Thursday, December 9, 2010

SpaceX's Big Step

The Space Exploration Technologies Corporation, much more widely known by its abbreviated moniker SpaceX, reached a major milestone on December 8th: it launched, orbited, and recovered its unmanned Dragon capsule in its first full test flight. More details can be found in THIS linked article at the DISCOVERY magazine website.

This is significant as its the first private company to achieve this feat--successfully recovering an orbital spacecraft. This paves the way for it to make unmanned cargo runs to the Space Station and for the Dragon design to maybe eventually carry astronauts to Earth orbit as well. Here's hoping for their continued success in the future!

Thursday, December 2, 2010

I For One Welcome Our New Arsenic-Loving Microbial Overlords

The big news going around scientific circles is the GFAJ-1 strain of bacteria discovered at Mono Lake in California. It was artificially manipulated into accepting arsenic as a substitute for phosphorus. A much more detailed write-up on the development can be found IN THIS DISCOVERY MAGAZINE BLOG.

While the discovery is not as world-shaking as some sources have hyped it, it is still huge. This strain of bacteria is doing something no other lifeform has ever been seen doing: using am element besides phosphorus for its driving energy. It hints at just how life can evolve and adapt to extreme conditions beyond anything we previously thought possible. As many others have pointed out, this indicates that extraterrestrial life, if ever found, could take radically different forms than we've previously assumed (outside of science fiction, of course.)

Anyway, I'll be following developments of this story with interest; its easily the biggest discovery at the frontiers of biology since the extremophiles found at volcanic vents at the ocean floor.

Sunday, November 14, 2010

Proposal: Convert Abandoned Deep Water Oil Platforms Into OTEC Energy Islands

I know I'm hardly the first to propose this; studies for it go back to at least the early 1990s. However, in the wake of the BP oil disaster in the Gulf of Mexico and deep water drilling technology still fresh in the public's mind, this may be the most receptive environment for this idea in many years, even with the current economic turmoil.

OTEC stands for Ocean Thermal Energy Conversion. More information on the technology can be found HERE. Basically, it uses large differences in temperatures between surface water and the sea depths to drive a working fluid such as ammonia to turn electric turbines. A full-scale OTEC plant is estimated to be able to produce up to 250 megawatts under optimal conditions, about a quarter of the average fossil-fuel power plant. The technology is still officially in development, but seems poised to becoming a fully viable power generation resource in the near future.

When an oil drilling platform runs dry, its usually a fairly costly procedure to decommission and dismantle the platform itself. This is especially true of deep water rigs, and usually just the structures near the surface are removed.

One the biggest cost headaches in producing practical OTEC plants is the building and establishment of deep water platforms. Ideally these are envisioned as expansive, consolidated 'energy islands' that would combine OTEC with other types of power production, such as solar, wind, tidal, and wave generators. However, OTEC is always envisioned as the heavy lifter, producing three times as much as those other types of generators combined. So having an energy island with just an OTEC generator would still be potentially profitable. The only real limiting factor (for the US, at least) is that OTEC generators must be located in waters that are relatively warm year round, which for the US would mean the Gulf of Mexico and the waters off of Florida and Hawaii.

The proposal is straightforward: as deep water rigs have their wells run dry and are decommissioned, instead of spending money to have it dismantled, they can be sold or leased to alternative energy interests for conversion into OTEC facilities. This would mitigate one of the biggest upfront costs of an OTEC plant--creating the deep-ocean platform necessary for the technology to work. Major investment would still be necessary, especially laying the long power cables needed to transfer the current to shore along the seabed. However, once set up, the OTEC facility could produce power indefinitely, long beyond the handful of years the drilling platform would produce crude oil.

OTEC technology has proven itself experimentally and could be fully commercially developed in the near term with enough investment. But the biggest roadblock to this idea may be political rather than technical or economic. The large oil and energy companies that build the drilling platforms have traditionally been hostile to alternate energy technologies and may not want to give a promising new source of power for fear of the competition, even if they may mean additional revenue in place of a tapped out well.

I always thought this was a foolish and short-sighted position. The transition to renewable, alternative forms of energy is already underway, and while fossil fuels will be part of the energy landscape for many decades yet, their dominance will slowly fade. Rather than trying to block alternatives and only delaying the inevitable, the big energy companies should start wholly investing them, and get ahead of the curve. This way, they will not only be helping society through a very necessary and beneficial transition, they will ensure their own long-term solvency by adapting themselves to the changing technological landscape.

Monday, September 13, 2010

The Battle Of Hoth Unlimited, Part Two

The first part can be found HERE. Please refer to Part One for the various rules and assumptions we're using for these scenarios. And remember, this is my opinion only, and this is purely for fun!

In Part One, we took a look at the more low tech forces, namely the Xenomorphs, the Zerg, the modern US Military, and Stargate Command. With one exception, the Empire emerged triumphant. However, as we move on to more high-tech combatants, the resistance starts getting much stiffer as the Empire begins dealing with foes with are much closer to being their technological peers.


Source: Avatar

Tech Level: 14-15

In the movie, the Na’vi were able to best the human forces through a series of specialized circumstances, such as a sensor-scrambling electromagnetic field and an apparently sentient biosphere. Those circumstances will not be in play here. Also, in order to fill out the same numbers with the rebels, the militia will be increased from a few hundred as shown in the movie to 2000 total troops.

The mercenary forces on Pandora are mostly supplied with what their society views as cheap, second-rate cast-off equipment or what the colonist were able to manufacture on-site with their limited facilities. Since we don’t get a chance to see what the top-of-the-line gear back on Earth is like, we have to go only with what's shown in the movie.

Composed almost entirely of ex-soldiers from a future Earth that is as ravaged by war as the modern-day version, the militia here has a very strong core of experienced veterans, and they seemed to be highly motivated (their corporate employers were obviously paying them well.) In addition, they faced off regularly against an extremely hostile array of hard-to-kill fauna, and its almost certain that they have armor-piercing rounds and advanced personal armor at least equal to what the SGC employed in the last match-up. Thus, soldier-to-soldier, they have a definitive advantage over the snowtroopers with their superior rates of fire.

In place of the snowspeeders the Pandoran militia will have nine Scorpion rotary-blade gunships, which are armed with 50-caliber rotary guns and missile pods. We don't really see any stationary point defense weapons in the movie, so they'll have instead the AMP mecha walkers, which are armed with 30mm autocannons and three-foot “knives.”

Like with the normal US Military scenario in Part One, sorties of the Scorpion gunships are sent to take care of the AT-ATs. Unlike them, however, the Scorpions with their much higher-tech targeting systems should be able to hit the walkers’ individual moving legs more easily. Concentrated missile fire would eventually start bringing the walkers down. In the end, Scorpions can probably bring down one third to one half of the AT-ATs, though they themselves will probably suffer heavy casualties from concentrated ground fire.

The AMPs vs the AT-STs would be an interesting match-up. Both are very maneuverable robotic walker units, though the AT-ST probably has the edge in size, armor and firepower, while the AMP would have a superior rate of fire and versatility.

So, on balance, the Pandoran Militia can almost evenly match the Imperials unit-to-unit, lacking only heavy armor vehicles that can directly match the AT-ATs. But then, the Rebels in the original movie didn’t have the latter either.

RESULT: Marginal Victory for the Rebels. Despite their higher tech advantages over the modern day US army and the SGC, the Imperials’ numbers still do Pandoran Militia in. Like with the Rebels, they’re able to hold off the enemy so that all the transport ships make it off planet, but only just barely before the Imperials smash their defensive line and destroy the power generators. Casualties suffered will also probably be similar to that of the Rebels as well.


Source: The Terminator Movies

Tech Level: 14-15

These are mostly T-800 models (the kind played by Arnold Schwartzenegger in the movies), with a small smattering of T-1000s mixed in, say one T-1000 for every 200 T-800s, or about 10 total. As we’re leaving off the more obscure Star Wars walker units so as not to confuse casual readers, we’ll do the same with many of the more obscure Terminator models from various sources, and just stick with the two everyone probably knows. The T-800s here are flesh coated, as we’re familiar with seeing them in the movies.

Terminators are a bit inconsistent, tactically. At times they’re extremely clever and subtle. At others, they’re single mindedly dim (as with the T-1000’s “you’re twenty feet away but I must stab you with my pointy arm-knives instead of just grabbing a gun and shooting you” strategy in T2.) Since we’re dispensing with Plot-Induced Stupidity (PIS) for these match-ups, we’ll stick with the Terminators able to use smart tactics and subtlety.

In their future, Terminators use advanced, high-caliber firearms with very high rates of fire and ammo capacity. They probably fall somewhere between the capabilities of modern firearms and the high-tech armor-piercing ammunition used by the SGC and the Pandoran Militia. The human resistance was very wily, but was usually not heavily armored. It will probably take more than one shot for a Terminator to bring down a snowtrooper.

