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Gerald M. Kilby

An AI, narrating a book about an AI.

By | Audio, The Belt | 2 Comments

Being the nerd that I am, I’ve been experimenting with Google’s new WaveNet speech synthesis AI, and Amazon’s Polly application. These are both new generation text-to-speech applications. Just give them some lines of text and they will talk it back to you. This technology has come a long way in a short period of time, and it’s at a point now where it’s getting very close to actual human speech.

Still, out-of-the-box AI narration is a bit monotone and boring. However, with the dexterous use of some handy markup language, you can start to add some feeling and emotion to the voices—you can probably tell where this is going. So this got me thinking, and I decided to experiment using the first chapter of Entanglement… after all, who better to narrate an AI, than an actual AI. To be fair, I can never see this replacing a professional voice actor, at least not anytime soon. But it does give the ability to have different voices for each of the characters in the book.

Anyway, you can have a listen to my first attempts here. The beginning is a bit rough but it improves as it progresses through the chapter—and as I learn a bit more about how to use the markup language.

I might do a new chapter every month and you can let me know what you think.

The Belt: ENTANGLEMENT – Chapter 1.

Experimental Spacecraft Engines

By | The Science Behind The Books | No Comments

One of the primary problems with sending astronauts to Mars is the length of time it takes to travel the 34 million miles of space that lies in between.

With the technology we have at present, this is estimated to take anywhere between 6 and 8 months — and that is with Mars at its closest. Having a crew floating around in zero gravity inside a spacecraft for so long means that they could be physically too weak to do anything when they get there—at least for the first few days, and that could be critical for the mission as a whole. Even though Mars gravity is only one-third of Earth, it still has the potential to be debilitating for our newly arrived astronauts.

So what to do?

One solution is to build spacecraft with a rotating torus, or similar, to provide our intrepid crew with some artificial gravity. If you have seen the movie The Martian, you might have noticed that this is the type of ship they used. By providing the astronauts with some gravity during the long journey to Mars, they would be fit and ready for action when they landed. However, there are a number of problems with this, not least the enormous cost, but also the engineering challenges involved in building something that complex and assembling up in Earth orbit. Just think how long it took to build the ISS.

The other solution, of course, is to get there faster.

So, one of the areas I looked into when I was doing the research for Colony Mars, was what work was being done on experimental rocket engines, particularly those that had the potential to be considerably faster than conventional engines.
The first one I considered was the Ion Thruster. These are currently being used to keep satellites in orbit as well as for some deep space probes. This technology is way more efficient than a chemical rocket, which has a fuel efficiency of around 35 %. Whereas the Ion engine is around 90% efficient. Theoretically, it can reach speeds of over 200,000mph, which is insane when you think about it. By comparison, the Space Shuttle could only manage a paltry 18,000mph.

So what’s the catch?

Well, it may have very high theoretical top speed, but it has very, very low thrust, around 0.5 newtons. To get an idea of what that number actually means, imagine holding say, a dozen coins in the palm of your hand. The weight of those few coins is approximately the same as the trust from this engine—not a lot.
So, to get anywhere you need to operate it over a very, very long period of time. The thrust might be tiny, but over a long period, it can build upon itself, accelerating faster and faster. The first spacecraft to use an Ion thruster was Deep Space 1, a NASA probe launched in 1998 and acted as a test bed for advanced technologies.

EmDrive

However, to be appropriately sci-fi I needed something a little more exotic, and I found it in the experimental EmDrive (aka, Radio Frequency Resonant Cavity Thruster), the brainchild of an English inventor, Roger Shawyer. It’s a bizarre contraption that defies the standard laws of physics. Mainly, it’s a microwave in a box, powered merely by electricity. How this could possibly provide forward thrust is beyond the realms of common sense physics. But it does seem to work, although the jury is still out on that.
Needless to say, it has been scoffed at by the physics establishment and vilified by rocket scientists and would have languished in blissful oblivion only for the interest shown by Chinese scientists. Once they started taking it seriously, then NASA Eagleworks soon followed. In 2014 NASA released some test results showing that a microwave, in an enclosed metal cone, can indeed provide forward motion, with potential trust values similar to that of Ion engines. The difference, of course, it that the EmDrive does not need a fuel tank, it just needs electricity. Theoretically, all your spacecraft would need are a few solar panels, and off you go.
But it’s not all good news. More recently, a German team concluded that the trust from their own tests could simply be from interference with the Earth’s electromagnetic field. If this proves to be true, then that would be the end for the EmDrive.
However, here’s where it starts to get interesting. You know that top secret space plane, the X-37B, that the US air-force lobs up into orbit every now and again? Well, rumor has it that it is being used to test an EmDrive. Even more interesting is that China has apparently been testing a device in orbit since 2016 and now plan to incorporate a version of it into their space station, Tiangong-2.
So, to conclude in true conspiracy theory fashion—something’s going on here. There’s a reason why these two powers are throwing resources at this device

Does it really work?

If any of these tests results turn out to be positive, then this would be an extraordinary breakthrough for space travel. Here is a basic engine, with no moving parts, not subjected to enormous forces, that works simply by electricity.
So are we on the cusp of a new space technology race? Only time will tell, but you can see why I chose this as the engine of choice to get Dr. Jann Malbec and her crew-mates to Mars in such a short period of time. That said, in The Belt series time has moved on and I started to think that maybe the VASMIR (Variable Specific Impulse Magnetoplasma Rocket) engine might be a real possibility by then—more on that later.

Getting to Mars – Spaceships, Engines & Rocket Fuel

By | The Science Behind The Books | 4 Comments

 

A number of readers have asked me about the science behind my Colony Mars series: how much is real, how much is speculative, and how much is pure fantasy?

It may surprise you to learn that most of it is based either on technology that currently exists, or on recent experimental research. However, in some areas I venture into the realm of pure fantasy.

In this series I will talk about the science behind the books and sort out fact from fantasy. Should you wish to dig a little deeper, I have added links to relevant Wikipedia articles where possible.

I have always had an interest in science and engineering, so when I started writing I wanted to base my stories around what is technically plausible. That presents a big challenge: I can’t simply make up a technical solution to a problem unless it has some basis in reality. But this also creates an advantage: I’m forced to dig deep into the story and come up with more creative plot lines that adhere to my self-imposed parameters.

It takes a considerable amount of research to develop the ideas for a book like Colony Mars, of which only around ten percent might make it into the story. Nonetheless, this “extra” research allowed me to form the basis for the story’s environment. In many respects, it’s not unlike historical fiction, where an author needs a good understanding of the events of the time to be able to realistically create a story within it.

So without further ado, let’s start at the beginning:

Getting to Mars

As you can imagine, I conducted a considerable amount of research on how to get to Mars. I eventually concluded that it was more of a financial/ethical issue than a technology problem.

Until Elon Musk postulated his “BFR” design, the main mission design proposal for getting to Mars was known as Mars Direct, first outlined by Robert Zubrin back in 1990. Mars Direct was later adopted by NASA and revised to become “Mars Semi-Direct.” I used a version of this proposal as the basis for how Dr. Jann Malbec and the crew get to Mars, as it seemed to me—given our current technology—a logical and potentially viable solution.

As we all know, the main problem with getting to Mars is that it is very far away. While we used a single, gigantic rocket to reach the Moon, that’s simply not possible for a trip to Mars. It takes around three days to reach the Moon, but it would take around eight months to get to Mars—and that’s only when Mars and Earth are closest to each other (approximately every two years).

Those eight months include all the resources needed to sustain a crew, and not just for the journey there and back, but also for up to the 18 months they could end up spending on the surface. So one rocket simply won’t do the job.*

The Mars Direct idea breaks the trip into three main phases:

  • First, send a rocket to land a methane fuel processing plant (more on that later).
  • Second, land a fully stocked habitation module 18 months later.
  • And third, (finally) send the crew.

In the opening chapter of Colony One Mars, we see this play out as the crew land on the planet, and then have to walk to the HAB. Later, our hero Dr. Jann Malbec tries to prevent Annis Romanov from refueling the Mars ascent vehicle (MAV). We see this action play out between the fuel process plant and the MAV.**

So far, the story’s events are based on what has been proposed as a workable structure for a Mars mission (the Mars Direct idea). Now let’s talk about how the original colonists in the book got to Mars.

Technically, this would be considerably easier, considering it’s a one-way trip. You could imagine several missions to land resources and supplies, before our intrepid explorers eventually embark on their fateful journey to spend their remaining days on the red planet. The idea behind this came from a proposal put forward by the Mars One Foundation, a privately-owned Dutch company that proposed sending “colonists” who would remain on Mars to form the seeds of a new human colony.

Needless to say, this is a highly controversial proposal. However, there is nothing technically wrong with what they are suggesting. In fact, the main kernel of the mission is that it would be much easier to implement than, say, the Mars Direct proposal. That said, there are obvious ethical issues which I’m not going to get into here, but suffice to say, it got me thinking.

So, like all fiction writers, I did a what if. What if they actually pulled it off? What if the colonists not only survived but prospered? And so the concept of Colony Mars was born.

