So the story goes … that a high school student discovered a new planet (or exoplanet, to be exact) back in 2020, only 3 days into his internship with NASA.Continue reading “He discovered a new planet … at 17 years old”
NASA Reveals A Blackhole’s Sound And It’s Sci Fi Material
As a science fiction writer, I like to scroll through the news looking for weird scientific happenings or vague, unexplained phenomena that could easily be spun into a fantastical story.
Sometimes you get bamboozled by clickbait titles and half-baked articles with no research behind them. That’s the game you play.
But sometimes you get really lucky and find a piece that just clicks. And when NASA put out their video of the blackhole’s sound, it was like getting a whole nugget while panning for gold.
What Sound Does A Blackhole Make?
Now, one of the things I was taught as a kid was that there isn’t sound in space. That Star Wars was space fantasy, not science fiction, and laser beams and explosions in space don’t make cool noises. Space is a vacuum and sounds are pretty much sucked up into the void.
Well, whoever told me that, they lied. There ARE cool noises in space, and NASA just revealed an eerie sound coming from a blackhole. Take a listen:
Now, this wailing, windy sound isn’t what you’ll hear if you roll up to the blackhole in your spaceship. It’s taken scientists a long time to be able to parse out these sounds.
According to NASA, these sound waves were born out of data collected from the blackhole in the Perseus galaxy in 2003. Technically, the “pressure waves” sent out from the blackhole rippled through hot gasses and created these sound waves, but they weren’t on the spectrum of human comprehension.
A new sonification program just now made the sounds from this blackhole audible to human ears. In fact, the waves were raised by 57 octaves in order for us to hear them!
In NASA’s official press release, they said that they also were able to formulate sound data from another blackhole, commonly known as M87. That video is below:
Spinning Yarns with Blackhole Sound
For some reason, the first thing I thought about when I heard the Perseus blackhole sounds was the big singing sinkhole from Adventure Time. I’m not sure why, but something about sounds coming from large, dark spaces made my brain connect those two things.
But it got me thinking about the importance of music in SFF media. In Adventure Time, the song from the sinkhole is sweet, and helps Finn and Jake just enjoy the world around them.
What does the blackhole song mean? Could the sound waves be translated into some kind of code? Will the Fox Mulders of the world latch onto the audio clips and try to dissect messages from aliens?
Perhaps the sound is the hum of an ancient mothership that’s fighting to escape the clutches of the blackhole. Or maybe it’s a warning siren, and blackholes are like the beacons of Gondor, but from space.
New discoveries like this help drive the SFF collective braintrust, and I’m curious to hear what you all think the blackhole sounds might be.
Other Neat NASA Happenings
The blackhole sounds videos were just the most recent things NASA released, but they’ve been on a roll for the past few weeks. The James Webb Space Telescope has been snapping some awesome pictures since it replaced Hubble in December of 2021.
One of the most recent pictures was a stunning snapshot of Jupiter. The image was captured with the Webb telescope and infrared filters were applied to bring out the bright details of the planet’s atmosphere. The filters helped to pinpoint auroras and other hazes that are a part of Jupiter’s make-up.
This picture of Jupiter is mesmerizing because for so long, we’ve seen cloudy or indistinct images, but this one is so clear and crisp. It reminds me of the acrylic pouring videos or a glass marble. It’s beautiful.
Out of all of the Webb telescope images, this one is my favorite, aside from the Cosmic Cliffs image that was released in July.
If you’re a fan of space exploration and vintage Space Race literature, you should check out the interview we did with Alan Smale. His new book, Hot Moon, is an alternate history about the US and Soviet race to the moon.
Interview with Astrophysicist & Author, Alan Smale – Part 2
We’re back with the second part of our interview with Alan Smale! His new book, Hot Moon, is rooted in an alternate 1979, where Soviet spacecraft meet NASA ships in space.
In this part, we continue our conversation about Hot Moon, as well as Smale’s future plans and writing process.
To read the first part of the interview, click here.
IP: What was it about the Apollo program specifically that sparked the idea for Hot Moon?
AS: One of the great things about the Apollo program was its ambitiousness. We went from zero-to-sixty in space very quickly, with the Mercury and Gemini programs leading up to it. All of which had the obvious aim of sending Americans to the Moon and back again.
And that goal caused a huge amount of technological innovation in a very short time. There were a lot of risks involved and a lot of hairy moments, especially with Apollo 13. There was a great deal of improvisation and ingenuity, on top of those aspects which were extremely well-planned. So I think it’s very fertile ground for fiction.
The Moon landings themselves were incredibly impactful, and it was just great fun to see people bouncing around on the Moon’s surface. In Hot Moon, I tried to bring out that excitement. I mean, the book is a thriller, but I think I managed to get quite a bit of the thrill over the space program in there as well.
Plus, there’s the conflict aspect of the story. In Hot Moon, we see the first space battle, between the Apollo spacecraft, the combined Command and Lunar Module, and the classic Soyuz Soviet craft. These spacecraft were frankly very clunky technologies, and I think those scenes are unlike anything people have seen in fiction before, or at least I haven’t read anything like it. Writing it was great fun, and it was exciting to extrapolate and think about how the technology could have been improved in the late 1970s and early 1980s, if the two superpower space programs had continued on with the same frenetic pace.
So I had a blast writing it and it’s getting good reactions from readers so far. I’m very happy with it.
IP: Had your timeline been a reality, and the US had continued at the same pace, what would your prediction for 2079 be, in terms of space exploration?
