Category Archives: Space Travel

The Skies of Mars Are Getting Busy

Mars Express, Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter, and Mars Odyssey are being joined by a pair of probes this week.  There will be five active orbiters around Mars.  That’s certainly a new record.

MAVEN concept art, NASA.
MAVEN concept art, NASA.

Already arrived is NASA’s MAVEN, short for Mars Atmosphere and Volatile Evolution. It arrived at Mars on September 22nd, and has assumed orbit.  It will study the atmosphere and try to determine where the water had gone.  What’s interesting is that it’ll study how quickly the atmosphere is being stripped away by solar winds, so they may be able to extrapolate the thickness of the atmosphere billions of years ago, as well as see how much water there was.

Mars Orbiter Mission artist concept, by Nesnad for Wikipedia.
Mars Orbiter Mission artist concept, by Nesnad for Wikipedia.

The second probe arriving at Mars is the Indian Space Research Organisation’s Mars Orbiter Mission (MOM), or Mangalyaan. It arrives at Mars today! This mission is exciting not because of what it will do, as much of it is pretty simple compared to what NASA and ESA orbiters have done, but it is the first time India has sent a probe to another planet.  Seeing other countries with successful interplanetary missions is very encouraging.  Apart from testing the technology, which is the primary mission, it also has scientific secondary objectives, including studying the mineralogy, morphology, and atmosphere.  This should be interesting.

Pretty busy at Mars now, isn’t it?  Which mission are you interested in?

SpaceX reveals the new crewed Dragon V2

This is incredible. Although it looks like a typical capsule design, from the pictures I’ve seen, it’s quite advanced. The interior is very sleek with huge touch screen panels. And the landing. You just have to watch the video to see how it lands. It seems so science fiction-like, but this is becoming reality. Visit SelfAwarePatterns to see the full blog post. And please comment there!


Very cool.  SpaceX has been making a lot of news recently, announcing one breakthrough after another.  Their current unmanned Dragon capsule has made multiple successful supply runs to the ISS.  Now they’ve revealed a version that can transport humans.

The most eye popping aspect of it is the SuperDraco rocket engines on the capsule itself that allows it to decelerate and perform a controlled landing on land.

Spaceflight Now has a detailed write up.  Reusability appears to be incorporated into every component of the design.

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Encyclopedia Entry #3 – Space Shuttle Challenger

On January 28, 1986, the space shuttle Challenger made history.  It was the first manned spacecraft to be destroyed after launch.  That was a big event, but what do we remember about what Challenger did before it was destroyed?  It seems its last moments are ingrained in our memories, but we’ve forgotten about its achievements.

Space Shuttle Challenger being launched on its first mission April 4, 1983. Image is public domain, source Wikipedia.
Space Shuttle Challenger being launched on its first mission April 4, 1983. Image is public domain, source Wikipedia.

The Space Shuttle Challenger was the second space shuttle to be space-worthy.  The first was Columbia, and the Enterprise was only for testing.  Its first mission was on April 4, 1983, and its 10th and final ill-fated mission was on January 28, 1986.  It was named after the HMS Challenger.

5 Interesting Facts

1. First, some statistics about the shuttle.  It’s 56.1 metres tall and 2,030 tonnes.  Its low earth orbit capacity is 24,400 kg.

2. There were some remarkable firsts by Challenger.  On the topic of people, Challenger was host to the first American woman in space (Sally Ride), the first African-American in space (Guion Bluford), the first Canadian in space (Marc Garneau), and the first Dutchman in space (Wubbo Ockels).

3. Challenger also hosted a few first events.  These include the first spacewalk from a shuttle, first night launch and landing by a shuttle, the first untethered spacewalk using the Manned Maneuvering Unit, and the first spacewalk done by an American woman (Kathryn D. Sullivan).

4. Enterprise was actually planned to be the second shuttle to be fit for space travel.  It was going to be retrofit to be the second shuttle in space, but Challenger was found to be cheaper to retrofit.  Challenger was originally a Structural Test Article.

5. On October 10, 1984, Challenger was hit by a Soviet laser called Terra-3. It was a tracking laser and was used on low power.  The shuttle crew didn’t even know it happened.  However, it caused the United States to file a formal diplomatic complaint. Canadian astronaut Marc Garneau and American astronaut Kathryn Sullivan reported no disruptions.  Source: American Physical Society.

For more Encyclopedia Entries, please see here.

Colonising a World: Food

When starting a colony on another planet, it’s important to establish a reliable source of food.  Assuming the planet is habitable by humans, there are two possible food sources: indigenous and imported.  Indigenous animals and plants cannot be relied on, as they may be incompatible with human physiology.  Therefore, a large amount of food must be brought to the planet.

Imported Food

Transporting food to another planet is tricky.  In the case of Mars, farms can be maintained on the ship in favourable conditions.  It can also be stored dry or in containers.  But this is not useful for growing on the planet.  Over a 30 light year distance, the animals may be placed in a similar stasis as the colonists.  They can then be revived on arrival to the planet.  Fertilised eggs can be stored, as well, allowing for artificial insemination after arrival.  Plants can be brought along in the form of seeds, then planted on farms.  But food must also be preserved for the colonists to eat for several weeks to months after arrival.

Animals to be brought would include chickens, pigs, cows, sheep and horses (for transportation). Chickens can provide eggs (protein), while cows can provide milk.  A wide selection of food plants would be needed, such as grains, vegetables, tubers, and fruits.  Those that grow quickly will be valuable in the early weeks of the colony.

