Neutrinos and the Day After Tomorrow

In Episode 178 of the Gerry Anderson Podcast, Chris Dale featured the film The Day After Tomorrow on his Randomizer segment. This is not the 2004 film about climate change. Instead, it was a 1975 segment of an American after school series called Special Treat, which offered educational programming aimed at teenagers. It appeared soon afterward on the BBC. The show was produced by Gerry Anderson and starred Nick Tate, Joanna Dunham, and Brian Blessed. The show was produced between seasons one and two of Space: 1999 and it shares models and props with the television show. One of the show’s goals was to introduce kids to Einstein’s theory of special relativity. Anderson apparently had the notion that he might turn this into a series, so wrote it in such a way that more episodes could follow the special.

I was intrigued by Dale’s discussion of the show on the podcast, so decided to seek it out. The episode is available on the DVD The Lost Worlds of Gerry Anderson, along with several other one-shot gems produced by Anderson. The Day After Tomorrow reminded me of what Lost in Space might have been like without the Robot or Dr. Smith. Two families travel in a near light-speed craft to Alpha Centauri and beyond. Of course, this becomes our “vehicle” for discussing the effects of special relativity. Nick Tate, best known as Alan Carter in Space: 1999, is the captain and he travels with his daughter. Brian Blessed and Joanna Dunham play a husband and wife scientist team with a son. Like the Robinson kids in the early episodes of Lost in Space, these kids are smart, but manage to avoid crossing over into the annoying territory that kids in science fiction shows have been known to do. Since this is 1975 and well before Brian Blessed became known for “Gordon’s Alive!” in Flash Gordon, he delivers a subdued and believable performance as a scientist.

While I was prepared to see the cast to discuss the wonders of Einstein’s theories, there was a moment that truly surprised me about two-thirds of the way into the show. Joanna Dunham’s character, Dr. Anna Bowen, is observing a red giant star when she warns that she’s detecting “massive neutrino emissions from the red sun.” A moment later, the sun explodes into a supernova! As it turns out, the notion that a supernova would be preceded by a neutrino burst is a theory proposed by my graduate advisor, Dr. Stirling Colgate, in a 1966 paper. This theory would finally be demonstrated in 1987 when a neutrino burst was detected just before Supernova 1987A was observed.

Stirling Colgate at the Digitized Astronomy Observatory after the detection of neutrinos from Supernova 1987A

It’s hard to look at the special and say that it was full of groundbreaking or mind-blowing science. Mostly it seemed like a fun, action adventure show that tossed in some tidbits about special relativity. Still, writer Johnny Byrne had done some homework in astronomy to know that it had been theorized that a neutrino burst would precede a supernova explosion. As a science fiction writer, I know story and character come first, but I really do appreciate a moment like this when I see a writer going the extra mile to understand his subject matter.

The Conquest of the Moon

When most people today think of nineteenth century French science fiction, I suspect the first name that comes to mind is Jules Verne. However, he wasn’t the only writer who speculated about extraordinary journeys around the world or to other worlds. While doing research for the panel “From Jules Verne to Jacques Tardi” which I presented with James Keeline at Gaslight Steampunk Expo earlier this month, I came across the works of André Laurie. Like Jules Verne, Laurie was published by Pierre-Jules Hetzel. André Laurie was the pen-name of Jean Grousset, a politician and journalist. Laurie even “collaborated” with Verne on three novels. I put that in quotes because some experts believe that Laurie wrote the works and Hetzel asked Verne to rewrite them for publication.

