Friday, October 30, 2009

Nigeria's Orbital Ambitions

According to
THIS article in the Global Post, Nigeria has ambitious plans for its modest space program, including a manned launch sometime in the coming decade.

To Nigeria's misfortune, when many people in the US and other Western nations think of it, the first thing that comes to mind are their notorious internet scammers and spammers. But I know from my nephew, who is half Nigerian, that the central-african nation has much to be proud of. In recent years, that includes a small but ambitious space program.

The details are in the linked article, so I won't need to repeat them here. But I hope that they succeed in their ambitions in orbit, especially in launching their own astronaut by 2015. Space should be accessible to, and exploitable by, everyone, not just the most powerful countries and global corporations. Africa is a huge, diversified continent with vast natural resources that I think will come into its own as a major global player in the coming century, and its forward-looking countries like Nigeria that will lead the way for its peoples. Best of luck to them.

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

SciFi TV: Maybe Its Time To Abandon The 1-Hour Format

Recently there has been a dust-up on certain blogs and forums about the state of science fiction on TV, either a) bemoaning its quality or b) bemoaning how shows that are actually interesting, like Firefly or Dollhouse, often don't last long.

I think at least part of the remedy to both these problems can be solved with a relatively simple shift in approach: abandon one-hour shows for half-hour ones.

The idea would be attractive to networks, as half-hour shows would be cheaper to produce and invest in in the long term. They could try out twice as many ideas and approaches than they do currently, enabling them to more easily find the properties that will strike a chord with audiences and make them a profit.

And for fans, the switch would be even better in my opinion, as writers would have to cut a lot of extraneous dramatic junk that I think tends to drag down the worst of the hour-long shows. Scifi stories on TV can get leaner and meaner, focusing much more on important story elements while cutting a lot of the b-story plots used to just fill in time in hour-long episodes.

I haven't come to this conclusion in a vacuum, either. I've recently watched quite a bit of half-hour science fiction shows that easily equal anything the hour dramas have produced. Unfortunately, they weren't made in North America or even Europe. Yes, I'm talking about (gasp!) Anime.

Despite what some purist snobs in the West may think, Anime has indeed produced science fiction on par with the very best the West has produced. All one has to do is watch series like Cowboy Bebop or Planetes or Ghost in the Shell to attest to that.

That's not to say that there isn't a lot of mediocre anime out there; there is, and Sturgeon's Law (which states that the majority of anything is crap) holds true for it as for anything else. But the very best of it does demonstrate definitively that half-hour science fiction can be high-quality, mature, intelligent, and exciting. And there was nothing I saw FX-wise in shows like *Bebop* or *Planetes* that couldn't be done in live-action nowadays. It would just be a matter of finding the right pacing and approach to make such shows work, depending on the concept.

Somehow, though, there seems to be a stigma against half-hour dramas in the US. Half-hour time slots are reserved for comedies, hours for dramas, and that's the way its been for decades now. I'm not sure if that could be changed around enough to give any half-hour scifi TV show a decent chance. But then, if the show is good enough, it would find an audience no matter what.

What I'm basically saying is that if the Japanese can produce quality half-hour science fiction shows, we should be able to as well. And it would help to seriously re-invigorate a TV genre that seems stalled for some time now. Anyway, something to think about.

(Cowboy Bebop copyright Sunrise.)

Monday, October 19, 2009

400+ Exoplanets and counting

According to THIS article, 32 newly confirmed exoplanets have been added to the ever-growing list, thanks to the efforts of astronomers at the European South Observatory. Most significant here is the fairly large percentage of 'super-earths' discovered, planets that are much more massive than Earth, but are not big enough to be gas giants. If these are fairly common, than that means that smaller terrestial planets like the kind we are familiar with must be a standard feature in most star systems.

I would put a cautionary asterix next to the statement in the article by astronomer Alan Boss that, "The universe must indeed be crowded with habitable worlds." While I think most of us would indeed hope that's the case, there's still no real evidence for that. The universe seems to be a very hostile place, and even a plentitude of terrestrial planets does not automatically guarantee a plentitude of life. A lot can still go wrong in the billions of years that are needd for life to evolve, even if it does arise on any world. I'm not saying that life-bearing worlds aren't out there, I'm just saying we need more evidence before we can say that the universe is crowded or not with them

Tuesday, October 6, 2009

VASIMR Plasma Rocket Powers Up

Less than a day after my LAST blog entry, where I predicted that Plasma Rockets will become the predominant space propulsion technology later in the century, comes news that an experimental plasma rocket engine has just passed a significant milestone.

For full details go HERE for the original article from PHYSORG.COM. For the basics of how VASIMR and other types of plasma rockets work, go HERE.

Here's hoping the Ad`Astra Rocket Company continues to do such exemplary research and devlopment. I do think plasma rockets hold a tremendous amount of promise, and the sooner the technology is fully developed, the better off our future in space will be.

