. Lovecraft’s Cool Air, Robert A Heinlein’s The Door into Summer, Clarke’s 2001: A Space Odyssey, PKD’s Ubik, the Alien franchise, and the Revelation Space universe, just to name a few.

RAMAThe other solution, which is the subject of this post, is to construct generational ships. These are basically “interstellar arks” where people and even entire biospheres are transported from one location to another. Crews are kept in waking conditions, experience subjective time, and entertain themselves in interactive, simulated or virtual environments in order to stay sane until they complete their voyage. Though much more expensive to build, these ships are an equally elegant solution of what to do about non-FTL space travel and colonization.

These two have made many appearances in science fiction, and I’ve compiled a list of all the Generation Ships, Space Arks, and O’Neil Cylinders I could find.

Firefly:
At the beginning of each episode, it was explained how Earth was used up, prompting humanity to seek out a new home. This is what eventually led them to 34 Tauri  in the 22nd century where they began the process of terraforming and settling its the many worlds and moons. Though it was never explained in detail, mainly because the show was cancelled before they could (screw you Fox!), indications are given in the movie Serenity and the expanded universe that this involved Generation Ships.

In the movie, this was done mainly through visuals, where a large of flotilla dusts off from Earth and eventually finds its way to the system of the White Sun. It was also said that the process of terraforming took decades, which would require that the crews had somewhere to stay while the terraformers did their work. Also, speculative point here, but it would stand to reason that the fleet would have to have some pretty large ships to accommodate both settlers and the kind of equipment they would need.

Chasm City:
This novel, set in Alastair Reynold’s Revelation Space universe, involves a large thread that follows the settlement of the world known as Sky’s Edge. This took place early in the universe’s backstory, before the development of lighthuggers and therefore required that the ships used be able to support crews for long periods of time.

From Reynold’s descriptions, these ships were large, cylindrical vessels that boasted vast bays to hold their many cryogenically-frozen passengers. At the same time, the waking crew needed vast facilities to provide for their needs. These included mess halls, sleeping quarters, medical bays, and recreational facilities. Sky Haussmann, one of the children amongst the crew, had a nursery with a robotic clown and virtual backgrounds.

This divide, between a waking crew and frozen settlers, represents a sort of compromise between the cryoship design and the generation ship. On the one hand, you’ve got the majority of your crew at near-frozen temperatures and perfectly preserved for the voyage. On the other, you’ve got a crew walking about and looking for food, rest and entertainment. However, it still qualifies, and even inspired my group in our quest to design the perfect story for colonization!

Orphans of the Sky:
One of the earliest known examples of the use of generation ships in sci-fi, this two-novella set was also one of Heinlein’s first works. Like Clarke’s Rendezvous with Rama, it features a massive cylindrical ship that is drifting through space. But unlike Rama, Heinlein’s ship, known as the Vanguard, has become a derelict that is permanently adrift in space.

As the story goes on, we learn that this was due to a mutiny which killed all the piloting officers many generations back. Since that time, the descendants of the surviving loyal crew have forgotten the purpose and nature of their ship and lapsed into a pre-technological culture marked by superstition. In fact, they now view their ship as the cosmos itself, and interpret its “voyage” as a metaphor.

The crew are also ruled by an oligarchy of “Officers” and “Scientists”, at the head of which is the descendent of the original captain. Much like pre-industrial times, most crew members are dedicated to a simple life where they tend to agriculture and are illiterate. Seldom does anyone ever venture to the “upper decks” where the “muties” (aka. “mutants” or “mutineers”) are kept. These individuals, it is learned, know the truth of the ship’s purpose, another reason why they are ostracized from the rest of the crew.

As you can plainly see, this book not only featured a generation ship and some rather hard science when it came to colonization, it also raised some valid and interesting questions about how space travel and confining environments could effect subsequent generations of people. Those who were born into an enclosed environment would come to know it as their whole world. And in the absence of external, verifiable facts (such as messages from Earth or historical records), they could even be led to believe there was nothing beyond their walls.

Paradises Lost:
Similar in tone and setting to Heinlein’s Orphans, this story by Ursula K. LeGuin focuses instead on the psychological impact that generational travel would have on a human crew. Adapted into a musical, this story explores the basic question of what happens when you spend your whole life (and entire generations) traveling toward a goal, only to find that the endpoint has become otherworldly and unattainable?

The story takes place aboard a generation ship known as the Discovery, where people are born and die on a trip to colonize a distant planet. Much like the Orphans, the ship becomes their entire universe and begins to seem more tangible to them than Earth or their mission to colonize a new world. The reason for this quite simple; as the journey goes on, those who knew a life on Earth are slowly dying off, and subsequent generations know about these things only through tales and lore.

As a result, a new religion is borne which teaches that the ship is “spaceship heaven” and that it is bound for eternity. This religion is known as Bliss, and the younger generation are embracing it against the wishes of the older. The story is told through the eyes of two elder characters – Hsing and Luis. They know their lives will end on board the ship and that their mission lies in the hands of future generations. Naturally, they worry since said generations are convinced that they should never leave the ship they call heaven.

Rendevouz with Rama:
One of the best examples of a generational ship, which extra-terrestrial in origin! Known as Rama, this massive space cylinder was basically a self-contained world that was carrying the Raman civilization from one corner of the galaxy to another. When a crew from Earth arrive and begin to survey the interior, they begin to notice several tell-tale features.

For one, the interior contains several structures which appear to be arranged in “cities” – odd blocky shapes that look like buildings, and streets with shallow trenches in them, looking like trolley car tracks. In addition, there is a sea that stretches in a band around Rama dubbed the Cylindrical Sea, and trenches cut into the sides that appear to be windows.

In time, all the machinery comes to light, thanks in part to the admission of light through the ship’s long windows. Small creatures that appear to be biological machines (aka. “biots”) begin to come out as well and conducting routine maintenance. In time, they come to the conclusion that the buildings constitute factories, that the cylindrical sea contains trace elements and bio-matter which they will begin to convert into “Ramans” as soon they get in range of their destination.

In the end, it seemed that the Ramans determined that the best way to spread their species was to break them down into their component parts, place them aboard ships that would float for generations through space, and begin recompiling them once they got to where they wanted to go. Ultimately, Sol was just a stopover on their long journey, and more ships were coming in subsequent novels. Still, this first exposure to the alien generation ship was an educational experience!

Ringworld:
Written by Larry Niven, the Ringworld series is considered one of the greatest examples of exploratory sci-fi. Set in the Known Space universe of the distant future, the story revolves around the discovery and exploration of the Ringworlds, an artificial habitation ring built by an extinct civilization. With the makers of these rings long dead, the rings themselves are adrift and their engineered inhabitants degenerated into a primitive state.

These artificial rings are roughly one million kilometers wide and one thousand kilometers across, approximately the diameter of Earth’s orbit. Each one encircles a Sol-type star which provides both life sustaining energy and light. And of course, they rotate, thus providing artificial gravity that is 99.2% as strong as Earth’s through the action of centrifugal force. And night is provided by an inner ring of shadow squares which are connected to each other by thin ultra strong shadow square wire.

The ringworld has a habitable flat inner surface that is equivalent in area to approximately three million Earth-sized planets. Hence, it is able to sustain extensive ecosystems and all forms of life. This appears to be purpose of the rings in the end, the creation of habitable areas in space that were removed from terrestrial environments. And added bonus was the ability to transport said life over vast distances through space without having to stick them in an enclosed environment.

So really, these things were like a gigantic version of a generation ship, capable of moving an entire species or civilization through space.

Stargate Atlantis:

The series Stargate Atlantis contained a few mentions of vessels which fit the profile of generation ships. For starters, there was the Ancients City Ship, a self-contained city that was also a spaceship. Though it was capable of FTL travel, the vessel was capable of sustaining a city-sized population for extended periods of time as it traveled through space.

