Orion’s first flight is good news – but can NASA sell the space dream?

I checked the latest space news on Saturday with bated breath. NASA had a lot riding on this week’s Orion flight. In a climate of limited budgets and little real public enthusiasm, failure wasn’t an option.

Artists' impression of the Orion EFT-1 mission. NASA, public domain.

Artists’ impression of the Orion EFT-1 mission. NASA, public domain.

The problem is where Orion goes next. By Cold War standards ambitions are vague; a couple more test flights, fly around the Moon or go to a captured asteroid by 2021-25, and then on to Mars some stage in the 2030s….eventually. Maybe. Both these aims and the time-frame stand at odds with Apollo-era determination when goals, budgets, public support and intent all meshed. I wouldn’t be surprised if Orion flounders before it gets much further, purely because of that mushiness vs public apathy vs budgetary realities.

Which is a pity, because it’s a good spacecraft and the flight on Saturday demonstrated – after two tragic ‘private enterprise’ failures – that the Apollo-era NASA ‘business model’, which rested on private contractors and commercial suppliers – still works. Rocket science is just that – it’s risky, difficult, and stretches materials science. Cutting corners, private-enterprise style, may save money. But when it comes to spaceflight there’s no room for error.

EFT-1 Orion being prepared to flight atop a Delta 4 Heavy. NASA, public domain.

EFT-1 Orion being prepared to flight atop a Delta 4 Heavy. NASA, public domain.

The other point is that Orion is not – as some critics suggest – a retrograde step. Sure, Orion looks like a 1960s capsule. But it isn’t – it’s stuffed with twenty-first century tech. Don’t be fooled by its 2002-era PowerPC 750FX-based computers, either; space computer hardware has to be well proven and rugged. If it fails at the wrong moment, you die. Armstrong and Aldrin’s Raytheon AGC fly-by-wire computer partly crashed when they were descending to the Moon in 1969. But not totally – and it was safe to land.

What’s driving the illusion of Orion being ‘retrograde’, I think, is that we’re conditioned to imagine space ‘progress’ as ‘advance’ from one-shot cone-shaped ‘capsules’, to multi-use winged spaceplanes designed to fly, literally, into space. They were the future, way back when. Except they weren’t. The problem is that the laws of physics don’t co-operate. Mass is everything in spaceflight – dry mass to fuel mass ratio, in particular. The Shuttle orbiter had to lug a LOT of mass into orbit that was useless up there – wings, tail, landing gear, hydraulics, heat shield and so forth. Dead loss for your fuel budget. And that’s apart from the risks of strapping the spaceplane to the side of its booster.

Orion recovered off California after the flight, 4 December 2014. NASA, public domain.

Orion recovered off California after the flight, 4 December 2014. NASA, public domain.

For anything beyond low-earth orbit, you need a vehicle that lacks the encumbrance of aircraft-style flight hardware – but which can still make an aero-braked descent to Earth, because it’s not practical to carry the fuel you need to slow down by rocket. Ideally the spacecraft also has to generate a certain amount of aerodynamic lift, both to steer the descent and to reduce deceleration forces on the crew. The resulting shape is specific, and Apollo, Orion, the Boeing CST-100 and Chelomei’s 1970s-Soviet era VA re-entry capsule all use virtually the same truncated cone design. McDonnell Douglas’ Gemini, Space X’s Dragon, the Soyuz and Shenzhou offer only minor variations on the theme.

Apollo vs Orion. NASA, public domain.

Apollo vs Orion. NASA, public domain.

Orion, in short, is a recognition of the physics of rocket-propelled spaceflight. Budgets permitting, the 2020s should bring a flurry of similar spacecraft into low-earth orbit – Space X’s Dragon and Boeing’s CST-100, servicing the space station. The Russians (hopefully) will be in on the mix with their late-generation Soyuz. And there’s the Chinese manned programme.

Cut-away of the modified Apollo/SIVB 'wet lab' configuration for the 1973-74 Venus flyby. NASA, public domain, via Wikipedia.

Cut-away of the modified Apollo/SIVB for the 1973-74 Venus flyby. NASA, public domain.

