What Were You Thinking?

Tomorrow is the big day, which I’ve been waiting for since this time last year when Baen accepted Frozen Orbit for publication. And let me tell you, the intervening twelve months have been a rollercoaster: Graduated our youngest from high school, quit my job of 20+ years (a good run by any standard these days, much less in aviation), and moved to Tennessee. So other than that, not much…

No doubt you’re asking, “what were you thinking?” There’s much to say about that which I’ll get to in another post, but with my first “real” novel out tomorrow I’d rather talk about what was in my head while writing it.

See the source image

If you’ve read any of my work, it’s obvious that I’m not your traditional science fiction writer–if there is such a thing. I’m not into space aliens, don’t believe in UFO’s, and am not that drawn to space opera except for the original Star Wars (including Rogue One and The Mandalorian. Wow). And Trek, of course.

Having said that, I’ve never been much into the books from either series. My tastes in reading have always run more towards near-future fiction: what could we be doing, if not right now, at least in my lifetime if somebody really wanted to? Since we live in the age of SpaceX and Blue Origin, who are doing exactly that, I fully expect my brand of stories over time to become less science fiction and more technothriller. I was a huge fan of Tom Clancy and Michael Crichton and that’s kind of how my style evolved.

Plus, it’s the twenty-first century and I want my flying car.

I knew from the outset that Frozen Orbit would be different from my other two novels. The basic idea was this: Until a few years ago, we had never laid eyes on Pluto. What if our first look revealed something nobody expected–something decidedly not natural? Not being into space aliens, this presented a story challenge until the idea that the Russians got there first eventually hit me. Still, even that wasn’t going to be enough: What was the compelling idea that would pull it all together?

I have to be careful not to give away too much here, but it’s a topic I wanted to explore. Namely, where did we come from? How did we get here? Were we created, or did we just evolve out of some grand cosmic accident? Or was it a little of both: That is, did our creator put the evolutionary process in place with humanity as the end goal?

This leads to the question of what else might be out there. It’s a big universe, after all. If life could develop here, why not somewhere else? If it has, then why haven’t we detected it yet (i.e. Fermi’s Paradox)?

Well, who says it has to be intelligent life (ignoring the obvious joke that we still haven’t proven intelligent life even exists on Earth yet)? Remember back in the 90’s when NASA thought they’d found fossilized microbes on Mars? I vividly recall some talking heads on CNN gleefully speculating that Christians were going to have a difficult time with that.

Ignoring their obliviousness of the other major religions, I thought, why should we have a hard time with that? How was this any different from discovering a new species in the Arctic Ocean or the Atacama desert?

I fully expect us to eventually find life elsewhere right here in our Solar System. There are likely candidates orbiting Jupiter and Saturn right now: Europa, Enceladus, and even Titan. I see them no differently than I do the under-explored regions of Earth, and finding life would certainly not pose a threat to the notion of Humanity as God’s chosen creation.

Intelligent life in another solar system would, however. If you hold the view that humans were uniquely formed as and God’s favored creation (above the angels of Heaven, in fact), then yeah, that’s a problem. I can easily see how that would lead a lot of people, myself included, into a crisis of faith.

There are a lot of good arguments for why we haven’t detected intelligent life yet (either through radio signals, drive signatures, alien megastructures, etc). One is that all of these presuppose other intelligent species would be much more advanced than we are. Even a hundred years’ worth of technological advancement would look like magic to us. A thousand years? We’d think they were miracle workers. We might not even be able to recognize the signs of a civilization that advanced.

Then there’s this: If it’s taken fourteen billion years for us to get to where we are, why exactly would we think other species somehow jumped ahead of us? What if we haven’t detected intelligent life yet because we’re all at about the same stage and the distances between us are so great that there just hasn’t been enough time yet?

Here’s another idea: there are other, very advanced civilizations, and they’re not particularly nice. Maybe we live in a dangerous neighborhood and just haven’t learned to keep our electronic mouths shut like everybody else.

It always struck me as hopelessly optimistic to assume any advanced civilization would naturally be peaceful because otherwise, they’d have surely destroyed themselves by now. This never made sense to me. What if there’s a whole race of predatory aliens out there, and we’re blasting EM radiation all over the place just waiting for the peaceful Vulcan space hippies to show up and throw out their Live Long and Prosper gang sign? What if instead, we just attracted marauding Klingons? If that’s the case then eat, drink and be merry, for tomorrow may be a good day to die.

That appeals to me from a storytelling point of view, but I don’t find it especially likely either. I’m more intrigued by the one question I’ve not heard asked enough: what if we’ve never found intelligent life because we’re the first?

Mind. Blown.

Scary, but also reassuring from a theological point of view. If you believe we’ve been commanded to go forth and multiply, well…that should affect how you view our role on this planet and our responsibilities to each other and the majestic Creation that has been provided for us to explore. God gave us big brains, opposable thumbs, and a boundless universe to use them in.

What if, when God told us to “go forth and multiply,” he really meant it? What if one of His purposes for us was to spread life through the universe? How might He do that?

Buy the book and find out tomorrow.

Going for Gold at Pluto

See the source image

New Horizons‘ lead scientist Alan Stern describes their “Gold Standard” plan to return to Pluto:

First, after an orbital tour of Pluto, a final pair of close gravity-assist flybys of Charon will free the orbiter from the Pluto system to explore the Kuiper Belt without any need for any propulsion from the orbiter. Next, using only the existing capabilities of the NASA Dawn mission electric propulsion system, the craft will conduct a flyby tour of up to a half-dozen small Kuiper Belt objects and any one of a number of dwarf planets. In fact, in some scenarios, the Dawn propulsion system can even place the Pluto orbiter around a second dwarf planet for another orbital mission.

Lots more on the particulars of the design trades that have to be made for an orbital vs. flyby mission in the article at Astronomy.com. One of the balancing acts that always intrigued me is the need to cover the distance quickly but still arrive with enough propellant to slow it into orbit when it gets there.

An earlier piece at Astronomy lays out just why we ought to be interested in this icy world at the end of the Solar System:

Pluto generates enough heat to comfortably sustain a subsurface ocean over billions of years. The evidence scientists have accumulated so far suggests such an ocean is present — although it most likely remains locked beneath a thick, rigid shell — and would be detectable by a future orbiter. Also keep in mind that Pluto is not unique: Other bodies in the Kuiper Belt have similar sizes and most likely also possess oceans. So, the outermost reaches of our solar system are not universally hostile. Despite the cold and the dark, Pluto and its brethren may represent welcoming oases.

This is fascinating to me, and was part of my premise for Frozen Orbit. When it became apparent it held organic compounds known as “tholins” similar to what we’ve found on Saturn’s moon Titan, I naturally wondered about what else might be hiding out there in the Kuiper Belt. If comets were the source of Earth’s water and organic materials, most of which came from the Kuiper Belt and Oort Cloud, then that kind of makes the whole belt into one big freezer pantry. That made for some intriguing story ideas about how we came here and our place in the universe.

The rest you’ll just have to read about when Frozen Orbit comes out in January. If you really don’t want to wait, Baen is selling advance reader copies now.

 

The Truth is Out There

Pluto awaits. Photo credit: NASA/Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Lab/Southwest Research Inst.

To those of you who’ve waited so patiently for me to finish FARSIDE, thank you. If you’re wondering how long a wait there might be for the next book, don’t worry. I’m on it. In fact, I’ve been sitting on this one for a long time and have been anxious for the right time to share it with you. That would be now…

NASA’s New Horizons probe has been in the news a lot, as it’s now finishing its nine-year journey to Pluto. I’ve been fascinated to see what discoveries will come of it as we’ve never had clear photos of our Solar System’s most distant planet (okay, so it’s not technically a planet anymore but it was when the probe was launched).

Having an overactive imagination, I couldn’t help but wonder what might happen if they found something totally unexpected. As in not natural.

And with that, I give you the prologue to FROZEN ORBIT:

* * *

July 2015

As the decades passed, men would hotly debate whether the chance encounter had been one of divine providence or blind luck. After nine years of sailing across the solar system, faster than any other machine flung by humans from Earth’s gravity well, the nuclear-powered New Horizons probe had finally entered Pluto’s fragile sphere of influence. It was to be fleeting, for despite carrying the hopes and expectations of so many, the event amounted to not much more than a cosmic one-night-stand.