In addition, in the third season episode entitle “The Ark”, Colonel Sheppard’s team discovers a facility inside a hollowed-out moon that turns out to be an ark created by the people of the planet around which the moon is in orbit. The ark was built to preserve the existence of the people from the planet so that they could reemerge and rebuild their civilization. Generations prior, these people had fought a disastrous war with the Wraith in which they were almost exterminated.

Though not a vessel per se, the moon base served the same purpose as a generation ship. Though the moon orbited their original homeworld and the people really weren’t traveling through space (except in orbit around their planet), the principle was essentially the same. People were kept in stasis until the day came when they could awaken to transplant themselves on the intended world, thus ensuring the survival and expansion of their civilization.

Yes, the examples abound! In fact, the concept of the generation ship and related ideas are so fertile that I’m kind of surprised that it took me so long to really appreciate it. But then again, I came to a lot of the classics a little late in life. Ah well, it doesn’t really matter when you get to the destination, provided that you get there and enjoy the journey. Which is kind of the concept behind a generation ship isn’t it? If you can’t just warp your way across the universe – if you got to take your time and drift slow – you might as well travel in style!

Cool Ships (volume IV)

Back with a fourth installment. As usual, I am indebted to people for making suggestions and offering critiques. Funny thing, these lists seem to be getting longer and more diverse the longer this series goes. But I guess that tells you something about the world of sci-fi. No shortage of material, and kind of like fossil hunting in that the deeper you dig, the more fascinating things get.

Ancients City Ship:
You know the old saying “you can never go home”? Well in this case, the Ancients seemed to think that the best away around that was to take it with you. This one goes out to Nicola Higgins. Thanks for the suggestion, you Stargate fangirl!

Known as a City Ship, this piece of Ancients technology is in centerpiece of the spinoff series Stargate: Atlantis. A self-contained city that is capable of traveling through space, and comes equipped with a hyper drive, this vessel was designed to transplanting colonies of Ancients on distant worlds throughout the Galaxy. It also heavily armed and shielded, making it a veritable mobile fortress.

Beginning several million years ago, the Ancients began what was known as the “Great Migration”, where they left Earth for the Pegasus Galaxy and other destinations in deep space. One such ship which took part in the migration was the Atlantis, which departed from Antarctica and landed on the world known as Lantea, where it was again discovered by humans in the course of the show.

Measuring roughly the same size as Manhattan island, an average city ship comes equipped with extensive living quarters and amenities that make it suitable for large-scale population for extended periods of time. Though capable of space flight and space combat, it’s environment of choice is terrestrial, preferably on water.

Colonial Viper:
This one kind of seems overdue. But I felt the need to push this one back so I could cover the bigger ships from the Battlestar Galactica franchise first. With them done, I can now pay tribute the fighter-craft of choice for the Twelve Colonies, the Viper! Taken from the original series, the Mark II was your basic space superiority fighter, fast, maneuverable, and boasting two laser guns for defense.

In the updated series, the Mark II was considered a relic from the Human-Cylon War, its systems outdated and its controls antiquated (the laser guns were also replaced by two ballistic weapons and a compliment of missiles). However, it was these very antiquated features that would prove to be the saving grace of the Mark II when the Cylons attacked the Colonies at the beginning of the new series.

The updated Mark VII Viper was the pinnacle of Colonial technology at the time. Boasting updating targeting, controls, all of which were networked with the fleet’s central computer system, the Mark VII was far more sophisticated than its predecessor in every measurable way. However, being a networked fighter made it vulnerable when the Cylons unleashed their crippling virus on the Colonies defense mainframe. Several models remained in operation though, thanks in large part to the Pegasus surviving the initial Cylon assault. Once the two fleets combined their resources, the Colonial fleet had several Mark VII’s at their disposal and even began manufacturing new ones to replace their losses.

The Colossus:
Now here’s a franchise I haven’t covered yet! Fans of Freespace and FS II know that when it comes to cool ships, there was no shortage to come out of this video game series. Classically inspired, well-designed and just plain awesome to behold, the Colossus is definitely top of that list. Big, bad, and boasting enough firepower to take down an enemy armada, the Colossus was appropriately named!

