Monday, May 31, 2010

Statecraft 101

"Violence is the last refuge of the incompetent."

-- Salvor Hardin

Memorial Day, 2010

Iraq: 4400 US war dead

Afghanistan: 1087 US war dead

Thursday, May 27, 2010

Prison Planets

Meta Protest Sign: 'Build Prisons on the Moon'

A rather surprising but long established trope in science fiction is the prison planet, which for purposes of this discussion means any prison in space.

There are two characteristic types of prison planets. One, probably the predominant form of this trope, is celestial Supermax, the sort of place that makes old time Alcatraz look like community service. If swimming a few hundred meters of San Francisco Bay is tough, try swimming a few hundred thousand or million km of vacuum. Only the baddest of the bad get sent to this prison planet, albeit for values of 'baddest' that probably include political dissidents and the like.

In an interesting development of the theme, Salusa Secundus in the Dune 'verse also serves as a Dirty Dozen style recruiting center, on the argument that the baddest of the bad make pretty good troops. From the mercifully little I know about California prison gangs I would not trust those guys to have my back. But in the rather baroque worlds of Dune it fits, and in historical perspective is no stranger than Ottoman recruiting, which worked pretty well for a few hundred years.

The second type of prison planet is not for the baddest of the bad, but mere troublemakers - the sort of riffraff, for example, who can't make it past the second syllable of 'barbeque,' and play football (meaning football, not that other game) by peculiar rules that may not actually exist. A civilized society would naturally wish to rid itself of such people, but be reluctant to hang the lot, especially when they include a notable proportion of attractive females.

Both forms of prison planet have historical prototypes. Devil's Island is a famous instance of the first type, the Supermax colony. The second type, riffraff colonization, was used with success in the early modern era to settle the southeastern portion of one terrestrial continent - some of my ancestors were among the colonists, though my people learned how to pronounce 'barbeque,' and correctly use it for beef steaks, not decapod crustaceans. Historical accounts indicate that the same form of penal colonization was also employed elsewhere, with some success.

There has been occasional discussion of prison planets at SFConsim-l, mainly of the Supermax type, with the consensus being that it is not really a very practical solution. The problem, in a nutshell, is that you can't just dump off the baddest of the bad and ignore them. You still need all the security measures of a terrestrial supermax prison, and you have to maintain it at the far end of a supply line. Recruiting guards is difficult when the guards will themselves be stuck on the prison planet for months at a time. And this is not really an assignment for 'trusties.'

Prison colonies for mere riffraff are a better prospect, at least in settings with earthlike planets. The key (so to speak!) is that security need not be absolute. You don't really care if the occasional petty thief slips aboard an outgoing shuttle. Most won't even try - they'll be drunk, or involved with one of those winsome female prisoners, or busy protecting their farms from being overrun by bunny rabbits.

Thus the shuttle port needs only a 'minimum security' operation. Indeed, you can plausibly staff it with trusties, who enjoy the advantage of first dibs on imports, and probably live better than they did before they were sentenced there. Operating costs are therefore much lower, and may amount to little more than the cost of transportation. This will presumably be expensive, but pretty cheap relative to maintaining a prisoner for a life sentence even under minimum security conditions.

As a further advantage, considerable historical evidence suggests that prison worlds of this type can produce pretty good soldiers - perhaps not Imperial Sardaukar, but guys you'd rather have on your side than the other side.

And, finally, who knows - the poor devils might end up rehabilitating themselves, more or less.

Sydney Bridge and Opera House

The image at top, of a rather meta protest, comes from a blog mainly about religion. You were warned. (The blogger's name is sheerest coincidence.)

Monday, May 24, 2010

A Nutritious Supernova

Crab Nebula
A headline in the Los Angeles Times last Friday caught my eye: 'Supernova Rich in Calcium.'

