Colonizing Mars

Recently, Elon Musk threw a Tesla car at Mars and somewhat carelessly, missed. How can you miss a planet? The answer is, not unsurprisingly, quite easily. Mars might be a planet, and planets might seem large, but they are staggeringly small compared with the solar system. But whatever else this achieved, it did draw attention back to thoughts of humans on Mars, and as an exercise, it is not simple to bring the two together. Stephen Hawking was keen on establishing a colony there, mainly as some sort of reserve for humanity in case we did something stupid with out own planet. Would we do that? Unfortunately, the answer is depressingly quite possibly.

So what is required to get to Mars? First, not missing. NASA has shown that it can do this, so in principle this problem is solved. The second requirement is to arrive at the surface at essentially zero vertical velocity, and NASA has not been quite so successful at that, nevertheless, we can assume that landing will be with a piloted shuttle, so this should be able to be done. So far, so good? Well, not quite, because when you get there you have to have enough “stuff” to ensure you can survive. If it is a scientific exploration, the people will be away for over two years, so at a minimum, they will need groceries for two years, unless they grow their own food. They will need their own oxygen and water unless they can recycle it. They will need some means of getting around or there is no point in going, and they will need some sort of habitat. If they are settlers they will need a lot more because they are not coming back.

The obvious first thing to for settlers to do is to have somewhere to live. We can assume that the ship that brought them will provide a temporary place, although if the ship is to be recycled back to earth and they came down in a shuttle, this is a priority. At the same time they must build facilities to grow their own food and make oxygen. This raises the question, how many people could actually grow food and guarantee to do it well enough not to starve in a totally different environment to here? I am not sure you can train for that, but even if you can, there will still need to be a lot of food taken as well as oxygen. However, let’s assume these settlers are really competent and they are raring to get on with it.

The first requirement would be enough area to do it, so they would need a giant glass house (or houses). That means glass, and metal to hold it, but there is worse. You have to pressurize it, because the Martian atmospheric pressure on average is only about ½% of Earth’s. That means you need a strong pump, but because of the aggressive nature of dust in the atmosphere much of the time, you need some form of filter. The air is about 95.3% carbon dioxide, about 2.7% nitrogen and 1.6% argon. If you want to recover the oxygen to breathe, you want to boost the nitrogen so that what is produced is breathable as air, and that requires a major gas separator. The best way is probably to seriously overpressurise it, so the carbon dioxide comes out as a liquid, and keep the rest. However, there is another problem: you need water, so that equipment will probably have to be made even more complicated so the water in the atmosphere can be recovered. The next problem is that if the glasshouse is to be pressurized, it has to be leak-proof. All the joints have to be sealed with something that will not decay under UV radiation, and worse than that, a deep footer is needed around the glasshouse. That means digging a deep trench, pouring concrete, and sealing the walls. Finally, the whole regolith inside the glasshouse has to be treated to decompose its strong oxidizing nature (but this does produce a small amount of oxygen) otherwise the soil will sterilize anything you plant, then you have to add some actual soil. Many of these operations would be best done mechanically, but they each need their own machine.

You may notice that all of these things costs weight, and that is not what is wanted on a space ship. So the question is, how much can be brought there? There is a second requirement. Every time you use a machine, you need fuel. That has to be electric, which means either batteries, which so far would require huge numbers to keep going all day, or fuel cells, but if fuel cells are selected, what will be the fuel? Note that two fuels are required; one to “burn” and the other to burn it in, as there is no oxygen in the atmosphere worth having. Either way, a serious energy producer is required because not only do you have to power things, but you have to keep your glasshouse warm. The night-time temperatures can drop below minus 100 degrees Centigrade. The most obvious source is nuclear, either fission or fusion, but that requires shielding and even more weight.

The above is just some of the issues. I wrote a novel (Red Gold) that involved Martian settlement. The weight of the two ships was twenty million tonne each, and each had a thermonuclear propulsion system that detached and could be used as power plants and mineral separation units later. The idea was that construction materials would be made there, but even if that is done, a huge amount of stuff has to be taken. Think of the cost of lifting forty million tonne of stuff from Earth into orbit alone. Why two ships? Because everything should be done in duplicate, in case something goes wrong. Why that much stuff? Because you want this not to be some horrible exercise in survival.

