Category Archives: In the Shadow of Ares

Dragons on Mars?

Reuters reports that SpaceX apparently plans to send an unmanned Dragon capsule to land on the Martian surface as soon as 2018.

SpaceX MarsWe’ve landed numerous craft on Mars, and this wouldn’t have capabilities that have made robotic explorers so useful.  However, it would be the first designed to bring humans to Mars, quite a milestone.  While the company has indicated that it doesn’t intend to provide details on the program until September, there is some very interesting potential .

Besides demonstrating the descent and landing technology, the mission could add greatly to our knowledge of radiation exposure and the long term performance of life support systems without a team of highly skilled (and motivated!) mechanics in the loop.  I wonder if the mission could include a simulated crew, consuming oxygen, expelling CO2 and other waste.  Of course the Dragon craft wouldn’t be the only habitable volume for the six month trip in a manned mission, but any opportunity to test systems under challenging, real-world conditions would be welcome.


Imagine How Much Worse MAs Could Be

Absent legal protections, social norms, and hard-coded and hardware-based preventative measures against this sort of thing: Your Devices’ Latest Feature? They Can Spy On Your Every Move

At least you can turn off your laptop: when it is shut, the camera can see only “the other side” of the laptop. But this quick fix doesn’t apply to sound recording devices, like microphones. For example, your phone could listen to conversations in the room even when it appears to be off. So could your TV, or other smart appliances in your home. Some gadgets – such as Amazon’s Echo – are explicitly designed to be voice activated and constantly at the ready to act on your spoken commands.

It’s not just audio and video recording we need to be concerned about. Your smart home monitor knows how many people are in your house and in which rooms at what times. Your smart water meter knows every time a toilet is flushed in your home. Your alarm clock knows what time you woke up each day last month. Your refrigerator knows every time you filled a glass of cold water. Your cellphone has a GPS built into it that can track your location, and hence record your movements. Yes, you can turn off location tracking, but does that mean the phone isn’t keeping track of your location? And do you really know for sure your GPS is off simply because your phone’s screen says it is? At the very least, your service provider knows where you are based on the cellphone towers your phone is communicating with.

We all love our smart gadgets. But beyond the convenience factor, the fact that our devices are networked means they can communicate in ways we don’t want them to, in addition to all the ways that we do.

We touch on this briefly in In the Shadow of Ares, and it becomes more of an issue (in unexpected ways) in Ghosts of Tharsis. In short, because MAs not only provide all the user functions described in the article but also Mars-specific functions such as air quality and radiation monitoring essential to individual safety, settlers are effectively obliged to have one on them and active at all times. In Shadow, Amber herself observes that people would not use MAs if they believed that others could use the devices to spy on them – or even just track their whereabouts – routinely and casually (and she uses this fact to mixed results in the climax of the book).

I see this becoming a serious public concern over the next few years. The Apple matter was probably only for public consumption, to forestall the inevitable realization that government agencies can already read any information on your phone. It’s naive to believe that their abilities extend only to realtime access to the devices’ microphones and cameras. It may turn out that people are so enamored of their electronic gadgets that continual automated monitoring of their every move by “pre-crime” algorithms, say, seems a small price to pay for ever-improving attention-whoring capabilities.

Something will eventually bring the privacy threats of information technology, social media, and networked devices to greater public attention. The longer the government (and non-government players) are able to continue unchecked, the more likely it is someone will get careless or over-eager and provoke a scandal even bigger than the Apple, “Fappening”, or News of the World foofooraws. Regular people may feel little or no sympathy for terrorists, trampy starlets, or media/society personalities who have their privacy invaded, but let them realize that everything in their own daily lives – from their bathroom habits to their commuting patterns to their casual conversations to their whereabouts at every second to their political views to their shopping lists to their browsing habits to their employers’ trade secrets to their kids names, schools, and bathtub pictures – are routinely monitored, cataloged, and cross-referenced without their knowledge, and that short of ditching all of this technology they’ve allowed themselves to become dependent on there is no way to block these invasions of their personal privacy, we may actually move towards the protections described in the Ares Project universe.

Life Imitates Art – Gardener ‘Bot Edition

Hey, this sounds awfully familiar: This robot is a better gardener than you

Vegetable expert Richard Hassell and his team recently revealed a new robotic system that grafts more quickly and efficiently than a human ever could. They modified a Korean-manufactured robot to grab two plants, precisely slice the upper shoot of one and the root stock of the other, and clamp the two parts together so they can grow into a single plant.

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).