Sunday, June 27, 2010

Five Years Of Orbital Vector

About five years ago last month I launched the Main Orbital Vector site. I had an earlier test site, called the SpecTech database, that was online a year or two before that.

As a budding science fiction writer at the time, I had been frustrated that I couldn't find what I considered a good, detailed, straight-forward database of science fiction or speculative technology ideas. It was easy to find some concepts (like space drives) but not so much others (like futuristic ocean tech.) So, gathering up the plentiful notes I had floating around from research I did for various stories and RPG games, I organized them and decided to put them online for anyone else who may be interested.

The site was slow to catch on, and truthfully its always been a sideline, pretty much a hobby, so I never really publicized it that much. But it eventually got noticed by various like-minded users, and it gained in popularity gradually mostly by word of mouth. Nowadays it averages between 20-30 hits a day, and seems to be on a slow upward trend in user hits.

If you like the site, its probably for one or more of three reasons. One, I've tried to make Orbital Vector mostly about its content, and to make sure that content was useful, interesting to read, and easy to get to. I know I kind of suck as a web designer, so I stuck with a simple design that even an amateur like me could keep up with, and concentrated mostly on the articles.

This is not to say that all my prose has been sparkling, or that my writing is without errors and gaffes. This is like I said a hobby, so this is what I do when I'm too tired or burnt out from other stuff, and sometimes that creeps into the articles here as clunky prose and typos and broken links and such. But the readers thankfully seem to be pretty forgiving of my occasional botched english or coding.

Two, Orbital Vector is also more subtly about optimism for the future, which I know from emails that a number of users really respond to. After all, through all these neat tech concepts and ideas, we're showing just how awesome the future could end up being, and perhaps more importantly, that we'll still be around to enjoy it. There are a lot of dire predictions and attitudes about the future floating around; I wanted to make OV a bit of an oasis from that.

And Three, you just like learning about future technology and may want to use the ideas here for your own stories or games or art or what have you. That's what I originally created the site for, and I'm glad to see people take advantage of that. The articles on OV are written specifically for the layman who may not have a lot of scientific or technical background, but still want enough detail for them to understand how its supposed to work.

I only update OV sporadically, when I get time between other things going on in my life. I try to get 2-3 articles out a months, but sometimes its more, and sometimes its less, just depending on what else may be occupying my time.

Some people ask why I emphasize some technologies but not others. For example, I have an awful lot written on space tech, but very little on medical tech and nothing at all on things like cybernetics.

Mostly, I've tend to write about things I already know quite a bit about already. I read up a lot on new science and technology, but naturally I tend to be interested in certain fields over others. Stuff I haven't read a lot about, like advanced medical tech, requires a lot more time and effort for me to research and write about, so I tend to let that stuff go in favor of things I can produce sooner.

Plus there are some fields that are turning over new tech so fast that its hard to keep up. Electronics, for example. Things that seem futuristic to us now could easily become the next big consumer product in just a few short years. And when a speculative technology becomes commonplace, it doesn't belong on OV anymore. So I kind of have been edging away from electronic and computer speculative tech, as I'd rather not have to write an article that I would just have to remove six months later.

So what's going to happen to OV in the future? More of the same, really. I'll keep adding new articles when I can, filling in gaps in the old sections, adding new ones when I can. There will be some new features though, depending on when I can get around to them:

-- One, I'd still like to convert the site from HTML to CSS. The effort earlier in the year kind of fell through, but that's still on the agenda.

-- Two, i'm going to be adding some donation incentives, and some Orbital Vector swag people can buy. The site makes just enough from ads to pay for its own webhosting, but I'd also like to be compensated, at least at a token level, for the time and effort I put into the site as well. But I will make sure that whatever I offer is quality stuff, so if you do contribute, you'll get something in return that will be worth it.

-- Three, I'm going to be trying to put together some non-fiction books based on the material I've written for the site, so you might see OV in print some day. We'll see how that goes, and if I can find a publisher for it.

-- Four, I'm going to be revamping the Author's Page with a simpler design and new material. That's long overdue.