Beyond that, Orion will be on hand to fly to the Moon, a nearby asteroid, and eventually Mars. Orion will not, of course, fly by itself on long-duration missions. It’s good for 21 days in space – enough for an Apollo-type jaunt around the Moon – but for longer flights it’ll be docked to a habitat module. This mirrors the 1968 plan to send astronauts on a Venus flyby using Apollo hardware – the crew would have spent most of the 396 day flight inside a modified S-IVB stage, using the CSM only for the launch and re-entry phases.

Orion with propulsion and habitat module for an asteroid mission. NASA, public domain.

Artist’s impression of Orion with propulsion and small habitat module for an asteroid mission. NASA, public domain.

Orion, similarly, will be docked with various habitats and propulsion stages depending on mission. The whole stack will become the ‘interplanetary spacecraft’. But all this assumes budget and enthusiasm, among other things (‘other things’ includes finding ways of dealing with radiation, of which more some other time). Bottom line is that state-run space efforts can be killed with the stroke of a political pen.

Perhaps the biggest challenge, then, will be re-selling the excitement of the space dream to a wider public, both in the US and beyond. And this, I think, is where the focus needs to be for the foreseeable future. Space flight is, after all, one of the greatest ventures in the history of the world.

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2014

The really annoying thing about time travel stories

I’ve always wanted to invent a time machine so I could whip back in time to stop Hitler before he did anything evil. Of course there are a couple of problems. First is I’d be joining the back of a LOOONG queue. The other is that our friend Albert Einstein tells us it’s impossible.

But even if a time machine could be built, nobody’s really figured out what it entails. Here’s the deal.

The Horsehead nebula, Barnard 33, as seen by Hubble. Wonderful, wonderful imagery.

The Horsehead nebula, Barnard 33, as seen by Hubble. Wonderful, wonderful imagery.

Science fiction is rife with stories about time travel, variously either as social commentary, H. G. Wells style, or as cautionary tales – witness Ray Bradbury’s wonderful A Sound of Thunder. Invent a time machine, go back in time and change the past – and you’d better watch out.

Of course, if things change so you don’t exist, then you can’t have invented the time machine. Which means you didn’t go back in time. Therefore you do exist, so you did invent the time machine and… Yah.

Or there’s Harry Harrison’s hilarious Technicolour Time Machine, about a movie maker who uses a time machine to cut production costs on his period drama by going back to the actual period. What I’m getting at is that there’s a gaping great hole in all of this. And it’s an obvious one.

Suppose you COULD time travel. Suppose you’d built a machine to do it. You decide to whip back twelve hours. And promptly choke to death in the vacuum of deep space.

Nikolai Tesla with some of his gear in action. Public domain, from http://www.sciencebuzz.org/ blog/monument-nearly-forgotten-genius-sought

OK, so it’s not a time machine, but this is what one SHOULD look like. Nikolai Tesla, being spectacular with AC electricity (he’s reading a book, centre left). Public domain, from http://www.sciencebuzz.org/ blog/monument-nearly-forgotten-genius-sought

What gives? The problem is that everything in space is moving. Earth is rotating. Earth also moves around the Sun, which itself is orbiting the galaxy, which itself is moving as part of the Local Group, and so forth. We don’t notice or even think about it because we’re moving with the Earth. If we take Earth as our reference point, it’s fixed relative to us. And that leads us to imagine that  time machines are NOT moving through space – Wells, in particular, was quite explicit that his time machine was fixed and time moved around it.

But actually, a time machine that did this – that stayed ‘still’ relative to Earth would have to move through space, because Earth is moving.

Let’s reverse that for a moment. What say your time machine doesn’t move in space at all. You move back and forth through time, but your absolute spatial position is fixed. Not relative to Earth, but relative to the universe.

You leave your lab and leap back 12 hours. Earth won’t be there – it won’t have arrived. Leap forward 12 hours – same thing, only Earth’s moved away. If you’ve only moved a few seconds, you might find yourself plunging from a great height (aaaargh!). Or buried deep in the Earth (choke).

So for a compelling time-machine story you need to have a machine that not only travels anywhere in time, but also anywhere in space. And, of course, any relative dimensions associated with both. That’s right. A machine that travels anywhere through time and relative dimensions in space.

