Monday, June 27, 2016

Technology Catches up with Outer Planets...Again

Writing a novel set in the 2040s--just a little over a couple of decades from now--has presented some ongoing challenges for me as a writer. Our current technology is changing and evolving so quickly, it's hard to envision what we'll really be capable of in twenty years.

Think back in time. What was technology like in 1996? Back then, 16MB of ram was cutting edge, Apple was a failing company, MP3 didn't exist, CD-RW was just announced and DVDs wouldn't be invented for a year or so. Monochrome computer monitors were pretty much the standard. Cell phones were called "bricks" though some had a nifty flip-phone design. A very early version of digital cameras existed, but they weren't affordable (and they definitely weren't integrated into cell phones). GPS had just become fully operational in 1995 and Google Maps wouldn't be on the scene for another nine years (launched February 8, 2005). Things that we take for granted today as part of our everyday lives were just beginning to evolve.

In order to create the world of the 2040s, I had to consider the leaps in technology we've had in that time span and launch my imagination an equal number of years into the future. But technology has frequently caught up with (and sometimes validated or invalidated) my world-building.

For instance...this.

NASA is planning suspended animation cryosleep.

In The Outer Planets, the astronauts spend the first part of their voyage to Jupiter in stasis--what they also refer to not as cryosleep, but as hypersleep, suspended animation or S/A. It's hardly a new idea in science fiction (Aliens, 2010, Prometheus, Red Dwarf, etc.), and the reasons for taking this measure are pretty clearly explained in Chapter 2 of my novel:

Stasis. Suspended animation. S/A. Hypersleep. No matter what you called it, it was a necessary evil. Lissa took several deep breaths in an attempt to calm her jitters.

Humans did inefficient things like breathe, eat and drink. Hypersleep conserved massive amounts of air, food and water—precious commodities where they were going. Robot supply ships would arrive at intervals with fresh provisions once they were revived, but putting the crew into stasis for the year of travel both outbound and inbound made the five-year voyage possible.

Lissa fixed her attention on a middle-aged male being wheeled away in a sleeper, his body in a state of near-perfect suspension. His pale, lax expression reminded her of her father resting in his coffin. She clenched her jaw against a sudden surge of grief.

Not the time to be thinking those thoughts.

The current NASA planning only calls for a duration of two weeks, where my crew is put into S/A for about a both directions.

It works for both the reasons stated above, and also plot-wise, because what reader needs to slog through a year of their journey before they actually get anywhere interesting?

NASA though is looking at utilizing cryosleep to get astronauts to Mars, not Jupiter, so the duration is estimated to be only six months each way, rather than the year from Earth to Jupiter and Saturn to Earth (yes, Saturn is hugely further away than Jupiter, but a gravity assist from Jupiter will give them a lot of added velocity, plus they have this nifty tech called Gravity Gain that amplifies the Sun's gravity and only works for inboard flights within our solar system).

But this is where things start to get really exciting. And troubling.

On another front, science is exploring the EmDrive--a "propellant-less propulsion system" that shouldn't work...but does--which could get us to Mars in about 70 days (give or take on the orbital positions of the two planets). Now combined with cryosleep, we might really have some range. If we can reach Mars in 70 days, pairing the cutting edge propulsion technology with hypersleep--er, cryosleep--could easily make exploration of the entire solar system a reality by getting a human crew there in a matter of months--much, much faster than is currently feasible.

And that opens up all sorts of possibilities for space exploration of our solar system ala The Expanse.

But it does raise some potential problems for this author. The Outer Planets has a particularly tricky timeline where certain events must happen at certain points, and if EmDrive capabilities do prove to be feasible, the faster transit time to Jupiter and Saturn would definitely render my next novel obsolete (along with many, many other science fiction stories by much more famous authors). Though I've frequently had to "spiff" the near future novel as new technological advances are unveiled, the EmDrive would change everything.

I'll be keeping a close eye on these two evolving technologies in the months (and years) to come.

Have a great week!



  1. An interesting dilemna indeed.

    1. nyricat4t, yes! I need to get it published soon, and then let the chips fall as they may. :D

  2. Consider that the *existence* of new technology does not predicate the *ubiquity* of it - cell phones were around in the 1980's but very few people had them for another fifteen or twenty years. Computers (desktops, laptops) are still a rarity in many under-developed areas, but those same areas have leap-frogged over into smartphones as their preferred method of accessing each other and the internet.

    Consider that NASA has had the capability to send things out of the solar system much faster, but still chooses to equip many probes and missions with lower drives and use gravity-assist, because faster isn't always the best choice. Perhaps EmDrive's existence hasn't ruined your Outer Planets yet... :)

    1. Some great points, Athena. Yes, we'll see what becomes of it. Though honestly, I would rather have those great leaps in real technology, even if it impacts my fictional universe. The implications are so exciting.

  3. Good article, Laurie. I think the EM drive is the most exciting development I've seen in decades. Maybe I'm just hoping. Actually, I'd like to see some advances on artificial gravity. The effects of weightlessness will be a huge hindrance on exploration.

  4. I absolutely agree, Greta. If the EmDrive proves workable, I think we'll be capable of making some huge leaps in space exploration. Also agree on the necessity to develop viable AG. (The ship in my Near Future does have AG. For longer duration missions, I see it as essential to the astronauts' well-being as well as mission effectiveness.) More advanced radiation shielding is another important area that needs further attention.

  5. The EmDrive article is fascinating. One thing that was mentioned a few times was the lack of published peer review articles. This makes me think of two possibilities: 1) it works really well and someone is hoarding the data in order to cash in commercially or 2) there are many problems in making it work in a practical situation - in which case, you may have a lot of time before the EmDrive catches up to TOP. I tend to think it is the latter. Either way it is still an exciting concept!

    1. Thanks, Riley. You may well be right on point #1. Can you imagine the financial implications if your corporation was the sole owner of the EmDrive patent? (Not sure that's how it works with rocket science, but you get the gist.) A system that can cut our space transit time by two thirds would be hugely sought after for everything from probes to manned missions. It would virtually open up the asteroid belt to mining and other commercial ventures.

      The other factor might be that no one has yet proven how EmDrive works, only that it seems to, when established physics say it shouldn't. I believe it violates the law about every action has an equal and opposite reaction. Maybe they're hoarding data until they can solve that puzzle.

  6. Yeah, knowing how to do something and then getting it actually done...two very different things! Fun blog post!

  7. Very true. Cross that Rosen bridge when we come to it! Thx, Pauline!


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