Friday, February 22, 2013

Gear By Gear

Sometimes writing a fiction book is like building a machine. At a certain point, the design phase has to end, the machine has to be built, and in the end, it needs to be tested to see whether it works or not. If it doesn't work, it's either back to the drawing board or worse, the project has to be shelved for a time.

My current work-in-progress, Fractal Standard Time, started out as a dozen interlinked short stories set mostly on Mars. It is now attempting to turn itself into a novel. The original plan was to create stories that could stand individually on their own, but each story would fit into the larger narrative arc of the whole book. On paper, this looked like a workable idea.

Now, however, there are connections that have developed between the individual stories in ways I had not planned. This is a good thing, but the whole book also runs the risk of turning into a never-ending manuscript that never feels completely finished. There are already multiple narrative arcs within each story, narrative arcs between groups of three stories, and a larger arc that stretches across the entire book. It's getting messier by the day because the stories take place over a period of decades and each story builds on the previous ones.

In addition, I'm now making a half dozen maps. I'm also writing brief narratives of the times between the stories...although I don't know if any of that will make it into the final book. I'm losing count of the books, movies, and articles I've read that are related to this subject, and hopefully the science of it all holds up (although I reserve the right to take a liberty or two). Like a complicated machine, though, I'm hoping the whole thing does not collapse under its own metaphorical weight.

I'm hoping within a couple of months, however, that this "machine" of a book will be up and running smoothly. Right now, I'm about halfway through the first edit and I'll have more specific details in the coming weeks as things come together. Some sample stories will also appear on Amazon within the coming month.

Tuesday, February 19, 2013

Sand Geysers and Rocket Storms

Here is a weather report you would never expect to see on Earth: partly cloudy with a chance of "rocket" dust storms.

Dust is a major player in Martian weather, and in fact there have been times when the entire planet has been covered in dust. There are dust devils (like on Earth) and photographs have been taken of lightning in the dust storms. But the other day I came across a new term that I had never heard before: "rocket" dust storms.

Some scientists have created computer models to try and simulate what is happening on the surface, and the belief is that "pockets of dust" inside a storm may become heated by the sun and "rocket" their way towards the upper parts of the atmosphere. The speed of ascent is up to 100X faster than Earth-based storms. The closest analogy could be a rapidly-rising cumulonimbus cloud here on Earth on a summer day, although those climb at a much slower pace.

It also appears there is a lot of lightning with these storms. Although the genesis of lightning in dust storms is not fully understood, this could have implications for future settlements and missions. The Martian atmosphere is also mostly carbon dioxide and much thinner than the lower levels here on Earth. The thinner atmosphere, lower gravity, and finer dust particles could explain the rapid ascent.

Another oddity I recently read about is "sand geysers". These occur in the southern polar regions of Mars and typically are associated with a spring thaw. "Thaw" is a relative word here because the ice on Mars is mostly frozen carbon dioxide. The formation of these geysers is poorly understood, but basically a jet of heated carbon dioxide erupts from the ice sending dust and ice rocketing skyward. Accompanying these geysers are often dark spots and spider-like patterns in the ice.

What does all of this mean for future settlements and exploration?

It means that exploration of the southern ice cap in the spring (via a buggy or other vehicle) might be a bad idea...considering that the geysers may theoretically reach speeds of up to 100 mph. The planet wide dust storms, though, pose a unique challenge. Unless the planet is somehow terraformed, a lot of projects/services/missions that involve people could be temporarily suspended until the storm passes. Depending on how dense the clouds get, finding shelter might be the best bet since visibility could become a significant problem.

Friday, February 15, 2013

Nuts and Bolts

A few years ago, I watched a Nova documentary about lightning (from 1995). In that episode, the scientists stayed inside a protected building and launched small rockets towards building thunderstorm clouds. Attached to the rockets were thin wires and the goal was to trigger a lightning strike and measure the results. They were able to capture a few bolts and analyze the data. Research planes have been used to study lightning storms and the information has been used to improve aircraft construction.

In a similar way, a few of the short stories in my upcoming book Fractal Standard Time deal with lightning bolts. One story in particular (tentatively titled, "Is Heaven Electric?") focuses on some futuristic daredevil inventors intent on studying the secrets of lightning from within the clouds themselves. Their "research missions" eventually lead to other less serious adventures in the next story, "Racing the Anvil Crawlers", but in both cases there is a sense of respect of the power of a bolt. This attitude changes by the end of book, but now I'm getting ahead of myself.

Back here on the ground and in our current age, lightning detection is advancing along as well as lightning prediction systems. Without buying equipment, you can often pick up lightning strikes by tuning an AM radio to the lowest part of the band before a storm comes in. Distant storms can sometimes be detected even if they are hundreds of miles away, and nearby storms usually create some pretty loud static. On some days when storms are just beginning to fire up, you can hear the static gradually increase as the storm grows in height and power. Often a rapid or sharp increase in the amount of static is a sign of powerful updrafts within a cloud. Sometimes this happens right before the anvil top forms and storm turns severe.

In the coming weeks look for some of these short stories to start appearing on Amazon. I'll probably release "Racing the Anvil Crawlers", "The Mathematician's Lawn", and "The Nanobot Sandbox" for starters, but maybe in time I'll put out another one before the full collection is released sometime this spring/summer.

Friday, February 8, 2013

A World Away

I've been doing a lot of research on Mars lately and the other day a thought came to me: considering the distance to the Red Planet, and the cost associated with transporting supplies there, what kind of technology would a settlement have?

Initially, there would be technology related to life support, fuel generation, and shelter. Yet there would also have to be technology related to growing crops, should a long-term permanent settlement become established there. That would likely involve irrigation, heating, and some form of protection over the crops (i.e. a huge greenhouse).

Then there are other types of technology that would likely come along for the ride in the form of entertainment. For example, imagine being locked up in a space capsule for six months just to get there. Would the astronauts be able to watch movies? Would there come a day internet access in space could become a reality?

Once on Mars, it is likely that some basic communications links back to Earth will be quickly established. We already have some satellites in orbit around the planet, so sending out more would not be difficult...just expensive. Yet if you stop and think about all the other infrastructure in existence on Earth, it quickly becomes apparent that at some point a Martian settlement would have to become self-sustaining somehow in terms of establishing electrical lines, water lines, sewer lines, power generation, etc. This would require new ground to be broken in terms of engineering feats, although some lessons could be taken from the construction of the Qinghai-Tibet least in terms of transportation. At some point, a fledgling indigenous industry will spring up, too, and who knows...maybe someday they'll be able to send new technology back to us humble Earthlings.

Is humankind up to the feat? I have no doubt.