At least that was the cynic’s view. After a whirlwind of begging and pleading, a small yet determined horde of scientists and engineers had prevailed upon the politicians to fund their little mission before it was too late. At almost literally the eleventh hour, they had managed to convince the Budget Committee that Pluto’s tenuous atmosphere—barely detectable from Earth—would collapse onto the tiny planet’s surface within the next decade, frozen into crystals by their host planet’s unstoppable migration away from the Sun.

“How long until it reappears?” one Senator had asked.

“Two hundred years,” a planetary geologist had replied. But since he was a geologist, the Senator had to ask the physicist seated next to him, who in turn had to produce a meteorologist who could verify their assumptions. Despite his protests of not knowing a single thing about extra-planetary atmospherics, the meteorologist agreed that, yes, the thin envelope of gases would indeed turn to ice and fall to Pluto’s surface. And no, it would not reappear for another two centuries. Only after he’d cited sophomore-level physical science to support his reasoning had it finally been enough to satisfy the gathering of political scientists.

And so, New Horizons had been put together largely from off-the-shelf components meant for other (cancelled) missions. It resembled nothing so much as an ambitious grade-schooler’s concept of what a space probe might be: about the size and shape of a grand piano, but covered in gold foil with a massive dish antenna and sporting a radioisotope generator at one end.

After a quick pass by Jupiter to steal the energy from some of that giant planet’s gravity (which it wasn’t going to miss, after all), the little probe went into hibernation until being awakened by its masters back on Earth. That it would be in position to capture such amazing images and data after such a long sleep, so far from home, was a stunning enough technical feat. That it was further able to capture the image that had triggered so many arguments was indescribable.

Some had called it miraculous. Others, carefully adhering to their notions of detached objectivity, simply marveled at the luck and explained it with mathematics. In private, they whispered among themselves that it was indeed stunning, phenomenal, and extraordinary.

That this golden radioactive piano, the first to encounter the solar system’s most distant planet (as it was still called back in 2006), zipping past at nearly forty thousand miles per hour, would be in a position to see what it saw (and that what it saw was in a position to be seen to begin with) was difficult to describe as anything other than, well, miraculous.

If this was a game of cosmic billiards, it was a blindfolded double-reverse bank shot. Once the masters had removed the blindfold, what they saw was beyond anyone’s ability to describe: there was Pluto, its prime moon Charon, and the two minor moons discovered along the way. All of them appeared in full color, high-definition detail, imagery of a depth and quality that the probe’s masters could scarcely have hoped for.

Yet it was those things which they didn’t expect to find that were the most breathtaking, such being the nature of exploration. In this case, it had at first appeared as an unexpected source of gamma radiation in orbit around Pluto. Just a trace, it was nevertheless odd as it would have normally been associated with some kind of high-energy source: a faraway supernova, maybe a black hole. On Earth it could have only emerged from the violent fusion reaction of a thermonuclear bomb.

The strange radiation signature only became noticeable during the final weeks of New Horizon’s approach, and was at first thought to be the result of instruments in dire need of calibration after being asleep for six years. When the probe was two weeks from its closest approach, the radiation trace disappeared.

That made it all the more surprising when it reappeared three days before New Horizons’ closest approach, leaving its masters on Earth with barely enough time to adjust their aim. As the tiny probe swept past its long-awaited target, its cameras were briefly trained on a point in space from where the gamma emissions appeared.

The first image showed only a pinprick of visible light reflected from the distant Sun, but it corresponded to the weak radiation and even weaker thermal signature.

Energetic and warm—not what anyone had expected from a tiny moonlet orbiting a minor planet. Some wondered if it was volcanic like Io, though the lack of Jupiter-sized tidal forces ruled that out. Nonsense, others argued: we’d been convinced that Mars was devoid of water for decades, remember? The atmosphere was simply too thin to keep it from evaporating, until we discovered a naturally-occurring antifreeze below the surface. Just because a phenomenon doesn’t line up with what we’ve come to expect doesn’t make it impossible.

The next day’s imagery caused more consternation for the masters. That point of light had grown larger as the object followed its own orbit while the little probe flew closer. But this time the light had taken on a more definitive shape: irregular, yet roughly symmetrical. One commented that it looked like a dragonfly.

If the second day had created turmoil, the final day had uniformly shut them up. The dragonfly had resolved itself into something completely unexpected: faded green, with metallic highlights randomly dotting the surface and ungainly ebony protuberances clustered around one end. Startlingly familiar, there could be no mistaking it for a natural object.

To a chorus of groans, one wag in Mission Operations had nailed it: that’s no moon; that’s a space station.

For all of the mystery surrounding this unexpected find, it was perhaps the markings that surprised them most: CCCP, the Cyrillic acronym for the long-extinct Union of Soviet Socialist Republics.

 

* * *

Asteroids

The Chelyabinsk Meteor: wakey-wakey!

…Nature’s way of asking, “How’s that space program coming along?”

I reckon the answer to that particular question depends on where you’re looking.

Turns out that last winter’s big explode-y meteor over Russia may have come from a whole pack of big explode-y meteors. Which means we could stand a good chance of running into some of his buddies one day.

If that doesn’t bother you enough, there’s always this handy little graphic of all the potentially civilization-ending rocks lurking out there:

Warning: Falling Rocks

Sleep well.

And hurry up, Mr. Musk.

Neighborhood Watch

Last night I had cobbled together a lot of interesting stuff about today’s cosmic near-miss with asteroid 2012 DA14 (a pretty innocuous – even boring – name for something that had the potential to do so much damage). I know the professional astronomers have to catalog this stuff in ways that make sense to them, but something passing inside the orbits of our own weather satellites that’s big enough to flatten a large city should have a more impressive calling card. Like Zul the Destroyer. Or Hoss.

So yes, there was already a good deal of material ready to go but things just got a lot more interesting overnight: Hundreds Injured in Russian Meteorite Event.

Just passin’ through…

Continue reading “Neighborhood Watch”

Party Crasher

A “Once in a Civilization” comet will be paying us a visit next New Year’s Eve. From Scientific American:

Why is this comet expected to be so unique? Two reasons:

Astronomers predict that the comet will pass just 1.16 million miles from the Sun as it swings around its perihelion, or closest approach. (This may seem like a lot, but remember—the Sun is big. If we were to scale the Sun down to the size of Earth, the comet would pass well within the orbits of dozens of satellites.) The close approach will melt enormous amounts of the comet’s ice, releasing dust and gas and forming what should be a magnificent tail.

After it loops around the Sun and forms this tail, the comet should then pass relatively close to Earth—not near enough to cause any worry, but close enough to put on a great show. Viewers in the Northern Hemisphere will get the best view as the comet blooms in the weeks approaching Christmas 2013. The comet could grow as bright as the full moon.

Comets can be somewhat unpredictable (remember the last appearance of Comet Halley?) but this one looks like it probably won’t disappoint. The “once in a civilization” moniker makes me a little squeamish, though people with a much better understanding of orbital mechanics than I have insist there’s no way this thing will hit us.

But being so big, and so close, passing right over Earth next New Year’s Eve will be quite a show. Brighter than the full moon and maybe even visible in daylight.

If you’d like to make yourself feel a little better about probabilities and all, here’s NASA’s orbit visualizer.

 

The Daily Awesome

Check out this stunning image gallery:

Above: an enhanced view of Saturn’s moon Enceladus, which was apparently on the Federation’s short list for testing the Genesis Device. Think I’m kidding?

See? Opposite angle. Trust me, I’m an amateur astronomer.

Except for the above, these are from a new book called Planetfall, a collection of meticulously enhanced images from NASA probes. Some are composites from multiple images, others stand alone as testament to the ingenious beauty of the solar system God has blessed us to live in.

As for the book itself, it’s proof that not everything translates well into an e-reader. This deserves the big ol’ coffee-table treatment and a prominent place on my Christmas list.

One more jaw-dropper, and then you’ll just have to go check out the rest for yourself: