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: http://spacecraftkits.com/cosmos1/

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: http://davidleesummers.com/solar_sea.html

Successful Solar Sailing

The Planetary Society’s LightSail 2 spacecraft launched into orbit on June 25, 2019 and deployed its 32-square meter sails almost a month later on July 23. In the time since sail deployment, it raised its orbit some seven kilometers. Here we see a great shot of the LightSail 2 over Australia.

LightSail 2 image courtesy The Planetary Society

In 1619, astronomer Johannes Kepler noticed that comet tails always point away from the sun and realized that some solar force must produce that effect. Two centuries later, in 1862, James Clerk Maxwell suggested that light has momentum and it was finally demonstrated in 1900. The goal of the LightSail 2 mission was to show that momentum from light could propel a spacecraft. The process of solar sailing is not unlike sailing on the water, only in space, gravity acts like water currents while light acts like wind. As with a sail at sea, the sails must be turned in flight to take the best advantage of the “wind” while the ship moves on the “current.” LightSail 2 accomplishes this via internal reaction wheels. The gif below shows how the sail is turned to take the best advantage of sunlight and raise its orbit.

Josh Spradling / The Planetary Society

The following graph shows the elevation of LightSail2 over the course of the mission. The apogee is the highest point in orbit, the perigee is the lowest point. At LightSail2’s elevation, there are two forces working on the sail besides gravity. The first is light pressure from the sun. The other is atmospheric drag from the Earth. Even though LightSail 2 is in a relatively high orbit, it’s still in the most tenuous parts of the upper atmosphere. The upshot is that the apogee increases because of light pressure, but the perigee decreases because of atmospheric drag. That noted, LightSail 2 has accomplished the mission it set out to do, demonstrate that light can propel a spacecraft.

Image from the LightSail Mission Control Page supported by the Planetary Society

You can keep up to date with the LightSail mission and visit their mission control page by going to http://www.planetary.org/explore/projects/lightsail-solar-sailing/#the-lightsail-2-mission.

It’s worth noting this is a technology in its infancy. That said, with the lessons learned from this mission, there’s promise that solar sails could be used for small unmanned probes in the not-too-distant future, or perhaps they could be used to deflect dangerous asteroids, especially if caught early enough that they only need a small nudge.

In the long run, with much more development and technical innovation, I would like to think solar sails could be used to propel humans across the solar system as I imagine in my novel The Solar Sea. In a little under a week, on Friday October 11, Lynn Moorer will interview me about the novel on her radio show from 12:30-1:00 pm mountain daylight time. If you’re in Las Cruces, you can tune in to 101.5 FM on your radio dial. If you aren’t in Las Cruces, or just don’t listen to shows on the radio, you can stream the show at  https://www.lccommunityradio.org/stream.html. It looks like KTAL Community Radio is building up their archive of past shows, so I’m hoping I can share these interviews with you soon. If you want to read the book before the interview, you can find all the places it’s available by visiting http://www.davidleesummers.com/solar_sea.html.

Taboo Tech

This past week, I had the opportunity to read Joy V. Smith’s latest novel, Taboo Tech. It tells the story of a young woman named Lacie Leigh Collier. Her parents seek out and try to understand old, dangerous, and forbidden technologies. As the novel opens, Lacie is graduating from primary school and preparing to move on to secondary school. Meanwhile, her parents have just found a lead on such a cache of taboo tech and leave her in the care of her uncle. If anything her uncle has an even greater interest in taboo tech and is soon tempted to explore yet another cache. He takes Lacie along with him, but they soon find the Interstellar Guard on their tail. Lacie’s uncle devises an intricate escape for his niece, but she soon finds herself alone in the galaxy with only the companionship of a fledgling AI called Embers.

At this point, Lacie’s adventures really begin. She completes school, then meets and befriends a group of professors who worked with her parents and they take her to a cache of taboo tech where she’s given command of a spaceship left to her by her parents. The professors and Lacie then hatch a plot to build a school on the site of the cache to allow the professors to investigate the cache while not arousing suspicion. To further allay suspicion, Lacie moves on to the resort world of Rainbow’s End where she befriends two members of the security staff and a diplomat’s daughter. All together, they help to thwart a plot against a princess. Lacie then must rescue her friends, the professors, from a plot to take over the school she helped to create. All the while, Lacie hopes to find clues to her parents’ and uncle’s whereabouts.