One of André Laurie’s most interesting works is called Les Exilés de la Terre – Selene-Company Limited, which is usually translated as The Conquest of the Moon. Published in 1889, it tells the story of an astronomer named Norbert Mauny who leads an expedition to a mountain rich in iron ore in the Sudan to use as the base of a powerful electromagnet which he will use pull the moon to the Earth, so that people can cross over at ease, explore, mine, and colonize. It turns out, this whole plan was started by a group of hucksters who tried to trick people into investing in a lunar colonizing expedition. However, the hucksters had no idea how to pull it off. Mauny convinced the investors of his plan and builds the magnet. As he’s working, a faction of Sudanese are planning to overthrow the European colonizers and they surround Mauny’s observatory with its solar-powered electromagnet. Despite this, Mauny finishes construction and succeeds in pulling the moon to the Earth, only to have the mountain that houses his facility ripped from the Earth and dropped onto the moon. The moon then drifts back out to it’s orbit leaving Mauny and the people with him stranded.

Now, pulling the moon to the Earth sounds like an exceedingly bad idea. In reality this would create a terrible cataclysm. In the novel, he only succeeds in ripping the one mountain from the Earth, raising the tides for a few days and covering Europe in clouds. Though I had to suspend my disbelief a lot for this part of the plot, the rest of the novel presents an interesting look at exploring the moon. Of some note, early in the novel, it’s supposed that the events of Jules Verne’s From the Earth to Moon have already occurred. Once our characters reach the moon, they discover an atmosphere so thin they can’t breathe, so they have to go out with air tanks. Laurie imagines everyone on the moon hopping like kangaroos because of the low gravity and there’s an interesting discussion about how the gravitation of a body would impact the creatures that would evolve on that body. He also notes the temperature extremes that come from the long days and long nights in the “thin” atmosphere.

All in all, The Conquest of the Moon was a fun read. I especially liked how our protagonist was an astronomer who was given a romantic subplot. I could see some of the ideas in this book being given a fun steampunk twist for a more modern story that better understands the nature of the moon, or what would happen if you tried to draw it near.

The edition of The Conquest of the Moon I read was edited by artist and writer, Ron Miller perhaps best known for his 1981 collaboration with William K. Hartmann, The Grand Tour. I was pleased to discover that Miller has edited an entire series of early science fiction novels for Baen which he called “The Conquest of Space” series. All are still available as ebooks. My only complaint with this edition was that it appeared to be scanned using Optical Character Recognition technology, so some characters were misinterpreted and the book wasn’t given a proofread after conversion. Despite that, I enjoyed the book and especially enjoyed Miller’s essay at the end about the growth of science in science fiction through the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. You can find the Conquest of Space series along with other books Ron Miller has written and edited at:

William Shatner in Space

Earlier this week, William Shatner took a ride into space aboard a rocket built by Blue Origin, a company founded by Jeff Bezos, best known as the founder of Amazon. The rocket launched from outside Van Horn, Texas, a town about two and a half hours to the southeast of my home in New Mexico. As a long-time Star Trek fan, I thought it was great that Shatner, who brought the role of Captain Kirk to life, had the opportunity to go into space for real. What’s more, at 90 years old, Shatner is the oldest person to go into space. I’ve long thought, I hope to be doing as well as William Shatner when I’m 90!

Glen de Vries, Audrey Powers, William Shatner, and Chris Boshuizen in Space. Image courtesy Blue Origin

As a kid, when I first became aware of Star Trek, the last Apollo missions were still flying. I remember thinking that Star Trek was just another document of a real mission into space. My parents soon explained to me that it was all just make-believe, but in a way that excited me just as much. That made me pay attention to the opening credits and notice those writers who made up Star Trek’s vision of exploring space. In the end Star Trek’s captivating writing helped to launch my careers in both astronomy and writing. So, it should come as no surprise that I watched Shatner’s journey from the moment he entered the rocket until he landed again in west Texas near the launch site.

Some have criticized Jeff Bezos for investing his personal wealth in space flight rather than causes to help the planet. He’s argued that developing space flight is one way to help the planet. I think he has a point. Developing space technology has a long track record of creating other technologies that help us on the Earth. I also believe there’s no reason we can’t work on solutions to problems on Earth while developing space technology. We have no shortage of people. Among the challenges are training and directing them to places where they can do the most good.

