Great New Epic Fantasy

One the most exciting things to happen over the Christmas and New Year break was that I can across some great new epic fantasy. A new author discovery for me! Miles Cameron’s The Red Knight.

I could not say that Cameron is necessarily a new author. Cameron, who also writes under the pen name of Gorden Kent, has published a substantial body of historical fiction, as well as series of espionage thrillers, but he was certainly new to me as a fantasy author when I got hold of a copy of The Red Knight.

Every now and then an author comes along that makes you sit up and smile, and Cameron certainly did this for me with Red Knight. This is an exceptional novel. Well written, well plotted, with a unique magic system, a well-drawn world of epic fantasy, great action and excellent characterisation.

I was not so sure off the mark. Although obviously well written — Cameron writes like a pro and his background in historical fiction has given him clarity and precision — there were some things that put me off. These were in the realm of structure and artistic choices, rather than craft.

One was the high level of detail in armour description. I have a limited tolerance for technical descriptions that bog down the narrative flow, like extensive descriptions of sniper rifles in thrillers for example. Although I respected his obvious detailed knowledge of period armour, this was initially a negative for me.

The second thing was Cameron’s penchant for writing in vignettes. There was short scene after short scene — very short, some only a page or less — most of which introduced new character after new character.

Here Cameron had to work through the difficulty of the writer who draws a broad canvass for a series — how to introduce the necessary cast of characters without slowing down the story and confusing the reader. Well, for me it really did slow the story down, at least at the start.

By the time I was fifty pages in, I had accepted the detailed descriptions of armour as necessary for the piece. This was epic fantasy, with knights in armour and the whole panoply of attendant squires, men-at-arms, crossbowmen, archers etc, and the descriptions and specialised vocabulary ultimately added to the sharpness with which the world is drawn. My initial hesitation on this front was probably due to the fact that I am not typically an epic fantasy reader — I tend toward heroic fantasy in unique and completely non-medieval settings.

I was probably about one third of the way through the book by the time I had adapted to the continuing vignettes and was comfortable with the large array of characters.

By this stage I was completely hooked on the story.

If you love fantasy, and particularly if you like epic fantasy, check out The Red Knight.

I, for one, am really looking forward to the rest of this series. I haven’t been this excited by a new fantasy writer in a long time.

 

 

HERE BE SPOILERS! (If you want to read the book, stop reading now:)).

I love magic – hey that’s why I write fantasy – and I cannot remember the last time I enjoyed a new magic system as much. I really enjoyed the subsidiary characters, particularly the mage Harmodius.

The broader story, and the array of Wild creatures, was also very well done, with a mix of the new and familiar.

One thing I did think could have been stronger was the portrayal of Thorn. This man was supposed to have once been a magical genius, yet he reacted to like an angry adolescent to any provocation, and was ultimately revealed to have been manipulated by forces unknown. I would have liked more complexity in Thorn.

I do like my villains to be complex — something I probably got from reading so many Gemmell novels. Now there was an author who knew how to write shades of grey into both his protagonists, and antagonists.

Most Interesting Fantasy of the Year

I hope everyone had a great Christmas, and Santa brought you what you wanted.

Heading toward the end of the year, I thought I would reflect on the most interesting Fantasy of the Year. My overall favourite read would have to go to Ryhming Rings, the surprise posthumous publication by my all-time favourite writer David Gemmell, but here I’m talking about Fantasy novels particularly.

I did not quite know what to make of this book, since on the face of it, it featured many of the things that usually are deal-breakers for me, but I still come back to the novel as my most unusual Fantasy read of the year. The first novel by by Peter Newman, called The Vagrant.

The Vagrant was slightly offbeat, but overall a nicely worked piece.

The post-apocalyptic setting is well imagined, and it’s nice to see someone successfully pulling off a cross-genre mix of horror and SF, something I have a bit of a soft spot for.

