Introduction to Rocket Science Day!


Yesterday I had the pleasure of attending the British Interplanetary Society’s An Introduction to Rocket Science day at the Royal Institution’s Faraday Theatre (yes, the same as where the BBC’s Christmas Lectures are broadcast from). Below are the lectures with the blurb from the invite and a comment or two from me.

nigel Why can’t we simply fly to space in a plane?

Dr Nigel Bannister of the Department of Physics & Astronomy at the University of Leicester will explain all this with the help of isopropyl alcohol!

This lecture was how we get to space with chemical rockets and why they are so limited. Bottom line was with the know materials we got, rockets have to have stages. The demonstration of how to produce thrust using an empty water dispensing bottle was spectacular!  

kenyon How to build a spacecraft
Building satellites, propulsion and power – a “Haynes manual”. Shaun Kenyon, Chief Engineer at Sen Corporation will explain all.

This lecture explained what propulsion options were currently available – chemical and nuclear fission. He also explained the need for many different science, engineering and project management specialists to get spacecraft doing what they need to do. 

stuttard So what have satellites done for us?
Satnav, satcom, weather forecasts and whales in the cloud. Matthew Stuttard, the Head of Advanced Space Projects at Airbus, Stevenage takes the helm.

A good example was monitoring the health of crops of space by measuring chlorophyll a and chlorophyll b (the chemical used to turn sunlight into plant energy through photosynthesis).

647 Open Innovation – disrupting the space industry
Dr Olesya Myakonkaya, Senior Innovation Scientist will talk about how citizen science and start ups change the way we innovate.

The emphasis seemed to be on biological technology innovation at the moment. One example was of a new method to prevent the destruction of DNA from radiation. A second method was to prevent effectively what was biological slime build up – which came from an observation of how coral reefs prevented slime build up! 

cawthorne  Observing our planet from above
EO, LEO, GEO. There are lots of acronyms to do with space. Earth Observation – EO; the first of these acronyms – enables us to monitor global warming, see land use changes such as urbanisation and more. Andrew Cawthorne, Head of Earth Observation at Surrey Satellite Technology Limited will explain EO (LEO and GEO too!)

The before and after examples what was going on in say the Amazon Rain Forest were spectacular.

welch Beyond Earth orbit
Designing better rockets and using new technology help us explore new worlds. Professor Chris Welch, Head of Astronautics and Space Engineering at the International Space University, Strasbourg will look further into the Solar System.

Given the politics at the moment – the speaker made a note to say that the Brexit vote does not affect the UK membership of ESA (European Space Agency). He should know!

We currently have chemical and nuclear fission spacecraft. He described electro-propulsion methods that are being used and developed further. It was interesting to note that the last were responsible for the slow to get there spacecraft because they could only produce limited power, which in turn means that they are likely to be robotic spacecraft!

He also described the new small spacecraft that are able to do cheaper missions and the like.  

hutty How to go to Mars
Abbie Hutty, Spacecraft Structures Engineer on the ExoMars Rover Vehicle Team at Airbus, Stevenage will talk about building a rover to explore the Red Planet.

A good demonstration of the problem of distance of getting to Mars!

pollacco  E.T. Phone Home!
Hello? Hello? Is there anybody out there? The Drake equation, life, methane, alien mega-structures and the Goldilocks zone are explained by Dr Don Pollacco of the Department of Physics, University of Warwick.

A good talk about the Drake equation and the impact of finding exo-planets on its values.

714  What’s it like living in space?
NASA astronaut Cady Coleman will give an illustrated talk about her life aboard the International Space Station.

A good talk about life on the space station, in terms of both work and pleasure. Interesting point is that the most precious resource up there is the astronaut’s time. Sounds to me as if we could do with another space station up there, but I hope with the advancement of technology since the original was built, costing less money.

zarnecki Space exploration
A guide on where we’ve got to so far and where we are going next. Dr John Zarnecki, President of the Royal Astronomical Society will take us on a tour of the galaxy.

A good whizz through of space exploration. Concentrated on the Cassini-Huygens probe in which he had a lot of involvement.

bridges What’s next?
Nearly fifty years ago now, Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin stepped onto the Moon. Are we on our way to Mars now or even further? Or will robotic missions take us further to other solar systems? Dr Chris Bridges, Lecturer in On-Board Data Handling at the University of Surrey takes us on a tour.