It should also be mentioned that Terminators are extremely efficient crack shots (except when aiming at the hero/heroine, of course, but that can be considered PIS.) They will have a much higher rate of hitting their targets, even at long ranges, than any mere human troops. So though their weapons do not have the penetration to take out the snowtroopers with one shot, their inhuman accuracy will more than make up for this deficiency.

The Terminators also luck out in that their coatings of human flesh in a way serve as additional armor for themselves. Since blasters deliver most of their damage as heat, when they hit the outer layer of flesh, it will explode in a messy shower of sparks, steam, and viscera, but leave the robotic chassis underneath largely untouched.

Their endoskeletons, made from an advanced uber-alloy and designed to be extremely tough and bullet proof, could probably also survive a half dozen or so direct blaster hits before the unit goes down. This combined with their flesh ‘armor’ makes the T-800s extremely tough to kill compared to the snowtroopers, though concentrated fire or one or two solid shots to the head will probably do the trick. If the Empire had to rely on just its infantry in this battle, they would likely be completely routed despite their numerical superiority.

Ironically, the usually much more fearsome T-1000s are much more vulnerable to heat damage, so a single blaster hit would disrupt the workings of a T-1000 for at least several seconds, and repeated hits would wear away at its structure until there was too little left to be effective (they supposedly become less intelligent the more mass they lose.) So they’d likely hang back for now.

At first, the enemy’s seeming high resistance to blaster fire would seriously unnerve the snowtroopers. But as soon as they see the metal endoskeletons underneath, cries of ‘they’re just freaking droids!’ would go up through the ranks. Even though these are very tough and deadly units, robots are so ubiquitous in the Empire that the fear-inducing psychological advantage Terminators usually have over human foes would not be present here. Given that droids are a lowly slave class in the Empire, many of the troopers might actually be incensed that these ‘uppity’ mechanicals would dare pretend to be human, and fight back all the fiercer at this affront.

Smart Empire commanders would form up the troops around the AT-STs, to take advantage of the walkers’ heavier firepower to drive wedges through the Terminator’s defensive lines, and let the AT-ATs fully take the lead to give them some cover.

As equivalents to the Rebels snowspeeders, the Terminators have HK-Aerials, the advanced twin-engine air vehicles glimpsed at in most of the movies. These gunships have advanced weapons that include lasers, missiles, and plasma guns, but unfortunately their lasers and plasma guns would be next to useless against the blaster-proof armor. And with the uber-armor the AT-ATs are sporting, it would take quite a bit of concentrated fire from their missiles (which, since they usually fight unarmored humans, probably aren’t that effective against heavy armored units) to affect even the walkers’ leg joints. They have deadly accuracy with these weapons, and can hit the most vulnerable points dead-on almost every time. Even so, at best they may be able to take out a third of the AT-ATs before they become too threatened by concentrated ground fire.

But the AT-ATs may not be safe yet. Seeing that their air units are not faring well, the Terminators may try a different tactic: an organized ground assault on the remaining big walkers. However, this is not just a kamikaze Zerg-like rush. Instead, each group of the T-800s serve as cover for a T-1000, to get them as close to the AT-ATs as possible without damage. Once at the walkers, the T-1000s can make their way up the legs easily, to try and find an egress inside. Any size opening will be enough for them, even if its an inch or less across, and they’re strong enough that they could pull off vent covers and the like (like the one that Luke cut open with his lightsaber.) Once inside the vehicles, the T-1000s make quick work of any crew or troopers there.

Though this tactic will not work on ever AT-AT (the imperials would wise up to it fast), it may take out a significant number of the remaining walkers, slowing the advance.

RESULT: Marginal Rebel Victory. This is the one match-up in these scenarios that seems almost dead even and could go either way easily. The Terminators’ inherent toughness and deadly accuracy make up for their disadvantages in numbers and weapon sophistication. It would come down to how effective the T-1000 gambit with AT-AT walkers would prove. Between the HK-Aerials and the T-1000s, all but one or two of the walkers would probably eventually be taken out. However, that’s all that’s needed to break through the defensive lines and take out the generators. The Imperials are delayed long enough for the transports to get away, and the base will eventually be captured after a long, drawn out fight with the surviving Terminators.


Source: Stargate SG-1 (Gua’uld)

Tech Level: 18

These are the Jaffa as the Gua’uld first employed them in the early seasons of Stargate: SG-1, not the Free Jaffa they evolved into later in the series.

The Gua’uld system lord are the technological peers of Star Wars’ Empire, having many of the same major innovations in place (antigravity, force fields, plasma weapons, etc.) Yet they have failed to take full advantage of what that technology is capable of. And in no place is this more apparent than in their personal guard/ground troops, the Jaffa.

This is not the fault of the Jaffa themselves, who were often shown to have extremely high quality training, morale, and motivation (often deriving from their religious fervor, falsely believing that the aliens they served were real gods.) Rather, their Gua’uld masters succumbed to a number of cultural deficiencies that left them deficient as a fighting force.

The Gua’uld were first and foremost arrogant, having no real rivals in the Milky way Galaxy for thousands of years, save for members of their own kind. They had no reason to develop better tactics. They were technological scavengers, having stolen most of their high technology from other races, and were extremely slow to innovate on their own. And the Jaffa was used also as a police force, and much of their equipment were meant more to terrify a superstitious populace into submission than to serve as practical weapons of war. Those choices will serve the Jaffa poorly here.

The Jaffa’s primary armament is the staff weapon. Two meters long, it can shoot plasma bursts of similar performance and power to a stormtrooper’s blaster, and can double as a quarterstaff-like hand weapon. The Jaffa employ very heavy, highly-stylized armor. However, it also hampers movement and has no internal displays or sensors beyond a simple 'periscope' system that allows them to see normally out of their raised headpieces.

Since the two sides’ weapons are very similar in performance, and a single shot from a staff weapon can take down another armored Jaffa, I think its safe to say that the SW troopers’ weapons will have a similar effect, despite the Jaffa’s thicker-seeming armor. Point-defense weapons will be tripod-mounted plasma weapons seen very occasionally in the series, and in place of the Rebels’ speeders, they have 9 death gliders (unlike the SGC’s modified versions, the original death gliders seemed designed with ground strafing in mind as one of their primary functions.)

Though as individual warriors the Jaffa can be truly exceptional, their grasp of group tactics seem universally abysmal throughout the run of Stargate: SG-1. They will fight fiercely, but not effectively as a unit. So despite their better overall troop quality, their leaders’ inability to grasp effective tactics puts them at a disadvantage as compared to the snowtroopers.

The death gliders run into a problem as well. The armor of the AT-ATs are blaster proof, even in the legs. The weapons on the death gliders, which seem to have similar capabilities, therefore will not be able to much to harm the plodding behemoths.

RESULT: Decisive Victory for the Empire. The Jaffa inflict heavy casualties, but in the end their incoherence as an integrated fighting force and their inability to do much to the Empire’s armored units result in the Empire reaching and destroying the power generators with only moderate delays. A number of transports are caught on the ground, and the base is captured.


Source: Traveller RPG

Tech Level: 18

In some ways, the Third Imperium of the Traveller RPG universe is the opposite of the Jaffa. They too are technological peers of Star Wars’ Empire, at Tech Level 18. However, they take far greater advantage of what their technology is capable of than the Empire does, at least as far as their ground military is concerned. The Empire’s technology would probably dominate in space, but on planet surfaces the story would be completely different.

The Third Imperium (TI)is composed of 11,000+ worlds, which actually have a huge variety of Tech Levels spread among them. We’ve already seen what their lower-tech level troops could probably do with other groups using similar technology, such as the Pandoran Militia. Here, we’ll use its highest tech troops at the same Tech Level of the Empire’s.

The most significant advantage for the average TI trooper is being equipped with powered battle armor, similar in many ways to the armors used in the novel Starship Troopers by Robert Heinlein. With Star Wars’s very advanced robotics, its surprising that this technology seems to have been given the short shrift in the Empire. The Third Imperium took full advantage of it, however. These powered battle armors are superior to stormtrooper armor in every way. They allow full range of movement, enhance the user’s strength, and is equipped with an advanced sensor suite (IR, radar, light enhancement, telescopic, etc) and holographic helmet displays.

Also standard equipment are grav belts, which allow the Third Imperium trooper to actually fly and maneuver in the air for short periods of time if necessary. Most often, though, they’re used for simple ‘jumps’ to gain a lot of ground in a hurry. Advanced anti gravity is something often seen in the Empire, but apparently is never used outside of vehicles and spaceships and other specialized applications.