Additional food can be in the form of processed food or laboratory grown protein.

Indigenous Food

It must be determined if the planet’s plants and animals are safe for human and Earth animal consumption. Toxins must be checked for, as well as whether they can be digested properly.  Further study is required.

If you were planning a colony, what foods would be important for you to bring?

Mars Colony

I’ve just started reading Red Mars by Kim Stanley Robinson, and it’s had me thinking about humans colonising Mars.  In his book, we do it in 2026.  Several times in the past, NASA has set targets for going to Mars, and they’ve all died out.  The latest target set by the Obama administration is to reach Mars by the 2030s.  Of course, that’s if the government would stop trying to cut planetary programs.  In the following documentary, it says that with the changes of government every 4 to 8 years, it’s unlikely long term goals for colonising Mars would be realised, and we must focus on short term goals.  I haven’t watched the entire documentary yet, but this is a reminder to myself to watch it.  Here it is:

There’s one group that’s planning on sending people to Mars by 2023.  That’s only 10 years away!  I’m sure you’ve heard of it.  It’s Mars One. It’s a non-profit organisation that has already received thousands of applications from people who want to go to Mars and never return to Earth.  Over the next few years, they’ll select the lucky colonists partly through reality TV and pay for it from all the publicity it’ll receive.  The first mission, if it goes as planned, will launch in 2016 with supplies for the colony.  I would love for this to actually happen, but I won’t hold my breath.

There are a lot of novels that feature Mars colonisation, and even my Journey to Ariadne starts out on Mars (no longer a colony, but a civilisation).  One common idea is to terraform Mars.  This would be a very long process.  The Mars Trilogy by Robinson is all about the terraforming of Mars.  I’m very interested in seeing how the story progresses.  In my story, Mars isn’t terraformed, but still quite hostile.  To terraform Mars, a lot of gas would have to be injected into the atmosphere, enough to provide a high enough air pressure for people to survive.  But first, plants would have to be able to grow, meaning a greenhouse effect would be needed to warm the planet.  Water vapour and carbon dioxide are important for this.  Lots of water is needed.  But it’s a difficult process, considering Mars’ lower gravity and lack of magnetic field would make it very hard for it to retain this atmosphere.  Can it be done, though?  Who knows.

Where would we put the first colony?  Lowlands seem like the best bet.  The air pressure would be higher, the atmosphere thicker, and less radiation (although it’s quite high).  In the tropics would be best, most likely.  Stay away from the Tharsis region, as this is a huge bulge on the surface of the planet with a much thinner atmosphere.  In Journey to Ariadne, the story starts out in the Hellas Basin, which is a huge, ancient impact feature that has a very low altitude.

Of course, Mars is only a stepping stone for Journey to Ariadne.  Ariadne is the ultimate goal.

What do you think of the attempt to colonise Mars?  Do you think we should do it?  Leave a comment with your thoughts.

Interstellar Travel

In science fiction dealing with travel between the stars, the author needs to decide how to traverse such vast distances.  I have the same issue, as my books deal with a colony about 30 light years away.  So, how can we travel that far?  There are several choices.

Faster Than Light Travel (FTL)

This is a pretty standard way of traveling in science fiction.  You go from one point to another in a relatively short amount of time, but it requires breaking that speed limit of 299,792,458 metres per second.  Well, the two most popular ways are warping the space-time continuum and wormholes/hyperspace.  The first was used in Star Trek originally, though it turns out it may actually be possible.  There’s a hypothesis that uses sound physics and involves forming a bubble of normal space around a starship and warping the space in front of and behind the ship to allow the space to travel at speeds greater than the speed of light.   Unfortunately, as far as we know, it would require incredible amounts of energy.  Fortunately, the source is likely to be matter-antimatter interactions.  Unfortunately, it’s extremely difficult to store antimatter for a significant length of time.   Unfortunately, no one knows exactly how to do it yet. It’s just hypothetical.  The second is wormholes or hyperspace.  Two points in space are linked together by a kind of shortcut or tunnel.  How this can be done is anyone’s guess, as there are several ideas.  This method can be faster than warp, and is used in many science fiction movies, TV series, and novels.

Generation Ships

These ships travel slower than the speed of light, but if they have significant speed, they may be able to reach a nearby star within a hundred years or so.  It would take several generations to reach its destination.  There’s a possibility of relativistic effects, such as time dilation, but maybe not that significant.  However, if the speeds approach the speed of light, time dilation is great.  This is what happened with the ship in Planet of the Apes, though it wasn’t a generation ship.  These ships would be huge.  They’d have to support a large number of people and include ways of producing food and giving all of the people a way of life.  The ship is their home.  NASA is actually sponsoring the 100 Year Starship project.  Propulsion systems could involve fusion, matter-antimatter, ion propulsion, or even solar sail.

Sleeper Ships

These may have several names, but I like this name.  In these ships, people are put into cryogenic stasis or some other method involving slowing down their life processes so that when they wake up, they’re at their destination.  We don’t have the technology to revive these people yet, but it’s being worked on.  This has the advantage of allowing the people who start the journey to arrive at the same physical age.  During their time in stasis, time shouldn’t be a problem, as they’ll probably wake up as if they’d had an incredibly deep dreamless sleep.  That is, I hope they don’t experience the passage of time.  They may go crazy. Propulsion systems can be similar to the generation ships.

In my writing, I’m doing a combination of a couple of these systems.  I’ve got a rough design for my interstellar ships, which I’ll reveal as I write Journey to Ariadne.

What’s your favourite kind of space travel? Leave a comment with your choice.