December 15, 2018

Review: Interplanetary Robots by Rod Pyle

On sale now.

What’s up in space exploration? We just passed to 60 year mark for the Space Age late last year, with the launch of Sputnik 1 by the Soviet Union in October 1957. In 60 years, humanity has gone from having a tough time hitting the Moon, to sending spacecraft out of the solar system and in to intergalactic space.

We recently had a chance to read a fascinating new book that chronicles those heady early years of space exploration, along with a look at where we’re at now, and where we might be headed. We’re talking about Interplanetary Robots: True Stories of Space Exploration by Rod Pyle, out from Prometheus Books on January 15th, 2019.

A long-time journalist covering the spaceflight scene, Rod Pyle brings you-are-there tales from the robotic exploration of the planets, straight out of the Jet Propulsion Laboratory press room to the printed page.

Even though I’ve read and reported lots on space exploration and the history of the Space Age, I learned a thing or two reading Interplanetary Robots. For example: The book goes deep into the Soviet Union’s early successes at Venus, as well as its long string of failures at Mars. Considering the technology of the day and how they were expected to function in largely unknown interplanetary environments running off of primitive clockwork computer programs, it’s amazing that they (occasionally) worked at all.

The book also intersperses looks back with looks ahead… from interstellar missions to clockwork rovers exploring the hell-scape of Venus, you’ll find these exotic and interesting future proposals in the book. Missions that never were also crop up, as NASA’s planetary program walks the continual tightrope of what it would like to do, versus what it can afford. For every mission that makes it to the launch pad, there are three more that die in the proposal stage.

I really like how Interplanetary Robots tells the tales of just how missions and mission planners overcame technical challenges to return in triumph. The story of how both Voyagers and the Grand Tour missions to the outer planets is retold, missions that are now with us for four decades and counting as they exit the solar system. I find it amusing that there’s nearly a point in every robotic mission where the question of “do we really need a camera?” is raised… but the legacy of nearly every mission is the photos that are returned afterwards, whether or not they had much to offer for scientific merit.

The book also tells the tale of the Galileo mission to Jupiter,with its stuck main antenna, which forced engineers to return data via the low gain antenna at an extremely slow data rate, something that would make ye ole dial-up modem look lightning fast.

Our one minor nitpick; the book is very JPL-centric, and gives other Applied Physics Laboratory (APL) scout class missions such as New Horizons and Mercury Messenger very light mention. Little mention is made of key European and Japanese Space Agency missions, beyond Huygens’ historic landing on Titan, leaving loopholes in the narrative. The author also seems to have a very optimistic view of the future of planetary space exploration, though lots of our eyes in the outer solar system are going dark in this and the coming decade, and plans for replacements such as Europa Clipper, a Titan Helicopter and a Uranus and/or Neptune Orbiter are all far off.

Still, a nuclear-powered helicopter plying the alien skies of Titan is still something we’d love to see. Overall, we enjoyed and would recommend Interplanetary Robots, for telling some great unknown tales of planetary exploration.

Editor’s note: After 11 plus years, we’re sun-setting Astroguyz as a blog. It has been a fun ride, but it’s time to move on. We’ve seen the platform grow from an occasional blog into a freelance writing career. Hey, we’re still surprised that folks actually pay us money for the words coming out of our head! Anyhow, we’ll still be reviewing books on Amazon, writing for Universe Today and Sky and Telescope, and anyone else who will have us. It’s been real!

Friday Review: Wishes Edited by Rebecca Moesta

Wishes: on sale now!

Quick: what are you wishing for this coming Christmas day? Here’s a funny but true story: I almost opted not to read and review this week’s book selection. And not for the reason that we do (albeit rarely) turn books down, as in we’re leery of giving prospective pseudoscience non-fiction books a platform. At first glance, we thought that Wishes was primarily a fantasy fiction collection.