AS: When I was a kid, I was convinced that my future lay in space, that by the time I was the age I am now, I’d be living and working in space. In the 1960s, there was no particular reason for me to think that wouldn’t happen. People were talking about going to Mars by 2000, and if we’d kept up the investment in space and everything had gone well, we could possibly have done that.
Of course, there would have been factors that slowed down progress. There would have been a lot of the same societal pressures that happened in our existing timeline. Some people would have been concerned about the cost, and the value of going off-world.
But if we’d managed to keep up the momentum, I certainly think that we could have visited Mars, and had human flybys of Venus, among other things, in my lifetime.
2079? Whether we could have set up permanent colonies in space by that time, I’m not really sure. I guess if we’d pushed really hard, we might’ve gotten to it in one hundred years, but it’s very hard to extrapolate that far. There are so many factors that go into making space colonies or visiting Mars a reality. The politics, in particular, are challenging. Incoming administrations like to shape the space program in their own way and set new priorities. In our own history, the flow of money to NASA was a constant issue all the way through that period, and remains so today.
IP: Do you think privatized space operations like SpaceX or Blue Origin are improving our chances of getting to Mars and exploring farther?
AS: I think the energy that has come into the human space flight arena from the private sector is generally a good thing. There are obviously some personalities involved that can be a bit problematic, but I think in terms of increasing the pace of exploration, and pushing the envelope, the private space companies are a welcome addition to what NASA is doing.
And, to be honest, I wouldn’t be at all surprised if the first human to land on Mars got there as a result of a private space flight rather than a NASA mission.
IP: Is there any level of collaboration between NASA and these other privatized space programs?
AS: Oh yes, there certainly is. A lot of the flights to the ISS, the International Space Station, are being conducted by the private sector. There’s actually quite close collaboration between many of the private companies and NASA.
IP: Interesting! Jumping back to Hot Moon for a second, can you tell me a little more about the Apollo Rising series? Can we expect to see another 15 books or will it be a trilogy?
AS: I think it’s very unlikely that it will turn into 15 books. I don’t have the energy for that! I put quite a lot of effort into writing Hot Moon.
I originally conceived Hot Moon as a standalone, and that’s how I was marketing it and trying to sell it. My agent was considering it that way when she was sending it out to publishers, too.
But then, once CAEZIK bought Hot Moon, we got a lot of positive reactions and a number of nice blurbs from really high-powered authors. My publisher, Shahid Mahmud, had a lot of faith in the book, and so we started talking about a sequel. I admit, I didn’t immediately jump at the idea. I wanted to go back and think it through.
I took a couple of months to think about where the story would go. Surprisingly, I discovered in reading back through my notes that there were actually quite a few ideas that I hadn’t made the most of. Not loose ends, as such – Hot Moon is still complete in itself, and still reads well as a standalone. But there were characters that hadn’t really come to the foreground in the first book, people who could make a big mark in the second. The ideas started flowing, and I began to see all kinds of opportunities to continue the story, and came up with what I think is a very satisfying plot.
Just like Hot Moon, the second book – Radiant Sky – will stand up on its own, with its own story arc. We have the same lead character–my astronaut, Vivian Carter–and many of the other people from Hot Moon will be returning. There will also be a number of new characters, and the story will go in directions that I don’t think most readers will be expecting.
Whether there’ll be further books beyond Radiant Sky, I don’t know. I’m only contracted for the first two books, so we’ll have to wait and see. If they’re successful, if they find their audience, I’d hope there’s a good chance of a third book. I doubt that I’d want to go beyond three … but then again, in the beginning I thought Hot Moon would be a standalone. So I guess anything could happen. It’s kind of an evolving process, I’d say.
IP: Have you started writing the second book?
AS: Yes, I have. When I pitched it to CAEZIK I sent a very detailed outline – probably a lot more detailed than they were expecting. They’d asked for something relatively short, but what I sent was eighteen pages of fairly dense prose. In addition to describing the plot in detail, I really wanted to work through the politics in the background, and the new technology as well. I guess I was proving to myself as well as to my publisher and editor that I really had the goods to do this.
I think I must be one of the few authors who pitches books with a technical appendix!
As far as the writing goes, I have about 50,000 words of Radiant Sky written now, but they’re very, very rough draft words.
I still need to do quite a bit more editing on them before I can really show them to anybody, but I’m working through various scenes, fleshing out my ideas, and making sure everything hangs together. I’ve made decent progress, but I have a lot more work to do.
IP: In addition to the Hot Moon sequel, what other projects do you have in the works?
AS: I do have a number of new ideas rattling around, and I still have some activity going on with my first trilogy, Clash of Eagles, which came out from Del Rey. Those books are set in a completely different world, in which the Roman Empire survives into the 13th century in its classical form and is now moving into North America.
The Clash trilogy was published between 2015 and 2017, and even though the series is finished, there’s still quite a bit of interest in them. I still get interviews with people wanting to talk about those books. I might go back to that world in the future for some shorter fiction, and I still think about that a lot.
But I do like dotting around history and exploring various times and places. I have several pieces of short fiction fermenting in my mind, and when I get time I’ll start on those.
Also, Rick Wilber and I collaborated on a long novella, or maybe a short novel, called “The Wandering Warriors” which was originally published in Asimov’s, and then came out as a book from WordFire Press in 2020. Rick and I are very keen on this world that we made. It’s a time travel story that combines his passion for baseball and my interest in ancient Romans. So we’ve actually written a story about Roman baseball, and it was quite successful. And he and I are working together again, throwing ideas back and forth about how we might write a sequel to that. It’s a really open-ended concept that we could continue to have a lot of fun with.
