Category Archives: World

Journey to Maars

 

Writing science fiction almost always involves world building. When an opportunity arose to actually see what real world building looks like, I jumped at the chance—and that’s how I found myself on a journey to maars.

To two of them, as a matter of fact.

A maar is a shallow, flat-bottomed volcanic crater, most commonly formed when hot magma close to the surface comes into contact with groundwater, triggering a steam explosion.  (There are other mechanisms:  in 1977 scientists got to watch an Aleutian maar form, over a period of a week and a half, caused by permafrost being melted, then flashed into steam, by magma.)

With water being one of the defining elements of maar formation, it isn’t surprising that maars commonly fill with water to become lakes, disguising their volcanic origins.  And so it was with the maars I saw.

A friend offered to fly me in a small airplane to view two maars near Fallon, Nevada.  I sat in the left seat and did most of the flying; although I’m rated in sailplanes, not airplanes, a wing is a wing is a wing, and I found the airplane easy to fly—if perhaps not quite as satisfying as a sailplane would have been. Speaking of flying, as we approached the maars we could clearly see the runways of Naval Air Station Fallon, better known as the home of the Navy’s famed Top Gun school.

The Fallon maars are known locally as the Soda Lakes and at one time were mined for alkaline minerals.  The region is still geologically  active:  there’s a geothermal power plant close by, and the United States Geological Survey lists the Soda Lakes as potential volanic threats, in part due to their young age:  they were formed no earlier than 6,000 years ago and possibly as recently as 1500 years ago . . . almost yesterday.

Soda Lakes are the only Nevada volcanoes listed in the annual threat assessment compiled by the USGS, but just over the state line there are many more.  It may surprise you to learn that the USGS estimates the odds of an eruption in California in the next 30 years is about one in six!  World building, indeed.

Home Sweet Houston

This just got painted on an apartment complex down the street.  The place was hit hard in Hurricane Harvey, and so was my own condo complex (where I luckily live on the 3rd floor, above the flood although I lost my car.) But we’ve come back.

"Home Sweet Houston" painted on the side wall of an apartment complex

My sentiments exactly.

Location, location, location

Realtors are fond of the mantra, “Location, location, location.” They mean the additional attractiveness and value a home can have due solely to its location.

Often this extraordinary value can be traced to the commanding views that can be admired from the windows of the home.  Indeed.

Few homes can match the view from this window:

International Space Station view
Photo credit NASA

You’re looking at an autonomous Cygnus cargo ship parked on the driveway of the International Space Station and viewed through the kitchen window with the gemlike blue Earth in the background.  Just in time for Thanksgiving, the Cygnus arrived bearing nearly three tons of groceries and other household necessities.  It will remain docked to the ISS until February when it will depart on another errand:  delivering a clutch of cubesats to their prescribed orbits.

Reflect on this:  the earliest portions of the International Space Station has been in orbit now for twenty years.  As Kamakshi Ayyar recently wrote in Time magazine,

” . . . we are now in an age where people who reached adulthood this month haven’t lived a single day without there being a human in space.”

Perhaps the most remarkable aspect of the International Space Station is the fact that it’s no longer remarkable.

Or, yet and still, isn’t it, though?

Hurricane Moon

This was my street when Hurricane Harvey inundated Houston. Yes, there is a street – in fact two wide boulevards – under all that water, which is the bayou usually channeled between the boulevards.

Hurricane Florence has now done to the Carolinas what Harvey did to the Texas coast last year – slam in from the sea then dawdle, dumping immense amounts of rain to result in flooding, destruction, and death.

And Astronaut Alexander Gerst on the International Space Station just photographed the eye of the super-typhoon in the Pacific saying, “As if somebody pulled the planet’s gigantic plug. Staring down the eye of yet another fierce storm. Category 5 Super Typhoon Trami is unstoppable and heading for Japan and Taiwan. Be safe down there.”

What with this summer’s hurricanes, Western wildfires, some strong tornadoes surprisingly far north, and entrenched drought in some parts of the US, individuals and institutions increasingly look either foolish or blinded by self-interest and greed as they deny climate change, or even accelerate it.  They’re denying and accelerating it anyway and not just in the US. As a result, industrialized civilization may well tip the Earth’s climate into a slow but inexorable catastrophe.

That’s the background of my novel Hurricane Moon. 

In the late 21st century, with Earth wracked by climate change, an ambitious private foundation launches a starship to find a new world. Aboard the starship Aeonare Catharin Gault, an idealistic astronaut-physician, and Joseph Devreze, a geneticist as brilliant as he is irresponsible. Aeondiscovers two Earth-sized planets in orbit around each other. Planet Green has abundant plant life. Planet Blue is an oceanic world covered with hurricanes. The green world with its bright blue moon seems like a perfect stage for the drama of civilization to begin anew and turn out better this time. But the journey took too long. A millennium of cryostasis—cold suspended animation—has caused insidious genetic damage. Now Catharin must rely on the irresponsible genius Devreze to help her repair the human genome if there is to be a future for the colony on Planet Green. Their mutual attraction ratchets up even as their conflict escalates. Together Catharin and Joe must decide how they can face, and embrace, a future utterly at odds with Aeon’s planned mission and their own expectations.   

In the sense of naming times of the year for full moons – I’ve seen Harvest Moon, Hunter’s Moon, and Moon of Cold-Exploding Trees – a Hurricane Moon has to be a season of crisis. It happens that way in my novel. And it seems to be unfolding on 21st-Century Earth, starting with everyone in striking range of monstrous hurricanes, super-wildfires, and record-setting droughts and heat waves.

Crises indeed.

 

 

Above the Blue Horizon

Aerospace dreams are still in reach. . . .

SSA Convention Exhibit Hall * photo by Mark Montague

At the Soaring Society of America Convention in Reno last March, the crown jewel of the dream machines in the exhibit hall was Perlan – a experimental glider built to the edge of space.  I got a chance to see it, even look into the cockpit.

Photo by Mark Montague

This summer Perlan returned to the Andes Mountains in southern Argentina – maybe the only place in the world where the atmospheric conditions are such that the highest of high altitudes can be reached.  Perlan’s cockpit is pressurized.  The ship takes stratospheric tows and then climbs even higher on mountain-generated waves in the atmosphere. On September 2, Perlan shattered every glider altitude record in existence, including its own record from the summer of 2017.  It soared over 76,000′.  That’s higher than the altitude record set by the U-2 spyplane.  The Perlan pilots saw the sky start to turn black and Earth’s distant blue horizon start to look curved.

Read more about Perlan here.   They have a fabulous Website!

 

A Silver Lining

Hurricane Harvey, which hit a year ago and devastated  many parts of Houston including my neighborhood, had a silver lining for me. With my old car destroyed by the flood, I found a silver cream puff of a Hyundai Elantra at CarMax. This summer I put 6000 miles on this car’s odometer in six Western states, on paved roads and unpaved, through torrential cloudbursts, high elevations, and high temperatures – all without a problem and with great gas mileage and A/C!

Palisade, Nevada

At the same time, my road trip made me think about climate change and its devastating consequences – including worse hurricanes and more wildfires.  We may be seeing the beginning  of climate change on the way to a very bad end.  At midday in a remote part of Nevada, the sky had none of the the clear blue visibility typical in the West. Fires in California and Nevada churned out smoke that turned the setting sun red and the rising moon copper.  Further downwind the skies smoke paled the skies and hazed the landscapes all the way to the Great Salt Lake.

With no silver lining anywhere in sight.

SF and Story

 

I tend to write “hard” science fiction, that is, science fiction with some actual science in it. The fantasy elements aren’t allowed to randomly trample what we know about the physical universe.  The boundaries between hard and soft SF are fluid. Truth is, science is just one of the many strands that woven together make us, collectively, who and what we are. It’s an expression of our natural and so very human curiosity. Where it will lead us, we never know in advance.

Consider the Eiffel Tower.

It was built for the International Exposition of 1889. Its winning design was selected in the face of a storm of criticism over its audacious break with tradition. Critics howled at the planned desecration of the Parisian skyline! Twenty years later the exposition concession expired—and the Eiffel Tower was slated for demolition.  But that didn’t happen, and thereon hangs a tale..

In 1864, Cambridge professor James Clerk Maxwell had manipulated the equations that bear his name to predict that electromagnetic energy could travel through space at the speed of light.  This prediction was experimentally verified a quarter-century later by Heinrich Hertz—but only over very short distances. Would it hold true for longer distances? In 1901 Guglielmo Marconi demonstrated that electromagnetic energy could be transmitted and detected at great distances: in a dramatic flourish he sent a signal clear across the Atlantic Ocean!

The received signal was, however, incredibly weak. This meant that equally incredible power had to be poured into a transmitter to reap even a barely detectable signal at the other end. This made communication by radio slow, uncertain, and expensive—but not for long. The triode vacuum tube, invented by Lee De Forest, changed everything overnight: the triode was the first electronic amplifier, able to accept weak signals and multiply them into currents large enough be handled with ease and convenience.This was in 1907, and it was still topical news when the Eiffel Tower’s lease was up.

When built the tower was approximately twice as tall as any other above-ground structure in human history. As such it was virtually made to order as an antenna tower. But would it serve? Would the Eiffel Tower really work as a radio antenna?  It would, and it did—and it was saved. (In fact, eventually 17 meters were added to the top, in the form of a television broadcast antenna. Again, the critics howled.)

Hard science fiction has on occasion worshiped technology at the expense of humanistic or spiritual values. Yet consider how that the Eiffel Tower stands today because of its unforeseen utility in the era of modern electronic communications. And ponder how  you’re reading these words on a screen built into what’s usually known as a “computer.” It may be a dedicated reader platform, or a smartphone, or a laptop device—but whatever it is, you probably use it for communicating, not for computing. You use it to bridge the chasm between yourself and your fellow human beings.

I use electronic impulses to communicate with my readers, to tell stories.  Story is something human beings have done for as long as human beings have existed. The screen at which you’re looking right now, along with the stack of books that are undoubtedly nearby, along with the Eiffel Tower, witness to our mutual need to speak, to listen, to hold, to aspire, and to dream.

And I have a new novel finished – a story with science and humanity, adventure and romance, and many unexpected surprises.  I can hardly wait to transmit it to the world. . . .

 

Snow City

Last month, I flew to Reno for the Soaring Society of America’s biennial convention, and was it ever a change from Houston.  Houston was already in an early (and flat)Texas Gulf Coast Spring.  Reno not so much:  surrounded by mountains etched against the sky in dry clear air, under tangles of lenticular clouds, Reno was winter-brown.

And then it snowed.  A lot.

That was a shock to the system for me and all the Southern Californians, Floridians, and attendees from the Southern Hemisphere.  Some had a tough drive or a delayed flight getting there.  But a good convention was had anyway – with old friends, interesting news, and an exhibit hall full of dream machines. (A non-soaring-pilot friend saw this picture and commented, “I didn’t know gliders are so BIG!”)

And Reno?  The sun came out.  The snow sublimated, melted, or stuck around in (relatively) harmless and picturesque places.

Travel is a cognate to the nowadays more ominous word travail.  The root meaning still works.  Travel is challenging even with cars and jets.  It’s debilitating, as any airline pilot can tell you.  Yet when you travel you meet people and places you wouldn’t at home, and you may see wonders. Or even unexpected reminders of home.

 

 

 

IMAGE

On January 20, 2018, an amateur astronomer by the name of Scott Tilley detected a signal he correctly deduced to have originated from NASA’s IMAGE satellite.  This satellite, launched in early 2000, had fallen silent almost six years later and given up for dead.

Interestingly, the mechanism for rebooting IMAGE involved passing through the shadow of a solar eclipse.  While an eclipse in 2007 didn’t do the trick, speculation is that the eclipse I watched from Wyoming last summer may have done so.   It’s nice to know the universe on occasion does make service calls!

IMAGE, the Imager for Magnetopause-to-Aurora Global Exploration, was intended to spend its two-year operational life imaging charged particles in the plasmasphere that surrounds the Earth, using several new techniques.  As such, it’s a tool to help us investigate the aurorae.  Thanks to IMAGE, you can watch a beautiful timelapse presentation of an aurora over the South Pole here .

While the science is important, our wonder at the exquisite and unexpected interactions between our planetary home and the rest of the universe is equally so.  A sense of wonder about creation and the very human beings dwelling on – or near! – this Earth is why I write the stories I do.

PicSat Takes a Train to Orbit

Artist's conception of PicSat nanosatellite in Earth orbit
Artist’s conception of PicSat in orbit. Image courtesy PicSat.

A couple of days ago, PicSat rocketed into orbit on a mission that will last about a year, thus neatly spanning this new year 2018.

The mission will be to observe the transit of a gas giant exoplanet, Beta Pictoris b, as it passes between us and its sun.  The planet is new in at least two senses:  it was discovered in 2009, orbiting a star just 63 light-years from Earth, and it’s believed to have been formed quite recently.  In fact, its orbit is actually inside the cloud of dust and debris left over from the birth of the planet.

What makes this satellite special is its minuscule size and mass:  PicSat isn’t much larger than a baguette. This comparison is particularly apt, because PicSat was designed and assembled in Paris.  Here it is leaving Paris via the Gare du Nord, the Parisian train station dedicated to generally northbound departures.

Outside the station—taking the train to orbit!rain
Photo courtesy PicSat

If you’re wondering where in the picture the satellite is, it’s in that picnic cooler-size container being carried by PicSat team members Sylvestre Lacour and Maturin Grénot.

PicSat’s train ride to Holland was powered by an electric locomotive, by the way; electric locomotives were first introduced about a hundred and ten years ago—a nice illustration of the old and the new coexisting side by side.

PicSat’s size, mass, and a few other properties were  set by the CubeSat nanosatellite specifications which allow smaller packages to piggyback on launches of other, more complex and expensive payloads so long as they pose little or no risk of jeopardizing the host vehicle.  As an example of this philosophy, once in orbit the host vehicle deploys CubeSat packages by means of a simple spring launcher—like a child’s toy.  In a way, that’s precisely what they are:  CubeSat specifications were originally developed to enable graduate students to design and build their own satellites.

In railroad terms, this corresponds to a less-than-carload (“LCL”) shipment; while most people don’t know it, it’s still possible to ship small parcels in the baggage car on Amtrak trains today.

Here’s PicSat, proudly posing in front of four of its creators:

PicSat nanosatellite standing on table in front of four of the experiemnters who built it.
Photo courtesy PicSat

From left to right, these experimenters are Vincent Lapeyrere, Antoine Crouzier, Mathias Nowak, and Lester David.  Who says science can’t be fun? To learn more about the PicSat project, or help receive telemetered data from the satellite, visit picsat.obspm.fr  Continue reading PicSat Takes a Train to Orbit