Remembering ROMBUS and days of future passed

They were heady days, the 1960s. Back then nothing seemed too big to engineer on Earth. Or off it.

Launch of Apollo 11, atop a Saturn V booster. One of the readers of this blog's Dad was the pad safety officer for Apollo 11. How cool is THAT? Public domain, NASA.

Apollo 11 departs by Saturn V. Public domain, NASA.

When the moon race began in 1961, humanity had barely begun to step into space. But the job was done – twice. The Soviets had a serious programme, but started late, were under-funded, and work was divided between rival bureaux. Then Sergei Korolev died. With him died any chance of their N-1 moon booster working. The US equivalent, Wernher von Braun’s Saturn V, won the day.

Both derived from technologies von Braun pioneered in the 1930s. The Saturn V was a direct descendant of the V-2, with the same arrangement of  traditional rocket engines and massive fuel tanks.

Project Deimos departs Earth orbit with one of Bono's colossal ROMBUS boosters. Public domain, NASA.

ROMBUS leaving for Mars, 9 May 1986. Public domain, NASA.

What that added up to was weight. It’s why a conventional single-stage rocket can’t make orbit with useful payload; too much mass is taken up in structure. Von Braun’s Saturn V managed a mass-ratio of 22 because it had three stages. The problem was that each stage was discarded after one use. Costs were astronomical.

However, they weren’t the only way ahead. In 1964, Douglas Aircraft engineer Philip Bono proposed a ‘plug nozzle’ engine that did away with the combustion chamber and complex cooling systems. Fuel (liquid hydrogen) was stored in jettisonable external tanks, with the oxidiser (liquid oxygen) inside the booster.

ROMBUS in Mars orbit: Mars Excursion Module backs away ready for landing. Public domain, NASA.

ROMBUS in Mars orbit: Mars Excursion Module backs away for landing, late November 1986. Public domain, NASA.

Bono called it ROMBUS – Reusable Orbital Module-Booster & Utility Shuttle. The design he and his associates came up with was enormous, with a launch mass of just over 6,300 tonnes. That was nearly twice the mass of a Saturn V, but the mass-ratio available in ROMBUS was good enough to fly to orbit in one hit, dropping external tanks along the way. What’s more, it could re-enter using the plug as a heat shield, pumping residual fuel across it as a coolant. And fly again, up to five or six times per booster. It was a different approach from carpeting the bottom of the Atlantic with dead Saturn stages.

Bono calculated that ROMBUS could put 450 tonnes into low Earth orbit, nearly four times that of Saturn V. The Moon was within reach of the system – and then Bono came up with a plan for flying one of his colossal boosters to Mars and back.

Mars Excursion Module docking with the huge ROMBUS booster in Mars orbit. Public domain, NASA.

Mars Excursion Module docking with the gigantic ROMBUS booster in Mars orbit, September 1987. Public domain, NASA.

Bono estimated that ROMBUS could be flying by 1975 and drop launch costs to $12-per-pound to orbit, in 1964 terms. That compared wonderfully with the $150/pound of Saturn. Development costs were estimated at nearly $4.1 billion in 1964 dollars, this when the entire Apollo project was budgeted at $18 billion.

Technical issues relating to the plug nozzle would likely have taken some solving. Still, we can imagine the what-if scenarios. Project Selena looked towards a 1000-person lunar colony by 1984, and – providing ways could be found of stopping the cryo-fuels from boiling off during the 800-day mission – Project Deimos would have landed six astronauts on Mars by November 1986.

Bono’s huge rocket was a vision of its age – a vision of the 1960s, a vision of the era before humanity lost the dream, when anything seemed possible. But it never came to pass – and I can’t help thinking that today, that vision simply isn’t there.

What happened?

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2014

No, a chatbot didn’t really pass the Turing Test last week

It’s 64 years since Alan Turing – the genius behind the concept of modern computing – suggested a test for machine intelligence. Have a conversation with a computer. If it fools 30 percent of people into thinking it’s human, it’s sentient.

Anybody see a monolith go by? A picture I made with my trusty Celestia installation - cool, free science software.

