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«Introduction The action is set in the year 2328, in the system of the double star BD–05 1844 (or Gliese 250) at 28.4 light years (9.2 parsecs) from ...»

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Humankind on the Verge of

Becoming a Spacefaring Civilization


The action is set in the year 2328, in the system of the double star BD–05

1844 (or Gliese 250) at 28.4 light years (9.2 parsecs) from the Sun1. The

primary star, BD-05 1844 A is an orange-red dwarf star (K3V), with a mass

about 80 % of the mass of the Sun but a luminosity of only 14.6 %. BD-05

1844 B is a red dwarf, (M2.5V), with 50 % the mass of the Sun and only

0.58 % of its luminosity. Their separation is about 500 Astronomical Units.

Its apparent magnitude is + 6.58 and thus it is essentially invisible to naked eye observers. No exoplanets have yet been discovered orbiting this double star, so the planets (and their moons) mentioned in the novel are fictitious.

The model assumed to assess the science and technology at that time in the future is an evolutionary model: Technological advances occur through a slow refinement of the technologies and of the scientific theories that underlie them. Scientific revolutions are rare and technological revolutions even rarer.

Sometimes a number of fields of technology may have a rapid development, followed by a period of stasis in which little happens, while other fields begin a dramatic advance. An example of this is the period between 1935 and 1965 for aviation and then space travel. In 30 years humans passed from propeller- driven biplanes to supersonic jets to and rockets that allowed them to land on the Moon. The nuclear rockets that would have allowed humankind to become a spacefaring civilization were even tested on the ground. Then in the following 45 years little happened, or worse, there was a setback. As we know, a heavy lift rocket such as the Saturn 5 no longer exists, the Space Shuttle has been scrapped, the supersonic airliner is no longer operational, and nuclear rockets have not materialized.

When in 2004 a return to the Moon was seriously being considered by NASA, the Constellation program, which included the launchers Ares I and It lies in the east central part (6:52:18.1-5:10:25.4 for Star A and 6:52:18-5:11.4 for Star B, ICRS 1 2000.0) of the constellation Monoceros.

G. Genta, The Hunter, Science and Fiction, DOI 10.1007/978-3-319-02060-0_2, © Springer International Publishing Switzerland 2014 114 The Hunter Book Title V and the spacecraft Orion, was initiated. It was mainly based on technolo- gies similar to those that 40 years ago allowed humans to reach the Moon but, mainly for cost reasons, the whole program was canceled in 2010.

While aerospace technology has not made the quick steps forward that were predicted, we have had striking advances in computers, electronics, cell phones, etc. True innovation is usually unpredictable. For instance nobody predicted the diffusion of ICT such as personal computers, cell phones and the internet, while many advances in other fields, which were predicted to happen in the near future, never materialized.

The scienceand technology described in the novel are not very advanced, except for assuming a single ‘scientific revolution’ that fuels a ‘technological revolution’: the warp drive. This propulsion device allows humankind to start a true interstellar spacefaring civilization, expanding in a sphere with a radius of about 9 parsecs centered on the Sun by the time in which the novel is set.

The main scientific aspects that enter this novel are related to robotics:

some characters actually are robots, and the villains of the story are robots, those still hypothetical robots usually referred to as Von Neumann machines.

Space Travel The basic assumption I make is that little useful work can be done in space using chemical propulsion. After the race to the moon of the 1960s and 1970s, the present stagnant situation is assumed to have lasted until about 2020, when space exploration resumes thanks to private investors developing space tourism and, later, asteroid mining. A further assumption is that nuclear propulsion, derived initially from the old 20th century studies [1, 2] and above all from the nuclear rocket built and tested on the ground as a part of the NERVA program, allows humankind to reach Mars and nearby asteroids in a reasonable time, and is also instrumental in making faster and cheaper journeys to the Moon.