Their standard weapon is the PGMPs, or Plasma Gun Man Portable. They use the same operating principle as the snowtroopers’ blasters, but are ginned up into much more devastating weapons. The bolts travel far faster (equivalent of high speed bullets vs. the fast ball pitches of the SW blasters) and are much hotter (at least ten thousands degrees.) They have ranges of several kilometers, are equipped with advanced targeting scopes, and often have attached underslung grenade launchers. The armor the Traveller forces wear are actually designed to withstand at least one shot by PGMPs, meaning the weaker blaster rifles used by the snowtroopers will only do minimal damage. The heavier blasters of the AT-STs or the AT-Ats would be needed to take out a TI trooper in a single shot.

What this means is that the average Third Imperium high-tech trooper is more than a match for quite a number of Empire snowtroopers. Concentrated blaster fire could take down an armored Third Imperium trooper, but given the greater range and power of the PGMPs it seems unlikely that any will come close enough for that to happen, even with the Empire’s greater numbers.

Point defense weapons would be heavy fusion guns mounted on tripods, which have ranges of several kilometers and advanced targeting systems. Fusion guns are similar to plasma guns, except they contain their plasma in their compressed magnetic bottle long enough for a fusion process to begin, greatly increasing the amount of heat/energy the bolt has (at least 200,000 plus degrees) when finally released. Though the AT-ATs are ‘blaster proof’, these weapons would seriously put that to the test. An AT-AT could maybe survive one hit, but two or three or more in rapid succession would likely take it down.

If all this wasn’t bad enough, the snow speeder equivalents used here are the mainstay of Third Imperium high-tech armor units, the Trepida (short for Trepidation) grav tank. These are about the same size as a modern M-1 Abrams tank, but are truly monstrous weapon systems. For the first time in these scenarios, the AT-ATs meet their match in a heavy armor unit.

As a grav tank, the Trepidas use advanced anti gravity technology and are more maneuverable than modern day attack helicopters, as well as being capable of achieving transonic speeds if needed. They are equipped with the best sensors and targeting systems of their tech level, and are powered by long-enduring fusion generators.

The tank, in Third Imperium currency, costs a little over 81 million credits to build. 79 million of that is spent just on its gun, a rapid-fire heavy fusion gun with a range of many kilometers. Plus the tank is designed to take shots from other Trepidas, at least along its very heavily armored forward arc, and could withstand fire for a time from even the AT-ATs’ heavy blasters.

Ton for ton, they are just as tough as the AT-ATs, but are far more maneuverable and mount a far more versatile and devastating main weapon. In most circumstances a Trepida would make very short work of any AT-AT and barely get a scratch. And once the Trepida’s are done with the heavy walkers, they turn their fusion firepower on the AT-STs and snowtrooper lines.

RESULTS: Decisive Rebel Victory. A complete route of the Empire forces. As soon as the assault is spotted, all nine Trepida grav tanks pop up and smash the Empire’s armor units and advancing lines with a long-range rapid-fire barrage of star-hot fusion fire. The rapid-fire main tank guns overwhelm the blaster-proof armor of the AT-ATs and the walkers are slagged in short order. The powered armor troopers are used mainly for clean up. The battle lasts less than a minute, and the Empire forces never come within a kilometer of the base.


Source: Star Trek (DS9 era)

Tech Level: 21/22

Once we get past the Empire’s Tech Level of 18, the battles with other science fiction forces become more and more one-sided. The results of the imperial forces facing off against, say, 2000 Ringworld-Era Kzinti or 2000 Daleks should be pretty obvious (though admittedly they might still be cool spectacles to watch.) However, given the traditional (and on many levels silly) rivalry between the two fandoms, there’s one we really have to address: Star Trek’s Federation and its Starfleet Personnel.

At the beginning of these scenarios, we dispensed with Plot-Induced Stupidity (PIS), and Star Trek is by far one of the worst purveyors of it. In fact, its creators have even stated that they purposely dumb down some parts of the show to keep it accessible from week to week to the casual, non-scifi viewer. The crews conveniently forget about the supertechnology they tripped across or invented just the week before, the transporters fail if someone sneezes too hard, and they ignore the fact their weapons have ranges of hundreds of thousands of miles and trade shots with other ships at eyeball range.

However, when we remove PIS, it quickly becomes obvious just how powerful Star Trek technology can be, and how potentially terrifying it could prove to be on the wrong end of it. The DS9 era is chosen here because that’s the series of the show that portrayed the most ground combat.

Starfleet crews are very high quality troops. They’re highly motivated, trained, and disciplined, chosen only from the best and brightest of the Federation. Though humanitarian and often compassionate, Starfleet personnel will kill if necessary, and that will be the case here. Dispensing with the Redshirt-Ricky-Gets-Eaten-By-The-Monster-Of-The-Week PIS, its very easy to see how formidable opponents they can be, even if the Tech Level was even.

But its not. The plasma guns and fusion guns fielded by the Third Imperium troops in the last scenario were very impressive and devastating. But phasers, even the humble Type II hand phasers from the original series, are even more so.

With enough power in its cells to apparently nuke a starship if set on overload, these weapons are amazingly versatile, both in use and power. Their fire modes range from single shot, continuous beam, wide beam, and autofire. Their power can be set to simply disrupt someone’s nervous system (stun), to deliver energy blasts that can superheat a substance or make it explode, to full-on nuclear disintegration. Each is capable of firing thousands of killing shots (less if used on its very high settings) before its cells run dry, and the weapons have ranges of thousands of meters.

Its been pointed out that phasers are ergonomically poorly designed, and that’s true. But then, I’ve seen people in arcades blasting around those weird looking plastic weapons that shooter games have and become amazing crack shots with them. The phaser, very lightweight with no recoil, would handle very similarly to them. So a cylindrical handle, ‘dustbuster’ configuration, or lack of iron sights will not prevent a person properly trained with them from being able to hit their targets.

Their power as hand weapons are pretty hard to deny. I remember reading once that on its highest setting, a hand phaser could disintegrate over 400 cubic feet of matter. The composition of the target wouldn’t matter (and hence most armor, even the ‘blaster proof’ type, would be useless) because it’s a chain reaction taking place in the target’s atomic nuclei.

Being able to disintegrate the snowtroopers or some of the armor units in a single shot would be no laughing matter to the other side. It would be terrifying, and almost as bad for snowtrooper morale as facing the Zerg.

Of course chances are the Starfleet personnel would just use killing settings on the snowtroopers, and save the disintegration for the AT-STs, or the AT-ATs’ leg joints. In the original series episode ‘The Omega Glory’, the Mad Captain Of The Week described how he and a handful of other men, armed with just hand phasers, killed many thousands of natives in a single battle. Having much longer ranges, power, and endurance than the snowtroopers’ blasters, they would be able to accomplish the same thing here. One can imagine setting the phasers on continuous beam set to kill, and just sweeping them back and forth over the approaching troopers. Now repeat for 2000 or so defenders. In most ground battles in the various series, the first thing any combatant does when the phasers start firing is head for cover. Out in the open in the snowy wasteland, the snowtroopers won't have that option.

With tricorders, the Starfleet crews could also pinpoint the power sources of each of the armor units, and may elect to just use concentrated fire to take them out instead of destroying the whole vehicle.

The Star Trek universe mostly lacks tactical point defense weapons and armored land vehicles; it could be that ubiquitous disintegration weapons and teleportation rendered these obsolete. The only traditional-looking tactical weapon I ever recall seeing on the show was the photon grenade mortar from the original series episode ‘Arena’, and they seemed to have mini-nuke-level explosive yield (a distance of 1200 yards to the target was cited as being kind of too close to safely use one of those things, and they dived for cover as soon as it was launched.) Even if the Starfleet side does have these, they likely won’t use them in this battle, as the blasts could collapse the underground base.

Instead of snowspeeder equivalents, we’ll instead allow the Starfleet side to have their preferred mode of on-planet travel—a six-person transporter room and the sensors and power source needed to make them work for at least the breadth of the battlefield. This allows the Starfleet side to use a very unusual tactic in taking out the Imperials’ armored vehicle—they simply beam the crews off of them. The blaster-proof armor would likely be no hinderance, anymore than starship hulls are in the Star Trek series. In fact, this would probably be their preferred tactic, as it would be the most humanitarian way to deal with the enemy, at least with the AT-ATs and the AT-STs. They could also teleport away vital parts of the walkers, such as the pins holing the knee joints together or some vital power conduit or something similar.

To the troopers and Imperial commanders, the walker units would just slowly grind to a halt, and just stand there silently. Some of the AT-STs may fall over. The commanders on the ground halt the advance to investigate, and discover the crews and troops on board have literally vanished. Their men now thoroughly unnerved, they will have a hard time getting the advance to move forward again, even if they have replacement crews for the vehicles readily available. (But of course those would just end up vanishing as well a few minutes later)

If the Federation personnel really wanted to play mind games, they could also beam away the commanders as well at that point. The trooopers, who have never seen teleportation before but may have seen some of their fellows disintegrated a few minutes ago, may conclude that their commanders were simply wiped out of existence by some unknown weapon of terror. Now with no heavy vehicles and no leaders, the spooked snowtroopers do the only sensible thing: break their advance and retreat to get new orders. Using this tactic, its entirely possible the Starfleet personnel could stymie the ground assault with minimal casualties on either side. They would, however, now have several hundred prisoners they would have to deal with, at least until the last transport was away.