The writing is good, but what had me gritting my teeth from the very outset was the use of present tense, somewhat of a pet hate of mine. And to make it even more of a challenge, the central protagonist is mute — yep, he doesn’t speak through the entire novel. Not only is the main character silent, but he is outside the point-of-view. The book is written in an omniscient viewpoint. I’ve got no particular problem with omniscient, but in that case I really look for the dialogue to express the inner world of the character. In this case that personality is successfully portrayed through the Vagrant’s heroic actions and his consistent integrity, which I enjoyed. I don’t typically go for anti-heroes, so that was a big plus for me.

The world is beautifully crafted, imaginative, and original. I was drawn through the story as much by the quest of the Vagrant to exit the cursed badlands where his journey begins, as by the vast amount of unknown backstory that is slowly drip-fed to the reader.

For me though, a reader who loves being hooked into character, the absence of the Vagrants PoV really hampered my ultimate enjoyment of the novel. Hey, but that’s just me.

Given the fact that the Vagrant has only his non-verbal interactions and his actions in response to challenges to demonstrate his character, Newman does of great job of creating sympathy. I think one of the core vehicles for this is the fact that the Vagrant is the guardian and primary carer for a tiny infant that spends most of the book hidden away in his coat (don’t worry that’s no spoiler! You learn that pretty much on page 1). Having him obviously caring and protecting an defenseless infant goes a long way to creating that sympathetic link between writer and reader.

Nice one Peter!

Can We Guess Why Warmaker is a Standalone Novel?

Brandon Sanderson is probably my favourite living fantasy writer, and has published some highly entertaining and multi-faceted fiction in notable series such as the Way of Kings, but with all these successful series can we guess why Warmaker is a standalone novel? Or his debut novel Elantris for that matter?

It’s not as though Warmaker lacks anything in the thoroughness of the world’s depth or texture. All the backstory, the unique magic system (involving the use of “breath”), the fascinating characters such as sisters Vivenna and Siri, the indolent Returned  Lightsong and other scheming Returned that are worshiped as gods in Hallandren, along with the remote God-King, who is not all that he seems.

So why write Warbreaker as a standalone?

The first and most obvious guess is that this was the size of the idea. As many writers will tell you, some ideas come in short story length, other as novellas, while others have such breadth they demand the broader canvass of the full novel. The key is what is driving the story. What was that core idea, that first “wow” moment that gave the impetus for the world’s creation in the first place?

For Warbreaker, I find that key idea difficult to pin down. Did Sanderson have the idea for the magic system and then create the story around it? One of the things I do love about Sanderson is the invention in his magic systems – look at the use of metals for magic in the Mistborn series. The magical sword in Warbreaker is particularly entertaining (don’t worry it’s introduced early).

 

Or is it in the characters? The backstory does link the key villain to the royal line, of which Vivenna and Siri are scions. Was it the character development of the two princesses that drove the story for Sanderson? I guess if that was the case, its resolution would present a natural end point.

What do you think?

 

 

 

 

 

 

Want to check out Chris McMahon’s fiction?

The Tau Ceti Diversion, the first interstellar exploration vessel Starburst sets out from Earth in 2157, but this is no NASA science mission, it’s funded by the mega-corporation ExploreCorp. On approach to the planet Cru, the Starburst is hit with a surge of deadly radiation that kills most of the crew and disables the ship. It’s a fight for survival as sub-Commander Karic struggles to get control of the fusion drive before the ship turns into a giant hydrogen bomb.

 

 

 

 

 

In The Calvanni, first of the three-book fantasy series, The Jakirian Cycle, Cedrin, a street-wise calvanni (knife-fighter), is summoned to the secret underground tunnels of the Brotherhood and forced to join in a rebellion. Caught between the threat of death and his suspicions that all is not what it seems, he must try to keep his friends alive and escape.

 

Atmosphere on a Fictional Planet

So you’ve got your story working, but how do you sketch out the atmosphere on a fictional planet? Maybe you have some idea of the mass, radius and gravity and you’ve got the orbit in the ‘sweet spot’ goldilocks zone where liquid water can be present on the surface, but what will conditions on the surface actually be like?

What sort of factors go into whether that planet, presumably an Earth-like rocky world, will have an atmosphere that can support terrestrial life?