So I have various projects going on in the background and a lot of ideas percolating, but promoting Hot Moon and writing Radiant Sky are really my main focuses right now.
IP: So this is kind of a different question. How do you manage keeping a balance between writing fiction and writing professionally for your job? Can you describe what that process looks like?
AS: Yes, certainly. If there are days when I’ve done a lot of technical writing for work, like writing a paper or a report, I would say it’s very difficult to write creatively after that.
But there are other days where I spend a lot of time in meetings, reading up on something, or talking to people. On those days I can really focus on writing in the evenings. For obvious reasons, I do most of my writing on evenings and weekends. I have a lot of very busy weekends where I’m trying to get down to as many words as possible and also do all the day-to-day life stuff that I have to do.
So, I’m not sure I have a process as such, but I do have to manage my time very carefully. And yes, it is sometimes hard to get my brain to do all the things I need it to do!
A big thanks goes out to Alan for having this chat! If you like the sounds of Hot Moon, it’s available for pre-order now from most major retailers.
The book is slated for release on July 26th, 2022.
To learn more about Alan’s writing, check out his website!
Interview with Astrophysicist & Author Alan Smale
It’s not often that you see a hard science fiction novel crafted with such care and meticulous research as Hot Moon by Alan Smale.
Astrophysicist by day, award-winning author by night, Alan Smale’s newest book is about an alternate 1979 where the Soviets are bent on wresting the Moon from NASA’s hands. This sci fi novel features accurate details of orbital mechanics, daring feats of ingenuity, and a thrilling battle in space.
We sat down with Alan to discuss how he started writing, the inspiration for Hot Moon, and his future plans.
Isaac Payne: So Alan, I know that not only are you an award-winning author, you’re also an astrophysicist for NASA. Tell me, how did you decide to get into astrophysics?
Alan Smale: Sure. It really started when I was a kid. I was always interested in astronomy, and fascinated by the Apollo program as well. I used to go out in the backyard with my dad when I was young and look at the Moon and planets, the stars and galaxies. I stayed interested in astronomy for all of my formative years.
And then later on, I went to college to study physics at the University of Oxford, they had optional astrophysics courses in the first and third year, and so I took those and enjoyed them thoroughly.
After my bachelors degree, I was accepted for a doctoral program. It’s actually called DPhil in Oxford, Doctor of Philosophy, rather than a PhD, but it’s the same thing. I did optical and x-ray astronomy research there for three years or so while earning my doctorate. After that I did a post-doc at the Mullard Space Science Laboratory, part of University College London.
When my first post-doc ended, I moved to the States to take up a job at NASA, at the Goddard Space Flight Center. I’ve been with NASA ever since.
IP: What kind of research do you do at NASA?
AS: I study low mass x-ray binaries, which are binary star systems that are quite tightly bound, and one of those stars is a compact object, either a black hole or a neutron star. These are extremely dense objects. Material from the more normal companion star spirals into that compact object, and that’s where the x-rays come from. If we study those sources by looking at both the x-rays and the optical emission, we can learn a lot about them.
IP: So obviously you’ve been pretty ingrained with science and astronomy since you were young. Were you an avid science fiction reader, too?
AS: Oh, yeah, I cut my teeth on all of the old classics. When I was growing up, I read a lot of Isaac Asimov, Ursula Le Guin, Robert Heinlein, Arthur C. Clarke, Ray Bradbury, Larry Niven. All of this stuff was really prevalent in the atmosphere around me at the time.
I’ve been interested in science fiction all my life, as well as science and astronomy. In fact, all the sci-fi I read probably played a big role in my interest in the sciences. The space program, astrophysics, and science fiction have always coupled together quite tightly, for me.
IP: And when did you start writing science fiction? Did you start pretty early on with that as well?
AS: I started writing science fiction in a very juvenile kind of way. When I was a kid I used to write what now would be called Star Trek fan fiction. But I really started writing seriously for publication when I turned 30. I was already living in the States and working at the Goddard Space Flight Center by then. I’d finished my academic studies, and I was no longer a student at that point, so I had a little more free time. Then, pretty soon after that, I started having stories accepted.
IP: What was the name of your first publication?
AS: It was a short story called “The Breath of Princes” and it appeared in the A Wizard’s Dozen anthology from Harcourt Brace, edited by Michael Stearns.
It was actually a fantasy story, which is kind of funny looking back on it now. In fact, my first two or three published stories were fantasy, but over the past fifteen years, most of my writing has been alternate history or hard science fiction.
IP: What about the genre of historical fiction do you find fascinating?
AS: I’ve always been a history buff. Growing up in England, there was a lot of history around. My family used to go to Hadrian’s Wall for vacations, and to Bath, so I got to explore a lot of Roman ruins and remains there.
I’m not actually sure what the precipitating event was that made me focus on historical writing, but one thing about it is that it’s very different from my day job. I feel as though I’m using very different mental muscles when I’m writing history-based speculative fiction than when I’m doing academic research.
My most recent book, Hot Moon, is very technical, hard science fiction, but until I got to that book, most of my fiction writing was in a different head-space from the day-job work I was doing. Doing scientific research is very different from writing about history, so it was a complete break for my brain, the two sides didn’t bleed into each other.
It feels very refreshing, somehow, when I’m working hard at both science and writing. A change is as good as a rest!
