Monday, September 7, 2015

The Outer Planets: Looking Ahead to a Potential Space Boom

If you have a degree of geek quotient, you've probably seen some of these headlines.

Daily Mail, April 30, 2015: NASA tests "WARP DRIVE" Engine...

CNET, April 29, 2015: Is NASA One Stop Closer to Warp Drive?

...and the inevitable...

Wired, May 9, 2015: That NASA Warp Drive? Yeah, it's still Poppycock

From these stories, many might think we're perched on the threshold of discovery, right on the brink of a new era in space exploration. And we may well be, but I think we're still many decades to a century or two away from a manned "WARP" mission. Why?

If we're developing the ability to test and employ a WARP drive or EM (for Electronmagnetic) propulsion systems that will fold space and time (thank you, Frank Herbert) and allow FTL travel, there are a lot of big questions that come with these hypotheses. Like...what would happen to a life form within that mysterious Warp bubble?

We already know the effects of plain old space travel on the human body, and they aren't good. Loss of bone density, loss of muscle tone, exposure to radiation, etc. etc. I'm not sure we can yet envision the complications and side effects that might arise from traveling immense distances through a vacuum with space and time essentially being compressed in front of or around us. Or the side effects from the drive itself.

Photo courtesy of Daily Galaxy
http://www.dailygalaxy.com/my_weblog/2013/10/
our-star-trek-future-nasa-scientists-engineering
-a-warp-drive-solution-for-faster-than-light-space-t.html
Although some sources are still playing the "it's impossible" card, I don't believe that. So many things that were declared "impossible" when Star Trek TOS aired several decades ago are a normal part of everyday life now. What the human race strives for and--most of all--puts a priority on, we tend to achieve. And often in record time. Look how we pulled off a Moon landing in less than a decade!

Warp drive is exciting. Star Trek has shown us what a galaxy with Warp drive might look like and it fueled our collective consciousness in so many ways. Now that Kepler Space Telescope has shown us there are other planets out there that may be similar to Earth, we have an inspiring new reason to "seek out new worlds and new civilizations." That's why I believe that we'll see a Dawn of Warp Drive scenario yet this century. But that doesn't mean I see humans "galloping around the cosmos" (credit Captain James T. Kirk for both classic quotes) for a long, long time yet.

Why?

Because it's cheaper, safer and more practical to let robotics do our boldly going to explore those Final Frontiers without endangering human lives in dangerous and unknown circumstances, and where they would be beyond ability for emergency communications, much less rescue. By the time we could register and respond to a distress call, they'd be long dead.

For decades we've been sending probes to Mars, Jupiter, Saturn, Pluto and even into the fringes of interstellar space--the empty void between our solar system and others that lie out there in the great beyond. Why not manned missions? Because once you add humans to the mix, all sorts of complications ensue and the costs become, well, astronomical. It's more than NASA or our government can fund with so many other priorities also demanding our tax dollars.

So when it comes to Warp-enabled exploration we'll send automated ships first, as we have in the exploration of our own system, possibly followed by human-like androids so we can analyze the effects that EM propulsion and extended space travel might have on organic life forms.

So even with EM/Warp capabilities being developed, I believe space exploration will continue in the meanwhile with more conventional (though much improved) propulsion systems. We just need to survive the next decade or two of potential economic collapse and an environmental tipping-point, and once these major concerns are addressed and, hopefully, behind us, again re-focus on space exploration on more of a global scale.

How would we do that?

Maybe we'd collectively spearhead a joint mission funded and supported by a number of governments and manned by a large international crew that could carry out the variety of tasks, duties and MAPS (Mission Assignment Parameters) necessary to support what is in essence a traveling space station. The mission would require a large crew, probably around 70, structured like that on a Naval vessel with various support centers, but adopting the Combined Joint Task Force concept, with personnel representing many nations, militaries, sciences and civilian areas of expertise.

This unique mission would employ a full service PAO (Pubic Affairs Office) with a responsibility to keep the world informed, and hopefully mesmerized, with the discoveries and sights of a mission to the outer planets. Their goal would be to ensure the public experiences the wonder of space travel and to champion a grassroots effort to highlight the accomplishments of individual crewmembers in their local communities. Public support and interest is key. It fuels funding. That's the lesson we learned in the infancy of our space program.

So where would we send this mission?

That part seems clear. In the next decade or two, we'd expect there would be a colony site or two on Mars, and possibly the start of commercial mining in the asteroid belt. We'd send our research mission out a little further, out where the water and resources could be studied, but still somewhere close enough that the mission would be doable in a reasonable timeframe, say five years. So, our target would be the gas giants. The Jupiter and Saturn systems.

Image courtesy of NASA.gov
With well over a hundred moons between them, a few of which are believed to have oceans beneath their icy outer crusts, as well as potential mineral resources that could be mined to both support future colonies and net a potential profit, the Jovian and Saturnian systems are of great interest. The colonies could also be developed into bases for mining Helium-3 from the gas giants' atmospheres as well as jumping-off points for interstellar missions in the centuries ahead.

And when would we go?

We'd first need to develop faster propulsion systems and a reliable form of artificial gravity, and that will take at least 10-15 years. Then we'd need sufficient time to plan and fund the mission, and to build the vessel--which would most likely have to be constructed in orbit--so we'd need time to construct a fully functioning permanent space station and an efficient means of accessing it, possibly a space elevator. Then we need to look at launch window timeframes. Logically, we need to plan a mission when the orbits of Jupiter and Saturn will be relatively close and aligned on the same side of the sun. That will happen in the early 2040s. About twenty-five years from now.

This is the premise for The Outer Planets, the second novel in my Inherited Stars series. The Outer Planets takes a 1,500 year step back in time from the opening novel--Inherit the Stars--to the early beginnings of this space saga, which occurs in our not-to-distant future.

But as would be expected with a Sci-Fi Romance novel, there's a big twist or two in the mix.
What Lissa Bruce knows could kill her.

A female video reporter with an altered identity and a damning secret joins the crew of a research mission bound for Jupiter and Saturn, only to find the past she wants to escape is already onboard.

Lieutenant Mitchell Coe, the loyal aide de camp to a murdered General–and Lissa’s late spouse–is the one man with the power to blow her cover…or salvage her heart. But after a series of malfunctions threatens the mission, Lissa suspects she’s not the only one aboard with a dangerous secret.
Image courtesy NASA.gov

What would you think of joining a research mission to Jupiter and Saturn? Of seeing the wonders of these planets, as well as Europa, Callisto, Ganymede, Io and Titan (and over a hundred more) close up? It would mean five years away from Earth--though two would be spent in stasis. Would you send in your application or would you prefer to sit back and enjoy the newsfeed back on good ol' Earth?

1 comment:

  1. Hell, I'd go! I'm still hoping I might live long enough to see a manned mission to Mars, though humanity's continued inability to act as a global community leaves me in doubt.

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