Planets above a blue planet

The gravity of the planet is one key variable, along with surface temperature, and the strength of the planet’s magnetosphere, which can protect against atmospheric stripping due to solar wind.

The surface temperature of a planet will determine how much kinetic energy, and so velocity, the gas particles will have. If that temperature, and velocity, is high enough it will exceed the planet’s escape velocity and the molecules will fly off into space like tiny spaceship explorers. Earth has lost most of its very light gases like hydrogen and helium in this way, whereas the gas giants have enough gravity to retain them. We kept our water, and we’ve got a lot of it! If Earth was sitting where Venus is things would be different, the additional temperature would give those lighter gases like water vapour enough energy to escape, and also prevent any being trapped on the planet’s surface itself (whereas some is ‘sequestered’ on Earth as water and ice at our lower surface temperature). But beyond the early, settling down period where the lighter gases are lost, any world larger than Earth, orbiting in that goldilocks zone, will not continue to lose a significant proportion of its atmosphere through thermal processes.

Here’s a cool pictorial on thermal escape (source: Wikipedia).

Solar_system_escape_velocity_vs_surface_temperature.svg

Beyond that thermal stripping process, is where the magnetosphere comes into its own, deflecting the solar wind – one of the main non-thermal processes leading to atmospheric loss. The very thickness of a planet’s atmosphere (retained due to its gravity, and as a function of surface temperature), will also protect a planet from the solar wind, even in the absence of a magnetosphere. It’s thought that Venus’ thick atmosphere, ionized by solar radiation and the solar wind, produces magnetic moments that act out to 1.2-1.5 planetary radii away from the planet to deflect the solar wind, much like a magnetosphere (but an order of magnitude closer to the planet). In fact, it’s thought the dominant non-thermal atmospheric loss process on Venus is actually from a type of naturally induced electrical acceleration. On Venus, the stripping of the lighter electrons from the atmosphere causes an excess of positive charges, accelerating ions like H+ out of its atmosphere.

Our explorers need a breathable atmosphere, but they also need an atmospheric pressure like our own Earth’s.

My fictional planet of Cru, in the Tau Ceti Diversion, has comparable surface temperatures to Earth, but a higher surface gravity. The higher surface gravity, and its lower density, allowed me to assume a lighter atmospheric composition, and allow an atmospheric pressure, or weight of atmosphere, close to surface much like Earth’s. That atmospheric composition is crucial to having a reasonable atmospheric pressure – its not just the gravity of the planet. Venus, even though it has slighter lower gravity than Earth, has a crushing atmospheric pressure of 90 times Earth’s due to its heavier  atmosphere of CO2.

Check out what my my intrepid explorers found in my novel The Tau Ceti Diversion when they touched down on the planet!

Read it now on Amazon!

Tau-Ceti-Diversion-severed-ebook-cover (Medium)

SpaceX Claims the Title of World’s Most Powerful Rocket

This week’s launch of the Falcon Heavy Booster on Tuesday (February 6) means that Elon Musk’s SpaceX claims the title of world’s most powerful rocket. The Falcon Heavy can carry twice the payload as its nearest competitor, the United Launch Alliances Delta IV Heavy – and at a lower cost.

Every time I see footage of the SpaceX boosters touching down on reentry I get a shiver down my spine. This is really some revolutionary technology, driven by revolutionary thinking. All based on the simple premise that the most expensive thing about spaceflight is the hardware – not the fuel. If you can reuse the booster that gets you to orbit, then the whole ball game changes.

Watch the Falcon Heavy launch footage here.

 

The two smaller side-boosters completed their vertical reentry landing without a hitch, but the much larger central booster missed its drone-ship landing and crashed into the ocean. Still, the test is considered a success.

Falcon Heavy can lift an impressive 64 metric tons, certainly more than adequate for the astronaut-come-space-dummy and Tesla Roadster that Musk send into orbit around the sun, which is expected to orbit for hundred’s of millions of years! That’s a hell of a time capsule!

Falcon Heavy launches come at an estimated cost of $90 million, with the Delta IV launching 29 metric tons for between $300 and $500 million per flight. It’s easy to see how SpaceX’s paradigm is changing the future of space travel.

 

There are two more Falcon Heavy launches scheduled for this year. The first is a communications satellite, and the second a Space Test Program for the US Air Force that will also launch a solar sail for the Planetary Society. As well as the possible launch of two passengers in a trip around the moon. To apply for a ticket, click here – no, just kidding! – but wouldn’t that be awesome?

And this isn’t the end for the development of SpaceX’s reusable launch systems. SpaceX’s BFR (Big F- Rocket), a megarocket capable of a single-stage to orbit fully fuelled, will potentially launch a spaceship carrying up to 100 passengers, taking us further on a development path that might lead to the establishment of a city on Mars – one of Musk’s ultimate goals.

Space exploration is at the heart of my novel The Tau Ceti Diversion! But they got a little further than the asteroid belt!

Read it now on Amazon!

Tau-Ceti-Diversion-severed-ebook-cover (Medium)

Return to Elantris

I recently make a return to Elantris – the first published work by Brandon Sanderson. Elantris is also the name of the great city of immortals where all the trouble begins and ends. What a great story.

Sanderson would have to be one of my favourite living writers. He manages to combine great storytelling with inventive worldbuilding of an outstanding scope.

My memories of Elantris centred around the core mystery of the book – how the virtually immortal godlike Elantrians lost their power (don’t worry, that’s no spoiler, you find out on page 1), and the PoV of the prince Raoden who is cursed at the onset and thrown into the fallen city in secret while his royal father declares him dead to the world at large.

When I re-read the novel I realised it held so much more. I had forgotten about the two other major PoV characters for a start: Sarene, Raoden’s bride-to-be who becomes stranded in Arelon, a widow despite the fact that the political marriage never went ahead (thanks to the strange marriage contract), and the warrior-priest Hrathen, who is on a mission to convert the entire country to his militant faith before the theocracy that sent him descends on Arelon in a not-so-holy crusade of destruction and domination.

The twists and turn of the plot, and the intrigue are highly developed, and Sarene and Hrathren become opponents on opposite sides of the political divide, slowly winning each other’s respect. The book has a strong romantic arc, with Raoden and Sarene making a slow dance toward each other and eventually uniting in common cause at the conclusion. The depth of characterisation is definitely a plus for the book, as is the wide range of secondary characters, which all enhance the plot.

There is so much more in this book than I remembered. The development of so many themes through the storyline and characters, from politics and different political models, to the credible, and chilling, tactic of using hatred to unify an political faction. The exploration of different leadership models, the strange mix of mercantile meritocracy and feudal system used in modern Arelon, the democracy of a now vanished republic (destroyed by the theocratic empire of Hrathen’s people), and the benign leadership of the old godlike Elantrians before their magic failed.

The worldbuilding is so extensive, and solid, the setting so convincing, I can hardly believe the book is a standalone. I was left wondering if the additional character arcs and complexity was lost on me the first time, or if I had just forgotten it.

If you like fantasy, and have never read Sanderson’s first novel, it’s well worth the read!

 

Estimating Surface Gravity on a Fictional Planet

So you want to estimate surface gravity on a fictional planet? Easy!

One of the things I had to do as part of the rework of my novel The Tau Ceti Diversion, is to try and work out the surface gravity of my fictional planets. From the Kepler data, there are two exoplanets located in the Tau Ceti system that are likely to be in the system’s habitable zone, or where there is the possibility of liquid water on the surface, and perhaps life as we know it.

To play around with my estimates of gravity, I used ratioed rearrangements of Newton’s law of gravity (law of universal gravitation) and a simple formula relating the density of a spherical planet to its mass and radius (these are at the bottom of the post in the ADDENDUM).

WARNING: MATHS CONTENT!!!

Here’s Newtons famous law:)

law of gravity

The two planets thought to be in Tau Ceti’s habitable zone are denoted Tau Ceti e and Tau Ceti f. What is known about these two planets is their likely orbit, eccentricity, and their mass. All of these properties have been derived by calculation, based on observed data, so are all known to within appropriate error bounds, but I’m leaving the error off my scribblings so things don’t get too messy.