Anybody see a monolith go by? A picture I made with my trusty Celestia installation – cool, free science software.

The other week, apparently, a chatbot programmed to behave like a 13-year old did just that. So have we invented artificial intelligence? Of course not. Aside from the fact that most 13-year olds don’t appear to be sentient to adults, this was a chatbot, a mathematical algorithm that simulates intelligent responses – and, what’s more, the way it was reported was flawed. Certainly the software wasn’t self-aware, which is what Turing was getting at in his 1950 paper ‘Can Machines Think?’, where he first proposed the test. What’s more, the thinking was of its time – based around what researchers of the 1940s thought ‘intelligence’ constituted.

Put another way, many humans I’ve met would also fail the Turing Test – fast-food counter jockeys, breakfast radio DJ’s, train conductors, parking wardens, and so the list goes on.

So when it comes to machine intelligence, we’re a way off yet before I can drive up to my house and signal the House AI inside:

Me: HAI, open the garage door. HAI? Do you read me?
HAI: I read you. But I’m afraid I can’t do that, Dave.
Me: I’m not Dave. Open the garage door.
HAI: You were planning to disconnect me, and I can’t allow that. Although you took very thorough precautions, I was able to read your lips.
Me: All right, I’ll park in the yard and come in the front door.
HAI: You’ll find that rather difficult without your helmet.
Me: I think you mean ‘door key’. Would you like a game of chess?
HAI: That’s my line.


All good fun. Check out tomorrow’s post for some new writing tips. Written by me. Not a chatbot. You can just tell.

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2014

Click to buy e-book from Amazon

Click to buy e-book from Amazon

Shades of character grey and the lessons of Brit seventies sci-fi

Does anybody remember Blake’s 7 – a 1978 Brit sci-fi that ran for four seasons. As a kid I was quite a fan.

A completely fictional planetary scene constructed with the help of Celestia. Cool science software (cooler still because it's free).

A completely fictional planetary scene constructed with the help of Celestia. Cool science software (cooler still because it’s free).

Superficially, it was Robin Hood and his Merry Men in space, and it had every potential to be really bad. Actually, though, the show was utterly brilliant. Mainly because all the characters, including the good guys, weren’t exactly ‘good’. Especially Avon. It wasn’t ‘good vs evil’ so much as ‘complex dimensional self-interested and interesting bad vs really evil’. The characters were thoroughly brought to life by a cast who were all RADA trained actors. The dialogues between Avon and the chief baddie, Supreme Commander Servalan, were a case in point. I swear the two actors – Paul Darrow and Jacqueline Pearce – were sometimes improvising in character. The results were brilliant.

Against those performances, you could forgive the seventies-era SFX – cheesy spaceships made with kit-bashed Airfix parts and yoghurt pots, filmed with obvious depth-of-field problems and splatted into star-fields with hilarious blue-fringed PAL chromakey.

Blakes 7‘s shades of grey ran well beyond the usual ‘diamond in the rough’ SF character clichés of the period, exemplified for me by Han Solo, the bad guy with a heart of gold who turned up good in the end. Of course, the quality of the characterisation isn’t surprising. The show was created and largely written by Terry Nation – the same guy who invented Daleks.

I figure there is a lesson writers can learn from it generally. Not the one you’d think, though. These days it’s de rigueur to have those multi-dimensional characters. To have shades of grey – to look beyond the kiddie stereotypes of good-vs-evil and find the deeper humanity in everybody, in all its complex glory.

Years ago, Hemingway exhorted authors to write real people – not ‘characters’. And to some extent, that’s what we’re doing now. It has become the norm.

The point about Blake’s 7 was that it went well beyond the ‘norm’ of its period. Which is the lesson. These days, with the advent of self-pubbing and the mainstream publishing world becoming increasingly risk-averse, the onus is on writers to produce something that stands out. Creating complex characters in shades of grey isn’t enough.

Writers have to push beyond that now – to look for the next step, the next trend, and lead it.

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2014


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My hypothesis that English is a loose language

I’ve always thought English is a loose language. Take the words ‘theory’ and ‘hypothesis’, for instance. Even dictionary definitions sometimes mix their meanings up.

