# A Myriad Oases Scattered Through the Firmament

(The Silence of Ancient Light, continued)

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Small wonder the room was devoid of air. The chamber clearly had been meant as some sort of view lounge, with larger than usual windows providing unparalleled views outside the station, but those windows had shattered in some micrometeorite collision long before, perhaps hundreds of years before Anna set foot inside. As she floated deeper into the room, glints of reflected light sparkled from chunks and beads of polycarbonate embedded in the interior wall opposite the windows, providing a clue as to the force with which the collision must have occurred. Similar windows manufactured for use on human spacecraft could easily withstand the impact of a bullet fired from a handgun, but even the most powerful rifles achieved muzzle velocities less than half this station’s speed as it orbited the planet. Over a thousand years earlier, Anna recalled, there had been a shooting war around these parts. How many spent bullets and projectiles from that conflict remained in orbit, speeding endlessly around the planet, until eventually they met up with some other object speeding the other way, such as this station window? After all this time, would their orbits have decayed enough to sink down toward the planet? At forty-thousand kilometers altitude, there was no atmospheric drag to slow them down.

Could a stray thousand-year-old bullet have been what hit the shuttle? Or Tak, all those months ago?

(1,254 words; 5 min reading time)

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Are you a fan of The Expanse? Of course you are, silly question. Obviously, so am I. But one question that I had, repeatedly, while reading the books and perhaps even more especially while watching the show, had to do with all those PDC rounds fired off by the Rocinante and other warships. You recall the Point Defense Cannons, firing 40mm armor-piercing slugs at a rate of thousands of rounds per minute per gun in efforts to shoot down incoming torpedoes and missiles. Each ship might sport dozens of such guns, computer-controlled, all firing at once to lay down a “curtain of steel.”

That’s a lot of steel slugs, all expelled with a muzzle velocity that is probably close to 2,000 m/s, fired off in all sorts of directions. To say nothing of the railgun rounds, heavier tungsten slugs expelled at much higher velocities, though not in as great quantities. And most of those PDC rounds don’t actually hit any targets, since their design is more about filling space with steel.

So what happens to the expended rounds?

Basic Newtonian physics tells us that in a vacuum those slugs will continue their momentum essentially forever, or until they finally do come up against some other object, such as an asteroid or moon, not to mention a satellite or spacecraft that is unlucky enough to be on a crossing trajectory at the wrong moment. At 2,000 m/s, plus whatever velocity the ship had at the moment of firing (depending upon the gun angle relative to the ship’s vector), the rounds don’t have enough momentum to escape the Solar System, so they aren’t flying off into interstellar space.

No, instead, they’re basically orbiting the Sun forever, until they happen to pass close enough to some larger body with a gravity well, such as a planet, at which point they either are captured into orbit around the planet or burn up in its atmosphere.

Space is big, as Douglas Adams once said. Really, really big. And it’s mostly empty. So, we can take our chances and just assume that the odds of one of those spent slugs crossing our path are very low. Of course, there are hundreds of thousands, or even millions, of these slugs flying around in this scenario, on essentially unpredictable paths.

No doubt it will become someone’s job to chart those paths, and some agency’s mission to publish notices of hazards to spacefarers.

Now imagine this shooting war all happened in orbit around a planet, as opposed to somewhere out there in interplanetary space. Again, hundreds of thousands of rounds fired from ships that are already traveling 3,000 m/s themselves, because that’s their orbital speed. Depending upon whether these shots are fired prograde, retrograde, transverse, or otherwise, chances are they won’t stay in the same orbit as the ships that fired them.

But they will stay in orbit.

Oh, some will degrade enough to be caught in the atmosphere, and none of them are going to make it to the ground. But none of them are likely to escape the planet’s sphere of influence, either, so they may be in equatorial or polar orbits, they may be in higher or lower orbits, their orbits may be highly eccentric, but they will be in orbit.

And they will still be there a thousand years later, when some unsuspecting astronaut comes along to investigate the sad ruins of an ancient space station, a relic of that forgotten war.

header image credit: Karen Nyberg / nasa.gov under NASA Media Usage Guidelines

# ‘Hycean’ Worlds: A New Candidate for Biosignatures? — Centauri Dreams — Imagining and Planning Interstellar Exploration

We’ve just seen the coinage of a new word that denotes an entirely novel category of planets. Out of research at the University of Cambridge comes a paper on a subset of habitable worlds the scientists have dubbed ‘Hycean’ planets. These are hot, ocean-covered planets with habitable surface conditions under atmospheres rich in hydrogen. The…

‘Hycean’ Worlds: A New Candidate for Biosignatures? — Centauri Dreams — Imagining and Planning Interstellar Exploration

Paul Gilster of Centauri Dreams writes not fiction, but analyses and discussions on the latest findings in deep space research. He unabashedly is a proponent of efforts toward interstellar travel, frequently writing about the reasons we should invest in such a future. In this piece, he discusses a new category of exoplanets, Hycean worlds, worlds which may have water surfaces under hydrogen atmospheres, and which could potentially support life under a wider range of stellar and planetary conditions than Earth-like worlds.

Within my own fictional imaginings, we have the Orta, a seemingly water-breathing species, though we don’t yet know where they come from. Perhaps their home planet is a Hycean world like those described here?

Most writers want to have their work read. After all, that’s why we write, no? Ok, some folks write purely for their own catharsis and don’t care if another soul ever sees it, or perhaps don’t even want anyone else to read it, and some write with the (elusive and probably misguided) goal of making money, but most of us write simply because we enjoy seeing others enjoy our work.

And for that to happen, we have to be noticed. People have to be aware that the work exists and know how to find it, or it won’t matter how amazing the writing is, how engaging the story. It will languish in the darkness of obscurity.

There are many ways to be noticed, some more effective than others. We’re all trying to find those magic keywords that will maximize our search engine optimization, or SEO, and somehow draw readers in out of the ether, and yes, we find some readers that way. We promote our work on social media, engage with others in hopes they’ll engage with us, and yes, we find a few more that way.

But unless we’re already famous, that rarely turns into more than a trickle of readers. In fact, being too aggressive with self-promotion on social media is likely to have a negative effect, turning off potential readers who just want to engage in friendly chat and not see what amounts to endless advertising all day.

So it may seem almost counter-intuitive, at first glance, that advertising may be a way to get over the hurdle of not overly aggressively bombarding our friends and followers with, well, advertising.

What do I mean by that? Well, at the time I write this, I have just barely over a thousand followers on Twitter, and just barely under a hundred on Facebook. It took me four years to get to that point, though some people seem to manage it overnight, but I refused to play the various “follow-for-follow” games, mainly because they turned me off when I saw them, so I presumed they would turn off other “real” engagements as well. If all I do on Twitter is constantly push my writing to my existing followers, I’ll probably start losing more than I gain. And in any case, most of them will never click that link through to my website, even if they like the post in which I share my latest scene.

Still, at first glance Twitter seems to have a ten to one advantage over Facebook in terms of my reach toward potential audiences. That is probably offset, however, by the nature of those who follow an independent, unpublished, non-famous author on one platform vs the other. The majority of those who follow me on Twitter are other writers, some published, some not yet, some represented, and others not. They are there for the same reasons I am, yes, to promote their work, but also to engage with likeminded people going through the same struggles they are. In other words… not the general reading audience, but more like a professional association.

Facebook has far fewer people following me, and while many of those are also other writers, there is (I think, it’s hard to be sure) a higher percentage of them who are “ordinary readers” who are interested in science fiction. Still, the organic engagement I get with a tweet vs a Facebook post reflects that ten-to-one split, and so I’ve tended to focus more of my time where the greater number of people reside.

A recent experiment might imply that I’ve been focusing on the wrong platform.

I ran an ad on each of the platforms to see what would happen. No, I don’t have anything to sell yet, so there’s no financial incentive for me in this. It was just to see what kind of engagement I could drive with my story as it develops here on these pages. I ran them separately, with about a week in between. I posted precisely the same link on each (this one, here: The Silence of Ancient Light), using the same language and same tags (#ScienceFiction and #WIP). I targeted the same countries (United States, United Kingdom, and Canada), and targeted audiences interested in Science Fiction and in Reading, but otherwise left the demographics wide open. I gave each an identical budget of \$50. The Twitter ad ran for 5 days, and the Facebook one for 7 days (the defaults on each), but the majority of the results from the Facebook ad still happened within those first 5 days, so this was roughly equivalent.

Since “link clicks” was the real purpose of the ad, that means 0.4% of people who saw the ad clicked through to the website. Less impressive, perhaps.

Meanwhile, over here on the website, during the time period the ad was running, I saw those 10 views on the page that was the ad’s link, though only 9 of them were registered as being referred from Twitter. Overall, the entire site had 35 views from 18 unique visitors, and I received 1 post like. This implies I had almost as many organic site visits as I did promoted visits, which may partly be explained by me having posted a new scene to the site a few days before the ad began running.

The ad reached 2,670 people, and 0.4% of those clicked through to read the “title” page of the story. A small handful of those 10 people then clicked on to read one or more actual scenes of the story. So, that cost me \$10 per reader, and they weren’t very engaged by the story. Perhaps the story is just bad?

The Facebook ad reached 12,812 people, of whom 12,807 were paid and just 22 organic. Right away, we see that Facebook seemed to have much greater reach, nearly 5 times as much. But what about engagement?

991 people engaged with the ad. I don’t have the split for paid vs organic on this number, but as I have very few followers here, and only a single-digit number who ever seem to engage with my regular posts, I feel safe in saying that the vast majority of this number was due to the paid ad. That’s a 7.7% engagement rate! More than double the engagement of the identical Twitter ad. Of those 991, 48 “reacted” (clicked like, mostly, though one hit the laughing out loud button, and I’m not sure what to make of that), 6 shared the post (1 of those was a share of a share, so while not exactly viral, that is how those things get started), 1 commented on the post (and it was a strange comment, so not necessarily a positive), and 934 clicked on it. Of those clicks, 367 were clicks on the link to this website, and 567 were “other” clicks (on my profile, perhaps? it’s not clear).

Back here on the website, I tracked 384 Facebook referrals during the time the ad ran, and 901 views from 333 unique visitors. There were 391 views on the promoted page, and 1 page like.

The ad reached nearly 5 times as many people as the Twitter ad, and 2.9% of them clicked through to look at the website, compared to 0.4% of those who saw the Twitter ad. Instead of \$10 per reader, this campaign cost me 15¢ per reader. That’s much more effective!

There’s an even more compelling stat here, however. From the Twitter campaign, only a handful of people read anything other than the initially linked page. From the Facebook campaign, about two dozen people went on to read at least the first few scenes, almost a dozen read quite a bit more than that, at least through the first few chapters, and at least 3 people read the entire story so far published, all the way to the end.

That tells me that it’s not just the advertising, but my writing is engaging at least some people. Not all, perhaps not even a majority of those who look at it, but at least some are finding it worthwhile to spend several hours reading 80,000+ words.

It is curious, however, that no one from the Facebook campaign chose to become a new follower of either my Facebook page nor this website. They read through all the work, which is as yet unfinished, but did not click the link to sign up to be notified when the next scene is available. I’m going to presume they bookmarked the site in their browser and will just periodically check back — maybe? — but perhaps I need to investigate why people are reluctant to hit that “follow” button. I have some thoughts on this, but no real data.

## Next Steps

Needless to say, this is encouraging. I’ll continue writing as long as anyone continues reading. For the sake of being thorough, I should also do an identically configured Google AdWords campaign to see how that stacks up. I haven’t yet decided if I’m ready to spend another \$50 to find out, but maybe.

Otherwise, is there much point to advertising when I don’t yet have a finished book to sell? Obviously I have no way to turn that investment into any kind of revenue, not yet. However, it never hurts to generate some buzz around the unfinished work, so that people are eager for the final publication. I can’t say if I really achieved that, but I did get my work in front of quite a few more people than I ever had before. And, I have some thoughts about where to focus my investment when I do have a book to sell. Indeed, this experiment turned my expectations upside down, as I had been led to believe that Twitter would be the more effective platform, yet the reverse was true, and by an entire order of magnitude.

Other than more advertising, this experiment has encouraged me to post more often on Facebook and become more engaging there, whereas previously I mostly only posted there when new scenes were available. Twitter had been my “engagement” platform of choice. I will definitely still engage there, but I will broaden my horizon a bit.

What do you think? Did you see the ad? If so, on which platform? Did it cause you to click through, and is that why you’re here now reading this post about how I manipulated you into doing so? How many scenes of the story did you read, and did the story engage you? Will you come back to read more?

Or, if you’re another writer, have you advertised, and if so, what has been your experience?

I look forward to hearing from you.

# Resilience

If you’ve made it this far, then this is a trait which you have. You might not think so, but you do. It has taken resilience and fortitude to get to today.

That doesn’t mean you can’t have had any down days during this dark time. That’s normal. I’ve had them, too. It just means that you’ve persisted beyond those dark moments and come out the other side, stronger than you were before.

It also doesn’t mean we don’t still have tough times ahead. We do. But we’ve all shown that we have what it takes to get through those times, and already we’re seeing glimpses of what awaits us on the far side.

Like a hobbit, you’re made of tough stuff. You’re stronger than you think.

You’re resilient.

# The Warping of SpaceTime

One moment you are there, hanging out calmly on the fringes of a remote star system, minding your own business in the near-interstellar vacuum, and in the next there is a vast disturbance of space-time all around you. There is no matter here more dense than a handful of atoms of hydrogen per square meter of space, yet space itself folds at a quantum level.

Rather, space and time alike are unfolding around you, flattening back into normality. You aren’t aware of it having been folded, because you were folded along with it, but there is a definite sign that something dramatic has changed in the local volume.

A starship has arrived.

The starship has traveled a long way, twelve-hundred light-years from its home, yet it has done so over the relatively short time of only three years. That sounds suspiciously like faster-than-light travel, yet it can’t be, because that’s impossible, right? Einstein’s theory of special relativity tells us so.

Yet, Einstein’s theory of general relativity tells us something else. We still cannot travel faster than light in flat space, but space (and time) can be curved.

Indeed, space-time is always curved, regularly distorted by the mass of any objects within it, and we all experience that curvature regularly in our daily life. We experience it as gravity.

Per special relativity, an object with mass cannot move at the speed of light without requiring infinite energy, and at the same time becoming zero mass.

In general relativity, however, in a curved space-time, the equations allow for a warping or folding of space in such a way that a bubble is formed, and as the bubble moves, space in front of it is highly compressed while space behind it is highly expanded.

The bubble appears to an outside observer as if it has moved faster than light, but really it has just warped space around itself. No matter how much warping occurs, anything inside the bubble experiences no acceleration, and what’s more, no funny time dilation effects (more on this in a later post, I think).

This is not to say that there are no inherent problems with warping space to this dramatic extent. For one thing, in the original equations demonstrating this as a possibility, developed by Miguel Alcubierre in 1994, it appeared that a massive negative mass-energy state is required to generate the bubble. Negative energy implies exotic matter, but more troubling is that the amount of mass-energy required to transport a very small ship across the galaxy would be greater than the mass of the observable universe.

That’s a problem. We can’t have starships destroying the entire universe every time they fire up their warp drive.

In 1999, Chris Van den Broeck modified the equations to require the equivalent of just three solar masses. A great improvement! Now firing up the engine just destroys three star systems. With about 250 billion stars in our galaxy, who’s going to notice a few of them disappearing now and then?

Well, presumably the inhabitants of any planets around those stars will notice, and if we assume that the starship consumes the nearest three stars whenever it starts up the drive, then we could extrapolate that our own Sun (and us along with it) would be the first to go. Perhaps ok if we’re fleeing a Sun going nova about five billion years from now, but in the meantime we’d like to keep our home, thank you very much.

There are other problems with the Van den Broeck solution, and also with Serguei Krasnikov’s modification, despite the latter’s reduction of the mass requirement to mere milligrams. Basically, they require keeping the surface area of the warp bubble microscopically small while expanding the interior volume, which seems contradictory at first glance, and even so, they are only able to transport a few atoms of matter in this way. These are interesting modifications of the equation, but not truly useful.

In 2012, all that changed. Harold White showed (on paper) that modifying the shape of the bubble into a torus, or a rounded doughnut, dramatically reduces the mass-energy requirement into the hundreds of kilograms range, and with this the drive could propel a starship of useful (macroscopic) size… more than just a few atoms. No longer do we need to dismantle a gas giant planet — or a sun — for every voyage. White’s equations excited serious physicists enough that NASA is funding lab experiments to prove the concept.

This is where I would love to insert the beautiful image of IXS Enterprise developed by Mark Rademaker and then used in Harold White’s presentation materials as a concept design for how such an Alcubierre-White starship might look. However, all such images are copyrighted with all rights reserved, and at this time I cannot justify the expense of purchasing rights to display them here. Nevertheless, I encourage you to go view the originals.

So, we’ve solved the energy requirement (ignoring for the moment that we’re talking about negative energy and exotic matter), but issues still remain. Stefano Finazzi, Stefano Liberati, and Carlos Barcelo argued in 2009 that a classic Alcubierre warp bubble might be just fine if it is eternally moving at a stable superluminal speed — which makes it rather difficult for travelers to “hop on the bus,” so to speak — but the switching on of quantum effects to spin up such a bubble from flat space (a more realistic and usable scenario) would create enough Hawking radiation inside itself to completely fry any occupants.

Hawking radiation is strange stuff, and so far remains theoretical in nature. Then again, so does pretty much everything we’re discussing here.

Engineers love a good challenge, however, and we shall assume for the moment that the problem of internal radiation is solvable. After all, you’ve just observed an Alcubierre-White starship arriving in your immediate vicinity.

Luckily for you, you were not in the starship’s direct path when it unfolded space-time around itself and allowed the warp bubble to dissolve. Why?

During the ship’s three-year voyage to arrive here, it has folded up and compressed a great deal of space ahead of itself. While the ship’s navigator carefully plotted a course to avoid any significant obstacles along the way, the vacuum of interstellar space is not completely void of matter. Free hydrogen atoms exist between the stars, and while estimates vary, they average anywhere from one-quarter (0.25) to one-thousand per cubic meter of space (though more likely on the lower end of that range). As our warp bubble transited the Sagittarius Arm, it collected all those atoms on its leading edge, folding them into the highly energetic bubble wall itself.

If the torus has a cross-section of about two-hundred meters, then on the low end of the estimate our starship has pushed about fifty atoms for every meter it traveled. Over three years, the starship traveled twelve-hundred light-years; how far is that in meters?

The speed of light is a hair under 300,000 kilometers per second (you may be more familiar with the number 186,000 miles/second). A light-year is the distance it travels in one year, which is about 31,500,000 seconds, and thus roughly 9.46 trillion kilometers (that’s 9,460,000,000,000 in case you are counting the zeroes). Multiply that by 1200 light-years, and our starship traveled 11.35 quadrillion kilometers.

A long distance indeed.

We gathered 50 hydrogen atoms per meter, or 50,000 per kilometer. I think you see where I’m going with this.

Upon arrival at its destination and deceleration to subluminal (please, autocorrect, stop making that subliminal) velocities, the warp bubble has compressed about 568 quintillion hydrogen atoms.

That’s a lot of atoms.

Of course, atoms are very small. It takes 602,000,000,000,000,000,000,000 (602 sextillion) hydrogen atoms to make up one gram of matter. So, all those quintillions of atoms gathered over the course of three years still only amount to about a milligram of matter.

Surely that’s not enough matter to, well, matter, right? Let’s find out.

It’s only a milligram, but it is moving very, very fast. We know the basic equation:

$E=mc^2$

Where:
E = energy
m = mass
c = speed of light

One milligram moving right at the speed of light should be pretty simple to solve for. That is 0.001 g x 300,000 kps squared, or 90 million grams… er, hold on, something funny is happening here. Before we go through all that math, we’ll just approximate a few things. If the milligram of hydrogen atoms are moving at 99.9999% of the speed of light — very, very close, but not quite there — then anything they hit will experience the force equivalent to several kilotons worth of a nuclear bomb. It could definitely ruin your day if your spaceship happened to be right there, but it’s not going to pulverize a planet.

But our atoms aren’t moving at 99.9999% of c. They are moving at c. In our equation, when c = 1, we can simplify it to E = m. Put another way, energy and mass are equivalent, and at the speed of light, our mass becomes pure energy.

When the warp bubble suddenly decelerates, the atoms are ejected off the leading edge as extremely short-wavelength, high-frequency, and thus high-energy radiation, rather than as regular but fast-moving matter. In other words, our decelerating starship emits a gamma ray burst in its forward direction of travel, gamma rays which will easily penetrate almost any shielding and wreak havoc upon anything biological.

For the mathematically- and physics-inclined, I recommend perusing The Alcubierre Warp Drive: On the Matter of Matter by Brendan McMonigal, Geraint Lewis, and Philip O’Byrne.

The starship has a crack navigator, however, and she knows her theoretical physics. A little less theoretical in her case, since she is living it. So, she plots her course not only to avoid large obstacles along the way, but to decelerate far out on the edge of the destination star system. She doesn’t want to pulverize anyone or anything there. So, you survive the starship’s arrival.

There is another minor issue which the starship’s designers had to overcome before sending it on its long voyage. Michael John Pfenning demonstrated in 1998 that for a classic Alcubierre warp bubble there is an inverse relationship between bubble wall thickness and maximum superluminal velocity. At ten times c, the bubble wall can be no thicker than $10^{-32}$ meters. As the Planck length is $1.6x10^{-35}$ meters, our bubble wall is almost as thin as the thinnest possible measurement.

As a quick aside, the Planck length in quantum mechanics is the smallest size at which gravitational effects behave rationally. Below this scale, Euclidean geometry ceases to have any meaning, and spacetime becomes quantum foam. That’s a colorful term for saying it is no longer continuous, but has holes in it. So, in effect, the Planck length is the smallest size that anything can be and still effectively be part of our universe.

Our bubble wall is approaching the smallest possible size, and we’re moving at 10 c. That seems pretty fast, and indeed it is pretty fast, but for a voyage of 1200 light-years, and without any time dilation effects, that means… yep. 120 years to complete the voyage.

10 c may be sufficient for the nearest stars, but if our starship is to visit Kepler 62f, either our astronauts must be very patient (and long-lived), or be willing to risk cold sleep, or our ship is somehow going to have to go faster.

Pfenning made his observations during his doctoral thesis only two years after Miguel Alcubierre first published his equations. We’ve already explored how others have built upon the original equations in the intervening time, refining them in many ways so as to reduce the huge amounts of energy required, so it remains plausible that by employing the methods of Harold White and reshaping the bubble into a torus we may also find that we can effectively increase the speed of our starship. Can we do it enough so as to travel a light-year per day, as would be required to reach Kepler 62 in just three years?

I don’t know.

Can we effectively shield the interior of the bubble so that the astronauts are not fried by Hawking radiation or extremely blueshifted high-energy particles?

I don’t know.

So this, my friends, is what in hard science fiction terms we call a McGuffin.

I’ve rambled on far too long about the Alcubierre drive now, and doubtless put many of you to sleep, without ever getting on to the rest of the technology utilized by the crew of Aniara in The Silence of Ancient Light. I’ve also certainly made some significant technical or scientific errors in my attempts to explain (or simply understand) the complex physics and mathematics behind the idea of warping spacetime. For those, I apologize, and indeed, I invite discussion in the comments. Educate me!

If you enjoy these pseudo-scientific ramblings of mine, you may enjoy my previous similar posts of this nature:

header image credit: Les Bossinas / NASA under public domain