Designed by the Terran-Vasudan Alliance in the wake of the Great War, the Colossus was a prototype super-destroyer that was designed to confront all future incursions by a hostile race. Foremost amongst these was the threat of the Shivans, the species that appeared in the first game, destroyed the Vasudan homeworld and nearly destroyed Earth as well.

Measuring 6 km in length, bristling with weapons and boasting a crew of over 30,000, the Colossus took over 20 years to complete and involved dozens of contractors from both races. In terms of defense, it has over 80 weapon turrets, consisting of cannons, missile launchers, and multiple heavy beam emitters. It also houses 60 fighter and bomber wings and requires a crew of over 30,000. In short, the Colossus wields more firepower and fighter wings than an entire Terran or Vasudan armada.

Deimos-class Corvette:
You know the old saying, “it’s not the size of the dog in the fight but the size of the fight in the dog”? That’s what comes to mind whenever I see small ships that are solidly built and pack a wicked punch. As you might have guessed, that precisely what the GTCv Deimos-class vessel is all about! Also taken from the Freespace universe, this corvette was designed for fighter support and attack purposes, providing some added firepower and punch to light assaults and defensive screens.

As the newest addition to the Terran fleet in FS II, these corvettes were designed to replace the aging Fenris and Leviathan-class cruisers from the Great War. In addition to their small profiles and heavy firepower, their hulls are strengthened with collapsed-core molybdenum sheathing for better protection against beam fire and their Vasudan-designed reactor core provides more energy per ton than any other allied ship class.

In a way, these ships remind me of the USS Defiant. Much like that little ass-kickers from the DS9 universe, she packs a lot of power and toughness into a small frame, proving that you don’t have to be big to bring a big ass-whooping! As you might be able to tell, this is a bit of a vicarious experience for me 😉 Being only 5’8”, I too had to be known for scrappiness whenever height and reach failed me in a sparring match!

Drakh Raider:
Once more onto B5 friends. God, I worry people are going to get so sick of this universe given all the attention I devote to it. But as long as it keeps providing ’em, I’ll feel obliged to honor ’em! This time, it’s the Drakh Raider which I’ve chosen to represent. Small, sleek, fast and powerful, these ships were the first line of assault and defense for the Drakh fleet, providing attack screens and defensive escort to their larger destroyers and carriers.

As Londo remarked in the course of the show, “They’re a legend. The kind you would use to frighten small children at night... They were ruthless, savage, but extremely bright. A very bad combination.” And these ships certainly embodied that. Making their first appearance in the third season (“Lines of Communication”) when it became revealed that the Drakh were manipulating the Mimbari into a civil war, and later in the Call to Arms TV movie when the Drakh began assaulting Earth.

Being quite small and based around a central beam weapon, these ships were either unmanned or had a very small crew. They were also quite effective, as two were able to destroy a White Star during their initial encounter with Delenn and the Alliance fleet. However, being small and light, they were also relatively easy for more sophisticated ships of the Alliance to shoot down, and even a small fleet of them could not stand up to larger vessels like the Excalibur. Still, these puppies could wreak havoc against shipping and military vessels that belonged to the younger races. Once they began conducting raids on League Worlds, all parties were forced to turn to Sheridan and the White Star fleet for help.

Romulan Warbird:
Also known as the D’deridex-class, the Warbird class was one of the largest and most powerful ships in the Romulan Star Empire’s armada and served as the backbone of the Romulan fleet during the latter half of the 24th century. In addition to its impressive array of disruptors and photon torpedo banks, the Warbird also has a cloaking device, the result of military exchanges between the Klingon and Romulan Empires.

After their debut in the first season of TNG (“The Neutral Zone”), the Warbird went on to appear in several engagements with Star Fleet (most notably the Enterprise) and the Dominion. In the spinoff series of D29, they would figure prominently in the Dominion War. Initially, this consisted of providing defense against Jem’Hadar incursions, but eventually went on to take part in most major offensives. These included the battles of Chin’toka and the final assault on Cardassia Prime.

