Sunday, November 24, 2013

Gravitational Lens Communications and Observation

As reported in this Icarus Interstellar link, there's a natural effect of our sun's (or any star's) gravity that should be included in realistic science fiction stories. It turns out that the sun's gravity bends space enough, and thus the light passing though space, to allow a space telescope or a space telecommunications array to get a significant boost in resolution. So every spacefaring race (or nearly every) would naturally build stations at a sufficient distance from their star to make use of this natural gravitational effect, receiving a huge boost in gain essentially for only the cost of putting the arrays or telescopes in place.

You'd probably need multiple stations of this type, at various points around the sun, because the focus would naturally be on things on the other side of the sun relative to the station. And the distance is far, around 700 AUs from the sun, so it wouldn't be easy to shift a station from one side of the focus to another. (For perspective, after continuous travel since the 1970s the Voyager probes have not yet reached 150 AUs).

At a level of interplanetary travel where nuclear or ion rockets become common and interstellar travel doesn't exist or is just beginning, these remote outposts would be very important as a means to see outside the solar system or to enhance communications with interstellar probes or fresh interstellar contacts. These stations would also likely be the first to spot signs of alien civilization or invasion.

A flash fiction story of mine giving my own spin on this science fiction world-building idea lies below:

Three years of continual thrust brought GFOST 1 (Gravity Focused Orbital Space Telescope) into position. It's artificial intelligence cut the thrust as it entered a very slow orbit of the sun. Or at least, Dr. Salma Naman hoped so. It would be 4 days, 1 hour, and just over 13 minutes before the speed of light crawled its way back to Earth with the radio transmission that would bring the definitive news.

Salma celebrated nonetheless. "Pass the champagne, Alin!" She smilled at her Romanian-born colleague as he passed the Dom Perignon with a grin. The two of them had led the Planetary Dynamics design team that won the contract to build GFOST for the World Space Agency.

"What shall we toast?" he said in an accent that always reminded her of vampires.

"To many more geefosts to come!" 

"Hear, hear," he agreed. Their Planetary Dynamics colleagues at the long table in the dim-lit restaurant joined in.

Alin added, "To the funding of numbers three through ten!" She drank to that.

GFOST 2 and had already been funded, of course, and was on its way to a position 180 degrees apart in a great circle around the solar system at seven hundred times the distance between Earth and the sun. It lagged a few weeks behind #1, but soon enough would also be cutting engines and entering orbit for projected decades of service. Assuming, of course, that the system of using the sun's gravity as a gigantic lens to greatly increase the power of a space telescope worked the way it was supposed to. And assuming the GFOSTs operated as designed...

Four days later the post-celebration throbbing had departed from Salma's skull. She reported to the WSA control room in London as a contractor consultant, so she wasn't one of the big names in the room when the first signal verifying all was in order came back. Her console was the second from the left in the rear of the big room. Everyone smiled and some handshaking and a few hugs passed around the room at that moment, but there were no cheers. They'd been hearing from Albert the AI the entire voyage, after all, so they knew he was nearly mission-ready. Less than an hour passed before he began imaging.

The first pictures returned proved spectacular. Albert captured an extra-solar planet orbiting 94 Ceti  as well as ground-based telescopes could picture Saturn or Jupiter. The planet viewed showed a rust-red surface with clouds of dust in the middle, but with poles covered with the blue of what spectroscopy confirmed was H2O, liquid water. And with an atmosphere high in oxygen. That produced some cheers. 94 Ceti wasn't even considered an especially likely place to find conditions compatible with life on Earth--it had been selected for a first view simply because it happened to line up well with GFOST 1's optimum direction of focus at the moment, looking beyond the bright star humans knew as their sun.

Near the end of that exciting first day in the control room, Albert tackled the routine task of examining the position where GFOST 2 was due to enter orbit in twenty-two days. This was to verify no debris of any kind would be in the area as a hazard to the incoming telescope, though Salma suspected Albert in fact cared more about his sister AI than anything else.

"Curious," said Albert in voice that reminded her of a golden-eyed android of her science fiction-watching youth. "It appears Alberta is already in place."

"Impossible," said Salma out loud to no one in particular. "We've received two progress reports from her today. She's exactly where she's supposed to be." She wished Albert could hear her comment, but of course, that wouldn't happen for over 97 hours. With over a week passing before she could receive any reply in return.

Instead, he continued his monologue. "London, I am detecting an object in position where GFOST 2 is due to arrive. It clearly is not debris nor does it match any known Oort Cloud object. In fact, it's configuration appears to be another space telescope. Verifying."

While Albert systematically began to run through a series of steps to verify his finding, she stared at the clearly mechanical image captured on the monitor screen that covered the back wall of the center. She drew in her breath sharply.

Chris Carter, the CIC, snapped his head in her direction. "What is it, Dr. Naman?"

"I'm familiar," she caught her breath, "with all the designs that were proposed for geefost. All of them, all over the world. What I'm seeing is similar to many of them, but is also different from any one of them. Not only is this not geefost two," she caught her breath again, "the model I'm seeing is unlike anything else. It's not one of ours."

Carter frowned. "Doctor, what are you implying?"

"This...this is unlike any system proposed or designed on planet Earth. W-which means, it must come from some other planet." Salma's voice trailed off as her heart pounded in her chest...


Monday, November 4, 2013

Unknown Biologic: Aliens with Earth Genetics

Science fiction likes aliens. I've written a story, Unknown Biologic, that illustrates a twist on the conventional alien tale.

There's a presumption which naturally goes along with believing that evolution produced human intelligence that it would produce many other intelligences in the universe, ones that don't necessarily have much in common with the human race. Respectfully, I happen to believe the universe was created by God, so God produced human intelligence and logically would also have created any aliens. I've talked in a previous post about 7 christian objections to the existence of aliens, dismissing those objections for a Christian writer who wants to write science fiction and include aliens in the story. In my posts four faces around throne of God and alien God of the Christian rapture I offered some distinctly Christian twists on writing about aliens.

Now I'm offering another twist. What if when aliens are discovered in a story universe, it's found that they genetically match up with some creature on Earth? For example, their DNA could match human DNA or be close (this idea was actually on display in the science fiction film Prometheus, which I discussed in a previous post). This would naturally beg the question of how human genetics are found throughout the galaxy. A Christian writer could have a character state the simplest explanation for the phenomenon is a common Creator for us and them, while other characters could ignore this simplest hypothesis and pursue ideas of "parallel genetic development" or panspermia or ancient alien interventions. This could form an unobtrusive way of showing how human intellect at times prefers to explain phenomena by any means but God.

But the aliens don't necessarily have to be like humans to make the point. The aliens could be bearlike or birdlike, for example, with not just outward appearances that match Earth animals, but with DNA that matches them, too. Or is very similar.

Unknown Biologic features an alien that's a near match to an octopus, which happens to have characteristics that would give it distinct advantages in zero gravity over human beings in the future war I hatched up in the story...