Heeeeeey, wait a minute

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2014

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Kids books that have totally stuck with you

When you were a kid, did you ever find a book that, to this day, hasn’t gone away – that you could maybe read, years and years later, and still enjoy?

Here’s my list, all books I read up to the age of about 11-12. I’m not limiting it to a ‘top 10’ – in fact, some of the entries cover whole series of books. Justifiably.

  1. Arthur Ransome – the ‘Swallows and Amazons’ series
  2. C S Lewis – the ‘Narnia’ series
  3. Robert A. Heinlein – all his ‘juveniles’ (Farmer in the Sky, The Rolling Stones, Have Spacesuit, Will Travel, etc).
  4. Madeleine L’Engle – A Wrinkle In Time
  5. Tove Jansson – Finn Family Moomintroll
  6. J R R Tolkien – The Hobbit
  7. J R R Tolkien – The Lord of the Rings
  8. Nicholas Fisk – Space Hostages
  9. Norman Hunter – the whole Professor Branestawm series (my copies of the first three were autographed by the author himself, who came to my parents’ house in 1970).
  10. Arthur C. Clarke – Islands in the Sky (my main entree to Clarke, a YA-pitched showcase for his comsat future, and the first appearance of the ‘broomstick’ he also used 50 years later in 2010: Odyssey Two).
  11. Andre Norton – Plague Ship.

Care to share your list?

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2014

Close encounters of the meteor kind – this weekend

Back in 2013, I wrote a piece that mashed Pope Benedict’s resignation with the science of the meteorite that exploded over Russia. I was Freshly Pressed by WordPress on the back of it. Good stuff.

The fly-by. NASA, public domain. Click to enlarge.

The fly-by. NASA, public domain. Click to enlarge.

This weekend, a similarly sized chunk of space debris – about 20 metres in diameter – is rolling past Earth with closest approach of just 40,200 km, directly over New Zealand, at 6.18 am on Monday 8 September, NZT (18:18 Zulu, 7 September).

I use the word rolling deliberately. Everything spins in space.

The meteor’s called 20214 RC (R-C) and was detected only on 31 August by the Catalina Sky Survey at Tucson, Arizona. And that raises a point. The spectre of Earth being clobbered by even a modest piece of space detritus has haunted science for decades. Right now, we’re doing something about that – scanning near-Earth space in a hunt for likely impactors.

The orbit. NASA, public domain. Click to enlarge.

The orbit. NASA, public domain. Click to enlarge.

What we’d do if we found such a thing, other than despatch Bruce Willis, isn’t clear. Nuking them isn’t an option – the evidence is growing that some of these space rocks are just clumps of loose-ish ice and dirt. In any case, you’d end up with a cloud of debris, still hurtling for Earth and still able to deliver virtually the same kinetic blow to the planet. Personally I think we should splash one side of any likely impactor with black paint, but that method (which exploits asymmetric re-radiation of absorbed thermal energy) requires several years’ warning. This new encounter comes just a week after discovery – with all that this implies.

There’s no danger from 20214 RC (R-C). It’s got an orbital period of just over 541.11 days, which is different enough from Earth’s to mean there won’t be another encounter any time soon. But one day the orbital mechanics will mesh and it’ll be back in our vicinity. It won’t be an impact danger. But we don’t know what else is out there.

Yup, you’ve got it. That old sci-fi doom scenario involving a meteor suddenly sloshing the Atlantic into the US Eastern Seaboard and Europe? It’s baaaack…

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2014

Star Trek lessons – writing out of the box

I’ve long thought most of the Star Trek franchise series and movies – the ones made between 1977 and 2005 – to be epic fails both as good SF and, more to the point, as good dramatic story-telling.

Sounds heretical, and I suppose I’ll get heat from fans – but if you step back to the first principles of writing, it’s true. I’ve just finished reading a book by Brian Robb, Star Trek: The essential history of the classic TV series and movies, which confirms my belief.

Eta Carinae. NASA, public domain. Click to enlarge.
Eta Carinae. NASA, public domain. Click to enlarge.

I’m not complaining about the fact that Trek aliens all looked like humans with lobsters glued to their foreheads or that Klingon was apparently constructed to be different rather than linguistic by the usual measures. My problem goes deeper than that.

Robb argued that the best ideas of the original 1966-69 series – the things fans regard as canonical – weren’t created by Gene Roddenberry. But he had huge influence and one major legacy was a set of rules about what could and could not happen. Writers called it the ‘Roddenberry Box’.

This defined Roddenberry’s vision – a future that had conquered prejudice, where inter-personal conflict was a thing of the past. A wonderful ideal. One we should aspire to. The problem was that when it came to story-telling, the Box was boring. A lot of the challenge for writers was getting around the limits while producing interesting tales.

To my mind that worked in the original series, particularly where the show was run as a light comedy – think Trouble With Tribbles. Wonderful. Why did it work? Because Roddenberry hired great writers – top-line SF authors among them – to work up plots revolving around three great characters, Spock, Kirk and McCoy.

'That's no moon'. Wait - yes it is. It's Mimas, orbiting Saturn.

‘That’s no moon’. Oops – wrong franchise. Actually, this is Mimas, orbiting Saturn. NASA, public domain

The problem – well explored by Ross, but which I’d long thought true – is that the show was captured by a fan base for whom the Box defined canon. To me the rot set in with The New Generation, which mashed New Age thinking and a lot of meaningless techno-babble with the Box and – to me – never captured the sense of wonder of the original. It was pretentious, laboured, ponderous, and fast descended to reverent posturing by one-dimensional characters – stories defined not by what made a good story, but by what was needed to satisfy a fan base.

I gave up watching it, and never bothered with Deep Space Nine or Voyager. I gave up on the movies. Later I caught a few episodes of Enterprise, which wasn’t too bad but which still dribbled, as far as I was concerned. According to Robb, the producers were actively writing, by then, for fans – missing a wider audience or new fans. Certainly, these grotesque going-through-the-motions exercises in franchise fodder didn’t appeal to casual Trek enthusiasts, like me.

For me, Trek didn’t come right until the 2009 J J Abrams movie, a complete re-boot which decisively broke the Box. It was Trek as it should be, re-cast for the twenty-first century. Wonderful stuff.

The fact that it featured Karl Urban – a Kiwi actor from my city, Wellington, was a particular plus.

The take-home lesson for writers? Idealism is wonderful. There is no faulting Roddenberry’s optimistic vision. But to make interesting stories, that idealism has to be given a dynamic. The fact is that human realities, including conflict, have been omnipresent through history, and it’s unlikely that a few hundred years will change them. But that doesn’t stop us trying; and it seems to me that stories built around the attempt would be far more interesting than stories exploring the success of meeting this hardest of all human challenges.

Your thoughts?

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2014

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Beware the next Carrington storm – a Q&A wrap-up

After last week’s post on a Carrington storm – a solar event able to do large-scale damage to anything electrical, especially power grids. I fielded a few questions which deserved a post. And I had some new ones of my own…

Does the whole Earth get hit?
The issue isn’t the Coronal Mass Ejection that goes with the flare, but the magnetic storm the CME provokes when it hits us. This affects the whole Earth in one hit, because the Sun-side of Earth’s magnetic field is pushed. The shadow side is pulled and zings back. Here’s an animation:

How powerful are these geomagnetic storms?
It depends on the CME, which – don’t forget – is super-hot plasma. The biggest can mass up to 100,000,000 tonnes, moving at up to 1000 km/second. These can really bang into our magnetic field. The current the geomagnetic storm induces in conductive material on Earth will vary as a result of the speed of the field movement, and of the scale of the conductive material. This acts like an aerial, so the more conductive material, the higher the voltages and current induced in it. That’s why the power grid is vulnerable, because transmission lines act as aerials and transformers have copper windings.

A large solar flare observed on 8 September 2010 by NASA's Solar Dynamics Observatory. Public Domain, NASA.

A large solar flare observed on 8 September 2010 by NASA’s Solar Dynamics Observatory. Public Domain, NASA.

Can the excess voltages be calculated?
The voltage generated in a conductor is a product of the rate of change of magnetic flux and the direction of the field lines relative to the conductive material. In a closed loop like a transformer, for instance, this voltage can be calculated by Faraday’s Law of Induction, via James Clerk Maxwell, which states that the negative of the rate of change is equal to the line integral of the electric field. This is a bit of math that quantifies results when direction and intensity are both changing.

Will a geomagnetic storm burn out all power grids?
It depends on the loading of the grid and on the intensity of the storm, which will differ from place to place because the rate of change and flux direction keep changing. A heavily loaded power grid is more vulnerable because it’s operating closer to its designed tolerances. Needless to say, in this age of engineering to cost, some grids are fully loaded in normal operation. That’s why even the modest geomagnetic storms of in the last few decades have sometimes generated localised blackouts – some grids were vulnerable when others weren’t. With a big enough geomagnetic storm, all power grids would be blown out.

OK, so I'm a geek. Today anyway. From the left: laptop, i7 4771 desktop, i7 860 desktop.

OK, so I’m a geek. Today anyway.

What about domestic appliances – computers, hand-helds and so forth?
It depends on the intensity of the storm. Anything plugged into the mains would suffer a voltage spike. Your stove or kettle wouldn’t notice it. Your computer might lock up. A re-boot might fix it, if the power stayed on. Or gear might be physically damaged. Newer devices are more vulnerable than old, partly because the older stuff was over-engineered. Anything with looped wire in it, like an electric motor – which includes DVD drives – might be at risk. Just about everything relies on low-voltage CPU’s these days, including cars, and it’s possible a really big geomagnetic storm would damage some of these. The effects probably wouldn’t be consistent across all gear because there are so many variables in electrical hardware, including whether it’s operating or not when the storm hits.

So some stuff, like the old Morrie Thou every Kiwi wishes they never got rid of, would still work and we’d otherwise mostly be OK?
Don’t forget, there won’t be any mains power, possibly not for months. No water pumps. No sewerage pumps. No heat. No light. No cooking. No battery charging. Hospitals out of action just when needed. Shall I go on?

Please don’t. Will the storm induce current in anything else?
Gas and oil pipelines. Older plumbing. They’re metal too.

Sounds scary. Is there anything we can do?
NASA has satellites on solar weather watch. They’re also implementing Solar Shield, an early-warning project. Whether anybody pays attention to warnings, or even hears them, is another matter. Even if the warning’s broadcast, who listens to dumb science stuff when the rugby news is about to start? But if you hear a warning, turn everything off, keep things unplugged, get your emergency kit stocked with food and water, buy a can opener, dig a long drop, and so on.

Is there a plus side?
We’d get amazing aurora displays towards the equator. Would that compensate for the damage? Uh…no.

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2014

Apocalypse now: why we must fear a Carrington storm

On 28 August 1859, British astronomer Richard Carrington noticed something unusual on the Sun. A flare, larger than anything he’d seen before.

Solar flare of 16 April 2012, captured by NASA's Solar Dynamics Observatory. Image is red because it wa captured at 304 Angstroms. (NASA/SDO, public domain).

Solar flare of 16 April 2012, captured by NASA’s Solar Dynamics Observatory. Image is red because it was captured at 304 angstroms. (NASA/SDO, public domain).

Three days later, Earth lit up. Aurorae erupted as far south as the Carribean. All hell broke loose in telegraph systems across the world. Lines began spraying sparks. Operators were electrocuted. Other telegraphs worked without being switched on.

Later, we figured it out. The sun ordinarily blasts Earth with a barrage of fast-moving protons and electrons; the solar wind. Most is deflected by the Earth’s magnetic field – particles are trapped by the field, forming the Van Allen radiation belts.

Flares add to this in two ways. The first is through intense electromagnetic radiation – a mix of X-ray frequencies produced by Bremmstrahlung, coupled with enhanced broad-spectrum radiation as a result of synchotron effects – both of them slightly abstruse results of relativistic physics. This strikes Earth, on average, 499 seconds after a major flare erupts in our direction. We’re safe on the surface from the effects; the Earth’s magnetic field and atmosphere stops even radiation on a Carrington scale. In 1859, nobody noticed. But today, astronauts on the ISS wouldn’t be safe. Nor would our satellites.  So aside from the human tragedy unfolding in orbit, we’d lose everything associated with satellites – GPS to transaction systems to weather to Google Earth updates and everything else. Gone.

Buzz Aldrin on the Moon in July 1969 with the Solar Wind Experiment - a device to measure the wind from the sun. Public domain, NASA.

Buzz Aldrin on the Moon in July 1969 with the Solar Wind Experiment. (NASA/public domain).

It gets worse. Some flares also emit a mass of charged particles, known as a CME (Coronal Mass Ejection). Seen from the Sun, Earth is a tiny target in the sky. But sometimes we are in the way, as in 1859. The problem is that a CME  hitting Earth’s magnetic field compresses it. Then the CME passes, whereupon the Earth’s magnetic field bounces back.

The bad juju is the oscillation, which causes inductiion on a huge scale. Induction is a principle of electromagnetics, discovered by Michael Faraday in September 1845 when he moved a conductor through a magnetic field, generating electricity down the conductor as long as it moved. It also works vice-versa – a moving magnetic field induces electricity in a stationary conductor. And electricity can be used to create magnetism. We’ve been able to exploit the effect in all sorts of ways. It’s how electric motors and loudspeakers work, for instance. Also radio, TV, bluetooth, ‘wireless’ internet broadband. Actually, pretty much everything. When inducing an electric current with magnetism, the strength of current is a function of (a) the size of the conductor, and (b) the flux of the magnetic field. Maxwell’s equations apply. The longer the cable, the more current generated in it. That’s how aerials work – like the one in your cellphone, ‘wireless’ router, laptop – and so the list goes on.

Now scale it up. Earth’s magnetic field moves, generating electrical current in all conductive material. Zzzzzzt! That’s why so much current was generated down telegraph lines back in 1859 – they were immense aerials.

Geothermal steam from the Taupo system is used to generate power - up to 13 percent of the North Island's needs, in fact. The techniques were developed right here in New Zealand.

Geothermal power station at Wairakei, New Zealand. This generates up to 13 percent of the North Island’s needs. Note the power lines – vulnerable to induced voltage in a Carrington event.

Fast forward to today. Heavy duty devices like a toaster or kettle don’t contain enough conductive material to induce voltage that will fry them during a CME event, and that’s true of most appliances – though your phone or computer might be damaged, because microprocessor chips and hard drives are vulnerable to very small fluctuations. Personally, if I knew a Carrington storm was coming, I’d unplug my computer at the CPU (the power cable acts as an aerial). But none of it will work afterwards anyway. Why? No mains power. That’s the problem – the power grid. Those 220,000 volt lines. They’re plenty big enough to suffer colossal induced voltages, as are the cable windings inside the transformers that handle them. Power grids around the world go boom.

Yes, we can rebuild the system. Eventually. Estimates suggest a minimum of five months in the UK, for instance, to get enough transformers back on line. Always assuming they were available, which they might not be if every other country in the world also wanted whatever was in stock. In any case, the crisis starts within hours. Modern cities rely on electrically pumped water. Feeling thirsty? Maybe you’re lucky enough to live near a river. You struggle through crowds dipping water. Struggle home with a pan of muddy liquid. No power – how do you boil it? You have a barbecue. What happens when the gas runs out?

Now think about everything that relies on electrically pumped water. Nuclear power stations.  Their diesel generators are not designed to run for weeks or months. Think Fukushima. Over and over. I am SO GLAD I live in nuclear-free New Zealand.

This isn’t speculation. A CME-driven grid burn-out already happened to Quebec in 1989. Luckily the solar storm wasn’t colossal. Studies suggest that 1859 storms occur every 500 years or so, but we’re learning about the Sun all the time, and that may change. We had near-misses from dangerous CME’s in 2012 and earlier this year. We’re vulnerable.

A CME might not take down the whole planet. All depends on its size. But it could still do colossal damage. A study in 2013 put the potential cost of another Carrington storm at $US2,600,000,000,000. If you stacked 2.6 trillion US $1 notes, one on top of another, the pile would be 291,200 km tall, which is a shade over 75 percent the average distance of the Moon. That’s without considering the human cost. But there are ways to ameliorate the issue. Including shutting down the grid and disconnecting things if we get warning. If. The take home lesson? Remember the Carrington storm. Fear it.

If you want to read about how we might cope after a big CME, check out the novels by New Zealand author Bev Robitai. Sunstrike and Sunstrike: The Journey Home.


Copyright © Matthew Wright 2014