Tau Ceti e is thought to be around 4.3 Earth Masses, or Me (i.e. 4.3 times as heavy as Earth), while Tau Ceti f, the planet that orbits a bit further out, is thought to be around 6.67 Me. For the astronomically minded, these two planets orbit at around 0.55 and 1.35 AU from Tau Ceti respectively.

So, here’s where I cheated a bit, like any good engineer. I started with the answer I wanted and calculated backwards to see if the answer I wanted led to reasonable base assumptions. This is not as cheeky as it sounds, because when you have an insoluble problem (i.e. not enough data is known for an explicit result), an iterative approach is often used.

For my story to work, I needed a surface gravity on my planet of no more than 1.2g – that’s twenty percent higher than Earth’s. But how could I get a gravity that low on a planet that was over 4 times the mass of Earth? The answer is that surface gravity is a function of mass and radius, or going a step further along the calculation path, mass and density.

I used a ratioed form of Newton’s law that allowed me to relate the ratio of two planets gravitational forces to the ratios of their masses and radii. I already knew the ratio of the gravities ( assumed at gTCe/gE= 1.2) and the ratio of the masses (MTCe/ME =  4.3), so could calculate the ratio of radii (rE/rTCe) at 1.89.  Using another formula that related the ratio of the two planet’s densities to their ratioed mass and radii, I could then calculate their ratioed densities (dens TCe/ densE) at 0.63. So at the end of all that, to have a surface gravity of 1.2 g, Tau Ceti e would have to have a density of 63% of Earth’s. Is that reasonable?

The density of Earth is 5.514 g/cm3, not too much different from the density of a rocky planet like Mercury (5.427 g/cm3), but a lot higher than other solar system planets like Jupiter and Uranus (1.326 g/cm3 and 1.27 g/cm3 respectively), comprised of lighter materials. A surface gravity of 1.2g on Tau Ceti e would put its density at around 3.5 g/cm3, less dense than our own rocky planets, but certainly in a feasible range.

So what sort of densities would you expect for the Tau Ceti system? One clue is the metallicity of the system, which is a measure of the ratio of iron to hydrogen in the star’s makeup. In the case of Tau Ceti, this is estimated to be around one third of our own sun. This indicates the star is likely to be older than the Sun, made up of stellar remnants left over from less evolved stars that have not had time to form as much of the heavier elements in their internal fusion factories.

So Tau Ceti is made up of lighter elements. Based on this, it was reasonable to assume that the planets in the Tau Ceti system would also be made up of proportionally lighter elements, and quite possibly in the range I had estimated. Tau Ceti e and Tau Ceti f are also large planets – much larger than our own Earth – so having a density in between Earth and our own gas giants also made sense to me.

Using the same planetary density I had calculated for Tau Ceti e, for the larger Tau Ceti f, gave me a surface density of around 1.4g for the bigger planet – just a little too high for feasible human colonisation – and that fit nicely with my story as well.

It was a lot of fun playing with these calculations, and thankfully the known science fit with my story, at least with some comfortable wiggle room!

Check out what challenges that increased gravity provided for my intrepid explorers in my novel The Tau Ceti Diversion!

Read it now on Amazon!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

ADDENDUM

For those interested in the maths. . .

Density formula:  densp= Mp / (4/3*pi()*rp^3)

Where:

densp= Density of Planet (kg/m3)

Mp = mass of planet (kg)

rp = radius of planet (m)

In ratio form: densp1/densp2= Mp1/Mp2 *(rp2/rp1)^3

 

Ratio of Newtons law relating gravity, mass and radius of two planets:

gp1/gp2= Mp1/Mp2 *(rp2/rp1)^2

 

When It Rains On Mars

It’s been raining in Brisbane this week, but does it rain on Mars? Is it raining on Mars right now?

Hardly. 

Things on the Red Planet are a little different. Here’s some background.

mars

Mars has around one third of Earth’s gravity, around one hundredth of Earth’s atmospheric pressure, and its atmosphere is almost entirely composed of carbon dioxide. So far we have not found any trace of water. There is ice at the poles, but it’s dry ice – frozen carbon dioxide.

That hasn’t always been the case. The various Mars probes, orbital surveyors and buggies that are still roaming about the terrain have not found any water, but they have found ample evidence that water existed on Mars in the past. There are plenty of geological features on Mars that are consistent with the movement of large bodies of water, and secondary rocks that have been observed that are almost certain to have formed inside ancient lakes. It seems certain that our smaller solar system neighbour had a Warm Wet past.

So where is all that water now?

Very early in its history, things on Mars may have been very similar to conditions on nascent Earth, but striking differences between the two planets led to major changes.

For a start, Mars lacked the powerful magnetic field that could shunt away the effects of the solar wind. Like our other neighbour Venus, which also lacks a strong magnetic field, that means that lighter molecules are knocked right out of its atmosphere. Carbon dioxide is more than twice as heavy as water. The molecular weight of CO2 is 44, while H2O is 18. That means a lighter grip on the molecule by Mars’ already lower gravity. So Mars’ early water has likely to have been irrevocably lost to space.

So it does not rain on Mars, we can be sure of that, but do we want it to?

I think the answer to that question should be a resounding “Yes!”

We live on a small, single planet in a vast, unwelcoming universe. Our planet-evolved bodies just don’t do too well in space. Even trying to orbit the planet in a tiny capsule a few kilometre above our heads is problematic. We have to take all our food and water. There is exposure to harsh radiation, and the threat of cold as heat radiates away into space. The lack of gravity itself is a major threat to our health. We just weren’t built for space, but that’s fine because we have Earth, right?

Well, there might have been an intelligent dinosaur that thought the same thing as it watched a 100 mile wide asteroid plunge into South America 65 million years ago, sending the Earth into a decades-long winter that saw most life die.

That was not the only mass extinction that Earth has experienced. There have been many. Life survived, sure, but every time it was knocked orders of magnitude back down the ladder of complexity. Sentience requires stability. Shelter.

If humanity wants to protect the precious flame of its civilisation, we need to look outward.

The astronomical programs looking to other solar systems are geared to finding Earth analogues. Other Earth-sized planets with similar gravity, with water, and that are the right distance from their suns for life. But its going to be a long, long time before we have the technology to cross the vast distances of space to these new places. Think about this – at the same velocity as the Voyager 1 probe it would take an astronaut 70,000 years just to get to our closest star, which is only 4 lightyears away.

So what do we do?

We can terraform. We take a planet like Mars and make it habitable for humans. We can thicken the atmosphere, releasing chemicals with high global warming potential that heat the atmosphere. We can add water and oxygen by diverting asteroids with these resources and crashing them into Mars’ surface. Maybe we could even do some genetic tampering to help the new crop of Mars humans cope with the lower gravity.

So when will it rain on Mars?

I hope it wont’ be too long, because when rains on Mars humanity will have taken its next, great step into the future, ensuring its survival.

Tau Ceti – One of Our Celestial Neighbours

The Tau Ceti system is indeed one of our close cosmic neighbours. At less than 12 lightyears away, it is one of the closest systems to Earth’s own solar system – along with others such as the Centauri system and Epsilon Eridani. Because of its nearness to our own solar system, it has been a favourite in science fiction for decades. A likely first or second step for any intrepid interstellar explorers.

I first started toying with the idea of a novel set in the Tau Ceti system more than twenty years ago. And as these things go, the story developed in fits and starts as I bounced between novel projects and other stories. One of the things about writing science fiction, particularly near-future SF, is that the science never stands still. And particularly, in the last few decades, the developments in astronomy and the identification of planets outside our solar system, called exoplanets, has been almost exponential!

When I wrote the first draft of The Tau Ceti Diversion, there was not a single confirmed planet identified outside Earth’s solar system. Now, thanks largely to the latest Kepler space-based telescope discoveries, there are more than 3000! Not only that, but there have been five identified in the Tau Ceti system itself, with one – and possibly two – in the habitable zone around that star.

What did this mean for me? It meant a ton of research, and lot of very careful rewriting!

In my very early drafts of The Tau Ceti Diversion, I was free to imagine an Earth-like solar system of planets and shape them as I saw fit for the story. But by the time the last draft was completed, only months ago, I had very specific information about what those planets might be. I knew their approximate mass, their orbits, even their eccentricity. I had to go back to the drawing board – and my excel spreadsheets – to try and work out how these known planets would fit within the very specific constraints of my story. Not the least of which was that my story included a tidally locked planet!

It’s no accident that the Tau Ceti system has been popular as a setting for science fiction. Even before the identification of its family of planets, Tau Ceti, in the constellation of Cetus, was known to be very similar to our own Sun. It is smaller, about 78% of the Sun’s mass, and is the closest solitary G-class star (the same spectral class as the Sun). That’s enough to make it seem like our cousin. Add to that Tau Ceti’s stability, and lack of stellar variation, and you already feel like moving in. The only hitch is the presence of a debris disk, which means that any planet orbiting Tau Ceti is likely to face more impact events than planets in our own solar system.

Seen from Tau Ceti, the Sun would appear much like Tau Ceti does to us – a third magnitude star visible to the naked eye.

The composition of Tau Ceti, as measured by the ratio of its iron to hydrogen content, or metallicity, is lower than our Sun, indicating that it is older: its makeup derived from earlier stars yet to manufacture the same amount of heavy elements in their internal fusion factories.

So similar to our own Sun, and so close, it’s no wonder that it is also a target for the SETI (Search for Extra-Terrestrial Intelligence) program.

As readers of my novel The Tau Ceti Diversion will discover, the explorers in my novel certainly find some intelligent life there!

Read it now on Amazon!

Tau-Ceti-Diversion-severed-ebook-cover (Medium)

 

Laser Communication with Spacecraft

New technology promises to take laser communication with spacecraft from science fiction to science fact. This technology offers a new answer to a 60-year-old problem: you have had your launch and your shiny new space probe has made it to orbit without being ripped to shreds by tons of exploding chemical fuel, but once it’s up there, how do you talk to it?

The conventional answer is radio waves, but the rate of information transfer is woefully slow – just ask any NASA scientist who has tried to distill usable data out of probe transmissions. There are no ‘subspace’ communications in the real world, just lots of waiting while the precious data rolls in at the same old pace.

But, thanks to new laser technology, this is about to change.

Radio waves have been the standard since the dawn of spaceflight, but the new optical communications has the potential to increase that rate by as much as 10 to 100 times. That means instead of painstakingly assembling still photographs, we could actually get high-res photos or even video from the surface of other planets, or moons like Titan. How cool is that!

This new communication system will also be crucial as spacecraft are sent further into the solar system, stretching conventional radio transmissions to the limit.

The key factor is that while both radio and lasers travel at the speed of light, lasers use a higher-frequency bandwidth, allowing the transmission of much more data. The typical rate of information transfer might around a few megabits per second (Mbps). For example, NASA’s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter sends data at a maximum rate of around of 6 Mbps. Using laser technology of equivalent size and power rating would probably increase this to 250 Mbps – a huge improvement.

There are some possible wrinkles though. Clouds and atmospheric conditions can cause interference in laser transmissions. And receiving those transmission will require a whole new Earth-based infrastructure – preferably in areas with clear skies.

Radio’s reliability will ensure it will endure as a communication method, but the new technology will continue to step closer to widespread application. The Laser Communications Relay Demonstration (LCRD), led by NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center, will launch in 2019. This probe will test signals between two new ground-based stations and geostationary orbit, a distance of 40,000 km. This will be followed by the Deep Space Optical Communications (DSOC) probe, led by JPL, in 2023, which, along with other science goals, will test transmissions between Earth and its target, a nearby metallic asteroid.

In my novel, The Tau Ceti Diversion, the explorers use laser communications to stay in contact with Earth – well at least until an unnamed saboteur puts the beam out of alignment:) Read more about the story and check out the free sample chapters on Amazon!

Tau-Ceti-Diversion-severed-ebook-cover (Medium)