(Image Copyright Ad Astra Rocket Company)

Monday, October 5, 2009

Space Travel Feasibility Round-Up

In gathering articles for the main ORBITAL VECTOR site, I try to stay clear of favoritism for any particular idea. I DO try to make clear a particular technology's real-world feasibility, whether its hard science or soft science, how advanced society likely needs to be to produce it, etc.

However, that doesn't mean I think that all technologies I write about are equally probable. There are other factors besides just purely technological to overcome. Economics, politics, circumstance, location, culture, are as likely to determine if a technology becomes widely used or if it just sits on the shelves of history as a curiosity. The Segway is a perfect example. As a technology, it exceeded expectations, and fulfills its utility niche almost perfectly. However, it was cultural and economic factors--basically the fear of lawsuits--that killed its wide-spread use.

With all that in mind, I thought I'd give my own personal views of the likelihood of various Space Travel technologies I've written about so far on the main site. Just keep in mind these represent my own personal views of what will likely be developed or not based on political, economic, cultural, and other factors in the real world. Believe me, I would love to see a huge flowering of advanced space technology within the next decade, but I try to be as realistically constrained with the predictions as I could, while still assuming the world community in general continues to slowly develop space capabilities. Also, the needs and attitudes of various space-faring nations/companies/groups may change over time, so what seems likely now may also change in the future.

Each technology discussed is linked to an article explaining how it works.

CHEMICAL ROCKETS: Will probably remain the main means of obtaining orbit and maneuvering in space for at least the next half-century, if not longer. Its just too reliable and well proven a technology, and with so much infrastructure already in place to manufacture rocket components they will likely remain the cheapest option for some time to come. In the second half of the century I think they'll start slowly being replaced by other technology, but even so they will still linger for many decades.

SPACE PLANES: Also a well-proven technology, from the old X-series rocket planes to Virgin Galactic's SpaceShipOne. As Virgin Galactic gears up and actually begins running tourist flights, imitators will likely blossom from every corner, and I think the rocket/space plane will have a serious renaissance in the 2020s and beyond.

ION DRIVES: Now a proven technology, ion drives are very fuel efficient and will likely begin to slowly supplant chemical rockets as the main thrusters on deep space robes. Will likely be a routine technology by mid-century, used mostly for unmanned scientific and (hopefully) industrial payloads.

PLASMA ROCKETS: I do think old-style chemical rockets will begin turning over to these within a few decades, starting in the 2030s or 2040s; they have many of the same characteristics s chemical rockets but with much greater power. By the end of the century they will likely be the dominant space propulsion technology.

FISSION ROCKETS: Toxic radioactive exhaust will make sure this technology is never seriously used, despite its near-term feasibility and other advantages.

NUCLEAR PULSE DRIVES: Despite being actually much more dangerous than fission rockets, nuclear pulse drives have much more support among the space and scientific communities. Plus they also deliver phenomenal amounts of thrust compared to most other drives to compensate. Will likely be used for large deep-space missions in the second half of the century and beyond, perhaps even for the first interstellar probes.

SOLAR BOILER ROCKETS: Nominally a very cheap form of deep space rocket, these only become economically feasible if enough infrastructure in space exists to easily refuel them with water, which probably won't happen until the next century. But when that does happen, they will likely become the cheap transport workhorses of any emerging space culture.

SOLAR/MAGNETIC SAILS: A little too far out-there as a concept to gain a lot of real popular or political support, plus in order to turn them into decent-performance vehicles, you need to build powerful laser or particle beam facilities that could too easily be interpreted as weapons, making them a political sticking point. I foresee them being used only occasionally for certain scientific missions into the foreseeable future.

FUSION ROCKETS: Fusion has always one of the big "ifs" of science. They've been promising the big breakthrough for cheap, sustainable fusion power for half a century now, but if that will actually happen anytime soon is up for speculation. IF it comes within the next few decades, fusion rocket spacecraft may begin plying deep space sometime in the last half of the century, I'd guess. However, like with fission rockets, its radioactive exhaust will make its use infrequent at first, but as humanity moves further out into the solar system its superior power will become a premium. That likely won't happen until well into the next century, however.

ANTIMATTER DRIVES: The ultimate rockets, but the problems, technical and economic (and probably political, as antimatter can easily be turned into a weapon), involved in producing and storing antimatter means these probably won' be used in any significant way until well into the next century.

LAUNCH TOWERS: Feasible, but would probably only be seriously pursued if a space elevator proves definitively unobtainable. Even so they probably wouldn't be constructed until late in the century, after any space elevator projects fail.

SPACE ELEVATORS: With the development of carbon nanotubes, these seem definitively feasible, and there is currently a large populist push within the space and scientific community to develop one. It still unfortunately remains a little too far-out-there as an idea to get any significant funding politically, which probably won't really change for at least few decades yet. However, by the 2030s or 2040s I can see space elevator technology being seriously pursued, and the first commercial one may open in the second half of the century.

I'd love to hear other peoples' opinions. I may do another feasibility round-up of space technology (focusing on space stations and planetary exploration and such) some time in the future.