Orbits–Giant solar systems and tiny atoms both contain orbits. Let’s explore giant and microscopic worlds!

Old model of the solar system. Text: Orbits--Giant solar systems and tiny atoms both contain orbits. Let's explore giant and microscopic worlds!

The solar system is made of giant, orbiting bodies: planets

Eight planets orbit the sun, forming our solar system: Mercury, Venus, Earth, Mars, Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus and Neptune. Asteroids also orbit the sun in the Main Asteroid Belt and the Kuiper Belt. The planets and the Main Asteroid Belt orbit the sun in a flat plane, like an invisible plate in space where the planets pass mainly through the plate. Sometimes they rise higher than the plate, sometimes they travel a little lower, but not by much.

The planets are very large objects. The sun, at the center, is the largest object in our solar system.

Tiny atoms are made of microscopic bodies that orbit each other

Cover of The Elegant Universe by Brian Greene

Next, let’s look at some of the very smallest objects in our universe: atoms. According to physicist and author Brian Greene, in his book The Elegant Universe, the ancient Greeks believed that “the stuff of the universe was made up of tiny ‘uncuttable’ ingredients that they called atoms.” The ancient Greeks thought the atom was the smallest building block of all matter. They said the atom was not made of anything smaller and could not be divided.

In the nineteenth century, scientists found that oxygen and carbon were made of the smallest pieces that could be recognized. “[F]ollowing the tradition laid down by the Greeks, they called them atoms. The name stuck,” Greene writes.

But it was later learned that oxygen and carbon atoms, and atoms of all the other elements, were made up of even smaller pieces. “Far from being the most elementary material constituent, atoms consist of a nucleus, containing protons and neutrons, that is surrounded by a swarm of orbiting electrons,” Greene writes.

Writers create new ideas by converting large to small or small to large

Sci Fi writers create fascinating creatures by turning something very small in the real world into something very large in their story. Consider the lowly worm. Frank Herbert turned the worm, a creature of a few inches, into his gigantic and fearsome sandworms of Arrakis in Dune.

Today, let’s do the reverse. Let’s take something very, very large–our solar system–and imagine it as small as an atom. If a sun were the nucleus of an atom, and if each electron orbiting around that nucleus were a planet, what kind of solar system can you imagine?

Build your mini-system!

Imagine your miniature solar system.

  • Would your planets be inhabited? Would the third planet–like Earth–support life?
  • Would travelers cross the vast distances between atoms to visit?
  • Where would your atom-sized solar system be floating? Would it be safe?

Please post your comments below.

Be stellar!

Matthew Cross

What is that?–CYBORG-a person made from natural and mechanical parts

Photo by Judeus Samson (unsplash.com/@shotbyjudeus). Model/artist: Rio Sirah.

Today is Wednesday, so it’s time for our regular feature What is that? Here’s today’s term:

Cyborg – a cybernetic organism; a person or creature comprised of both mechanical and biological parts

Clynes and Kline coined the word “cyborg” to describe modifications to astronauts

Scientists Manfred Clynes and Nathan S. Kline coined the term “cyborg,” which is merely a contraction of the words cybernetic organism. Cybernetics is a study comparing the human nervous system and systems that govern how machines operate.

Clynes and Kline created the word to use in scientific papers discussing how humans might one day be modified with machine or artificial parts so they could endure long travel times in space and survive the hardships of life in space. They even discussed how modifications might make it possible to live without breathing.

Cyberpunk explores future societies filled with cyborgs

Cover of Neuromancer by William Gibson

One of the most famous cyborgs from cyberpunk is a woman named Molly Millions, a “razorgirl” mercenary. Author William Gibson created Molly in his 1981 short story “Johnny Mnemonic.” The short story was later the inspiration for the 1995 film of the same name starring Keanu Reeves.

Molly is a cyborg with eye implants and blades built into her fingers. Here is how Gibson describes her in his cyberpunk classic, Neuromancer. (By the way, she carries a gun Gibson calls a “fletcher” that shoots flechettes or darts.)

“He realized that the glasses were surgically inset, sealing her sockets. The silver lenses seemed to grow from smooth pale skin above her cheekbones, framed by dark hair cut in a rough shag. The fingers curled around the fletcher were slender, white, tipped with polished burgundy. The nails looked artificial.

. . . .

“She wore tight black gloveleather jeans and a bulky black jacket cut from some matte fabric that seemed to absorb light.”

. . . .

“She held out her hands, palms up, the white fingers slightly spread, and with a barely audible click, ten, double-edged, four centimeter scalpel blades slid from their housings beneath the burgundy nails.

“She smiled. The blades slowly withdrew.”

Punk woman with bright red hair wearing black clothes and black surgical mask
Photo by Valery Sysoev (unsplash.com/@valerysysoev).

Become a cyborg!

If you could be a cyborg, what three cybernetic features would you add to your own body?

  • Would you add brain power with faster computing speeds or massive memory?
  • Would you improve your strength, speed, or vision?
  • Would you add wings to fly? Some other upgrade to do what no human can?

Please post your comments below.

Be stellar!

Matthew Cross

A review of Ready Player One by Ernest Cline–a sprawling Sci Fi adventure that explores nerd culture from the 1980s to the future

Cover of Ready Player One showing Wade Watts climbing the stacks.

Here’s an introduction to the sprawling science fiction blockbuster Ready Player One

The hero, Wade Watts, is a poor, orphaned teenager, whose real life exists on the OASIS, a massively multiplayer online game. He is stuck with a third-level avatar.  “Having a third-level avatar was a colossal embarrassment.”  Wade is a gunter, looking for the creator’s secret Easter Egg hidden in the OASIS.  “The Hunt, as the contest came to be known, quickly wove its way into global culture.  Like winning the lottery, finding Halliday’s Easter egg became a popular fantasy among adults and children alike. . . .  A new subculture was born, composed of the millions of people who now devoted every free moment of their lives to searching for Halliday’s egg.  At first, these individuals were known simply as ‘egg hunters,’ but this was quickly truncated to the nickname ‘gunters.’”

Cover of Ready Player One showing Wade climbing the stacks.

The story begins in the laundry room of Wade’s aunt’s trailer, which is in the Portland Avenue Stacks of Oklahoma City.  The stacks are neighborhoods of trailers-stacked-on-trailers in high-rise fashion.  Wade soon scampers to his hideout, the space in the back of a cargo van buried underneath a mound of discarded cars and trucks, where he can log into the OASIS.

The story moves to the OASIS, where most of the story occurs.  Here’s how Wade describes the OASIS:  “a massively multiplayer online game that had gradually evolved into the globally networked virtual reality most of humanity now used on a daily basis.”

The hero’s best friend is Aech, whose real identity and name were a secret.  “Aech pronounced his own avatar’s name just like the letter ‘H’” and he confided to Wade that his real first name began with the letter “H.”

Cover of Ready Player One showing cast members from the movie.

“Aech’s avatar was a tall, broad-shouldered Caucasian male with dark hair and brown eyes.  I’d asked him once if he looked anything like his avatar in real life, and he’d jokingly replied, ‘Yes.  But in real life, I’m even more handsome.’”

Aech is a senior at OPS #1172, a high school on the virtual education planet Ludus in the OASIS.  “He made quite a bit of dough competing in televised PvP arena games after school and on the weekends.  Aech was one of the highest-ranked combatants in the OASIS, in both the Deathmatch and Capture the Flag leagues.  He was even more famous than Art3mis.”  Aech is also a gunter.

In time, Wade and Aech meet the legendary Art3mis, pronounced “Artemis,” another gunter who is famous for her gunter blog, Arty’s Missives.  “Her avatar had a pretty face, but it wasn’t unnaturally perfect.  In the OASIS, you got used to seeing freakishly beautiful faces on everyone.  But Art3mis’s features didn’t look as though they’d been selected from a beauty drop-down menu on some avatar creation template.  Her face had the distinctive look of a real person’s, as if her true features had been scanned in and mapped onto her avatar.  Big hazel eyes, rounded cheekbones, a pointy chin, and a perpetual smirk.”

The villain is Innovative Online Industries (IOI).  IOI “was a global communications conglomerate and the world’s largest Internet service provider.  A large portion of IOI’s business centered around providing access to the OASIS and on selling goods and services inside it.  For this reason, IOI had attempted several hostile takeovers of Gregarious Simulation Systems [which controlled the OASIS], all of which had failed.”  

Stylized cover of Ready Player One showing a cross section of a head where the exposed brain looks like a maze puzzle

IOI also recruited legions of gunters to look for Halliday’s Easter egg.  These mercenaries of the OASIS are called “Sixers” because they all have six-digit employee numbers starting with the numeral “6.”  “To become a Sixer, you had to sign a contract stipulating, among other things, that if you found Halliday’s egg, the prize would become the sole property of your employer. . . .  The company also provided your avatar with high-end armor, vehicles, and weapons, and covered all of your teleportation fares.  Joining the Sixers was a lot like joining the military.”

This story feels like all your best memories of playing video games.  Any kind of game.  If you like space games, first-person shooters, quest games, arcade games, classic Atari, it does not matter.  Ernest Cline included them all in Ready Player One.  There is at least one scene dedicated to every kind of game, even video games that do not exist yet.  (The one exception may be sports games, unless you consider the jousting in Joust to be a sport.)

You should read this book because if you love reading fiction, then you probably love a good escape from reality.  Wade, the ultimate escapist who even goes to school in a virtual world, takes us on an epic journey through every kind of virtual adventure imaginable.

You may also want to read this book if you love 1980s movies, music, games and trivia.  Or if you love geek or nerd culture.  This book is chock full of references to everything we geeks and nerds love.  Everything!

Cover of Ready Player One showing the stacks in green schematic over black

If you read this book, you’d better not mind nerd culture, endless 1980s references, and the word “sucks.”  Wade likes that word a lot and a few other strong words now and then.  And you’d better not mind a long book.  It’s great, but it’s long.

Here’s a good part:  “I walked across the chamber to the foot of the dais.  From here I could see the lich more clearly.  His teeth were two rows of pointed cut diamonds arrayed in a lipless grin, and a large ruby was set in each of his eye sockets.

“For the first time since entering the tomb, I wasn’t sure what to do next.

Cover of Ready Player One showing gate, figure and key in 8-bit

“My chances of surviving one-on-one combat with a demi-lich were nonexistent.  My wimpy +1 Flaming Sword couldn’t even affect him, and the two magic rubies in his eye sockets had the power to suck out my avatar’s life force and kill me instantly.  Even a party of six or seven high-level avatars would have had a difficult time defeating him.”

Have you already read it?  What did you think?

If not, do you have a question about this book?  Give me a try.

Please post your comments below.

Be stellar!

Matthew Cross

Space Pirates vs. Smugglers–Smugglers use guile to ship illegal goods; pirates take by brute force

Gold skull superimposed over whole moon
Images: Full moon photo by Mana5280 (unsplash.com/@mana5280) and skull photo by Luke Southern (unsplash.com/@lukesouthern).

In Kristyn Merbeth’s space opera Fortuna, the Kaiser family uses their ship, Fortuna, to smuggle goods–especially weapons–between the planets, which makes them outcasts in the system. The pirate crew of the Red Baron harries the Fortuna between planets, set on taking by force the goods the Kaisers smuggled off planet.

The boarding of Fortuna

Cover of Fortuna by Kristyn Merbeth

“I sway on my feet as the floor rocks beneath me. That must be our ship making contact with the Red Baron. We’ve been through this enough times that I know what to expect. It’s illegal to outfit ships with weapons, and no planet will let you land with them, but the Red Baron has found a technically legal way to launch an assault with those magnetic grappling hooks. They’ll keep us pinned to their side and hack our security pad to force the ramp open directly into their ship’s loading zone, leaving our cargo bay vulnerable and waiting to be plundered.

“Right on cue, the high-pitched whine of machinery starts on the other side of the ramp. That would be them plugging into the hatch and accessing our security system, which means we have only a couple of minutes before they’re inside. The twins take their spots on either side of the ramp, backs pressed against the wall and guns at the ready. I lift my borrowed blaster and position myself near the supply closet door.

. . . .

“My response is swallowed by the metal-on-metal screech of the cargo ramp ripping fully open, leaving the belly of Fortuna exposed to the Red Baron and its occupants.

“The Red Baron‘s crew is a bunch of strays from all over the system–much like ours, but bound together by greed rather than blood. My family might be smugglers, but the Red Baron crew can’t even keep their smuggling half-honest. Instead, they’re pirates, stealing from other ships like ours.”

Choose sides!

In the battle for riches, would you choose to be a smuggler or a pirate?

  • Who is smarter?
  • Who is more dashing?
  • Who is the greater scoundrel?

Please post your comments below.

Be stellar!

Matthew Cross

3 things you must know about today’s NASA launch for Mars!

A view of the Atlas V rocket, carrying the Perseverance rover, as it sits on the launch pad on July 28, 2020.
A view of the United Launch Alliance Atlas V rocket, carrying the Perseverance rover, at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida on July 28, 2020. Image Credit: NASA/Joel Kowsky.

1) The robot explorers include a car-sized rover and a helicopter

The rover, named Perseverance, weighs 2,260 pounds. (For comparison, my 2003 Honda Civic weighs about 2,400 pounds.) Perseverance will explore the Jezero Crater, which once held a river and a lake on Mars. Today, Mars is cold and dry. Perseverance will be looking for signs of water, ice made from water, and signs of ancient, microscopic life.

Perseverance and its specialized equipment will:

  • Collect rocks to send back to earth so scientists can examine them in detail for signs of ancient life.
  • Use radar to search for ice made from water underneath the ground.
  • Test a machine that will generate oxygen from Mars’s carbon dioxide atmosphere.

Helicopter on Mars!

Perseverance will also launch a small, 4-pound helicopter named Ingenuity. This will be a first for NASA and all Earth’s space explorers! Never before have humans operated a rotary-winged aircraft–or rotorcraft–on an alien world.

Ingenuity will help NASA test whether rotorcraft will make good explorers of planets with an atmosphere. Helicopters may make good survey craft that can quickly map large sections of planets and find locations of interest for rovers to examine in more detail.

2) The mission will provide historic audio and video records

Perseverance has 23 cameras and two microphones. Some of those cameras will capture footage of Perseverance’s touchdown on Mars, scheduled for Feb. 18, 2021. One of the microphones will also record the landing.

The other microphone will record Perseverance as it explores the Martian surface and drills into the Martian rock.

3) Perseverance and Ingenuity were named by kids

Alex Mather, a seventh-grader from Virginia, submitted the name Perseverance. Vaneeza Rupani, a high-school junior from Alabama, recommended the name Ingenuity. Both got to watch the launch in person at Cape Canaveral in Florida.

What is the timeline for Perseverance’s mission?

A United Launch Alliance Atlas V rocket carrying Perseverance and Ingenuity launched today at 7:50 AM eastern time. Perseverance will travel through space for seven months to reach Mars. A rocket-powered crane will lower Perseverance to the Martian surface on Feb. 18, 2021. Ingenuity will be strapped to the belly of Perseverance. The two machines will explore Mars for at least one Martian year, which is almost two Earth years.

Perseverance will collect at least 20 rock samples. NASA is planning a joint mission with the European Space Agency to pick up those samples and bring them back to Earth as early as 2031.

You can learn more in a great article for Space.com by author Mike Wall. You can also find Mike Wall on Twitter at @michaeldwall.

NASA also has a really cool mission packet filled with photos and facts.

Plan your Mars mission!

Plan your own mission to the Red Planet. If you were in charge of a NASA mission to Mars, what would you do?

  • Send robots to explore the surface or the atmosphere?
  • Send astronauts to set up a science lab?
  • Send colonists to settle Mars?

Please post your comments below.

Be stellar!

Matthew Cross

What is that?–COMET-a ball of ice and rock orbiting the sun that leaves a ‘flaming’ trail of particles behind it

Image: 2013 image of Comet Ison on its path towards the Sun. Source: NASA/MSFC/Aaron Kingery

Today is Wednesday, so it’s time for our regular feature What is that? Here’s today’s term:

Comet – an object orbiting the sun made of rock and ice that grows a “tail” of vapor and dust when it approaches the sun

Dirty Snowball

Comets are sometimes described as “dirty snowballs” because they are made of a mixture of both ice and rock and dust.  They orbit the sun in an elongated, oval path that can take hundreds or even millions of years to  complete.  They may spend much of their time traveling through the Kuiper Belt, a region of space beyond Neptune, the furthest planet from our sun.  

Flaming Tail

Comets are different from asteroids, which tend to be composed of rock and/or metals, because they contain large amounts of ice–frozen water and other frozen gases.

This image of Comet Ison, published in 2013, was made from combined photos taken through blue and red filters. Source: NASA/ESA/Hubble Heritage Team (STScI/AURA).

“When frozen, they are the size of a small town.  When a comet’s orbit brings it close to the Sun, it heats up and spews dust and gases into a giant glowing head larger than most planets,” according to NASA.

When a comet’s orbit brings it near to the Sun, the Sun’s warmth heats up the comet’s ice.  The melted ice boils off and the comet’s ice, dust, and rock surface make a cloud around the comet.  As the cloud trails behind the comet it leaves a wide path of particles millions of miles long.  The sun lights up this tail, sometimes making it visible on Earth.

Parts of a comet

Source: NASA
  • Nucleus–the main body of the comet, which is made of frozen gases, rock and dust
  • Coma–the cloud of particles and gases that form around the comet nucleus when it is heated by the Sun
  • Head–when a comet is traveling near the sun, and a coma forms, the head is the nucleus and coma, which may be 600,000 miles (1 million kilometers) across.  The head is a bright cloud of particles and gases lit by the sun.
  • Tail–when the comet is near the sun and the coma forms, the tail is the long trail of particles and gases left behind the head as it hurtles through space.  Tails can stretch for millions of miles.

How many comets are there in our solar system?

Scientists estimate there are billions of comets orbiting the Sun in paths that pass far outside Neptune’s orbit.  They travel in the far distant portions of our solar system called the Kuiper Belt and the Oort Cloud.

Although scientists think there are billions of comets, we have only discovered and named less than 4,000 comets.

The European spacecraft Giotto took this photograph of the nucleus of Halley’s Comet in 1986. Image Credit: Halley Multicolor Camera Team, Giotto Project, ESA.

How are comets named?

A comet is usually named after the person that discovered it.  Halley’s Comet, perhaps the most famous comet, is named after Edmond Halley, an English astronomer.  He studied historical reports of other astronomers and suggested that reports of a comet appearing every 75 years might be the same comet.  He predicted it would appear again in 1758.  He was right and the comet was named after him.  But he did not live long enough to see its return and his theory proven.

Halley’s comet will not appear to us on Earth again until 2061.

Many comets now have the names of spacecraft in their names–names like Linea, Soho and Wise–because spacecraft (and their operators) are very good at finding comets.

Design your own comet!

Imagine you discovered a comet flying through space and it was named after you. What would it look like? What types of ices and rock would it be made of? How long would it take to orbit the Sun? What year would we see it next in Earth’s nighttime sky?

Please post your comments below.

Be stellar!

Matthew Cross

What makes a GOOD ALIEN in science fiction?–Must they share human traits to be likable? How alien is too alien?

Headline image of feminine, punk-style alien with mohawk wearing headphones

If you love Sci Fi, you probably love a good alien encounter. But do you love the aliens or love-to-hate the aliens?

Humans have difficulty connecting with aliens that are too, well, alien. The more human they seem, the better are able to connect with them. This should not be too surprising given that we humans are social animals that (generally) thrive with social interaction with other humans.

Photo of smiling man's head and shoulders
A “mugshot.” Photo by Joseph Gonzalez (unsplash.com/@miracletwentyone).

I even learned in journalism school that people enjoy seeing photographs of people more than anything else. We were taught to include photos of people to liven up dull newspaper pages.  And if all you have is a “mug shot”–a photograph of a person’s face and (sometimes) shoulders–then use it! Readers are more likely to read a story that includes a photograph of a person’s face than a story with just a headline and text.

Photo by Garrett Jackson (unsplash.com/@jxnsartstudio).
Photo by Charles Deluvio (unsplash.com/@charlesdeluvio).

Babies? What’s so great about babies?

I have also read that humans are attracted to animals that superficially look like babies.  (After all everyone loves babies, even though they are mostly useless!) That is supposed to explain the popularity of certain breeds of dogs and cats with large eyes and round faces.  I don’t know if that’s true, but I do know that toy makers seem to make stuffed toy cats and dogs with bigger and rounder eyes every year.  (That drives Mrs. C crazy. She finds “big-eyed” dolls to be creepy.)  

Babies: Cute, adorable, mostly useless. Photo by Chayene Rafaela (unsplash.com/@chayene).

My Theory

So I’m proposing the theory that readers prefer creatures that approximate human appearance, habits and speech.  Also, I think we will accept close cousins, that is, creatures that remind us of the class of mammals. So things that appear warm-blooded and covered in skin or fur; things that look like cute dogs or cats or Teddy bears.  We also like these. It’s OK if they have six legs or six eyes. That’s the cool part that makes them alien; alien without being too alien.

Readers prefer creatures that approximate human appearance, habits and speech.

Photo by Francesco Ungaro (unsplash.com/@francesco_ungaro).

Reptile Men and Women

What about reptile men?  Well, if they have two arms and two legs, that’s a good start. If they have a face with two eyes and a mouth, then that’s pretty humanlike, even if they have forked tongues and scales instead of skin.  I still think they are more likely to be cast as baddies than good guys, especially in a movie. But in a book, if such a creature rescues a kitten (or a human child), I think we can all get on board with that. (Remember, kittens and babies are cute and people like them!) 

What about reptile women? Well, generally, the same goes for reptile women as reptile men. But, well, guys–meaning readers who are human males–seem to like almost all alien women. Why? Well . . . why do sailors like mermaids? That’s a subject for another blog.

What about dragons?

Cover of The Dragonriders of Pern by Anne McCaffrey

I think we all have a challenge liking creatures that are more reptile, amphibian, or even possibly avian than human, especially the intelligent ones.  Dragons may be the one exception. People do love dragons.

And, yes, there are plenty of dragons in Sci Fi. They are not only in fantasy. See Anne McCaffrey’s Dragonriders of Pern series.  Grand Master McCaffrey excels in disproving my point and making large, intelligent reptiles–reptiles that look nothing like humans–very lovable.  (Or is she the exception that proves the rule?)

Ruth, the white dragon, is a favorite of fans of the Pern series. Image from pern.fandom.com. Read more about Ruth the white dragon.

What is the problem with aliens that are not humanlike?

I think there are a couple of things at work here.  One is a natural fear of certain types of creatures found on Earth.  So, for example, if we are familiar with certain dangerous animals, such as snakes and spiders, then I propose writers will have a hard time making likeable aliens that remind us of those creatures.  And they make wonderful “bad guy” aliens.

Large boulder in Avebury, United Kingdom. Photo by Zoltan Tasi (unsplash.com/@zoltantasi).

The second is the challenge of making likable creatures that are so alien that readers have no way to connect to them.  For example, consider a creature that looks like a large boulder.  A creature that has a mouth but no eyes, ears or nose. A creature that thinks love and passion and excitement are all pointless. Does that sound appealing?

If an alien is not full of the same emotions and desires as humans, then it’s hard for us to connect.

A creature that has learned no form of communication other than to shove aside its brother as a signal that it is rolling too close.  A creature that enjoys listening to the vibrations of the stars as music and is tickled by gravitational waves, so it has no further need for entertainment or socializing.  If it is not interested in human pursuits, if an alien is not full of the same emotions and desires as humans, then it’s hard for us to connect. It’s hard for us to care.

So those are some of my theories.  Do you agree? Do you have examples you like that prove or disprove this?

Please post your comments below.

Be stellar!

Matthew Cross

Battleship–repairing a spaceship after battle can be a chance to upgrade

Image of spaceship floating in front of a planet

Repair the Dauntless

In Duel in the Dark by Jay Allan, Captain Tyler Barron fought a desperate space battle at the edge of the Rim to protect the Confederation’s rear flank and now the great battleship, Dauntless, sits in Archellia’s base repair facility. In the sequel, Call to Arms, Capt. Barron needs the Dauntless ready for the front line in an all-out war with the totalitarian Union.

“Tyler Barron stood next to the clear hyper polycarbonate wall of the space station, looking out at his battleship. Dauntless firmly attached to the station by a series of massive docking cradles. He’d been her captain for over a year now, and he had led his ship in one of the most desperate and deadly battles imaginable, yet he realized now that he’d rarely seen her from the outside.

She was beautiful in her own way, almost symmetrical, but with just enough irregularity to give her charm.

Call to Arms by Jay Allan

“The battleship was almost four kilometers long, whitish-gray metal with huge structures projecting out on each side, her landing bays. She was beautiful in her own way, almost symmetrical, but with just enough irregularity to give her charm. At least in her devoted captain’s eyes. Especially now that her wounds had been healed–the outer ones, at least. There had been long gashes in Dauntless‘s hull when she’d arrived back at Archellia, and half her laser turrets had been blown to bits or melted down to slag.

“Barron could see small specks on her hull, barely visible from this distance. Suited technicians, he realized, working all along Dauntless‘s exterior. There were repair boats moving around her too, some of them hoppers carrying supplies, others work ships extending giant robotic arms to repair various damaged areas. Near the bow, two larger craft were easing a large turret into place, a replacement for one of Dauntless‘s destroyed second batteries.”

Choose your upgrades!

Capt. Barron gives the commander of the repair facility only two weeks to finish repairs. The Dauntless‘s own chief engineer, Commander Fritz, returns early from shore leave to speed up repairs. She only has time to choose three upgrades. What should they be?

  • Restore another main gun? The massive particle accelerators are highly advanced and have a long range, but they are also “temperamental and prone to break-down from even the slightest damage.”
  • Add another squadron of bombers to its onboard fleet of ships or opt for the lighter but faster fighters?
  • Reinforce the armor?

Please post your comments below.

Be stellar!

Matthew Cross

Quick and easy explanation of ASTEROIDS

Image Headline: What is that Asteroid--A tiny planet, a rock, a lump of metal--any one of these--floating in space without gravitry and without air

Asteroid – lump of rock or metal that orbits the sun

An asteroid, a word also meaning “like a star,” is a lump of rock or metal–and sometimes ice–that orbits the sun. Some orbit the sun directly, some orbit other planets, and some orbit our entire solar system.

Asteroid Belt

What is the Asteroid Belt and where is it located?

Millions of asteroids orbit the sun just like the Earth and the planets do. Most of the asteroids scientists have found are located in the Main Asteroid Belt, which is a band of asteroids 140 million miles wide. The Main Asteroid Belt starts just outside the orbit of Mars and is well inside the orbit of Jupiter, which is the next planet out from Mars.

Image of the asteroid Bennu and other asteroids in the distance
The asteroid Bennu likely formed in the Main Asteroid Belt, maybe two billion years ago, but its path brings it much closer to Earth now. Source: NASA.

See an amazing image of the Main Asteroid Belt here at Space.com. (The Main Asteroid Belt is shown in green.)

If you have ever seen a model of the solar system, you know the eight planets all travel in the same plane around the sun. Their orbits–the paths they take–look like a disc (or flat plate) of rings around the sun. The Main Asteroid Belt creates a thick ring on this same plane, like its part of the same disc or plate. The asteroids in the Main Asteroid Belt also travel in the same direction around the sun as all the planets of our solar system.

What are asteroids made of?

Most asteroids in the Asteroid Belt are made of rock. Some asteroids are made of metal–mostly iron and nickel. These metal asteroids are shiny and reflect the sun’s light. Some asteroids are made of a mix of rock and metal. And some more distant asteroids are made of ice. Some asteroids may even contain ice made from water, which could be useful to support astronauts if we colonize the Asteroid Belt.

Image of the asteroid Psyche showing two large craters
Artist’s concept of the asteroid 16 Psyche, a metallic asteroid composed of iron and nickel, like the Earth’s core. Psyche may be the stripped core of an ancient planet. Image credit: Maxar/ASU/P. Rubin/NASA/JPL-Caltech.

Some asteroids are solid. Some asteroids are just “piles of rubble held together by gravity,” according to an article by Nola Taylor Redd on Space.com. “Most asteroids aren’t quite massive enough to have achieved a spherical shape and instead are irregular, often resembling a lumpy potato.”

How big are asteroids?

Asteroids range from the size of specks of dust to moonsize. The largest asteroid in the Asteroid Belt is the dwarf planet Ceres. It is almost 590 miles across (diameter). That is small compared to Earth’s moon, which has a diameter of 2,158 miles. But it’s much bigger than one of Mars’s moons, Deimos, which is only seven miles across.

Ceres comprises 25 percent of the mass in the Main Asteroid Belt.

There are a number of other asteroids that are 100 and 200 miles long.

What about other asteroids?

Image of the asteroid Arrokoth, which looks like a sphere stuck to a slightly larger sphere, giving the impression of a two-ball snowman
Here is a photo of Arrokoth taken by the New Horizons spacecraft. Image grabbed from NASA’s website.

Beyond Neptune is an even wider ring of asteroids called the Kuiper Belt. The Kuiper Belt includes the dwarf planet Pluto, which astronomers once used to count among the nine planets in our solar system. There is even a snowman-shaped asteroid in the Kuiper Belt named Arrokoth.

NASA has a great interactive web page dedicated to the Kuiper Belt.

Eros

The asteroid Eros has made history both in astronomy and science fiction.

Discovery of Eros

Two astronomers discovered Eros independently on the same day, August 13, 1898–Gustav Witt in Berlin, Germany and Auguste H.P. Charlois in Nice, France. It was the first near-Earth asteroid ever discovered.

Image of the asteroid Erros, which looks like an oblong shape with a crater near the center
This image of Eros was created from four images taken by NEAR on February 14, 2000, immediately after taking orbit. The crater in the center is four miles wide. Source: NASA/JPL/JHUAPL.

NASA’s visit to Eros

Eros was also the first asteroid on which we have landed a spacecraft. Eros, named after the Greek god of love, was first orbited by a spacecraft, the NEAR spacecraft, on Valentine’s Day, February 14, 2000. After nearly a year orbiting and studying Eros, the NEAR spacecraft landed on Eros on February 12, 2001.

Astronomers have also used Eros to determine the distance between the sun and the Earth and to determine the combined mass of Earth and the Moon.

See a NASA’s 3-D rendering of Eros that you can move and manipulate on your own screen.

Ender’s Game

Eros also entered the annals of Science Fiction in the novel Ender’s Game, which won both the Hugo and Nebula awards.

Cover of Ender's Game by Orson Scott Card

In Ender’s Game, the hero Ender Wiggin travels to the asteroid Eros, which has been turned into I.F. Command, a military base and training center, to finish his military training.

“The tug reached Eros before they could see it. The captain showed them the visual scan, then superimposed the heat scan on the same screen. They were practically on top of it–only four thousand kilometers out–but Eros, only twenty-four kilometers long, was invisible if it didn’t shine with reflected sunlight.”

“The captain docked the ship on one of the three landing platforms that circled Eros. It could not land directly because Eros had enhanced gravity, and the tug, designed for towing cargoes, could never escape the gravity well.”

. . . .

“Ender hated Eros from the moment he shuttled down from the tug. He had been uncomfortable enough on Earth, where floors were flat; Eros was hopeless. It was a roughly spindle-shaped rock only six and a half kilometers thick at its narrowest point. Since the surface of the planetoid was entirely devoted to absorbing sunlight and converting it to energy, everyone lived in the smooth-walled rooms linked by tunnels that laced the interior of the asteroid. The closed-in space was no problem for Ender–what bothered him was that all the tunnel floors noticeably sloped downward. From the start, Ender was plagued by vertigo as he walked through the tunnels, especially the ones that girdled Eros’s narrow circumference. It did not help that gravity was only half of Earth-normal–the illusion of being on the verge of falling was almost complete.

[E]veryone lived in the smooth-walled rooms linked by tunnels that laced the interior of the asteroid.

Ender’s Game

“There was also something disturbing about the proportions of the rooms–the ceilings were too low for the width, the tunnels too narrow. It was not a comfortable place.”

By the end of Ender’s Game, we learn the secret of the unusual construction of the base inside Eros. But I won’t spoil author Orson Scott Card’s surprise. So read Ender’s Game and find out for yourself.

Design your own asteroid!

Image: Artist's concept of an asteroid.
Artist’s concept of an asteroid. Source: NASA.

As we’ve seen, asteroids can be any shape you want. What shape would you make your asteroid? Would you create a military base or a shopping mall inside it? Or would you make a theme park or a factory on the outside?

Would you add your own gravity–like I.F. Command did in Ender’s Game? Or would you let visitors enjoy the fun of zero-grav?

What would you name your asteroid?

Please post your comments below.

Be stellar!

Matthew Cross

Weird science that makes giant arthropods impossible

Some of Sci Fi’s most interesting aliens look like or share traits with Earth’s arthropods.  Arthropods include insects (like, ants), centipedes and millipedes, arachnids (like, spiders) and crustaceans (like, crabs and lobsters).  Think of the giant sandworms of Arrakis in Dune, the spider-like buggers of Ender’s Game, and the Bugs of Starship Troopers, which are very cool alien space bugs.  All of these aliens are human-size or larger.

But on Earth, physics and genetic history have kept arthropods much smaller than humans.  The largest arthropods alive are certain crabs and lobsters, and even the largest of these, the American Lobster, does not grow to 50 pounds.  Yes, that’s big for a lobster, but not exactly the match of a human in a gladiator ring or in a space battle.  It’s certainly not large enough to develop the large, complex brain needed for sentience.

Photo of crayfish. Crayfish exoskeletons form natural armor. Photo by Anton Ahlberg (https://unsplash.com
/@anton_ahlberg).
Crayfish exoskeletons form natural armor. Photo by Anton Ahlberg (https://unsplash.com
/@anton_ahlberg).

On Earth, arthropods developed exoskeletons (skeletons on their outsides), which provide great protection from enemies and allow the evolution of an amazing range of weapons and tools.  Consider the giant claws of a crab or the sting of a scorpion.  But exoskeletons restrict how large arthropods can afford to grow.  Molting — the process of replacing an exoskeleton as the animal grows — takes longer the larger the animal grows.  Some crabs take an entire month to climb out of their old skeleton and allow the new one to harden up.  Exoskeletal legs are also basically tubes filled with muscle and tissue.  If an arthropod grew to human size, the exoskeleton would not be strong enough to hold up the ‘pod’s weight.  And the arthropod’s muscles would not be strong enough to move the exoskeleton around.

Arthropods also evolved in a way that their cells get oxygen through gills, their skin, or tubes in their bodies, called tracheae, that open directly to the outside air.  Humans and other vertebrates have lungs and feed oxygen to the cells through the blood.  As ‘pods grow larger, it becomes harder and harder to get enough oxygen through their skin or tracheae to every cell.  A ‘pod as large as a human might easily suffocate.

As ‘pods grow larger, it becomes harder and harder to get enough oxygen to every cell.

But a ‘pod-like animal that evolved on another planet might not have those limits.  For example, we can imagine an alien “Pod” that evolved from simpler ancestors with both an internal and external skeleton.  Such creatures might have an internal skeleton in their arms and legs to support the weight of a large body.  But with a partial exoskeleton, the Pod might have a natural helmet for its head, giant claws, or possibly a scorpionlike tail.  With lungs instead of tracheae, the Pods could breathe like we do.  Finally, on an alien world with different elements in the rocks and soil, the Pods might evolve with exoskeletons made from lighter, stronger materials that would allow them to grow mighty armor and still move quickly.

Photo of two red crab claws clasping. Could a Pod with giant crablike claws evolve on some distant planet? 
Photo by Joshua Théophile (https://unsplash.com@nunchakouy).
Could a Pod with giant, crablike claws evolve on some distant planet?
Photo by Joshua Théophile (https://unsplash.com@nunchakouy).

Check out this great University of California at Berkeley website that explains the reasons that limit the size of arthropods on Earth.

Photo of bee.  Bees and wasps can fly AND sting. Photo by USGS (https://unsplash.com
/@usgs).
Bees and wasps can fly and sting.
Photo by USGS (https://unsplash.com
/@usgs).

Design a Pod

Let’s design our own alien Pod.

What two features that exist on Earth’s arthropods would you add to your Pod?  Would they make it a fearsome foe?  Would it have any weaknesses?

Please post your comments below.

Be stellar!

Matthew Cross