At this stage I shall insert a small commercial. Red Gold is a story of such colonization, and of fraud, and it includes a lot more about what it might take to colonize Mars. It is available on Kindle Countdown discounts from 13 – 19 April. (http://www.amazon.com/dp/B009U0458Y)

Solstice Promo Special

And now, a quick commercial break! Four of my fictional ebooks are on special at Amazon from the solstice for a few days, including the one that was actually the cause of my developing my alternative theory of planetary formation. The fiction required an unusual discovery on Mars, I invented one, and an editor had the cheek to say it was unbelievable. Now editors in publishing houses have a right to criticize grammar, but not science, so I ended up determined to do something about this. So, to celebrate/get over the midwinter solstice (our Saturnalia!) there are significant rice reductions on these novels.

Specific details:

On June 21 my four “Mars novels” are price reduced to 99c on Amazon.com, and 99p on Amazon UK. The prices gradually increase through to June 27. The ebooks are:

Red Gold: the colonization of Mars, which gives the opportunity for a stockmarket fraud. Also possibly unique in that the writing of this led to an original scientific theory (outlined in an appendix). http://www.amazon.com/dp/B009U0458Y

Then the “First Contact” trilogy.

A Face on Cydonia: a small number of mutually incompatible people form an expedition to find out for once and for all whether the “Face” is an alien monument, and they each find exactly what they do not want. Also an outline of a future economy starved of resources. http://www.amazon.com/dp/B00BQPUG6Q

Dreams Defiled: One member of the party, who received the Greek gift, sets out to ensure that nobody else thrives. http://www.amazon.com/dp/B00D0HOV5A

Jonathon Munros: A tale of revenge, and unintended consequences, including self-replicating androids intent on their revenge. http://www.amazon.com/dp/B00EK5T6WE

Theory and planets: what is right?

In general, I reserve this blog to support my science fiction writing, but since I try to put some real science in my writing, I thought just once I would venture into the slightly more scientific. As mentioned in previous posts, I have a completely different view of how planets, so the question is, why? Surely everyone else cannot be wrong? The answer to that depends on whether everyone goes back to first principles and satisfies themselves, and how many lazily accept what is put in front of them. That does not mean that it is wrong, however. Just because people are lazy merely makes them irrelevant. After all, what is wrong with the standard theory?

My answer to that is, in the standard theory, computations start with a uniform distribution of planetesimals formed in the disk of gas from which the star forms. From then on, gravity requires the planetesimals to collide, and it is assumed that from these collisions, planets form. I believe there are two things wrong with that picture. The first is, there is no known mechanism to get to planetesimals. The second is that while gravity may be the mechanism by which planets complete their growth, it is not the mechanism by which it starts. The reader may immediately protest and say that even if we have no idea how planetesimals form, something had to start small and accrete, otherwise there would be no planets. That is true, but just because something had to start small does not mean there is a uniform distribution throughout the accretion disk.

My theory is that it is chemistry that causes everything to start, and different chemistries occur at different temperatures. This leads to the different planets having different properties and somewhat different compositions.

The questions then are: am I right? does it matter? To the first, if I am wrong it should be possible to falsify it. So far, nobody has, so my theory is still alive. Whether it matters depends on whether you believe in science or fairy stories. If you believe that any story will do as long as you like it, well, that is certainly not science, at least in the sense that I signed up to in my youth.

So, if I am correct, what is the probability of finding suitable planets for life? Accretion disks last between 1 to even as much as 30 My. The longer the disk lasts, the longer planets pick up material, which means the bigger they are. For me, an important observation was the detection of a planet of about six times Jupiter’s mass that was about three times further from its star (with the name LkCa 15) than Jupiter. The star is approximately 2 My old. Now, the further from the star, the less dense the material, and this star is slightly smaller than our sun. The original computations required about 15 My or more to get Jupiter around our star, so they cannot be quite correct, although that is irrelevant to this question. No matter what the mechanism of accretion, Jupiter had to start accreting faster than this planet because the density of starting material must be seriously greater, which means that we can only get our solar system if the disk was cleared out very much sooner than 2 My. People ask, is there anything special regarding our solar system? I believe this very rapid cleanout of the disk will eliminate the great bulk of the planetary systems. Does it matter if they get bigger? Unfortunately, yes, because the bigger the planets get, the bigger the gravitational interactions between them, so the more likely they are to interact. If they do, orbits become chaotic, and planets can be eliminated from the system as other orbits become highly elliptical.

