Gliese 581

Well, it turns out that Gliese 581g might not exist. But don’t worry – although Zarmina itself may not be a real place, my map still demonstrates a possible appearance for any other tidally locked world in its star’s liquid-water zone, which may be common around M dwarfs!

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Legends and Histories

I wanted to try drawing a map full of labels, but no place names. Instead, I would fill it with events and stories suggestive of the cultures living in the lands I depicted. This is the result:

The Map of Legends

Much of the importance we place on a location comes from the stories associated with it. So, this map is covered in people and actions identified with places. Their struggles and triumphs fill the lands, drawing us into chains of associations.

Here camped Lastos’ army on the eve of battle. Sfola’s Last Masterpiece depicts this forest. Foalic stole the Emerald Shield from this cave. Here was the site of the Second Arbiter’s Congress – possibly related to the Fishers’ Revolt, the first shots of which were fired in this nearby village.

Lands of Allaje and Malaca

Looking at the labels, you may notice that roughly half of them have a preceding number in parentheses – what might appear to be a year. These labels speak of military campaigns, scientific exploits, political victories, founding of religions, and significant personages. The other half, without a corroborating date stamp, mention more dramatic exploits: giant creatures, heroic duels, stolen artifacts, and encounters with the supernatural. Are these myths of the local culture? Or do they hold some kernel of truth? Continue reading

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Bright sci-fi

From Battlestar Galactica to Gravity, it’s easy to think that the current generation of science fiction has to be “dark” in order to be good. But we shouldn’t confuse ourselves! Just because there are so many dark and good pieces of sci-fi out there doesn’t mean that darkness makes the sci-fi good.

I was looking for a picture of Adama with a flashlight, but couldn't find on on Google. Oh well.

It’s dark on a Battlestar

In fact, I think it’s important to remember that science fiction, at its roots, is the most inherently optimistic genre of fiction! Sure, says science fiction, the people of the future have problems. Sure, some of those problems are the same as the problems we have now. But the people are still there! They are still recognizable! And they are still solving their problems!

Even science fiction stories that seem the most bleak have kernels of optimism. Consider Poul Anderson’s short story “In Memoriam” (it’s available in the collection All One Universe). A short summary: Some cataclysm happens, and humans die out. Over the eons, our cities crumble and the evidence of our lives passes into archaeology and, later, paleontology. New civilization arise on Earth. Then they die out. Eventually, the Sun expands into a red giant, cooks the Earth to a cinder, and then sloughs off a planetary nebula and collapses into a white dwarf, leaving the Solar System lifeless and barren. But, in the final paragraph of the story, we visit four spacecraft – Pioneer 10, Pioneer 11, Voyager 1, and Voyager 2 – that have left the Solar System on an infinite journey into the stars.

Anderson doesn’t say it, but it’s easy for me to add the epilogue. All four of those space probes carry evidence of human civilization, including depictions of human beings and libraries of our language and culture. Anderson’s story tells us that through those vehicles, from a certain point of view, human civilization has already achieved a measure of immortality. Chuck Berry’s music will live on until the heat death of the universe. Sad as the extinction of our species would be, I find that an uplifting thought.

(A publicly available story with a similar theme is Isaac Asimov’s “The Last Question,” which you can read online here.)

Still, it would be nice to have some more bright science fiction out there. That would certainly be helpful for space advocacy, as Dwayne Day of The Space Review points out in this provocative essay!

Maybe it’s time for Star Trek to get out of the theaters and back onto the air. Or maybe we can just turn to…science.

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Threat assessment

Sometimes, I wish I had more Republican Congressmen to write to.

Human-caused climate change is a national security issue. It threatens our lives, our property, and our way of life. And it is the only thing that we know, for a scientific fact, will threaten the American people in the future. We ought to start treating it as such, and start investing, on a national scale, in stopping it.

Ignoring the problem is, in my mind, tantamount to embracing Chamberlain’s security strategy in the late 1930s: a course for further destruction and calamity.

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After Inspiration

We space exploration fans and practitioners live in heady times! But I’m going to take a step back from all the SpaceXes and KickSats of the moment to do some philosophizing. Let’s start with the adage that the military is always fighting the last war: I think the saying may be true of science and space exploration advocates, too. Just hold that thought…

Over the last several weeks, I have been enjoying the “Cosmos” reboot. One of the justifications put forward for the show is the need to inspire a new generation to pursue scientific and technical careers, as Carl Sagan’s original did in the early 1980s. Airing prominently in support of “Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey” is a Boeing advertisement, perhaps suggesting a career path to those young Americans inspired by Neil deGrasse Tyson in the show proper. It portrays engineers hard at work building – among other key Boeing-associated products – communications satellites, rockets, and solar panels. As the music crescendos, it displays footage of the International Space Station while the narrator declares that Boeing engineers have built “something the whole world can share.” The way the ad spot is cut, one might almost get the impression that the aerospace giant puts forth equal effort – and promises equal opportunities – in civil space exploration as it does in the areas of military aerospace and commercial aviation.

There’s a problem with STEM (that’s “science, technology, engineering, and math”) in the United States, but this “STEM crisis” isn’t really what it’s made out to be. There’s not really a shortage of STEM graduates. There’s a shortage of jobs for STEM graduates. This fact raises a question: suppose “Cosmos” inspires a large number of young Americans. Suppose it makes them want to learn the fundamental science underpinning the physical processes of the universe. Suppose it encourages their passion to build space telescopes and Mars rovers. Suppose it pushes them to wonder if there is alien life on Europa, or Enceladus, or an exoplanet. What do the newly minted young engineers and scientists go on to do?

The things we value as a country, and how much we value them, are effectively determined by the budgets set in Congress. In 2013, Congress spent about $63 billion on science and technology research of any kind. Yet the Department of Defense gets ten times that amount, and about 25 times that dollar value goes toward nondiscretionary entitlements. On top of that, over half of what little federal R&D funding there is goes toward defense programs (which means the fruits of that R&D don’t really percolate out into wider society). NASA does everything that it does on a paltry $18 billion dollars annually – about half a percent of the federal budget.

The message is clear: our country values keeping its social obligations. Fine, good. But the next thing on our national priority list is defense. (And, of course, much of our defense policy is based around big-ticket systems fighting a Cold War that ended when our adversary ceased to exist almost a quarter-century ago. As that adage goes…) As for research and development, fundamental science, medical advancements, or space exploration…well, according to the money, our country barely cares about these things at all in comparison. As a result, some of the most secure opportunities available to STEM graduates are in military-related positions – contrary to what that Boeing advertisement suggests.

This situation is extremely sad and problematic, both for our young engineers and scientists and for the United States as a whole. And it suggests to me that the best target of science advocacy should not be the young Americans working their way up through school. It should be Congress.

Private companies don’t produce fundamental innovation without a clear financial incentive. They don’t do basic science research, and they hesitate to invest in product development that stretches beyond the next quarter, let alone the next fiscal year. We can’t rely on private enterprise for awe-inspiring scientific and engineering feats. Most of the really blockbuster stuff – the continental discoveries and global circumnavigations and Hoover dams and Moon landings and Saturn probes – comes from governments. Not just any government fits the bill, either: only those that take the long view engage in such risky and rewarding activities. Historically, the United States federal government has been an incredible innovator. NASA is an exemplary contributor, holding 1 in 1000 US patents! (And that’s not even mentioning the tangible or intangible economic benefits.) Lest one think that academia will step in on its own to provide the fundamental research, consider that government grants support the scientists in academic institutions. We need the government to be doing this stuff.

Basic research, innovation, and exploration is potent, inspiring stuff. With their ad spot accompanying “Cosmos,” Boeing demonstrated that they have a strong grasp of this concept: giving the Space Station top billing among their projects is a sure way to tug on the heartstrings of future-minded young people. (They’re not the only “Cosmos” advertiser to capitalize on the excitement of space exploration, either.) But in a time when our Congressional leaders simultaneously don’t seem to care about science and lack the courage to close even the unneeded military bases, there’s very little chance that a young engineer gets to work on space exploration. Sadly, one probable outcome is that after their technical education our aspiring space explorers will end up doing what the military-industrial complex calls “capability maintenance” – which easily means work that has all the technical, social, and political value of a “bridge to nowhere.” To a congressperson, military pork is the most valuable and secure kind of jobs program; to a defense contractor, bloated programs are steady income.

I’m in my early career. I’m not as bitter as, say, NASA Watch yet (and the ire I do have goes straight at Congress rather than at NASA administration). I consider myself fortunate that, even though I don’t work for NASA, I am working on a NASA mission that’s relevant to civil science. But I do see that there are hard, important problems out there that we need to solve – some, problems of national import – while we divert resources elsewhere. I imagine if we decommissioned a few surplus ships, we could instead land humans on Mars. I think if we could close a few extraneous bases, we might instead determine that we are not alone in the universe. Or I wonder, if we shut down our arsenal of Minuteman missile silos – leaving our ability to combat modern threats unaffected – could we instead attack what is probably the greatest known future national security issue: climate change? I want to make the world a better place by working on those problems, and by stretching human capabilities and knowledge out into space. And I, for one, view a lack of investment in science and innovation as more relevant to the United States’ national security than many overt military programs.

We have to remember that the point of NASA is not just to inspire. And the point definitely isn’t to be a jobs program for targeted areas of Alabama, Texas, California, and Florida. Historically, it wasn’t even to explore space. The point of NASA was to move our nation forward in scientific and technological capability. Popular inspiration is a nice, and effective, bonus. But our leaders in the Capitol are clearly in more need of science advocacy than we are. If we could inspire a little more political courage from them, to move money from safe-but-unnecessary programs to critical development agencies and unleash those agencies to innovate, then the rest of America can go on to great things – after inspiration.

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A debut of sorts

I completed another map over the past few months – and this one has some special distinctions. Namely, it was my first commission and sale! So, be it known that I do that now.

I started from sketch maps, place names, and some stylistic suggestions, but for the most part my own input comes in the artistry and execution. The layout, terrain, and languages are not my own. As I’ve gradually stopped tying maps to my own fantasy world and started drawing them as art for their own sake, it was interesting to put one together based on a set of stories belonging to someone else!

Plains, rocky isles, temperate forests, and ocean

I used the opportunity to try some new(er) techniques, of necessity. I made the decision to do the entire map in black and white, which meant finding ways to distinguish different terrain types with shading and symbols. Grasslands got a light wash, with little grass symbols in two shades. I indicated deserts with a wavy dune-like pattern in very dilute ink. And water took on texture from rough brushstrokes. I also had to have some idea how to handle labels early on (rough though my own lettering may be).

Desert, mountains, and tropics

One of the challenges was that this map depicted a region of continental scale. I indicate this by scale: the mountain ranges I drew here don’t reach the heights they do on other maps. I’m particularly happy with the mountains; I think their shapes and shading worked out nicely to give a rough, natural feel to their slopes. The scale of the map also made forests tricky. On a map like Zarmina, I could show forests – and their type – by color. Here, that was not an option. I did some experiments on scratch paper with shading ideas, but in the end I came back to my first idea: tiny trees. Tiny scalloped symbols for deciduous trees, tiny jagged angles for pine trees, and tiny swoosh-topped wedges for tropical palms.

I MEAN REALLY TINY

Seriously. Tiny trees.

This all came about thanks to my discovery that my superfine pen nib was terrible, but I had a second one that I’d never tried lying around. Turns out that one was much easier to control.

The mixed-up tree styles worked very well, giving me a simple mechanic to distinguish different parts of the map and giving this map something (so far) unique, in the way it divides the viewer’s attention from the larger, broader scales to the smaller, more detail-oriented bits. I also learned more about how the ink behaves in washes, and I’m looking forward to manipulating some of those effects in my next personal project – already underway!

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…how about half an elevator?

If you’ve paid any attention to science fiction in any form, you’ve probably seen the concept of the space elevator. A super-strong tether or tower extends upward from the surface of the Earth, past geostationary orbit, and beyond; to get into orbit you just need to ride a car up the elevator to the geostationary point and…step off.

The space elevator solves a fundamental problem with access to space: speed. Getting height up from the Earth is fairly easy – just point a rocket up. But to get a spacecraft to stay in orbit, you also need to accelerate your vehicle to orbital velocity, which is at least 7 km/s. That’s where all the big booster rockets come from. The elevator, though, lets you get this speed without even trying. Since the whole structure remains oriented radially out from the Earth at all times, as your car climbs up the tether you automatically gain rotational kinetic energy. At the geostationary point, you will have enough energy to simply push out of the airlock and remain in orbit. Easy!

(This energy is easy to get, but it doesn’t come for free. Every time you go up the space elevator, you slow down the rotation of the Earth.)

Space elevators have some problems of their own, though. For one thing, we need materials and technologies sufficient to support the tether against the forces of gravity and rotation. For another, the Earth’s troposphere has some pesky disturbances that we call weather, and the space elevator has to be near the equator – where tropical storms happen. And then there’s…politics.

Great concept art from DVICE's article about the partial elevator. (Tony Holmsten)

Great tangentially related concept art from DVICE’s article about the partial elevator. (Tony Holmsten)

There was an article the other day about a paper examining a “partial” space elevator. The idea is to place a station at geosynchronous orbit, and run a tether only partway down to the Earth. The tether doesn’t have to deal with cyclones or touch the surface. Rockets bring payloads just to the bottom of the elevator, where they can ride the rest of the way up.

The idea reminds me of Robert Forward’s “rotovator,” which involves placing a long tether in orbit and making it rotate in the same sense and at the same rate as its orbital motion. Each tip of the tether traces a cycloid around the Earth: a trajectory that momentarily stops (relative to Earth’s surface) at the low point where it can pick up a payload, and swings back up to a high point where it flings the payloads forward much faster than the orbit velocity. It also has some similarities with cyclers, which are hypothetical objects in orbits that visit two (or more) celestial bodies at regular intervals without propulsive maneuvers. (Buzz Aldrin is a fan of these; he has an Earth-Mars cycler orbit named after him. That vehicle would alternately visit the Earth and Mars, with a 146-day transit time.)

Fundamentally, what all these concepts are trying to do is establish infrastructure in space – infrastructure that lets us offload some of the delta-v requirements from individual spacecraft, at the expense of an initial investment.

A more near-term such architecture would be an orbital propellant depot: a place where space vehicles could pause, after launch, and “top off” before they proceed onward to destinations beyond Earth orbit. Lots of technologists and policymakers have given thought to these depots, with many concepts nowadays revolving around the Falcon 9 and Falcon 9 Heavy launchers.

I’m a fan of these ideas. Any infrastructure that lets us explore space freely, without our launches being tied to landing requirements or our excursions on other worlds being limited by how we take off from the Earth, will only help our efforts to discover our place in the universe and establish humanity on other worlds. I think it’s high time our space program got back to thinking about the nuts and bolts of working in space and building the space-based vehicles that will take us to other planets and moons.

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