Engines & Rocket Fuel

Over the years, rocket engines have been designed to use a wide variety of fuels. Some earlier types used hydrazine. And if you have read (or seen the movie) The Martian, then you may remember a scene where Mark Watney tries to make water using hydrazine he has siphoned from the spacecraft. In reality, hydrazine is little used today except for some deep space probes.

The two most popular propellants used these days are liquid hydrogen, which is used in the Space Shuttle and NASA’s new Space Launch System, as well as Jeff Bezos’ New Shepard spacecraft, and the other is a form of kerosene (RP-1), a hydrocarbon derived from oil (believe it or not) and liquid oxygen. This is what SpaceX uses for the Falcon 9 as well as the big daddy of them all: the Saturn V. See rocket propellant.

When Robert Zubrin was developing the Mars Direct proposal, he thought that using the resources available on the planet would make for a more manageable solution. “Living off the land,” he is quoted as saying. One of the key resources is the Martian atmosphere, which is approximately 98% carbon dioxide. By utilizing some clever technology, the atmosphere could be used to make enough methane to refuel your spaceship for the homeward journey. It could also be used for more than just rocket propellant. That’s why, in the Colony Mars books, I have the rovers using this fuel rather than solar power.

It is no coincidence that, since 2014, SpaceX has been developing a new rocket engine, the Raptor, fueled by methane. The new BFR—the rocket that Elon plans to send to Mars—will have a number of these new engines. But like the Mars Direct proposal, they will need to land a methane processing plant on the surface beforehand.

So in terms of the transport technology, Colony Mars is based on what’s possible today. However, there is one engine I have introduced in the books that lies firmly in the experimental/speculative domain, and that is the EmDrive. This is a completely bonkers device that has no moving parts, uses no chemical propellant, and runs entirely on electricity. Some even say it defies the laws of physics. I’ll talk more about this in the next installment.

 

 

* The proposed BFR from SpaceX looks like it could get to Mars in one shot, but on closer examination, you’ll find that it needs to be refueled in Earth’s orbit before departure. This requires several lift-offs for tankers. Secondly, there will need to be a methane processing plant on the Martian surface to manufacture fuel for the return journey. So in reality, getting to Mars via the BFR will still require several launches.

**In the book, I have the fuel canisters needing to be moved from the manufacturing plant to the MAV for the return journey. This is not the case with the direct/semi-direct mission architecture. I changed this so I could build tension at the end of the first book. I also like big explosions. 😉

Moonrise Over Mweelin

By | About Me, Blog | 2 Comments

I just spent a few days cycling the Newport to Achill Island Greenway (Co. Mayo). The weather forecast looked good so myself and a friend piled our bikes into the back of a car and headed off. The weather was warm and sunny, and the scenery was truly spectacular. Here are a few photos of the trip.

Check out moonrise over Mweelin. We were sitting outside a county pub having a well-earned pint when a full moon started to rise over the crest of the mountain. It’s was an amazing sight, and one I had never seen before. 

Achill is an island very close to the mainland and accessed by a short bridge, Achill Sound. The tidal streams here can be quite dangerous as the Atlantic rushes in through a narrow channel.

Mullrany strand is a thing of beauty, with nothing on it only a few cows. I’ve no idea what they were doing there, they probably didn’t know themselves.

Moonrise over Mweelin

Clew Bay

Achill Sound

Down the hill to Mullrany

ENTROPY – Book Two of The Belt Series is OUT NOW!

By | Books, SciFi, The Belt | 3 Comments

Entropy, book two of The Belt series, is out now on Amazon, and I have to say; I’m loving where this story is going.

This new series it is set approximately a century after the events in the Colony Mars books. Colonization of the solar system has continued, encompassing the central asteroid belt and extending as far away as Europa.

The story continues with the science vessel, Hermes, being urgently recalled from its mission to survey the moons of Saturn, just as First Officer Miranda Lee receives bad news from home—her mother is dying so she must leave the ship and return to Earth—for good. Commander Scott McNabb is so distraught by her sudden decision to leave that he pays little or no attention to the parameters of the new mission being requested by the Council of Europa.

Big mistake.

Powerful forces on Earth are now moving to resume inter-AI communications, risking the development of an all-out war. But others within the System are also mobilizing to prevent them from achieving their objective. Yet, Scott and the remaining crew of the Hermes are totally unaware that they are now at the very nexus of an inter-planetary battle—and ultimately heading toward disaster.

As the mission starts to fall apart Scott begins to realize the enormity of the secrets that the ship’s QI, Aria, has been hiding from them all along. Secrets that could tip the balance of power within the System. He must now put aside all thoughts of Miranda and focus on trying to save his crew—including Aria, as failure to do so could ultimately plunge the entire System into total chaos.

No pressure, then.

You can get it now on Amazon for only .99c for a limited time only!

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