Saturday, May 22, 2010

When Worlds Collide Unlimited

When Worlds Collide was always one of my favorite classic science fiction movies. For its time, it was surprisingly hard science. Even today, allowing for its more primitive special effects, one would be hard pressed to find a real gaffe in the science as known at the time it was made, or in the realism of the scenario presented. I won't lie either. When I first saw the film when I was 10, it scared the heck out of me. I basically spent the entire night after watching it lying awake and worrying if Earth was still going to be there in the morning.

In the movie, a dim star named Bellus is found to be on a collision course with Earth. With barely a year before impact and facing skepticism from all sides, a group of indusrtialists and scientists begin frantic construction of an experimental rocket ship that could carry at least some human survivors to Zyra, one of Bellus' planets that could possibly sustain life. Altruism and selfish survival tug back and forth at the crew building the rocket ark, as they all try to battle the most most implaccable foe of all--the inexorable countdown to doomsday.

There's a remake scheduled for 2012. We'll see how that goes when it comes out, but given the quality of most remakes lately, I don't hold out much hope for it.

Even so, I always wondered: what would happen if the world today were to face the same kind of scenario? This entry explores a bit of what I think might happen.

The modern world of 2010 has a number of advantages that 1951 Earth didn't. For example, our astronomical observation abilities are far more advanced, and there's a lot more eyes (both pro and amateur astronomers) turned toward deep space. A 'dim star' like Bellus would probably be detected a lot earlier. So for my little pretend scenario here, I give Earth at least 5 years to prepare for the impact, instead of the one in the movie, though the lead time might easily be much longer than that.

Also, Bellus would likely be what we today call a Brown Dwarf. It radiates heat (infrared radiation) but very little light, and would likely first be detected through an infrared telescope. So though dimly lit, it is possible for Zyra to be friendly to life, if its at the right distance from Bellus. It also makes it possible for the Bellus to escape detection earlier, especially if it was moving particular fast with regard to our own star system.

Second, space travel is no longer a fanciful notion as it was in 1951. With our current capabilities, we can't go very far or very fast, but we already have a great deal of experience with both constructing and launching spacecraft.

I don't think it would be a matter of IF we could get survivors to Zyra, but how many and by what method. And how many crazies would stand in the way.

With five years to prepare and enact a plan, how smoothly would that go? In the movie, there were a number of skeptics who kept the governments from doing anything substantial at first. In the modern world, that would happen as well. There would be a huge amount of resistance to doing anything at first--look at the prevalence of global warming deniers who took one bad winter as 'proof' that climate change wasn't real. Or all those who denied that the housing bubble would collapse until it crashed the global economy. Many people just seem to refuse to buy into any prediction of bad news, no matter the amount or quality of evidence presented to them. These would inevitably include some people in power, who would gum up the works as best they could.

But there would also be those who would fully believe from the start that Doomsday would be coming, and would kill anyone who would try to prevent it. Mostly these would be religious extremists and doomsday cults, such as the Hutaree that were in the news recently. They would see the coming collision as the Rapture and would actively fight anyone who would try to thwart what they would see as God's will.

However, I don't think either faction would win the day, and with evidence mounting, governments and corporations and most other major organizations with power will begin making preparations. Very likely, the major world powers would cooperate as much as practical, as coordinating efforts and resources would assure the greatest chance of any individual nation's efforts succeeding.

So what could we specifically do?

Deflection of Bellus is completely impossible without at least Star Trek-level technology. Its just too big and massive. Hitting it with all the world's nukes combined would be like trying to move an aircraft carrier by throwing a firecracker on its deck.

So like in the movie, the best bet would try to get as many survivors, along with equipment, food, medicine, crops, and animals, to Zyra as it passes.

One way of doing that I read about on some forums like Reddit: using a Nuclear Launch Cannon (NLC), the details of which can be found HERE. Under normal circumstances, the environmental and political controversy such cannons would create would likely prevent them from ever being used. However, with Doomsday quickly on the way, I think the major powers would agree that such things no longer mattered, and would begin using them as soon as they could be manufactured. And with thousands of nuclear weapons still readily available, they wouldn't lack for propulsion charges.

The NLCs could put many thousands of tons of habitats, ships, supplies, and equipment into orbit and Zyra-intersecting trajectories. So unlike the movie, there will be more than one or a handful of ships to make it to Zyra. The survivors will have plenty of tools and equipment to help them.

But even if NLCs aren't used for some reason, there's still a lot one could do with conventional rockets for hauling up cargo. Both the US and the USSR developed heavy-lifter rockets in the 1960s within a handful of years, and Russia still maintains theirs. Since its already a known and well-used technology today, it would probably take less than two years for most of the major industrial powers to re-gear themselves to produce heavy-lifters in quantity, if they were really motivated to do so.