Measuring twice as long as a Galaxy-class starship (such as the Enterprise D) the Warbird is powered by a forced quantum singularity and boasts the latest in Romulan technology. This makes it not only one of the most advanced ships in the Romulan fleet, but the Alpha Quadrant itself!

Rama:
Once again, I find myself looking back and wondering how the hell I forgot this one. You can’t call yourself an Arthur C. Clarke fan and a sci-fi geek without knowing about Rama. Lucky for me, ongoing segments give us chances to correct for our mistakes, which I am doing now.

Taken from Clarke’s famous novel Rendezvous with Rama, this namesake was what can be termed a “generational ship”, meaning a spaceship where successive generations of people are expected to be born and die before it finally reaches its destination. In the course of the story, this massive ship was detected on its way towards Earth. Once scientists and astronomers learned that it was not an asteroid or some other natural phenomena, they became mighty interested mighty fast!

Basically a large cylinder in space, the ship measured 50 km in length, 16 km wide, and rotated in order to provide gravity equal to 0.25 g’s (or a quarter of what we’re used to here on Earth). After boarding it, astronauts from Earth noticed an interior layout that resembled cities, rivers and other common geographical features, but being based on technology and chemical compositions which they could not recognize. The horizontal sections of the ship also housed windows which appeared to be letting in outside light, which in turn was having a thawing effect on the landscape since it was frozen from being in deep space for so long.

In addition, they discovered that their was no crew to speak of, nor any cryogenic tanks that held them in stasis. Evenutally, it was determined that these chemical rivers contained the trace chemicals needed to “manufacture Ramans”, and that as it neared a star, it would take the energy and heat necessary to perform these and other life-restoring functions. In the end, Rama was just passing through, a grave disappointment for Earth people… until they realized that more were on the way!

Pretty damn cool huh? This concept of a cylindrical hull with a self-contained city went on to inspire countless franchises and writers, not the least of which was J.M. Straczynski who modeled the interior of Babylon 5 based on Clarke’s descriptions. Generational ships also appear in many science fiction franchises, not the least of which are Alastair Reynold’s Revelation Space series and Joss Whedon’s Firefly.

USS Saratoga:
Space Above and Beyond is back for another installment, this time with the main ship of the fleet! Designated as a SCVN (Space Carrier Vehicle Nuclear) the USS Saratoga is the futuristic equivalent of a modern-day aircraft carrier and was home to the 58th Squadron (“The Wild Cards”) for the entire series.

In the course of the show, the Saratoga served on the front lines for the entire Chig War. This included the defense of Earth in the pilot episode, the offensive at Ixiom and Deimos, and in Operation Roundhammer – the assault on the Chig homeworld – at the end of the series. For the duration of its service, the Saratoga was commanded by Commodore Glen Ross, a no-bullshit naval officer who enjoyed playing guitar, cared deeply for his people, and was known for his catch-phrase “take that bird out of my sky!”

In addition to its compliment of fighters, the Saratoga boasted some pretty heavy armaments, including laser pulse cannons, phalanx missile launchers, and anti-ship torpedos. The vessel was also powered by a helium 3 fusion engine, measured 525.6 m in length and was capable of FTL travel thanks to a wormhole-generating engine technology.

Tigers Claw:
Yet another franchise I have neglected to include so far, but which deserving since cool ships was kind of their thing… Here we have the TCS Tiger’s Claw, the carrier and command vessel from the video game series Wing Commander. In the first installment in the series, the Tiger’s Claw was as the focal point of the story, a Bengal-class carrier that was deployed to the Vega Sector to fight in ongoing conflict known as the Terran-Kilrathi war.

In the course of its deployment in the Vega Sector, the Tiger’s Claw participated in many successful campaigns. These included the destruction of the Kilrathi base of operations for the entire sector in the campaign known as Custer’s Carnival, and the destruction of the KIS Sivar in what was known as the Goddard Campaign.

