M Thomas Apple Author Page

Science fiction, actual science, history, and personal ranting about life, the universe, and everything

China doesn’t care about the rest of the world — except when the rest of the world criticizes it

May 4, 2021
MThomas

“When they did that design, they should have stopped and thought, ‘you know, that’s going to leave a big chunk of debris in orbit, we should change the design of the engine’,” McDowell says. “But they didn’t. This is real negligence.”

https://www.inverse.com/science/long-march-5b-uncontrolled-reentry

Four years ago, China’s first space station landed in the Pacific Ocean between Australia and Chile, after an uncontrolled reentry. China didn’t care.

Last year, pieces from a Long March 5B rocket landed in Cote d’Ivoire. They damaged buildings in two villages. China didn’t care.

This launch of the same rocket design could land anywhere from New York to New Zealand, covering a wide range of habitation. China doesn’t care.

On the other hand, once somebody in their government reads about the criticism by the scientific community, they’ll petulantly whine that this often happened in the 1960s, so that makes it OK for them to ignore rocket safety designs known for the past 30 years.

Maybe it’s technology they haven’t yet stolen from other countries.

As the self-acknowledged center of the known universe, the Middle Kingdom only cares what others think of it. Like a spoiled child that thinks it knows everything but fears it does not, China only reacts to its own mistakes by lashing out at others and disclaiming responsibility.

If you want to be respected as a superpower, you need to learn how to respect other countries and stop dumping your trash on them. Respect is not given, it is earned. China has done little to earn any respect by the scientific community.

Maybe there is Hope, after all

February 10, 2021
MThomas

Congratulations, UAE! The Hope Probe (al-Amal) successfully entered Mars orbit on February 9th.

Made in the US (Boulder, Colorado) and the United Arab Emirates (Dubai) and launched from Japan, it shows what hat can be accomplished through international cooperation instead of competition.

Maybe it is truly Hope, after all, and not just for Arab states.

Nature

CNN

BBC News

Magnetic reconnection plasma thruster: Not too fast, not too slow, juuuust right

February 4, 2021
MThomas

A crewed mission to Mars may be more practical thanks to a new rocket concept developed by Fatima Ebrahimi, a physicist at the US Department of Energy’s (DOE) Princeton Plasma Physics Laboratory (PPPL), that uses magnetic fields to generate thrust.

https://newatlas.com/space/magnetic-reconnection-rocket-thruster-concept-spaceflight-mars/

Looks good so far…

…although it’s just a computer simulation right now and the magnetic thruster model hasn’t even been built yet.

Ah, well, just repurpose an existing ion thruster, right?

Hmm. I’m not a rocket scientist, but.. 🚀

All-civilian space flight? Uh. Don’t sign me up.

February 1, 2021
MThomas

The CEO of an online payment company is the perfect leader for an emergency in outer space.

OK, hands up who thinks this is a really super dumb and risky idea but isn’t terribly surprised by the super dumb and risky things Musk continually blurts out? 🤷‍♂️

https://www.nbcnews.com/science/space/spacex-announces-first-mission-space-all-civilian-crew-n1256390

35 Years Ago: Remembering the Challenger

January 28, 2021
MThomas

It’s hard to believe that it’s been 35 years since the disaster that claimed the lives of all seven Space Shuttle Challenger crew members.

I remember it well. Being sent home early without being told. Watching the TV news at home in silent shock with my parents and younger siblings, tears streaming down our faces.

President Reagan’s speech at Congress, made in the place of the traditional State of the Union address, ended with “they slipped the surly bonds of Earth…and touched the face of God.” Probably the finest and most decent thing he ever did (even my parents, who voted for Jimmy Carter and Walter Mondale and intensely disliked Reagan and everything he stood for, couldn’t help but be moved by his words that day).

Thoughtless jokes circulated our school the next week or two. (“What’s the last thing Christa MacAuliffe said to her husband? “You feed the dog; I’ll feed the fish.”)

Even today, we focus on the school teacher who died and almost ignore the rest of the crew. Something like three dozen schools now bear her name. But NASA engineers have never forgotten. They just find it so difficult, so painful to write and talk about their friends and colleagues who perished.