We’re glad we persevered and looked beyond the cover. We then remembered that we’d actually written a tale in the classic ‘three wishes’ story trope ourselves, and that of our favorite classic Twilight Zone and X-Files episodes were also in the same vein.

And Wishes by Fiction River edited by Rebecca Moesta for WMG Publishing delivers. This is Number 28 in the Fiction River original anthology magazine, a series edited by Dean Wesley Smith and Kristine Kathryn Rusch.

As well worn as the trope is, we actually love three wishes type stories, and the 16 tales in Wishes all put a delightful new twist on the idea. What I think makes the concept resonate is how it encapsulates human hubris; here’s just how short-sighted we really are, given unlimited power. Here’s how a typical three wishes tale usually goes down:

One: Wishing for something basic and immediate to the protagonist’s crisis/situation. In my envisioning of the tale, it’s “fix this damn truck…”

Two: Our protagonist realizes that the three wishes grant is real, and (thinks) they’re getting wise to it. i.e.“I want a hot girlfriend…”

Three: Panicking and realizing they only have one wish left, the protagonist realizes they’d better make the final wish a good one, and usually gets tripped up in the process. Like “I want to live forever,” in which case, the protagonist lives through the extinction of humanity and the heat death of the Universe and beyond….

You get the idea. Here are some of the highlights from Wishes:

The Rock of Kansas by Eric Kent Edstrom: An alien force lands in Kansas, and commences to grant its capricious whim to the most down and out among us. Is this a wanton social experiment, with some sort of inscrutable goal? This tale kept us guessing until the end.

How I Became a Fairy Godmother by Bonnie Elizabeth: Fairy Godmothering ain’t easy, as cynical and snarky Willow Vaughn is about to find out. As an assigned fairy godmother, wishes well up like pains from within, and Willow must scour the planet looking for someone—anyone–to grant them to for release. But is there a possible loophole to this charmed existence?

As Fast as Wishes Travel by Dale Hartley Emery: The art of wishing makes its way into fifth period geometry class. This one turns the whole human hubris mantra on its head. Turns out, there are good reasons to fear wishes.

And those are just a few of the highlights from the book. Be sure to read Wishes, but be careful what you wish for.

Also, catch our reviews of the Fiction River Anthologies No Humans Allowed, Christmas Ghosts, Alchemy and Steam and Recycled Pulp.

Review: Keepers by Brenda Cooper

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What might the ecology of Earth look like in a post-apocalyptic world? We recently read a science fiction tale that tackled this precise question. We’re talking about Keepers by Brenda Cooper, out now from Pyr Books. Book 2 in the Project Earth saga, Keepers looks at a world with a dichotomous face, pitting ultra-technical megacities surrounded by recovering wildness given over to ecobot Keepers and human Wilders. [Read more...]

Review: Isaac Newton: The Asshole Who Reinvented the Universe

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There. We said it.

So, you think you know Sir Isaac Newton? Some of the most fascinating tales of science and history lurk in the footnotes, down the tiny side avenues and rabbit holes that most traditional biographies only hint at. Rittenhouse passed out during a transit of Venus. Tycho had his nose shot off during a duel.

Of course, most science history books only tease us with these glimpses and asides in favor of the standard narrative of discovery. One recent book that breaks this trend is Isaac Newton: The Asshole Who Reinvented the Universe by Florian Freistetter out from Prometheus Books.

Sure, you learned Newton’s laws of motion in high school science class. You’ve heard the apocryphal tale of the apple. But did you know that, as the head of the Royal Mint, Newton also actively persecuted counterfeiters? Or that he was not only a staunch critic of his contemporaries, but a firm defender of his own work?

The book portrays Newton at his idiosyncratic best, an abrasive character with a drive to understand the inner workings of nature and the universe at all costs. Newton was fascinated with the nature of gravity and light, and once famously stuck a needle in his eye (don’t try this at home) in order to better understand the nature of sight and light perception. Though these early experiments may seem frivolous at best and dangerous at worst, Newton did give us the first functioning design for a reflecting telescope that now bears his name, the Newtonian reflector.