Of course, this assumes Starfleet is in their usual nice guy mode. If they wanted to be completely ruthless, they’d just beam the vehicle crews and commanders a mile into the ground, and use the phasers on full disintegration to wipe out every single snowtrooper to the man.

RESULT: Decisive Rebel Victory. Freed from PIS, Starfleet’s technical advantages (especially phasers and transporters) simply prove too overwhelming. Like with the Traveller scenario above, the Imperial troops probably never make it to within a kilometer of the base. A number of Imperial troops are taken prisoner via the transporter. All Rebel transport ships make it off-planet, and the base is never taken.


There are many more possible match-ups, and we could go on with probably dozens of different match ups just for the heck of it, but I only wanted to give a representative sample to contrast how ground combat is handled in different science fiction sources. Hope you enjoyed these fun little what-if scenarios.

Friday, September 10, 2010

The Battle Of Hoth Unlimited, Part One

This article started out as a comparison of how different scifi properties portray tactical combat. To spice things up, I decided to pattern this article after a lively forum board debate I read through years ago, by placing said troops into an actual battle scenario from science fiction and see how they would do. For this, I’ve chosen the Battle of Hoth, one of the most famous ground engagements in on-screen science fiction, from The Empire Strikes Back.

The militaries from various sources will be replacing the rebels defending the base, and we’ll see how each will handle the Imperial ground assault. Remember this is my opinion only, and is purely for fun.


The Empire has discovered a major Rebel base on Hoth, a world gripped in a severe ice age and completely covered over in glaciers and snow. The Imperial Fleet arrives in orbit, and the Rebels activate a large shield over the base that prevents orbital bombardment or direct landing of troops. So the Imperials send in a mechanized division outside the field radius to take out the field generator through an old-fashioned ground assault. Their primary objective is to capture and/or destroy the base’s main generators powering the shield, at the center of Rebel-defended territory.

The Rebels attempt to evacuate base, piling everyone they can into ships to run the Imperial blockade in high orbit. While the base is being evacuated, a number of stalwart rebels fight a holding action against the oncoming Imperial troops to give their fellows time to escape.

Because of the overhead shield, neither side can employ any type of high-altitude attack craft or weapon. Like in the movie, the defenders have to hold out as long as they can.

This battle was actually much larger than what was portrayed on screen. The film narrowly followed only the parts of it Luke and the other principles were involved in, but the battle actually involved thousands of troops and the siege taking place on various fronts simultaneously.


Rebel Decisive Win: All the transports get away safely, and the Imperials never take the base.

Rebel Marginal Win: All of the transports get away safely, but the Imperials take the base (this was the result in the movie.)

Imperial Marginal Win: The Imperials take the base quickly enough that a good percentage of the transports never make it away.

Imperial Decisive Win: Imperials take the base with hardly any resistance and intercept most of the transports before they leave planet.


Basically, as we switch out the Rebels for various other sci-fi troops, these soldiers will be given any equipment and weapons from their source material that approximate the role of equipment the rebels had. For example, the rebels defending the base had 9 speeders, so the new troops will also have 9 low-altitude attack craft their forces would typically employ, or the closest equivalent they have in their source material. They will also be employed in roughly the same numbers the rebels were.

Also, like the rebels, the new troops will also be well versed in winter warfare tactics and can take advantage of the environment just as well.


For this scenario, we are jettisoning what’s called Plot-Induced Stupidity (PIS.) A term that’s become popular with fans of various stripes online, PIS is when characters act outrightly idiotic against common logic, or when events in the story take a badly contrived turn, in order to move the plot along. Some rather famous examples include elite Imperial Stormtroopers in Return of the Jedi being routed by stone-age teddy bears, or some convenient glitch in Star Trek that prevents the crew from using their transporter at a critical moment.

So for this article, PIS is dispensed with across the board for attackers and defenders both. All equipment will work the way it is supposed to, and all troopers involved on both sides will act competently and use smart tactics wherever appropriate.


First, let’s take a look at the attacking force.

The Imperials are at about Tech Level 18, meaning they’re a fairly typical space-opera civilization technologically. They do not always employ equipment that takes full advantage of their society’s technical sophistication (why employ clumsy walker units when they have extremely versatile anti-grav technology?), but what they lack in sophistication they usually make up for in ruthlessness and sheer numbers. The Imperials’ favored military tactic usually involves head-on confrontation with overwhelming force. Subtleties and scheming is usually left to the Sith overlords and their pet generals.

In this scenario, they are employing (at least according to the Wikipedia article on the Battle for Hoth) 9 AT-AT walkers, various smaller walker units (AT-ST units,) and a division of Stormtroopers specifically trained and outfitted for winter conditions. Total Imperial ground troop strength is around 12,000 personnel. Other types of combat walkers are mentioned in EU sources, but they’ll be left off here. We don’t want to confuse casual readers too much, so we’re just going to stick mostly to the types of units seen onscreen in the movie. The walker units advance ahead of the main bodies of foot soldiers, in order to use their superior armor and weapons to smash through the gathered Rebel defenses. Of course, the AT-ATs are carrying a fair number of troops as well.

The Stormtroopers have full-body armor designed to be impact resistant and thermally insulated. The helmets have a full radio suite and a heads-up display with several limited sensor capabilities, such as infrared. The armor, however, does limit movement somewhat, and the helmets severely limit real world vision. This means that if the HUD goes down, the trooper will only have a narrow field of vision unless he removes his helmet.

Their primary weapons are “blasters,” which seem to be low-velocity plasma weapons; basically the weapons superheat a compressed volume of gas into a plasma state then release it as a magnetically-focused bolt. Despite doing potentially impressive heat damage, the Imperial versions seem to travel at low speeds (equivalent to a baseball fastball pitch) and have limited penetration capabilities. On the plus side, though, they are very long-enduring (we never see a Stormtrooper who has to stop to reload), have good effective ranges, and are very rugged.

The Imperial armies do seem to have a troop quality issue that goes beyond the keystone-kop-like PIS we see sometimes. Many don’t seem well motivated or well trained, at least compared to many modern real-world militaries. The Imperials, at least in the movies, depend less on elite, skilled soldiers and much more on raw numbers. The troopers that were involved on Hoth seemed better than most seen throughout the series, but general troop quality is still something that must be taken into consideration.

The quality of the commanding officers (excluding Vader and a few others) seems to be exceptionally dismal. They’re usually portrayed as barely competent and haughty, basically over-promoted bureaucrats more interested in sucking up to their superiors than in actually getting their jobs done right.

And there’s no getting around the most glaring problem with the Imperial forces in this scenario: the AT-AT walkers. They are one of the most impractically designed ground military vehicles ever put on screen. They’re basically slow moving, top-heavy, walking targets. Though they do look very neat (which is probably all the film makers were primarily concerned about) in most ‘realistic’ engagements they’d be more a liability than an asset.

The good is that they’re very heavily armored; Luke even states they’re blaster-proof. The bad--the very bad--is that this chassis is balanced high atop of four very tall, very vulnerable legs. If the vehicle falls, it can’t right itself, and it also seems like heavily uneven terrain could seriously stymie it. Still, the AT-ATs also carry some impressive firepower in the form of forward-mounted heavy blasters. In fact, if the AT-ATs can somehow make it to the defensive perimeter, their heavy firepower is usually assured to bring down any defenses there.

The AT-STs are much better suited for this kind of fight. Though they are also a bit top-heavy for their size, they make up for it by being speedy and maneuverable. Though they seemed underused in the movie, in truth they would be highly effective in hit and run tactics and in infantry-support roles. In a more realistic scenario, they, not the AT-ATs, would prove to be the key weapon system that would allow the Imperials to capture the base.

In summary, the Imperials represent a formidable invasion force, though they do have some weaknesses foes may be able to take advantage of.


In the movie, the base is defended by about 2000 rebel infantry (making them outnumbered by about six to one). Besides the aforementioned nine attack speeders, they also had various hard point defense turrets at strategic locations and minor vehicles and mounts (tauntauns) to move troops and supplies around. The various new defenders will be given their source-material tactical equivalents of these.

In the movie, the rebels suffered devastating losses; well over a thousand defenders were killed and just as many captured or MIA. We’ll see who can do better, and who can do worse. As per OV tradition, we’ll take the defending forces from lowest tech and work our way up you the highest tech troops.


Source: The Aliens movies

Tech Level: 0

The xenomorphs have no technology per se, so its basically just them naked against the invaders, about two thousand strong, positioned in clusters throughout the base, with a Queen and two dozen eggs/facehuggers for every 200 drones or so.