This all noted, I don’t feel I can let Bezos completely off the hook. According to Yahoo Finance, Bezos’s income is somewhere in the ballpark of 110 billion dollars per year and he invests 1 billion of that in Blue Origin. To put his income in perspective, you only have to multiply minimum wage by a single digit to get to my income. You have to multiply minimum wage by six digits to get to Bezos’s income. Over a million people could be employed at better-than-minimum wage with his income alone.

There are plenty of reports that suggest working conditions for front-line workers at Amazon are not great. As an author I do business with Amazon. In the last year and a half, I’ve received several packages in poor condition. They look as though they were rushed out the door without care and some books have arrived in unsellable condition. This makes sense if workers are being rushed to get things out the door without concern for quality of service. I’ve also had to call Amazon at times to resolve issues. Most of the time, their representatives are very helpful, but I’ve had at least two instances where I asked them something that clearly went “off script.” They promised to call me back and simply didn’t. Again this smacks of putting perceived efficiency ahead of customer service.

Given what’s reported of Jeff Bezos’s salary and what that must imply for Amazon’s total profits, there must be room for Amazon to improve salaries, make conditions better for front-line workers, and improve service. Star Trek suggested that humans would be ready for space exploration when we learned to appreciate our own diversity and treat our fellow humans with respect and dignity. Sometimes making the planet better starts with how corporate executives and upper management treat and pay the people who are making them the money that allow them to invest in cool things like space exploration and who make it possible for someone like William Shatner to visit the final frontier.

Cosmos 1 Solar Sail

The Planetary Society’s LightSail 2 spacecraft has been demonstrating the viability of solar sailing for a little over two years now and the society recently debuted a retrospective video called Sailing the Light. Given these events, I thought it would be interesting to look back at the Planetary Society’s first attempt at launching a solar sail, the ill-fated Cosmos 1. The design ideas implemented in Cosmos 1 were ones I used when creating the Aristarchus for my novel, The Solar Sea.

Cosmos 1 Model Built by David Lee Summers

Cosmos 1 was primarily developed in Russia with oversight from The Planetary Society in the United States. The Planetary Society also provided system design expertise along with subsystem development, such as designing the onboard radio system. The craft’s design involved eight triangular sails deployed on inflatable booms. Motors at the ends of the booms allowed the sails to turn in pairs. This allowed them to optimize the amount of sunlight collected. Solar sails are propelled by the momentum from sunlight, so a solar sail in orbit wants to catch as much sunlight as possible when moving away from the sun. When moving toward the sun, the blades turn sideways, so the solar sail doesn’t slow down. I incorporated the turning boom design into my fictional solar sail. By the way, if you would like to build a Cosmos 1 model, I discovered that the instructions are still online. The pattern and instructions are free at:

The Russians finished building Cosmos 1 in 2005. They planned to send it into space with a Volna Rocket launched from a nuclear submarine. The expectation was that the rocket could carry Cosmos 1 to an orbital distance of 820 kilometers above the Earth’s surface. Just as a comparison, LightSail 2 orbits at about 710 kilometers above the Earth’s surface. Unfortunately the June 21, 2005 launch of Cosmos 1 failed and the rocket crashed into the sea. As I mentioned, The Planetary Society debuted a video about the current LightSail 2 mission called Sailing the Light. I watched the YouTube premier as it happened. You can see it here.

In the video, they talk about upcoming NASA solar sail missions Solar Cruiser and NEA Scout. Solar Cruiser is a significantly larger solar sail than Lightsail 2. Solar Cruiser would be 1650 square meters compared to LightSail 2’s 32 square meters. NEA Scout will be 86 square meters and will have the mission of looking for potentially harmful asteroids.

The Solar Sea

LightSail 2 accomplishes the turning maneuvers I mentioned above, not by turning its sails, but by using momentum wheels inside the space craft. It takes a couple of minutes to turn the craft ninety degrees. With new NASA solar sails in the works, I wondered if anyone was considering a return to the Cosmos 1 design anytime in the near future. I was able to pose that question to LightSail 2’s project scientist Dr. Bruce Betts at the end of the video. In effect, he says that in the near term, most projects are now developing square sails with reaction wheels to turn the craft.