Unfortunately, after proving victorious in Vega, the ship was transferred to the Enigma Sector where it was destroyed during an assault on the Kilrathi starbase K’tithrak Mang. Using stealth fighters, the Kilrathi managed to ambush and then obliterate the carrier using torpedoes. These events took place between the first and second installment in the series and formed the basis of the latter’s backstory. Save for the main character of the story – Col. Christopher Blair (aka. you) – all hands aboard her were killed, including her air group commander, General Halcyon.

In addition to its vast compliment of 104 fighters, the Tiger’s Claw also possesses 8 heavy laser turrets, 20 defensive batteries, and powerful shields. Measuring 700 meters in length and weighing over 80,000 tons, her crew numbers in the thousands. Although slow and lumbering compared to smaller craft, she is still capable of a high maximum velocity (468,000 km/hour) and can make FTL jumps.

Voth City Ship:
Here’s another example of something the Star Trek franchise did really right! Appearing in the third season of Star Trek: Voyager (episode 64: “Distant Origin”), the Voth City Ship was something that was both intriguing and heavily-inspired. Based on the concept of a self-contained city in space, she was the command and administrative center of the entire Voth race and home to its ruling matriarch.

As the episode which featured her progressed, we learn that a group of alien scientists have discovered Voyager and have become convinced that she holds the key to proving their “Distant Origins” theory. When they meet these creatures, they learn that their kind evolved from dinosaurs on Earth to become a race of talking, bipedal humanoids who developed an entire civilization before they were forced to flee. After millennia of wandering, they landed in the Gamma Quadrant where they have since become the dominant power.

Unfortunately for said scientists, and the crew of Voyager, the Voth leaders are not too crazy about this idea. In addition to contradicting their beliefs that they emerged in the Gamma Quadrant (known as “Doctrine”) they are insulted to think they are related to mammals, creatures they consider inferior. Once they make contact, they are able to capture Voyager and neutralize her defenses quite easily, beaming the entire ship into one of their massive internal bays and knocking out all of their equipment using a dampening field.

In addition to all this impressive technology, the Voth also appeared to possess cloaking technology, trans-warp capability, and no doubt had some serious mother-loving weapons technology. It was a major blessing that Janeway and her crew didn’t press matters too hard and try to get into a firefight with these aliens, otherwise we would have seen some serious fireworks.

Final Thoughts:
Woo! Okay, that one was pretty good. And some rather new and unique examples made it in this time. Thanks for the suggestions people and my endless thanks as always to the good folks who maintain the Wiki’s and other source info sights for these franchises. Without you, I’d be very limited and would have quite doing these long ago! Also, I seem to have focused on city and generation ships a lot in this posting, which got me thinking…

It was the physicist and mathematician Freeman Dyson who claimed that the pinnacle of technology would be the ability to build a “Dyson’s Sphere”. That is, a sphere so large that it could encompass an entire star system, or at least the star and its primary planets. After all, the amount of materials and engineering capabilities required to build such a thing are just staggering and clearly beyond the means of anything we now know. Now that all may be true, but might I suggest that a more realistic and attainable measure of technological prowess would be the ability to create self-contained environments where several successive generations of humans and animals could survive for long periods of time?

Think about it. A species that can do this would be capable of leaving whatever world they call home behind and transplanting themselves in a distant star system or galaxy, meaning that their fortunes would never be tied to one rock in one star system. Even if our survival didn’t depend on it – which it might given the state of the planet! – it would still be a rather elegant way of planting the seed of humanity elsewhere in the galaxy. Instead of sending people out land on a planet and then do all the hard work of terraforming and building infrastructure, you just send the ship, and people can grow outwards in their own time without having to worry about hostile environments or organisms.

Pretty anthropocentric, I know. And yes, colonization is chock full of potential for evil, especially where indigenous life is concerned. Still, it’s a cool concept and it got me thinking, which is partly why I like to do these things. An excuse for research and to expand my mind!

Until next time, keep those idears coming!