Taboo Tech is a rollicking fast story that propels Lacie from one adventure to another as she meets new friends, new adversaries, AIs and aliens. We’re never really told why old tech is taboo in this world other than it’s “dangerous.” However, I did wonder if the author gave us some sly clues. Her characters are often as carefully analytical as computers and the deepest emotions are sometimes expressed by the AIs in this world. It makes me wonder if the powers that be in this universe don’t want the humans to know something about their connection to the AIs. If Joy V. Smith ever writes a sequel, maybe this is something that can be explored. Taboo Tech is available at: https://www.amazon.com/Taboo-Tech-Joy-V-Smith/dp/0359516572/

I have had the pleasure of publishing another of Joy V. Smith’s books. Her short story collection Sugar Time is available as an audio book, a print collection, and an ebook from Hadrosaur Productions. The book tells the story of Sugar Sweet who inherits her Uncle Max’s old Victorian mansion where he conducted his research. She soon finds his collaborators—or what’s left of them—along with an angry Neanderthal. She also finds her uncle’s research project, a working time machine. Sugar must act quickly to unlock the secret of time travel so she can set things right and protect her uncle’s research. You can learn more about Sugar Time and order a copy at http://hadrosaur.com/SugarTime.php

The Solar Sea on Clearance

This past week, I’ve been reading the fine steampunk adventure Arabella on Mars by David D. Levine. It’s a fine novel that won the 2017 Andre Norton Award for best young adult novel. One of this fantasy novel’s conceits is that it imagines an atmosphere in interplanetary space that allows ships to sail between planets in the 1800s.

When I read the novel, I couldn’t help but think that while sailing between the planets without an atmosphere would have been beyond nineteenth century technology, it’s not beyond our current technology. In fact, I wrote a futuristic science fiction novel about such a journey called The Solar Sea. Solar sails don’t work by harnessing wind, or even the so-called solar wind, but they move by light pressure. About three years ago, I wrote a post that goes into some detail about how it works. You can read more here: https://davidleesummers.wordpress.com/2014/02/01/solar-sailing/

In my novel, I imagine a future where humans got as far as building lunar factories, but the will to go farther out into space died. While I know there’s still a strong interest in exploring space, I fear many of the people who control this country’s money don’t see the value in investing real money in all aspects of space exploration. As an example, the Trump administration routinely touts it’s support of space exploration, yet proposed significant cuts to astronomy funding in its initial budget.

I sometimes wonder if it will take a major discovery to give us the impetus to push out into space again as we did in the 1960s and 1970s. In the novel, a technician from the Very Large Array radio telescope in New Mexico discovers powerful particles orbiting Saturn’s moon, Titan, which could be a new energy source. When the discovery is announced, whales around the world changed their songs.

This chain of events encourages the owner of the powerful Quinn Corporation to build a solar sail to find the source of these particles in Titan’s orbit. He gathers the best and brightest team to pilot his craft: Jonathan Jefferson, an aging astronaut known as the last man on Mars; Natalie Freeman, a distinguished Navy captain; Myra Lee, a biologist specializing in whale communication; and John O’Connell, the technician who first discovered the particles. All together they make a grand tour of the solar system and discover not only wonders but dangers beyond their imagination.

Earlier this year, my publisher and I decided to take The Solar Sea out of print. There were several reasons for this. Partly, science and technology have caught up with the novel and I thought I worthwhile to revise it to make it more accurate. Partly the ebook was created ages ago and wasn’t up to the standards of newer ebooks, so I want to address this aspect as well. Once I finish work on my steampunk novel Owl Riders, I will turn my attention to some of my out of print titles.

In the meantime, I have a few copies of the first edition of The Solar Sea left in my stock and I’m even offering them at half off the cover price. You can order copies at http://www.hadrosaur.com/bookstore.html#solarsea. I would be delighted to sign any copies you buy. Just email me at hadrosaur [at] zianet [dot] com (replacing the info between the brackets with the relevant characters) and let me know that you would like it signed. If you would like them personalized, just tell me so and let me know who to sign the book to.