This concentrated on getting data from space telescopes and what the problems of getting ever bigger telescopes up there was. It was especially interesting to see the way the telescopic mirrors were being built up – piece by piece. The latest telescope will be able to adjust mirrors automatically rather than have astronauts needing to go up there and do the adjustments as they had to do on the Hubble telescope. 

tate We’re doomed! Or are we?
At any moment, Earth could be hit by an asteroid or comet which would wipe us out as happened to the dinosaurs. But Jay Tate, Director of The Spaceguard Centre is here to tell us if we might be safe after all.

A good walk through of the problems and issues of possible asteroid impact on Earth. 


My thanks to all those who helped made this day a success. It not only gave a good introduction to space technology and exploration to those newly interested in the subject, but also gave a good overview of what the state of play in the UK space industry was today – something every science fiction writer writing about near future space needs.

Science fiction wise I came away with an idea for a new story  ( 🙂 ) .

I was also saddened by a fact that came out during one talk (I won’t say which). I had come across something by pure accident in my science fiction writing that would have added further enlightenment to that talk. Despite my best efforts, I could not get that story published and having exhausted all the reasonable ways of getting it into print, it will now never be published. This is just one case where the science will be the poorer for the lack of science fiction. I suspect there are quite a few more such examples.

Science fiction deals with future possibilities. The publishing industry does not have the capacity or the will to publish all the new possibilities that the genre writers are presenting. It has now got to the stage where the scientific bodies are setting up competitions for short stories to get those ideas. (For example, there is a current competition call from the Machine Intelligence Research Institute – see here.) That such institutes are willing to go to the effort of doing their homework and setting up such competitions means only one thing to me. The publishing industry has failed the science community.

The most interesting oddball fact of the day was that Isaac Newton invented the cat flap! I’ve got a funny feeling C.A.T. may have something to say about that! (It’s like George Stephenson inventing the cucumber straightener!)

Now back to that crazy idea I had…

DIscoveries, Engineering Progress and Science Fiction

Of course the highlight news is the astronomers have found a planet that has atmosphere. It’s GJ 1132b, which is 1.4-times the size of our planet and lies 39 light years away, and in the Vela constellation. As it has a surface temperature around 370C, it won’t be habitable. However, that does not rule out it being habitable at some layer in the atmosphere – just like our neighbouring planet, Venus. Observations  suggest that it has a thick atmosphere containing either steam and/or methane. More details here.

This of course is only the start of finding the composition of atmospheres on close planets, but it is a step in the right direction if humankind is ever to travel to our neighbouring stars.
In other news, Norway has announced it is going to build a 1.7km tunnel to allow ships up to 20,000 tonnes to pass through. It’ll mean that these ships would not have to go the long way round through hazardous waters. In a way this could contribute valuable knowledge to building tunnels and indeed habitable spaces in hard rock on our Moon and Mars.

Sometimes science fiction can inspire scientific research. Do you remember film or novel The Martian? (The novel was written by Andrew Weir.) Some scientists have now grown a potato in Martian conditions. More details here. It is an important step to being able to sustain ourselves off-Earth in the future. That includes the Moon.

One of the points Robert Heinlein made in his novel, The Moon is a Harsh Mistress, was that the soils / dust on the Moon were virgin i.e. they had never been farmed. Therefore they are full of all the good nutrients that would go to making quality food. In the novel, Heinlein has the people growing grain crops and literally throwing container loads of the stuff from the Moon using an electromagnetic rail system i.e. the containers had no onboard fuel whatsoever. With water ice deposits being found in the Shackleton crater towards the South Pole, the idea of economic farming on the Moon starts to become feasible. You never know, with further discoveries and scientific advances it could even become economically feasible.

Talking of living on the Moon… if we are to go there, the economics has to stack up. Rich people can visit it for fun. Scientists can visit it for setting up and running experiments to advance our knowledge of science. Neither reason gives any permanency. One possible reason was the mining of helium three for nuclear fusion reactors. That is on hold until we can such a nuclear reactor working more cheaply than current power generation methods. So farming might be just the driver to get us permanently on the Moon, depending on how things go.

… and the more science fiction can come up with ideas of how we can improve the economics of setting up a permanent base, the quicker we might there.

Let’s Hunt – 9th Planet, Lunar Tunnels and Strange Galaxies

The hunt for the 9th planet in our Solar System is asking for the citizen scientist’s help. The project will be launched by Prof Brian Cox as part of BBC Two’s Stargazing Live which begins on 28 March. Why not join in? See here for more details. It is currently thought to be gaseous, much like our planets Uranus and Neptune. An artist’s impression is below.


This is clearly of interest to me because it might (depending on various factors, blah, blah, blah…) affect the science fiction novel I’m writing… uh-oh, just thought, given one of the surprises I’ve put into the novel, it will do. (Colour me very excited!)

The novel I’m talking about is what I call my C.A.T. novel. There’s already a series of three stories published about the cheeky little rogue. If you want some idea of what it’s about click on the image below to read the first part of the first story.

In other news… recent discoveries about the Moon would suggest that a lot of science fiction about the Moon is becoming outdated. (That science fiction had its uses, pointing the way to what the scientists might like to look for and why, so I’m not knocking that science fiction.)

The latest is that the deep pits the Japanese discovered near the Marius Hills on the Moon are close to, if not directly connected to hollow spaces tens of kilometres long. Given the need to live underground on the Moon to avoid nasty things like radiation, these could end up being the home to future Lunarians. Details here.

Turning now to galaxies far far away… the further away the galaxies are, the younger age we’re seeing them at (all to do with the limiting speed of light). These galaxies are not behaving in the way that scientists had expected. Gravitationally speaking, we need the idea of dark matter to explain the fast speeds of stars orbiting the centre of galaxies. However, these young ones don’t have those speeds. So the hunt is on to find an explanation how the stars and galaxies can evolve to produce this effect. The answer may, or may not, get rid of the idea of dark matter.

Techno Science Fiction Possibilities

Technology understanding and development continues to throw surprises. Some of them come from obscure effects. Others come from improvements in mechanisms once thought inferior to other technologies. It’s these kind of odd obscure things that can be the basis of a good science fiction story.

A couple of such interesting techie things have come to light.

The first concerns the aurora and the Global Navigation Satellite Systems (GNSS), which includes GPS. Aurora is caused by charged particles in the solar wind from the Sun colliding with the Earth’s atmosphere. This results in reactions that form new gases and releases energy such as the light displays. It had long been thought the resulting plasma (charged particles) turbulence was the cause of interference in the GNSS.

The engineers and scientists at Bath University, England, have now shown this is not the case. The bottom line is they don’t know what in the aurora is causing the interference. It’s one big unknown. See here for details.

This is one of those opportunities for the science fiction writer to put together short stories to speculate what the cause is. And, if you come up with a good idea, you may be able to transfer the effect to other planets.


Given the emphasis these days on reducing pollution from fossil fuels, it is not surprising that engineers are revisiting a whole bunch of other propulsion forms for cargo ships. We’ve had designer kites placed on tankers to reduce the fuel usage. Now we are revisiting the rotor sails invented by a German engineer, Anton Flettner. In fact he went on to build a couple of ships in the 1920s with these rotor sails. However, the cost of using these sails was greater using the conventional screw propellors.

But now with the improvement in technology, these sails can reduce a ship’s fuel costs by 7% to 10%. See here for details.

You can see from the above 1920s image what a visual difference the rotor sails make to a ship. It seems so bizarre to what we’re used to, and it’s this strangeness that can be used in science fiction stories. This comes on top of the actual effects of rotor ships.

In fact, there was a proposal to build 1,500 robotic rotor ships to mitigate global warming. The ships would spray seawater into the air to enhance cloud reflectivity. A prototype ship has been built.

I’m sure there other such technology quirks that could be used as a basis for a science fiction story. It’s a case of finding and using them.



Near Future Science Fiction

The closer your speculative future to today is, the shorter the science fiction story has to be.

Why is that?

Most science fiction authors are all too well aware how they can develop a world, only to find an announcement in some science journal or news channels that means they got aspects of world technology wrong. Some good classical examples include H. G. Wells’ The Time Machine and Edgar Rice Burroughs’ A Princess of Mars.


But why are near future tales so particularly vulnerable to this problem?

Well, we do have a lot of technology, cars, vacuum cleaners, washing machines, computers, x-ray machines, nuclear power stations, wind generators… well the list can go on and on and on… Each of these technologies can be extrapolated. Cars can become driverless and can cross rivers. Vacuum cleaners can clean the room by themselves and worse can decide when the room needs cleaning. And so it goes on. These kinds of technology development are fairly predicable. The problem comes knowing how fast the developments get to market relative to each other. But most readers tend to shrug any such time anomalies off.

So what causes the annoyance with the future technologies not being predicted correctly?

When the extrapolated technologies reach a certain level they can be combined with another technology to produce something really unexpected. With hindsight such inventions are obvious. Well, the aeroplane was obvious before it was invented, wasn’t it? Err… not until the three-axis controls were invented by Orville and Wilbur Wright, which meant fixed wing aeroplanes could be steered and controlled.

The appearance of these cross-technology inventions is unpredictable. Some of them go on to make a profound change in society – like the fixed wing aircraft example above. And to those that grew up and lived with such inventions, they can’t understand why it was so difficult to produce.

These cross-technology inventions have a nasty habit of making hard cumbersome ways of doing things obsolete. What would you think of a horse-drawn plough being put into a story when you were already driving tractors?

But we are living in an age when cross-technology inventions are the basis of most inventions, and they are coming in thick and fast. So it is comparatively speaking, easy to get the near future technology so completely wrong.

When it comes to writing novels, there is a lot of whole building, which for near future stories means a lot of technology development. Add to this the length of time that it takes for a novel to be written and published, there is more chance of something technology-wise being out of kilter with what is happening in the real world.

So what do you do if you have a wonderful technology invention that is likely to happen in the near future and you want to put it into a science fiction story?

Well sticking to writing a short story about it means you can get that idea down quickly. Secondly, when it comes to picking a magazine, pick a magazine that accepts or rejects your story quickly. Be wary of magazines that are quick to accept and then hang onto the story for several years before publishing. The quick turnaround time reduces that chances of a technology-crossing invention killing the credibility of your story.

Which is why short story markets, like the Kraxon Magazine and Daily Science Fiction are so important. They are the true banner-wavers of near future science fiction.

Talking of Kraxon Magazine, I’m absolutely delighted that my short story Cyber Control was voted the favourite story in the magazine for 2016!

Facts, Damned Facts, and Diagrams

Sometimes when you get a lot of facts thrown at you, it is difficult to make sense of them all at the same time. That’s when a diagram comes in handy – you just sit down and add a bit at a time. This is exactly what I did in trying to make out the structure of the Kuiper Belt. And here is the result:


With those unknowns of what happened to all objects that should be there, it’s no wonder some of the descriptions ended up being confusing. What I have not included on here are other resonances with Neptune that have fewer objects than the ones shown in the diagram, but there is nevertheless a higher concentration of objects.

But this is only the Kuiper Belt. There’s also the Scattered Disc Objects (SDO). These objects approach the Sun as close as 30 to 35 AU (Astronomical Units), but usually have highly eccentric orbits that can extend beyond 100 AU. They can also have orbital inclinations up to 40 degrees. They are thought to be the result of gravitational scattering by the gas giants (Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus and Neptune). So there is some overlap between the Kuiper Belt and SDO. A good example of an overlap object is Eris.

There are objects that are further out than either of these two sets, e.g. Sednoids, but apart from not fitting onto the diagram, little is known about them.

Does this help my science fiction? You bet it does! So I would certainly suggest using a diagram to get your thoughts straight when you have too many facts.

Maybe, or, Maybe Not

Over the past years I have generated the occasional article that would be a help to science fiction wanting to use the relevant technology. It started with one about artificial gravity. And that only came about because I was critiquing someone else’s drafts and what he had written instinctively felt wrong. So I sat down, one evening in my favourite armchair and typed up a few notes. End result, he came back to say it had helped him visualise what was needed.

Roll on several years and a few more articles of similar ilk (but not the same technology).

Another writerly friend who also blogs had put together a book of the articles she wrote on her blog. She is I hasten to add not a science fiction writer, more a contemporary / literary writer. However, she has an interesting sense of humour and has got me laughing on many an occasion. Susan’s book can be found here:



So wouldn’t it be nice to do something similar – a compilation of these technology articles for budding science fiction writers, or indeed, the more experienced science fiction writers who haven’t had a chance to look into the various technologies. Of course, I’d have to add a couple of articles not already published on my blog.

But will I have the time? Won’t it get in the way of my science fiction writing?

The answers to these questions is we’ll have to wait and see. But one thing is for sure, I now feel as if I’m on the home straight for my C.A.T. novel, even if I do still have the ‘where the heck did that come from?’ moments.