You can read about my fictional solar sail in my novel The Solar Sea. It imagines an entrepreneur building a manned solar sail spaceship and taking it to Titan to search for mysterious particles that appear to travel through time. Along the way, the crew visits Mars and Jupiter and they find clues that we may not be alone in the universe after all. Learn more about the book and watch the book trailer at:

Star Trek: Lower Decks

Given my love of both Star Trek and animation, I knew I would get around to watching the first season of Star Trek: Lower Decks eventually. I admit, I didn’t quite rush to the show for two reasons. First off, back when Star Trek: The Next Generation did a couple of episodes from the point of view of junior officers, I felt they’d botched certain elements of it. Also, the animation style put me off. Still, I’m glad I took a chance and saw what the series had to offer. I was pleased to find yet another incarnation of the Star Trek universe to enjoy.

Set aboard the U.S.S. Cerritos, Lower Decks focuses on four ensigns: Becket Mariner, an irreverent character who has climbed up to higher rank, only to be demoted again; Brad Boimler, a by-the-book character who sees himself as a future captain; Davana T’endi, an Orion medical technician; and Eugene Cordero, an engineer adjusting to a cybernetic implant. The ship itself is on a mission of providing engineering support to worlds just entering the Federation. The series features many references to classic Star Trek episodes and, perhaps not surprisingly, has many wonderful tributes to the original animated series. On the whole, the source of the humor comes from poking fun at places fans themselves have poked fun at the different series. More than once, the series reminded me of Seth MacFarlane’s The Orville.

Back in Star Trek: The Next Generation, there were two episodes told from the perspective of junior officers. The first was called “Tapestry” where the powerful alien Q shows Picard what would have happened if he hadn’t gotten into a fight which resulted in him needing an artificial heart. We learn Picard never took the chances he needed to be promoted and remained a junior officer. The next episode was “Lower Decks” about four junior officers up for promotion. Both episodes were good overall, but my problem was that the senior officers seemed too aloof and frankly snobbish around the junior officers. The dynamic felt more like Hollywood producers around interns from the back office than members of a team working together to explore the galaxy. Over my time in astronomy, I’ve had the opportunity to work with numerous well-known scientists in leadership positions, including Nobel Prize winners, and while some have been challenging to work with, most have been team players who recognized that everyone in the room was there because they had something to contribute no matter their level of seniority or what accolades they’d received. When I turn on a Star Trek episode, I want to see a team I’d want to be on as much or more than the one I’m on in real life. The Lower Decks animated series succeeded at this, possibly helped by the comedy premise. All of the characters are flawed, which puts them on much more equal footing as people, even when some of those people have more experience. What’s more, I felt as though the characters were having fun, which made me want to join them for the fun of exploration.

In graduate school, I was a fan of Matt Groenig’s comic strip, Life in Hell. I watched Groenig go on to develop The Simpsons and Futurama. I then watched other creators use a similar style in shows like Family Guy and Rick and Morty. In effect, Groenig’s style became the “adult animated comedy” style and we see it again in Lower Decks. I don’t dislike the style, but I found myself wondering if it would work for Star Trek. As it turns out, the style was adjusted to give it just a little more realism. While I was frustrated to see another American animation show forced to look a certain way because of its intended audience, I did find the actual look appealing and I soon warmed to the characters, in part because of solid voice acting and good scripts.

On a personal level, I loved the California-class ships named after the state’s cities. Growing up in California, I recognized all the ship names they’ve mentioned so far. I would love to see my old stomping grounds of San Bernardino or Barstow get a starship in a later season. The former seems like it would provide an opportunity to pay tribute to original series writer Jerome Bixby, who lived there. It might be fun to see it appear in an episode about the mirror universe that he created. Of course, Bixby’s stories were an early influence on my own writing, which you can learn more about by visiting

Saturn’s Shrouded Moon

I love a good mystery and I love exploring new places. These two facts go a long way to explaining why I love astronomy. The universe is vast and we know so little about it. The NEID spectrograph at the WIYN telescope on Kitt Peak is just getting started on its mission helping to learn about planets around other stars. The DESI spectrograph on the Mayall telescope is starting its mission of mapping the northern sky with hopes of understanding dark energy. Of course, dark energy is one of those fundamentally great mysteries because we see evidence of its existence, but we really don’t know yet what it is. Fun space operas like Star Trek or even my Space Pirates’ Legacy series make space exploration look inevitable and even easy, but in fact, we’ve barely started. People have only been to the moon a few times and robots have just visited a few of our neighbor worlds in our own solar system. We have almost a hundred billion stars in our galaxy alone.

But, let’s not get ahead of ourselves. Today, I want to focus on one small world within our own solar system, Saturn’s moon Titan. It’s the second largest moon in the solar system and one covered with a dense atmosphere. It’s a place of real interest for those people seeking life in the solar system. The Cassini mission discovered that Titan has a salty sea underneath its icy crust. Its atmosphere is teaming with organic molecules that get deposited on its methane-ethane lakes and seas. We’ve sent a probe to Titan’s surface and we’ve even made good headway at mapping the surface. We’ve even started naming some of the features on Titan’s surface as you can see in this map from the US Geological Survey.

Map of Titan

By the way, you can download a good, high resolution PDF of this map at: It’s the one called Titan with VIMS Bacground and Radar Strips. I love that we have a map of Titan with this much detail, but this map also makes me think of old maps of the Earth with great undefined places. You can even imagine the legend “There be dragons here” somewhere on this map. We have learned a lot about the solar system and the universe in the last century, but this map makes it clear we still have a lot to learn about Titan.

This is one of the reasons I enjoy writing science fiction. I like to dream about the things we might find in the solar system and in the galaxy. I like to consider the more blurry places on the Titan map and wonder what might be there that could surprise us. In my novel, The Solar Sea, I imagine scientists discovering particles that travel through time on Earth’s moon. Once they understand the energy signature of these particles they go looking for them throughout the solar system and discover them in great abundance on Titan. This becomes the reason the Quinn Corporation decides to build a solar sail spacecraft to go find these valuable particles. The thing is, when they get to Titan, they look beneath the shroud and find…

Well, that would be spoilers. Fortunately though, you can get the book as part of the amazing Expansive Futures SciFi Bundle. The bundle includes eighteen great science fiction novels curated for the SFWA by Amy DuBoff. This is last call. The bundle is only available until Thursday March 4 at

The Expansive Futures Sci-Fi Bundle

“Since the early days of science fiction, authors have explored the future of humanity and what other life might be out there among the stars. From cybernetics to spaceships to alien contact, future-focused sci-fi lets us explore complex issues while escaping from everyday life. Eighteen diverse visions of Expansive Futures have been gathered in a special collection curated by SFWA members, now available in a limited-time bundle,” says Nebula nominated and USA Today Bestselling author, Amy DuBoff.

Learn more about the Expansive Futures Sci-Fi Bundle at:

The Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America (SFWA) is an organization dedicated to promoting and supporting science fiction and fantasy writer in the United States and Worldwide. I have been a member since 2001 and they have helped me with legal and contract questions as well as providing me some great networking opportunities. The Expansive Futures StoryBundle is a collection of science fiction novels featuring award-winning authors along with fresh new voices. I’m excited that my novel The Solar Sea was chosen to be part of this collection which is sure to please fans of futuristic sci-fi and space opera. The Solar Sea imagines humanity’s first voyage through the solar system aboard a solar sail space vessel.