Gigantic explosions in space are always in order for this blog, but it was the wording of that particular headline that got my attention. At least here in 'Murrica, the phrase 'rich in calcium' is practically synonymous with milk, in a way that merely 'calcium rich' would not be. Indeed, the LAT's health blogger also saw the headline, and was on the case.

I didn't blog it at the time because I tend to wait for confirmation of astronomy news from Sky & Telescope, the general media being rather iffy when it comes to matters extraterrestrial. And indeed the S&T website duly reports not one but two recent, unusual supernovae. Both, as it happens, were rich in calcium, one of them exceptionally so. They were also both something of a fizzle, as supernovae go. (Bummer!)

All the same, the mental image of exploding milk is wonderfully vivid, and sort of gives a whole new meaning to 'Milky Way.'

Image: The Crab Nebula supernova was not calcium-fortified that I know of, but it sure left a spectacular aftermath.

Related posts: I previously looked at other supernovae, recent and prospective, the (relatively) imminent demise of Betelgeuse, and the untimely end of a couple of mere exoplanets.

Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Worlds Enough and Time

Thread drift can be rather magical, and among the commenters here it frequently is. Thus the last discussion thread revisiting space fighters also touched, just lightly, on the special magic of time, with commenter ushumgal tossing a pebble 40,000 years into the future and wondering what the ripples would be like.

What can we say about the world(s) of the year 42,010? We can guess, with fair confidence, that there won't be militaries that speak in acronyms and wear uniforms with shoulderboards and chest salad. The languages they use will surely not be comprehensible to us, even if derived from English.

As ushumgal points out, even the food they eat may be unrecognizable, quite apart from fancy genetic engineering and the like. Most of our domestic animals and plants are already far removed from their ancestral forms domesticated just a few thousand years ago. In the case of corn (maize, to some of you), Mesoamericans worked it over so thoroughly that its wild progenitor remains uncertain.

For that matter, our descendents could well be unrecognizable: supplanted by our creations, or uploaded into some data cloud, or at least gene modded to a fare thee well. For this discussion I'll set aside transhumanism, because I don't see how it can be discussed in any but the vaguest terms. I'm a bit doubtful that we would choose that path in any case, because most of our joys (and sorrows) - as well as such minor pleasures as a good meal - are part of our inheritance from the primate house, and not things we will wish to relinquish.

So let us merely roll 40,000 years around in our heads, considered as a historical time scale.(Disclaimer: I've heard of Warhammer 40K, of course, but don't know the first thing about it.) The same temporal distance in the other direction takes us to the Upper Paleolithic, and the earliest people to leave tangible markers of their humanity. The first spoken sentence, and perhaps the first song, may at a guess date back two or three times as far, but we have no direct way to judge.

The span of recorded history is much shorter. I have not been able to determine what is the first attested historical event, or when, but the record seems to trail off a bit less than 5000 years ago. Thus we are looking at a period some eight times longer; to people of the year 40,000, we stand very near the Dawn of History. A catastrophic dark age or two, or perhaps just a really bad disk crash, could retrospectively wipe us out, or at least leave archeologists scratching their heads over the site of the British Museum.

Even if the record is fully preserved they mostly won't spend much time thinking about us. Perception of the past tends to be logarithmic. A fair amount of third millennium BCE history is known, but about all we generally remember is the Pyramids. They might remember our own era, perhaps as the beginning of space travel. Or it may all blur together: pyramids, gunpowder, and the first interstellar colony, all roughly contemporary developments at the start of recorded history.

On the other hand, the past is in some ways foreshortened. The history of reflective thought goes back some 2500 years, half the length of recorded history. We still engage intellectually with Confucius and Plato, and morally with the Buddha and the prophetic books of the Hebrew scripture. In this rather sanguinary group we examine the battles of Alexander, and the strategies of Sun Tzu.

Even on the level of popular soap opera we still rubberneck at the Julio-Claudian train wreck, and its Bollywood and Hong Kong counterparts. What is the sell-by date for Nero and Messalina? They may remain vivid, while (say) the whole period from 15,000 to 30,000 falls into the memory hole, too far back to feel relevant and not colorful enough to muscle aside Rome or the Three Kingdoms.

So ... how do you fill 40,000 years of history? And when at last you reach the future present, what do you serve for dinner? Discuss.

Related posts: Last year I reviewed Psychohistorical Crisis, by Donald Kingsbury, which among other things considers the challenges of remembering a long historical past. And in the Tough Guide to the Known Galaxy I dealt with really long time periods.

Image note: The Lascaux cave paintings are a mere 16,000 years old, or thereabouts.

Thursday, May 13, 2010

Space Fighters, Reconsidered?

The Universe is filled with sights of awe and wonder, but what we really want to do - at least for story purposes - is encounter the ships of some remarkable civilization, and blow them up. Or at least zap them to a fare thee well.

Hollywood's favorite implement for this purpose is the space fighter, for the very good meta reason that the core audience relates more to studly/babelicious fighter jocks than middle aged starship commanders. Unfortunately, as readers of this blog (especially the thread that refuses to die) and Atomic Rockets know, it is very hard to justify single- or two-seat 'fighter' types in deep space combat under Realistic [TM] constraints of physics and technology.

But in fact under these constraints it is difficult to model any form of deep space combat that justifies the expenditure of electrons to write it, much less expensive CGI to film it. The vastness and emptiness of the battlefield push inexorably toward a Lanchesterian engagement at Stupendous Range, featuring all the senseless destruction of war and none of the excitement. A commenter noted that it is a fight no one will show up for. In real life this would be a feature, not a bug, but for our purpose it's a bug and we want to zap it.

As regular readers here know, a solution that I have been looking more and more at involves rethinking where combat happens, and under what circumstances. People fight over things of value, either natural bodies with Valuable Space Stuff, or human infrastructure. These will tend to be concentrated in certain areas, such as the orbital space of planets and large moons.

Such regions might have multiple large habs and stations, with hundreds or thousands of smaller spacecraft forming constellations around them. Travel times in these regions are typically hours to days, not the weeks and months of deep space travel.

A second consideration is that once you have true space politics, the 'natural' political unit is the individual station or hab. Its inhabitants are bound together by shared life support, while the hab itself can change orbit, even perhaps head off across deep space to some other region.

So, instead of the traditional rocketpunk era scenarios, say Mars against Venus, a conflict might break out between two hab in Mars orbital space, while other habs remain neutral. 'Clutter' in space is a very relative thing - we are still talking about thousands of kilometers, but this is a far more complex operating environment than the empty vastness in which must discussion of space combat takes place.

Both the physical and political environments are cluttered. Space taxis or inter-orbit shuttles will keep up a steady flow of traffic: between hostile and neutral stations, and between neutral and friendly stations. 'Everyone sees everything' is no longer so simple, because you don't see who or what might be aboard.

The first class of military craft this environment invites is not space fighters, but a type for which there is no obvious name, although the bland 'patrol craft' and the perhaps overly nautical 'corvette' convey something of the idea. In its basic form it is simply a space taxi carrying a boarding and inspection team, and some armament to encourage compliance.

Such craft are the basis of space control, but they are not ideal platforms if shooting breaks out. They have to be large enough for a proper cabin, with airlock and perhaps a holding cell for detainees. Bulk it up with armament and it becomes a decent sized vehicle, roughly the size of a transport plane.

For actual shooting we want something more compact and frankly cheaper, at least in human if not monetary terms. Often it need not be manned, and indeed whenever practical you'll operate it under robotic or remote control, cheaper operationally and much cheaper in 'we deeply regret' letters to families. But in particularly critical situations the rules of engagement will be too ambiguous to be trusted to robotics (short of 'true' high level AI, which currently is magitech).

This does still leave the (preferred) option of remote piloting. In 'cluttered' space, ranges will generally be less than a light second, often much less, so light lag is not a real problem. On the other hand, the closer you get, the better the chance of communications interference. In the Vastness of Space, the prospects of jamming a tightbeam are close to nil. But in a close-in confrontation, something as simple as a puff of opaque smoke might block a tightbeam for a few critical seconds.

I'm not quite sure, to be honest, how this bit plays out, and Step Two should probably be a bit more explicit. But in general, the more un-pristine the environment, the more human level intelligence has to be on the spot, not acting from a distance, whether the spatial distance of remotes or the temporal distance of robotics.

The basic fighter concept that emerges from this line of thought could be remarkably low tech. The cockpit might resemble the EVA pods in 2001; we are looking at one day habitability. Propulsion is probably chemfuel, with plenty of short term oompf and enough delta v for the sorts of missions we are undertaking.

Laser armament will also be chemfuel powered, whether a chemical laser or plain old turbogenerator; I will leave that issue to the laser geeks among us. For kinetics, a couple of target seekers with solid boosters to kick them on their way, much like 'katies' in Ad Astra's AV:T. And for the missions I have in mind, there may even be a place for a plain old gun.

Configurations may depend on particular tactical requirements, and design doctrine. If you need to move quickly, is it better to pivot and go, with a single main thruster, or perhaps have multiple gimballed thrusters so you can kick yourself laterally? This latter approach is often proposed; in the traditional assumption framework it is questionable, but here we are in a very different operating environment.

On the whole, I imagine that the graphics crowd and Hollywood could work with these craft.

They are not exactly 'fighters' in the sense analogous to the kind von Richtoven flew. At least in the three original Star Wars movies, none of the fighter missions shown could not have been done just or well or better by automated or remote-piloted craft. (Okay, I'm ignoring the part about just use the Force.)

If what you really want is Midway in SPAAACE !!! then you have read this far in vain. In environments where there is no one on the game board but Your Side and Their Side, there is no excuse to monkey around with this stuff - just zap away with your biggest mirror or let fly with your baddest kinetics. Or if you are fighting a racial war of extermination, just exterminate: no need to risk your race's precious bodily fluids aboard space fighters.

Space fighters, like the patrol craft / corvettes they often escort, are in fact not primarily weapons of destruction. They are weapons of coercion. If they open fire, things have already gone pear shaped, and you're in a scramble to keep them from getting entirely out of hand.

But isn't that pretty much always the case, anyway?

Related post: My original take from the early days of this blog, Space Fighters, Not.

Update: Here is the space fighters commentary at Atomic Rockets, which represents the current informed consensus, at least in one corner of geekdom. (The link in the post also now points there, not just at the main page.)

The image was swiped from a page at

Saturday, May 8, 2010

'The Wealth of Constellations' ...

... is the wonderfully evocative title of a new article at Washington Monthly, a center left public policy magazine. The subject is the Obama administration's move to 'privatize' orbit lift, particularly human orbit lift, corollary to abandoning the 'Constellation' program for a return to the Moon by 2020, a program that was instead well on trajectory to a truly spectacular boondoggle. The article's author, Charles Homans, duly beats up on the Bush administration, so I don't have to.

He also has fun with the ideological twists of space politics, but I think he overstates them, as 'privatization' is overstated. US boosters and spacecraft have always been designed and built by private firms under government contract, and nothing is going to change about that.

What I believe is really going on is a pragmatic rebooting of engineering cultures. NASA's human spaceflight shop took form in the Apollo years, and as Homan notes, it operated in a budget free environment. Engineers were tasked with an assignment - going to the Moon - and built what they needed to do it, with cost no object. It fostered a tendency to design to the max, which worked so long as the money flowed.

Once the money quit flowing, US human spaceflight development fell into a notorious cycle of designs that get compromised to save money, perform below expectations because they were compromised, thus end up costing more anyway, and either limp along or get canceled.

It isn't entirely bleak. Thee ISS suffered all these design ills, and has ended up much more expensive and much less capable than when first envisioned, yet it is not limping along, but instead soaring along rather splendidly. When it comes to a Shuttle replacement, though, we can't afford that cycle. (Well, 'we' for a good part of my readership.)

In fact, come to think of it, the NASA cycle was probably inevitable, not pathological. Those things happen on a smaller scale in any shop pushing engineering limits: failed and abandoned projects litter the boneyard.

But when it comes to basic orbital access, we can't afford that cycle and don't need to, at least not on remotely that scale, because the mission requirement is basic. The basic orbital ferry mission is go up to the ISS, dock, and come back safely. The ferry doesn't need to operate independently for more than a day, so life support can be basic and habitability minimal, spam in a can airline type seats. Even the docking collar can be simplified, because the ferry can be snagged by a Canadarm and eased into place.

James Oberg (I almost wrote 'Oberth') goes into all this in some depth. But I think he gets a bit out of his depth about the PR and politics of failure tolerance. Spectacular aborts, say the booster exploding on ascent, will cause a media and Congressional hoodoo even if the crew ends up safely in the drink. (After which I for one would certainly want a drink.) The ensuing public uproar is basic primate house behavior in its characteristic 'Murrican form, and entirely predictable, so it should be anticipated in advance.

The real point, though, is that designing a practical, safe, (relatively) cheap orbital ferry calls for a very different engineering approach than pushing the frontier does. So it makes sense to task it to a different shop. And that, I think, is what is really going on with the new policy. Nothing more, nothing less.

At the end of 'The Wealth of Constellations,' Homans comes down against human spaceflight, though in a perfunctory way as though his heart were not really in it. But as so often, he thoroughly misunderstands human spaceflight and its short and mid-term goals and objectives. He plays the standard rag on the small amount of 'science' accomplished aboard the ISS, which is about like asking how much 'science' was done by the X-15.

Science will, in due time, be done by deep space craft that permit us to examine other worlds close up, directly and interactively, not with minutes of light lag. The ISS is about learning to operate a class of scientific instruments.

Whether or not they also get used for tourism, mining, or primate house misconduct is another matter, not bearing on their value to science.

The image of the ISS, from Astronomy Picture of the Day, is nicely entitled 'A Large Space Station Over Earth.'

Bonus Science News: With proviso that science reporting in the general mass media is not known for understatement, now they are saying that our ancestors of fully modern human type did interbreed with Neanderthals, after all.

Or at least some of us did. Apparently Europeans and east Asians have Neanderthal blood, to use the old fashioned expression, while Africans do not.

Sunday, May 2, 2010

Ice Station Omega

Antarctic Station

Antarctic exploration gets little attention in warmer climes, but it is the nearest human experience to deep space travel, isolated in a wondrous but hostile environment for a period of months. Commenter 'Thucydides' tipped me off to this coolific photo essay of Antarctic stations in Wired.

(When I was in high school there was a car in the neighborhood with an Antarctica license plate. I never learned the story, but it looked 'real,' with an expedition number, and was presumably handed out to those who took part.)

My prior mental image of Antarctic habitation, it turns out, was entirely wrong. I vaguely pictured semi-underground (or under-ice) facilities, an image I probably got from 50s or 60s vintage Arctic operations, or perhaps from The Thing. Instead they are on stilts, so snowdrifts won't pile up around them. Some can be jacked up to higher levels as needed.

Belgium's Princess Elizabeth station seems to have rocketed to Antarctica straight from the future of 1957. The Franco-Italian Concordia station, in contrast, looks the most like space hardware, landed and converted into a station. Appropriately, the European Space Agency designed much of the technology, and is studying the effects of living there.

Germany's Neumeyer III might be the stranded superstructure of a cruise ship, and South Africa's Sanae IV - first of the modern generation of Antarctic bases - looks like enormous picnic ice coolers, which seems sort of backwards. The US Amundsen-Scott station is architecturally bland, but that aurora is magnificent.

Then there's Britain's Halley VI:

'Imperial Walker'

An early generation design for an Imperial walker?