Among the equipment provided would probably also dropships. Just getting the survivors into orbit and having them make the interplanetary crossing would be a tremendous feat, and having less mass to consume fuel would help greatly. So part of the plan may be to have the survivors dock with drophips in Zyra orbit, which will ferry them on their final leg of their journey.

Getting the people up there would be a more complicated matter. NLCs would kill any living thing launched from them; the G forces would just be too great. So it would depend on conventional rocket technology to get them into orbit and transfer them to Zyra.

Thing is, how many would that be? In the movie, the characters had to wait until the last possible moment before the collision to launch, to conserve as much fuel as possible. I really don't think anyone in a modern day scenario would risk that if they didn't have to. The unmanned cargo vessels could be launch early and take trajectories that may encompass months or years to get to Zyra as it approached. The manned vessels would be more problematic.

We already have one long-endurance space habitat available: the ISS. Take a year to kitbash it with better rad shielding and maneuvering thrusters. Put a full crew on board (maybe up to a dozen people total, if they don't mind being crammed in together for months) jam it full of supplies, and clamp an engine onto its main docking collar. with this heavy-duty rocket motor, let it slowly make its way out of orbit and into place so it can be picked up by Zyra's gravity well when the planet makes its closest approach. Then have it dock with one or more dropships so the crew can land on their new home. This could be done months ahead of the collision, and the crew could already be (relatively) safe on the ground when Earth meets its doom.

The surviving space shuttles could maybe be used similarly. Taken out of mothballs, they would be launched with heavy-duty habitats filling their cargo bays, so they too could maybe carry up to a dozen people each. These habitats would have large docking collars attached, and separate booster stages would be launched to connect up with them in orbit. Using these booster engines the shuttles could also slowly make their way into an intersecting orbit with Zyra as it passes by. They too would dock up with dropships (no runways on the new world for the shuttle itself to land) for the final journey to their new land.

Small space capsules such as the Soyuz probably wouldn't be used to make the transition on their own, at least not in quantity. However, they could used as the dropships that actually land on Zyra, as they're a proven, rugged technology that would fit the task well.

All of this is with existing space tech. Given the five year window a number of true 'space arks' will be built specifically to carry crews to Zyra, just as they were in the movie. These probably wouldn't use too much very innovative technologies or designs, as the builders wouldn't want to take any unnecessary risks with such precious cargo. We're basically talking big metal cans here, with just enough life support, supplies, and rad protection to last for the transition flight. How many people they could handle would depend on the design, but probably wouldn't be any bigger than an ISS module (or a train of them linked up in orbit) attached to a rocket motor. Let's say 10 people or so per can, maybe 30-50 per train.

And if the building countries are smart, it wouldn't just be living human beings they'd send. Frozen zygotes, or sperm and ova, would likely be sent as well, taken from a host of volunteers left behind on poor, doomed Earth. It would be hard to guess just how many actual survivors could make it to Zyra alive and healthy. Maybe a few hundred if everything went reasonably well, but given Murphy's Law and the extremes of what they may be trying to do, it might be considerably less. So the survivors would be facing a major long-range problem with a limited gene pool and the dangers of inbreeding. Banks containing hundred or thousands of frozen zygotes could help to mitigate that problem by giving the seed population on Zyra access to a much greater genetic diversity than they would otherwise have.

A final alternative to ensure that at least something of human heritage survives would be to take DNA samples from thousands of volunteers and launch them into space on small probes, hopefully into orbits that would take them far away from disaster and preserve their cargo for as long as possible. This would be in the hope that the survivors on Zyra would flourish and, in the fullness of centuries or millennia, find these DNA repositories and use them to resurrect a good portion of the human race, at least at a genetic level. For countries that do not have a lot of high-tech resources, this may be the only option open to them.

The last two options may be important to help mitigate panic on Earth as the disaster approaches, as many people could be assured that at least something of themselves would last beyond the celestial impact. But only somewhat. I think that life on Earth would continue pretty much as normal, more or less, until Bellus showed up visibly in the sky and Zyra passed close enough to make its gravitational effects felt. Once people have clear, unambiguous evidence of their inevitable doom, all hell would break loose all over the planet. While I do think many would do their best to hold things together and to help their neighbors regardless of how little time they had, I think many more would take the opportunity for revenge for any wrong they may have suffered in the past, real or imagined.