The book also delves into the controversy over the invention of calculus and Newton versus Leibniz. A product of his time, Newton’s efforts in early chemistry were also tied up with its arcane roots in alchemy and the quest for the Philosopher’s Stone, a material said to have the ability to transmute any substance into gold. The ruling powers of the day so feared Newton’s reputation that the King of England actually issued an edict against any such transmutation, lest it collapse the national economy overnight.

Newton also dabbled in the occult, and analysis of the Bible in search of hidden meaning and the history of early humanity. Newton also used his studies in the chronology of the Bible to extrapolate the date for the apocalypse in 2060. This fascinating aside gives a glimpse into a time that may seem strange to us today, an era when science and magic were still intertwined. Kepler, for example still practiced astrology, and took an entire year off from his studies of planetary motion to defend his mother from charges of witchcraft.

And while these aspects of Newton’s life and works may seem strange, it also paints a picture of how science with true predictive power and the scientific method emerged. Sure, we all memorized Newton’s three laws of motion in high school, but he also set physics on the right track, a quest to unify the fundamental forces of nature that continues today.

Be sure to read Isaac Newton: The Asshole Who Reinvented the Universe. You’ll never see Newton in the same light again.

 

Review: The Phantom Atlas by Edward Brooke-Hitching

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Love maps? Looking for something a bit unconventional and unique? We recently finished a fascinating compendium of the world as it never was, and lands that were thought to be. We’re talking about The Phantom Atlas: The Greatest Myths, Lies and Blunders on Maps by Edward Brooke-Hitching, out from Chronicle Books. The Phantom Atlas is a definitive collection of lands that never where, though they found their way onto charts and atlases, some persisting until very recently.

The book breaks down 58 fascinating entries in alphabetical order, from the Strait of Anian to the Phantom Lands of Zeno. Even if you’re a hardcore geographer or historian, I’ll bet there are at least a few you haven’t heard of. In our case, I’d say about half of the entries were new to us.

Some of these were fleeting apparitions, Fata Morganas at sea, icebergs or mirages. Others were embellishments, tall tales meant to stir up interest or investments.

Some of our faves from the book include:

The tragic story of the Territory of Poyais: in 1822, soldier of fortune turned con artist Gregor MacGregor convinced prospective settlers (twice!) in Scotland and England to buy phony land deeds and pack up and head to a supposed new colony in Honduras. When they arrived, the settlers found nothing more than a malarial marsh.

Norumbega: I found this one interesting, as it’s one of the few entries that ties in with my home state of Maine. Also, it relates to the fascinating tale of David Ingram, who supposedly walked 3,000 miles across North America in 1568.

Wak-wak: what’s not to love about a supposed island off the coast of Japan and Korea where human-shaped fruit hangs suspended on trees?

A few popular lands also made the cut, including Atlantis, El Dorado, and the lands of Prester John, an Ethiopian king rumored to want to come to the aid of besieged Crusaders in the Holy Lands.

Why study false maps? Well, the map entries in the book give us insight into just how our ancestors viewed the world around them, and how this view is changing, even today. Did you know, for example, that an expedition ventured out to look for the fictitious Bermeja Island… in 2009, seven years after the launch of Google Earth? Or that sounding measurements made in 1948 in the North Atlantic suggest that Mayda Island may have once been real, before it was submerged by volcanic activity beneath the waves?

The Phantom Atlas also provides a fascinating glimpse into the history of map making, and how our view of the world has evolved to the picture we have today. Editing is a laborious task even today, and one can only imagine how tough the task was in the Middle Ages, as cartographers only had limited information and the anecdotes of wayward seafarers. The temptation is often strong to simply embellish and fill in the gaps on maps with islands and lands that, while they tell a good tale, simply do not exist.

Be sure to pick up The Phantom Atlas for a look at the world as if never was, though we once thought it should be.

