Asteroids and Nature

A day after an unexpected meteorite exploded over Russia, I spotted this humorous gem on Facebook. It’s especially appropriate since the United States doesn’t actually have a manned space program, anymore.

Asteroids Are Nature's Way of Asking...

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How About Those Trojans?

Asteroid BeltNasa released some interesting news about the Trojan asteroids today, which occupy leading and trailing positions in Jupiter’s orbit surrounding the L4 and L5 Lagrange points, respectively. NASA’s Wide-field Infrared Explorer (WISE) has been generating some interesting results, which NASA released at the 44th annual meeting of the Division for Planetary Sciences of the American Astronomical Society in Reno, Nevado. This research information will also be published in the Astrophysical Journal.

Here’s a mind-boggling quote from NASA:

Before WISE, the main uncertainty defining the population of Jupiter Trojans was just how many individual chunks were in these clouds of space rock and ice leading Jupiter, and how many were trailing. It is believed that there are as many objects in these two swarms leading and trailing Jupiter as there are in the entirety of the main asteroid belt between Mars and Jupiter.

For science fiction fans, it looks like one of SF’s favorite character types, the space prospector, or asteroid miner, should be hanging out with the Trojans, maybe not in the main asteroid belt.

And there’s also news about the types of asteroids in the Trojans. According to Tommy Grav, a WISE scientist from the Planetary Science Institute in Tucson, Arizona, the asteroids are mostly type D, with some Type C and Type P asteroids. The Trojans and the Greeks all seem to be similar to each other. However, they’re not like the other asteroids in the main asteroid belt or in the Kuiper belt, leading some to speculate that they may consist of leftover primordial material from the creation of the solar system — some of the oldest rocks in the entire solar system.

For more information see Nasa’s article about the WISE findings.

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Space Prospector

I was at lunch with my friend, Don Anderson, and we were talking about Project X, my proposed series of stories set in the Asteroid Belt during the lead-up to what might eventually become a solar system-spanning war. We got talking about the kinds of spaceships that might exist in 2312. More importantly, we focused in on the standard rock rat, the ever-popular miner-prospecter of the Asteroid Belt.

What kind of ship would a miner-prospector need? He’d have to be out on his own for long periods of time, maybe by himself, or with a partner or two. Within minutes, the napkins came out and Don started started drawing. Here, through the magic of scanning, as filtered through Adobe Photoshop, is one of those napkin drawings:

The spaceship of a miner-prospector in the Asteroid Belt

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Project X

The Asteroid BeltI’ve been working on the background, concepts and characters for a series of stories, envisioned as novelettes and novellas, set in the Asteroid Belt starting around the year 2312. My working title for the series is currently Project X. This will obviously change later. My general concept for the series appears below.

The stories will focus on the expansion of mankind into the solar system, as hard-working people explore and tame the solar system in the same way that America was settled and tamed. And just as there were serious conflicts as America evolved into a nation, there will be similar conflicts in space, as the people who live and work in the Outer System establish their own societies and push for the rights they feel they are owed.

The series begins in the year 2312, 300 years from today. Mankind has spread throughout the solar system, although the heaviest population concentration is clearly still Earth and the near-Earth area, including numerous orbital facilities and an extensive lunar population. There is a well-established and growing colony on Mars, where terraforming was begun 43 years ago, with centuries of effort still to come. There are scientific research stations scattered throughout the system, some almost large enough and permanent enough to qualify as colonies themselves.

The Asteroid Belt is being extensively mined for metals, water and other elements. As a result, an increasing amount of technological infrastructure is being constructed in the Asteroid Belt, in Mars orbit and even as far out as Jupiter’s orbit (the Asteroid Belt is located between Mars and Jupiter). The people who live and work in the Asteroid Belt have earned a reputation for being tough, stubborn and, maybe, just a little bit unsophisticated by Earth standards (like how a rich Bostonite in the 1800’s might look at a rough-and-tumble cowboy in the old American West).

The United Earth Authority (UEA), the organization that replaced the United Nations after the Fourth World War (the only war in which antimatter bombs were used on Earth) governs space operations. The UEA has become increasingly autocratic, and is considered by spacers to be out-of-touch with space-related issues; it always adjudicates such issues in favor of Earth corporations and governments at the perceived expense of those who work in space. Accordingly, friction between the denizens of the Outer System and the UEA has been steadily increasing, with some people already advocating armed rebellion.

The UEA also has problems on Earth, with the side effect that these local problems further distract the organization from dealing effectively with its space operations. The European Federation, based in Stockholm, dominates the UEA. As a result, the UEA acts constantly to increase its own power and to diminish the power of so-called Old World governments, notably the United States.

As a result, it has incurred the growing opposition of the United States, which was sidelined as a superpower by the Fourth World War and the devastating antimatter attacks that leveled much of the eastern and central United States.

Over the course of the series, these basic conflicts between the UEA and off-worlders will lead first to armed rebellion by spacers, followed by a declaration of independence, organized revolution and the formation of new nations in the Outer System. Other space colonies, notably Mars, will follow the lead of the spacers. This open rebellion will, in turn, evolve into a widespread solar system war.

Our characters will be living in interesting times. They will have to pick sides, make life-and-death decisions and try to cope as best they can with the terrifying prospect of war in space. For perfectly valid reasons, friends may become enemies, lovers may be forced to betray each other and good people may have to commit horrible acts. Even relatives may end up on different sides of the conflict. Some characters will inevitably die in the war. Some will go on to greatness. Others will try just to survive. The unscrupulous may even do everything they can to profit from the war.

Here are some key principles to be embodied in the stories:

  • Hard Science: Physics isn’t just a good idea; it defines what can and cannot happen. For example, there is no sound in space, space ships generally aren’t streamlined and they don’t bank to make turns. Technology keeps you alive in space. Accidents in space kill. Quickly.

  • Extrapolated Future Technology: Tired of future stories where characters fight battles with 1940’s technology? This is the future. Think big: this is 2312 – 300 years from now will be as different from now as 1712 was. Nanotech. Artificial intelligence. Space suits with limited on-board AI’s. Smart weapons. Easy body sculpting (for a price). Genetic modification. Large-scale space construction. Asteroid mining. Mars terraforming. Space elevators. But still no faster-than-light (FTL) space drive or anti-gravity.

  • Character-Driven Plots: The stories will be about people first and foremost, regular people caught up in events and reacting to those events in the best ways that they can. Characters, even minor ones, will appear in multiple stories, and everybody will have their own story arcs.

  • Gritty Feel: The focus is on making the future feel real. Cramped spaceships, ancient space stations, tunnels burrowed into asteroids, etc. Fights will be frenetic and scary, because space is already deadly; fights can only be worse.

  • Realistic Conflicts: No aliens. No evil twin stories. No time travel. I’ll have real people experiencing real problems in the most hostile environment known. And people clashing because of perfectly reasonable yet diametrically opposed future ideologies (Earth vs. spacers, etc.).

Welcome to the future. May you live long enough to enjoy it.

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A Little Inspiration: Belt Structure

It’s common-place for SF writers to write about the asteroid belt in a sort of diffuse manner, without any real details that would help fix the features of the belt in your mind. There is a “structure” to the belt, as can be seen in the illustration below:

The Asteroid Belt

The numeric part of each asteroid’s name indicates the order in which the asteroid was discovered. In general, of course, the largest ones were discovered first. So, naturally, Ceres was the first discovered, then Pallas, Juno and Vesta, etc. Each of these, as well as many others, could be basis for a belt-based nation-state, or mini-nation.

As you can see, the belt extends from Mars out towards Jupiter. Some asteroids orbit nearer the inner edge, some in the middle (like Ceres), and some further towards the outer edge. There’s also an anomaly in the structure of the belt, the so-called Kirkwood Gap, in which far fewer asteroids are found.

All of these asteroids, of course, are orbiting the Sun at different speeds, and may thus be closer or more distant from each other based on where they are in their respective orbits.

Armed with these details, writers should be able to concoct more convincing stories set in the belt than many of the ones I’ve read in the past. Sometimes a little research goes a long way.

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Lagrange Points Simplified

They’re always talking about Lagrange points in SF stories. What the heck is a Lagrange point? And why would you want one? Well, we’ll let Wikipedia provide the full explanation if you’re that curious. For the rest of us, let’s review the graphic below:

LaGrange Points, in a diagram featuring Jupiter

Lagrange points are named after the Italian-French mathematician, Joseph Louis Lagrange, who in 1772 set out to discover an easy way to calculate the gravitational interactions between an arbitrary number of bodies in a system. In point of fact, the L1, L2 and L3 points were discovered a few years earlier by Leonhard Euler. However, Lagrange discovered the L4 and L5 points, which, quite frankly, are considerably more useful than the other points.

In the graphic, Jupiter rotates around the Sun. The Lagrange points represent locations where an object of negligible mass (by comparison with Jupiter or the Sun), can occupy a stable position orbiting in conjunction with the two larger masses. Basically, if you put something smack-dab on a Lagrange point, it will stay there.

Now, the L1, L2 and L3 points are considered unstable. An object that ventures away from one of those points will gradually experience additional forces to pull it away. Venture too far away from L1, and you’ll be drawn to either Jupiter or the Sun, depending on which direction you moved.

By comparison, L4 and L5 are stable. An object at those points tends to remain at those points, which makes those locations ideal for space stations or observatories. Even better, in a rotating system, the L4 and L5 points actually take on a more expansive, kidney-shaped geometry, so they can “hold more stuff” than the other Lagrange points.

A good analogy is to think of the L1, L2 and L3 points as cones with a ball balanced on top. Any movement, and the ball falls off the cone. By contrast, the L4 and L5 points are like bowls, with a ball at the bottom of the bowl. Perturb the ball and it may rotate around the center of the bowl, but it will eventually be drawn back to the bottom.

Because L4 and L5 are stable orbital positions, Jupiter has collected numerous asteroids at the L4 and L5 points in its orbit. Asteroids at the L4 position, which leads Jupiter in its orbit, are known as the Greeks. Asteroids at the L5 position, trailing Jupiter in its orbit, are known as the Trojans. Their names are based on The Iliad, which also features the story of Troy. Both places would be ideal locations for a nation or mini-nation, or at least a center for industrial production.

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A Little Inspiration: Lucky Strike

This is my vision of what it would be like to stake a claim on an asteroid.

A Lucky Strike!

Since the asteroid is so small, it would have to be rich in rare elements for it to be a significant claim.

A fundamental aspect of a lot of stories set in the asteroid belt is that, by law, asteroids must be claimed in person. So, no automated land grabs by big corporations. This rule basically levels the playing field, so we can have the asteroid prospectors we’re all so fond of in SF.

To make a claim, you have to visit an asteroid, survey it (take measurements, core samples, pictures, etc.), set a marker beacon so other miners will know the asteroid has been claimed, and then get back to register the claim.

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