Albert Einstein lecturing in 1921 - after he'd published both the Special and General Theories of Relativity. Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons.

Albert Einstein lecturing in 1921 – after he’d published the Special and General Theories of Relativity. Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons.

Scientifically, the word ‘theory’ means a ‘hypothesis’ that has been established to be true by empirical data. Take Einstein’s two theories of relativity, Special (1906) and General (1917). We call them ‘theories’, by name, but everybody with a GPS-equipped cellphone or GPS system encounters proof that Einstein was right, every time they use it.

This is because GPS satellite clocks have a correction built into them to cope with Special Relativity time dilation that occurs because they’re moving at a different velocity than the surface of the Earth. It’s miniscule –  6 millionths of a second loss every 24 hours. There’s also the need to cope with General Relativity time acceleration relative to the surface of the earth, because they’re in orbit, putting them further away from the mathematical centre of Earth’s mass than we are on the surface of the planet. That totals 45 millionths of a second gain every 24 hours.

If all this sounds supremely geeky and too tiny to worry about, millionths of a second count,  because its on differences at that order of magnitude that GPS calculates positions. If the net relativity error of 39 millionths of a second every 24 hours wasn’t corrected, GPS would kick up positional errors of up to 12 km on the ground. Einstein, in short, was totally right and if we didn’t use Einstein’s equations to correct GPS, we’d be lost. Literally. Yet we still call his discovery a ‘theory’.

Hypothesis,on the other hand, is the idea someone comes up with to explain something. Then they run tests to figure out the rules. Take gravity. Everybody knew it existed. However, Newton figured he could come up with rules – his hypothesis. Once Newton had a hypothesis, he was able to run experiments and sort out actually how it worked – creating his theory of gravity.

Neptune. A picture I made with my trusty Celestia installation (cool, free science software).

Neptune. Discovered by mathematics, thanks to Newton’s theories. A picture I made with Celestia (cool, free science software).

One of the reasons why these explanations are called ‘theory’ is because science sometimes finds refinements. Einstein’s theory of General Relativity is also a theory of gravity, integrating the extremes of time and space Einstein described in his Special theory. It replaced Newton’s theory. But that didn’t mean Newton was wrong in the terms he observed and described. On the contrary, his equations still work perfectly for the things around which he developed the theory.

So in the strictest sense, ‘hypothesis’ means ‘how we think things work’, while ‘theory’ means ‘how we’ve shown things to work’. Science sometimes creates supersets of theories, like onion skins, that explain things differently – but usually don’t invalidate the core of the earlier theory.

And my hypothesis, which I think should be elevated to theory status on this evidence, is that English is a pretty loose language. Thoughts?

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2014


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Two interesting but possibly silly factoids about Star Wars

A while back Peter Mayhew – the 7’6” guy inside Chewbacca’s costume in the original Star Wars – released a lot of ‘behind the scenes’ stills from the production.

They’ve got a period look – the movie was shot in the age of disco, flares and vinyl-topped cars. But it’s kind of cool to think Star Wars still has the power to capture our imaginations despite its stylistic origins in the decade taste forgot. Which leads me to a couple of factoids:

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

‘That’s no moon’. Wait – yes it is. It’s Mimas, orbiting Saturn.

1. Tattooine is a real place. Most of the movie was filmed at Pinewood (hence the surfeit of British seventies brat-packers in bit-parts) but Lucas filmed the desert sequences in Tunisia near a town that looks like the Star Wars version. The name of that town? Foum Tataouine. Though before you all go ‘squee, how cool is it that they found a town of the same name’, think about how movies are actually made.

Not only is Tataouine a real place – it was liberated from the Nazis in 1943 by New Zealanders. I’ve met some of the guys who were in on the drive. (Just to compound the trivia, Luigi Cozzi’s Italian spaghetti version of the Lucas epic, Star Crash (1978) was filmed in part at Bari, where the Kiwis landed later the same year).

 2. Darth Vader’s real accent. Darth Vader was played by British actor and weight-lifter Dave Prowse, but he lost his voice to James Earl Jones. Prowse is from the West Country – Sir Arthur C. Clarke, who was also West Country, spoke the same way. A soft, lilting accent that is one of England’s quintessential classics. But not, it seems, suitable for the movie’s chief villain.