Why DC’s Legion of Superheroes Deserves a Home in CW’s Arrowverse

Long Live the Legion… Credit: The CW.

Been watching Supergirl lately? We’ve just about made it through Season 3 on ye ole Netflix, through the story arc featuring the battle against Reign and the Blight. Along with DC’s Legends of Tomorrow, Supergirl is one of the best superhero sagas in the CW Arrowverse. I really like how they’ve done a deep dive into DC comics lore, crossing paths with the Martian Manhunter, Red Tornado, General Zod, and much more.

But the series has also teased us, especially through the third season, with glimpses into one of the most fascinating sagas in the Supergirl tale: The Legion of Superheroes. [Read more...]

Friday Review: Searching for the Fleet by Kristine Kathryn Rusch

On sale on September 18th, and available for pre-order now.

One of the most amazing science fiction series in recent years now has an exciting new installment.

We’re talking about Searching for the Fleet, the latest chapter in the Diving Into the Wreck saga by Kristine Kathryn Rusch out September 18th, 2018 from WMG Publishing. Searching for the Fleet follows Captain Johnathan “Coop” Cooper and Engineer Yash Zarlengo and the crew of the Ivoire as they continue to salvage the spacecraft Boneyard known as The Lost Souls in search of the ancient mythical Fleet.

[Read more...]

Observing Like an Eight-Year Old

Our second telescope: a 60mm refractor.

(note the 8-track player in the background!)

It’s true: we destroyed our first telescope before its first night out.

Flashback to the summer 1977, and our ninth birthday. Returning home from church, I was greeted by a shiny new Newtonian reflecting telescope, lovingly assembled by my Mom in my bedroom. [Read more...]

Review: Nebula Awards Showcase 2018

On sale August 7th!

Ready for the best of the best? Every year, one of the biggest and best reads that we look forward to are the Nebulas. Not only are these tales a great read, but they also serve as a fine look at the state of modern science fiction, a cross-sectional look at where we’ve been, and where we’re headed. [Read more...]

Cosmic Watch: An Update

Cosmic Watch screen grab.

Who wouldn’t want your very own Earth and Solar System to play with? Recently, we reviewed the Cosmic Watch App. This application (available for Android and Iphone for $4.99 US)… released last year gives you a unique “outside looking in view” of the apparent sky along with the planets, Moon, Sun and constellations… [Read more...]

Friday Review: Blood Orbit by K.R. Richardson

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Solving a crime is never easy… especially in space. This week’s scifi review marries up two time-honored fictional genres: the mystery/police procedural, and sleek cyber-punk. We’re talking about Blood Orbit by K.R. Richardson, out now from Pyr Books. [Read more...]

In Defense of Space: 1999

An Eagle, ready for launch.

Credit: ITC Entertainment.

Remember the 1970s? We recently found a vein of free episodes on ye ole YouTube of one of our childhood favorites: Space:1999.

For those of you who aren’t old enough to remember, let me explain the good old/bad old days of science fiction and the vast intellectual desert of the 1970s era. It always seemed like movies (and television in particular) could only support at most one scifi franchise at a time. Space: 1999 occupied that curious niche of the mid- 1970s between Star Trek reruns and the summer of 1977, when Star Wars changed the game for good (it’s still weird to think there was an era before Star Wars).

The good stuff in terms of scifi was all in books in those days, though it was hard to imagine much of it making it to the big screen… though 2001: A Space Odyssey did show us that this was at least possible.

In a broader sense, this was also true of TV in general. Thinking man’s television was limited to M*A*S*H, All in the Family, and of course, Star Trek. Space:1999 extended that feel, and several Star Trek writers actually worked on the second and last season of the short-lived series.

Of course, the central conceit of the show was terrible: an accident at a nuclear waste dump on the Moon blows it out of Earth orbit, sending it careening through space, and somehow, encountering a new alien planet every week. Even my seven year old brain realized how impossible this was, as the narrative routinely confused scale in terms of the Solar System, the galaxy and the Universe (lots of scifi was and still occasionally is guilty of this).