If anyone is interested in this theory, Planetary Formation and Biogenesis (http://www.amazon.com/dp/B007T0QE6I )

will be available for 99 cents  as a special promo on Amazon.com (and 99p on Amazon.co.uk) on Friday 13, and it will gradually increase in price over the next few days. Similarly priced on Friday 13 is my novel Red Gold, (http://www.amazon.com/dp/B009U0458Y  ) which is about fraud during the settlement of Mars, and as noted in my previous post, is one of the very few examples of a novel in which a genuine theory got started.

Discounted and new ebooks

Talk about getting something wrong. I had heard that there was a really good reason to discount my ebooks on Black Friday, and Amazon offers a means of discounting. Accordingly, I decided to get ready, I had plenty of time, after all (and Americans, please, contain your mirth here) I was going to set everything up for Friday December 13. Two things went wrong. The first was, oops – for Americans it appears Black Friday is something else. The second one was that I decided to discount my “Mars books”, but it turned out that I may have trouble with “A Face on Cydonia” because the KDP select period expires this week. Watch this space next week, but sooner or later it will be discounted.

Nevertheless, there will be discounts on the scientific ebook on my theory of planetary formation:

Planetary Formation and Biogenesis (http://www.amazon.com/dp/B007T0QE6I )

will be available for 99 cents  as a special promo on Amazon.com (and 99p on Amazon.co.uk – these are the lowest prices permitted on each case) on December Friday 13, and the prices increase daily for about 5 days until they reach normal price.

Also on the promo is my novel Red Gold, (http://www.amazon.com/dp/B009U0458Y  ) which is about fraud during the settlement of Mars.  This ebook was written in the early 1990s, and to expose the fraud, a surprising discovery was required. The surprise was the discovery of what remained of the Martian atmosphere, which provided the nitrogen fertilizer necessary to make the settlement viable. The very first version that led me to the theory in the first book is outlined in the appendix, so this is one of the very few examples of how a theory got started. How important this is depends on whether the theory is correct, and I would love to know the answer to that one. A review, to help you decide: http://www.ebookanoid.com/?p=9819

Finally, and not on promo (because it has to be there for more days than it has) I have just published my latest ebook, Athene’s Prophecy ( http://www.amazon.com/dp/B00GYL4HGW ). Below, I have copied out the first paragraph, which I think gives some idea of what the book is about:

Pallas Athene was in disgrace, but she felt that it was worth every gram of it for she had immortalized herself, starting over three thousand years before she was born. Yes, she knew that her career as a serious classical historian was over, and being consigned to this miserable cell was not exactly a career highlight, but on the bright side the cell did not have a means of evacuation. If it had, and if there were even a remote possibility that such an evacuation could have been reported as accidental, she was quite certain she would have been consigned to the depths of space. Instead, all they could do was to put her in a shuttle and return her to Earth tomorrow. They would also make certain that she would never be given permission to use the temporal viewer again.

Leaders; do we get the best?

How to select leaders is of particular interest here (New Zealand) at present because the Leader of the Opposition has resigned, and the race is on for a replacement. The resignation came because the previous man, while he had a great record as a reasonable negotiator, was not an incisive speaker and he had a poor command of television appearance. He did not look good, he was picked on by the commentators, so he had to go. Quality was irrelevant! Whether that is good for democracy I leave to you to decide, but this issue of leadership is one of the themes of my ebook trilogy First Contact, which, while nominally about contact with aliens, it also looks at governance in a dystopian future. One of the advantages of fiction, and why I write it, is that one can construct scenarios to make specific points without embarrassing a specific person, and without starting a feud with someone. The idea is to give things to think about for those who wish to, besides also entertaining.

The first book (A Face on Cydonia) starts by showing how governance has failed to eliminate blatant injustice and corruption, how one character becomes devoted to stopping that while another evolves into taking advantage of the situation and becoming a significant part of the problem. In the second (Dreams Defiled) the characters advance, and one becomes in a position to “fix things”, while the other evolves into an even worse character and sabotages the first, only then to be constrained by other forces. At the end of the third (Jonathon Munros) the main surviving character notes that the set of skills needed to get to a position of power through a vote have nothing in common with the set of skills required to do the job the candidate is standing for.

This particularly applies to politicians, but in Jonathon Munros it also applies to some extent to the election of the head of a corporation. For a corporation, the voters were restricted to Board members, and the candidates were, perforce, senior directors and so to some extent many of the skills could be assumed to be present from all candidates. In the novel, the problem was, if a candidate simply wanted to stand on his or her reputation, the candidate would lose. Winning required some additional pressure, which opens the way for bribes and threats. In other words, the skill required to get to the top was to be more cunning than the others. What happened was, of course, is simply fiction, but I believe the problem is real. Sometimes the best person really does get to the top, but in other cases it is someone less than adequate. Recall the time when Apple Computer hired as CEO the man from Pepsi? As someone remarked, the biggest technology challenge he faced previously was to change the colour of the can. In a period of years, Apple went from the most promising and advanced personal computer company to a near basket case. That it survived was almost entirely due to picking Steve Jobs as CEO, and I suspect that only happened because the company finally realized it had done so badly it needed a near miracle.

The case for politicians is worse. I recall once being in such a candidate selection meeting. There were seven votes. Three came from votes from the floor, i.e. party members who would cast their individual vote after hearing the candidates speak. Three came from a branch committee of the party, and I have no idea how they were selected. Finally, one came from the party head office, exercised by a representative. In principle, all votes were supposed to be decided from the candidates’ speeches, but in practice, the head office vote would be predetermined. So, did the best candidate win? What happened is one candidate got the three from the branch committee, who were presumably his friends. Because two of the other candidates were of reasonable quality the floor votes went to them but were divided, and the three branch votes produced a majority over the others. I have no idea how the final vote was decided but the three votes won. Only too often candidates win positions in safe seats because they have been loyal party members, or because they have friends on the selection committee.

Another issue is the minority card. The argument seems to be that we need more of the minorities. More women, more gay people, more minority races, more indigenous people, then there is the religious card. A Jewish lesbian of mixed Chinese/Maori descent would seem to tick a lot of boxes here. I do not have anything against any of those groups, but I do think that if they ask me to give them the right to run the country, they have the obligation to show they have some chance of doing the job. What do you think?

The right stuff in politics

A week of calm has descended over Wellington, but we cannot have that can we? If the weather stays really calm, someone has to substitute, and in this case it was the politicians. In some of the futuristic ebooks I am self-publishing, one of the background themes is how governance can be manipulated by politicians. One way is by making misleading statements. How do you defend yourself against these?

We have had an example here. The problem: the cities of Auckland and Christchurch have house prices that are getting out of hand. There are several reasons for this, and the one I feel is the most likely to be determining the prices is that there are too few of them. In Christchurch, the reason is the recent earthquakes. Large areas of the eastern city have been found to be built on ground that rapidly liquefies, many of the services such as sewage have been hopelessly wrecked, and the authorities that be have declared that part of the city is not worth rebuilding, and rebuilding should occur elsewhere. The problem is, it has taken some time to get around to building enough houses to house about a quarter of the city’s population, so housing is really expensive. In principle, this is a transient problem, because eventually enough will be built and the prices should come down. The current high prices should reflect those who have money and want to get to the head of the queue. Whether that is right is another story.

Auckland has a different problem. New Zealand is currently experiencing significant immigration, the immigrants all land in Auckland and few go further. On top of that, there have been far too few houses built recently. The reasons are somewhat obscure, but it seems to be that the planners that be have decreed that Auckland is occupying enough area already, and it needs greater housing density, more apartments, etc, and to bring about that nirvana, it is not issuing permits outside certain boundaries. There is not much free land within the boundaries, and while the City Council no doubt thinks high-rise apartments are the way to go, nobody is building such apartments, possibly because a recent lot were not a financial success. That was probably because not everybody wants to live in postage-stamp sized apartments without somewhere to park a car.

Given such a problem, there is some evidence that speculators have descended and several thousand such houses have been purchased by foreign people who have no intention of living here. Presumably they will rent and resell at some time in the future. It is not clear how many such houses are purchased by foreign speculators.

Now enter politics. The Labour (opposition) leader has announced that if they win the next election they will ban foreigners from buying houses unless (a) they come to live in them, or (b) they build them. There are various responses to this. The right wing accuses them of being xenophobic. The prime Minister has said only a few per cent of the houses are bought by foreigners for investment, so it is hardly a big deal. To me, that is misleading. Those bought by foreigners are often bought at auction, and top auction prices tend to set expectations from sellers, especially when there is a clear shortage. If you know what someone else got for a comparable house, don’t you want something similar? Also, our Prime Minister made his own personal fortune as a trader, so he must know that it is the top few transactions that tend to be price setters on a rising market.

This illustrates a problem (apart from, following from my previous post, we just had another earthquake while writing this!) in that politicians and their appointed authorities control our lives through their actions. Our system of governance only really works when politicians “do the right thing”. Making dismissive statements to abandon responsibility is hardly “doing the right thing”. At the end of my next ebook, Jonathon Munros (available some time  in August) one of my characters expresses the opinion that the problem lies in that getting the right person to do the job and getting the person elected require completely different skills. What do you think?

My first career “backward step”

Sometimes, one of the problems of being successful in an organization is that you end up getting more work, usually the sort of work you do not need. In my previous post, I mentioned that, early in my career at the national chemistry lab, I managed to get a report on bioethanol in a very short period of time. Accordingly, certain administrators seemed to decide that I must have been good at this so I got the job of correlating and reviewing the overall Department’s efforts in response to energy. This involved sending out requests for information and correlating the responses. Everybody sending a response was senior to me, but of course the request for the response, although it came from me, had somewhat more senior backing. The request was for outlines of what projects were to be worked on in the coming year, how many people were working on them, budgets, and hoped-for outcomes. I duly submitted the report to Head Office and tried to return to doing something useful.

If I thought that would be the end of that, I was in for a disappointment. Next year I got the same job, presumably because they thought I was good at this sort of thing. So, out went the requests, and in came the responses, and I did the same thing again, except I made one addition: I correlated what had happened with what was supposed to happen based on the previous year’s responses. The results were quite hilarious: the first ever responses had claimed huge effort, a clear response to an urgent crisis, but when the time came to own up to progress, there were dramatic reductions in effort. I dug deeper, and came up with further surprises. One particular example was that several years previously, to show that it was taking forestry seriously, the Department had set out to tackle wood waste, and various Divisions set up a Wood Waste Working Party, which had been touted by Head Office as an example of what was being done to address this problem. What I found was that over the several years of its existence, it had never met, and most certainly had never worked. So there was a lot of smoke, but not much fire.

The report, when it went in, probably created more heat than the energy program. I was called in to meet an Assistant Director-General, and told that this report was unsatisfactory. My response was that anyone could edit it, I would accept any changes to grammar or style, but if anyone wanted to change the content, my name had to come off it. There was something of a stand-off. I have no idea what happened to that report but I was never asked to do anther, nor was anyone else.

This failed situation is, I suspect, only far too common. It is a problem anywhere where leaders make announcements regarding what is going to happen, or what is happening, when they do not know for sure that it is happening. Particularly susceptible are voted politicians, because ultimately, their priority is getting re-elected, senior public servants, because they always want to look good, and business leaders who care mainly about their short-term share prices. As long as it is not too critical, it is easier to ignore failure than try to ensure it does not happen. This problem of how to get things done is a theme of much of my fiction writing, and part of the reason I am writing this series of “future history” novels. Also, of course, examples like the one above help give ideas for fiction. Fictional scenes are just that: fiction. However, they can be inspired by reality. In an ebook I intend to self-publish soon, called “A Face on Cydonia”, there is a scene inspired by the above.