-- Five, I'm also toying with the idea of adding a Gamer's Page, which would focus on material for science fiction tabletop RPGs like Traveller. I used to game a lot myself, and even wrote a little for gaming magazines, way back when. I know a lot of gamers already use OV for tech ideas, so it seems like a natural extension.

So anyway, thanks for five years of readership and support. Hopefully Orbital Vector will still be here five years form now. See you guys in the future!

Tuesday, June 22, 2010

MORE Tech Levels Of Science Fiction Groups And Cultures

This is a follow up to the ORIGINAL ARTICLE put up on the main site two years or so ago, detailing where exactly on the Tech Level scale different scifi civilizations would fit. It was by far the most popular thing ever put on the site, garnering over 100K hits since.

Tech Levels are based on the idea that, looking back, human history can be divided into distinct eras of technological development (stone age, bronze age, iron age, middle ages, etc). The Tech Level scale assigns a number to each of these, and tries to predict which future technological era a new innovation might fall. On the OV scale, there are 10 Historical Tech Levels (stone age = 1, iron age = 2, etc) and 15 Future Tech Levels (10 years from now = 11, 25 years from now = 12, etc.) Tech Level 10 corresponds to modern day Earth. For more details, see the articles on Tech Levels HERE and HERE.

On the OV scale, we look at a future idea or invention, and based on what we already know and are capable in the early 21st century, how long it would take to create that innovation for real. Yes, there are a number of speculative technologies that are in all likelihood impossible (such as FTL travel) but for our purposes here, we ask that if it is possible, how advanced technology in general would have to be in order to invent it.

Different people and properties have very different ideas about the pace of technological progress. For example, in the Star Trek universe, Warp Drive is discovered in the next 50 years or so, at Tech Level 13. But at OV, we assume warping the fabric of space to that degree is much more difficult (if its possible at all, of course), and isn’t doable until at least Tech Level 21. Both views are legitimate; its only a matter of interpretation.

Some caveats to clear up some confusion that arose from the last article (all conditions from the previous article apply as well):

This is a subjective interpretation only and not meant to be authoritative. People can, and should, have their own opinions.

This is not meant to imply the quality of storytelling or production of one particular property over another. This only compares the tech curve created for each scifi property against the tech we have in reality.

I’m sure I’ve left out a bunch of scifi properties still, particularly scifi computer games. I simply haven’t seen/read/played everything yet, and others I may have just plum forgotten about. Apologies.

This is meant purely for FUN. Relax, nerd out a little, and don't be afraid to let us know your own thoughts and opinions.

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Fringe (Alternate Universe)

Tech Level: 12

The alternate universe accessible in the TV series Fringe seems to be 20 or so years ahead of its sister Earth in its mainstream technology, with more advanced electronics, biotechnology, and sophisticated airships. Interdimensional and other weird tech, given the nature of the show, will likely remain in the superscience prototype stage on both Earths.


Tech Level: 14

One of anime’s truly great science fiction stories, Planetes takes place in 2075, when the world’s powers have harnessed helium-3 fusion, colonized the Moon, and have built an extensive orbital infrastructure.

WALL-E (WALL-E himself)

Tech Level: 14

A sophisticated and long-enduring AI robot system that evolved to sentience over the course of centuries.

2300 AD

Tech Level: 15

Game Designers’ Workshop’s late, lamented space opera RPG had a very hard science, nuts-and-bolts approach, even more so than its big brother Traveller. (Will be reviewed on this blog soon.)

Cowboy Bebop

Tech Level: 16

The creators of the anime classic Cowboy Bebop played fast and loose with technology in the series, freely mixing space opera tech (like warp gates) with earlier anachronisms (like 20th Century firearms). Still, a sprawling interplanetary civilization, terraformed worlds, advanced AI, and advanced genetic manipulation place it at about level 16.

