Posts Tagged ‘Alpha Centauri’

Stephen Hawking on Why We Need to Colonise Space

September 6, 2017

Next Monday evening, 11th September 2017, on BBC 2 at 9 pm, Professor Stephen Hawking will present a programme arguing that humanity needs to colonise another world. Entitled The Search for a New Earth, the blurb for the programme on page 72 of the Radio Times runs

Physicist Stephen Hawking thinks the human species will have to populate a new planet within 100 years if it is to survive, with climate change, pollution, deforestation, pandemics and population growth making life on Earth increasingly precarious. In this programme he examines whether humans could relocate to other planets, travelling the globe to meet scientists, technologists and engineers working on the means and method.

There’s more information about the programme on page 71. This passage states that

Stephen Hawking is convinced that, if we are not to risk annihilation, humans need to leave Earth within the next 100 years and make a new home on another planet.

It sounds like sci-fi, but a planet has already been discovered “in our neighbourhood” that’s a contender: Proxima B is in the Goldilocks Zone (the narrow orbit where conditions are perfect to sustain human life), but we’d need a massive technological feat just to get us there.

Astrophysicist Danielle George and Hawking protégé Christophe Galfard explore the practicality of where and how e could create a human colony in space.

There’s also a single page feature about the programme in the Radio Times on page 31, which includes Danielle George’s replies to the following questions

Do we really need to leave Earth?

What does a new planet need to be human-friendly?

How many people will it take to set up a colony?

Stephen Hawking believes Proxima B may be the most suitable planet. Why?

How far away is Proxima B?

How long would it take to travel 4.2 light years?

Could we fit 20 years’ worth of astronaut food into a spaceship?

Dow we have the right to take over another planet?

Do you think there is the will to make this happen?

Regarding the amount of time required to journey to Proxima B, George states that using current chemical rockets it would take 250,000 years. But there is a project at Caliphornia where they are experimenting with propelling a nano probe the size of a mobile phone sim card using a laser beam. This may make it possible for such a probe to reach Proxima in 20 years.

That last sounds like a version of the old proposal to use space-based lasers to send a light sail to another star. One of the proposed missions was Starwisp, which would use solar sails to carry a 50 kilo instrument package to Alpha Centauri. The probe would reach a speed of 1/3 of the speed of light, and make the journey in something like 20 years.

The veteran hard SF writer, Larry Niven, also used the idea of laser-driven solar sails in his classic The Mote in God’s Eye. This is about the encounter between an expanding human galactic empire, and an alien race, the Moties. These are so called because their homeworld is a planet in a nebula dubbed Murchison’s Eye by humanity. The Moties are highly intelligent, but lack the Anderson Drive that has made it possible for humans to move out into the Galaxy. Instead, they have sent a vessel out on the centuries long voyage across interstellar in a ship using such a solar sail, powered by laser beam from their own system. It is the light from the laser beam which has given the Moties’ nebula its characteristic red colour.

As well as being super-intelligent, the Moties also possess between three and four arms, depending on their caste and function, and change sex throughout their life. Which makes me wonder whether the writers of the X-Files’ episode, ‘Gender Bender’, about a group of sex-changing aliens, who live an existence like the Amish had also drawn on the book for their inspiration. As well as the writers of Doctor Who when they decided that the Time Lords are also not restricted to remaining the same sex when they regenerate.


Torygraph Journo’s Book on Interstellar Travel Through Artificial Black Holes

August 10, 2017

The Iron Sun: Crossing the Universe through Black Holes, Adrian Berry (London: Jonathan Cape 1977).

No, not the Iron Sky, which was a Finnish Science Fiction film that came out a few years ago, in which the Nazis secretly colonized the Moon, and fight an interplanetary war with an America governed by a female president, who bears a certain similarity to Sarah Palin. This is the Iron Sun, a book in which Telegraph journalist Adrian Berry explains his theory that it should be possible to explore space using artificial Black Holes to travel faster than light. Berry was a Fellow of the Royal Astronomical Society, a Senior Member of the British Interplanetary Society, and a member of the National Space Institute of America. According to the potted biography on the back flap of the dust jacket, he also covered two of the Moon Landings from Cape Kennedy and Houston. Along with this book, he also wrote The Next Ten Thousand Years and The Great Leap.