At first, out in the open, the Imperials do very well. With their far superior numbers and firepower, they have no trouble picking off any groups of drones sent out to attack them. The Imperials will have little trouble reaching the base proper or getting to the power generators.

But, as anyone who’s ever seen the Aliens movies can guess, once they actually begin moving into the base itself is when the horror show really begins.

The aliens are very good at stealth, hiding in relatively small spaces, and executing hit-and run ambush tactics. Plus they do not show up on infrared scans. The stormtroopers will be seriously stymied at first, but will likely adjust their tactics once they discover what they’re up against. They do have the advantage of numbers, plus their armor provides them with at least some protection from the xenomorphs’ violent physical attacks and acid blood. Sweeping through the base slowly but cautiously in large groups, they’re likely to take horrific losses, but will eventually make their way through to the field generator.

RESULTS: Imperial Decisive Victory. The Imperials will eventually capture the base, but in the process will lose at least several hundred troops, much more than against the original Rebels. The increased amount of time the Imperials spend capturing the base itself is made up for in a far more speedier traversing of ground from their drop points, allowing them to blow the generators much earlier than in the movie and intercept many rebel transports.


Source: Starcraft

Tech Level: 0

Purely biological, the Zerg have no technology per se.

As we made a point of jettisoning PIS, we’ll also do the same in this case with GIS—Game Induced Stupidity. Some odd, and even non-sensical, abstractions were necessary in the Starcraft game in order to make the product playable and fun. Soldiers with rifles shooting down battleship-sized starships, producing entire armies with blue crystals and green gas, hatching tank-sized critters in under five minutes, and so on. The games’ narrative, visuals, and cut scenes will be used for a more ‘realistic’ version of the Zerg we’ll use here.

Because of the overhead shield, the Zerg will likely not bother with many air units, excepting Overlords. Instead, the Cerebrate in charge of defense will produce huge amounts of Zerlings and Hydralisks, along with nine Ultralisks to equal the Rebels’ snowspeeders. Point defenses around and within the base will be Sunken Colonies or burrowed Defilers.

Like the Imperials, the Zerg’s favorite tactic is a frontal assault with overwhelming numbers. And that’s exactly what they’ll do; organize three direct assaults on the three AT-AT groups to take down what they see as the most obvious threat right away. Each assault group would likely consist of one hundred to several hundred zerglings and hydralisks to assist three ultralisks.

The problem for the Imperials here is that individual Zerg are much tougher physically than any rebel or even xenomorph. As seen in cut scenes in the game, even the zerglings, the least of the Zerg, can withstand full autofire from Terran gauss guns for a short time. The blasters the troopers are armed with do not have the rate of fire nor the penetration capability of guass guns, and the hydralisks and ultralisks in the attack force are considerably tougher than the zerglings. Though concentrated fire will eventually bring the critters down, it will take a substantial amount.

Seeing several hundred of these monstrous creatures stampeding directly at them, shrugging off most weapons fire, is sure to rattle even the most seasoned soldier. But even with their superior size and toughness, the ultralisks will likely fall fairly quickly, as they would draw the most fire immediately.

But even with the behemoths out of the picture, the AT-AT walkers will likely be doomed, as they learn first hand the meaning of the term “zerg rush.” Zerglings and hydralisks swarm the vehicles dozens strongs, ripping apart their metal legs and tearing them down. Then the survivors turn their fury on the troops and smaller combat walkers, with very messy results for the Imperials. The troopers would eventually prevail from their superior numbers, but would be badly battered and demoralized from these initial assaults.

But once they reach the base perimeter, new horrors await them, in the form of sunken colonies and Defilers heaping Plague attacks on them, plus whatever ground forces the Zerg may have held in reserve. Here, unfortunately, is where the Imperial assault breaks like a wave against a dam. Already badly battered by the initial assaults, the troopers’ thin morale disintegrates as fifty-foot tendril-tongues erupt from under the snow to impale and crush them without warning, they’re continually gassed and horribly weakened by the Defilers, and the troopers who get too close to the battlements are ripped to shreds from Zerglings or hit with bolts of acid from Hydralisks.

RESULT: Rebel Decisive Victory. The Imperials retreat with horrible losses, perhaps as much as 40-50% of their ground forces. The Zerg suffer a similar percentage loss, but have no morale problems and are already spawning replacements. The Imperial commanders in orbit, no matter their threats, will not be able to get the troops to brave that meat-grinding horror of the Zerg defenses again. The base is never taken, and all rebel ships make it off planet intact.


Tech Level: 10

The US military is not only highly-trained and disciplined, it is also the most technologically advanced military in the world. This makes US soldiers the best suited of any real-world combatants, past or present, for having a chance of taking on the higher-tech forces of the Empire.

The US military maintains very high troop quality, in sharp contrast to the Imperials. In the wake of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the US has a solid core of highly experienced combat veterans, and as a purely volunteer force, the soldiers are in general well motivated to begin with. Even though the Imperial division assigned to the ground assault is very competent by stormtrooper standards, the US soldiers will still be several notches above them in overall quality.

(I’m not an expert in modern military weapons, so forgive me if some assignations of equipment below might be off)

Point defenses will primarily be M-2 50 caliber machine guns or similar, with MK 19 40 mm machine guns (a type of armor-piercing autogrenade launcher) placed in areas where they can expect to be hit with heavy armor units. Both types of guns are mobile, and can be moved around as needed to different hard points. Low-altitude attack craft in place of speeders will be MH-60L Blackhawk attack helicopters.

Realistically, the US troops would also do what they could to heavily mine the most likely approaches the Imperials would take. However, since the Rebels in the movie did not use the tactic (most likely due to lack of prep time), it will be disallowed for the US troops as well.

The primary infantry weapon of the US armed forces is the M-16A2, with some units being equipped with M-4 carbines. Most squads would also be issued at least one M-249 SAW. These weapons do have some advantages over the Imperials’ blasters. First and foremost, they can deliver much greater rates of fire, and can deliver a much more potent kinetic energy punch to their targets.

However, Stormtrooper armor seems very good at absorbing kinetic impact, and given their tech level, will probably hold up to at least a few hits by modern day bullets. In fact, the situation will probably be similar to what US troops encountering J’afa in the original Stargate movie and in the earlier seasons of Stargate: SG-1; it will probably take concentrated autofire on any one target to bring them down.

The same will probably not be true on the other side. Even though the US armor is very effective against kinetic impact and penetration, they are not graded to withstand intense heat. The imperials’ blasters deliver most of their damage as heat, probably at least over a thousand degrees Fahrenheit, concentrated in a focused super-heated stream. Most likely most dead-on shots will penetrate the US soldiers’ armor; those that don’t may have the plasma “splash” against the target like a wave, causing severe secondary burns.

When the imperial assault is first spotted, Blackhawk helicopter sorties are organized to try and take out the AT-AT groups. The helicopters are as fast and nearly as maneuverable as the speeders shown in the movie, and have much longer-ranged weapons. However, the AT-AT’s heavy armor prevents their missiles or their rotary guns from penetrating the main chasis. So they will quickly adopt an alternate strategy: attacking the legs.

As noted earlier, an AT-AT’s big vulnerability is that most of its mass is balanced on four very tall legs. Take out even one of those legs, and the entire vehicle is neutralized. Also, the guns most likely to take out the Blackhawks, the turbo cannons on the AT-AT’s ‘heads’, have a fairly restrictive firing arc, meaning smart helicopter pilots will quickly learn to swing around and come at the walkers from the rear.

The legs are also heavily armored and heavy-duty, and withstood up to repeated blaster fire in the movie. However, missiles are not blasters, and deliver their damage mostly through kinetic impact and explosive concussion. While the walkers may be nigh-invulnerable to the blasters (perhaps by using a thermal superconducting mesh in the armor, which re-radiated away the heat?), kinetic impacts, if strong enough, could just hammer away at the joints until they buckle.

Even so, anything other than a direct hit by an anti-armor missile from the Blackhawks will likely be inadequate, and even then, it will likely take more than one shot.

Modern missiles are very good at homing in on specific individual targets. However, pinpoint-targeting different areas of a target vehicle is something much harder to engineer with modern technology. So hitting the moving, relatively thin legs of the AT-AT’s are going to be difficult. I estimate at best the Blackhawks could take down 1-2 AT-ATs before they themselves become imperiled by organized ground fire.

At the perimeter, the fighting is very fierce, but the US troops are simply too low-tech compared to the Imperials and too out-numbered to prevail. Especially devastating to the US troops are the AT-STs; their speed, maneuverability, and relatively heavy firepower wreak havoc with the US defenses. The surviving Blackhawks pick off what they can, but it likely won’t be enough. When the AT-AT’s with their heavy blasters come within range of the defensive lines, the fight is pretty much over.