Battlestar Galactica (New and Classic Series)

Tech Level: 17

Large and sophisticated spacecraft, fusion power, very advanced AI and robotics, place both series, humans and cylons both, squarely into the lower space opera Tech Levels. The main differences in tech between the two series seems to be that the classic series relied on energy weapons and force fields more and had less sophisticated robots, while the new series had less sophisticated weapons and more advanced robots(pictured at top.)

Revelation Space (Humans)

Tech Level: 17-18

The human civilization in this series by Alistair Reynolds seemed to have created a very sophisticated sublight civilization that had colonized a number of nearby star systems before running afoul of the Inhibitors, with the Conjoiner faction being one level ahead of the mainstream civilization. The Hell-Class Cache weapons described in the novels are considered one-time superscience prototypes, and aren’t used for classification here.


Tech Level: 18

Though it has interesting takes on a number of technologies, the societies of Farscape seem to fit fairly comfortably into the role of typical space opera civilizations, at level 18.

Wall-E (Axiom)

Tech Level: 18

Ubiquitous force fields, sophisticated anti-gravity, extremely versatile and powerful AI robots, seems to indicate Earth reached an amazing level of sophistication before the Axiom and her passengers abandoned it.

Type I Civilization

Tech Level: 18

In the classic scheme of characterizing advanced civilizations, a Type I civilization is capable of harnessing the energy potential of entire planets. Assuming that this includes taking advantage of every energy source available on a planetary scale, including tapping the planet's molten core, the tidal energy of its oceans, and the planet's magnetic field, this should fit fairly comfortable at Level 18 on the OV scale.

Type II Civilization

Tech Level: 21

A Type II Civilization in the classic scheme of characterizing advanced cultures stipulates harnessing the energy output of entire stars. With the creation of advanced Dyson Spheres, this capability comes at Level 21.

Transformers (Live-Action Movie)

Tech Level: 21

The living, quick-morphing, fast-healing AI robots of the film, along with the technology-altering Allspark energy source, would seem to require at least Tech Level 21 to construct. Interestingly, both factions of robots in the film seemed to have lost the very technological knowledge that was used to create them.

Gateway (The Heechee)

Tech Level: 21

Able to easily manipulate mass and gravity, create ultra-tensile strength materials, and hide out within the event horizons of black holes place the Heechee at about level 21.

The Culture

Tech Level: 22

Iain M. Banks’ far future utopian society is capable of building immense ringworlds (‘orbitals’), using sophisticated antimatter power and AIs, and routinely employs force fields, teleportation, and advanced nanotechnology.

Revelation Space (The Inhibitors)

Tech level: 24

Immensely powerful and advanced femto-machines left over from an eons-old war, they are charged with destroying any civilization in the Galaxy that reaches a certain technological level.

Type III Civilization

Tech Level: 25

A Type III Civilization is capable of harnessing the energy of an entire galaxy. How exactly this could be done is pure conjecture at best, and thus falls at the edge of what we can reasonably project even with the best guesses of speculative technology provided here.

- - -

I'll no doubt do another update like this sometime in the future.

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

Four Quick Scifi Reviews

Thanks to the magic of cable TV and the internet, I recently got the chance to see some on-screen works of science fiction I missed the first time around. So here's some quick reviews of stuff most of you probably already saw years ago. Warning, some spoilers ahead.

First up is Mission To Mars. The very first thing I thought of when I finished watching it was: they made the wrong movie.

For those unfamiliar with the plot, Future Don Cheadle (well, okay, his character, but I can only think of him as Don Cheadle) heads the first manned landing on Mars. They discover a mysterious mountain-sized artifact of apparent alien origin. When they investigate, the artifact reacts with lethal results.

Back on Earth, another Mars mission is launched, and after a lot of hokey melodrama, the follow-up mission arrives on Mars a year later. They find Future Don Cheadle still alive, having somehow survived a year in the first mission's makeshift base. Then they all traipse back to the artifact, figure out how to get in, and discover a recording meant for mankind by a dopey looking extraterrestrial.

The movie was okay up until the first team died, then it segued into dumbness and horrible cliches. But you see, hidden in that mess, was the movie they should have made. I'll spell it out: Future Don Cheadle was marooned alone on Mars for a year with a mysterious, murderous alien artifact just over the horizon. Why didn't they make that movie instead?