There was a morbid fascination with the way in which the Challenger crew met their fate. My friends came up with all sorts of gruesome stories they claimed to have “heard,” mostly about body parts washing up on beaches around the Caribbean.

The fact is, we were traumatized. Kids do all sorts of insane things to hide their fears, insecurity, and general inability to answer the question what am I supposed to feel/do/say about this?

Challenger marked a turning point in the US space program. It set NASA back in many ways but also provided great insight into what needed to be fixed, what needed to be done to push forward our knowledge of space and the great beyond.

There is/was no going back. Humanity is a space-faring race and must continue to strive to reach beyond its grasp…”Or what’s a heaven for?”

Remember, honor.

Emulate.

Onward and upward.

Bringer of Light, Chapter 9 (Part 1): Mars Colonies

December 19, 2020
MThomas

(While the crew of the Artemis is enduring the long return home, on Mars, Weng is about to run into a problem that is partly of his own making…)

“But, Martin, the designs I sent you were already approved by the new settler delegation from…”

“Sorry, Sam. I know this is important to you, but with the heightened tensions Earthside right now, the priority is foodstuffs.”

“Yes, but—”

“The existing domes will have to suffice for the moment. Why don’t you come down here when you have a chance. We’ll have a chat over ruibos tea.”

Weng stared at the blank space above his console where the 3D holograph had once been. The Overseer had simply cut the transmission without a proper ending salutation.

Dammit it all! He picked up his coffee cup with a trembling hand, but resisted the impulse to throw it.

Taking a sip, Weng stared at the empty space again, as if the image of his superior still remained, smiling at him. 

Nothing had changed. Inwardly he raged, as his face strived for control.

What a fool he had been! To think that anything would be different on Mars. Bureaucracies were all the same, he thought. Only interested in perpetuating themselves. Efficiency? Effectiveness? Not necessary, as long as the status quo was maintained.

Artistry?

He scoffed at his own conceit.

Delusional thinking. Who had time for art with all the work foisted upon him? It had been nearly three weeks since his arrival, and in that time nearly a dozen ships had arrived from multiple countries Earthside. Just over a hundred settlers from the Eastern European Union. A hundred sixty from the Greater Indian Empire. Eighty-three and then ninety-four from the Central African Alliance. More and more each day, it seemed.

The problem was, the UN directives they were forced to operate the Colonies under were confusing, at best. No single country was allowed to lay claim to any particular region of Mars, or of space in general. But now with multiple factions all vying for breathing room, preventing ethnic groups from staking claim to their own territory had proven nearly impossible.

The Iranians didn’t want to be near the Chinese. The Ukranians didn’t want to be next to the Slavic Federation. The Central African Alliance demanded separate territories for each member nation. Only the United Americas hadn’t laid a claim, and that was only because no new settlers from them had arrived. Weng supposed they would prefer to go to Lunar Base, which the UA controlled. Politically, anyway.

He sighed and swirled his cold soy coffee around the cup. Things were no better here on Mars than they had been back on the Moon. If anything, they were worse. Weng had never seen so many different nationalities trapped in such a small confined space before.

He paused, set the cup down in front of the antiquated console, and pondered.

The timing seemed odd. Transition from Earth to Mars normally took at least a full year, nearly three years at their farthest distance apart. Of course, the docking at ISS would allow for reduced payload and less cost. But still, these ships would have taken off from their respective countries long before the current tensions started.

Unless they had somehow known ahead of time, of course, that something was about to happen. That didn’t bode well.

Weng lifted his info pad from its wireless charging port and shut the desk power off to save electricity.

If he had to play the role of the transparent pen-pusher, then for the time being he’d simply have to play along. As the Sage wrote, long ago, “Do not worry that your talents are unappreciated. Make yourself worthy of being appreciated in the future.”

He left his tiny office and entered the narrow underground corridor leading to the central hub. He stepped on the pedwalk and jotted a few random, unnecessary notes on his pad. Keeping the Sage’s words in his mind, Weng made additional mental notes of the lighting, the ceiling, the wall and doorway fixtures. Coarse behind belief. Functional, naturally. The need to protect civilians from radiation meant that every domicile had to be covered in several feet of Martian soil. Still, technology had advanced since the early days of Martian settlement, Weng thought. Why hadn’t someone planned better?

The automated 3D printers had been working nonstop; as soon as one dwelling was assembled, it filled and another had to be prepared. The robotic diggers struggled to connect all the adobes, and their haste showed. Here in the central habitats, where the original settlement had been transformed into a series of UN-Mars colony liaison offices, atmospheric control allowed them to use the automated walkway without wearing any exosuits. Each living unit came equipped with high-speed wifi and personalized access ID for connectivity to the Mars Colony Net.

But the corridors between the new adobes had no fresh air and virtually no heat. Just getting them all hooked up to the electrical grid was proving a struggle, let alone set up wifi and walking strips. It was all they could do to keep the hydrocarbon-driven generators running to prevent the new settlers from freezing and starving.

Weng curled his lip in disgust at the thought of wearing an exosuit to get to work. Drinking his own recycled sweat and urine to reduce the strain on their water supply.

No mobile access to vids.

He shuddered.

A notification from his ID badge told him the pedwalk was reaching the end of the corridor. He staggered as the automated strip abruptly halted. Still several meters from the end. Righting himself quickly, he immediately jotted down on his pad, Maint. crew fix pedwalk Sector 1A-2. Stat.

Inexcusable. The Mars Colony simply could not take on any new settlers at this point. It couldn’t even maintain structures for existing residents.

He clamped the pad shut and strode off the pedwalk into the building before him. The Central Offices. The original building had been adobe like all the new facilities, he had been told. Now it was a complicated reinforced plexiglas and native concrete structure, complete with UV and solar radiation protection shield.

What would happen if the new settlers weren’t sufficiently shielded? he wondered.

Weng shrugged, dismissing the thought. His job at the moment was to make sure they had enough water to go around. And since much of the electricity in the Mars Colony was produced from water, this was more easily said than done.

Entering the Central Office lobby, he waved his ID at the receptist. The cyborg nodded and gestured at the next door.

“Go ahead, Mr. Weng. The Overseer is waiting.”

“Thanks.”

Weng was sure the simulacrum was smirking. Not possible, he knew. The cyborg was programmed to respond to a tens of thousands of combinations of external stimuli, but despite the human-like torso, arms, and face, it was still just a machine. A creepy machine, but a machine.

That smile did look like a smirk, though. He shook his head and paused at the closed door. From the other side, he heard a raised voice. Martin seemed to be arguing with someone.

He touched a hand-size panel in the door, and a faint buzzing noise came from within the room.

There was a pause. Then, “Come!”

The door opened. Facing the door several meters away was a large off-white plastic desk, with Martin seated behind it. The desk had seen better days. Early Colony, Weng guessed, realizing with a start that his own desk looked much newer and likely had a much more recent computer set up as well. He felt slightly embarrassed.

“Ah, Sam, good to see you,” the Overseer said, beaming. He gave no indication of just having finished a conversation.

“Over—Martin, I wanted to see you about—” Weng began.

“Of course, of course,” Martin responded, jumping to his feet. “Tea?”

Before Weng could respond, Martin had already placed the order. A series of buttons lined the left side of the desk. That further dated it. Buttons! Just like the water reclamation plant room.

“Martin,” Weng started again, “have you given any thought to my proposal?”

Martin nodded, then shook his head. “Yes, yes, I have.”

Weng opened his mouth but the Overseer forged on.

“And I have a counter proposal for you.”

A buzzer sounded.

“Ah, that would be the tea. Come!”

They waited as a drone-server wheeled into the room, deposited two plain aluminum cups on the desk, and then wheeled backwards into the lobby area.

The door closed.

“How would you like to be the head of the water reclamation committee instead of just a member?”

Weng nearly dropped the cup, but managed to bring it to his mouth. He took a careful sip.

Not bad. Upper management had its perks.

“Head?” he stammered. “Martin, you know that I’m more interested in—”

“Architectural redesigns of the settler units, yes, of course.”

Martin raised his own cup and drained it without a glance.

“But,” the Overseer continued, “before we can consider expenditures on superficial concerns—however noble and proper they may be, mind you!—there are more immediate, ah, considerations.”

“Such as foodstuffs?” Weng cut in.

He bit a lip. That sounded too indignant.

Martin cocked an eyebrow.

“Water, Sam. Water.”

“Martin, these people have no heat. No access to the Net. Their electrical grid set up is archaic. A good architectural redesign would alleviate—”

“Yes, I know. And you’re absolutely correct. 100%.” Martin paused. “But they need water. And we haven’t got any.”

Weng paused. “No water?”

“No water,” Martin repeated. “Well, not literally no water, but we must start to ration or we’ll run out within a few weeks. Well, not to exaggerate. A few months, perhaps.”

Weng slowly lowered the tea cup to the plastic desk. The tea felt stale in his mouth now. How much water had they wasted making it just now?

“Electricity,” he said. He looked up at the Overseer. “We’re using too much on the generators.”

Martin nodded somberly. “Yes, exactly so. And that’s what you need to tell the head of the settler delegations.”

Weng laughed. “Me?”

“Yes, you.”

Weng stared. The Overseer wasn’t joking.

“Martin…you must…are you…me?”

Martin draped an arm across his shoulders. “Look. It’s all very simple. You know these people already. You’ve been meeting with them, working with them. You’ve shared your concerns with them about their situation.”

Weng winced at the Overseer’s touch, but allowed himself to be led behind the yellowing desk. An array of ancient computer monitors stared up at him.

The architect resisted the urge to curl a lip. First generation networking like this belonged in a museum, not the Office of the Martian Secretariat.

“Here,” Martin gestured. “I’ve already got a meeting set up with several colonist delegates.”

“But—”

“Just follow my lead,” Martin said urgently. He eased into a smile. “They trust you. Let’s play.”


Next: Bringer of Light, Chapter 9 (Part 2): Mar Colonies (Coming 12/26)

In which Weng finds himself at the center of a fight and makes a proposal that will change everything…

Bringer of Light, Chapter 6: Brady

November 28, 2020
MThomas

(In Chapter 5, we found out more about Riss. Now it’s the geist’s turn.)

Brady Cooper was typing.

It was more difficult than he thought it would be. One hand strapped into the pad case, the other single-finger typing on the pad surface, all the while trying not to float away from the bunk.

Floating made him queasy. He would never forget the embarrassment he felt just before his first launch. The “training” he received in the weightless chamber prior to joining the Lunar geological survey team simply didn’t prepare him for living on the Moon.

He lasted all of ten minutes before getting sick. All over himself, his teammates, the arrival seats in the spaceport lounge.

And it didn’t get any better from that point.

Somebody should have told me that terraforming didn’t change the gravity! he complained to his supervisor at the time. Didn’t Lunar Base have grav generators, anyway?

But that was just an excuse. Of course, he should have known. He’d forgotten. In his haste and anxiety to prove himself. The youngest geologist ever allowed to join an extra-Earth survey team, just recently out of grad school. And from Africa, no less!

No, not from Africa, he argued. American. I’m American. That was just my mother.

They always shrugged. You UA people all look alike, some told him.

Asians. He just didn’t understand them. But he knew Chinese scientists. Japanese. Indian. Malaysian. He needed to prove to them, prove that he was just as good as they were.

When the call came for a geist to join an asteroid hunting crew, he leapt at the chance. Without thinking, as usual. But he knew he could do it.

He hadn’t figured on the gravity being more or less the same. Or the equipment more complicated. Or the people more…complicated.

The recalcitrant pad was proving adept at avoiding his fingertips. Irritated, Cooper tried to sit upright. Instead, he managed to propel himself tumbling head over foot toward the closed entrance door.

Letting out a tiny yelp, he cradled the pad to his chest to protect it. His feet banged against the door, arresting his forward momentum and pushing him back towards the bunk. Calming himself down, Cooper reached down with his free hand and grabbed a boot. After a few awkward attempts, he managed to yank the boot on one-handed. The boot touched the floor, securing him in place.

He laughed. It must have looked ridiculous; anchored in place, waving his arms and left leg around like a sea anemone.

He took his hand out of the pad case and pulled the other boot on. Sitting down on the bunk, without doing a somersault this time, Cooper thought back to his near-fatal mistake. His first hunt.