RESULT: Marginal Victory for the Imperials. The US forces manage to inflict much heavier troop casualties among the Imperial infantry than the Rebels, thanks to superior rates of fire, but would be much less effective at taking out the enemy armor units, which most of their weapons can’t seriously affect. The only time the Imperial advance is significantly slowed is when the main body of troops reach the defensive perimeter, and all too soon that is breached when the Imperial armor is brought up. The Imperials take down the field generator with numerous rebel ships still on the ground, and capture the base.


Source: Stargate SG-1, Stargate: Atlantis

Tech Level: 13-15

Stargate Command itself employs only a few hundred actual combat troops. For this scenario we’ll assume they use normal US troops, as above, to fill out their ranks to the 2000 or so soldiers needed to take the Rebels’ place.

Stargate Command, technically under the auspices of the USAF but more practically its own branch of the US military, has a number of advantages over the ‘normal’ US troops used in the last scenario. Not only do they have captured and adapted alien technology, but they have become highly experienced specialists in fighting battles against foes with superior technology.

Weapons used by the main troops will be as outlined above for the normal US troops. However, it was established that the SGC developed and employed on a regular basis specialized equipment designed to neutralize advantages of the much higher-tech J’afa warriors. They have advanced ammunition that can readily penetrate high-tech armor, and have inserts in their own body armor designed to withstand the plasma blasts of the J’afa staff weapons. Since the Imperials and the Gua’uld J’afa have approximately the same Tech level (18), we can assume that these innovations will be as equally effective against the Imperial snowtroopers. They distribute what they’ll have along these lines to as many of the normal troops as they can, so let’s assume for simplicity’s sake that about half the soldiers have these enhancements.

What this means is that unlike the normal US troops, their weapons can take down individual Imperial troopers with a single shot. So, soldier-to-soldier, they would actually have an advantage, in that the SG teams’ weapons have much greater rates of fire, and would be bolstered here and there by Zat guns and some other captured alien tech. There is also an even greater discrepancy in overall troop quality; the SG teams are the very cream of the crop of the US military, so they would have even better overall training, morale, and motivation than normal US troops.

However, these advantages may not be able to overcome their big disadvantage: lack of advanced armor units. In defending against alien threats in the various series, the SGC had a two pronged approach: space-going battlewagons that could engage in strategic battles in space, and ground troops that could engage in insurgent and guerilla tactics via the Stargates. While both approaches in the end proved very effective, it left a gap in development of their high-tech arsenal: armored fighting vehicles and aircraft.

Basically, the SGC has no high-tech equivalent of the snowspeeders (fighters like the X-303s are designed as high-speed, high-altitude/space attack aircraft, and would be poorly employed here) and will have to rely on what the normal US military used in the last scenario. Thus, they likely won’t have any better success in stopping the AT-AT advance, and will likely only take out a handful of them.

RESULT: Marginal Imperial Victory. Greater troop-to-troop casualties will only slow the Imperials down slightly, given their usual ruthlessness toward their own men. The Imperials will take a greater number of casualties, maybe twice that the normal US military by itself was able to inflict, but in the end the defenses fold as soon as the Imperial walkers smash through the defensive line. The imperials capture a number of rebel ships still on the ground.

Go HERE for part two: Avatar, Traveller, Star Trek, and more.

Thursday, August 26, 2010

Asteroid Discovery Animation

Sorry for the lack of updates recently. I've had a very Wile E. Coyote summer, with three separate injuries since June (a fractured foot, a sprained ankle, and bursitis in my elbow.) Along with all the various heat waves its kept me from a lot of various creative work.

Anyway, to get back into the groove of things, I thought readers might be interested in THIS ANIMATION found on youtube, showing the sum of asteroid discoveries from 1980 through 2010. The text with the video explains the color codes and other features. Its fascinating to watch, both from an intellectual/science wonk perspective, but also beautiful in its way, almost a work of art.

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

My Favorite Scifi Disasters

I've just finished reading Flood by Stephen Baxter. Like most Baxter books, it is somewhat lacking in compelling characters, but is otherwise jam-packed with amazing ideas and grand visions. It is also an example of a grand tradition in science fiction; the mega-disaster story.

The mega-disaster is an unanticipated event that brings devastation on a global (or even interstellar) scale, and the poor humans have to struggle to survive against the impossible odds brought on by nature's cosmic fury. Because when you think about it, the disasters that we're used to--earthquakes, hurricanes, tornadoes, etc--are really just the tip of the iceberg of what a universe as vast and as violent as ours can throw at us. Humanity as a whole is only slowly waking to the cosmos beyond our tiny blue ball, and the horrors those uncaring forces can wreak upon our lives and civilization.

So what follows below is a list of what I think are the neatest and most thought-provoking disasters shown in science fiction. The criteria to qualify as a disaster here is that they have to be either an accident or a natural occurrence; nothing deliberately brought about by intelligent creatures, human or otherwise. So no invasions, wars, superweapons, etc. Also, inclusion here is not necessarily a reflection of a work's quality, good or bad, but just how interesting the disaster presented was. In no particular order, and beware of SPOILERS:

DISASTER: Megaflood
SOURCE: Flood by Stephen Baxter

Our planet has vast quantities of water stored under the crust. Google "Beijing Anomaly" for a real-life example. Baxter's novel contemplates that a major seismic event along the Mid Atlantic ridge unleashes these subterranean oceans upon the surface, resulting in a decades-long flood that threatens to engulf every single parcel of land on earth, no matter how high. The likelihood of this seems rather remote (the water in the Beijing Anomaly is actually saturated into porous rock, and not a consolidated body of water), but it still makes one think.

The characters mostly scurry about during the novel, more spectators to what's happening than trying to take control of their own fate, one way or another. Even though we know what's coming, its still fascinating to read about how human society breaks down bit by bit as the waters get higher and higher. There's the usual disaster tale cliches (the one scientists who has it figured out before anyone else is ignored and derided, monuments shown in various states of destruction, douchebag survivalists, etc) but it doesn't stop one from enjoying the ride.

REALITY CHECK: The novel is pretty realistic as far how humanity as a whole would react to the disaster. For the people at the end things look dim indeed, as this could pretty much serve as the prequel to Waterworld, when you think about it. But there is a ray of hope at the end, which thankfully doesn't involve a mutant Kevin Costner.

DISASTER: Global Blindness/Murderous Plants
SOURCE: Day of the Triffids

I've never read the book, only seen the 1962 movie, so that's what I'm basing my impression on. This is basically what we today would call a Zombie Apocalypse scenario, except ramped up several notches. Like in a typical zombie tale, you have slow-shambling killers that attack in mobs and want to eat you. But here the killers are the alien plants called Triffids, which move about, shoot poisonous spines at any loud sound, then move over your fresh corpse to suck out your vital juices with their roots. But unlike zombies, they have no obvious weak spot. So all those shotguns and assault rifles you've been hoarding for the collapse not only prove pretty useless, but also attract even more Triffids and tell them exactly where you are.

To make matters even worse, the Triffids were brought to Earth by a meteor swarm, whose weird radiation rendered 99% of the world's population permanently blind. In many ways that's even more horrifying that the killer plants. Imagine you, all your neighbors and your family suddenly being unable to see. You try to adjust and survive, but one by one over the course of days everyone around you goes forever silent. And the last thing you ever feel as you call for them is the sharp stab of a poisonous spine...

REALITY CHECK: The meteor-radiation-causing-blindness thing probably seemed more plausible to 1962 audiences than it does today, but something like the Triffids arriving via spores in meteorites is within the realm of possibility (of course, it might be that the spores themselves that caused the blindness, and people just misinterpreted the data in the panic that followed. For the situation itself, things seem very good by the end of the movie for the sighted 1%, as its found the alien plants hate seawater. Which might be good for the people along the coasts, but the people living in, say, Colorado would pretty much just be screwed. And its pretty much implied that the 99% struck blind are so much plant food.

DISASTER: Super Hurricanes
SOURCE: Mother of Storms by John Barnes

A military strike on a terrorist organization accidentally releases a gigantic reservoir of methane trapped under the arctic ocean floor. The methane leads to a quick unprecedented rise in air and ocean temperature worldwide, and before you can say 'global warming' the warmer oceans begin spawning monster hurricanes far in excess of category five. In short order, island nations like Cuba and Ireland are scoured down to bare rock, and civilization is nearly brought to its knees under a non-stop barrage of wind, rain, and storm surges.

The novel was written in 1995, before climate change really began registering on the public radar, but one of the major effects predicted for global warming is that it would make storms more intense. Barnes just takes that idea to its extreme and gets a good disaster tale out of it. He mixes the eco-crisis with a lot of cyberpunkish ideas (the story is set in 2028) and a wide cast of quirky characters, including a serial killer and a cybernetically enhanced porn star.