Can you imagine how awesome that story could have been in the hands of a better director (sorry, De Palma) and much better writers? Can you imagine his struggle for survival on an alien, hostile world, more isolated than any human being has ever been in all of history? Or the dark terrors that man must have suffered through in his crushing loneliness, with the deaths of his friends and teammates weighing on him, and the alien horror that caused it all just an hour's walk away? In the hideous silence of the Martian night, was there really something moving out there, or was it all in his mind? Was any of it ever real, he wonders, as he skirts the edges of madness for months at a time?

It could have been one of those awesomely dark, complex mindf*ck movies, where both the hero and the audience wouldn't quite know what was going on for sure. And Don Cheadle could easily have been up to the acting task. Instead we got some horribly-staged bad-science melodramic crap with Gary Sinise. Argh. Guess we can just chalk this up to one of those great missed opportunities.

And on we move to Bicentennial Man starrig Robin Williams, and based on an original short story by the great Isaac Asimov. Of the works reviewed here, it was the least annoying, but that was mostly because it was so bland.

Robin Williams plays Andrew, an android employed by a wealthy family in the far-flung future year of 2005. When Andrew begins showing signs of sentience, his family helps him become more independent, and Andrew begins a 200-year struggle to be accepted as human.

This film was actually a lot more true to Asimov's original vision than the movie adaption of the all-but-raped I, Robot that came out some years later. There's even some very Asimovian intellectual dialog toward the end, when Andrew pleads his case before the World Council of Smart Guys, or whatever they were supposed to be. But sadly, the film also lacked a lot of Asimov's playful inventiveness, and there was never any real tension or excitement to interest the audience. A for effort, but C for execution.

Okay, I'll admit it, I never saw the blockbuster Transformers movie until it was shown on broadcast TV a few weeks ago.

The robots were damn cool. I've got to give the film creators that. Visually they rocked, and their characters were actually fairly engaging as well. Or maybe it just seemed that way because almost every single human character in the film was so vastly annoying that the robots just seemed much more likable in comparison.

For those of you still more behind the times than me, or perhaps just never watched any cartoons in the last quarter century, in Transformers, two factions of a race of living robots are engaged in a millennia-old war, and that war spills over to an alternate version of Earth populated by good-looking but vapid idiots.

Okay, I'll admit the soldier characters were mostly tolerable. But every time our hero Teenage Goofball was on screen I wanted someone to smash his mouth shut with a sledgehammer. Megan Fox was indeed nice to look at, but that was about it. Goofball's clueless family apparently was created by an algorithm that averaged every sitcom cliche from the past twenty years, and the government types were so incompetent I expected Inspectors Gadget and Clouseau to show up at any minute to take charge.

But did I mention the robots were cool? Megatron especially, I thought this was the single best version of him. He honestly came across as menacing and dangerous. Optimus Prime was also at his best, as noble and heroic--and surprisingly badass-- as one could hope for. If only the film had more of them and less of Goofball and the sitcom brigade...

The anime series Stellvia ran on Japanese TV in 2003, and is available on DVD and for viewing online.

The series starts with a crackerjack premise: For unknown reasons, the star Beta Hydrus, 20 light years away, suddenly goes supernova. Its radiation pulse hits Earth in the year 2167, devastating the planet. Humanity slowly rebuilds, and even expands into the solar system. But in the year 2356, mankind faces its most grim challenge yet: the physical shockwave from the supernova is about to wash over the solar system, and threatens to annihilate everything. To protect the inhabited worlds, a number of immense foundation space stations are created to coordinate defenses; Stellvia is the one above Earth.

The series focuses on a 16-year-old Peruvian girl named Shima, who is recruited to undergo pilot training on Stellvia. Despite a rocky start (she earns the nickname "Shipon," japanese for 'ping pong', after her disastrous first flight) her genius ability with computers and math quickly allow her to become a prodigy as a pilot.

The series started off so well, it was sad to see it slowly but surely degenerate into a batch of banal anime cliches. The series is definitely shojo in flavor (the anime equivalent of a 'chick flick') but was still smart and original enough at first to keep my attention. But despite being 350 years in the future and set in space with the potential extinction of humankind threatening, we're set up with a lot of japanese high school drama cliches spread out among video-game-like space sequences. All of the secondary characters are forgettable; not necessarily badly done, just nothing about them stood out or made me care about what happened to them.

Then, half way through the series, the supernova shockwave arrives. The apocalyptic event they'd been building up since the first moments of the series, the Doom of Man, the Great Mission, etc, etc. I had to admit I was expecting an epic struggle and confrontation. But it was over in two episodes, and the big danger was resolved by the most horrible anime cliche of all: a big robot with an even bigger gun.

I stopped watching after that, with 13 episodes still to go. It was just too disappointing. Like Mission to Mars, there was a much better story buried in that material, if only someone had bothered to try and dig it out. Oh well. Maybe someday I'll go back and watch the rest, but after the way they handled their biggest and most important storyline, I'm afraid it would be just more disappointment.

But Stellvia did also have a cool opening theme, though.

Thursday, June 10, 2010

IKAROS Unfurls Its Solar Sail

The Japanese probe IKAROS (Interplanetary Kite-craft Accelerated by Radiation Of the Sun) has apparently successfully deployed its solar sail, the first of its kind to actually be used in space. For details, see the articles on MSNBC's Cosmic Blog and Popular Science's website. For details on the exact workings of the craft, go to the IKAROS Project Page on the JAXA website.

You have to give JAXA (The Japanese Space Agency) a lot of credit. A few short years ago they were definitely a second-stringer as far as space capabilities go. But they began building up many of their capabilities, with probes to the Moon and a nearby asteroid and an ISS cargo ship. And now they've done something no one else ever has--successfully deployed a solar sail, something that previously only existed in the realm of science fiction.

In an age when most space agencies are either cutting back (like the US) or just trying to reinvent the wheel in order to catch up to the front runners (like China), its inspiring to see somebody actually try to forge ahead into new territory. I've always been a bit dubious about the long term practicality of solar sails in space exploration, but I'd be glad to be proven wrong if it turns out to be the case. No matter what, solar sails are just damned neat.

It will be a few weeks yet until anyone will be able to tell if the solar sail is working properly (with a light sail, momentum builds up very, very slowly over time, so its changes in momentum will be very hard to detect at first.) But here's hoping for the best.

Also, for people in the US, pay close attention. This is the kind of cool stuff that can happen when a national space agency isn't constantly having to reinvent itself every time a new president is elected (a problem going back practically to Nixon's administration), and long-term projects are allowed to actually come to fruition.

In the meantime, however, go Japan!

Sunday, June 6, 2010

Hidden Treasures Of Science Fiction: Traveller!

Popular science fiction works tend to fall into two broad camps: Those that focus mostly on exploration stories, such as in Star Trek's various incarnations, which deal with venturing into the unknown. Then there are battle stories championed by Star Wars and its many imitators, which deal with conflicts and wars, either overt or covert, fought between various factions in a fantastic setting.

But there is a third, less often seen type of science fiction adventure, which the Traveller tabletop RPG champions so well: the scifi road trip.

Like most freeform tabletop RPGs, Traveller can encompass almost any type of story or activity within its setting. It all depends on tastes of the GM and players. But the game is set up almost always the same kind of overall structure: the player characters travel around in small, often beat-up starships, visiting planets within a gigantic interstellar civilization called the Imperium, with no nobler intention than earning a living and just seeing the sights.

They may be merchants, trying to stay one step ahead of the mortgage on their 30-year old merhcant trader. They may be enjoying retirement cruising around in one of the scout service's old surplus starships. They be ex-military bouncing from one mercenary contract to another. They may be scoundrels or refugees or agents fleeing their past. But no matter how you slice it, Traveller campaigns tend to feel like the far future equivalent of setting off on an open highway with a whole continent ahead of you. But instead of a beat-up chevrolet and untold miles of asphalt, you have a worn-down scout/courier starship and the thirty thousand star systems of Charted Space.

Traveller is definitely a working man's, middle-class, vision of science fiction. There is great emphasis in the game on just making a living, including an elaborate system on working out trade and money-making cargoes, and the like. Granted, the characters make a living in what to us seems a very exotic way, hopping from star system to star system, but they need not engage in anything loftier than the pursuit of the Imperial credit if they don't want to. The characters are also not great movers and shakers, and probably won't be determining the destiny of the galaxy. And they most likely won't be going anywhere that hasn't already been charted and explored at least cursorily by someone else. But its new to them and what happens along the way is important to the people that they meet. Like any good road trip, its about the experience and personal discovery, and that's what has always helped to make Traveller such a rewarding RPG to play.

The game has gone through many different revisions and updates since its introduction in 1977 by Game Designers' Workshop (GDW.) The original incarnation of the game, what's now called "classic" Traveller, ruled for the first ten years. It was set in the 57th century, when explored space was dominated by the 11,000-world Third Imperium and its surrounding states. In 1987 GDW updated both the game mechanics and the background, called MegaTraveller as the Imperium shattered into more than a dozen warring states after the assassination of the Emperor. In the early 90s, GDW introduced a new update, Traveller: The New Era, which took place seventy years later as interstellar civilization tried to recover from the apocalyptic war that ultimately resulted from the shattering of the Third Imperium.

Unfortunately, GDW suffered the fate of many game companies of that time as the RPG market imploded. The license was picked up by STEVE JACKSON GAMES and was released as GURPS Traveller, which took place in an 'alternate' timeline where the Third Imperium never disintegrated. The games' original designers tried to reboot the game on their own, with a version called Traveller 4 or more simply T4. There has also been a D20 version.

Today, Traveller lives on at MONGOOSE PUBLISHING and is backed by many of its original creators. The game's historical clock has been set back to the beginning year of Classic Traveller, with the future of its fictional universe wide open. Steve Jackson Games also continues to support its own version of the game.

One aspect of Traveller's game mechanics I always really enjoyed was its character creation. It was way ahead of its time in creating nuanced, interesting player characters, when most other games had PCs who were mostly collections of basic stats and an alignment.

InTraveller you don't just create a character, you create a career for him or her. After rolling base attributes, you 'enroll' him in a chosen job--soldier, starman, merchant, etc. Then you work the character through year by year, gaining skills, rank, and benefits. The more years your character goes through before mustering out, the more skilled he will be, but the older he will be as well, and may be subject to the dreaded aging rolls, that could decrease strength or endurance or such. Thus, most characters don't enter the game as snot-nosed young punks, but people in their thirties or forties (sometimes older) with a lot of life experience and stories already behind them that the GM and player can draw upon for inspiration in the game.

Another very cool aspect of the game, at least for a techno-nerd like me, is its vehicle and starship design systems. Its changed somewhat from version to version, but allows one to create almost any kind of customized, detailed vehicle for use within a campaign. One can design anything from a basic gas-powered motorcycle up through a 500,000-ton interstellar battleship. Many a fan website of the game is overflowing with such original designs.

The game's setting is one of the most highly detailed ever created, either for a science fiction setting or an RPG universe. In fact, in the late 80s, it purportedly surpassed both Star Trek and Star Wars in terms of sheer amount of written material created for it (of course in the years since both those franchises have catapulted ahead again.) Just check out the TRAVELLER WIKI to get a taste for its expansive universe.

The Third Imperium is a very wide and diverse place to explore, with a very classic space-opera feel to it. Humans and human variants dominate explored space, thanks to a mysterious race of 'Ancients' who trasported prehistoric humans from Earth to dozens of different worlds to use as slave labor (a plot point also used by the Stargate franchise years later.) In fact, two of these 'other' human races beat us Earthers into interstellar space by thousands of years.

There are also major non-human races, such as the Aslan, the Hivers, and the K'Kree; and hundreds of 'minor' races who never achieved interstellar flight on their own. In fact, one of Traveller's great strengths as far as its background goes is the amazing amount of detail and verisimilitude it gives its alien races. They all come across as believable.

But despite being a classic-type space opera, the game's setting is also very nuts-and-bolts when it comes to its technological details. The idea of detailed Tech Levels on OV originated with Traveller (but it also has been borrowed by many others as well since), and the Imperium is made up of a huge diversity of planets at different Tech Levels, from Rennaissance-level worlds, to those equivalent to modern day Earth, to worlds with Star Wars level tech or better. Each world is allowed to develop on its own and tend to its own affairs, as long as it pays at least token tribute to the Imperium. This technological diversity, along with the huge variations in physical conditions and culture and inhabitants, creates an amazing array of possible worlds that player characters can visit, pretty much ensuring that their interstellar road trip never need be boring.

Of course, not every aspect of the game is rave-worthy. Some compromises had to be made in order to keep it accessible to the average, non-science-savvy player. For example, the Imperium and its neighbors inhabit very three-dimensional space, but all the game's star systems are mapped out on two-dimensional hex grids. I also never really liked the game's use of psionics; when I ran a Traveller campaign years ago, it turned out to be the single most unbalancing element of it.

But even so, if you have a gaming group and are getting tired of endlessly bonking orcs and hoarding gold pieces, you may want to give the interstellar adventure of Traveller a try. Its well worth the time to seek out its source material, both old and new.

Wednesday, June 2, 2010

Betelgeuse Will Kill Us All!!!!

There's some wild rumors going on around the internet that the red supergiant star Betelgeuse, some 640 light years away, may be getting ready to go supernova. (Or, to put it more accurately, the star may have already blown over half a millennium ago and the light from the event may be about to reach us.)

The claim is inspired by some wild speculation going around on some blogs, taking note of the fact that Betelgeuse has seemed to shrink about 15% since 1993, Also, the star might have taken on asymmetrical characteristics, ie, its no longer round to Earth observers; a massive plume may have blown off of its surface, or the contraction may be speedier in some areas than other, or one of its giant convection cells may have collapsed, or some such.

But its enough for some people to cry supernova, and for even more people who can't quite comprehend how immensely far away 640 light years is to start the doomsday talk. Now, granted, if Betelgeuse did blow, it wouldn't just be a once-in-a-lifetime event--it would be a once-in-human-history event. We would have one hell of a spectacular light show in the night sky for many months. The supernova would shine more brightly than a full moon for many weeks, and slowly fade into a small, but slowly expanding, visible nebula.

There's a lot we don't know. We really don't have too much insight into the details of how red supergiant stars work up close; for all we know the contraction may be part of a natural centuries-long cycle. Its a HUGE star, its circumference is greater than the orbit of Jupiter. But that means its outer photosphere is very cool and tenuous, and could be easily perturbed by forces within or without of the star. heck, for all we know, one of Betelgeuse's surviving outer planets may just be plowing through the outer edges of the star, causing the asymmetrical plume like a water wake.

Like most stars, Betelgeuse is very active, and we simply don't know what may be going on. Just because we it do something new doesn't mean a nova is imminent (or was imminent 640 years ago--aw, you know what I mean.)

But even so, we're so far away that the radiation pulse from the initial explosion won't harm anything, though it could conceivable cause some interference in satellite signals. A gamma ray burst could happen if it went supernova, but those happen along the axis of its rotational poles, and we're in the wrong position for those to touch us. And any physical shockwave would be long since dissipated in the hundreds of thousands of years it would take to get here.

No, I think on the very off-chance that Betelgeuse may detonate, the real danger to us would be new brand of crazy it would spark among many people whose sanity was already questionable. You know the type, the people who see any minor event in the world as a sign of the end times, or that the prophet is about to return, or some such. All they'd need is an actual 'sign' in the heavens to trigger all sorts of new delusions.

But anyway, don't give too much credit to the rumors that Betelgeuse may go supernova soon--unless it beats the odds and actually happens, of course. And certainly don't believe any doomsday predictions associated with it.