Interstellar Supercruiser

Lives aren’t worth money! Single meaning, I swear!

Your average interstellar supercruiser measures approximately 1 meter wide and 175 long.

Companies demand results, and results demand fast action. And yet fast action over interstellar distances requires years, at minimum, for light to crawl the distance. Anything faster is literally the same as time travel.

So if you’re going to ship an employee in hibernation, you need to get going fast—not only for “results”, but also to avoid, for want of a better term, freezer burn.

So your average interstellar cruiser is hurled to speed by high-energy lasers and decelerated by nuclear pulse. The narrow cross section, droplet shield, and tungsten ablator give the craft a fighting chance of avoiding direct hits from nearly all of the hundred billion or so dust particles it will relativistically encounter.

Nevertheless, mortality rates are still above 70%.

Indian Food

Grousers will be spaced.

“So I hear you like curries.”

“That’s not funny. You know I hate how space erodes your sensitivity to taste.”

“Fair enough. The rations, which are, by the way, spicy precisely to counter that effect, hit the spot for me, at least. It’s too bad there isn’t more to go around.”

“It’s a long flight and every gram counts. Cut it with water.”

“Ugh. I hate drinking our own rad shielding.”

“The rubbery taste is a bit off-putting, I’ll grant. But the ammonic tang of lightly reprocessed piss isn’t any better.”

“True enough. Pass the water. And also the aloo matar.”


Ed note: c.f. spacecoach concept IRL.

Eggshell

Well that’s depressing.

There is a terrible problem with interstellar travel. That problem is distance.

At the speed of light, faster than which no material object can dream of traveling, Earth’s nearest neighbors lie years away, and the truly interesting ones, decades or centuries. But even if the, quite frankly, absurd energy requirements to accelerate a spaceship even close to that fast were tractable—which, do not forget for a moment, they are not—there are other obstacles with which to contend.

One of these is dust. At relativistic speeds, dust particles start looking an awful lot like mountains. And hitting one of them starts to look an awful lot like detonating a nuclear warhead, point-blank, against your hull.

So you can’t cover that inconceivably vast distance by going fast. Which means you need to go slow. And there, you have another, tremendous problem: time. In some sense, this is the same problem—which is why distance and time are the same thing to a rocketeer.

To put this in perspective, the U.F.P. Discovery left low Earth orbit in the year 2401. At its (destination-relative) ludicrous speed of 0.00114c, its target Gliese 667 Cc lay 23.62 light years—and nearly 21,000 years—ahead. That’s like the empires of ancient Egypt, ancient Mesopotamia, ancient and imperial China, the Mayans, the Romans and Greeks, Mongols, Ottomans, and the entirety of modern world history all concatenated together end-to-end.

Distance and time are the same thing to a rocketeer.

How do you build an airlock door that lasts that long? You can’t. Let alone a nuclear reactor, a computer, a rocket engine, a 3D fab, or any of the other necessities of the 25th century. You probably can’t even build a wrench.

So the Discovery really is just a tremendous steel cylinder, with walls some 90 meters thick at points—and the people and resources were just welded permanently inside. It has no guidance, no sensors, no engines, no nothing. It’s the only way the ship itself could possibly survive. It was accelerated by Mercury’s laser launching grid, beaming maximum power clear across the system for ten full months.

So there’s a self-contained biosphere, plus raw building material, out in that speeding hulk. Someday, in Earth’s distant future, they will arrive, and the Discovery, still on utterly passive guidance, will spontaneously be captured into a wide and long elliptical orbit around the system’s central two suns.

The hope is that, if any of the humans’ descendants survive tens of thousands of years of cultural isolation, they will be able to devise a way to slice their way out of their steel imprisonment—that protective eggshell—to seek their futures on the unknown worlds they may find.

Assuming, of course, that their remembered origins are not lost to the relegation of legend.

Brave New World

The thermometer says you’re hiding.

The newest Andromeda-class battlecruisers come equipped with a startling capability: stealth.

See, there’s a problem in space. Space is big and, well, quite empty. You can’t hide anywhere, except behind something like a planet—which puts a limitation of practicality, since 99% of the time, ships aren’t anywhere near the vicinity of planets.

So you’re tasked with the problem of hiding an enormous hunk of metal in wide-open spaces where anybody with an IR telescope can see you coming probably a billion kilometers away, since your 290-Kelvin hab bubble stands out like a searchlight against cold vacuum.

Well, some engineer took a look at that, and decided to just put a refrigerator on the ship pointed outwards. The trouble with that is that the heat you pull from the hull has to go somewhere, and since it can’t leave from the hull, it needs to go back inside the ship. So you’re invisible, but you’re cooking your crew.

There the matter stood, until somebody realized this is actually fine—if you have the right tactics.

You’re invisible, but you’re cooking your crew.

When the U.F.P. Relentless left her construction site in orbit above Mars on her maiden voyage, the first thing she did was turn the coolers on max. Over the long months of the Hohmann transfer to Earth, they dumped her waste heat through radiators into internal compartments of chilled Lithium (chosen for its stability, mass, and specific heat).

The situation could not be maintained indefinitely, of course, but after she had slipped into (retrograde) orbit around Earth, still all but invisible, the external radiators folded out, and the gigajoule or so of waste heat accumulated on the voyage was radiated away against the camouflaging background of an industrialized planet.

For their part, the Jovian Trade Union, comprising the confederacy of city-state greater moons of Jupiter, had dutifully tracked the thermal signature of the decoy ship which remained at Mars, flaming like a candle. And when their troublemaking frigates burned for Earth, they arrived in LEO to a surprise.

Gray Goo

“This is thermodynamically impossible.”

“No one was particularly scared of these things, since they’re so small.”

“And no one particularly should be, since they cannot dissipate Brownian energy, nor can they reproduce on such limited raw materials.”

“All true,” remarked the speaker, somewhat disgruntled. “But that doesn’t change the fact that one of our orbital research facilities has—and quite otherwise inexplicably, I might add—dissolved into a perfect sphere of uniform color.”

The slide changed. A red ball stood superimposed against the stars, a sinister crescent moon.

“Why!” Someone gasped. “That was the I.S.S Clarke!”

The speaker nodded. “Indeed, Clarke was painted red, for better visibility to near-IR scanners.”

“My condolences, Charlie.”

“So they don’t operate on individual atoms,” someone muttered.

“Speak up.”

“They operate and exist on the molecular—not atomic—level. Or else they’d have simply decomposed the pigments, and it would take some unpredictable appearance. It’d form a nanoscale metastructure, so I guess it’d be some kind of an iridescent panoply.”

“Correct. Notice that operating at a higher spatial level obviates the major energy constraints. The material-limitations ones did not apply, as Clarke is—was—made primary of steel nanofoam and composite volatiles.”

“So,” the speaker continued, “we have a real gray goo situation on our hands. So far, it shows no signs of stripping the extremely tenuous atmosphere in LEO, but eventually it will fall to Earth, and this crisis will become, quite possibly, an apocalypse. Any suggestions?”

Experiment

“This isn’t really safe, is it.”

“That’s good on paper. What about practice?”

“Of course, we won’t know anything until we try.” John shot her a quizzical look, then went on: “It’s not like the academy is fully cognizant of the potential significance of this work.”

“They’re barely cognizant of their own financial security, which, by the way, is still rather tenuous. Research cuts, you know.”

“Don’t I know it.”

“Well let’s try it, then. We’ve been ready for a while. Months, really.”

John nodded. And, without further ceremony, a small red button was pushed. Somewhere, machinery hummed, and two enormous drums of titanium alloy began spinning in a perfect vacuum.

Faster and faster the enormous drums spun, until sheer strength was insufficient to hold them together, and the radial artificial gravity fields began crushing them inward.

Their outer surfaces were racing past each other now at thousands of kilometers per second, separated by a tiny vertical strip just millionths of a meter wide. To the naked eye, the two atomically perfect, titanic disks touched in a single, unbroken line.

But of course no human would risk his life from being so near to such contained energy. And of course, the Earth couldn’t be risked either, so that was far away too.

“We should see something by now,” Casey observed, searching without success for that something.

“Well, frame dragging is within predicted measures.” said John.

“The cylinders are warping spacetime past 0.5 c. Something’s going to have to give, and it’d better be space. There’s already more than a quadrillion joules of kinetic energy in those wheels.”

Nothing.

“It’s a wash, then.”

“3 trillion , wasted.”

“Wasted?” Casey smiled furtively. “No; we’ve only just begun.”

Scrawled Note

Based on a heartwarming true story.

Inside the labyrinthine corridors of the Center for Advanced Neural Study in Cambridge, England, a certain graffitied message was once messily scribbled in Sharpie on a vacant wall:

Computers can’t think. Submarines can’t swim. I don’t know who I am anymore.

The wall was not repainted.

Niven Ring

“You got a problem with relativity, son?”

“Report!”

“Sir! The ring has become destabilized! She’s dipped 50 km down!”

“Already? Get me Morgenstross!”

“Right away!”

The functionary fiddles clumsily with his communicator, then slams it onto the desk, where it squawks, as if in protest. Over the radio, Morgenstross is shouting something. Slowly. Very slowly.

“I couldn’t pick it up directly, sir. I had to go through four relays around the ring. Four!”

“From a certain perspective, we’re racing into the future.”

“Quiet! I can’t hear!”

“. . .”

“Morgenstross! Enable emergency RCS in your segments! I can’t do it from here. Everything’s shot!”

Morgenstross continues shouting, his voice audibly lower and slower.

“Morgenstross, listen to me!”

“. . . I don’t think he can hear you, commander.”

“Then patch me through!”

“No; I mean, I think he cannot, because the time slip between here and lower is so high. Relative to us, he’s so far down the gravity well by now that our sectors are, from his perspective, racing into the future.”

“Speak English, cadet.”

“Time slows down for objects falling into black holes. The Niven ring is lost. We must get to the pods. We must also warn the people behind us in the ring before it’s too late.”

“. . .”

“And sir, we should hurry. Morgenstross was probably trying to do just that.”

Collections

I guess there’s time for sightseeing.

“No Visitors”, reads the scrawled lettering on the thin, corrugated metal. Beth grimaces remorselessly and turns the handle.

Inside is static chaos. Everything bolted down bent. Everything stacked or hanging fallen. The table, the lamp, the picture frame with the occupant’s daughter, all lie in a broken heap. Chaos.

And covered with dust.

The thin, fine, dangerous dust that you get from manufacturing defects, from micrometeorite punctures in your ventilation system, leaking precious, life-giving air into the clutches of nothingness. From monopropellant from ruptured tanks coating the suffocated interior of a small freighter, one of thousands spinning lonely in the dark.

Beth plays her flashlight over the rubble. Nothing here. No Tellurium on the engine deck either. Already picked over.

On a whim Beth reaches for the picture frame. Then smiles. The girl would be about 230 now. Still, she’s a pretty echo of the long dead.