News from Space: Orion Spacecraft Completed

orion_arrays1NASA’s return to manned spaceflight took a few steps forward this month with the completion of the Orion crew capsule. As the module that will hopefully bring astronauts back to the Moon and to Mars, the capsule rolled out of its assembly facility at the Kennedy Space Center (KSC) on Thursday, Sept. 11. This was the first step on its nearly two month journey to the launch pad and planned blastoff this coming December.

Orion’s assembly was just completed this past weekend by technicians and engineers from prime contractor Lockheed Martin inside the agency’s Neil Armstrong Operations and Checkout (O & C) Facility. And with the installation of the world’s largest heat shield and the inert service module, all that remains is fueling and the attachment of its launch abort system before it will installed atop a Delta IV Heavy rocket.

Orion-at-KSC_Ken-KremerThe unmanned test flight – Exploration Flight Test-1 (EFT-1) – is slated to blast off on December 2014, and will send the capsule into space for the first time. This will be NASA’s first chance to observe how well the Orion capsule works in space before it’s sent on its first mission on the Space Launch System (SLS), which is currently under development by NASA and is scheduled to fly no later than 2018.

The Orion is NASA’s first manned spacecraft project to reach test-flight status since the Space Shuttle first flew in the 1980s. It is designed to carry up to six astronauts on deep space missions to Mars and asteroids, either on its own or using a habitat module for missions longer than 21 days. The development process has been a long time in the making, and had more than its share of bumps along the way.

Orion-at-KSC_Ken-Kremer1As Mark Geyer, Orion Program manager, explained:

Nothing about building the first of a brand new space transportation system is easy. But the crew module is undoubtedly the most complex component that will fly in December. The pressure vessel, the heat shield, parachute system, avionics — piecing all of that together into a working spacecraft is an accomplishment. Seeing it fly in three months is going to be amazing.

In addition to going to the Moon and Mars, the Orion spacecraft will carry astronauts on voyages venturing father into deep space than ever before. This will include going to the Asteroid Belt, to Europa (to see if there’s any signs of life there), and even beyond – most likely to Enceladus, Titan, the larger moons of Uranus, and all the other wondrous places in the Solar System.

oriontestflightThe two-orbit, four and a half hour EFT-1 flight will lift the Orion spacecraft and its attached second stage to an orbital altitude of 5,800 km (3,600 miles), about 15 times higher than the International Space Station (ISS) – and farther than any human spacecraft has journeyed in 40 years. It will be an historic occasion, and constitute an important step in what is sure to be known as the Second Space Age.

And be sure to watch this time-lapse video of the Orion Capsule as it is released from the Kennedy Space Center to the Payload Hazardous Servicing Facility in preparation for its first flight:


Sources:
gizmag.com, universetoday.com

New Anthology Sample: Arrivals!

http://timedotcom.files.wordpress.com/2014/04/beyond-earth-shuttle.jpg?w=1100Lately, I’ve been getting back to work on the space anthology known as Yuva – and for good reason. Not only has our group been blessed with the arrival of some new blood in recent months, but for many of us (me especially), the inspiration bug has bitten after a long hiatus.

Don’t ask me why, but writing for a different genres can be very temperamental. One minute, you find that all you can write about zombies and apocalyptic scenarios; next minute, its all space ships and futurism. Somebody really needs to put a label on inspiration, one that reads “non-transferable”!

In any case, here is the latest sample from my latest anthology story, “Arrivals”. In this scene, we find one of the main characters (Marcellin Strauss) aboard the ship that will take him and its crew to rendezvous with the Second Migration, a flotilla of ships that are rapidly making their way towards Yuva…

*                    *                    *

The tiny space inside his helmet felt terribly confining. And at the moment, the heads-up display, with all its colored light and constant barrage of information, was not helping. And top of all that, there was the launch clock that was slowly counting down in the lower left corner. At the moment, it was the largest thing in his display field, and impossible to ignore. It’s every tick kept pace with the automated voice coming in from Control, and with the frantic beating of his heart.

Strauss could only breathe and try to remember what he had been told during the past few weeks of crash-course training.

Breath steadily, sit tight, and trust in the instruments.

Not exactly the height of preparation; but at the moment, what else could one do? At this point, the ship pretty much flew itself and all they could do was trust the equipment not to kill them. And considering that Strauss wasn’t even flying the thing, he was left with little to do but wait and try not to panic.

Hartberg’s voice sounded in his ear. “Commencing engine ignition sequence…” He felt a low rumble as the ship’s engine began powering up and preparing to slam hydrogen and anti-hydrogen together in a controlled reaction. “Ignition sequence in five, four, three, two, one…”

They were hit by a hard jolt. Vibrations that were enough to make all the colored lights in his field of view turn into a blurred mess took over. Like everyone else in the cabin, he was thrust into his seat and felt the restraints grab him tighter. And within seconds, they began shooting down the runway.

Hartberg‘s voice spoke again within a few seconds, relaying their progress to Control in an unbelievably calm tone.

“Thrust capacity reaching optimal… acceleration normal… beginning ascent in ten seconds…”

Breath steadily, sit tight… he thought as he continued to be pushed back into the seat.

“Five seconds…”

The runway continued to recede behind them. In the distance, he could see the Great Expanse growing larger as they drew nearer to the coast. And then, he felt the slightest lift as the runway dropped beneath them.

Hartberg‘s reports became faster and closer together now.