Mars is assumed to be a barren desert, with no life at all, and plans for terraforming the planet are drafted as soon as the absence of indigenous life is ascertained. In the novel, the expansion in the Solar System proceeds with slow improvements until the end of the 21st century, with the noteworthy application of nuclear fusion to space propulsion. This results in opening up the main asteroid belt to exploitation.

Theoretical ideas on propellantless propulsion and warp drive were advanced at the end of the 20th century [3–5]. In particular, the Breakthrough Propulsion Physics (BPP) program [6], which focused more on physical and mathematical aspects of advanced space propulsion than on applications, was 115 Humankind on the Verge of Becoming a Spacefaring Civilization active between 1996 and 2002. Its goal was to lay out the scientific foundations of what could become a new technology some decades from now—to perform credible progress toward incredible possibilities, as the catch phrase of the program said. In 2013 NASA resumed studies on a warp drive, and in the novel it is assumed that new advances first allowed a better theoretical understanding and then the development of a technology allowing FTL (Faster Than Light) interstellar travel.

Propellantless propulsion (or space drive) is assumed to be achieved first, allowing humankind to draw up plans for interstellar colonization journeys at speeds lower than that of light. However, before these plans could be implemented, I make the assumption that the first warp drive starship was launched and a FTL probe sent to Alpha Centauri. Colonization of nearby exoplanets could thus be started with journeys lasting months instead of many years or centuries.

A further assumption is that a technology for controlling gravity may be obtained from the same hypothetical development of physics that enabled propellantless propulsion. Artificial gravity could thus be created on board starships (on space stations the same goal is obtained by rotating the station to save energy), with the added advantage of compensating for the high accelerations needed to reach speeds comparable with the speed of light in a reasonable time.

Such fast starships (in this fictional world as well as in the real world) would have to be provided with shields to prevent damage from collisions with micrometeoroids and other objects. The same shields can also be used as a protection against weapons, something needed—in the novel—since the rapid expansion of human civilization at rapidly increasing distances from Earth produces an unstable situation in the frontier zones where the novel is set.

There, encounters with unfriendly people—humans, since no aliens will be encountered at those (astronomically close) distances from Earth—are by no means rare. At the time at which the events described occur, the presence of hostile replicators (see below) will disrupt the peaceful order of society, increasing the probability of such encounters.

Warp drive requires huge quantities of energy and in the novel a solution is found for storing energy on board. Antimatter is produced from deuterium and helium-3 mined from the atmosphere of gas giants and burned in fusion reactors. Antimatter is then stored in huge space stations orbiting the same planets and used as an energy medium to power starships.

Using warp drive, journeys among systems separated by a few parsecs may take some weeks. This duplicates the situation on Earth in the 17th and 18th centuries, when transoceanic travel was slow and costly—but possible, nevertheless, thus allowing empires spanning different continents to be built.

116 The Hunter Book Title Colonies can therefore be built on some extrasolar planets but, since in the novel extraterrestrial life is assumed to be rare, open-air settlements will be started on just a few planets because of the lack of suitable biospheres supporting an atmosphere rich in oxygen. Most of the planets need thus to be terraformed, and this process is assumed to be started in several places, mostly by private terraforming and space engineering companies. One of these companies, partially owned by the Chinese government, is said to start terraforming operations on a terrestrial planet orbiting Gliese 250 A in 2270.

At present, the science and technology that will allow terraforming planets are still in their infancy and it is uncertain how it may proceed. What is certain is that the complexity and the approach required are strictly dependant on the characteristics of the planet. In the case of Mars, for instance, terraforming operations can be divided into two phases—increasing the atmospheric pressure, perhaps by heating the surface, and making the air breathable [5, 7].

The whole operation may take a very long time, but some estimates as short as 500 years have been proposed [7]. Shorter terraforming times may be made possible by the use of nanotechnologies.

Recently, the idea that even small and airless worlds like the Moon may be terraformed has been considered. Owing to its small mass an atmosphere cannot be made stable, but the time needed for the Moon to lose an artificial atmosphere may be so long that a modest amount of gas released continuously would be able to compensate for the losses.

In the novel, the terraforming processes on a number of explanets, like the one assumed to exist in the Gliese 250 system, are described as being under way. However, since it seems that the number of exoplanets is very large, some selected planets with favorable characteristics that can be terraformed in a short time are assumed to exist.

Another assumption is that progress in materials will allow the construction of space elevators [8] within the timeframe described in the novel. However, owing to the cost of such infrastructure, only the Earth and a few colonized planets are assumed to have traffic between the surface and space, allowing a space elevator to be cost-effective. Moreover, the cost of space transportation is assumed to be quite low, mainly thanks to the use of nuclear propulsion, not only beyond Earth orbit, but also in the last part of the satellization run.

Under such circumstances it may be expected that the volume of traffic that can justify a space elevator is very high indeed.

Another idea that permeates the novel is that the starting of a spacefaring civilization will have a strong effect on humankind. Interbreeding will cause human races and differentiated cultures to almost disappear and a single human type will start to emerge. This is reflected in the names of the characters, which are often a mixture of what today are names and surnames from difHumankind on the Verge of Becoming a Spacefaring Civilization ferent cultures and nations. However, new differences are assumed to start emerging between people living on high- and low-gravity planets, or in highor low-pressure atmospheres [9]. This latter process is much slower than the effects of interbreeding, and at the time the novel is set it is assumed to be still marginal.

Astrobiology The basic astrobiological theory followed in the novel is what is usually called the “Rare Earth Hypothesis”: Life is fairly common in the universe, but only at the level of its most elementary types [10]. The possibility that no complex life exists within 10 parsecs from Earth is not surprising, as even the most enthusiastic supporters of SETI (Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence) would readily agree. By introducing very optimistic numbers into the Drake equation, the result is an average distance between intelligent species of about 200 parsecs. The astrobiological background of the novel is thus consistent with today’s mainstream astrobiological thinking [11].

In the novel, then, a number of planets in the range of 9 parsecs from Earth (i.e. within the colonized zone) are assumed to possess an elementary kind of life which, in some cases, has transformed the atmosphere, enriching it with oxygen and making it breathable (or almost breathable) by humans.

This is the case, for instance, of Ceres, a fictitious Moon of a planet orbiting Gliese 250 B. This moon could be colonized easily, without the need for being terraformed (unlike completely sterile planets, which are assumed to be the majority). As a consequence, since terraforming is a long and costly process, particularly in the case of hostile planets, the colonized zone is said to contain few inhabited planets. Most settlements are described as small space stations or mining bases on asteroids.

As already stated, nothing is known about possible planets in the Gliese 250 system. In the novel the system is assumed to contain several planets, two of which are particularly interesting, and asteroids. The first of the interesting bodies is a large terrestrial planet, orbiting the A component, which hosts no life forms and is being terraformed. This planet lies in the habitable zone of the star, quite close to it, but is not gravitationally locked so that, once terraformed, it may become an important center in the frontier zone.

The second is the satellite of a giant planet orbiting very close to the B component of the star. It has a very primitive biosphere, consisting of just bacteria, that have enriched its atmosphere with oxygen and made it directly habitable. At the time in which the action of the novel is set, the body has been settled and terrestrial life forms introduced. The ethical problems linked 118 The Hunter Book Title with the subsequent, almost certain, extinction of the indigenous forms of life are not discussed, but it is clear that the company that owns the body, and wants to use it as a logistics center for terraforming the other planet, does not care much for the subject. It set up a sealed enclave in which the local forms of life are preserved for scientific reasons, but that is all. In the frontier zone, at 9 parsecs from Earth, there is nobody who can enforce rules for the protection of bacterial forms of life. And, after all, we know that humankind has caused the extinction of bacteria or viruses, such as the virus responsible for smallpox, without too many ethical qualms!

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