Silas Hudson on Thinking Outside the Box

There is often merit in ‘thinking outside the box’ for new and improved ideas and options. But when doing so is framed as ‘setting aside old perceptions and conventions’, or ‘moving beyond old ideas’, or ’embracing progress’ as ends in themselves – throwing away the old because it is old, in favor of the new because it is new – that is cause for caution.

It is often observable in such cases that what is presently known, though useful and effective otherwise, is ‘bad’ precisely because it doesn’t give those seeking to dispose of it the predetermined outcome that they desire, or merely fails to flatter their desired self-image as intelligent and insightful.

It’s a cheap shortcut to a self-interested paradigm shift. Denigrating the existing reality-congruent paradigm as backward, stagnant, or regressive opens the door to replacing it with their new, ego-flattering and ideologically-congruent paradigm without having to refute the old on its merits.

— Silas Hudson

A Minor Shortcoming, Trivial Really

Plasma reactors could create oxygen on Mars

Yet, by firing an electron beam into the reaction chamber, they were able to convert about 30% of the air into oxygen. They estimate that the device could create about 14 grams of oxygen per hour: enough to support 28 minutes of breathing, the team reports today in theJournal of Applied Physics.

Guerra’s team still needs to solve some practical problems, Hecht notes.

Yes, I can see how only being able to produce 28 minutes of breathing oxygen every hour would be a practical problem. On the bright side, it wouldn’t be a problem for long.

(Yes, I know it’s only a concept and not yet built or scaled to real-world size, but the author set that up, so…)


The Drama of Space Nuclear Power

Who knew miniature reactors for space nuclear power could be so epic? So excessively, needlessly, theatrically epic?

What is a Micro-Reactor?

The Rolls-Royce Micro-Reactor has a high-power density, which means that it can reliably, flexibly and sustainably support a range of operational demands, providing power and heat output, as required.

Crucially, the Micro-Reactor is scalable to be easily transportable by rail, sea and even into space, making it a versatile and credible power source for a multitude of applications.

The Micro-Reactor uses an inherently safe and robust fuel form. Within its core, each particle of uranium is surrounded by multiple protective layers, allowing it to withstand even the most extreme conditions.

But how portable is the 1MW class? Can you tow it behind a rover…? 

Maybe a rover like this one?

Martian Technology: Science Pins and Pingers

These devices have been featured so far in In the Shadow of Ares and quite prominently in Redlands and He Has Walled Me In.

A science pin, as described in ItSoA, is a device shaped like a scaled-up golf tee, with a stem 1-1.5m long, and a head 100-150mm across and anywhere from 50mm to 400mm tall. The stem contains common power generation, storage, and management functions, and in the field is mounted to a peg or sleeve drilled or driven into the soil or rock.  The head consists of one or more cylindrical modules of different heights and a wide variety of functions. These modules thread together at the center with a common physical and electrical interface.

In all applications there is a communications and C&DH (command and data handling) module. This module links the pin to local and satellite communications networks, as well as to specialized instruments such as seismometer arrays or deep soil probes which are not located on the pin itself.

Modularity and standardization make it possible for science pins to be quickly emplaced and easily maintained, and readily upgraded with new or additional instruments as needed. The size and external features of the modules make them easy for suited settlers to handle with gloved hands.

Lindsay Jacobsen is shown in ItSoA maintaining a science pin she had previously deployed to monitor ground water for evidence of biological activity.

In HHWMI, Leon Toa has a strange encounter with a strange science pin in the Wilds.

Redlands prominently features a gold-plated science pin, and the action is set at one of the settlements where the devices are manufactured.

In Ghosts of Tharsis, we introduce a specialized application of the science pin concept, the “pinger”. A pinger is a science pin used as a navigation aid, particularly during mild to moderate dust storms when travel by rover is still somewhat feasible. The head of a typical pinger is a single mass-produced module containing navigation strobes and the power storage required to operate them for a month or more. The head is crowned with a passive reflector that rover navigation radars can use for distance and triangulation measurements.

Pingers at intervals and in problem-prone locations include additional instruments to monitor local weather conditions and transmit them back to a central data hub for use in travel planning.

A real-world approximation of Martian navigation pingers
A real-world approximation of what Martian navigation pingers along a rover track might look like (Öskjuvatn, Iceland).

I particularly liked the idea of reusing science pin components as the basis of navigation aids, as it reflects a potential real-world solution to the problems of navigating across a landscape with minimally-developed roadways prone to obscuring by dust. It has the added benefit of eliminating the ability of the MDA to bring to a halt surface transportation among the independents by scrambling the signals from the positioning satellites on which they have a Charter-granted monopoly. But most importantly for our purposes as authors, it makes possible a dramatic rover chase in a Class 1 dust storm…

Life Imitates Art: EuroSpace Edition

This has some striking relevance to certain events at the beginning of Ghosts of Tharsis: Astronauts in Europe ask for their own independent crew spacecraft

In fact, Ivanka has a thought along these lines, just before…very bad things happen:

“While Europe is still at the forefront of many space endeavors, such as Earth observation, navigation, and space science, it is lagging in the increasingly strategic domains of space transportation and exploration,” the manifesto states. “Europe’s Gross Domestic Product is comparable to that of the United States’, but its joint investment in space exploration does not reach even one tenth of NASA’s.”

Russia has the Soyuz crew vehicle, China has the Shenzhou spacecraft, and NASA has SpaceX’s Crew Dragon. Moreover, within a few years, the US space agency should add the Orion spacecraft and Boeing’s Starliner capsule to its fleet of human spaceflight vehicles. India also seeks to develop and demonstrate a crewed transportation system to low Earth orbit within the next two years.

So where does that leave Europe?

She’s not any happier about being part of an also-ran team than these manifesto-writers are. In her case, though, it’s because all that money that could be lavished on a European space program is being frittered away on corruption.

There’s a Story Here

I don’t know what it is, but I can imagine a dozen of my own:

If you take away the ray-gun rifle and the gas giant in the background, it’s a retrofuturist take on the climax of our (eventually upcoming) story, “The Olympian Race”.

(Unfortunately, I found this several years ago and don’t recall now where it came from.)

Safe but Boring: SpaceX Landing Sites

SpaceX appears to have narrowed its potential Mars landing sites to four. Unfortunately for purposes of scenic interest, they’re all pretty smooth and safe.

Which is perfectly understandable, but nonetheless a little disappointing. I guess the landings near Valles Marineris and Olympus will have to wait a bit.

SpaceX narrows Mars landing site for Starship to four prime locations

Life Imitates Art: The Mars Rovers of Iceland

On my next to last day in Iceland, I drove the Kaldidalur route from Reykholt to Thingvellir, passing en route the Langjokull ice cap. Much to my surprise, there was a modestly-marked turnoff that led not merely close to the ice but out onto it (just left of the prominent hill in the center of the image): 

Between Iceland and Norway, I’ve been up close to a dozen or so glaciers but have only ever seen ice caps from a distance. I always pictured them as being bounded by ridges or mountains where they didn’t squeeze out through passes as outlet glaciers, and didn’t anticipate that the margin of the ice would simply taper off to nothing. Just look at this – is this what you would have expected? That such a huge mass of ice would just kinda…end?

I took some pictures and made some notes and filed it all away for when we eventually send characters to the North Cap. Expect to encounter this scene with a red tint at some point.

Another surprise, and the point of this post, was the tour vehicles used by Into the Glacier to ferry people to a man-made ice cave further out on the ice cap.

A little research turned up that they were custom made from MAN 8×8 military chassis by a British company, Army-UK. The things were huge – the pictures don’t convey just how large they seemed up close (but note the Ford Explorer for some sense of scale). I couldn’t see how many seats there were in the front cab, but it looked wide enough to seat four abreast. Army-UK gives a maximum cabin capacity of 38 passengers, which would work out to ten two-by-two rows (minus two seats for the entrance door and steps).

This one was even larger than the one above:

While these aren’t exactly how we pictured the rovers in the Ares Project universe (at least not the rovers sent to Mars as part of the titular Ares Project, which we describe as having cylindrical bodies with a single large front transparency akin to the submersibles from The Abyss), they are great analogues against which one can imagine what other sorts of rovers might look like. In particular, the rovers used by the ill-fated British Trans-Marineris Expedition of 2050…oh, wait, we haven’t talked about that story yet, have we…