REALITY CHECK: Though I don't think storms will ever get near as bad as what's depicted in the novel, its not implausible that we could be facing increasingly intense storms as global warming worsens in the coming decades. In the novel, help unexpectedly arrives from a pair of rogue cyber-astronauts. Given the state of manned space travel today, I don't think that's something we could count on in real life.

DISASTER: Micro Black Hole impacts Earth
SOURCE: The Doomsday Effect by Thomas Wren

A remnant of the Big Bang, a microscopic singularity, gets caught in Earth's gravity. It enters a comet-like orbit around the planet's core, sweeping up and through Earth's mantle, crust and atmosphere like they aren't even there on every pass. As it grows in mass, it plows ever-larger swaths through the planet, throwing human civilization into a panic as whole cities are destroyed. It threatens to make the homeworld into swiss cheese before finally devouring it completely.

REALITY CHECK: In the novel, they played a complex game of asteroid-billiards to capture the black hole inside one. I'm not sure we'd be capable of something like that for at least a century. So if this happened before then, we're basically screwed, and the bet we could hope for is to establish colonies in space before Earth is toast.

DISASTER: The Moon blasted out of orbit
Source: Space:1999 TV series (pilot)

In the far flung future year of 1999, an international base on the Moon oversees the stockpiling of thousands of tons of nuclear waste on the far side of the satellite. However, on September 13, 1999, that stockpile of exotic radioactives reach critical mass, resulting in a catastrophically huge explosion that blasts the moon out of orbit and into interstellar space. The fate of the 311 stranded inhabitants of the base are thrown in with the errant satellite as it careens through one star system after another.

REALITY CHECK: Pretty preposterous the way it was presented. The radioactive waste would have had to have been made of pure antimatter to create an explosion big enough to possibly send the Moon out of orbit, and even then it would have been more likely to just be blown apart rather than just move. Some other factor had to have been at work (as I contemplated in an EARLIER BLOG POST.)

Still, if something like this did happen, there would be potentially catastrophic results for Earth. In the short term, tides would disappear and wreck ecological havoc with many species who depend on them. In the long term, the Moon's tidal effects is what keeps Earth's core 'churned up' and active, resulting in the magnetic field that helps to protect life from the worst effects of solar radiation. So without the Moon, over many thousands of years the magnetic field would diminish and threaten many future species.

Also, what of the explosion itself? A nuclear detonation that powerful that close to Earth would produce enough radiation to fry just about anything electronic in orbit and may even screw up a lot of ground-based systems.

DISASTER: Earth collides with a small star
SOURCE: When Worlds Collide

In this classic 1951 film, a 'dim star' named Bellus is found to be on a collision course with Earth, and will hit within one year. An alliance of businessmen and scientists begin constructing a ship that will take a relative handful of survivors to safety, even as panic and disaster grows more intense as doomsday approaches.

REALITY CHECK; I already wrote extensively on what might happen if this scenario were to happen today in a previous blog post. Go HERE to read all the details of that.

DISASTER: Galactic Core Explosion
SOURCE: various "Known Space" stories and novels by Larry Niven

The alien Puppeteers wanted a stunt that would advertise their new hyperdrive, so they hire human pilot Beowulf Schaeffer to pilot it to the center of the galaxy. Schaeffer discovered that the core of the galaxy is exploding from a chain of tightly-packed stars going supernovae, and that the lethal wave of radiation would wash over Known Space, including Earth and the Puppeteer homeworld, in 20,000 years.

The Puppeteers, wily cowards that they are, immediately pull out of Known Space and even begin moving their entire home planet to safety.

REALITY CHECK: We've learned in the decades since that the galactic core can indeed explode aftre a fashion, but from the supermassive black holes there gobbling up large masses of stars all at once, rather than a chain of supernovae. In the stories, humans and other races think the Puppeteers are insane for moving so fast, considering the shockwave of radiation in 20,000 years away and everyone has hyperdives. Of course, the Puppeteers think the humans and the others are insane for not fleeing right away.

Since the galactic core black hole gorges itself every few hundred million years, life on Earth must have withstood the influx of radiation from it before. However, last time it happened, there might have been no significant multicelled organisms, or life on land. How it would affect us today if it happened is largely unknown.

DISASTER: The Sun-Eater Devours the Sun
SOURCE: The Final Night, a 1996 miniseries/crossover event from DC comics

The Sun-Eater is a gigantic multi-dimensional creature the feeds off the energy of stars. It seemed to be non-sentient, a cosmic-scale animal intelligence simply doing what it has to to survive. It will enter a star system, completely envelop the sun, and feed off its thermal energy for up to several weeks. The absorption of so much heat causes the outer layers of the star to collapse then explode outward. The force of the explosion sends the Sun-Eater to the next solar system and its next meal.

Of course, for inhabitants of the planets orbiting the star the Sun-Eater is devouring, this is a lethal proposition. And that's exactly what happens to the DC Comics' Earth. The sun simply turns black one day, and Earth begins to slowly freeze. There's widespread panic and devastation, and the superheroes have their hands full containing it all. Meanwhile, only a handful suspect that the freeze is only a precursor to a much more explosive doomsday that will soon follow.

The Final Night is by far one of my favorite super-hero crossover stories, back when I was reading comics regularly. DC brought in hard science fiction author Larry Niven as an advisor, to create a plausible (in comic book physics terms) scenario for both the Sun-Eater's nature and what would happen to Earth after the sun goes black. The most intriguing part of the story was how the various super-heroes handled the crisis. Though powerhouses on a human scale, even the likes of Superman, Flash, and Green Lantern are reduced to insignificance next to the Sun-Eater's god-like power and indifference. Plus, there was nothing to throw a punch at or outwit; the Sun-Eater was a force of nature far beyond even them. In the more thoughtful installments of the story, even they give over to feelings of despair and helplessness, even as they fight to save whoever they can, even if it is only for a few hours more of life.

REALITY CHECK: The Sun-Eater seems pretty implausible. But then, our universe is immensely old and big, so who know what oddities it might have spawned? In the story, the characters were able to Deus Ex Machina their way out of things at the last minute by appealing to a cosmic-powered peer of the Sun-Eater. If something like the Sun-Eater ever struck in real life, I doubt we'd be able to do the same.

Saturday, July 17, 2010

Swimming Pools...On The MOOOOON!

I was putting together ideas for a new scifi story and one element kind of threw would open water, like say in a swimming pool, act on the Moon? I read up a lot on different science subjects, but I'm no expert on fluid dynamics or low gravity physics. So I posed the question to Reddit's Scifi Board, and got a lot of great responses.

Some interesting conclusions from the responses, summarized here:

-- Without so much gravity pulling on the water, intermolecular attraction plays a bigger role in how the water behaves. For example, surface tension would create a meniscus (basically a broad hump of water) in the middle of the pool. It may be possible to over fill the pool by an inch or so, as the meniscus would 'suck' the excess water into the middle of the pool.

-- When you got out of the water, much more water would cling to you. As one commenter pointed out, it could be a liter worth of the stuff. So just toweling off might not be enough if you bathed or went for a swim--you may need to scrape off the excess water first.

-- Waves would propagate much higher than Earth. You cannonball into a lunar swimming pool, instead of foot-tall waves, you'd create a mini tsunami with maybe 5-6 foot waves. Splash fights could become truly epic. It seems to me that the sides of swimming pools would actually have to be high, sloping, and segmented it order to break up possible high rogue waves and prevent a lot of spillover.

-- The waves and water motion would move slower than they would on Earth, though, seeming to go in slow motion. Just as astronauts hopping on the moon seem to move slowly because they 'float' downward, it would be the same with the water motion because of the lesser gravity.

-- Stunt swimming and diving could also become truly epic,as you'd be able to swim and jump and dive in the water like a dolphin.

Just some interesting stuff to contemplate. Maybe someday our children or grandchildren or great grandchildren will actually see some of this for real, when they vacation on colonies on the Moon...

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

The REAL Dead-End Energy Technology

A few weeks ago I was watching a debate on the Newshour on the local PBS station involving alternative energy technologies in the wake of the catastrophic BP spill. They had a proponent of alternative energy technologies, so called 'green' technologies, and a representative championing more oil drilling by oil companies.

I try not to wax political here or on the main site, but the pro-oil company guy was both obnoxious and belligerent, and worst of all, just plain wrong about a lot of points. Especially egregious was his repeatedly calling solar and wind power 'dead end' technologies. His skewed logic relied on the fact was that the basic ideas of solar and wind power were proposed a century or so ago, but their development has only been limited since.

Of course, such thinking is completely spurious, and shows ignorance of how technologies actually develop. Gunpowder, for example, was invented about a thousand years before reliable gunpowder weapons were finally developed. But if one asked a scholar in about 1000 AD if gunpowder was a 'dead end' technology based on what was available then, they'd probably say yes. And be completely wrong.