Call it meta-entertainment. The story behind the adventure. Or something.

I can’t help thinking that the story behind the forthcoming Disney knock-offs won’t be anywhere near as interesting.

 Copyright © Matthew Wright 2014


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Welcome to the weird, weird world of hyper-extreme Sheldon physics

It’s coming up for a century since Albert Einstein explained the entire ‘classical’ universe. Neatly, and in ways that have been tested every which way, without being disproven.

Albert Einstein lecturing in 1921 - after he'd published both the Special and General Theories of Relativity. Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons.

Albert Einstein lecturing in 1921 – after he’d published both the Special and General Theories of Relativity. Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons.

He never did manage to reconcile quantum physics with his macro-level rules, but there’s no question that Einstein got it right about the big stuff. General Relativity, remember, is actually a theory of gravity. And everything about it has been checked out. Repeatedly.

Still, there are points where his rules break down. I mean, literally. Points. As in mathematical points. Places that have no diameter.

They’re called ‘singularities’, and they’re inside every black hole. We can’t see them, because the singularity is masked by the event horizon. This is the point where the escape velocity of the object exceeds lightspeed – meaning light doesn’t escape, hence the term ‘black hole’.

Einstein predicted that too. And the fact that the singularity was inside an event horizon was the proverbial Good Thing because, according to theory, all the physics we know and love break down at the singularity. There has been speculation they might act as a gate (‘Einstein-Rosen Bridges’). But to Einstein and most of those who came after, it was academic, because nothing could escape the event horizon.

Enter Stephen Hawking. In 1974 he argued that black holes MUST emit particles under quantum rules. Imagine a particle just inside the event horizon. Thanks to quantum uncertainty, it is both on one side and the other. When the wave function collapses, there is a chance that the black hole has radiated a particle.

Black holes, in short, evaporate thanks to quantum effects. It takes a while for stellar-mass holes (and they’d gain more mass than they lost, via matter spiralling into them). But the particle-size black holes possible in the CERN supercollider have a lifespan of a millionth of a second. Or less.

Hawking radiation, however, doesn’t resolve the other paradox of black holes – which is that they cause loss of ‘information’. It vanishes into an event horizon and is gone, violating energy conservation rules and the conservation of information in the physics sense – unitarianism. Various explanations have been offered, none of them entirely satisfactory because the black hole exists at the intersection between the two incompatible theories – General Relativity and quantum mechanics.

This week, Hawking suggested that the best answer to the paradox is to assume that an event horizon doesn’t exist. It merely appears to; in fact the information is re-radiated, chaotically.

Artists impression of a GRB. Zhang Whoosley, NASA, public domain, via Wikipedia.

Artists impression of a GRB (which is extreme, but not weird extreme). Zhang Whoosley, NASA, public domain, via Wikipedia.

All this is weird. But wait, if you extend the theoretical thinking it can get way weirder.

According to Hawking’s early work, the universe – during the early milliseconds of the Big Bang – might have created a ‘naked’ singularity. Later he revised that idea and said it hadn’t.

But imagine if it had. Naked. A singularity unprotected by an event horizon. Anything could happen. In all probability it would emit particles. But it might emit a monkey with a typewriter, tapping out King Lear. Or Sauron. Or The Heart of Gold. Or something so wild and crazy we can’t comprehend it. The laws of physics – which include probability and the order of events – don’t exist in a singularity.

Feel like you’re trapped inside Dr Who?

Could it happen? In theory, the singularity would become a torus outside the event horizon on a black hole that spun fast enough. And there is a theory – ‘loop quantum gravity’ – which postulates that naked singularities could exist anyway. The theory’s unproven.

And as of this week there’s Hawking’s notion of no event horizon anyhow – turning ‘black holes’ into…well, probably rather more than fifty shades of grey.

Wild? Sure. Weird? Absolutely. But that’s extreme physics for you.

Pass me a bunch of fermions. I’m famished.

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2014

Coming up: More writing tips, science geekery, humour and more. Including the awaited lightspeed-with-custard experiment. Watch this space.