In addition to my novel, this bundle includes the Nebula Award finalist novel Eternity’s End by Jeffrey A. Carver; When You Had Power, the first novel in a new hopepunk series by bestselling author Susan Kaye Quinn; and Starship Hope: Exodus by rising star author T.S. Valmond, among many others. The Expansive Futures bundle will run for three weeks only, so grab this fantastic deal while you can and discover great new writers!

For StoryBundle, you decide what price you want to pay. For $5 (or more, if you’re feeling generous), you’ll get the basic bundle of five books in any ebook format—WORLDWIDE.

  • Ganymede by Jason Taylor
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  • Raptor by John G. Hartness
  • The Chiral Conspiracy by L.L. Richman
  • Exodus by T.S. Valmond

If you pay at least the bonus price of just $15, you get all four of the regular books, plus THIRTEEN more! That’s 18 books total!

  • The Cost of Survival by J.L. Stowers
  • Two Suns at Sunset by Gene Doucette
  • Claiming T-Mo by Eugen Bacon
  • The Solar Sea by David Lee Summers
  • Eternity’s End by Jeffrey A. Carver
  • A Fall in Autumn by Michael G. Williams
  • Knight Errant by Paul Barrett and Steve Murphy
  • Warrior Wench by Marie Andreas
  • Annihilation Aria by Michael R. Underwood
  • Glitch Mitchell and the Unseen Planet by Philip Harris
  • Iron Truth by S.A. Tholin
  • When You Had Power by Susan Kaye Quinn
  • The Hammer Falls by Travis Heermann

This bundle is available only for a limited time via It allows easy reading on computers, smartphones, and tablets as well as Kindle and other ereaders via file transfer, email, and other methods. You get multiple DRM-free formats (.epub, .mobi) for all books!

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Why StoryBundle? Here are just a few benefits StoryBundle provides.

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StoryBundle was created to give a platform for independent authors to showcase their work, and a source of quality titles for thirsty readers. StoryBundle works with authors to create bundles of ebooks that can be purchased by readers at their desired price. Before starting StoryBundle, Founder Jason Chen covered technology and software as an editor for and

Revisiting Space: 1999

I’m sure everyone remembers where they were on September 13, 1999. Or, at least, they would remember that momentous day if the events of the television show Space: 1999 had come to pass. In the show, that’s the day a nuclear waste dump exploded on Earth’s moon sending it out of orbit and on a long, harrowing journey out of the solar system. I recently found myself thinking about Sylvia and Gerry Anderson’s series. I remember watching it when it first aired, but it occurred to me that I didn’t remember many details about the series, so I went back and watched most of the first season’s episodes.

The first thing that occurred to me as I watched the series is how much it owed to two sources: Stanley Kubrick’s film 2001: A Space Odyssey and Sylvia and Gerry Anderson’s previous live-action television series, UFO. The show reminded me of 2001: A Space Odyssey in the sense that it’s less about space as a setting for the story’s action as it’s a place where mankind will encounter phenomena that will stretch the mind and maybe even spur the next stage of human evolution. The uniforms, the moon base, and the overall feel of the show reminded me a lot of UFO and I’ve read that some elements of the series were, in fact, originally developed for a second season of UFO, which never materialized.

The science of Space: 1999 is much maligned. Isaac Asimov once famously remarked that an explosion big enough to knock the moon out of orbit would destroy it. Physicist Kevin Grazier has taken a much more balanced approach and calculated the energy it actually would take to knock the moon out of Earth’s orbit. He notes that enough energy to knock the moon out of orbit would be highly improbable and also remarks that getting the moon to leave Earth’s orbit isn’t as hard a problem as getting the moon to leave the solar system. You can read Grazier’s thoughts here:

In his article, Grazier does point out one way in which Space: 1999’s science was ahead of its time and that was it’s presentation of rogue planets. In the series, the moon encounters numerous planets away from the sun wandering by themselves with no nearby star. Rogue planets were pure speculation when the series was created, but we now know them to be something that does exist. We still do have a science issue in that some of these rogue planets seem to support human-like life, despite the lack of a nearby star.

Part of how Space: 1999 sells its improbable physics is by giving us some of the most believable tech I’ve seen in a science fiction series. The Eagle spacecraft look like the kind of things you might have expected NASA to have developed if they had continued building on the Apollo program. The only real problem with the Eagles is their use in atmosphere and high gravity worlds as the series progresses. I believe them on the moon, but not necessarily flying through dense planetary atmospheres. The comlocks that people use to unlock doors and talk to each other feel like the kind of combination remote control, video cell phone that could have been developed in the 1990s.

One of the things I found remarkable about revisiting Space: 1999 was the quality of the cast. Of course, Martin Landau, Barbara Bain, and Barry Morse all had wonderful, understated performances. They felt like humans coming to grips with the weird reality they found themselves in. I had forgotten that actors such as Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee appeared in the series. Speaking of Cushing and Lee, I had forgotten how well the series did at presenting science fiction horror. The denizens encounter some truly frightening situations such as aliens who take over people’s bodies, or implacable tentacled aliens who dine on people’s flesh and spit out corpses.

One of the episodes I found especially interesting was one called “The Guardian of Piri.” In it, Catherine Schell plays an alien who convinces the Alphans they can have complete contentment if they settle. Much of it reminds me of the kinds of visions John Mark Ellis experiences in Children of the Old Stars and the Cluster’s eventual takeover of Earth in Heirs of the New Earth. The structures on Piri are even spheres, reminding me of the Cluster. Although I don’t remember the episode specifically, it does make me wonder how much the episode seeped into my subconscious and was reprocessed in my story.

So, where was I on September 13, 1999? I was working at New Mexico State University on the 1-meter telescope project based at Apache Point Observatory. We were about a month into a new semester, which meant that I was probably busy getting classroom demonstrations ready. I was also working on the novel Children of the Old Stars and thinking about some of the more metaphysical topics I wanted to explore in my series. You can help me create the new edition of my novel by supporting my Patreon campaign at:

Perseverance in Space

Last Thursday, I woke up early to watch as NASA’s Mars 2020 mission was launched. The mission includes the Perseverance rover and the Ingenuity helicopter drone. The mission’s main goal is to look for signs of ancient life on Mars and collect rock samples which may be returned to Earth.

The launch of the Mars 2020 Mission

The rocket launch itself couldn’t have been more perfect. The weather at the Florida launch site was beautiful and the rocket lifted off the pad, flying straight and true. In fact, it lifted off so quickly, I couldn’t snap the screenshot from my computer before it left the pad! The rover is scheduled to arrive at Mars early next year. It incorporates many design elements from the highly successful Curiosity rover. It also incorporates autonomous driving technology, so NASA engineers can give it a course and let it avoid obstacles using onboard computers. In fact, that’s part of the reason for the helicopter drone. The drone can fly over the surface and help Perseverance map its course over the Martian landscape.

The primary mission objective is to look for evidence that life existed at one time on Mars. There are on-board instruments for achieving this, including the SHERLOC spectrometer which can accomplish microscopic imaging and help search for organic compounds. Perseverance will also collect samples which could be returned to Earth by a future Mars mission. As emphasized when I met Dr. Harrison Schmidt last year, nothing allows for detailed analysis like having actual physical samples in a lab. One of the reasons we would like to know whether life ever existed on Mars is that it would give us a better sense for how easy it would be to find life elsewhere. What’s more, there are some theories that life on Earth actually started on Mars and that it came to Earth as the result of an asteroid collision. So, we could gain insight into our own origins.

I watched the launch as part of an event hosted by The Planetary Society and Space For Humanity. The Planetary Society’s CEO, Bill Nye spoke after the launch. One question I see raised when discussing space exploration is, “wouldn’t it be better to spend that money on problems here on Earth?” This seems especially prescient in the middle of a global pandemic. Of course, you physically can’t invest all the funds on Earth into one problem. That would utterly destroy the economy and leave people hungry and destitute. Nye noted, “All the money we spend on space, is spent on Earth.” Investing in space is paying the salaries of the engineers, scientists, and technicians who make this happen. It’s investing in the companies that build the parts for these craft and that money gets reinvested into the economy. What’s more we receive dividends in these investments such as new technologies that do make the world a better place to live. Those technologies may even help to develop and deliver vaccines.

