I’m reaching a point in the story now where my characters are about to end up in space, on a longer journey than has ever been attempted in history. Up until now, everything I have written has been grounded in reality: school, bus, underground bunker and wild in the mountains of Snowdonia. In about six thousand words, however, things will enter a new reality. This has always been the plan but the more I’ve thought about it as I’ve written, the more certain problems have presented themselves.
Science-wise, I’m going to be asking the reader to accept some pretty incredible technologies that can move a spaceship beyond the speed of light. With such things, there are only so many times you can ask an audience to suspend their disbelief. Therefore, I need to make sure that other things make sense and are as close to reality as possible.
The more I have thought about this, the more certain things have stuck in my throat. Once you realise something like this, it becomes very difficult to just ignore it as you’re thinking about your story, so here is a list:
Star Wars, Star Trek, Battlestar Galactica – every one of these has this amazing invention beyond anything that humanity has created. Captain Kirk and Han Solo both wander around their respective spacecraft without a care in the world. They drink things out of cups instead of plastic bags like real astronauts do. They can do all this because, for some reason not explained to us, there is some form of artificial gravity in operation. How does it work? What is used to generate it? In Star Trek, there is an ‘Artificial Gravity Generator’ (genius) and something called ‘Gravity Plating.’ There are hints that this is old technology left behind by an older race (convenient).
In truth, there is some semblance of scientific possibility in this idea. One idea I came across is to have a spacecraft that is constantly spinning. A rotating spacecraft will produce the feeling of inertia on its inside hull. The rotation drives any object inside the spacecraft toward the hull, thereby giving the appearance of a gravitational pull directed outward.
From the point of view of the people inside the spacecraft, artificial gravity by rotation behaves in some ways similarly to normal gravity but has the following effects:
Firstly, unlike real gravity, which pulls towards a center, this force in rotating reference frames gives a rotational ‘gravity’ that pushes away from the axis of rotation. Artificial gravity levels vary proportionately with the distance from the center of rotation. With a small radius of rotation, the amount of gravity felt at one’s head would be significantly different from the amount felt at one’s feet. This could make movement and changing body position awkward. In accordance with the physics, slower rotations or a spacecraft with a larger diameter would reduce or eliminate this problem. In terms of the X5, I have considered the possibility that there would be two rotating cylinders, one inside the other. One would have a larger force of artificial gravity than the other unless they spun at different rates.
Secondly, Coriolis effect gives an apparent force that acts on objects that move relative to a rotating reference frame. This apparent force acts at right angles to the motion and the rotation axis and tends to curve the motion in the opposite sense to the habitat’s spin. If a person inside a rotating artificial gravity environment moves towards or away from the axis of rotation, he or she will feel a force pushing him or her towards or away from the direction of spin. These forces act on the inner ear and can cause dizziness, nausea or disorientation. It’s unknown whether prolonged exposure would allow people to become accustomed to the feeling.
This possibility gives some reality to the concept of artificial gravity whilst also giving me some possible dramatic directions to explore.
Growing food without sunlight
In Star Trek obviously they have these machines on the wall where you push a button and some edible plastic-looking stuff pops out that you can eat. Hey, who knows. Maybe two hundred years from now that is exactly what will be happening. Here in the present day however, that makes absolutely no sense. So, what are my travellers going to eat on their long journey? Having watched Matt Damon grow potatoes in his own poo in Ridley Scott’s The Martian, I’m a little more optimistic about the chances for this. Out in the darkness, caught between two stars, the available light would be artificial only. It so happens that tis has already been the subject of much investigation around the world; not just for space but for growing things here on Earth. In space, the following foods have been grown: onions, peas, lettuce, dill, parsley, radishes, wheat, rice, flax and cress. I’m not sure of the light conditions these plants had, but it is a good start in terms of cultivating food on board the X5. I thought about animals on board as a source of food also and there is some mileage in this as an idea. Part of me wants the whole crew to go veggie, though. If I were to create an environment with artificial gravity, some of the problems that have been investigated would be eliminated also.
Faster than light (superluminal) travel
This is one of the things I have to have in my story for it to work as a narrative. Travel to the nearest star would take thousands of years under conventional propulsion systems, so there has to be a leap here. NASA has recently done some experiments on something called an EM Drive (the EM stands for Electro Magnetic), which may be able to accelerate particles to the speed of light without breaking the laws of Physics. Despite research into electromagnetic propulsion having been popular in the 1960’s, involving ions and plasma engine research, this is all in its infancy open to much debate, so its nothing I can rely on now. This is one thing which I think I’m just going to have to embellish in my story. The idea I had was that the technology had existed for many years but had been shelved as there was no viable place to travel to and therefore no justification for the expenses incurred in developing prototype engines.
Where is the water coming from?
I found a great article on the NASA website about something called a Sabatier system. Originally developed by Nobel Prize-winning French chemist Paul Sabatier in the early 1900s, this process uses a catalyst that reacts with carbon dioxide and hydrogen (both by-products of current life support systems onboard the International Space Station) to produce water and methane. This interaction closes the loop in the oxygen and water regeneration cycle. In other words, it provides a way to produce water without the need to transport it from Earth. Water is literally taken from the atmosphere. There could also be a filtration system built into the spacesuits kind of like those pictured above (stillsuits from Frank Herbert’s Dune) if not quite so complex.
I suppose the difficulty here is that there is no way, even with a system this sophisticated, to prevent some waste and loss of water. Over a period of several years, the water might, conceivably, run out. How could you get more? As it turns out, there is potentially a way. On the Internet, this is mainly discussed as a way of collecting hydrogen as fuel for interstellar travel. However, if you have hydrogen, you can burn it in ordinary air and it will get together with the oxygen present to create water. Outer space does contain hydrogen atoms which could be collected using a magnetic field. Hey presto, water! Of course, that would use up oxygen reserves, too. Fortunately, with a whole load of plants growing on the spaceship as part of its self-sustaining ecosystem, oxygen wouldn’t be a major issue.
Prolonged life in space and how it affects the human body
Most of the problems I initially considered turn out to be related to prolonged weightlessness. This can have severe effects on the body. As I have, potentially at least, found a reasonable solution to the gravity problem, these shouldn’t be an issue. The main problems are likely to come from exposure to radiation. This could damage the body’s ability to fight off infection or even directly cause death. Some kind of radiation shielding would be necessary or advanced drugs to compensate for the effects. There have been studies undertaken by NASA to look at this very problem in terms of a potential manned mission to Mars and there are some interesting ideas out there.
Oh, sorry, spoilers. Can’t talk about that yet.
Thanks for reading all this. I said that this website would be about the writing process and lots of that, for me at least, is thinking about what makes sense and what doesn’t. There has to be enough science in it to make it possible to go along with the bits that are fantastical.