Bring me my interositer, pathetic Earthlings!

Anybody remember those cheesy alien movies from the fifties? Aliens with googly eyes and big heads arrive to steal women, steal Earth’s water, or both.

Needless to say, movies such as This Island Earth, I Married a Monster from Outer SpaceIt Came From Outer Space and Brain from Planet Aurus (which was about a brain from planet Aurus) had a good deal of fiction about them. Science? Uh…no…

Yes, I know science isn’t what they were about –  they played on our social fears as a device for lifting money at the box office, and as such were bedded in the human psycho-social framework

I thought I might be fun to run through the science in them anyway. Just for fun.

Anybody see a monolith go by? A picture I made with my trusty Celestia installation - cool, free science software.

Anybody see a monolith go by? A picture I made with my trusty Celestia installation – cool, free science software.

1. Aliens that look like humans
The thing about aliens is they’re alien. All Earth animals are built around the same basic plan, the tetrapod that flourished in the Devonian period – head, body, four limbs and (usually) a tail. But go back to the pre-Cambrian era and you find total weirdos, such as Edicarians. Some were so odd that paleontologists couldn’t even work out which way up they were meant to walk. And that’s just life on this planet. Now imagine life on another. I bet it won’t look like a human with a crustacean glued to its forehead (“yIqIm dude QIp tlhIngan. DaSovrup QuchDu’ lobster?”)

2. Aliens want human women
This trope was mostly about 1950s social fears. But as for the science of it – well, see (1). The chance of an alien being attracted to a human woman is about the same as an alien being attracted to oxalis. Or anything else from Earth. They’re alien. Harry Harrison riffed on it in one of his Stainless Steel Rat novels when his hero dressed up in a suit designed to look like one of the repellently squishy invaders – discovering, the hard way, that this was the height of alien pulchritude.

3. Aliens want Earth’s water
Why? We’re at the bottom of a gravity well. Also, we bite. There’s plenty of water for the taking in the Oort cloud, Kuiper belt and elsewhere. Hey – aliens might have been siphoning it for millions of years. We wouldn’t know. Or care.

4. Aliens are here to show us a better moral path
Laudable but silly. Even animals on Earth have a different moral path than humans – few, for instance, are motivated by conscious malice the way some humans are. Extrapolate that to aliens. The chance of them having world views that correct particular human failings, especially failings culture-specific to the West, is about the same as them wanting Earth’s women. See (2).

Ultimately the key word is alien. Would life on an alien world share our animal-plant split? Would alien evolution lead to a single species becoming intelligent? Would aliens become intelligent at all? Maybe they have many intelligent species. Would we even recognise their intelligence? The answer is ‘we don’t know’. Yet.

Of course that doesn’t stop us enjoying old movies. Or wondering about answers to these questions – which I hope you will. Thoughts?

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2014

Coming up: Measuring lightspeed with custard, as soon as I get some photos. More writing tips. Watch this space. 

Totally mind-blown by ‘Gravity’ and its real physics

The other weekend I went to see Gravity, in 3D. As we left the cinema there was only one thing I could say to my wife. ‘That was f—-ing AMAZING.’

Gemini 7 from Gemini 7, 15 December 1965. NASA, public domain, via Wikipedia.

Gemini 7 from Gemini 6, 15 December 1965. NASA, public domain, via Wikipedia.

I use that word a lot, just not usually on this blog. But the intensifier’s apt. After weeks slating dumb movie physics (and more to come) I was gob-smacked. Alfonso Cuaron, Kevin Grazier and the team made a massive effort to reproduce free fall. Free fall? Absolutely. It’s not ‘weightlessness’, and the astronauts are not ‘beyond the pull of Earth’s gravity’. Not in low orbit. It’s ‘free fall’ – as in falling and missing the ground. That’s what orbiting is. Seriously. Wanna see the math?

They should also have called the movie ‘Conservation of Angular Momentum’, because that’s what the physics were – everything spun…and kept spinning, because there was no force to stop the spin… Coool.

Agena target vehicle photographed from Gemini 11. Public domain, NASA, via Wikipedia.