“Ascent begun, engine function nominal, orbital velocity in sixty seconds…”
The vibrations subsided a little, so that the readouts in his vision seemed discernible. He could only ascertain so much from them, but the fact that all were in the green was reassuring.

Their acceleration mounted and they continued to climb, and Strauss felt himself being pushed harder back into the seat. It was a funny paradox, how breaking the hold of planet’s gravity meant having to endure additional gravitation stress. It was as if Yuva didn’t want them to leave and was trying to pull them back in.

Trust in the instruments, he told himself. Trust in the pilot.

Up ahead, all he could see now was the deep azure of the sky, the slowly receding clouds, and the faint dots of the distant stars. The engine continued to slam particles together in an ongoing effort to achieve maximum thrust, and his body could feel additional bit of acceleration they achieved.

Beneath the noise of the ship, the voices and the instruments, he could hear a dull moaning. It was coming from him, and growing in intensity. A voice soon sounded in his ear, one of the operators at Control demanding to know his status.

“Control to Eagle One. We’ve got Strauss showing very high levels of epinephrine. Advise on the need for a sedative, over.”

Strauss quickly keyed his comm and replied. “This is Strauss. I’m fine. I’m just fine, over. I’m good, don’t dose me.”

His hurried, panting reply was followed by that of the Captain’s, who was sure to use all the proper comm protocol.

“Control, this is Eagle One Actual. That’s a negative on a sedative, over.”

“Roger that, Eagle One.”

There was a slight pause, during which time Strauss stopped making noise and tried to catch his breath. The Captain came back on and tried to talk him down.

“That’s it, Strauss. Just keep breathing. We’re almost there.”

Strauss heard him and felt somewhat reassured. He kept breathing and kept his eyes ahead, focusing on the distant stars. These were much more calming than all the readouts that continued to frantically tick away, showing their speed, engine pressure, altitude, and anything else that was rapidly changing. In time, the sky began to change color. A flare of orange light flickered through the cabin as their sun’s light hit them for the first time without refraction. And very quickly, the distant stars began to burn much brighter.

That’s when Strauss noticed everything change…

The cabin ceased vibrating, the numbers in his field of view began to drop off, and he no longer felt himself being thrust back into his seat. In fact, he now felt the restraints tugging against him to keep him from floating away.

They had done it. They had broken atmo, and were now floating in high orbit above the planet. Hartberg’s voice came back on the line to announce this.

“Control, this is Eagle One. We have broken atmo. I repeat, we have broken atmo, over.”

There was a pause as Strauss was sure the people at Control were howling out in celebration. Just about everyone in the cabin was doing the same. Meanwhile, he licked his lips and tried to get his heart and breathing under control. He could feel his head beginning to spin as his blood pressure dropped and his adrenals took a break. He also became aware of an incredibly dry feeling in his mouth.

All of this made him painfully aware of how sober he was right now, and how much he wished it weren’t so.

Man I picked a bad time to stop drinking!

Sid Meier’s Civilization: Beyond Earth

sidmeiers_civbeyondearthSid Meier’s Civilization II is one of my favorite games of all time. I can’t tell you how many hours I spent playing this strategy game, even years after its release. The spinoff, Sid Meier’s Alpha Centauri, is another favorite that I still own. And despite them not being my favorites, Civ III, IV, and even V are all in my player chest. As a lifelong fan, I am usually pretty enthused when a new entry comes along.

So when Beyond Earth was announced, I began paying attention. Similar to what Alpha Centauri did, the game follows an off-world expedition as it tries to establish a human settlement on a distant planet. As a victory condition in all the previous games, this sort of spinoff is a natural extension of the Civilization universe. Much like in the regular games, you establish settlements, research technologies, and compete with other factions for dominance.

sid_meiers_civilization-beyond_earth-pyramidsBut what I especially like about these versions is the speculative nature of it all. As a future faction that is far removed from Earth, you have to deal with alien ecology and biology, research technologies that do not yet exist, unlock some of the fundamental mysteries of the universe, and even experience the technological and/or existential singularity. It’s way cool!

As the commercial description reads:

Sid Meier’s Civilization®: Beyond Earth™ is a new science-fiction-themed entry into the award-winning Civilization series. As part of an expedition sent to find a home beyond Earth, lead your people into a new frontier, explore and colonize an alien planet and create a new civilization in space. A New Beginning for Mankind is coming Fall/Autumn 2014.

According to Steam, the official release date is October 24th 2014. Check out the Announce Trailer below:

News from Mars: Martian Water and Earth Organisms

curiosity_peakThis August, the Curiosity Rover will be celebrating its second anniversary of roving around the Red Planet. And ever since it made landfall, Curiosity and the Mars Science Laboratory has repeatedly uncovered signs that Mars was once very like Earth. Basically, it has become undeniable that water once flowed freely over the surface of this barren and uninhabitable world. And this finding, much to the delight of futurists and sci-fi enthusiasts everywhere, is likely to pave the way for human settlement.

Liquid water disappeared from Mars’ surface millions of years ago, leaving behind tantalizing clues about the planet’s ancient past—clues that the MSL has been deciphering for the past 22 months. This began last year when Curiosity found rounded pebbles in the Glenelg region, an indication that a stream once flowed at the site. This was followed by the discovery of rocky outcroppings where the remains of an ancient stream bed consisting of water-worn gravel that was washed down from the rim of Gale Crater.

mountsharp_galecraterThe rover has since moved to a location about 6.5 kilometers (4 miles) away from the Gale Crater landing site, where scientists expect to make even more discoveries. The new location is named Kimberly, after a region of northwestern Australia. As Dawn Sumner, a UC Davis geology professor and co-investigator for NASA’s Mars Science Laboratory team, explained:

Our findings are showing that Mars is a planet that was once a whole lot like Earth. All the rocks we’ve seen on this mission are sediments that have been deposited by water. We’ve found almost no sandstone deposited by wind.

Sumner is working from Curiosity mission control at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena while on sabbatical from UC Davis, exploring whether the planet ever had an environment capable of supporting microbial life. She is also one of several UC scientists and engineers who have been vital to the success of the Curiosity mission, which is part of NASA’s long-term plan to pave the way for sending astronauts to Mars.

Living-Mars.2In that vein, research continues here on Earth to see exactly what kind of life can survive in the harsh Martian environment. And now,  research suggests that methanogens – among the simplest and oldest organisms on Earth – could survive on Mars. These microorganisms are typically found in swamps and marshes, where they use hydrogen as their energy source and carbon dioxide as their carbon source to produce methane (aka. natural gas).

As an anaerobic bacteria, methanogens don’t require require oxygen or organic nutrients to live, and are non-photosynthetic. Hence, they would be able to exist in sub-surface environments and would therefore be ideal candidates for life on Mars. Rebecca Mickol, a doctoral student in space and planetary sciences at the University of Arkansas, subjected two species of methanogens to Martian conditions to see how they would fair on the Red Planet.

methanogens485These strains included Methanothermobacter wolfeii and Methanobacterium formicicum, both of which survived the Martian freeze-thaw cycles that Mickol replicated in her experiments. This consisted of testing the species for their ability to withstand Martian freeze-thaw cycles that are below the organisms’ ideal growth temperatures. As she explained it:

The surface temperature on Mars varies widely, often ranging between minus 90 degrees Celsius and 27 degrees Celsius over one Martian day. If any life were to exist on Mars right now, it would at least have to survive that temperature range. The survival of these two methanogen species exposed to long-term freeze/thaw cycles suggests methanogens could potentially inhabit the subsurface of Mars.

Mickol conducted the study with Timothy Kral, professor of biological sciences in the Arkansas Center for Space and Planetary Sciences and lead scientist on the project. She presented her work at the 2014 General Meeting of the American Society for Microbiology, which was held from May 17th to 20th in Boston.

maven_atmosphereThe two species were selected because one is a hyperthermophile, meaning it thrives under extremely hot temperatures, and the other is a thermophile, which thrives under warm temperatures. Since the 1990s, Kral has been studying methanogens and examining their ability to survive on Mars. In 2004, scientists discovered methane in the Martian atmosphere, and immediately the question of the source became an important one. According to Kral:

When they made that discovery, we were really excited because you ask the question ‘What’s the source of that methane?. One possibility would be methanogens.

Understanding the makeup of Mars atmosphere and ecology is another major step towards ensuring that life can exist there again someday. From Red Planet, to Blue Planet, to Green Planet… it all begins with a fundamental understanding of what is currently able to withstand the Martian environment. And once this foundation is secured, our ecologists and environmental engineers can begin contemplating what it will take to create a viable atmosphere and sustainable sources of water there someday.

terraformingSources: phys.org, (2)

News from SpaceX: the Dragon V2 and SuperDraco

spaceX_elonmuskSpaceX has been providing a seemingly endless stream of publicity lately. After months of rocket testing and sending payloads to the International Space Station, they are now unveiling the latest in some pretty impressive designs. This included the SuperDraco, a new attitude-control thruster; and the new Dragon V2 – a larger, more powerful, and manned version of the reusable Dragon capsule. These unveilings came within a short space of each other, largely because these two developments will be working together.

The first unveiling began back in February, when SpaceX announced the successful qualification testing of its SuperDraco rocket engine. Designed to replace the Draco engines used for attitude control on the Dragon orbital spacecraft, the SuperDraco will act as the Dragon’s launch emergency escape system, as well as giving it the ability to make a powered landings. Since that time, the company has announced that it will be added to the new Dragon capsule, which was unveiled just days ago.

superdraco-testThe SuperDraco differs from most rocket engines in that its combustion chamber is 3D printed by direct metal laser sintering (DMLS), where complex metal structures are printed by using a laser to build the object out of metal powders one thin layer at a time. The regeneratively-cooled combustion chamber is made of inconel; a family of nickel-chromium alloy that’s notable for its high strength and toughness, and is also used in the Falcon 9’s Merlin engine.

Elon Musk, SpaceX’s Chief Designer and CEO, had this say about the innovation behind the new rocket:

Through 3D printing, robust and high-performing engine parts can be created at a fraction of the cost and time of traditional manufacturing methods. SpaceX is pushing the boundaries of what additive manufacturing can do in the 21st century, ultimately making our vehicles more efficient, reliable and robust than ever before.

MarsOneOther notable features include the propellent, which is a pair of non-cryogenic liquids – monomethyl hydrazine for the fuel and nitrogen tetroxide for the oxidizer. These are hypergolic, meaning that they ignite on contact with one another, which helps the SuperDraco to restart multiple times. It’s also built to be deep throttled, and can go from ignition to full throttle in 100 ms. But what really sets the SuperDraco apart is that is has 200 times the power of the Draco engine, which works out to  7,440 kg (16,400 lbs) of thrust.

The SuperDraco’s main purpose is to provide attitude control for the Dragon capsule in orbit and during reentry, as well as acting as the craft’s launch escape system. Unlike previous US manned space capsules of the 1960s and ‘70s, the next version of the Dragon won’t use a tower equipped with rocket motors to carry the capsule away in case of a launch accident. The SuperDraco can be used at any point in the launch from pad to orbit, not just during the first minutes of launch, as the towers were.

spacex-falcon-9-rocket-largeEight engines firing for five seconds are enough to carry the capsule safely away from the booster with 120,000 lb of axial thrust. In addition, the eight engines also provide a high degree of redundancy should one or more engines fail. But what’s really ambitious about the SuperDraco is that, like the Falcon 9 booster, the Dragon is designed to ultimately return to its spaceport under its own power and land with the precision of a helicopter, and it’s the power and control of the SuperDraco that makes this possible.

SpaceX is even looking beyond that by planning to use the SuperDraco engine for its Red Dragon Mars lander; an unmanned modification of the Dragon designed for exploring the Red Planet. The SuperDraco will make its first flight on a pad abort test later this year as part of NASA’s Commercial Crew Integrated Capabilities (CCiCap) initiative. Using 3D printing to cut the cost of production is in keeping with Musk’s vision of reducing the associated costs of spaceflight and putting rockets into orbit.

spaceX_dragon_v2But equally impressive was the unveiling of the Dragon V2 manned space capsule, which took place at a brief media event at SpaceX’s Hawthorne, California headquarters at the end of May. This larger, more powerful version of the reusable Dragon capsule will one day carry astronauts to the International Space Station (ISS) and return to Earth to land under its own power. This latest development brings the company one step closer towards its ultimate goal of a fully reusable manned capsule capable of making a powered landing.

Billed as a “step-change in spacecraft technology,” the Dragon V2 that Musk unveiled is larger and more streamlined than the first Dragon, with a cabin large enough to accommodate up to seven astronauts for several days in orbit comfortably. The interior is outfitted with touchscreen control panels and a more sophisticated piloting system, so it can dock with the space station autonomously or under the control of the pilot instead of relying on one of the ISS’s robotic arms.

spaceX_dragon_v2_1For returning to Earth, the Dragon V2 has the third version of the PICA-X heatshield, which is SpaceX’s improvement on NASA’s Phenolic Impregnated Carbon Ablator (PICA) heat shield. Another nod to reusability,  this shield is about to carry out more flights before needing a refit since it ablates less than previous versions. And of course, the capsule will be outfitted with eight SuperDraco engines, which give it a combined thrust of almost 60,000 kgs (131,200 lbs).

However, Musk points out that Dragon V2 still carries a parachute, but that’s only a backup system, similar to the analog joystick and manual controls that are available in the cockpit. Like these, the parachute is only meant for use in the event of a malfunction of the SuperDraco engines, which can still make a landing if two of the eight engines fail. If the landing is successful, Musk says that all the Dragon V2 needs to fly again is refueling.

And the arrival of these new machines couldn’t have been more timely, given the termination of NASA’s cooperation with Roscosmos – Russia’s federal space agency. With reusable craft that are produced by the US and that can be launched from US soil, Russia’s aging Soyuz rockets will no longer be necessary. So much for the trampoline idea!

And of course, there are videos of the rocket test and the unveiling. Enjoy!

SuperDraco Test Firing:


SpaceX Dragon V2 Unveiling:


Sources: gizmag.com, (2), fool.com

New Theatrical Trailer: Interstellar

interstellar_2014This weekend, when the Godzilla remake will be screening, audiences will be treated to another first. After wrapping up with the Dark Knight series, Christopher Nolan has taken a different route with this next project, title Interstellar. And with this latest theatrical trailer, moviegoers will finally see exactly what his new film is about. Basically, in the not-to-distant future, a global food crisis hits Earth, and to find solutions, humanity must look to the stars.

That’s the bare bones of it at any rate.  To be more specific, the plot revolves around Cooper (Matthew McConaughey) and his family. A former pilot and engineer who has had to turn to farming to feed his family, Conner finds himself being called upon to take part in an expedition in order to find a new place for humanity to live. As Michael Caine’s character is quoted as saying: “We’re not meant to save the world, we’re meant to leave it.”

Embracing such things as Climate Change and the public’s growing fascination with space exploration and the next great leaps humanity is likely to take, Nolan has announced his return to the world of epic space-exploration. And between the scenes of gritty desolation seen on planet Earth, to the majestic grandeur of the scenes set in space, it’s clear that Nolan is well suited to the medium, being a director who’s well known for his stunning visuals and ability to create atmosphere.

New Anthology Sample: Arrivals!

dome_cityI told you it’s been a busy time for the Yuva anthology, and not just for my venerable colleagues. In my case as well, I’ve made some headway on the short story Arrivals and thought it was time to share! For the last few samples, the story was focused on the goings-on of the Planetary Council once they had learned that a new convoy of ships was approaching the planet. As always, there were hard questions, fears and agendas at play.

For this part, I have chosen to shift the focus back to the person who noticed the new convoy of colonists (aka. the Second Wave) coming in the first place – Marcellin Strauss, a simple technician who toiled in anonymity prior to the detection of the approaching convoy that set everything on the planet in motion. Now, he finds himself being sought out by the Planetary Council, and told to report to strange location for reasons that are not shared. Hope you like the sampling, and stay tuned for more!

_____

Asteria Research Facility
Zarmina, Vogt

It was like looking at a still frame in some futuristic SenSim. The building had the appearance of a mushroom, an off-white, ground-hugging thing with just the slightest overhanging edges. And yet, its dimensions seemed unnaturally large for the setting, far bigger than anything he’d seen in an auxiliary dome, which this place certainly appeared to be.

As he disembarked from the transit car, Strauss consulted his Tab to make sure he was in the right place. The Council’s message had been somewhat short on explanations, but the directions had been quite precise. The private line he had taken to get here had deposited him at a stop just over a hundred meters away, and every building and laneway that sat between him and the mushroom cap seemed awfully quiet. As he looked around the expanse of the small dome, he got the strange feeling that he was very much alone… and being watched.

“Welcome resident! How may I assist you?”

Strauss almost jumped. He turned quickly to the right and noticed the transit chest sitting there. As always, this consisted of a squat red box with a tall display stand at the side. On the display screen, the words it had just uttered were displayed prominently; the happy, iconic face of Magid Mukhtari smiling as it repeated them.

“Welcome resident! How may I assist you?”

“I, uh…” he replied dumbfoundedly, and looked back in the direction of the far building.

“Will you be requiring personal transit on this trip?” the voice asked, suggesting the most obvious option. He considered the distance between him and his destination and judged that it was not an unreasonable suggestion.

“I guess so,” he said, and placed his Tab on his chest.

“Very good, sir. Please return the vehicle to one of several designated transit boxes on your journey when you are finished with it.”

The door on the box opened and a ground car presented itself to him. Stepping onto the foot rest, he placed his hands on the control ring and felt the car power up. The terminal in the middle came online and the face of Muhktari was there as well, giving him a quick tutorial.

“Just place your feet on the acceleration pads located at the front of the footrest to-”

Strauss didn’t bother to wait for it to finish. He had had enough experience driving himself around to know how the capitol cars worked. The face of the screen laughed as he took off, putting distance between himself and the stop.

“Whoa! I see you’ve done this before! Please exercise caution when driving amongst pedestrians and other vehicles. And remember to return the car to a designated transit chest when you are finished with it. Have a nice day!”

What pedestrians? he wondered, as he drove towards his destination. Several minutes passed as he closed the distance between the transit line and the far building. And at no point did he see anyone, nor any indication of people working inside the other structures. The feeling of isolation intermixed with the sense that he was being watched yet again, and it did not make for a happy state of mind.

He was just glad he wasn’t hungover as well, though a shot of liquid courage would certainly have been welcome! He did his best to focus on where he was headed and tried not to think of the eerie, empty buildings that were passing him by, or the distinct impression that they weren’t so much empty as containing spies who watched him from every window.

But on that front, things weren’t much better. At his current distance, the building seemed to loom much higher than before, forcing him to look up towards the dome’s roof to take it all in. This meant that the ceiling, with all it’s rigid struts and panels were now it’s backdrop. The strange, webbed pattern only served to make it all look somehow more… spooky.

As he got closer, he came to realize something else about the building. All along the façade, there were lines of various colors, but none of them seemed to correspond to a segment in the structure. As far as one could tell, the building was a single piece, no joints or seams to speak of. Such seemed unlikely, but the illusion was not dispelled with any decrease of distance.

That’s when every single device on his body began to signal to him. The sound was unmistakable, indicating that they were going into offline mode since there was no longer any bandwidth in this area. He came to a stop and pulled his Tab from his chest to confirm this. Sure enough, the Tab presented a topographical representation of the area that showed a large, circular dead zone emanating out from the mushroom-shaped building. Rather than having ventured beyond the range of the QIN’s wireless network, he was now entering an area where it was actively being denied.

He took a deep breath and let it out slowly. Between his observations of the structure and this latest revelation, it seemed clear that whoever was inside was taking great pains to keep what they were doing in there a secret.

What am I stepping into here? he wondered. He scanned the outer edge of the building again, trying to see if he could spot any telltale signs of cameras or spy drones. There were none that he could see, but he sensed they were there… somehow, somewhere.

And yet, he found himself pressing the accelerator pedal again and driving closer. Whatever this summons was, whatever was going on inside that odd-looking building, he wanted to know. Besides, at this point, he was just about there. Might as well go all the way and see what all the hubbub was about.

“You have reached your destination,” the happy face of Mukhtari said once he came to  stop. “I am not picking up any transit chests at this location. If you would like to park this vehicle for later use, please say so now. If not, please tell this car to –”

“Return,” he ordered, stepping free of the footrest. The voice stopped in midsentence, having recieved the requisite order to head back to it’s last storage location. It did manage to issue a kind farewell as it zipped away along the street, moving in a perfect rectilinear fashion.

“We hope that you enjoyed your ride!”

Strauss chuckled to himself and looked towards the mushroom, which now had the appearance of being a big, white giant. He was tempted to walk up and touch it, thinking at this point that it had to be composed of some kind of ceramic or composite material.

However, in one spot there was an irregularity –  a sort of circular hole that was two meters high and less than a single meter deep. Inside, the same seamless ceramic material sat, solid and impenetrable. But this was the only thing that even resembled a door. Taking another deep breath, Strauss took a few steps towards it and steeled himself for a surprise, one way or another.

That’s when he heard a loud hiss and a high pitched squeal. Strauss’ gate came to an immediate halt and his heart began to beat overtime. He stood motionless for several seconds, worried that he had set something off, afraid to move lest he make it worse.

But the noticed, the circular opening was opening further. Inside, several small lines appeared on the circular surface, bisecting the door at cross-angles, and then began pulling it open. When they finally opened all the way, he saw a woman standing there, wearing a grey jumpsuit with the same strange color patterns he noticed on the building’s façade.

“You Marcellin Strauss?” she asked, sticking her head through the open doorway. He found himself scanning her suit still, wondering just what the hell section it represented. She wasn’t with Planetary, or Defense, for that matter. Neither the color nor the insignia patches matched. He then realized she had asked him a question and simply nodded, unable to form words at the moment.

“Good,” she said. “Get inside, we have a lot to cover and we’re running late.”

She turned back inside and clearly meant for him to follow. Strauss managed to find his voice and clumsily uttered the obvious question. “I- I’m sorry. Who are you?”

She turned back to him and raised an eyebrow, a reaction that let him know exactly how little she thought of the question. “Madeleine Hartberg, Yuva Cosmonautic Corps.”

“Cosmonau-” he stuttered. “I- I wasn’t aware there was one.”

She smiled sideways. “There is now. And there are people inside who would very much like to talk to you. Are you going to come see them, or stand there like an idiot all day?”

Strauss once again fell mute and couldn’t move. And whoever this woman was, she was clearly getting annoyed because of it.

“Look, Strauss, I don’t have time to explain everything right now. Bottom line is, you’ve been asked to participate in something bigger than anyone on this planet has known since we made ‘Fall. Now are you coming, or are you going to miss out on that opportunity?”

Marcellin’s voice didn’t respond, but his feet seemed to be in working order. He knew this, because he began to follow her inside.

“Good!” she said, ushering him in. “Now please move it. Thirty seconds of this and I’m already sick of you!”

Latest Anthology Sample: Ember Storm!

exoplanet_hotThe past few months have been a busy and productive time for the people behind the Yuva anthology. Not only did we take on a host of new writers who adventurously volunteered to join us and share their passion for science fiction, they even managed to produce some solid first and even second drafts. In addition, several members that have been with the project from the beginning have managed to do some final drafts which merit sharing right now!

And this time, it’s Amber Iver’s and Goran Zidar’s Ember Storm, which they just put the final touches on. In this story, we see are given front row seats to a crisis in progress – as told from the points of view of two down and out maintenance workers, and a small family unit caught in the thick of things. Here’s a sample from the beginning, hope you all enjoy! And remember, there’s more where this came from once the book is published:

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“Hey, Charlie, do you hear that?”

“Leave me alone, Rhina,” Charlie grunted and pulled his cap down over his face. “I’m trying to sleep here.”

“The environmental alarm’s going off.” Rhina moved over to the console and brought up the display.

“So?”

Rhina studied the screen for a moment. “So it looks like there’s a storm coming.”

“Good.”

“Good?”

“Yeah, it means I’ve got nothing else to do but kick back and study the inside of my eyelids.”

“Wake up idiot,” Rhina tossed a PAD at her colleague’s supine form.

“Hey! What was that for?”

“Strap in. I’m taking us back.”

Charlie let out a huge sigh as he got to his feet and stumbled across to Rhina. She could smell the alcohol on his breath as he loomed over her and tried to get his eyes to focus on the screen.

“You won’t make it.”

“What do you mean?”

Charlie stabbed a finger at a coloured line on the screen. “Front’s coming in fast, it’ll hit before we reach the colony. We might as well just wait it out here.”

“Well I’m gonna try anyway.” Rhina reached forward and touched the ignition. “I don’t relish the idea of spending the next few hours with just your drunk arse for company.”

“That’s harsh.” Charlie’s face twisted in mock disappointment. “I’ll just be asleep on the floor. You won’t even notice I’m here.”

“Even asleep you’re crap company. Now strap yourself in, we’re leaving.”

*                    *                     *

“Good morning, Miss Siera. It’s time to wake up.”

“Just ten more minutes, please,” Siera said, sleep making her words run into each other.

The room was suddenly bathed in sunlight.

“Hey!” Siera was forced to shield her eyes from the bright light.

“Your mother’s instructions were quite clear, miss.”

Siera squinted as she threw the covers aside and strode across the room, snatching the PAD from David’s loose grasp. “Leave my PAD alone.” Her fingers danced over the screen and soon the light in the room dimmed to a more manageable level. “Why do I need to be up? It’s the weekend.”

“Isn’t this the day you’re to make lunch for your father?”

Siera sucked a breath, her drowsiness banished.

“Oh, no. I forgot.”

“That’s why I am here, miss.”

Siera smiled and leaned forward to kiss David lightly on the cheek. “What would I do without you?”

David raised a hand to his face, the latex skin of his cheek still warm where Siera’s lips touched him. “You’re appreciation is welcome but not necessary, miss. I am simply doing what I have been programmed to do.”

“If you’re going to look like a human being, I’m going to treat you like one.” She said as she scooped a bundle of clothes from the floor then ran to the bathroom.

“I am not responsible for my appearance. It was your father who constructed me. I had no say in the matter at all.”

Siera called from the bathroom. “None of us do, David. You’ve got more in common with humans than you realise.”

David shrugged. “I must say I don’t really think about it.”

Siera emerged from the bathroom. “Well you should. You’re part of this family, you know. You’re like the big brother I never had.”

“Well this big brother needs you to go to the kitchen.”

“Hang on a minute, I need my wrist com.”

Siera looked around the room quickly but couldn’t see the wearable communication device anywhere. She moved to the bedside table and rummaged through the drawer to no avail.

“Don’t just stand there. Help me find it,” she said, as she started tearing the sheets off her bed.

“When was the last time you saw it?”

Siera raised an eyebrow as she looked at David. “Are you kidding me?”

“You asked me to help.”

“How is that helping? Just look for it.”

David walked to the bathroom and returned a few seconds later holding the wrist com. “Here you go, miss.”

Siera ran up to him and enveloped him in a firm embrace. “Thank you, David. You’re a life saver.”

“As I said before, your thanks are not necessary.”

Siera clipped the device onto her wrist then looked at the mess she’d created in her room. “Oops … Mum’s going to kill me.”

“Don’t worry, miss. You go to the kitchen; I’ll stay and clean this up for you.”

Siera opened her mouth to say thank you, but David placed a finger on her lips. “Go. Your mother is waiting for you.”

Siera gave her untidy room one last glance then sped down the hall to the kitchen. The sound of pots and pans clanking told her that her mum and sister had started without her, and she hoped that she hadn’t missed too much of the preparation. Cooking with fresh ingredients, on an actual stove, like they did on Earth in the old days was a real treat, and one that didn’t happen very often.

Her mum, Tara, looked up as Siera entered the kitchen. “Good, you’re finally up. You can start by cleaning up Meghan’s mess.”

Her four year old sister, Meghan, sat with a broad grin as she stirred a bowl of dark coloured sauce. With each turn of the spoon, more of the sticky substance spilled on the bench and dripped onto the floor.

“Give the bowl to Siera, sweetie,” Tara said. “Then go wash your hands before we start on the next part.”

Meghan did as she was told, and Siera was left standing with a sticky mess to clean up. “I probably should have gotten up earlier, eh?”

Her mum glanced up. “I didn’t say a word.”

Siera set to cleaning the mess her sister created. “What’re we making?”

“It’s called Mongolian barbeque. The protein sequencer has replicated a few different kinds of meat, and I was able to pick up some garlic and onions from the market as well as something that tastes a bit like plum.”

“The sauce smells good.”

“Try some,” her mother suggested.

Siera dipped a finger in the sauce and placed it in her mouth. The sweet, spicy flavour of the fruit combined with the garlic and other ingredients exploded in her mouth.

“Oh my god, that’s amazing.”

Tara smiled. “Much better than synth food isn’t it?”

“I’ll say. Pity we can’t eat like this all the time.”

“It wouldn’t be special if we did it every day.”

“I suppose.” Siera took another taste.

“Enough of that, we’ve got a lot to do before your father and Joey get here.”

Siera placed the bowl of delicious sauce down on the bench and finished wiping the floor while her mother used a knife to cut the replicated meat into strips. When Tara was done she took the meat and placed it into the bowl of sauce using her fingers to knead the mixture together.

“What can I do now?” Siera asked.

“Can you ground some pepper in here while I do this? There should be some in the pantry.”

Siera opened the pantry door and hunted around for the pepper grinder. She picked it up and shook it. “I think we’re out of pepper, mum.”

“You’re sure?”

Siera rolled her eyes. “Yes, mum, I’m sure. Can we do without it?”

“It won’t be the same without pepper. I need you to run up to the market and get some.”

“Can’t David do it?”

Tara gave Siera a serious look. “I thought you wanted to help.”

“I do but–”

“Well this is helping. Take my chit and go to the market. Don’t worry; there’ll still be lots to do when you get back.”

Siera left their home, and walked along the open streets of the colony to the market. It was a clear day, and Yuva’s orange sun bathed the habitat with light and warmth, but this close to the light side of the planet, warmth was rarely an issue.

Their colony was built in the new style; a new style for Yuva.

The market and other amenities were located at the center of the colony, with the residential population surrounding it. It was a civic model that dated back to ancient times. No matter how far humanity had come, some things would never change.

People here lived and worked in detached buildings, with streets and walkways linking them together beneath a massive plasteel dome that shielded them from radiation and the elements. The terraformers had been able to make the air of Yuva breathable, but the planet’s ozone layer remained weak.

It was possible for a person to go outside the dome, but unless they wore a suit their skin would suffer from dangerous levels of ultra violet radiation.

Siera’s wrist com buzzed as she crested a rise in the street.

“Now what’s she forgotten?” she muttered as she checked the device.

LEVEL 5 STORM WARNING

Environment hazard protocols in place

Her heart raced and she lifted her gaze to look out past the colony’s dome. A thin line of grey marked the horizon. The storm was still a long way off, but she’d lived here long enough to know that it would be here in no time at all.

News from Space…X: Reusable Launch Vehicle Good to Go!

spacex-falcon-9-octaweb-640x427After years of research, development and testing, SpaceX (Elon Musk’s poster child of the commercial space travel revolution) is about to attempt something truly revolutionary. In a bid to significantly reduce the costs of sending rockets into space, they will attempt the first ever soft landing of a heavy space launch vehicle. Initially planned for March 16th, the company has since updated the launch date to March 30th in order to give its techs more time to prepare.

On this day, if all goes according to plan, SpaceX mission CRS-3 will lift off from Cape Canaveral on a resupply mission to the International Space Station. In the past, rockets blasting off from Earth would normally ditch the massive primary stage of their assembly into the ocean after launch. But this one it will sprout some metal legs and use what’s left of its rocket fuel to slowly return to Earth.

spacex-falcon-9-rocket-largeThis is perhaps the single most important step in SpaceX’s stated goal of reducing the cost of space travel by a factor of ten or more, which will ensure the acceleration of space travel for the indefinite future. One of the primary reasons that the human exploration of space is moving so slowly is the cost factor. For heavy lift vehicles, which are required to lift large satellites, equipment, and supplies into space, it costs roughly $22,000 to lift a single kilogram ($10,000 per pound) into orbit.

It costs even more to send a rocket beyond Earth’s gravity well and out into space, which is why reducing costs is seen as intrinsic to sending manned missions to Mars. Currently, NASA pays around $70 million per seat aboard the Soyuz space capsule, thanks to the cancellation of the Space Shuttle Program in 2011. But a crewed version of SpaceX’s Dragon capsule, DragonRider, is also in development, which will reduce the cost per seat to $20 million.

spacex-dragon-capsule-grabbed-by-iss-canadarm-640x424SpaceX debuted its Reusable Launch Vehicle (RLV) tech on the suborbital Grasshopper rocket in October of 2013. This came after multiple launches were conducted that saw the rocket reach greater and greater altitudes and which tested its ability to maneuver horizontally. Once this was complete, they began the task of fitting a Falcon 9 with the Merlin rocket engines, which would bring the vehicle back to Earth after the first stage rocket detached.

For this flight, the first stage will still land in the water to minimize the chance of damage if something goes wrong. But once SpaceX is confident that it can do a soft landing with its RLV safely, future launches will see the first stage fly all the way back to to the launchpad. After that, SpaceX will start bringing the second stage back to the launchpad, too. The eventual goal, according to SpaceX, is to create a launch system that is reusable within “single-digit hours.”

grasshopper_lateraldivertBasically, SpaceX would give these rockets a quick once-over, fill them back up with fuel, and send them back to work. If everything goes to plan, the total cost per pound to launch into Earth orbit could drop to $500 or less — one twentieth of what unreusable rockets cost. Suffice it to say, if SpaceX manages to undercut every other space launch company in the world — including the Russian and Chinese governments — it could suddenly find itself in a very powerful and lucrative position.

Not only would it replace Russia and the Ukraine as NASA’s primary contractor, it would also see to the restoration of America’s ability to send people, equipment, satellites and supplies into space from its own soil. Given the current state of tensions in the Crimea, this is sure to put a smile on a lot of people’s faces in DC. The launch is currently scheduled to take place at the end of March and there will be a live NASA feed to cover the rocket’s descent.

And while we’re waiting, here’s a clip of SpaceX first testing out the Grasshopper rocket to take us back:


Sources:
technologyreview.com, extremetech.com

News from Mars: Updates on Panspermia Theory

PanspermiaFor centuries now, scientists have been toying with the idea that the origins of life may owe a great deal to space borne debris. And with ongoing research in the past few years, the link between Earth and Mars have become increasingly convincing. And a new bit of research out of the University of Hawaii has provided yet another piece of the puzzle by suggesting solar wind plays a major role.

Solar wind – the stream of charged particles consisting mostly of naked protons called H+ ions – permeate our Solar System because they are periodically ejected from the sun. The University paper shows that in an airless environment, typical space rocks will react with impacting protons to create tiny vesicles of water, thus allowing water and organic molecules to travel through space in tandem.

asteroid_earthInterestingly, the paper comes soon after NASA released evidence that Mars once sported a fair amount of water in the past, and that this water is sometimes found in unexpected places. The finding that water can be generated within dry space rocks, coupled with the fact that space rocks are known to deliver organic compounds to the surface of the Earth, is yet another indication that Earth and Mars might be linked.

Other recent papers have suggested that life’s important molecules arrived intact from Mars – a primitive version of RNA is one major proposed molecular stow-away – but these researchers claim only that “complex organic molecules” came from somewhere else in space. Complex organic compounds and liquid water, in conjunction, could theoretically provide the potential for non-living material to come alive.

Comet1One important aspect of this idea is that it focuses on small particles of material, rather than comets. Prior research has looked to such large bodies as the carriers of life and the drivers of the chemistry that created it, due to their energetic impacts. It’s been suggested that the earliest living things were cobbled together from high-energy molecules that couldn’t exist unless their synthesis was driven by massive astronomical impacts.

This more passive, dust-based explanation seems to fit well with the known history of the Earth, which predicts there was a high level of dust flux in the period before life began to flourish. In addition, the theory could help explain how in the predominantly shadowy areas of the Moon – another airless silicate body – unexpectedly high levels of water have been detected.

resolve_roverNASA has plans to launch RESOLVE (Regolith and Environment Science and Oxygen & Lunar Volatile Extraction) in 2018 to collect and analyze ice samples and use them to look back into just that sort of astronomical history. Large quantities of water are thought to have arrived on the Moon via impacting comets, but this research suggests that at least some of it could have been created on the Moon itself.

All of this is of extreme importance to discovering how life began on Earth, mainly because scientists are still unsure of what makes the process complete. For instance, evolutionary theory can adequately explain how a bacterium becomes a protist that becomes an animal, but it cannot explain how a pile of non-living molecules ever became a living cell.

panspermia2Evidence seems to be mounting that, whether it was seeded with dust or fused into existence by huge asteroid impacts, life on Earth needed a kickstart in its earliest days. Interestingly, Earth’s atmosphere and the abundance of messy lifeforms on its surface could mean that Earth is the single worst place to search for such evidence.

The Moon or Mars, by contrast, are perfect environments for preserving evidence of the past given their dry and airless nature. And with ongoing research into both planets and our scientific knowledge of them expanding apace, whatever role they may have played in kickstarting life on Earth may finally be learned. This could come in handy if ever we need to do a little kickstarting of our own…

Source: extremetech.com