It wouldn't be limited to just individuals, either. Wars would break out in every hotspot on the globe. The Middle East, the Balkans, and the Korean Penninsula would become bloodbaths--possibly radioactive ones--overnight. Religious Doomer cults would swell to unprecedented numbers, and they would vent their fanatical fervor on anyone who opposed their doctrine. Many mobs, not knowing what else to do as panic and fear swells, would just lash at anything near them. Hundreds of cities around the globe would likely burn in the last weeks leading up to doomsday.

And all this panic would also threaten the space efforts to send survivors to Zyra, which would have to wait until the last few weeks for he most fuel-friendly trajectories. Just like in the movie, crazed with seizing on even the dimmest hope for survival, mobs would attack the launch facilities, trying to seize the rockets and get themselves or their families on board. But of course, even if they do win the day, that wouldn't work. The space capsule-arks would only have so much life support capacity, and be able to launch so much weight. Plus, most of the crew would have been trained in how to handle the spacecraft systems and conditions in space, whereas random mob guy and kids wouldn't. So we couldn't have a scene like in the recent movie 2012 where average joe survivor talks his way onto an ark; even if the authorities are sympathetic (which I'm sure many would be), things simply couldn't work that way. Even taking on one additional untrained person could jeopardize the whole thing.

But of course fanatical mobs wouldn't listen to reason, and would try to do their best to tear down or hijack what rockets they could anyway. Probably at least a quarter of the manned launches would probably fail just from this.

But the final days wouldn't be all bad for those left behind. Brown dwarfs like Bellus probably have fairly large and strong magnetic fields, and given its presumed speed, would give rise to amazingly spectacular aurora displays that would fill the sky as it approached Earth and the nearby Sun. The world may be doomed, but at least it would have an amazing light show toward the end.

Earth as it currently is wouldn't hit Bellus directly, either. Tidal forces would likely tear the planet apart as the star got close, and huge chunks of it would spiral in over the course of months and year as Bellus careened again out of the solar system. So what survivors there would be on Zyra could watch their old homeworld be devoured piecemeal over the course of their new lives on their strange new alien home.

I always wondered how I'd spend my last few days before such a doomsday, if it ever happened. Hopefully with some good wine and an even better woman, watching the planet-wide aurora light-show. Of course we'd have a gun or two nearby so we could end things quickly once things got really bad and the planet started ripping itself apart...

Monday, May 10, 2010

Frank Frazetta Passes Away At 82

Go HERE for the full story at the New York Times' Arts Beat Blog.

Frazetta was one of the true greats--if not THE great--of fantasy and science fiction art. For everyone who's done or admired fantasy art in the past forty years or so, he represented the pinnacle of the craft. I'm sure you've all seen his work at one time or another, they've graced innumerable books and posters and comic books. and album covers. Here's an unofficial site that has scans of many of them:

If you're an artist, you can't do any better than studying his work and try to understand how he did what he did. His composition, his colors, the incredible fluidity and life he gave his subject matter, were all amazing. He was always one of my personal inspirations as an artist. Its always been a goal of mine to create images at the level he did. i still have a long way to go, but I'm grateful I've had the work of such a master to show me what's eventually possible with my own work.

RIP Mr. Frazetta.

Wednesday, May 5, 2010

The Thousand Worlds of Humanity

The future of humanity in space lies in junk.

I've been asked before what I think humanity's ultimate future in space will look like. There are many possibilities, and truthfully, there's only so far into the future that one can make an educated guess. For those of you who frequent the main site, Orbital Vector does attempt to categorize many fantastic, far-future technologies. However, trying to "realistically" predict the nature of space travel and colonization beyond Tech Level 15 (technology circa 100 years from now), considered the highest of the 'hard' science fiction levels, is problematic. Tech Levels 16+ begins contemplating technologies based on science that is as yet still highly speculative, and can't really be included in any attempt at 'realistic' predictions. To be perfectly blunt, we don't know for sure if any technologies beyond Tech Level 15 are actually possible in the real world, so for this entry at least they'll be mostly left out.

So what can we get at Tech Level 15? Actually a great number of technologies that can make profound contributions to the way mankind can utilize the environment of space to benefit itself in scientific, economic, and cultural terms. The most important of these include:

--Advanced nuclear fission power and propulsion
--Fusion power and propulsion
--Antimatter propulsion
--Advanced, long-enduring space habitats
--Advanced computer systems, possibly true AI
--Alternative energy methods
--Widespread industrial production of carbon nanotubes and other advanced materials
--Zero gravity and nanotech manufacturing and fabrication
--Increased human longevity and advanced bioengineering
--Redirection and engineering of small celestial bodies

I think over the next century and beyond, humanity will continue its slow but steady expansion into space. I'm sorry, space fans, but the Apollo era seems to have been the exception, not the rule, to how the world community handles space. Big, frenzied pushes like it, if they ever come again, will likely be rare and short-lived. Rather, if you look at the past four decades since, you can see one by one more nations across the globe setting up their own space programs, more industries becoming involved as more profits from it are realized, and a much greater percentage of the population now believes at least part of our race's ultimate destiny lies beyond the constraints of Mother Earth.