The latter book was published in the 1990s, and is also about interstellar travel and exploration. It’s a good book, though marred by Berry’s Libertarian politics. Towards the end of the book, he devotes an entire chapter to argue for Von Hayek’s daft and destructive economic ideas. So did a number of other space and extreme technology groups at the time. The transhumanists, the crazy people, who want to transform themselves into cyborgs, explore the Galaxy, and ultimately achieve immortality by uploading themselves into computers, were also very much into Von Hayek and Libertarianism. I have a feeling that this has gone by the way now. A friend of mine, who was also into it, told me a year or so ago that the Austrian economist is rather passe now. One of the leaders of the movement has said that Hayekian economics was just something they were into at the time, and they’re now distancing themselves from him, so that his ideas aren’t synonymous with the movement as a whole.

In this book, after taking the reader through Einstein’s Theory of Relativity and explaining what Black Holes are, Berry then advances his book’s central idea. This is that humanity will be able to use a fleet of automated Buzzard ramjets as cosmic bulldozers to create an artificial Black Hole of a particular size one light year from Earth. The Buzzard ramjet was a type of spaceship devised in the 1970s. Instead of taking its fuel with it into space, like conventional rockets and spacecraft, the ramjet would scoop up the necessary hydrogen for its nuclear fusion engines from the surrounding interstellar medium, in the same way that a high-performance ram jet sucks in the air it needs to reach supersonic velocities from the Earth’s atmosphere. It was an immensely popular idea amongst space scientists, SF fans and advocates of the human colonization of space, as it appeared a practical way of creating a spacecraft that could reach the very high speeds approaching that of light needed to cross space to the nearest stars within a few years, or tens of years, rather than centuries and millennia.

Berry believed that strong electromagnetic fields could be used to collect and push the necessary hydrogen atom ahead of the spacecraft. Once in place, the hydrogen and other gaseous material would be forced together into a single mass, until it was so large that it collapsed under its own gravity, forming a Black Hole.

It was Carl Sagan, who first suggested the possibility of using Black Holes as cosmic subways to travel across the universe faster than the speed of light. Einstein, Rosen and other scientists hypothesized that the gravity inside Black Holes was so massive, that not only did it crush matter out of existence, but it also created a wormhole through space and time to, well, elsewhere. An object, including a spaceship, could enter a Black Hole to travel through the wormhole, to exit from a White Hole somewhere else in the universe, or even in a different universe altogether.

The Black Hole would be built a light year away, as this would be a safe but accessible distance. The construction ships would be automated as they would not be able to pull back once construction of the Black Hole was underway, and would be allowed to fall into it.

Berry admits there is one problem with his scheme: no-one knows how far away, nor in what direction, the resulting wormhole would extend. He therefore argues that the first astronauts to use the new wormhole would also have their own fleet of construction vessels, in order to build another Black Hole at their destination, which would create the White Hole needed for them to return to the Solar System. The process would take about forty years.

He explains the details of his proposal in a fictitious interview. There’s also an epilogue, and three appendices, in which he gives further information on Black Holes, including the navigable apertures created by Black Holes of varying sizes.

It says something for the optimism about the future of spaceflight in the 1970s that Berry considers that we should have the capability to do all this sometime around 2050. The 1970s were the decade when it seemed almost anything was possible after the Moon Landings, and astronomers and writers like Sir Patrick Moore seriously predicted that by now we’d have bases and colonies on the Moon and Mars, holidays in space, orbital habitats at the L5 points, as suggested by Gerald O’Neill, and would be gradually expanding into the rest of the Solar System.

If only that had happened!

Despite the formation of public groups, like the Mars Society and the Space Frontier Foundation, for the colonization of space, humans so far seem stuck in Low Earth Orbit. There have been plans over the past few years for crewed missions to return to the Moon, and to Mars, but these haven’t materialized. NASA is planning an expedition to the Red Planet in the 2030s, but I’m really not confident about that every happening. And if it’s a struggle for us to get to Mars, sixty or seventy years after the Moon Landings, it’s going to be impossible for us to build a Black Hole.

Part of the problem is the difficulty of building a viable Buzzard ramjet. After the idea was proposed, someone worked out that the interstellar medium was so rarified that the vehicle would need a ramscoop 3,000 miles long to collect all the gas it would need. I’m not sure if this makes it completely impossible – after all, firms like the Hanson Trust back in the 1980s tried selling themselves to the general public with commercials telling the world that they made enough plastic chairs to go round the Earth so many times. And it might be possible to develop superlight materials for the scoop so that it would not be impossibly heavy. Such a material would similar to the mylar suggested for the solar sails for the Starwisp mission. This is a suggested mission to send a 50 kilo instrument package to Alpha Centauri in a journey lasting thirty years or so. And the construction of a space elevator, which would have to be of a light material strong enough to take the weight of cable cars and carry them tens of thousands of mile into space out of the Earth’s gravity well seems to me to present even greater problems. But even if a ramscoop of that size isn’t impossible, it would be very, very difficult and extremely expensive.

Not all scientists are convinced that it should be possible to use wormholes in this manner anyway. Philip’s Astronomy Encyclopedia state that one particular type of Black Hole, rotating Kerr Black Holes, which don’t have the singularity that eventually destroys all the matter passing through it, ‘have fascinating implications for hypothetical space travel to other universes’. (‘Black Holes, p. 57). However, the entry for ‘Wormholes’ states that, although they’re predicted by Einstein, ‘such wormholes cannot exist in reality, since the occurrence of white holes is forbidden by the second law of thermodynamics.’ (p. 440). On the other hand, Russian physicists have shown that it’s possible to create a wormhole a few light years in extent, though this would take more energy than is currently available in the universe.

I hope that it may one day be possible to construct such wormhole subway routes through the cosmos, as suggested by Sagan. I also wonder if the book may also have influenced comic writer Pat Mills in the creation of the Black Hole and White Hole bypasses for Termight – Earth thousands of years in the future – in the Nemesis the Warlock Strip in 2000 AD. This was an artificial Black Hole and its White Hole counterpart, constructed by Earth’s engineers to provide instantaneous access to space. ‘Nemesis the Warlock’ appeared about 1979, and while it’s definitely Science Fantasy, Mills actually did some reading in science as research for the comic. He said in an interview nearly four decades ago that he shocked the comic’s management because he bought a whole stack of books on science and then invoiced the comic company for them as research. He was annoyed that the attitude to comics at the time was so low, that the idea of doing basic research for them was looked upon with horror. Ah, how things changed after Frank Bellamy and ‘Dan Dare’. Bellamy’s studio for Britain’s greatest space hero, with the exception of Judge Dredd, included a model maker and researchers. Unfortunately, this was all cut away as an unnecessary expense when the Eagle changed hands. Sales had fallen, and the comic was then making a loss. Hence the decision to cut down the number of staff in the studio. But it does show the initial commitment to quality of strip’s creators, and Dare and Bellamy’s superb artwork are still admired as one of the greatest pieces of British comic art and literature.

Ross Forster-Fraser on the Terran Trade Authority’s ‘Great Space Battles’

April 21, 2017

I’ve put up a series of videos this week about Stuart Cowley’s Spaceships 2000-2100, and the great space art on which it was based. The book was supposedly published by the Terran Trade Authority, a future international governmental organisation administering the world’s trade, particularly with other worlds. It was a ‘future history’ SF tale, about the spaceships that would take humanity first to the planets of our solar system, and from thence to the stars Alpha and Proxima Centauri and beyond. The illustrations in the book were taken from SF book covers, which were used by the writer, Stuart Cowley, as the basis for descriptions of these craft and their fictional histories.

Spacecraft 2000-2100 was one of series of similar books published by the fictional TTA. The others included Great Space Battles. In this clip I found on YouTube, Ross Forster-Fraser, another enthusiast for the books, talks about this book.

TTA Spacecraft 2000 – 2100: Videos, Spacecraft and Book Cover Art

April 19, 2017

I put up a post at the weekend about a video I’d found on YouTube, in which a fan of Stewart Cowley’s Spacecraft 2000-2100 had made a short CGI film as a tribute. The film was a promotional video for the book’s fictional Terran Trade Authority, the global governmental organisation that had overseen the construction of the spacecraft which had taken humanity to the planets, and from then on to the nearest stars, meeting friendly creatures from Alpha Centauri, and fighting a war against aliens from Proxima Centauri.

The book Spacecraft 2000-2100 was a ‘future history’, of the type that was quite common in SF from the 1950s to the 1970s, when scientists and science fiction writers were confident that it would only be a matter of decades, perhaps only a few years even, before humanity established colonies in space – orbital cities, bases and then colonies on the Moon and Mars. FTL – Faster Than Light travel would be invented, and humanity would go on into the Galaxy ‘to seek out new life forms and new civilisations’, in the words of the Classic Trek.

The spacecraft in the book all came from SF book covers by some of the great space artists of the ’70s – Chris Foss, Angus McKie, Peter Elson, Bob Layzell, Fred Gambino and Jim Burns, around which the author, Stewart Cowley, wove his story of invention and exploration. It’s one of my favourite space books. The spacecraft depicted and their settings had a strange, otherworldly, literally alien beauty, even when the scenes were of industry or simple rocket launches. After I found the first video, I found another. This one is rather more complete. It uses the same computer techniques to recreate the spacecraft, as well as a whole scenes from the book. The spacecraft race across alien landscapes, rise into the air, hover above vast future cities, or prepare to dock with huge space stations.

I also found this video by Scott Manley on YouTube, where he talks about the book. He found it amongst his father’s old things, which rather dates me. Along with some of the other facts he mentions, he talks about the picture of an alien spaceship, which was plagiarised a few years ago by another artist, who entered his version for the Turner Prize. Apparently, the book was also republished in 2005, but was not well-received. The future history had to be rewritten, and some of the pictures were replaced by computer art. There has, however, also been a Role-Playing Game created, which is set in the same universe as the book.

Here’s a few of the book covers, from which the art was taken. Top far left is by Angus McKie; top let is Tony Roberts, bottom left is Bob Layzell, while bottom right is by Peter Elson. Neither of the two bottom images appear in the book. Other pieces by them do appear, and these show Layzell’s and Elson’s style
This and other great pieces of SF art can be found in the book Sci-Fi Art: A Graphic History by Steve Holland (New York: HarperCollins 2009).

Animated Video Based on Terran Trade Authority Spacecraft

April 14, 2017

Looking through YouTube, I found that someone had made an animated video about the spacecraft depicted in Steward Cowley’s Spacecraft: 2000 to 2100 (London: Hamlyn 1978).

The book’s supposed to be a handbook of 21st century spacecraft, published by the Terran Trade Authority. In fact, it’s a collection of illustrations from SF book covers by the great space artists Angus McKie, Bob Layzell, Tony Roberts and others, which Cowley then described as real spacecraft. These were part of a ‘future history’ of human space exploration and colonisation which included humans travelling to encounter intelligent alien civilisations on Proxima and Alpha Centauri, and fighting a war with the Proximans. As well as Spacecraft 2000-2100, Cowley also wrote Great Space Battles, the Tourist’s Guide to Transylvania, based on Horror book covers, and Home Brain Surgery and Other Household Skills. The artwork is stunningly beautiful. Here are a few examples.

As with so many books on space written in the 1970s, it had a timeline of what we could expect in the coming decades, predictions which now seem hopelessly dated and optimistic. For example, the ‘key historical dates’ in Spacecraft: 2000 to 2100 are

1987 – Introduction of nuclear powered engines: ion and plasma systems.

1990 – Foundation of the World Community Research Council.

1998 – WCRC North African Space Research Centres now operational.

1999 – World Trade Authority formed to co-ordinate international commerce.

2004 – The first spacefreighter, Colonial I, enters service.

2005 – Work starts on Lunar Station.

2011 – Lunar Station operational.

2012 – Work starts on Mars Station.

2014 – Introduction of the McKinley Ion Ultradrive in Colonial II.

2015 – Martian Queen makes first commercial passenger flight to Mars.

2018 – First shipment of new alloys from Lunar industry.

2027 – Warp0 Generator perfected by Henri devas.

2036 – Manned survey ship makes contact with Alpha Centaurians.

2038 – Language barrier broken.

2039 – Trade & Technology Exchange Agreement signed with Alpha.

– World Trade Authority becomes Terran Trade Authority.

2041 – First orbital industrial centre off Jupiter completed.

2042 – First Energy Absorbent Defence Shield (EADS) produced by the TTA.

2045 – Dr Hans Berger introduces the Gravity-Resist Generator.

2046 – Mars Shipyards completed.

2047 – Pathfinder IX Survey Ship destroyed by Proxima Centauri.

– Alpha Centauri attacked.

2048 – Interstellar Queen destroyed by Proxima Centauri.

– War declared.

2049 – Terran Defence Authority formed.

2052 – Battle for Mars.

2060 – Invasion of Proxima Centauri.

2068 – Peace Treaty negotiated.

2073 – First jet tube opened on Earth, between Europe and America.

2078 – First settler ship leaves for Arcturus.

2090 – Second settler ship.

2096 – Starblade introduced as first Alpha spaceliner.

If only!

Here’s the video: