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.

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!

…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.

“Europa Report”

I just watched “Europa Report.” Finally; I’d been holding off because it gets categorized as horror and I didn’t want random slasher aliens invading my sci-fi suspense thrillers. Also I don’t like horror movies in general.

But I have to say that, first, the movie was a terrific portrayal of near-future space exploration; the filmmakers were clearly watching a lot of NASA TV and boning up on their science and engineering before they started. Many of the things that seemed hokey to me did so more because I have a lot of really specific knowledge than because they were blatantly wrong. (Ahahaha, Conamara Chaos isn’t going to have thin crackling ice ready to break through at any moment! Clearly, it must have re-frozen to a thickness sufficient to push the ice rafts up to a higher level than the surrounding terrain, which must be at least…oh, right, I’m watching a movie.) In fact, on the engineering side of things, a lot of the movie was very well-done.

Second, I was refreshed to see that the tension in the movie comes largely from the technical challenges of space exploration. About halfway through is a particularly intense scene revolving around oxygen depletion and the toxicity of hydrazine, which – while somewhat contrived in its specifics – ended up giving the plot a novel way to introduce one of those psychological horror situations that is really unique to the space environment. No aliens, pop-up scares, or spurting blood needed. In this way, the movie harkens back to a lot of Clarke-era hard sci-fi.

(Sadly, that sequence did illustrate one of “Europa Report’s” shortcomings, which was its relatively shallow focus on the characters themselves. We see allusions to the interpersonal issues, and allusions to the emotional impact of the scene I’m talking about on the rest of the characters, but it’s not really explored in detail. In some ways, the form of the movie as a series of documentary recordings may have forced that lack of depth. Fortunately, I found myself filling in some of the pieces on my own.)

Third and finally, when there are aliens on the scene causing the movie to become more suspense-thriller-like, the movie never devolves into straight-up horror. Instead, it focuses on the characters’ choices when faced with that awful situation. The movie makes very clear that the characters are motivated by a love of exploration, a desire to complete their mission, and a strong awareness of the significance their discoveries will have on the rest of humanity. Self-sacrifice becomes the theme of the film: the crew may have all met their ends on Europa (don’t worry, not a spoiler – this aspect of the plot is established in the first few minutes of the movie), but they know the service they are performing. And, in the universe of this movie, they are going to live forever. I found the overall message to be quite positive toward exploration.

I liked it.

Oh, by the way, there are totally space lobsters under the ice on Europa.