The sets of Space: 1999 were amazing for the time. Heck, the Eagle spacecraft still to this day looks like something we’d use to live and work of the Moon… much of the futuristic set design had a direct lineage from 2001: A Space Odyssey that would be paid forward to Star Wars.

Like Star Trek, the show also suffered from uneven writing and to typical plot tropes of the day: Space:1999 had its own plague of temporary red shirt characters, folks who were simply introduced to die by the end of the episode. The good episodes were really good, but when they were bad, they were terrible. There’s an endless parade of monsters running lose in Moonbase Alpha, something the directors seemed to think the audience just had to have. And of course, their laser weapons never work against the bad guys, another Trek trope that always guarantees they’ll have to outwit the bad guys, instead of using brute force.

Even the actors admitted in interviews that they thought the main characters acted out of character and complained to the writers. It’s worth watching the two part Space :1999 documentary for context:

Season 2 gave the show a serious overhaul, with mixed results. It introduced a few new characters, including the shape-shifting alien Maya played by Catherine Schell (fun fact: Maya was popular enough as a breakout character that she was seriously considered for her own spin off series).

The campy feel of the show was amplified in Season 2, though we got some actual character depth and development, another rarity in the 1970s. I remember managing to catch the second season on Canadian television, and liking it better than the first… that was also the school yard consensus of the day, the only place where opinion really matters when it comes to nerd cred in scifidom.

But for all its cringe-worthy flaws, Space:1999 gave us hope, and dared us to look beyond post-Vietnam Cold War America. Here’s a shiny white future awaiting us in adulthood just two decades away, a place where humans live on the Moon and use science and tech to solve problems.

The show could, I think, be worthy of a reboot. There was a proposal a few years ago to do just that. There’s just one request we have though for any would be ‘Space: 2099‘: keep the drama in our solar system. There’s enough amazing things to see and places to go, right here under our own Sun. Maybe you could even say the initial “breakaway” that drives the plot could be a figurative rather than a literal one… maybe, say, there’s a war for independence between human colonies in the solar system and the Earth, and Moonbase Alpha is the flash point. Plenty of “aliens” could be had via cybernetically/genetically modified humans, life on the seas on Europa, Enceladus, etc… this would also drive home what was fun about Space: 1999 in the first place: it would show a new generation a preview real worlds next door in the solar system that we might soon be exploring, in this century (I’m available for screenwriting).

Today, of course, there’s a torrent of scifi out there, all vying for our ever dwindling attention. We can afford to be choosy. I think it’s amusing looking back today at all admonitions from the media powers in the 1980s, saying that cable and the evil VCR would destroy quality TV and movies ( with such enlightening shows as Love Boat and Charlie’s Angels) which never really did come to pass.

Still, I can’t help but wonder. It’s 2018: where’s the Moonbase Alpha that I was promised by TV as a kid?

 

Review: My Plastic Brain by Caroline Williams

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Looking to change your brain? Sure, we’d all like to be smarter, more math savy, or simply able to flip automatically into creativity mode on command… but are such changes possible?

Science writer Caroline Williams takes us on a fascinating personal journey through the modern world of neuroscience to see if such changes are possible. My Plastic Brain: One Woman’s Yearlong Journey to Discover if Science can Improve Her Mind out from Penguin Random House looks at developments in the forefront of the field, and where we may be headed. This is a very timely book, as the concept of “mindfulness” is thrown around lots these days… we also find ourselves bombarded by an endless stream of digital distractions, all vying for our seemly shortening attention span. Are we modifying our brain, every time we compulsively check Facebook? Should we heed calls for digital detox, made ironically on podcasts and YouTube?