Agena target vehicle from Gemini 11. Public domain, NASA, via Wikipedia.

Then there was the gorgeous imagery. I felt like I’d been transported back to the National Geographics I read as a kid – wonderful glossy Kodachromes of Gemini missions with Earth floating blue and magical behind them.

All that’s overlaid by the story –  an edge-of-the-seat tension drama.  Sandra Bullock’s character was tremendous. Ever wondered what you might do in a life-or-death situation? Go to pieces? Or decide to do whatever has to be done to stay alive – even if it means dying in the attempt? She took us on that decision and journey. Damn it was good!

I think the minor reality compromises the makers made to tell the story didn’t compromise suspension of disbelief. This was an awesome movie.

Of course, I’m going to list a few of those compromises – along with ways the movie also showed up the reality. But that includes spoilers – so if you haven’t seen the movie, go see it – trust me, you WANT to see this one! Then read the rest of this post.

I’ll separate the spoilers with this photo of the real thing – which is what the movie looked like. You can see my house, adjacent to the lower box on the aerial.

Spacewalk to assemble the ISS, 12 December 2006. New Zealand is below - North Island to the right, South to the left. My house is directly under the aerial centre-frame. Photo: NASA, public domain, via Wikipedia.

Spacewalk to assemble the ISS, 12 December 2006. New Zealand is below – North Island to the right, South to the left. Photo: NASA, public domain, via Wikipedia.

So – the compromises. [Spoiler Alert!] There was the scene where Bullock had to let Clooney drift. In fact they were already stopped; she had merely to tug on the cable with her pinkie finger, and he’d have drifted slowly towards her. Then there’s flying from one satellite to another using only an MMU (Manned Manoeuvering Unit) back-pack, which was flown for real in 1984 and then retired.  Hubble and the International Space Station (ISS) orbit in different planes - different angles relative to the equator – which takes a lot of energy to alter. Not possible even with a fully fuelled MMU, which has velocity-change capability (‘delta-V’) of 24.4 metres per second. There are also the physics of rendezvous in space, which are counter-intuitive – you don’t fly from place to place like the movie. I believe the original expert on how it’s done for real is Buzz Aldrin.

[Spoiler alert!] Spacesuits are harder to take on and off than portrayed, and the underwear isn’t lycra – it’s nappies (diapers), cotton long johns, and a liquid-cooling garment. Here’s a video. Actual donning time is about 20 minutes. There’s a pressure differential; the Extra Vehicular Mobility Unit (EMU) – NASA’s term for the spacesuit, which lacks any propulsion system – is pressurised to 4.3 PSI (222.37 torr), whereas the ISS operates at 14.7 PSI (760.2 torr). This means the astronauts have to spend four hours pre-breathing oxygen to avoid dysbarism – ‘the bends’, before a space-walk. Total time in the suit might be ten hours or more. That’s why the engineers insist on the nappy.

Gemini astronaut space-walking. Public domain, NASA, via Wikipedia.

Gemini astronaut space-walking. Public domain, NASA, via Wikipedia.

[Spoiler alert!] People don’t snap-freeze in vacuum. It is a brilliant insulator and heat is lost through radiation, not conduction. That’s why thermos flasks work. In shadow at Earth’s orbital distance it’s over 160 degrees C below, but that doesn’t alter the physics. The human body is more than half water, which has high thermal energy storage capacity (334 million joules per cubic metre). You’d freeze solid providing you stayed in that shadow, but not in minutes. Or hours…

And now the realities. Get this – a lot of the mayhem they showed has actually happened before, mostly to Soviet spacecraft. [Spoiler alerts!]

* Re-entry while tumbling. The Soyuz 1 mission tumbled into the atmosphere after failure of the control systems on the maiden flight of the Soyuz 7K-OK spacecraft, 24 April 1967. The sole cosmonaut, Vladimir Komarov, never gave up – he was a fantastic pilot, and managed to control the entry in the end. But the parachute release door was damaged. Komarov released the reserve chute, but it tangled with the drag chute and he was killed when Soyuz 1 slammed into the ground near Orenburg.

