Tag Archives: space

Wishing and hoping doesn’t make it real

Credits: NASA/JPL-Caltech/T. Pyle

Credits: NASA/JPL-Caltech/T. Pyle

Look, I’m a space nut. It says so on the header up there. So when NASA announced the discovery of “Earth 2.0” I was as excited as the next space nut.

But let’s put this into context, people. What do we really KNOW about this planet, as FACT?

  • It’s in the constellation of Cygnus, 1,400 light years from Earth.
  • It orbits a star slightly larger than our sun, but of the same solar type.
  • The planet has an orbit of 385 Earth days.
  • It’s slightly larger than Earth.

And that’s it.

Let’s face it folks, astronomers have done a LOT of conjecturing on what amounts to a slight dip in the brightness of the star as the planet passes across its face. Science Alert has a rather good article about the discovery, with a little less hype.

We don’t know how long its day is. We don’t know the composition of its atmosphere. We might think it’s rocky but we can’t be certain. We certainly can’t suggest for a moment that its surface looks like the wonderful artist’s impression at top left. We should remember that Mars and Venus are in our sun’s habitable zone. Venus, in particular, could be seen as Earth’s twin – from a distance.

That said, (and to quote Captain Piett) it’s the best lead we’ve had. He was promoted to Admiral not long after that. Maybe we should send a star fleet to check Kepler 452b out. Maybe we’ll meet some Klingons.

 

 

Star Wars ISD – a good design, or not so hot?

Picture of an Imperial Star Destroyer

http://starwars.wikia.com/wiki/Imperial_Star_Destroyer

Oh, man. The majestic Imperial Star Destroyer.  I’ve said before it was one of the reasons I fell in love with Star Wars. Here it is in all its glory. Bristling with weapons, a space-going aircraft carrier cum assault ship. According to Star Wars: The New Essential Guide to Vehicles and Vessels, the 1.6km long ship carried 9,700 soldiers, 72 TIE fighters, 20 AT-ATs, 30 AT-STs and an assortment of barges, gunboats, transports, shuttles and Skipray blastboats. Look at it, all angles and details, with its huge bridge (complete with picture window) and shield generation domes. Be still my beating heart. I built the plastic model, of course, and added lots of spiky details. It was/is a thing of beauty, and a joy forever.

And yet, that’s not what the battle cruisers in my novels look like. Why is this so?

Not, as you might imagine, the copyright issue. Nor is it anything to do with streamlining. In space, streamlining is not an issue. (In fact, the space battles in the Star Wars movies were giggled at by most of us who know a little about space. Those fighters maneuvered as they would in atmosphere, diving and curving like World War I Sopwith Camels.) Getting back to the capital ships, provided they stayed out of a planet’s atmosphere, they could be any shape the mind can conceive. Let’s face, it that pointy bow is unnecessary, even if it looks cool. Same with the angled deck surfaces.

My reservations about the design are more about that bridge structure. Would you really put all your commanders in such an obvious place? I know it’s based on a sea-going ships’ superstructure but I think even in the world’s navies, the actual command centre is well-protected, within the ship. That great T-bone up there is an obvious target. Remember when, in The Empire Strikes Back, an asteroid collides with the bridge of one ISD and takes out the ship? Oops. And then the bridge of the great SSD Executor is hit by a rebel fighter in Return of the Jedi. Double Oops. What’s more, those shield generators must have a pretty mighty job to effectively blanket the whole ship from that position. Clearly, from the previous, with a certain lack of success.

So my ships aren’t pretty. They’re a bunch of rectangles stuck on top of each. The largest and lowest contains the hangars, the hydroponics, the artificial gravity generators, and down the far end, the engine rooms. The level above contains the troop accommodation and training areas, kitchens, workshops and the like, and the highest contains the bridge (although well down the decks) and Fleet accommodation. It’s a big ship, more like 5km long, plenty big enough to support a task force. And of course, it would usually have escorts to protect it. Although it carries quite a bit of its own protection in the hangars and the weapons (missiles and energy weapons) deployed around the decks. The shield generators are on the lowest level and carry charge to a network of emission sites over the hull.The ships have two drive systems, one for shift space when they travel enormous distances through different dimensions, and another for travel in normal space. Like Star Wars ships, they can make a jump within a system, arriving fairly close to a planet. The drives themselves use controlled nuclear fusion. Don’t ask me how. Just look at a star. We know it works.

So… would any of you care to share your observations or feelings about Lucasfilm’s creations? Or wax lyrical about your own?

ET phone home? Really?

picture of a telephoneReal time conversations are a problem in space opera if you’re planet hopping. Why? Think about it. If light can take years to go from one star to us, how long would it take any other type of signal? (We’ll leave out sound waves, which don’t move through a vacuum.) Answer – same as light. About 300,000km per second. Sure, that’s fast. But having a conversation with someone, say, four light years away is going to be a tad tedious.

“Hi, I’d like to order the peperoni, please. With anchovies, no pineapple.” (Wait eight years)

“Sure. Would you like garlic bread with that?”

I think your pizza might be cold before it was delivered.

And yet, so often space opera ignores this fact of physics and has folks chatting from spaceship to planet, or planet to planet, as though they were using Skype back in the 21st Century on jolly old Earth. A case in point is the famous scene in The Empire Strikes Back, where Darth Vader’s Executor is chasing the Millenium Falcon through an asteroid field. Admiral Piett was delighted to be able to tell Vader the Emperor was on the line, so the star destroyer could be moved out of the asteroid field in order to send a clear signal. And then they had the little chat, the Emperor’s ominous figure dwarfing Vader, down on one knee, while he plotted betrayal.

Now, let’s think about this. The Emperor is on Coruscant, Executor is down in the Imperial boondocks, messing around near Hoth. I’m not suggesting the exchange was impossible. No, let’s put that another way. It’s impossible without some sort of futuristic device. Even within our own solar system, it takes anywhere from 3.4 – 21 minutes (depending on how close the planets are to each other) for a a signal to go from Mars to Earth.

It’s a known problem, though. Ursula Le Guin was the first to dream up a device which could enable people on different planets to converse in real time. She called it the ansible. The name has wheedled its way into the genre, rather like ‘hyperspace’. Elizabeth Moon wrote a whole series of books (the Vatta saga) around a company which specialised in setting up ansibles in orbit around inhabited planets, and maintaining them. And the subsequent danger when the ansibles were sabotaged, a bit like taking down the telegraph line across America in the Old West.

I don’t call them ansibles, but since my books involve much planet-hopping, I had to come up with something, which I suppose is an ansible by any other name. A multi-dim transmitter is a device which uses one of the many dimensions of space, a dimension which is not available to physical entities like ships, to transmit a signal from one place to another. They’re fitted to ships and planets have receivers.

Needless to say, if you don’t have access to an ansible or its equivalent, you can’t have a real-time conversation over a long distance.

Care to share your thoughts?

A little bit of moonshine in the night

Picture of partial eclipseA lunar eclipse happened in my part of the world on 28th November, hard on the cosmic heels of a solar eclipse earlier in the month. As it turned out, the penumbral eclipse was a huge disappointment. No shadow across the moon’s disc, not even a reddening of the light. So the cirrus cloud partially obscuring the view didn’t matter much. We had moonshine as we always do and the photos were a fizz.

However, it got me to wondering about moons; ours, and other moons in general. To start with, let’s mention the eclipse – the truly spectacular solar eclipse that happened earlier this month. It was a partial eclipse in my part of the world, but even so it is a special event. But why is it so? The moon is tiny compared to the sun.

An extraordinary cosmic coincidence

The sun is about 400 times the moon’s diameter and about 400 times as far way from the Earth and that ratio means that when the moon comes between the sun and the Earth, that shadow is just about a perfect fit.  That relationship is a coincidence. Evidence indicates that the Moon was once closer to the Earth and is gradually moving away, so enjoy your cosmic moment, knowing that in the distant future, there will be no total solar eclipse.

That factoid is not the only extraordinary thing about our moon. Not at all.

It’s not the largest moon in the solar system. In fact, going by this list it comes a creditable fifth after Ganymede (Jupiter iii), Titan (Saturn vi), Callisto (Jupiter iv) and IO (Jupiter i). Indeed, Ganymede and Titan are both larger than Mercury and let’s not talk about poor Pluto. Really, when you think about it, it makes perfect sense that the largest planets have collected the largest moons.

Except ours.

Why is this so?

I have in my possession a tattered little paperback, a collection of essays on astronomy by Isaac Asimov (Asimov on Astronomy, Coronet, 1974). One of the things I loved about Asimov, who had a PhD in chemistry and an interest in everything scientific, was that he could explain complex physics in a way that an interested amateur with absolutely zippo mathematical ability could understand. He wrote papers regularly for magazines and the like and subsequently, they were published in book form. This little volume is a treasure trove of scientific fact and some intriguing speculations. True, some of it is now dated, since it was published before the epic discoveries of Voyagers I and II. Pluto had not yet been demoted. And yet before it could be proved he predicted that many planets other than Saturn would have rings.

To get back to the point, one of these essays is entitled “Just Mooning Around” in which Asimov talks about the gravitational effects of the sun, the planets and the moons in the solar system have on each other. Without going into all the details of the paper, he talks about the ‘tug of war’  ratio, which argues that in most cases, the gravitational attraction of a planet on its moons is vastly greater than the pull of the sun on those same moons. There is also a kind of ‘goldilocks’ zone around a planet in which a true moon would exist (as opposed to loosely captured satellites like Neptune’s Nereid). A moon must be between a minimum Roche limit and a maximum ‘tug of war’ distance. For the mind-bending number-crunching, go read it yourself – I told you I can’t do maths. However, I can appreciate logic. And you will see it is so.

According to his theory, of the four innermost rocky planets, Mercury could not have a moon because it has no ‘goldilocks’ zone. The other three are highly unlikely to have moons because of the narrowness of the ‘goldilocks’ zone. And indeed, Mercury and Venus do not have satellites, and Mars’s Phobos and Demos are overlarge potatoes which are expected to disintegrate.

I see you jumping up and down. What about us? Earth and that thing up there?

Ah, Asimov argues that the Earth/Moon pair is not a true planet/moon relationship because the Moon is so much larger in comparison with its primary than any other such relationship in the solar system. By a long way. He suggests that the Earth/Moon combo is really a binary planet, waltzing its way around the sun. Of course, all planets with moons have a wobble in their orbit but the Earth/Moon shimmy must be quite pronounced. Certainly I don’t think there’s much disagreement these days that our Moon was derived from the same stuff as the Earth. This article suggests accepted theory is that a Mars-sized object collided with the Earth, aggregating the material and spewing off a portion which later formed the Moon.

The next thing you have to wonder is – how important is that massive moon to life on Earth? But that’s another topic, isn’t it?

Isn’t science wonderful?

What would you weigh on an exoplanet?

picture of an exoplanetI was reading an article from somebody, all enthusiastic about the exo-planets the Kepler probe keeps finding. They’re all many times larger than planet Earth even if they’re in the ‘Goldilocks’ zone. You know the one – not too close, not too far, just right. That is, a planet neither too close to its primary nor too far away, where liquid water could exist. My immediate reaction was ‘sure, but we’d weigh too much’.

Then I began to wonder how much more. I’m not a mathematician – never have been. In truth, I can’t add up to save my life. So I’m counting on you (ha ha) to correct me if I get this wrong.

I discovered this site http://www.exploratorium.edu/ronh/weight/ and learned that gravitational pull weakens by the radius squared. So let’s say you weighed 60kg on planet Earth. Planet Gliese 581g is estimated at 2.6 Earth masses and 1.4 Earth radii. So yes, you’re going to weigh more on Gliese 581g, but not 2.6 times as much. If I’ve got this right, the increased diameter of the planet means you’ll weigh about 1.3 times as much – so about 78kg. That’s certainly not a huge imposition. And all of a sudden, I’m bouncing in my chair, going oooh oooh.

Here’s some estimated figures about Gliese 581g, taken from this fascinating website http://phl.upr.edu/projects/habitable-exoplanets-catalog

Mass = 2.6 Earth Radius = 1.4 Earth  Temp = average surface temperature, so this place, at 10, is rather cooler than our 15 degrees (NASA’s figure from 2008), but the estimate of average temperature assumes an Earth-like atmosphere, which is a pretty big assumption. On the face of it the planet zips around its sun in a fraction of the time it takes ours, taking only 32 days as compared to 365. But that might not be the case, since the Gliesean day may be much longer than Earth’s. The figures don’t mention period of rotation, which I find a tad surprising. As a comparison, Venus’s ‘day” (the time it takes to rotate on its axis) is actually longer than its year (the time it takes to orbit the Sun.) (http://www.universetoday.com/14282/how-long-is-a-day-on-venus/)

So there you have it. I found out today that a candidate for Torreno (capital of the Coalition of Worlds in Morgan’s Choice) may be only 20.2 light years away. And with the shift drive of the future, that’ll be a place to add to your holiday plans.

Ain’t science grand?

Humans are such fragile entities

Picture of MarsThe more I read about the strangeness of our universe, the more I wonder if we, humanity, will ever colonise other planets. There’s not much chance we’ll settle on a diamond planet and I have to wonder how we’d go on many of the ‘earthlike’ planets already pinpointed. We are such fragile entities, we humans.

I’m in the throes of writing a sequel to my space opera Morgan’s Choice, which accepts the existence of political groupings of star systems into coalitions, federations and the like. Hey, I’m not special in that respect. Lots of SF writers have done the same thing, with great success – Elizabeth Moon, Jack McDevitt, Isaac Asimov etc etc and of course, Star Trek, Star Wars and the like. But how likely is it really?

Like all other animals we are closely attuned to our environment, more so than many of us actually realise anymore. In these days of electricity we can heat or cool our homes, spend half the night watching TV, or reading books, source food from all over the world so nothing is ever out of season, cross distances that took years in days. Yet we cannot escape the factors which shaped us.

I think there are five vital factors we will not easily overcome.

The first is our perception of time.

I use the word ‘perception’ advisedly, because time is something we measure for ourselves to put ourselves into context, if you will. But whether we think the sun is rising where we are, or setting, our bodies are built to expect a ‘day’ of twenty-four hours or so, because that’s how long it takes for the planet to revolve on its axis. What’s more, if we are suddenly wrenched from one time of day to another, as happens with long distance air travel, it takes time for our bodies to adjust. (It’s called jet lag)

Next is gravity, what we call weight.

We have evolved to suit the amount of force the planet exerts upon is. The advent of space travel and weightlessness has proved how important gravity is to our ability to function. Without gravity our bones lose density and muscles atrophy.

Then we move on to air.

Most of our atmosphere, what we breathe, is nitrogen, with twenty-three percent oxygen and a bunch of other gases in smaller quantities, including carbon dioxide. It also has a level of density. There’s more of it at lower altitude (see gravity). See what happens to mountain climbers if they climb before becoming acclimatised. Their bodies can’t cope. And if that mixture of gases changes past a certain level of tolerance, then what?

Then there’s temperature.

Humans exist in an apparently wide range of climates, providing they can find protection from the elements. But the range is actually not that wide in the scheme of things. This article in New Scientist speculates that global warming of only about 11° would render many places on our own planet ‘unliveable’.

The last factor is light.

Earth orbits a G class star which emits light towards the red end of the spectrum. We’re used to seeing colours in that light. If we lived on a world orbiting a cooler star with redder light, or a brighter star with more bluish light, we’d see colours differently.

Humans are adaptable. That’s why the species has been so successful. But even so, we’ve only ever had to adapt to the extremes of one planet. If humans are to venture to other planets I believe we will have two choices; terraform the planet into another Earth or modify the settlers to cope with the conditions. That would mean physically very different races of humanity occupying different planets. And here again, SF can offer plenty of examples. One that springs to mind is Moon and McCaffrey’s joint effort, Sassinak, where members of the Star Fleet have different body characteristics, depending on which planet they come from.

I admit I don’t take that route in my own writing. I simply assume all planets are earthlike, with only small variations in light, heat, time and gravity. I reckon I’m in pretty good company. Come on SF fans and writers, what do you do, what do you prefer?

An unforgettable milestone in the journey of life

I woke this morning to the news that Neil Armstrong had passed away.

To me, that means two things; the end of an era and that unenviable feeling of being old. The things I’ve seen, the things that are a part of the parade of my life. On Twitter I learned a friend’s husband had been born just before that day in 1969; on Facebook another friend talked about reading a book about 9/11 and mentioned that there are teenagers around who were babies when the twin towers came down. So true. Milestones in the wheel of life. And sure, there are days, like JFK’s death, 9/11, the Japanese earthquake, Chernobyl, that are etched into my brain with acid. But the ones I look back on with pleasure and pride are the space days.

I was 18 when Apollo 11 left for the moon, in my second year of a BA degree in history. Like many of my colleagues, I stayed home to watch history being made. The whole western world quivered with excitement. President Kennedy’s goal of a man on the moon within a decade was about to be fulfilled. We’d seen the dark side of the moon from Apollo 10 (and the Russian probes, but we won’t go there). And now it was all about to happen. You’ve all seen the pictures as the three men in their bulky suits took their last walk to the tiny, tiny module on the top of the Saturn V rocket. So did we, on CRT TVs.

Now was the day, morning in Perth, Australia, and I sat on the edge of my seat in the lounge room, eyes glued on the TV while on the other side of Australia the signals came in to Parkes. We never knew, of course, that Armstrong had taken over landing the module himself, looking for a flat piece of Moon. Never knew he had 30 seconds of fuel left. That came out later. I peered at grainy black-and-white footage. First, the lander’s leg resolved itself and then you could just make out the ladder. Then a boot appeared and Armstrong eased his body down onto an unknown surface and uttered his famous words, ‘that’s one small step for mpicture of Apollo 13 posteran, one giant leap for mankind’. Even then I wondered how long he’d been rehearsing; and who had written it for him. Here’s the footage

The next few days went by in a blur of extra-terrestrial shots of footprints on an ancient landscape, attempts to raise a US flag fitted with an arm because there was no wind, the famous photo of the moon reflected in a visor. Buzz Aldrin and Neil Armstrong cavorted like a couple of kids in the weak gravity, while Collins stayed up there in the capsule. I held my breath on that final day when they blasted off to dock with the capsule and cheered when they splashed down in the Pacific.

It was years later before we all began to realise how dangerous the whole thing had been. These men were pawns in a race with the USSR – which had its own pawns, of course. NASA took a lot of risks and I’ll bet Mission Control had its fingers crossed many a time. What happened on Apollo 13 is a case in point. If you don’t know, go see the excellent movie of the same name, starring Tom Hanks. So the USA won the race. But interest waned quickly; the last manned flight, Apollo 17, was in 1972 and we don’t look like going back any time soon.

But Neil Armstrong’s name is in the history books forever. A brave but humble man who stood on the edge of eternity.

Is a ‘Star Wars’ type galaxy starting to look likely?

Remember that scene in ‘Star Wars: A New Hope‘ when Luke and Obi Wan go into the Mos Eisley cantina? The place was full of aliens. Leaning on the bar, arguing, drinking various foaming substances and playing cool, swing music. If you’ve any sort of interest in science, you’d be like me and go directly into ‘go along for the ride’ mode. It just isn’t probable.

But wait a minute. Just the other day we were told that our very own Milky Way could contain up to 2 billion (yes, billion with a ‘b’) ‘earthlike planets’. Gosh. Two billion planets that could potentially support life like us. http://www.dailygalaxy.com/my_weblog/2011/12/the-milky-ways-two-billion-earthlike-planets-an-update.html

Wait a moment, though. What does ‘earthlike’ mean in this context? The report comes from Kepler’s search for planets orbiting planets like our sun and in the ‘Goldilocks’ zone. Which means the planet is ‘not too hot for liquid water and not too cold’. Kepler can’t actually see any of these planets, their presence is surmised from periodic dimming of the sun’s light as something passes in front of it and from slight perturbations in the sun’s orbit. But scientists can calculate the likely size of the body. For instance, Kepler 22-B is estimated at 2.4 times the size of Earth.

But there’s much more to life on Earth than liquid water and reasonable temperature. The article goes on to quote from “Rare Earth”, a book by Peter Ward and Donald Brownlee, which discusses in detail what would be needed to define a planet as an ‘earth analog’. Some of the things they list don’t readily spring to mind, such as a giant like Jupiter acting as a mine sweeper to reduce the amount of debris penetrating to habitable zones to pose a threat to life. We also need that molten metal core inside the Earth to generate a magnetic field which protects us from harmful cosmic rays. Then we need a breathable atmosphere, a year length not too much different from our own, and gravity at least 80% of our own. (Less than that and the planet wouldn’t hold atmosphere) I don’t think I’d like to live on a planet 2.4 times the size of Earth. It would be pretty hard to move around.

We just don’t know enough about any of these planets to know if they’re really ‘earthlike’. The point is made that both Venus and Earth are in the habitable zone around our sun and they are much the same size. But we won’t be setting up a colony on Venus any time soon.

Yes, but that’s humans. Getting back to the cantina scene, we are presented with a number of alien species, all presumably capable of space flight. So what about other life forms on these earthlike planets? Sure, that’s possible – but then we come up against the famous Drake equation (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Drake_equation), which considers variables such as technology and the life of civilisations.

Mind you, Kepler’s discoveries are a breakthrough from the time not too many decades ago (maybe only two) when scientists could do no better than to say that our sun was nothing special so other stars would quite probably have planets. The Drake equation dates back to those times. This is such an exciting time to be interested in the universe. I keep getting this feeling that space travel as written in science fiction might not be all that far away. Soon, it seems, we’ll have places to visit, too.

I’m not too sure I’ll be running auditions for a new cantina scene, though.

Star Wars Obsession

Picture of snowspeeder modelReading somebody’s blog recently I was reminded about my own obsession with the Star Wars universe early in the life of the series. SW and The Empire Strikes Back didn’t have the benefit of digital enhancement. The special effects guys made their props in the old fashioned way – with models and blue-screen photography. The scenes with the running Taun-tauns on Hoth were painstakingly filmed, screen by laborious screen, using stop-motion animation. (Think Wallace and Gromit), while all that amazing hardware – Luke’s landspeeder, the sandcrawler, the magnificent fleet of Star Destroyers and the wonderful ‘Executor’ were all just little models hanging in a studio, to be brought to life by these wonderful craftsmen.

One offshoot of all this model making was, of course, the licensing of plastic model kit manufacturers such as Mattel to produce models for us afficionados to build. And build them I did, enhancing the stock models all the way. I built everything. Star destroyer, AT-AT (with tiny Luke running along beside with his grenade), X-wing, Y-wing, A-wing, B-wing, TIE fighter, Slave 1, the Imperial speeder bike…

As I built more and more, lovingly detailed to match what I saw in the movies, I started to want to build dioramas – small scenes from the movie, frozen in the act. Hence the AT-AT with Luke.

The picture up there is my piece de resistance and (apart from a model of DV himself) the only one I still have in my possession.

This is the crashed snowspeeder scene from TESB, the unseen AT-AT approaching from off stage. But this is no out-of-the-box snowspeeder. Well – it is. But I ditched the crummy pilot figures and substituted figures from a kit for a WW2 German troop carrier, suitably modified with helmets, webbing over their orange jumpsuits and even a little light sabre. The speeder’s cockpit was taken from a 33: kit for a Phantom jet fighter, which I could modify so the pilots were back to back. I also detailed the visible parts of the machine’s engine.

I think the snowspeeder kit cost $15. As I built it? Including the cost of the troop carrier and Phantom kits, more like $100.

Do you have any obessions you’d like to share?

Planet-hopping might not be so silly

Stars in Orion's beltMy science fiction book The Iron Admiral: Conspiracy includes a certain amount of planet-hopping. In fact, all my SF does. Now, I know that there will be some sneering and lip-curling over this. But don’t be in too much of a hurry to point a derisive finger.

Come with me on a cosmic journey. We’ll start here, on dear old Mother Earth, the only planet we know a huge amount about. Journey back in time, four hundred years… The world was beginning to open up. Intrepid explorers travelled to the other side of the Earth in search of trade and riches. Dutch merchant ships sailed from Amsterdam to what is now Jakarta in Indonesia to trade in spices. At the turn of the 17th century, they sailed down the west coast of Africa, re-provisioned at Table Bay and then set off past Madagascar and across the Indian Ocean up to Java. Makes sense, really, if you look at the journey on a map; down to the tip of Africa, then up at an angle to Indonesia. The journey took a year, sometimes as much as eighteen months if the winds were poor or the storms struck hard.

Then in 1610 Henrik Brouwer did something completely counter-intuitive and sailed south from Table Bay. Makes no sense, does it? Well, yes it does. The Earth is not a 2D Mercator’s projection on a tabletop, it’s a spheroid. The distance around the equator is greater than the distance around the lines we call ‘latitude’ to the north and south. Brouwer took advantage of that fact to shorten the distance he had to travel east and had the bonus of the reliable winds of the ‘roaring forties’ to push his ships along. All he had to do was remember to turn left when he reached the longitude for the Sunda Strait, sail up the coast of Western Australia and he was home. Taking this route shortened the journey by two thousand miles and more than halved the duration. The route was not without its dangers – as you’ll find in my book ‘To Die a Dry Death’ – but that’s another story.

Over the years, sea travel became faster and more reliable. Steam and then diesel replaced sail. When my family migrated to Australia from Amsterdam the sea journey took about a month. Apart from the improved mode of transport, the ship also avoided the long journey around the Cape of Good Hope by going through a short cut – the Suez Canal.

Eventually, the obstacles forced upon us by oceans and continents were removed, too, with the advent of air travel. These days you can get on a jet at Schiphol in Amsterdam and get off twenty four hours laterat Perth International Airport. With airliners like the beautiful and now-departed Concord, you could do the journey in half the time. So in four hundred years we have shortened a journey that took about a year – let’s say 350 days – to one that routinely takes 1 day or (with the right aircraft) an awful lot less. Wow.

Still with me? Trust me, it’s all relevant to space travel. Imagine what reaction a person would have received if, in 1600, she’d said that in four hundred years, we’d be able to travel from Amsterdam to that southern continent we didn’t know anything about, in less than a day.

Yes, but that’s just the Earth, I hear you say. We’re talking inter-stellar distances. For Pete’s sake, the nearest star system from ours is over 4 light years away. Very true. We have no way of spanning these vast distances in anybody’s lifetime. Regardless, the notion of ‘hyperspace’ in science fiction to allow for the possibility of space travel has been around for a long time. I don’t think I ever saw an explanation of hyperspace – just that the ship entered another dimension, if you will, travelling externally to our normal, 3D + time. But hey ho; never let the facts get in the way of a good story. The Grand Master, Isaac Asimov, did rather a lot of planet-hopping. Have a look at his ‘Foundation’ series. Many of the more modern writers like Mc Devitt and Moon have FTL (faster than light) travel but show it as still a very time-consuming business with journeys taking weeks or months..

I don’t believe that restriction is cast in concrete. Even Mc Devitt in his book ‘A Talent for War’ postulated a quantum drive, where a ship moves from one place to another instantaneously. We don’t hear so much about worm holes these days, but they would also allow for an instantaneous transfer.

I refer to my version of hyperspace as ‘shift space’. I’ve done that deliberately because in my universe the ships use the geometry of extra dimensions to get around. Ships ‘shift’ to another dimension for the duration of a journey. It’s pretty much accepted that our 3D notion of the universe is just a perception, that there are many other dimensions we are not equipped to see. Such an understanding certainly helps to explain the apparent complexities of quantum physics and the anomalous behaviour of sub-atomic particles. Way back in the 1980’s Carl Sagan in his wonderful TV series ‘Cosmos’ showed us a tesseract  (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tesseract), a four-dimensional object portrayed as best we could in a 3D world. To understand what you’re looking at, think about a standard, 2D drawing of a cube. According to mathematics, there are many, many more than four dimensions out there, not to mention parallel universes. The biggest limitation imposed upon us in reaching a real understanding of things like this is that we are constrained by our own world view and our ability to perceive. As far back as 1884 E.A. Abbott in his book ‘Flatland’ (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Flatland) described the problems of seeing three dimensions in a 2D world. We are faced with the same thing, on a 3D scale, if we attempt to visualise four, five or six dimensions. Or many, many more.

However, I can give you some sort of idea of where I’m coming from. Take a piece of A4 paper. Let’s label two diagonally opposite corners as A and B. Starting from B, we can reach A by going straight up one side then along the top to A. Hang on, you say, wouldn’t you just go across the diagonal, thereby reducing the distance and time taken? Sure you would. Now curl the paper over into a cylinder. All you have to do to get from B to A is move along a straight line. The length of the line will depend on how you make the roll (short edges together or long edges together).

geometric shapes

Now take point A in one hand and point B in the other and bring them together so they meet. Getting from B to A in this instance is like walking from one room into another.

That’s my notion of ‘shift drive’. I have included some duration in the journey in the book because I found it useful. Don’t ask me how the shift drive (the engine that makes it possible to take advantage of the geometry) works. I’m speculating a fusion drive to do something or other. When I work it out, I’ll let you know.

********

Since I wrote this article, I’ve come across the Sabre engine, which can operate in both atmosphere and vacuum, and can travel at 5 times the speed of sound. Such an aircraft could make the trip from Sydney to London in 4 hours. That’s four (4) hours. http://www.reactionengines.co.uk/sabre.html So a trip from Amsterdam to Perth would probably be a little bit less. Say 3.5 hours? So we’ve come down from 350 days, to 1 month, to 1 day, to 3.5 hours. Rams the point home, doesn’t it?

27 Jan 2013 And now there’s this. http://www.space.com/19416-hypersonic-spaceliner-fly-passengers.html. A spaceliner which will do the trip in 90 minutes!!! Wow. Just wow.