David the Space Cowboy wants to know when it’s time to board!

Space for Humanity is a group who has a vision of giving as diverse a group of people the chance to experience traveling to space. I believe that’s a worthy goal. After all, we need the experience of many people from many backgrounds if we’re going to reach for the stars. One of the places where we may succeed in getting to space in the near future is from Space Port America, just north of where I live in Las Cruces, New Mexico. One of the people who spoke after the launch was George Whitesides, Chief Space Officer for Virgin Galactic, who said their next goal is to accomplish manned flight from the New Mexico spaceport. In the photo above, I’m being a space cowboy, hanging out with one of the Virgin Galactic craft that may actually travel into space from this area. Time to saddle up and move out!

Upcoming Solar Sail Missions

Last week, the Planetary Society’s LightSail 2 mission celebrated the one-year anniversary of its launch date. The project has made great strides in demonstrating that solar sails are a practical method of propulsion. LightSail 2 was able to raise its orbit using sunlight as the only source of propulsion. The craft can be steered using momentum wheels so it can maximize the light received when moving away from the sun and minimize the light received when going toward the sun. It also set the record for the highest acceleration achieved by a solar sail to date.

LightSail 2 Over Australia. Image by The Planetary Society

As it turns out, the LightSail 2 mission hasn’t been completely trouble free. Two of the solar panels it uses to energize its momentum wheels and power systems like the onboard camera did not deploy correctly and are in a tipped position, so they don’t receive sunlight equally. This is seen in the shadow on the sail in the above image. Also, one of the sail booms appears to be bent. You can see what appears to be a gap in the left hand part of the sail and a structure visible through the gap. My takeaway is that despite these issues, LightSail 2 has done remarkably well.

I was pleased to learn that NASA has an upcoming solar sail mission and it’s investigating another one. The upcoming mission is the Near-Earth Asteroid Scout Mission or NEA Scout. Like LightSail 2, it will be a small solar sail deploying from a CubeSat. It’s currently scheduled for 2021 and the plan is for the craft to visit the asteroid 1991 VG. The larger goal of the mission is to better understand the larger Near Earth Asteroids that might be a threat to life on Earth. Another goal of this mission is to show that solar sails can be used to send scientific payloads to objects at low cost compared to craft that burn conventional fuel. This would be a somewhat larger solar sail than LightSail 2’s 32 square meter area. NEA Scout would deploy a 68 square meter solar sail. In the image below, we see the NEA Scout sail deployed in the lab along with some of the people working on it, to give an idea of the scale.

NEA Scout sail deployed. Image by NASA.

Another mission being considered is NASA’s Solar Cruiser. This would be a 1200 square meter solar sail used to provide views of the sun not easily available with current technology. It would measure the Sun’s magnetic field structure and the velocity of coronal mass ejections which at times can interfere with utility grids on Earth. This craft could be very useful as an advance warning system for at-risk infrastructure on Earth.

The Solar Sea

It’s exciting to see solar sails being scaled up into new projects. There have even been discussions of using solar sails for interstellar missions. A rocket can never go faster than its exhaust velocity. However, a solar sail can continue to accelerate as long as it gets light on its sails. It’s not yet practical to build a solar sail to propel a payload big enough to carry humans, but I suspect if the technology keeps being developed, it will get there one day. This dream is what I captured in my novel The Solar Sea. If you would care to join me on an imaginary voyage through the solar system using one of these sails pushed by light, visit:

Greg Long in Australia recently posted a review of the novel, so I’m especially pleased to have shared the photo of LightSail 2 above. You can read Greg’s review at: