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