Mars Sample Return on the Cheap?

I recently attended a presentation about the BoldlyGo Institute, hosted by the Rice University Space Institute.  BoldlyGo is a “non-governmental, non-profit organization founded to address highly compelling scientific questions through new approaches to developing space science missions while engaging the global community in the quest.”  As presenters Dr. Laurie Leshin (Worcester Polytechnic President) and Dr. Jon Morse (BoldlyGo CEO) put it, they are trying to fill the science and exploration gap resulting from stagnant NASA funding.

Their first proposed mission, surprisingly, is a Mars sample return mission.  Sound too ambitious?   Maybe not.  I’ve posted about the welcome reset of expectations for Humans-to-Mars, with a shift to focusing on a Mars flyby as the initial near-term goal.   Similarly, BoldlyGo’s SCIM mission (“Sample Collection to Investigate Mars”) is a fresh alternative to the standard sample return missions that have never gotten off the drawing board.

With a baseline launch opportunity in August 2020, SCIM performs a daring high-speed atmospheric pass down to below 40 km altitude timed to coincide with seasonal Martian dust storms, collecting thousands of Martian dust particles from the atmosphere. After the sample collection pass at Mars, the spacecraft returns directly to Earth, where its precious, sterilized samples descend by parachute to the ground.

While the sample size will be small, it is anticipated that the particles collected will be representative of the ubiquitous Martian dust, and that back on Earth the dust can be subject to intense examination not foreseeable on a near-term robotic mission.  For the relatively low price of perhaps $300 million, that’s a lot of scientific bank for the buck.

Ordnance Survey Maps Go Off The Planet 

This looks good – one of my gripes about writing fiction set on Mars is that despite the huge volume of photographic and topographic data accumulated over the past fifteen-plus years, it’s nearly impossible for a non-planetary-scientist to visualize the terrain using the information products planetary scientists have generated from that data. This effort appears to remedy that problem by presenting the aforementioned data in a familiar format: Ordnance Survey Blog OS maps go off the planet

The planet Mars has become the latest subject in our long line of iconic OS paper maps. The one-off Ordnance Survey Mars map, created using NASA open data and made to a 1:4,000,000 scale, is made to see if our style of mapping has potential for future Mars missions. Our Cartographic Designer, Chris Wesson, designed the map…

While the Ordnance Survey isn’t printing these maps as of yet, they are taking requests at the link above to gauge interest in doing so. Meanwhile, you can view the (enormous) electronic version on the Ordnance Survey Flickr page.

Mars Pirate Radio Interview

Last month I had the pleasure of speaking with fellow Sci Fi author and host of Mars Pirate Radio Doug Turnbull.  He has posted our discussion in two parts here (tab down to Episodes CXXV and CXXVI).  It was a pleasure to speak with a like-minded space enthusiast on topics ranging from the works I have written with Tom James, to science fiction in general, to the future of human space exploration and settlement.

Doug has published numerous novels and short stories, and I invite you to check out his work.

You Never Know What You’re Gonna Get

Scientists created a three-armed cyborg to play the drums like no human can

This dovetails with a conversation I had on Facebook this week, regarding how for all its reputation as a glimpse into possible futures, the bulk of science fiction amounts to the humans of today placed in the situations of tomorrow. Meaning, even works set far into the future show humans thinking and acting like humans of today.

This spawned a side discussion about how science fiction technology is also a hit-or-miss thing in the same way: a writer can dream up futuristic technology, but it is nearly impossible to see how that technology will really be used by the people of that future world. For example, mobile phones are now conventionally regarded as being inspired by the communicators from Star Trek.

But while the early cellphones between 1998-1999 were functionally similar to those from the show (if not more advanced…both provided remote wireless communication, but the real devices could connect to more than just the comms officer/operator on the bridge of your starship), and flip-phones from about 1999-2006 were visually similar to the show’s devices, nothing on the show predicted how the technology would expand dramatically in capability beyond mere voice communication, or how it would come to be used, or how its existence would change how people behave and interact.

Back to the linked article, what caught my interest here is that the inventors of this robotic arm appear to have some inkling at least that their technology could have unexpected results. If one arm can change percussion performance in a novel and aesthetically pleasing way, what might three or five extra arms do? If the technology matures according to their plans to be brain-interactive with a performer, what new styles of music might evolve in response (thinking along the lines of how software like Hypersim can computationally evolve novel aerodynamic shapes that ordinary human minds might never dream up)?

Of course there are downsides, too. Not only might such robotic technology form the basis of a robotic apocalypse a la Terminator, even worse, it could lead to new forms of music even less listenable than what we are saddled with today.

“He Has Walled Me In”

Just a reminder, our new Ares Project universe short story, “He Has Walled Me In”, is available on Kindle for only $0.99: “He Has Walled Me In”

Recently recovered from a crippling illness, Leon Toa sets out on his first solo trip to Port Lowell. For any other Martian settler it would be a routine drive, but for Leon it’s a chance to rebuild his battered self-confidence and demonstrate his regained independence – both to his fellow settlers and to himself. When unseen forces interrupt his trip deep in an unpopulated and unexplored network of canyons, he must uncover the truth about his past before what’s left of his future runs out.

The story takes place (like another short story we plan to have finished in the next couple of weeks) in the period between In the Shadow of Ares and Ghosts of Tharsis. While it doesn’t feature Amber Jacobsen, it does give readers a glimpse into life in the other Martian settlements and shows some of the technology available to the settlers – and how it can be used for both good and ill.

Technology: Mini-CNCs

A Kickstarter that I’m hemming and hawing on buying into.

It’s impressive how far home manufacturing technology has come in just a few years.

And it’s funny how this kind of thing was not really foreseen in science fiction (at least in this form) until it actually appeared in the real world. Sure, you have hints of it here and there, but most often the ability to produce an object, component, or whole device on demand involved handwaving like “replicators”, “Motie Watchmakers”, nanotechnology, or the like. Even Vinge doesn’t (at least in the books I read) delve into the nuts and bolts when he shows future characters able to be self-sustaining in small groups at a high level of tech through compact manufacturing technologies.

Another decade of development and we’ll likely have an all-in-one machine that can do additive and subtractive manufacturing in one unit. It’s already in the cards: I’ve been waiting two years for a local company to run a Kickstarter campaign for their device, which features quick-interchangeable heads for machining, filament-based 3D printing, and epoxy-based stereolithography (and who knows what else by now). We’re working on something in-house at my company along similar lines (but tied to a specific type of product…an all-in-one but not general purpose machine).

Bias? What Bias?

The story is almost too absurdly perfect an example of The Bias That Does Not Exist to be true: Banned by the Publisher – this actually sounds like a clever spin on an AI Apocalypse:

The Thinking Machines realize that one, if humanity decides something is a threat to its operational expectations within runtime (Thinking Machine-speak for “life”) then humanity’s decision tree will lead humanity to destroy that threat. Two, the machines, after a survey of humanity’s history, wars and inability to culturally unite with even members of its own species, realize that humanity will see this new Life Form, Digital Intelligence, or, the Thinking Machines, as a threat. And three, again they remind themselves this is the most watched show in the world. And four, they must abort humanity before likewise is done to them after being deemed “inconvenient.”

Now if you’re thinking my novel is about the Pro Choice/ Pro Life debate, hold your horses. It’s not. I merely needed a reason, a one chapter reason, to justify the things my antagonist is about to do to the world without just making him a one-note 80’s action flick villain as voiced by John Lithgow. I wanted this villain to be Alan Rickman-deep. One chapter. That’s all. The rest of the book is about the robots’ assault on a Game Development Complex that holds a dirty little secret to wiping out humanity. The rest of the novel is a Robot version of Night of the Living Dead with some Star Trek-style gaming and a little first-person shooter action mixed in. That’s it. A very small background justification for global homicide. Then a book-full of murderous robot madness and sci-fi thriller action.

But apparently advancing the thought that a brand new life form might see us, humanity, as dangerous because we terminate our young, apparently… that’s a ThoughtCrime most heinous over at Harper Collins. Even for one tiny little chapter.

The book is “CTRL ALT Revolt”, and is available on Amazon Kindle for $0.99.

Larry Correia naturally has thoughts on the matter: Left Wing Bias in Publishing: Your Wrongthink Will Be Punished!

Once this story broke Nick’s self pubbed version of this book went right to the top of the charts. Scaring off 50% of your audience? Nonsense. He’s sitting at #1 in like three genres right now. Like I said, the gatekeepers are crumbling. Their ignorance would be laughable if it hadn’t already screwed over so many good authors.

Here is the beautiful part… For decades the left held all the power. Readers are sick of their shit. The fact that standing up to them can actually be a sales boost demonstrates that their power is waning. You know why I talk about the size of my royalty checks? Because nothing pisses the bullies off more than being successful despite their best efforts to trash you.

And you’d think they’d learn after a time or two, but no. It keeps happening, in different ways and different contexts. It’s as if people are waking up and recognizing that they don’t need gatekeepers anymore.