Anyway: I’d always been fascinated by history, and by some of the older alternate history tales. Books like Lest Darkness Fall by Sprague de Camp, and The Man in the High Castle by Philip K. Dick.
The past is a very fertile playground for fiction. And one of the things I like about alternate history is that it kind of holds up a mirror to the real history; I get the resonances of what really happened, underlying the tale that I’m telling, and they both reinforce each other and play off each other.
If you know the real historical events, then you’ll know that the events in a given story are different because of a different result in a war, or an election, and perhaps different people are in the foreground. And by doing that, it kind of makes you think about how history is made. Who the important people are. How history really works.
I just found myself gravitating more and more to that kind of writing over the last 10 or 15 years. Over that period, a lot of my reading has been historical non-fiction, and most of my writing output has been historically based.
IP: You mentioned that Hot Moon is hard science fiction, as well as being an alternate history. Can readers expect for Hot Moon to stay within the bounds of 1979 astrophysics, or does the book move into science fiction with more advanced technologies?
AS: I definitely stay within those bounds. There’s nothing in Hot Moon that wouldn’t have been possible with the technology that they had back then. I spent a lot of time researching the Apollo program, which was a real labor of love because as I mentioned before, I was really into it when I was a kid.
I spent a lot of time getting into the nuts and bolts of the technology, really getting deep into figuring out what was possible and what wasn’t. I obey the laws of physics throughout the book, which is actually a pain because orbital mechanics are quite complicated and it really constrains what my characters can do! They need large amounts of fuel for relatively small orbit changes, for example, and things like that.
So in the first book, there is nothing that wasn’t possible with the technology of the time. The Apollo and Soyuz spacecraft, the Lunar Rovers, and other hardware in the book either existed in the 1970s, or could have been in existence in that timeframe if the US and Soviet space programs had continued. There would have been no technical showstoppers with implementing any of the vehicles, machinery, or bases in Hot Moon.
In the second book we’ll certainly see more of the speculative technology that was suggested at the time. These are ideas that people had done a bit of experimentation with, some prototyping and technical development, but which never came to fruition. There were a lot of bright ideas around then, but a lot of those programs ended up being canceled, or not coming to fruition for other reasons.
So, overall, I’ve tried really hard to keep the science very close to reality. There’s a key political difference in how we get to the world of Hot Moon in 1979. And one of those differences is that the US involvement in Vietnam is much more limited, and of a shorter duration.
As a result, the US has quite a lot more money. In reality, the US couldn’t possibly have pursued the war in Vietnam and the Space Race simultaneously without making huge concessions elsewhere. So, a different Vietnam War, and a rather different Cold War, are central to the Hot Moon universe.
Make sure to check out the second part of our conversation with Alan Smale, right here on the Signals from the Edge blog on Thursday, July 14th!
In the meantime, check out another one of our interviews:
Will A Solar Flare or Geomagnetic Storm End the Earth?
As the Earth changes due to shifting climates, pollution, and a whole slew of other factors, we always have to be on the watch for weird weather phenomena. Tornados, volcanic eruptions, hurricanes–you name it.
Natural disasters happen all the time, and while there’s little we can do to control them, our best hope is to be as prepared as possible for their inevitable strike.
But recently, we’ve had a new threat to worry about, one that can impact more than just our houses or neighborhoods. These new threats are from outer space, and they can impact our whole human livelihood.
The past few days you’ve probably been hearing about solar flares, a geomagnetic storm watch, and, if you did your research, co-rotating interaction regions of solar wind.
It got me thinking about what we can even do to protect ourselves from these solar happenings, and wondering whether or not the end of times will be brought on by some kind of “space weather”.
Understanding Solar Flares and Geomagnetic Storms
There are a few different phenomena that occur around our Sun, and they all have different impacts on Earth.
A solar flare is a sudden brightening of the Sun’s surface that usually lasts for just a few minutes. Solar flares are caused by the release of magnetic energy stored in the Sun’s atmosphere.
Geomagnetic storms are disturbances in Earth’s magnetic field that are caused by changes in the direction and intensity of the Sun’s magnetic field. These changes are usually associated with solar flares.
Solar flares and geomagnetic storms can both cause problems for us here on Earth. Solar flares can disrupt communications and power grids, while geomagnetic storms can cause auroras (northern and southern lights) and interfere with navigation systems.
You might have also heard about a coronal mass ejection (CME), which is a large release of plasma and magnetic field from the Sun’s atmosphere. CMEs are sometimes associated with solar flares, but they can also occur without any flare activity.
When a CME hits Earth, it can interact with our planet’s magnetic field. This interaction can cause a geomagnetic storm.
What is a Co-Rotating Interaction Region?
A co-rotating interaction region (CIR) is a region where the solar wind slows down and becomes denser. CIRs are usually associated with an increase in geomagnetic activity.
Solar flares, geomagnetic storms, and CIRs are all caused by changes in the Sun’s magnetic field.
Last week, scientists at NASA detected a large sunspot that was rapidly growing on the surface of the sun, and they anticipated a solar flare at some point in the near future. Sunspots are the precursors to–and warnings of–a change to the Sun’s magnetic field, and potential threats to the Earth.
Thankfully, the sunspot rotated away from Earth, which decreased the risk of solar flare. However, scientists later found out that the geomagnetic storm watch–and the subsequent magnetic shock wave, was a result of the co-rotating interaction region.
The CIR doesn’t have any warning signs–no sunspot–which is why no one was able to predict the geomagnetic storm.
What Do These Things Mean For Earth?
I, for one, was slightly concerned about the news of all the solar activities over the past week. I never really understood what kind of impact solar flares or CMEs could have on Earth, so I did some research.
The common belief is that a solar flare acts like an electromagnetic pulse, disrupting electronics in the vicinity. But, the impacts that solar flares have on the Earth actually are quite minor. The wave of electromagnetic radiation increases the ionization rate in the Earth’s upper atmosphere, which may interfere with short wave radio functionality, but doesn’t do much else.
There have been reports of large solar flares or CMEs that caused problems in the 1970s with detonating underwater mines, and SpaceX reports that many of their Starlink satellites were damaged in early 2022 by solar activity.
Of course, scientists are able to predict and monitor solar flares–evident because of the sunspots–and prepare for any kind of bump in radiation.
But, CIRs are harder to predict and not so well understood, and they can cause unexpected geomagnetic storms to hit Earth. It’s these storms, the ones that come with no precedence, that are dangerous to our livelihoods.
Powerful geomagnetic storms have been known to:
- Overload power transformers
- Damage power grids for long periods of time
- Disrupt communications systems
- Level orbiting satellites
- Increase chances of radiation poisoning for astronauts and high-flying aircraft
All of these things, when separate, are terrible, but when combined, can be catastrophic. Can you imagine if the power grid went down indefinitely? What would you do about your food storage? No computers, no Internet, presumably, and limited communications with anyone over any channel. It’d be a return to an almost prehistoric age.
For many of this, it’s the stuff of science fiction, but as more events like the geomagnetic storm watch occur, it becomes more likely that we’ll all be impacted by some kind of solar event.
Can We Use Renewable Energy for Space Travel?
The Space Race of olden days is over, but the spirit lives on today with the growing desire to conquer Mars. Privatized space programs go toe-to-toe with NASA and CNSA while the mass public looks on and questions the future.
One of the questions that has always burned in me is “how will we power spacecraft in the future when we’re all out of fossil fuels? What happens if Earth can no longer sustain us, and we have to find alternative energy sources?”
With each passing day, SpaceX and Blue Origin work toward touching the stars, while things down here on Earth are approaching an important crossroads.
As the conversation around renewable energy grows louder in the face of rising fuel prices and economic inflation rates many of us have never seen, another, less urgent question rises up. We might be able to use renewable energy to power our vehicles, but can we use renewable energy sources for space travel?
Renewable Energy That’s Plausible For Space Travel
Right now, you might be running through the short list of all the renewable energy sources and weighing which ones could possibly work in space. Well, there are a slim few.
Wind power is obviously a bust, because, no wind. Geothermal is also a no go for obvious reasons, and hydroelectric power falls in the same boat.
So that leaves us with a few options. Solar power is perhaps the most viable option for powering space travel. It’s already being used in various space capacities, from powering satellites to beaming down solar power to Earth, as sci-fi as that sounds.
But one of the main problems with using solar power is that it doesn’t provide enough propulsion to exit Earth’s atmosphere. With jet fuel, combustion provides an immense amount of energy all at once, which is how we can send rockets into space and keep them traveling even after they exit our atmosphere.
With solar power, you need a conduit to harness the power. We might be able to turn solar energy into electricity, but without the right kind of motor or funnel, we won’t be able to use that electricity for anything useful.
However, when solar energy is thought of as a proponent of chemical propulsion methods, engineers can cut down on overall fuel costs associated with sending spacecraft into orbit.
Using Solar Power for Farther Travel
NASA has a program dedicated to research and development of solar-powered technologies for use in spacecraft propulsion. SEP, or Solar Electric Propulsion, is designed to “extend the length and capabilities of ambitious new exploration and science missions.”
The way SEP works is fairly straightforward.
- Onboard solar arrays collect solar rays and convert it into electricity, to be used for a number of spacecraft systems. Arrays are either in a fan or a window-shade formation.
- Energy from the solar arrays is used to power electrostatic Hall thrusters.
- Electrons trapped in the magnetic field created by the thrusters then ionize inert xenon gas to create a plasma propellant, which moves the spacecraft forward at a constant speed.
This technology has been in the works for a long time, but it’s finally starting to come to the forefront of space innovation. Researchers theorize that eventually, SEP will be one of the primary methods for space propulsion.
There’s still the question of leaving Earth’s atmosphere, and whether solar power can generate enough electricity to launch a craft into space. But, SEP makes it possible to travel longer distances in space without the need for heavy, onboard fuel sources like conventional rockets.
Futuristic Energy Sources for Space Travel
In science fiction, one of the most common themes is using some kind of nuclear power for space travel. It appears in Star Trek, The Expanse, and plenty of other popular sci-fi novels, shows, and games.
Nuclear fusion tends to be the technology that’s most used, and it’s different than fission, which is the process used to split atoms (like for the atomic bomb).
Great strides are being made toward making fusion energy a viable energy source, but because of the size constraints, it’s unlikely that we’ll see them used in spacecraft any time soon.
Whenever discussing the logistics of space propulsion, I like to go back to Warhammer 40k. The orks in 40k have such large numbers that their collective willpower is enough to psychically force junky spaceships to run flawlessly. If only our own space travel was as simple as that! Willpower is perhaps the most renewable energy source out there!
Space Miners May Be Hunting For More Than Ice In The Future
As our civilization has evolved, we’ve gone from gathering resources above ground for our shelters and day-to-day lives. Wood, stone, and natural fibers all functioned as the backbone for early human civilizations.
But as time went on, we started to look deeper, digging through the ground at our feet to discover iron ore and other precious metals.
And at this point in time, we’re pretty familiar with all the resources Earth has to offer, and are making quick use of them.
So, it begs the question: Where will we turn for resources once the Earth’s bounty has been depleted?
The answer is space. And mining in space might be closer to reality than we think.
Codexes for Space Miners
Science fiction writers have been thinking about this issue for a long time. Mining asteroids is a popular element of many space opera novels.
Pushing Ice by Alastair Reynolds has characters mining cometary ice in our solar system. Leviathan Wakes by James S. A. Corey opens with the ship Canterbury hauling that same ice to Ceres Station. Powerstat by Ben Bova investigates harnessing massive amounts of solar energy from space. Countless other novels explore the idea of collecting resources from space, like The Web Between the World by Charles Sheffield and Macao Station by Mike Berry.
It’s fair to say that space miners are a critical part of many space operas, but how close to reality are these sci fi stories?
What Are We Mining in Space?
A recent article from Scientific News states that the collision of two neutron stars can produce massive amounts of heavy metal, like gold and platinum.
When two dead stars collide, debris and other materials are shot out into space. Eventually, they’re transformed into familiar heavy metals through a phenomenon known as the r-process.
This process occurs when “atomic nuclei climb the periodic table, swallowing up neutrons and decaying radioactively”.
But this is old news, these discoveries are at least 5 years old at this point. Yet, this data suggests that in the future, we might be mining more than just asteroid ice in space.
Not only could we collect gold and platinum from space, but mining asteroids could yield nickel, cobalt, iron, aluminum, and a slew of other materials, including hydrogen, one of the proponents of rocket fuel.
Urgently Hiring: Space Miners
An article by Alex Gilbert in the Milken Institute Review, published in April 2021, claims that mining in space might happen as soon as 2024.
NASA recently handed out contracts to four companies, allowing them to extract sample material from the moon. The moon will probably be a hotspot for mining and exploration, with it being only a few days’ journey from Earth. Studies of have shown that there are large, frozen deposits of water in many of the moon’s craters, and who knows what’s lying under the surface.
But, just like in the works of science fiction we so revere, scientists are setting their sites farther than the moon. Asteroids and other moons—include those of Mars—are targets for potential mining operations. Japanese and Chinese space missions are already planned to bring back samples from one of Mars’ moons.
However, the realm of interplanetary mining gets into some sticky legal red tape. There isn’t a formal set of guidelines of who gets to mine what, or colonize where. Space law is still in its infancy, but the US, Luxembourg, and the United Arab Emirates are leading the charge in developing space-resource laws.
But certain treaties pose as roadblocks for space exploitation, and for good measure. The Outer Space Treaty of 1967 states that no celestial bodies shall be exploited for national gain. We can only assume that must also apply to individuals such as Jeff Bezos and Elon Musk, who have set their eyes on the stars as a way to line their pockets.
The difficulty of ironing out interplanetary doctrines between all the nations gives the technology ample time to meet the standards for widespread mineral harvesting.
See You Later, Space Miner
All of this is to say that sci fi worlds filled with space miners, pirates, and intergalactic diplomacy might not be far off. While we might not see it in our lifetimes, the foundations for mineral exploitation and far-flung space travel are under construction as we speak.
And our successors might not just be chunking up space ice, but rather harvesting gold, platinum, and other precious metals from neutron star fallout and hefty cash-cow asteroids.
But what do you think? What will become the most valuable resource in space? Hydrogen? Iron? Let us know in the comments below.
5 Habitable Exoplanets That Could Replace Earth
Now, maybe you’ve probably heard, and read, a lot of crazy stories and theories involving aliens, extraterrestrials, and possible life outside planet Earth. But the biggest catch is: it is possible. And we have some exoplanets to prove that!
But what exactly makes an exoplanet habitable? According to NASA, a planet can be considered habitable if it has what it takes to sustain life for a period of time. Like drinkable water sources, atmosphere that allows unaided breathing, and climates that don’t reach extreme temperatures.
The planet usually resides in what’s called the habitable zone; not too close to their host star as to make the planet’s surface unbearably hot, and not too far away from the host star to freeze the planet.
Now that you know the requirements to classify habitable exoplanets, we have gathered a list of some of them that might become the next Earth.
Check them out:
- Proxima Centauri b
- Ross 128 b
- Tau Ceti f
- Wolf 1061 c
- Teegarden’s Star b
Proxima Centauri b
Proxima Centauri b orbits around the habitable zone of the red dwarf star Proxima Centauri (the closest star to the Sun and part of a triple star system).
The exoplanet was discovered in August 2016 by using the radial velocity method, where periodic Doppler shifts of the parent star’s spectral lines suggest an orbiting object.
The Proxima Centauri (the habitable zone where it orbits around), with the correct planetary conditions and atmospheric properties, may present the existence of liquid water on the surface of the planet, which makes the Proxima Centauri b exoplanet habitable.
In 1935, Murray Leinster’s short story “Proxima Centauri” puts human travelers into the Proxima Centauri system. The story received mixed reviews, but caught the eye of Isaac Asimov, who talks about it in the anthology Before the Golden Age.
Plus, Stephen Baxter predicted the existence of Proxima b three years before it was actually discovered with his book, Proxima!
Ross 128 b
Ross 128 b is an earth-sized exoplanet orbiting within the inner habitable zone of the red dwarf Ross 128.
It was found using a decade’s worth of radial velocity data from the European Southern Observatory’s HARPS spectrograph (High Accuracy Radial Velocity Planet Searcher) at the La Silla Observatory in Chile.
Ross 128 b’s orbital patterns haven’t been completely confirmed, but it tends to stay within its habitable zone. However, if it has an Earth-like atmosphere, the planet could distribute the energy received from the star around the planet to allow more areas to potentially hold liquid water.
Tau Ceti f
Tau Ceti f is a super-Earth or mini-Neptune orbiting Tau Ceti.
This exoplanet was discovered in 2012 by statistical analyses of the star’s variations in radial velocity, based on data received by HIRES, APPS, and HARPS.
In October 2020, Tau Ceti f was confirmed to be the most potentially habitable exoplanet orbiting a Sun-like star.
The exoplanet has an estimated equilibrium temperature of only 190 Kelvin. But with a thicker atmosphere and a larger ocean, the temperature could be similar to Earth’s.
The Tau Ceti system has fascinated science fiction writers for decades, as it has been a part of literature by Arthur Clarke, Dan Simmons, Lois McMaster Bujold, and most recently, Andy Weir with Project Hail Mary.
Wolf 1061 c
Orbiting within the habitable zone of the red dwarf star Wolf 1061 in the constellation Ophiuchus, Wolf 1061 c is the fifth-closest known potentially habitable zone, classified as a super-Earth.
Since it is so close to its star and possibly tidally locked, the results show that on one side, it is permanently facing the star and the other side permanently facing away.
This could mean the existence of an extreme variations of temperatures, but the terminator line that separates the illuminated side and the dark side could potentially be habitable, as the temperature there could be suitable for liquid water to exist.
A larger portion of the exoplanet could also be habitable if it has a thick enough atmosphere to facilitate heat transfer away from the side facing the star.
Teegarden’s Star b
An exoplanet discovered in July 2019 by a peer-review article in Astronomy & Astrophysics published by Mathias Zechmeister and more than 150 other scientists.
This peer-review was published as a part of the CARMENES survey, supporting the existence of two candidate exoplanets orbiting Teegarden’s Star.
The radial velocity method detected possible habitable exoplanets due to the Teegarden Star’s alignment and faintness. After three years of observation, two periodic radial velocity signals emerged from Teegarden’s Star b at 4.91 days.
It orbits around the habitable zone of its host star, indicating the possibility of existing stable liquid water on the surface, thanks to its atmospheric composition.
The host star’s composition also bodes well for the exoplanet’s habitability. Most red dwarfs emit powerful flares, which can strip off other planets’ atmospheres and cause them to be uninhabitable. However, Teegarden’s Star is relatively quiet and inactive, making Tegarden’s Star b a good candidate for human life.
New Habitable Exoplanets Everyday!
In July 2020, an article at the Science Daily News reported a study from the University of Arizona that pinpointed the existence of methane in plumes of Saturn’s moon Enceladus, the sixth-largest moon of Saturn, measured by the Cassini spacecraft on Saturn’s icy moon.
This could be a sign of possible life on the moon since the information received by Cassini is compatible with the characteristics of a habitable environment.
So there might be a potentially hospitable exoplanet closer than we think!
If you liked this article, I highly suggest you check out Nasa’s Exoplanet Exploration website. It has a lot of cool facts and an expansive exoplanet catalog.
The History, and Future, of Animal Testing in Space
The pages of space travel history are filled with records of countless animals and insects who were sent into space.
Perhaps the most famous was Laika, the cosmonaut dog sent into orbit on Sputnik 2 in 1957. She became the first animal to ever enter space, and her journey sparked a flurry of other tests that eventually led to the first human space trip in 1961.
But, why do scientists send animals into space, anyways? And what do recent medical discoveries like intestinal liquid ventilation mean for the future of space travel?
Why Perform Animal Testing in Space?
Animal testing has polarized the science community. On one side, the human safety activists argue that animal testing helps protect us from harmful side effects of pharmaceuticals, cleaning supplies, and pretty much every other product under the sun.
On the other side of the spectrum, the animal rights activists argue that there are other ways to safely perform tests that doesn’t cost lab animals their lives.
There are valid points on both sides of the argument, but sending animals to space has sort of become the posterchild for both animal testing and abolishing animal testing.
So why do we send dogs, chimps, and spiders to space to begin with?
In the early days of the space race, scientists were uncertain about the conditions in space. There were a lot of unanswered questions:
- Could humans survive the g-force of entry and reentry?
- Would the human body withstand the stress of a prolonged space trip?
- How would the body readjust to Earth’s gravity?
Bioastronautics specialists figured that the road to these answers was simply to send various creatures into orbit and observe the results. Unfortunately, almost all animals sent into space died from the stress. But their sacrifice led to the first human spacewalk, the first feet on the moon, and the development of the ISS.
What Kind of Creatures Got Tickets to Space?
While Laika was the first dog in space, she was followed by:
- 32 monkeys and apes (Ham was the first chimp in space)
- Small mammals like dogs, cats, guinea pigs, and rabbits (Félicette was the first cat in space)
- Mice and rats
- Frogs, turtles, newts, and geckos
- Insects and arachnids (ants, fruit flies, orb spiders, etc.)
While no adult birds were brought to space, the American flight Discovery STS-29 took 32 chicken embryos into space.
