We are all in the gutter, but some of us are looking at the stars

Delta Flyer

Marius sat at the back window of his family home in Bristol on a star lit Christmas night, a copy of Arthur C Clarke’s 2010 in his lap. He was looking out at the chill layer of frozen snow that constituted the first white Christmas he could remember since the early seventies; so he took a sip of pepper gin to drive away the cold. Made by his wife to a traditional Nigerian recipe, it consists of a bottle of gin poured into a jar containing a handful of dried pepper corns, tree bark and various traditional spices that look like soil, then left to soak for months. The resultant cloudy liquid is guaranteed to abolish the chill of even the coldest night, yet is itself but a pale copy of the original liquor from the deep Niger Delta; essentially an illicit Delta homebrew, the gin is replaced by Ogogoro, a liquor made from distilled palm wine.

The last time he had sampled that taste-bud pummelling drink, was in the compound of his father in law exactly five years earlier, on a baking hot Christmas night, in Nigeria’s Delta State just five degrees north of the equator at the height of the dry season. They sat around a table in the compound drinking Star beer as the chemical smell of a special incense stick drove off the mozzies. Away behind them the flickering orange glow from the run-off stack of the oil refinery stippled the night sky to the south; whilst to the north, the crystal clear night of a city the size of Bristol without a single working street light laid out a breathtaking array of stars in the night sky. As he emptied the shot glass, Nathaniel, his brother in law’s ten year old son grabbed his arm and said “uncle, tell us a story … a story about space”.

As he spoke, a red light appeared in the sky at NNW, about 60 degrees up; it was replaced by a small pale green ball that developed a long translucent tail, and was soon joined by five or six others that streaked majestically across the Delta sky until they lost sight of them behind some buildings to the south.

“Is it a UFO ?”

“I doubt it”, Marius replied “much as I love most kinds of science fiction, the part that I have the greatest difficulty in believing is that of humans making contact with alien life. I subscribe to the Rare Earth theory, life is either very rare in space or it may even be unique. Either way, it doesn’t matter, we can’t go to them and even if we could, we wouldn’t even know in which direction to point the spaceship right now. Space isn’t about aliens, it isn’t even about galaxies, beautiful though those are.”

“So what is it about then ?”

“It’s about the Solar System. The bit nearest to us, and the only part that we can see closely enough to be able to get good data for – something for the scientists to get their teeth into. It’s also the only part that we have any prospects of travelling to in the foreseeable future. Fortunately, there is more than enough of interest and value in the Solar System to occupy humanity for a long time to come.

Take the astronomical event that we just witnessed. Before thinking of a UFO, I would have thought that it was either a piece of space junk breaking up on re-entry or it was part of the Ursids meteor shower; that’s a well known area of debris in space most likely left behind by a comet, as a 3-D tsunami of charged particles blasted out by the Sun, called the solar wind, boils off the frozen surface of the comet, leaving a trail behind. The earth passes through it every year in the week leading up to Christmas, causing the fragments burn up in the atmosphere; the most likely source being comet Tuttle. There are other comet trails nearby also, the occasionally spectacular Leonid’s in November from comet Tempel-Tuttle and in the previous month, October, the sometimes explosive Taurids (comet Encke). I’d go for

  1. Space junk
  2. A big Ursid
  3. A very lost Taurid

But that’s just me

Sheik Titan

Comet Encke is in fact a regular visitor to our vicinity, having an orbital period of just three years – the shortest of any major comet; it was last here in 2010. Distances on this scale are measured in Astronomical Units (AU), which is the mean distance from the Earth to Sol, 93 million miles. Encke’s orbit at Aphelion (furthest from Sol) is 4.1 AU, well short of the orbit of Jupiter, which is 5.5 AU from Sol. Compare this to the only regular comet visible to the naked eye, comet Halley with an orbital period of 76 years. Originating in the Oort Cloud, 1 light year (50,000 AU) from Sol; it was captured by the solar system when it strayed into the gentle outer slopes of Sol’s gravity well. This is an enormous dent in spacetime caused by the titanic mass of Sol, that creates a bending effect in the space around it, altering its geometry such that an object that would otherwise travel in a straight line instead follows a curved path around it. The closer the comet gets to Sol, the steeper the well becomes and it accelerates until it approaches Perihelion (closest approach to Sol). As it moves the solar wind blasts a huge plume of debris behind it until the strongly curved geometry of the space close to the star finally flings it around Sol at high speed and slingshots it back up the gravity well again, its tail in front this time, on its way back to beyond the orbit of Pluto, 35 AU from Sol.

For a large mass like a planet, the curved geometry of Sol’s gravity well constrains its orbit into a more regular path, and in the case of a gas giant like Jupiter, with a gravity well of its own, it can also have an attendant family of satellites in a sort of solar sub – system. Of the 63 known satellites of Jupiter, Europa is of particular interest as one of the few places in the solar system where there might be significant amounts of liquid water below its frozen surface, and therefore, maybe enough biochemistry for simple life. Discovered independently by Galileo Galilei in Italy and Simon Marius in Germany in the 16th century (although Galileo later accused Marius of plagiarism), it was also the setting for the films 2001 A Space Odyssey and 2010 Odyssey Two, the plots of which both concern a space journey to Europa.

True Clarke aficionados’ though, will point out that the novels follow a different storyline to the films. The first story, The Sentinel (1959) concerns just the discovery of the monolith on the Moon; in the novel 2001 (1968)
however, the monolith transmits a signal, not at Europa as in the film, but at Iapetus, a moon of Saturn, known for the fact that one side is very dark and the other very light such that it appears to wink on and off like a light. The aliens in the novel wanted there to be no misunderstanding, the interesting one is the one with the big ring round it, and with the moon that flashes on and off. Saturn orbits at 10 AU, as far away again as Jupiter.

As it happens there is something even more remarkable than Europa in the Saturnian system. Beyond the third moon, Iapetus, lies the giant moon Titan, a body as big as the earth. Although considerably colder than Earth, it has an atmosphere of nitrogen with some weather systems and geological features like earth, such as sand dunes. Its most interesting feature however, lies at its polar regions – the Cassini probe reported vast lakes of hydrocarbons, mostly liquid methane and ethane; the biggest one being 650 miles across. Together they are believed to contain more liquefied natural gas than all the known reserves on the Earth by a factor of hundreds.

In reality of course, the chances of taking advantage of the bounty anytime soon are about as slim as there being any life on Europa. To be of any use, the fuel has to be got out of the gravity well of Titan, back to the Earth, maybe 10 AU’s away, and then down the Earth’s gravity well before anyone can use it. It does serve however, to point up an interesting aspect about the solar system; as well as feeding our obsessions about alien life, it is also a place where there is potential economic value. Titan is an extreme, and distant example, but there are plenty of other possibilities. Examination of meteor fragments and spectrographic analysis of Near Earth Asteroids (NEAs) indicates that some useful minerals may exist in abundance, such as nickel-iron alloy. Since its believed that many of the minerals that exist in the earth’s crust came from a rain of asteroids as the planet formed, so it is that many of those minerals are thought to still exist in the solar system. In addition to iron and nickel we might also expect to find asteroids containing cobalt, gold, platinum, molybdenum (used to make heat – resistant metal alloys) and manganese (used in steel production).

Stairway to Heaven

I said that alien life was the most un-believable thing about science fiction, but actually there is something else – the spacecraft. In part this is because most space travel today occurs in earth orbit and still has the quality of an aeroplane flight, requiring a large window at the front so that you can “see where you are going”. The bridge of the starship Enterprise for example resembles nothing so much as the royal box at the Leicester Square Odeon, with an enormous cinema screen of a display on which can be conducted negotiations with aliens magnified to many times their true size.

In order to venture beyond the earth – moon system, for example to carry out first robotic, then manned missions across interplanetary space to NEAs, or maybe even in time to the asteroid belt, will require a different type of vehicle. This will be neither an aircraft nor a surface ship – what is needed is more like a space submarine. Powered by a dustbin – sized 10 MW nuclear reactor from a real submarine to generate the power needed for a plasma drive engine; there would be no “viewscreen”, but there might be a virtual “periscope” perhaps implemented as 3-D heads-up display delivered through a set of data-goggles and operated with data-gloves. In this environment solar flares and micro – meteorites pose a greater threat than “Klingons off the starboard bow”.

Our conventional methods of getting payloads in space is by chemical rocket, basically mixing volatile gases and liquids and applying a spark. These produce vast amounts of thrust, for climbing out of earth’s gravity well, but are wasteful of fuel. Propulsion systems exclusively for use in space can take advantage of the frictionless vacuum and the drag – less zero gravity. These include Ion thrusters, which use a powerful magnetic field to accelerate the ions and then expel them to create thrust. The thrust created is very small, but in the zero gravity conditions of space builds up slowly to a useable level. A new technology, and a spin-off from Fusion power research, already prototyped on earth is that of the plasma drive engine. This is something like a cross between the first two in that it uses powerful radio waves to turn inert argon gas to plasma as hot as the core of Sol and then use a magnetic field to accelerate the plasma to 30 miles per second and expel it through the exhaust to create thrust. Although cumulative, like an Ion drive, much greater accelerations can be achieved. This might, for instance be a probe capable of reaching the orbit of Mars in about 1 month compared to anything up to 9 months with current technology; high speed probes to the asteroid belt and to the Jovian and Saturnian systems would also be possible, as would potential manned missions – if we found something important enough there.

But there is an unfortunate Catch 22 involved in space travel. Whatever resources there might be out there, even assuming we could harvest and process them couldn’t actually be used on earth, since there is no technology available that could transport such loads down the gravity well of earth. This means that the only things we can use most of those space resources we find for, is to build more spacecraft in space. Economic value from a space program is going to come in just two forms, the first is scientific knowledge of what is there and the other is rare and high value resources, that are at a premium on earth yet are small enough to be returned by conventional means. Even if it were possible to extract iron and return it to the earth, its novelty value would soon fade next to the cost. But would the same apply to a white gold ring made entirely of asteroidal metal and set off with gem of a form previously unknown to science, also found on an asteroid ?

For space to become truly accessible to humanity there has to be a method of moving large masses to and from space without using rockets or parachutes. For that I’m afraid we have to go to the realms of science fiction, since this particular solution is way beyond our technical capabilities at present although the basic physics is sound enough. It’s called a Space Elevator and is essentially a cable attached to a large counterweight in geosynchronous orbit to hoist cargo up or down. Completely beyond any capability we have right now, it might become a Channel Tunnel for some future age; something that will require not only the technical capability but also the political will to open a new gateway. But who knows, maybe one day they will build one and maybe they will discover that the ideal location to put such a structure would be close to the equator”

Marius paused, and looked over to the distant glow of the run off stack

“and then our descendants might look in the same direction as us and see the navigation lights of Ugboroke One instead”

“That’s a wonderful story Marius, but the one we need to hear from the scientists and the technologists is how we are going to keep the lights on in this place and lots of other places like it; we tackle that one first, then we can “boldly go fourth” all we like.” said the Chief. “But enough of this, its Christmas night and I’m having a drink with my son in law.”

Marius looked across at his father-in-law; the Chief nodded at the Ogogoro bottle and said “is dat jus for fancy ?”. Marius laughed and laid out two shot glasses. The Chief produced two more and filled each from the bottle, handing two to Marius. “In the Delta” he smiled, holding up his two shots “we say – one for de road … and one for de gutter !”

Copyright ©2011 Savereo John


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