We need to disavow ourselves of a notion that space is a race we need to hurry up and win. Rather, very practically, it is an expansion of our species into a brand new ecological niche, one far, far vaster than any we have encountered before. This is going to be the work of a great many generations, and what we're doing today is just one rung on a very long ladder.

THE most important technologies, despite what some may attest, are not so much those of space propulsion, but rather space habitats. Propulsion is an important field, but even if our wildest dreams about plasma and fusion rockets are realized, people are still going to have to spend long periods in space to get anywhere--months or years or even longer. Future space pioneers are going to need habitats that can readily protect them against vacuum, radiation, and impacts, as well as provide air, water, food, and other essentials for life.

This is where the 'junk' comes in. Asteroids and comets, the junk debris left over from formation of the sun and planets, exist by the billions around the solar system. They present a vast treasure trove of resources. And unlike the larger planets and moons, they can be made mobile.

Despite the ideal envisioned in many scifi sources, I think it actually would be more efficient to build centralized processing nodes (say at certain trojan points throughout the solar system, starting with the Earth-Moon Lagrange points) and move the asteroids to them, rather than send out mining ships hopping from asteroid to asteroid. This wouldn't be a quick process--moving any one asteroid would likely take a number of years--but things could be coordinated for the rocks to reach the processing node or a holding point in a steady stream over the decades.

Each processing node would be able to hold much heavier-duty equipment, more automatons, and more workers than ships sent out into the asteroid wilderness on their own. They would in turn make the mining and processing the space rocks that much faster and efficient.

But there is a point of diminishing returns, economically. After all the profitable materials are removed, what does one do with all the left over husks?

If they're the right shape (or can be molded into one,) size, and composition, you can turn them into the raw shells of space habitats. A number of other sources speculate how one could hollow or modify an asteroid or comet to accommodate a human colony, so we can gloss over that here and assume its doable.

Would there be customers for these shells? I think a great many. Most of this century will concentrate on man-made space stations. However, many will find these to be both expensive and self-limiting, as one still has to fabricate every single component and launch them. With an asteroid, much of the initial digging can be done at the processing node according to a buyer's needs, and the buyer could concentrate more on interiorneeds without having to worry over much about the outer shell. Any such colony would start small, say in one small area of the space rock with a few dozen individuals, and would continue to slowly expand over time as automatons and humans continue to dig and rework the floating mountain. Within a few decades, maybe less, one could have a large O'Neill-style colony that could hold many thousands.

At first, rich nations and more prestigious groups would invest in these new colonies, but over time, prices would lower so that smaller groups and individuals--especially individual families--could buy stakes in them, giving birth to a whole new era of homesteading on the high frontier.

Many of the asteroid colonies would be moved into or near Earth's orbit, in order to facilitate trade and travel between the mother world, the Moon, and all the other colonies as well.

And over centuries, more and more of these colonies would be established. They could end up numbering dozens, hundreds, or even thousands.

And even while asteroid colonies start up, similar exploration, exploitation, and eventual an manned presence would be established on the Moon, Mars, Ceres, and eventually Mercury, the moons of the gas giants, and perhaps even a modified Venus.

So this is how I envision the solar system about three hundred or so years from now, with hundreds of asteroid colonies at the Earth-Moon Lagrange points, at the Earth-Sun Lagrange points, and in their own independent solar orbits nearby. Smaller clusters would be found in orbit about Mars and its Lagrange points, and in the Asteroid Belt. Independent asteroid colonies would dot the solar system here and there, owned by more isolationist interests, with comet colonies eventually dominating the outer system. And a number of these colonies, along with clusters of raw comet bodies to provide consumables, would be flung even farther out, into the Kuiper Belt and the Oort Cloud and beyond, to function as resupply bases or launching points for possible interstellar-bound probes, exploration vessels, and generations ships.

Some people have lamented that the Space Opera future so beloved of scifi fans will likely never come to pass; the universe simply isn't set up that way. In a way, they're right. FTL travel is in all probability impossible, and life-bearing worlds may be incredibly rare among the stars, even more so any with living civilizations similar to our own in development.