Most technologies don't explode onto the scene all at once, but rather go through a long period of slow but gradual development, and come to the fore only when there is a clear need for them. Steam engines were around as early as 1698 (or the 1st century AD, depending on your definition), but didn't catch on as a popular technology until 1800s. Rockets took a thousand years to go from fireworks to moon shots. Even the internal combustion engine, the killer app oil needed to become profitable, took decades to evolve into its industrial form.

The past decade, when dependence on the oil economy has led to numerous wasteful wars, environment-destroying oil spills, and a roller coaster of prices at the gas pump, has shown the pressing need for reliable, renewable energy technologies. In fact, if you keep up with the technology news, there has been a veritable explosion of so-called 'green' energy technologies, refinements and breakthroughs both. Solar energy cells dramatically increasing in efficiency and decreasing in price, wind farms and geothermal taps popping up everywhere, wave and tidal power projects grabbing a number of headlines.

Now I like to be realistic, and I realize that the world will be dependent on oil for energy for many decades yet. But ultimately, there is only a limited supply. It may last for a number of decades yet, maybe even into the next century, but it will eventually run out. Oil, not wind or solar or nuclear or tidal or geothermal or alternate fuels, is the REAL dead end energy technology. The sooner we begin switching over to alternatives, the less our economies and power grids and wallets will need to be at the mercy of a very volatile world market in oil.

And ironically, it is the resource-rich oil and energy companies like Exxon and Shell and BP who are in the best position to lead the large-scale conversion to these new technologies, and insure their long-term solubility and profitability in the process. But apparently they only care about short-term numbers and have to resort to tactics like propping up shallow, belligerent shills on news programs to spread misinformation. Its a shame, really.

Thursday, July 1, 2010

Review: Rocket Girls

JAXA (the Japanese Aerospace eXploration Agency) has been in the news a lot lately, with their automated cargo ship to the ISS, their asteroid-sample return mission, and their deployment of the world's first solar sail. It was through talking about JAXA in online forums that I ran across the mention of this 12-episode TV anime series, on which JAXA served as technical advisor and real-life Japanese astronaut Naoko Yamazaki, who flew on STS-131, voices a small animated cameo as herself in episode 7. Rocket Girls is based on a series of light novels by Hosuke Nijiri and is available in english on DVD and for viewing online.

At first, this series seemed like the usual teenage girl action-comedy anime fluff. You know the kind; pilot slick mecha, fight outrageous aliens/demons, crush on teenage boys, something-something girl power. To my pleasant surprise, Rocket Girls turned out to be anything but, and had more in common with Planetes than say, Sky Girls.

The Solomon Space Association (SSA), a consortium of private Japanese companies trying to create a manned launch facility on the Solomon Islands, keeps having catastrophic failures with their large LS-7 rocket. So, in order to make their deadline and keep their funding, they fall back on their smaller but much more reliable LS-5 rocket. The only problem is, that requires their potential astronaut to weigh less than 40 kg, or about 88 pounds.

At the same time, waifish but fiery high school student Yukari Morita is also in the Solomons, trying to track down her deadbeat dad who left 17 years before. Through a comedy of errors, she ends up together with SSA's ever-more-desperate director, who hires her on the spot as an astronaut since she's the perfect size for their new rocket.

Soon a back-up pilot is found among the Solomon natives; Matsuri, who turns out to be Yukari's half-sister (this and the father subplot is quickly resolved in the second episode, so I don't consider this to be a major spoiler.) Half-way through the series, they're joined by a third girl, Akane, a genius science nerd from Yukari's old school.

At first the high-school-girls-in-space premise seemed a little off-putting, but I started watching episodes about the same time that news stories were headlining a 13-year-old climbing Mount Everest and a 16-year-old attempting to sail around the world solo. Then I realized the only thing realistically keeping anyone from launching a teenager into space is someone reckless enough--or desperate enough--to actually entrust them at the top of a multi-million dollar rocket. And as SSA's own director points out, if monkeys can be astronauts, then why couldn't a teen-age girl?

Once past that bit of rationalization, Rocket Girls turned out to be an extremely likable series, mostly comedy but also some moments of real drama, excitement, and even inspiration sprinkled throughout. One can kind of think of it as The Right Stuff populated with high school girls and played as a sitcom.

The series has three strong points. First and foremost are its characters. The three girl-astronauts are the only ones who are really well detailed, but for a 12-episode series, we really can't ask for much more. Yukari, the main character, is bold and brash and abrasve. At first, she resists becoming an astronaut, obsessed with finding her dad and forcing him to come home to Japan, and then with having a few Peter Parker moments where she believes she'd much rather just be a normal high school student rather than embrace this extraordinary thing that's happened to her. In fact, most of the series can really be thought of as her slow growth from petulant high school student to responsible heroine.

Matsuri, Yukari's half sister, starts off as a badly stereotyped generic Native Girl, but she too undergoes growth and maturity as the series progresses. Though mystical and supposedly naive about modern society, she turns out to be the most practical-minded and down-to-earth of the three girls. I only wish she had more to do during the last five episodes or so, as she mostly became the voice of Mission Control.

The third astronaut girl, Akane, was the most surprising, and surprisingly inspirational, character. Looking and often acting so frail that a harsh breath could break her in two, she shows up unexpectedly to fulfill her dream of going into space. Whereas the job of astronaut just kind of fell into Yukari and Matsuri's laps, Akane pursues it with unflinching determination, inspired by Yukari after a (very) unexpected stopover at her old school. Akane gives the series its most Right Stuff moments, as the base doctor puts her through a series of truly grueling physical tests to try to get her to quit. Not out of cruelty, however, at it first seems. The doctor explains that there is no one in space to help you; if something happens, you have to be able to save yourself. In other words, you have to have the 'Right Stuff.' Akane's heroic underdog struggle to join Yukari and Matsuri as an astronaut is probably the series' single best story arc.

The second important element to the series' success is its solid and realistic science. Its not ironclad, mind you, but its very easy to see how JAXA made sure it got most of it right. When it does occasionally veer off on a minor tangent, only space buffs or real engineers will be bound to notice. There's no fantastic mecha or megawapons here. Yukari and the gang fly very basic space capsules barely big enough to fit them, with design features borrowed from Soyuz, Apollo, and the Space shuttle in equal measures. The tech is idealized, ie, what JAXA would love to have when it begins launching its own astronauts for real, but not unrealistic.

One interesting tech note is that the girls wear advanced biosuits (you can find details of that tech idea in the article HERE.) The joke here is that the skin-tight fabric shows of the girls 'attributes' and makes them feel practically naked. But the thing is, what the audience actually sees in the anime hardly looks scandalous at all, and is even more modest than the spandex outfits of say, gymnasts at the Olympics, who usually have millions watching, so the joke kind of falls flat. This is not to say that the series doesn't have some cheesecake shots (this is anime, after all), but they're mostly fleeting and relatively tame.

The third feature that makes this series worth watching is that intangible quality all great science fiction shares, and all the bad science fiction lacks: a true sense of wonder. Rocket Girls is very light on violence, except for occasional comedic effect. There are no monsters or aliens to fight, no constant threat that requires constant kinetic motion. Instead, the series allows its characters to look around and feel just how awesome what they're doing is. Yukari, even in dealing with a major problem on her first mission, is hypnotized for a few moments in naked wonder at seeing the unfettered night sky from space. When she talks about it later, in her phase of trying to be a normal student again, you can hear the unexpected longing in her voice as she describes the experience to the rapt Akane. And the SSA's lead scientists give a short, impassioned speech early in the series about his heartache and dreams about spaceflight that gave me goosebumps. This optimism and inspirational spirit, plus its realistic science, is what made Rocket Girls remind me in small ways of Planetes, which I consider one of the all-time classics of science fiction, of any genre. Rocket Girls never quite achieves the same level of storytelling as that other series, but at times it is clearly cut from the same cloth.

The series's drama comes from two space missions, Yukari's first flight half-way through, and an assist mission to the Space Shuttle Atlantis in the last three episodes. Mishaps and unexpected disasters occur, and the girls are tested in many ways. I actually I found these encounters, with all their nuts-and-bolts grittiness, to be much more compelling to watch than a dozen mecha battles.

Rocket Girls is far from perfect, however. There's some gaffes in logic, and sometimes the plot twists are a little too unbelievable, even if they are played for comedic absurdity at times. Many of the secondary characters are underdeveloped, though we see hints of much deeper characters here and there. And the balance it tries to strike, switching off from comedy to drama to philosophy to action and back again, doesn't always transition smoothly.

However, in the balance, Rocket Girls turned out to be a very pleasant viewing experience. Its safe for most ages (12+), and may even inspire some young budding astronauts, to whom its clearly angled. It is also smart and savvy enough to easily entertain adult science fiction fans as well.