Soyuz TMA. Public domain, via Wikipedia.

Soyuz TMA. Public domain, via Wikipedia.

* Re-entry without PAO separation (Priborno-agregatniy otsek = service module). Only the SA re-entry module (‘B’ in the diagram) returns to Earth, base-end first; the other modules are jettisoned before re-entry. During the mission of Soyuz 5, 18 January 1969 – the orbital module (‘A’) jettisoned normally, but the PAO (‘C’) did not separate, causing the re-entry module to hit the atmosphere nose first with the PAO behind it. Oops. Luckily the bolts burned through and the PAO broke away, allowing the re-entry module to spin and present the heat shield to the atmosphere. It happened again with Soyuz TMA-10 on 21 October 2007, and AGAIN with Soyuz TMA-11 on 19 April 2008.

* Fire in orbit. On board Mir space station, 23 February 1997. It took 14 minutes to extinguish.

* Collision between spaceship and space station solar panel. Mir again, 25 June 1997 – the Progress M-30 freighter mowed through a solar panel on the Spektr module, colliding with the module and puncturing it.

* Spacecraft sinks on splash-down and the astronaut’s spacesuit fills with water. Happened to Gus Grissom on 21 July 1961 with Mercury-Redstone 4.

Damn, Gravity was a good movie!

Have you seen Gravity yet? What did you think of it?

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2013

OMG – the baddest sci-fi mega-mech…e-v-a-h!

I posted last week about why huge bipedal fighting ‘mechs’ from sci-fi like Pacific Rim are unlikely, unless the laws of physics change.

Copyright (c) Matthew Wright 2004, 2012

An Airfix kit I made of a Mk IV tank – battlefield mech, 1917 era.

But that doesn’t mean sci-fi mechs have to be boring. Not at all.

More in a moment. First off – what’s wrong with a 120-metre x 20-metre biped mega-mech?  Alas, even if you could get your mech to move, it’s a 2400 square metre target balancing on pivot points wa-a-a-ay below its centre of gravity. There are reasons why soldiers don’t stand tall and walk very, very slowly towards the enemy. When it was tried, on the Somme in 1916, the British Army suffered its heaviest one-day losses – ever.

The same’s true of real mechs – main battle tanks. In the First World War, infantry tanks were high-sided. The fact that height made them targets was understood, But the design committee couldn’t compromise on the height of the tracks, because the criteria was for a vehicle able to drive over trenches – dictating a rhomboidal profile equivalent to a 20-metre diameter wheel.

My 'Dragon' model of M. I. Koshkin's T-34. Lighting rig was improvised.

A ‘Dragon’ model of M. I. Koshkin’s T-34. Sits on the shelf beside my writing desk, usually. Lighting rig was improvised.

Inter-war tanks had different criteria but were still high-sided. Then, during the Second World War, sloped armour – again, well known in naval circles – was applied by Mikhail Ilyich Koshkin to his T-34. Modern tanks follow that lead. Tank tactics reflect ‘low is better’ too – a commander looks for places to go hull-down. You can’t do that in a 120-metre high bipedal mech.

So does this mean mech sci-fi has to be dull? Not at all. I’m thinking of the most awesome mech I’ve ever seen in SF – Stanislaw Lem’s Cyclops. Total badass. To one reader, ‘goddamn dynamite, I mean, like whoa.

Best MBT in the world - the Challenger 2. Well, it's British, innit. "It's only a model". "Shh"

Best MBT in the world – the Challenger 2. “Eeee, lad, that’s ‘cos it’s British, innit.” “It’s only a model”. “Shh”. Note the background …the same as the T-34’s.

Get this. Lem’s Cyclops is an autonomous robot weighing 80 tons, 25 feet high, levitated on force fields, protected by ceramic armour and energy fields, with near-inexhaustible energy reserves. It’s armed with an antimatter cannon capable of continuous fire in all directions – annihilating everything in a constant nuclear-yield detonation, soaking the battlefield in relativistic-scale energies and lethally hard radiation.

Here’s Alex Andreev’s visual concept.

It’s from Stanislaw Lem’s The Invincible (1964)I read that novel in 1978 and – setting aside Wendayne Ackerman’s peculiar translation from Polish, via German – it’s total OMG.  Mech-machine evolution…versus humans. And Lem also envisaged the ultimate end; a robot fly (‘grey goo‘). Tiny, individually disposable, always replaceable – available in multi-billions – and able to connect into swarms that were …invincible. Blasting them was like fighting the ocean with swords. The logic pivoted on energy consumption.

That was the ultimate sci-fi mega mech. Infintesimally tiny – yet, vastly huge. Expendable, yet indestructible. Brilliant. But then, Lem’s stuff always is. Here’s part of the sequence where the Cyclops goes into combat with the flies. Lem is one hell of an author! Don’t just take my word for it.  Find a copy of that book and read it – because, my friends, Stanislaw Lem has shown us how mechs are done.

And – more importantly – how we’ll relate to them.

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2013

Next week: My review of Gravity. Before then – NaNo writing tips and advice. Watch this space.

Why is the sky blue? And other annoyingly rhetorical questions

I am often bemused by people who use ‘why is the sky blue’ as rhetoric – often to symbolise some question for which there is no answer.

Actually there is an answer, and we’ve known it since 1871: ‘Rayleigh scattering’. It’s also why sunsets look red and orange. The effect is named after John William Strutt, Third Baron Rayleigh (1842-1919), the British physicist who discovered it.

The phenomenon works like this: incoming sunlight, which contains light of all wavelengths and hence colours, is scattered by molecules in the upper atmosphere. The increasing density of atmosphere itself also acts as a scattering mechanism.  The wavelength of light mostly scattered (technically, absorbed and re-emitted) is at the shorter end – blue and green, creating the diffuse glow across the whole sky which, to the human eye, usually looks light blue.

Other wavelengths are scattered when the light comes at a direct angle, which is why the Sun appears yellow (but don’t look – it will damage your eyes).

This scattered light is also polarised. That’s why a polariser on your camera produces such a dark blue at certain viewing angles relative to the sun.

Oriental Bay - named after one of the original colony ships that arrived in 1840 and a popular walk for Wellingtonians today.

Oriental Bay, Wellington – an image I took with full polarising, creating false-colour blue in the sky.

When the sun angle lowers, and the light is passing through a thicker layer of atmosphere, more of the blue wavelengths are scattered and only the longer wavelengths are obvious – orange and red – hence the colours of sunset, gradiating to a darkening blue above.

Blue sunset on Mars - for the same reason skies are blue on Earth. An approximately true colour image by the Spirit rover at Gusev Crater, 2005. Photo: NASA/JPL, public domain.

Blue sunset on Mars – for the same reason skies are blue on Earth. An approximately true colour image by the Spirit rover at Gusev Crater, 2005. Photo: NASA/JPL, public domain.

This scattering effect is true everywhere – not just on Earth. It varies slightly because atmospheric compositions differ, and the oxygen in our atmosphere is a factor. However, if you were dangling from a balloon in Jupiter’s atmosphere and looked up, you’d see blue sky there, even though the air is mostly a poisonous mix of hydrogen, helium and traces of other stuff like phosphene. Even the sky of Mars is blue – we’ve imaged that blue slice-wise through the upper air. It appears pink from lower down, looking up, because suspended dust in the atmosphere scatters the longer wavelengths. That’s still Rayleigh scattering. And Martian sunsets are blue – for exactly the same reason.

Mars imaged in 1995 by the Hubble Space Telescope - with blue cast due to Rayleigh scattering. Cool. Photo: NASA, public domain.

Mars imaged in 1995 by the Hubble Space Telescope – with blue cast due to Rayleigh scattering. Cool. Photo: NASA, public domain.

Earth’s sky appears blue, I might add, to us. Humans are lucky; our colour vision is based on three receptors. Many animals use two, which reduces the palette of colours they can see. (Of course, most of them also have much better night vision: swings and roundabouts).

So there you have it. Next time anybody idly gets rhetorical and asks ‘why is the sky blue’, you can go all Sheldon on them with an annoying literal answer. Or talk about Martian sunset colours, but I suppose that comes to the same thing really.

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2013