But the dream of hopping in a spaceship and visiting one of hundreds or thousands of strange exotic worlds is certainly a possibility. The diference is, instead of going out into the universe and discovring it, we'll build it right here in our home star system. The planets, the moons, the asteroid and comet colonies, will likely be founded by many diverse groups, who will themselves evolve culturally on their own as time goes by. Throw in advanced bioengineering and a willingness to vary the human form for various purposes, the Solar System may indeed by an exciting and amazing place to explore a few centuries hence.

A thousand exotic worlds built on the dreams of ourselves and our descendants lies in our possible future. Its just a matter of how much we want it.

Sunday, May 2, 2010

Review: Avatar

I've finally seen Avatar, after getting it on DVD. Thought I'd do a quick review.

I've watched it twice so far and, surprisingly, it was actually better the second time around. I think that it was because I was able to take in a lot of the little details that passed me by the first time. The story IS cliched, as much a retread of a classic story arc as Star Wars was (the 'Stranger in a Strange Land' motif, ie, hero travels to far off land, befriends the natives, has adventures and becomes a great hero--see also Dances with Wolves, Lawrence of Arabia, Ferngully, etc, etc), but just like with Star Wars, the cliched plot path didn't prevent the story from transcending its expectations.

I did not see the movie on a movie screen in 3D, I saw it on a standard TV screen, so I was able to enjoy the story without being overwhelmed by the special effects. Not that I still couldn't appreciate them, but they weren't the main attraction for me in watching the story.

All that being said, Avatar is an important scifi milestone. Pandora easily is the most fully-realized alien world in on-screen science fiction. Kudos to Cameron and his crew for such amazing attention to detail in creating the alien biosphere of Pandora.

The technology of the Earthers was also created with an eye toward realism. The mecha looked less anime-streamlined and much more like what such a system would look like if made in the real world. I especially like the shots of the starship, complete with glowing-hot radiators on the twin nuclear engines and the translucent icy impact shield on its bow. Gave me goosebumps.

For those of you who frequent the Orbital Vector main site, you might be interested that I'd classify the Humans' technology in the movie at about Tech Level 15, maybe edging toward 16. Some anomalies, though--firearms should have been much more advanced, for example.

An interesting thing I was contemplating the second time through is that I don't think the Pandoran biosphere naturally evolved. There seems to be tantalizing hints (particularly the big floating mountains, the huge apparently invulnerable arches around the Tree of Souls, the presence of super-conducting Unobtanium, plus some other stuff) that the world may actually be built on the ruins of a much older more advanced civilization, maybe even post-Singularity. For whatever reason the inhabitants may have decided to abandon technology and bio-engineer a nature-centric utopia for themselves.

I did think Cameron was a bit too hard on humanity, but then its apparent he was trying to drive home certain points. Despite what some conservative critics may have said about the film, I don't see it as anti-American or anti-military, as some have said. Rather, like most films of its type, its meant as a cautionary tale, showing us the dangers of a what could happen if we let certain forces in our society run out of control. (Ie, no 'green' left on Earth, and humanity apparently run by out-of-control, amoral corporations.)

There are some exceptions, of course. Cameron apparently could not resist taking a few digs at past US administration, but they are few and fleeting.

I don't think every human soldier and worker on Pandora would have gone along with the destruction of Na'vi except for a few scientists and the Hot Aircraft Pilot. I think a lot more would have protested and tried to block Colonel Bad Guy and Corporate Douchebag. But I also realize the film could only get so complicated and long, so the creators had to simplify things a bit with this.

The Na'vi in a way also had to be streamlined in a certain way for the same reason. In order to work, the movie needed to portray the aliens as actual sympathetic characters. However, making them too inhuman, as realistic aliens would be, would take too much time and work that it would distract too much from the story, which was making for a long movie to begin with. Most other scifi films and TV series run into this problem. Because of limited time to tell stories, creators have to choose: should the aliens be human-like, and be characters the audience can relate to, or should they be realistically inhuman, and result in them being puzzling enigmas? Here, Cameron obviously chose the former path, and though it is kind of stretching believability that the Na'vi would look and act so human having evolved on a completely alien world, for the purpose of a two+ hour movie it works well enough.

As I said, the plot as a whole was pretty familiar. Since I myself kind of came up with something similar with part 1 of The Shattered Sky (see the sidebar for links), I can attest Cameron did NOT 'rip off' the story as some people say. Its just seems that when you have certain story elements, certain plots and characters follow naturally for drama's sake. But even if events were in the broad term predictable to anyone who's seen this type of story before, it was in the details that the story become very enjoyable, and at times even surprising.

All in all, it was well worth seeing, and definitely a science fiction movie milestone, mostly for its stunning world-building and satisfying if unsurprising story. Looking forward to the eventual sequel and seeing if I'm right about Pandora being a post-technological society.