What a scene he must have made, that time.

He’d been so anxious about actually stepping foot on an asteroid that he had forgotten to set his boots. One step on the asteroid was all it had taken to push him off of the surface and onto a slowly arching path out into space.

Fortunately Riss had seen him starting to float away and performed a daring rescue worthy of the popular NetStream vid “Real Space: Rock Hunters.” She turned off her own boots, grabbed the cable from the ship’s winch and launched herself as hard as she could at Cooper. A few bounding leaps onto the roof of the ship later, she crashed into him and wrapped the cable around his waist. He was only free floating for twenty seconds. But that was enough time for him to ponder having to make the choice: either slowly suffocate as his air ran out, or open his exosuit for a quick, frozen death.

Sitting on his bunk, magboots firmly attached, Cooper could now look back and wonder.

Why hadn’t he learned his lesson the first time?

He shook his head.

A better question was why he felt so drawn to seek an outer belt hunting expedition.

Chalk it up to the exuberance of youth, he heard a former teacher’s voice say.

He smirked at the memory. Mistakes, one after the other, in his doctoral studies at Boulder. Geochemistry had never been his strong point; somehow, he persevered. Even got three papers published before graduating. His professors’ lectures set his imagination on fire. To see asteroids and comets up close! To visit the Zedra fuel station on Triton and see the ice plumes of Europa!

Now, far from the colonized part of the solar system, hovering near the LaGrange points of Jupiter and Saturn, he was afraid.

All of the time.

Afraid. He had no idea the psychological rigors of deep space travel would affect him so intensely. The isolation. The emptiness. No up or down, left or right. No center.

None of his astrogeology studies had prepared him for this.

He held his head in his hands and stared at the floor.

Why had he and his mother left Tanzania?

As a high school student in Colorado, he had never fully understand the reason.

“It was time to leave Dar es Salaam behind,” she told him. “The republic is no more. The Commonwealth will not save us. Our future is with our brethren. In the UA.”

He originally thought they were searching for his father. British, he had been told. A white man from a distinguished background. Maybe even a politician. But they only stayed in Brighton for a few days. Then Chicago. Then Colorado.

His mother had never spoken of his father’s whereabouts, or why he had left. Cooper had no distinct memories of his father. Only that the man had not talked to him much, or even visited the house often.

In fact, the geologist realized he didn’t even know if his parents were married or not. He supposed now it didn’t matter. It was not something his mother wished to discuss.

“Study science,” she insisted, whenever he asked. “Listen to the rocks. Learn their story. Their past is your past.”

He did as she said. He studied. He got into his dream school. He learned. He struggled.

When he was chosen for the Mars terraforming project, his classmates told him how lucky he was. How jealous they were of his success.

But he hadn’t felt successful, somehow. Always needing to prove himself. Like he was being constantly tested, watched. Judged.

Mistakes. His work was nothing more than a giant bundle of mistakes.

Instinctively, he stood and clasped his hands. The short daily prayer, the prayer affirming the power of the divinity and its grace. In what direction Qiblih lay, he had little idea.

“…There is none other God but Thee, the Help in Peril, the Self-Subsisting.”

He sat down again. There was no way to wash his hands in space. Sponging just wasn’t the same. Directions were meaningless. He had even skipped the long prayers for days at a time. Saying the medium prayer three times a day had proven difficult. When was sunrise? Sunset? Where could he find enough space for supplication?

He was glad nobody had yet asked him to use a gun. Violence ought to be avoided; the teachings forbade the faithful from carrying weapons or even using coarse language to criticize another. He came close to doing so, in the cargo hold, when the white hunter captain insulted him. Almost lost his temper.

White. Was that because he was white? What about his own captain?

Cooper shook his head again and closed his eyes, praying silently for the strength to remain faithful. His mother had lapsed. She was now covenant-less. Would he join her?

Only his isolation prevented the Elders from knowing his crisis of faith. He dared not contact his family. Even speaking with the covenant-less was grounds for being ostracized likewise.

Yet the isolation that saved him also condemned him. Who could he talk to?

Riss?

No, she was his captain. She had enough burdens to handle, let alone bear his. He was resolved to follow her command. She had more than earned it.

Enoch?

He hadn’t yet figured out the navigator. He didn’t seem Hawai’ian, although he claimed to be a descendant of ancient Pacific Island sailors. And his name, Enoch, was Biblical, yet the man had no interest or knowledge whatsoever of even his own faith. Cooper didn’t know what to make of him.

Sanvi?

Hm. She bothered him. In many ways. But spiritually, perhaps.

No. Not yet. He was unsure of himself, of his devotion. His own strength. He needed to be sure they could rely on him, before he relied on them.

He hoped he’d done the right thing by adding the ice to their water supply.

The pad bumped him in the back.

He turned around and plucked it out of the air, where it had floated aimlessly during his self-recriminating daydream.

He sighed and swiped it on again. Maybe another vid binge would take his mind off things for a couple of hours. Good thing the Artemis library had several thousand hours’ worth of pirated Net Stream vids.


Next: Bringer of Light, Chapter 7: Sanvi (Coming 12/5)

Hey, Bennu, gimme a “High-Five”!

October 20, 2020
MThomas

Why are 3D objects always compared to the Empire State Building?

Researchers understand it to be what they call a carbonaceous asteroid, meaning its rocks still retain a lot of the chemistry that was present when the Sun and the planets came into being more than 4.5 billion years ago. Hence the desire to bring some of its material home for analysis in sophisticated Earth laboratories.

https://www.bbc.com/news/science-environment-54592163

If it’s a spinning top, I don’t see how showing it in comparison to the Eiffel Tower will help us understand how big it is…

Then again, usually media compare things like this to a football field (US) or a football pitch (UK). Or they say things like “as long as [insert type of moving vehicle here] end to end.”

Honestly, just say “510 m3” and leave it at that. All we care about is what the probe will do: Vacuum up and bring back at least 60g of materials from the beginning of the solar system.

Now how about THAT, Hayabusa-2?

OK, granted, this is not related to Bennu. And we’re not dragging an asteroid back “in the 2020s” just yet, Spectrum. But it’s still neat. https://spectrum.ieee.org/automaton/robotics/space-robots/heres-how-nasa-will-grab-an-asteroid

Is teleporting a death sentence?

October 15, 2020
MThomas

“Beam us down, Mr. O’Brien! No, wait, I didn’t meaaaannnnnnnnn……”

Some would argue that having one’s “molecules scrambled,” as Dr. McCoy would put it, is actually the surest way to die. Sure, after you’ve been taken apart by the transporter, you’re put back together somewhere else, good as new. But is it still you on the other side, or is it a copy? If the latter, does that mean the transporter is a suicide box?

https://arstechnica.com/gaming/2017/09/is-beaming-down-in-star-trek-a-death-sentence/

An old article (2017, whose impetus was the imminent release of ST: Discovery) but a good one.

Is the copy of you, you? Or is it a brand new person with the same memories? Would it have ANY memories? Would it have the same consciousness? (Or ANY consciousness?)

Of course, you can always stick to the “David Brin Theory” of teleportation: “Some dude in the future will figure this all out.”

Lazy writers!

(This is why, in my novel, I stick to quantum teleportation of inanimate objects only. That includes quantum communication relays, chunks of asteroids…miniature nuclear bombs…you know, “realistic” things like that.)

And, yes, quantum teleportation is real. Just very, very tiny. For now.

Tech visionaries are needed. Scientists are more important.

September 1, 2020
MThomas

I get the attraction of people like Steve Jobs and Elon Musk. They have big ideas. They’re enthusiastic, ecstatic, even. They’re great at simplifying difficult concepts and promoting tech to the lay person.

But they’re not creators. They’re “visionaries.”

I.e., salespersons.

Is that a bad thing? Of course not. I was in computer sales once. It was hard. Only the charismatic are good at it. But I didn’t have the knowledge and ability to make the products I was selling, let alone the power to innovate.

Sticking a chip in a person’s brain and sending thousands to the Moon or Mars sound cool. Possible, even.

But science isn’t sales. Someone might die.

Small difference.

We need visionaries, but scientists are more important. Maybe if they talked to each other…

https://www.bbc.com/news/technology-53987919

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