Once scientists had a substantial amount of data about the effects of space on the body, they became interested in unborn creatures.
In addition to the countless live animals sent into orbit, scientists have sent quail and frog eggs into space, as well as the seeds for potatoes, cottonseed, and rapeseed.
But new studies have shown that certain animals have the capacity to breathe with much lower levels of oxygen than previously observed, which is obviously a plus when it comes to space travel.
Discovery of Intestine Breathing in Pigs and Rodents
A new study published in the medical journal Med presents the findings of how oxygenated liquid given to the intestines supported two mammals in respiratory failure.
Both pigs and mice were able to survive environments with critically-low oxygen levels because of oxygen tubes inserted through their rectums to reach the intestines.
Kind of absurd, right?
Well, scientists have known about non-lung respiratory functions for a while. Sea cucumbers and some freshwater catfish, for example, use their intestines to process oxygen. But until now, no mammals have been known to possess such abilities.
What does intestinal breathing in these mammals mean for humans? And what does it mean for the future of animal testing in space?
Medical Benefits of Non-Lung Breathing
The researchers who found the intestinal breathing capabilities of pigs, rats, and mice stated that the discovery might be used in the future to help human patients in respiratory failure.
75% of mice that were given the intestinal liquid ventilation system survived for almost an hour in oxygen-deficient environments, and in non-lethal oxygen-deficient environments, mice with the intestinal liquid ventilation were more active than mice without.
It’s still unclear whether or not humans have the same intestinal breathing abilities, but Takanori Takebe, head researcher of the project, said that “The level of arterial oxygenation provided by our ventilation system, if scaled for human application, is likely sufficient to treat patients with severe respiratory failure, potentially providing life-saving oxygenation.”
In the current medical climate, such a device might remedy the lack of ventilators for COVID-19 patients.
Thinking Outside the Box
As science fiction enthusiasts, we like to take real-world discoveries and bend them a little. In this case, the finding of intestinal breathing sparks questions about a functional use for it in the vacuum of space (or at least, in a space station).
Picture this: you’re on a spaceship in deep space, life support systems are failing and your friend is badly wounded. Oxygen is a precious commodity and you’re already running low. You have to keep your friend alive until backup arrives.
The intestinal liquid ventilation system can support your friend’s respiratory function while not consuming valuable oxygen gas. You’re able to keep him stable until rescue arrives.
While not the most realistic scenario, it’s perfectly feasible that in the future, intestinal liquid ventilation will be used to life-saving effect, not just on Earth, but in space too.
And who knows, maybe pigs and mice will be sent into orbit to test the ILV system before it’s approved for human use. While many of the animals sent to space lost their lives, their sacrifice made modern space exploration possible, and will continue to advance our trek beyond Earth.
Updates From the Edge: March 6
Perseverance: A New Mars Rover
NASA’s new rover, previously called Mars 2020, finally has a name: Perseverance. There was a huge contest that got about 28,000 entries and the winner was a middle school student named Alexander Mather.
In an example of why he won the contest, here’s a powerful line from his essay: “We are a species of explorers, and we will meet many setbacks on the way to Mars. However, we can persevere.”
NASA’s Thomas Zurbuchen added during the announcement ceremony, “Perseverance is a strong word: it’s about making progress despite obstacles.”
The rover is supposed to launch aboard an Atlas V rocket in July of this year and, if all goes according to plan, will arrive on Mars in February 2021. It will have with it an array of scientific instruments such as ground-penetrating radar, spectrometers to measure soil composition, as well as cameras for both close-up and panoramic views of the surface of the Red Planet.
There’s also going to be a tiny helicopter, which is going to be the first heavier-than-air aircraft on another planet. Finally, there will be an oxygen-producing device that will be able to work with the CO2 in the Martian atmosphere.
There are two main goals to the Perseverance mission. First, it is is to take scientific measurements that help us make sense of the Martian environment both past and current. Did it ever host life? The second mission is to collect samples that another rover, planned for 2026, will pick up and return to Earth.
The six-wheeler will land on Mars in the dry river delta in the Jezero Crater in February 2021.
Space Tourism, Coming Right Up
SpaceX plans to send three tourists up to the International Space Station (ISS) in 2021. They’re doing this along with a Texas start-up called Axiom Space.
This announcement came after NASA said last year it would open up the ISS to a bit more commercial activity.
Axiom CEO Michael Suffredini said in a press release, “This history-making flight will represent a watershed moment in the march toward universal and routine access to space.”
There have been civilians on the ISS before, but they all went up on Russian Soyuz ships. This trip will be the first launch of private citizens on a private spacecraft, however. They plan to use a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket and a Crew Dragon capsule.
How much will it set you back to go to the ISS? A pass for the 10-day trip reportedly runs about $55 million.
What’s Happening at CAEZIK SF & Fantasy Publishing
The Pursuit of the Pankera: A Parallel Novel About Parallel Universes hits the streets on March 24! It’s the previously unpublished work by Robert A. Heinlein that is a parallel to his 1980 novel, The Number of the Beast.
Check out this recent review here and if you think it’s for you, definitely reserve your copy right away.
Of course there’s also Robert J. Sawyer’s new novel, The Oppenheimer Alternative, which is being published by CAEZIK in paperback on June 2 in the United States. Read an advanced preview here (link opens a PDF) and be the first of your friends to have a peek inside Sawyer’s latest work.
Also, The Oppenheimer Alternative is now available for pre-order, so be sure to get on the list right away.
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