Williams casts a critical and skeptical eye over the current trend of brain training and modification, seeking out the scientific experts in the field. Like us, Williams has dabbled with meditation but is leery of its many purveyors as a panacea, those with the glassy-eyed stare who’ve seemed to have “drunk the Kool-Aid…” I’d agree with the sentiment… meditation is great for dealing with anxiety and putting oneself in a “relaxed and ready,” state, just don’t tell me it’ll cure cancer.

The author agrees that the brain state of anxiety “isn’t good for anything,” and undergoes training to get herself in a mode where she can exhibit the grace under pressure “it’s all good” mentality in formerly stressful situations. She also looks to refine her geospatial sense of direction by wearing a belt around the neighborhood that vibrates (!) giving her the innate sense of true north. She also works to overcome math anxiety, and see if she can give herself a better sense for numbers through brain training.

The author also delves into some fascinating applications for such training, and methods that may be just around the corner. Particularly interesting are the possible applications for chronic sufferers of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, or PTSD. Those who endure PTSD daily say its like being in a constant state of high alert, where the brain seems stuck at open throttle with little or no respite.

The author’s research also delves into an often under-appreciated mode of thought, one that’s just now becoming recognized as an essential mode for creativity: mindfulness‘s relative, mindlessness. Simply put, this is the sort of daydreaming boredom that allows us to start puzzling together old ideas in new ways, as our brain meanders about. Are we losing this trait, as we can now fill every available moment of our lives with tailor-made digital distraction? And should we choreograph children’s lives to keep them gainfully employed with each waking moment?

This might also explain something we’ve noticed over the years, where our most creative thoughts and problem-solving peaks come while out running. We’re away from distractions, and we only grudgingly recently allowed our smartphone to come along on our daily runs, if only to measure and chronicle our daily course.

Perhaps in the end, doing whatever makes us ‘zone out” –whether it be running, mediation, or killing zombies in a video game—are equally therapeutic. The author seems to have brought her anxiety level down and found a way to change settings into a mindful creative mode, something we’d like to turn on at will.

Be sure to read My Plastic Brain for a good look at what’s possible and where we might be headed in terms of brain training and modification.

Review: The Genius Plague by David Walton

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Could we be too smart for our own good? We recent finished a real page-turner, a near future science fiction thriller in an all too plausible future reality. The Genius Plague by David Walton out late last year from Pyr Books is a tale of a fungal spore out of the Amazon jungle, taking over humanity. Tales of strange mental feats and a rare and indecipherable tribal language emerges from South America and catches the attention of NSA cryptolinguist Neil Johns. The spore not only boosts the intelligence of its hosts, but encourages them to take the necessary steps to ensure its own survival and propagation… even at the expense of the human hosts themselves. The CIA and U.S. military are dispatched to deal with the threat, and promptly become infected, as hosts for the fungal spores disseminate it with crop dusting aircraft.

Sound far-fetched? Well, there’s good evidence to suggest that lots of our own behaviors are largely motivated by our own bacterial gut flora. A zombie-like brain parasite will cause ants to climb to the top of a tall blade of grass and wait for the fungus to split its carcass open, spreading more spores. toxoplasma gondii in the gut of your average feline is another great example, as it will cause mice to become attracted to the smell of cat urine, causing the cat which generated said urine to consume the hapless mouse, and well, the cycle of life continues. Rabies is another grizzly example of a virus that hijacks the mind of its host for its own nefarious ends, all to ensure its survival own. And heck, addiction itself in humans is a sort of symbiosis: have a pleasant narcotic effect on the human brain, and those brains will find ways to propagate you and assure that you will survive and thrive. Perhaps, just such an infection is out there in the jungle, awaiting human contact. Neil’s brother Paul, a mycologist (one who studies fungus) barely survives an infection on an exploratory stint in the rain forest, and later becomes a champion for the fungus itself. The idea is enticing even to Neil, as their father suffers from Alzheimer’s, and the spore seems to, at first, bring back the man they thought they had lost themselves. But as the fungus begins to win over converts, a larger threat looms, as the solution may be to enslave what’s left of humanity itself in order to preserve it. We’ll stop short of any further spoilers there, but we will say that the book climaxes with a great showdown at the home of the United States nuclear weapons stockpile at Kirtland Air Force Base in New Mexico, one with a horrific vision for the possible future of mankind. There’s a great story on the science of evolution in The Genius Plague as well, one that makes it all the more terrifying: the fungus itself isn’t intelligent; its just learned a great new strategy from the standpoint of its own survival, to make sure humans want to keep you around. Neil later realizes that the only way to defeat the fungus may be to convince it (in the minds of the infected) that it’s own survival depends on hiding rather than thriving, another common evolutionary tactic.

Be sure to read The Genius Plague for the vision of an all too real apocalyptic thriller.

Review: Beyond Earth by Charles Wohlforth and Amanda R. Hendrix

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What’s next in space exploration? We are literally at a crossroads now at the end of the second decade of the the 21st century, a time of crisis and opportunity. Sure, technology has come a long way, as we all carry exponentially more computing power in our pockets than was used to take humans to the Moon.

We also seem, however, to be stalled in low Earth orbit, as the moving goal post of humans on Mars always seems 20 years away…

We read an interesting road map that just might show us the way to get space exploration rolling again. Beyond Earth: Our Path to a New Home in the Planets by Charles Wohlforth and Amanda R. Hendrix out from Pantheon Press is an exciting look at what could be. Both authors draw off of their respective and extensive backgrounds in space exploration technology and the very latest developments and innovations in space flight.

And this sort of optimism is coming none to soon. Already, the gap between the end of the U.S. Space Shuttle program and the promise of SLS—another moving goal post—is longer than the transitional span between the final Apollo era mission (The Apollo-Soyuz test project) and the launch of space shuttle Columbia on STS-1. The James Webb Space Telescope is facing yet another delay, and one by one, our eyes in the outer solar system are going dark, as Cassini, Juno and New Horizons all wrap up their respective missions. And while it’s true that NASA is set to receive another budget boost in 2018, we’re stuck in a flip-flop loop from going to Mars, then the Moon, then back again with every change of administration.

Beyond Earth looks at the overall big picture, and what new players like SpaceX and their Mars or Bust vision might mean. I particularly like how the book flips from one chapter to the next between a future science fiction narrative versus modern science reality—there’s enough idea to provide sci-fi fodder here for any budding writer.

The core tenet, however driving Beyond Earth is not Mars, but a much more distant goal: the case for colonizing Saturn’s large moon, Titan. The authors correctly point out that the large moon has an atmosphere thick enough that bulky pressure suits aren’t needed… and dense enough that a wing suit equipped human could fly. There’s lots of methane and ethane fuel just lying around on the surface, and lots of available carbon for us carbon-based lifeforms. The chief problems presented by Titan are its chilly temperatures and immense distance from the Sun. Big problems for sure, but not insurmountable.

We still maintain that we need to start practicing with a self sustaining colony in Antarctica… a harsh but still much human-friendlier location than anywhere in the solar system.

The book also delves into real ideas for exotic virtual particle drives, ships that begin with a thrust gentler than a puff of air but eventually build up to enormous velocities. And while such a system might still be very much on the drawing board. Spacecraft such as NASA’s Dawn mission at Ceres used a similar Xenon-fueled ion drive to build up a small but dependable thrust.

be sure to read Beyond Earth to get a look at where 21st century space exploration may (hopefully) be headed.

Dating Artemis: An Astronomical Sci-Fi Mystery Solved?

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I love it when a hard science fiction book presents an astronomical mystery.

I came across just such a mystery reading Artemis, the latest science fiction novel out late last year from Andy Weir.

Artemis presents the story of Jasmine Bashara, a young girl trying to make her way in the first settlement on the Moon. Artemis is a thriving town, built around Earth tourism at the Apollo 11 Sea of Tranquility landing site.

We won’t introduce any spoilers here; suffice to say, if you like some hard science blended into your fiction, you’ll love Artemis. Like The Martian, Artemis also seems to be near-future science fiction, both culturally and technologically. We say “near” as in something that’s plausible over the next half-century or so. Also like The Martian, Artemis doesn’t peg the exact date when the events transpire… or does it? As an amateur astronomer and avid sky watcher, I noticed a few clues that just might pin down the exact future date of the tale.

Dating the Martian

Weir puts lots of research into his novels. With The Martian, he states that if you can work out the Hohmann transfer windows between the Earth and Mars needed for the Ares III mission to rescue and return Mark Watney back to Earth, then you could pin down the date in the 2030s when the events in The Martian transpired.

Is there a similar puzzle in Artemis? Well, I think there could be, based on you key celestial sights mentioned in the book.

Artemis runs on Kenya Time, as missions headed to the Moon depart from the equatorial country, taking advantage of its maximum rotational boost eastward and its favorable laws encouraging space companies to set up shop there. Kenya Time is Universal Time, +3 hours.

The most conspicuous objects in the sky as seen from the Apollo 11 landing site are the Sun and the Earth. “Daytime” on the Moon lasts about two weeks from sunrise to sunset… but the Moon is locked with one hemisphere turned perpetually Earthward, so the Earth would never set. Instead, Earth would go through phases like the Moon does as seen from the Earth, as it slowly circles a spot high in the sky due to the rocking nutation and libration motion of the Moon.

Earthrise as seen from Apollo 8 in orbit around the Moon. Credit: NASA

The phases you see from the surface of the Moon, however, are opposite to what you see on the Earth. This means when the Moon is Full from the Earth, Earth is at New as seen from the Moon. Likewise, waxing versus waning phases are reversed.

Artemis gets these phases right where it makes mention of them. On their own, however, one cycle of phases is pretty much like another… even making mention of something like an eclipse wouldn’t really pin the date down, as several lunar and solar eclipses happen, every year.

We get a possible lead, however, from the following passage when the protagonist checks her Earth-phase watch:

”Lene checked her wristwatch. ‘Ten thirteen a.m…and there’s currently a half-Earth, by the way. It’s waxing.’”

Now, that’s a little more specific… converting 10:13 AM Kenya Time to 7:13 Universal Time we just need to reverse the phase, and find when there’s a waning Last Quarter (half) Moon seen from the Earth around the same time.

Combing through the Astro-Pixels listing of Moon phases for the 21st century for Last Quarter Moons that will fall on 7:13 UT plus or minus one minute , I came up with the following possibilities:

August 30th, 2021 (it’s not likely that there’ll be a lunar outpost in just over three years!)

August 9th, 2099 (more likely).

Earth on August 9th, 2099 as seen from the surface of the Moon. Credit: Stellarium.

Of course, a few caveats are in order. Phases such as New, Full and Quarter are only instants in time. You could look up at the Moon (or the Earth, from the surface of the Moon) several hours one either side of Quarter phase and it would still appear pretty much half-illuminated. I own a Casio watch that shows the current phase of the Moon, for example… but it would be hard to pin down the exact moment of the Full or Last Quarter Moon with just the watch display alone.

Our very own “Moon phase watch…” photo by author.

Is the passage a true “tell” planted by the author? Maybe, maybe not. There are other methods the author could’ve used that are even more exact. Transits of Mercury and Venus across the face of the Sun, for example, are also visible from the surface of the Moon. On November 12th, 2190, for example, Mercury will transit the Sun, just hours from a solar eclipse… and if you’re visiting the Apollo landing site on November 13th, 2236, you can see Mercury transit the face of the Sun, during an eclipse:

Perhaps, future celestial phenomena will make their way into an Artemis sequel?

Read more original hard science-fueled tales by Dave Dickinson.

 

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