Posts Tagged ‘Solar Sails’

Arthur C. Clarke Book on the Terraforming of Mars

March 18, 2017

Arthur C. Clarke – The Snows of Olympus: A Garden on Mars – The Illustrated History of Man’s Colonization of Mars (London: Victor Gollancz 1994).

A little while ago I put up a number of articles on the possible terraforming of various planets in our solar system. The prime candidate at the moment would be Mars, but people have also suggested ways to terraform Venus and the Moon. I’ve managed to dig out from my bookshelves a copy of Arthur C. Clarke’s book, The Snows of Olympus, which I bought way back in the 1990s. Clarke’s been called ‘The Space Prophet’ because of his article published in a radio hobbyists’ magazine shortly after the War predicting geostationary communications satellites. He has jokingly said in an article ‘How I Lost a Million Dollars in My Spare Time’ that he should have patented the concept, and so made himself a billionaire because of its immense value to the telecommunications industry. This book is no less prophetic in that it uses computer simulations to depict the gradual greening of the Red Planet over a thousand year period from the next few centuries to c. 3000.

The book has a prologue, in which Clarke gives the text of a speech he gave to future Martian colonists as part of the Planetary Society’s ‘Visions of Mars Project’. Launched by the late and much-missed astronomer and space visionary, Carl Sagan, this was a project to send the future colonists the gift of a collection of SF short stories about Mars aboard two probes due to land there. There’s then a short introduction in which Clarke lays out the aims of the book. The first chapter, ‘Prelude to Mars’, discusses the history of the exploration of the Red Planet by terrestrial astronomers and writers, such as Giovanni Schiaparelli, Percival Lowell, H.G. Wells and Edgar Rice Burroughs, C.S. Lewis in Out of the Silent Planet, and the controversy surrounding the supposed ‘face’ on Mars, made by Richard Hoagland and others.

Chapter 2 – ‘The Curtain Rises’ – is on the probes sent to explore Mars, such as the Mariner probes and discussion between himself, Sagan, Ray Bradbury and the JPL’s Bruce Murray at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory on the probes and their findings. He goes on to discuss Viking probes and the debate about American and Russian cooperative ventures in space research. This last ended for a time because of international tensions created by the Solidarity crisis in Poland.

Chapter 3 – ‘Going There’, describes the problems and suggested methods for reaching Mars, establishing crewed bases there, including various types of rocket from the conventional chemical to nuclear-thermal and atomic; solar sails and space elevators, George Bush seniors’ intention to launch a crewed mission to Mars by 2019, and the tasks that would immediately face the astronauts landing there.

Chapter 4- ‘Virtual Explorations’ is on the use of computers and VR to explore and map Mars, and particularly the Vistapro programme used in the generation of many of the images in the book.

Chapter 5 is on the artistic and computer depictions of Olympus Mons, the planet’s highest mountain and the gradual reclamation of its surface by vegetation, beginning with lichens, during the long centuries of terraforming. This culminates in the emergence of liquid water and creation of a sea surrounding the mountain.

Chapter 6 does the same for Eos Chasma, the ‘Chasm of the Dawn’, in the Valles Marineris.

Chapter 7 shows the same process as it would affect the Noctes Labyrinthes – the Labyrinth of Night. This forecasts the growth of forests in this part of Mars, beginning with pines but later including deciduous trees.

Chapter 8 – ‘The Longest Spring’ discusses the various methods that could be used to terraform Mars, such as coating the ice caps with carbon from Mars’ moon, Phobos, the use of orbiting mirrors to melt them, raising its temperature by turning Phobos into a miniature sun for about 40 days using ‘muon resonance’ – a form of nuclear reaction, and bombarding the planet with comets to cover it with water, and ‘Von Neumann’ machines that would gradually terraform the planet automatically.

‘Disneymars’ looks forward to a museum display and audiovisual presentation that would show the colonists what their planet would look like in the future as the terraforming progresses.

Chapter 9 – ‘Concerning Ends and Means’ discusses the moral dimension of terraforming, the immense historical importance of exploration and the need to continue this exploration to the Red Planet in order to preserve human civilisation and progress.

There are two appendices. The first is an extract from a speech, The Mars Project: Journeys beyond the Cold War, by US senator and WWII hero, Spark Matsunaga. The second, ‘So You’re Going to Mars’, is fictional advice given by the immigration authorities to people moving from Earth to Mars.

The quality of the computer graphics is mixed. Many of them, which were without doubt absolutely astonishing for the time, now look rather crude and dated as the technology has improved. Others, however, still stand up very well even today. The quality of the computer simulations of the terraforming process can be seen from this image below of what Eos Chasma might look like in 2500 AD.

There are also plenty of illustrations of Mars, rendered using more traditional artistic methods such as painting, including photos of Percival Lowell’s own drawings of what he believed was the planet’s network of canals.

Although the computer tools may have been superseded and improved in the decades since the book’s publication, I think the science, and the social issues Clarke discusses, are still solidly relevant and contemporary. Certainly there is now a popular movement to send humans to the Red Planet at some point in the coming decades, and prospective future colonists have even come forward to volunteer a few years ago. There is, however, a greater awareness of the medical dangers from radiation and microgravity that would affect – and possibly destroy – a mission to Mars. The dream, however, is still there, as shown by the success of the film The Martian a few years ago.

Cameron Scraps Solar Power – Another Setback for Science

October 4, 2015

My last blog post was about David Cameron’s decision to ‘cut the Green crap’, as he called it, and remove the subsidies from solar power. Presumably this was becoming a bit of nuisance to his backers in the petrochemical and nuclear industries. Plus, now that he’d won a second term, he clearly didn’t think he needed to deceive the public anymore with the line that his was ‘the Greenest government ever’. That whopper was disproved the moment he started promoting fracking.

Cameron’s scrapping of solar power might be another blow to scientific research in this country. The potential of solar energy as a cheap, practical source of power has been known from the 19th century. I’ve blogged before about the French scientist and engineer, Pifre, who at an exposition in Paris ran a newspaper press power by steam generated from a parabolic mirror about 18m in diameter.

Pifre Steam Press

Scaled down, the principle has also been applied to create ‘solar ovens’ that can cook food by focussing the sun’s rays. One such device was featured a little while ago on The Gadget Show, along with the other weird and wonderful doohickies and thingummies.

Solar panels have been used for a long time to provide power for spacecraft, but light from the Sun could also be used to provide propulsion for spacecraft. It’s been suggested that a spaceship propelled by a sail catching light from the Sun, called ‘Starwisp’, could take a 50 kilo instrument package to the nearest star Proxima Centauri, at about a third of the speed of light. If so, it would mean that the journey there would take only about twelve years or so, as opposed to the tens of thousands that a journey by a conventional spacecraft using chemical rockets would take.

It’s also been suggested that sunlight could also be used as the ignition system for a ‘solar thermal’ rocket. In this spacecraft, light from the sun would be focussed on the chemical propellant through mirrors, igniting it to create the force to move the vehicle through space. At the moment this is highly speculative, and there are a number of problems that need to be solved, but it’s a possibility.

I’ve also heard from my father that down in the south of France giant mirrors were used in one of their iron and steel plants. I don’t know whether this is true, and just one of those rumours. Given the investment the French have made into new technology, like carrying on with rocket research long after we gave up, it’s certainly possible.

Steam Rocket Cart

Two members of the Sacramento Rocketeers working on a steam rocket-powered go-cart

And I wonder if solar energy also couldn’t be used to drive cars. There are already experimental vehicles using solar panels, but I also wonder if you could use it to heat steam and provide a motive source that way. In the 1960s the US government had a programme to promote rocket experiments in schools as a way of getting children enthusiastic about space travel and help them to catch up on the Russians. One of the projects schoolchildren could make were steam rockets. These could also be used to power go-carts. There’s a picture in one article on the American schools’ rocketry programme, which shows a line of such steam buggies in a race.

Now anything involving rockets, combustible materials and hot gases is not something you try at home without the experience of someone, who knows exactly what they’re doing. But I wonder if someone couldn’t use a system of parabolic mirrors or lenses to run a steam engine to power a small vehicle. There’s certainly an opportunity there for research.

And this is possibly why Cameron wanted to scrap government subsidies for solar power. There’s so much potential there, that it really wouldn’t surprise me if this had frightened Cameron’s paymasters in the oil industry. So Cameron wanted it scrapped. Not only is this bad for the environment, but it’s also potentially damaging the kind of science that could lead to better, cleaner, more environmentally friendly and efficient vehicles. And take us to the stars.

And Cameron can’t allow that.