Thursday, 31 March 2016

Mars Rover Travel Video

I love this video - it's full of long, lingering gazes across the dunes and deserts of Mars. The place looks a lot like the Western Desert of Egypt, or parts of the Sinai, where I briefly visited when a student. The differences, though, are huge :- no breathable atmosphere, no wells or Bedouin tents, nothing growing. But still, it's a big chunk of territory waiting to be properly explored by people like you or me.

Whatever else you can say about NASA as an administration, I have to admire their scientists and engineers for Curiosity and for releasing so much data and images from its epic trek.

[edit... oops... I just noticed that the images are actually from the Spirit and Opportunity rovers, commemorating 9 years of their missions.]

Wednesday, 23 March 2016

The Rockoon... or ... Balloons to Orbit for real!

Some time ago I posted about JP Aerospace, a company with a great vision to construct massive airships that could reach the stratosphere and beyond, lifting spacecraft past most of the atmosphere fairly gently. The spacecraft would still have to accelerate to orbital velocity.

Well here's a company that appears to be much closer to having a workable business model and a road map of how to get it done. The only thing they need now is a more sensible name:-

Taken from the Bloostar introductory video at

Seriously, I think they have put a lot of great engineering into their designs. It looks like a three-stage craft, built in a torus shape. This shape, they explain, is efficient because it doesn't have to force its way up through the thickest part of the atmosphere, and on the way down it will be a simple way of shedding speed - the drag of a blunt body. 

They're aiming to launch from a ship, and eventually to reuse as much of the rockoon as possible. Yes, that's a real word - apparently there was some thought given to combining balloons and rockets in the late '40s until the '50s, before the military-industrial complex took over the Space Race in the '60s. Look up the all too brief Wikipedia article on Rockoons here. The paragraph about Van Allen's Rockoons, as reported in TIME magazine in 1959, is delightful.

But it's style, don't you think? Floating upwards to space is the way to go.

Thursday, 17 March 2016


Have a look at this design for a 3-D printable house for Mars colonists. It won first prize in a NASA-supported competition among thousands of entrants.

 If you're not impressed by the innovation, there's no hope for you!
Click on the photo to see the webpage

This left me gobsmacked - a British colloquial expression meaning, I suppose, speechless. Very impressed, full of wonder. But instead of silence, this project gave me a lot to think about and talk about. The frozen-beehive look of the thing is utterly different from almost every other concept of how we could live on Mars. 

The winners of this competition are 'SEArch (Space Exploration Architecture) and Clouds AO (Clouds Architecture Office)' based in New York. They sound like intelligent people, with a name like that!

But also it's a clever design because:

- Water - and ice - is available on Mars, so the Marstronauts won't have to carry it with them. That's called In-Situ Resource Utilisation, in the jargon.
- The 3-D printer robot makes its own rail tracks up the walls, so it can keep adding more ice to the top until it finishes.
- 3-D printing ice! I never thought of that. They use an advanced form of the technique for making clear ice cubes - by studying the phase change of water to ice crystals in different conditions. A quote from their site: " ... an understanding of the physics of phase change and the temperature and pressure conditions of the Martian environment, as well as an understanding of the physical deposition techniques required ..."
- Molecules of humble 20 are excellent barricades against the radiation which bombards the surface of Mars. Earth has a strong magnetic field which deflects most of the charged particles of the solar wind, but the magnetic field of Mars is too feeble to have much effect. A thick enough mantle of water can be an effective shield. See this research paper (if you have trouble getting to sleep at night!) Seriously, it's very informative if you can wade through it.

I'm off now to read the rest of it. Maybe the Red Planet Cafe could have an annex made of ice. It would be like a conservatory, but I'm not sure I could grow rubber plants there. I could store the cold drinks in it, at least, and the frozen chicken.

Saturday, 23 January 2016

Called Out Of Darkness: finished at last

Over at my other blog, "The Calling", I posted that I have finished the third book in the story of Valin Derojan, a desert nomad who gets caught up in a galactic-scale struggle of Light and Darkness. 

Called Out Of Darkness took me months to write in my spare time. Now my sons have read the draft pdf copy on their tablets and offered quite a few suggestions and spotted several typos. It helps so much to have another pair of eyes see what has emerged from my brain.

A few of the 'typos' were actually a character speaking bad grammar, an aged alien called Fin. And yes, before anybody suggests otherwise, I did think up this character and name long before a certain sequel came charging onto the movie screen. I don't think he resembles the deserting Stormtrooper in the slightest. My Fin was named Finjan in Book Two, but I shortened it partly because I realised it sounded too much like another character's name. Maybe my sons didn't do their job so well on Book Two! No, I take full responsibility. 

Actually Finjan Snufik is one of my favourites in both books in which he appears. His name actually originates from my memories of reading Tove Jansen's Fin Family Moomintroll long ago as a child, and enjoying most of all the character named Snufkin, who was a homeless wanderer who occasionally turned up to help the Moomintrolls out of a tight spot, or just walk and talk with them awhile. All his possessions (as I remember) were contained in the backpack he carried, and he would pitch his tent wherever he pleased each night, and sleep under the stars. The little flag poking up from his tent was something like this:

When asked what the flag was about, he replied, "There's the green forest below, and the open blue sky above, and a road along in between. And the dot on the road is me!"

It sounded like an ideal existence to a ten-year-old, or however old I was when reading it. I wanted to be that dot! The younger Fin in Book II carries a little of that foot-loose wanderer, and probably a bit of Peter Pan or the young Tarzan, while in Book III Fin is much older and - wait, you'd better read it yourself to see.

Before I can release Called Out Of Darkness on Amazon and CreateSpace, I will need a thorough editing over the space of a few weeks, and I will need to find a good cover image. Any artists out there?

The OTHER Red Planet Cafe!

It looks like someone else has started a cafe just down the road...
No, wait a moment, this one's on the east coast of the U.S.A. It's at the Cradle Of Aviation Museum in Nassau County, which appears to be on Long Island, NY.

Cradle Of Aviation - Red Planet Cafe

Here's how they advertise themselves:

Come to the Red Planet Cafe and enjoy your first meal on Mars! You will be transported to a Space Station on Mars in the year 2040. Look out on the beautiful Martian landscape while enjoying authentic Martian cuisine.The cafe is open from 11:00 AM-3:30 PMAuthentic Martian cuisine includes stellar wraps, salads and sandwiches, fruit, yogurt, vege-burgers and soups, hamburgers, hotdogs, chicken fingers, pizza, grilled cheese and last but not least, the favorite amongst little Martians - curly fries!

Yum yum , can't wait to visit. I'm especially looking forward to trying the hamburgers and asking the staff what they could possibly be made of - because as we know, the cost of freighting real meat up out of Earth's gravity well makes it almost unaffordable. Wait, is that the bill? Oh my, I'd better take a mortgage out on that.

Or maybe they have perfected the art of growing meat in some sort of vat. Or maybe there is life on Mars, and I'm eating it!

Tuesday, 20 October 2015

Running Water on Mars? What about a mail service next?

When my family and I lived in the Middle East, we learned a much stronger appreciation for the value of water. It is essential to life. We developed the habit of always carrying a bottle of water with us in the warmer months, a habit it's hard to break even now. 

On a scorching day of sun and dust when the arid wind is sucking the energy out of your body, you can feel like you're shrivelling up and just want to get out of the heat somehow. A simple glass of water is hugely more precious in that environment than it would be back in Canada where we not only swim in more-or-less-drinkable water, we boat in it. Lake Superior on its own contains about 12,100 cubic kilometres of the stuff! How many bottles of water would that be? Only about 1.7 million for every person alive today on planet Earth!

Ohhh... I got distracted. I do love the lake, though. And it's a reminder how astonishing it would be to find water flowing on Mars, which does appear to be more barren and desiccated than anywhere on Earth. Yet, NASA scientists have found strong evidence that water is still flowing in recent times. The atmosphere is so thin, little more than a vacuum with faint suggestions of carbon dioxide, that any liquid water on the surface should soon boil-and-freeze. Out in the Red Planet Cafe you'll see it's true. If you order tea, you'd better drink it as soon as I've poured it out, or you'll have wasted your money.

Seriously though, I've been reading Mars Up Close: Inside the Curiosity Mission by Marc Kaufman of National Geographic. It's more than just fascinating: it follows the story of the Curiosity rover's journey, landing and exploration so vividly that I can almost see the rusty, dusty hills of Gale Crater without looking at the pictures (of which there is a hoard).

So far, the mystery of Mars appears to be this: So, the planet did have a tremendous amount of water in its distant past, enough to make a deep ocean. And most scientists believed that most of the water vanished long ago into the rocks, evaporating and dissociating into space, freezing into the polar caps. Climatologists have run computer models of the climate on Mars back then to verify this.
Channels cut in the Martian surface as shot by NASA’s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter in 2011. CreditNASA/Reuters

But now Curiosity's discoveries (of course, actually the discoveries of the scientists and engineers who program her) suggest more and more convincingly that there was water flowing in the recent past - by which they mean less than a billion years ago. And the newest discoveries of water streaks down mountainsides shows that it's still happening! So the climatologists and the dry-Mars theorists are scrambling to revise their models or challenge the new theory.
Dark, narrow streaks on Martian slopes discovered by the Curiosity rover are inferred to be formed by seasonal flow of water on contemporary Mars. The streaks are roughly the length of a football field. Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Univ. of Arizona 

What does it have to do with us, though, practically speaking? Quite a lot, I'd say. For a start, it would mean that my cafe doesn't have to depend on the annual supply-drop of water anymore - I can go and gather up my own water by heating the frozen soil and collecting the water vapour! That's what any Mars colonists could do, too.

On a more meaningful note, doesn't it show you how - in the middle of our getting on with life as usual, thinking we have it mostly mapped out and understood - surprise! Reality spins us around and makes us rethink how we understand the world, or the people we meet.

More practically, also, more water on Mars means that colonising it will be more possible, and that is bound to affect the rest of the human race, not just those embarking on that great adventure. Just think of the effects on history of the movement of settlers across the Atlantic (for better or for worse, some might say).

That's why I'm staying tuned to Curiosity's own 'Discovery' channel.

Wednesday, 29 April 2015

Ordinary Life, Part CIIX

I'm still here, really I am! Come on in and pull up a seat. Hang your Mars suit on the rack over there.

This cafe on the Martian plains may show signs of neglect, but it's still one-of-a -kind and it's open day and night. Yes, the winds rattle over the polyurethane tent-roof at over 70 kmh sometimes, and the radiation washes in from space almost unchecked, tarnishing the green paint I put on the outside walls last year, and the dust gets absolutely everywhere, but it's still my place.

Seriously, I've been living. Full-time job, family, and writing Book Three of the series you'll find right here. I keep my eye on what serious space-people like Elon Musk are building and launching, but for now my novel on the colonisation of Mars is waiting in line.

While you sit and sip your Martian lichen tea (just kidding, it's my last stash of green tea from home) you could do worse than look over this link:

And this thought-provoking subject: 

If you're looking for something with a little eye candy and a theme rarely spoken of, go here:

Enjoy your tea.

Friday, 14 November 2014

Martian Salad Bar

As befits a cafe on Mars, here's a post about food.

Astronauts and Marstronauts who are away from sources of Earth-grown food may subsist on dehydrated food, packaged meals and so on, but as the engineer involved in the following video (see link below) points out, the sensory experience of eating real food adds a huge amount to our lives. We take it for granted, but travellers to Mars will probably start longing for something fresh after a few weeks or months. A graduate team at the University of Colorado have been developing a kind of automated plant grower and a robot plant-tender. Don't view this unless you like interesting things.

Meet the Gardening Robot

If such devices are to be used on Mars, in the initial stages of a colony, I would want to ask:

- Does the complexity of the electronics and mechanics in SPOT and ROGR justify the potential gain to the colony? The more complex things are, the harder they are to fix. Many spare parts would be required. Couldn't the colonists simply aim to bring or make their own soil, use some basic temperature & humidity data loggers, and hand-tend their gardens?

Beyond that, agriculture is not my speciality, but I'm sure that researchers such as those in the excellent video have been thinking through the details.

But as soon as they've worked out the details and are harvesting their first crop of Martian chili peppers, I'd like to reserve one kilo for use at the Red Planet Cafe.

Both images extracted from Motherboard video presentation.

Sunday, 2 November 2014

Travelling to orbit by BALLOON?

When you first hear this one, you may be excused for thinking, 'No way! This is a hoax!'

But it's based solidly on real physics, and has absorbed the combined efforts of some serious engineers with degrees and all that.

It's called: Airship-To-Orbit.

Yes indeed. There is a real R&D company called JP Aerospace, founded by John Marchel Powell, that's totally committed to developing a non-rigid, lighter-than-air method of reaching low Earth orbit. And the crazy thing is that it makes perfect sense. Not only that, but it leaves me wondering why people like NASA or ESA haven't pumped a ton of money into it and made it work a whole lot quicker.

They may have their reasons. Read on.

JPA's plan is a three-stage process. First, a U-shaped high-altitude airship carries a crew of 3 up to 140,000 feet (that's well over 40km) where it docks with a 'Dark Sky Station'. It has this misleadingly sinister name because, well, the sky's dark up there. You're almost in space. Then from the Sky Station, an Ascender vehicle slowly powers up into orbit using a hybrid propulsion system which they're still developing. This Ascender vehicle is part-airship, and will measure maybe 6,000 feet (1800m) in length. That's over a mile! But it should be feasible, since this craft never touches the ground and operates well above the most turbulent layers of the atmosphere.

The problems? Well, how ever you get up out of the atmosphere, in order to achieve orbital velocity your vehicle must accelerate. This means energy must be expended, so you need fuel and an efficient propulsion system. How much energy is being saved by the use of airships? How much cheaper will the whole system prove to be?

One thing is undeniable, I think: ATO does look to be the safest way to reach space that's yet been proposed. Airships comprise a large number of gas cells. If a few are punctured, well, that's unfortunate, but it's not a disaster. The worst that will happen is that the airship simply has to float back down to Earth sooner than expected. No explosions, no sudden death.

I have a sinking feeling, though, that the main reason this approach hasn't received a huge swell of investment from aerospace companies is that it could prove to be too cheap! All those lucrative contracts for building big rockets... think about it.