Flat pack flight on the final frontier

Photo by Matthijs van Heerikhuize on Unsplash

Today’s smallsats could pave the way for a future generation of self-configuring modular spacecraft.

Small satellites are big business. According to the UK’s Satellite Applications Catapult, more than 2,000 “smallsats” are expected to take to the skies in 2022.

The official definition of a small satellite is a spacecraft with a mass of less than 180 kilograms and dimensions no larger than a standard American refrigerator-freezer. Lighter and easier to manufacture than bigger spacecraft, smallsats are better suited to mass launch programs and constellations and are often used as testbeds for new technologies, or for missions that don’t justify the expense of a larger satellite.   

A variety of smallsat known as the CubeSat is a modular unit than can be used in conjunction with other units to provide a configurable and scalable platform for a variety of mission profiles.

Initially employed in low Earth orbit for remote sensing or communication applications, small spacecraft like these could one day be used to support the assembly and repair of larger spacecraft; explore planetary environments, and perform scientific observation of asteroids and comets.

As a science fiction author, I am very excited by the idea of a swarm of independent spacecraft that can combine at will to form larger structures. Allow me to project that concept forward a few decades and describe the following scene.

Imagine a rocket on the pad at Cape Canaveral. Atop the booster, an astronaut sits in a capsule that only yesterday was a pile of smaller units in a warehouse. Now, they have configured themselves into a crew vehicle. Propelled into orbit by the reusable booster, they join with other cubesats already in orbit and rearrange themselves to form the interplanetary transfer vehicle that will carry the astronaut to the Moon. Meanwhile, other clusters of identical cubes are in use as space stations, refuelling depots, communication relays, and even surface rovers.

Instead of developing an expensive range of specialised vehicles, future space explorers could use modularity to provide them with the tools to meet any mission profile.

We can also imagine combining this concept with the ‘utility fog’ technology I described in a previous column, in which clouds of tiny programmable nano-robots make up networks of interconnected, micron-sized particles that can be configured to any pre-determined shape and be used to construct larger machines.

In that case, explorers on Mars wouldn’t worry about having a return vehicle for the journey home. When they needed it, their habitat would simply break itself down and repurpose its components.

Cheap and standardised, these advanced cubesats would be cheap and easy to produce in huge numbers. All they would need for each mission would be instructions or templates telling them how to configure themselves. And when the mission was over, they would simply break apart into individual units again, ready to be programmed into the next required shape.

In this future, the constellations currently being assembled by SpaceX and OneWeb would seem as nothing to the clouds of tiny satellites crowding low Earth orbit. If they become sufficiently inexpensive, it’s feasible every phone or internet user could have their own dedicated cubesat, able to communicate via the network of its brethren with any other user. Rather than relying on ground-based servers, our webs of communication would reside in space—safe from interference, censorship or sabotage, but maybe more vulnerable to solar flares and other hazards.

And while all this sounds exciting, it will also bring hazards we maybe haven’t foreseen. NASA estimates that there are currently around 6,500 satellites orbiting the Earth, almost half of which are inactive or obsolete. Add to this the 27,000 pieces of orbital debris or ‘space junk’ currently being tracked by the US Department of Defence’s Space Surveillance Network, and you start to realise that low Earth orbit is a seriously congested place. And when you consider that much of this material is moving at around 17,500 miles per hour, the dangers of collision become apparent.

A collision between two satellites, or between a satellite and a piece of random space junk, might cause more problems than simply damaging or destroying the items involved. Each collision would provide more debris, orbiting the Earth in a dispersing cloud like a shotgun blast. And if collisions become more frequent, the amount of debris will grow, causing further collisions in an exponential cascade, until all we’re left with is a planetary ring of dust-sized wreckage of no use to anyone.


This article originally appeared in The Engineer magazine.

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Why Bother Writing When The World Is On Fire?

Photo courtesty of Robin Frejd on Unsplash

Fiction is a conversation with itself, with the present and with the future. Even if everything goes wrong and the human race dwindles away to nothing, at least we will have had books. We will have recorded and shared our thoughts and ideas. Our experience of being human in a vast, cool and unsympathetic cosmos. We will have lived, and said to the world, “This is who we were and what we dreamed of and wondered about.”

And then, of course, there’s the possibility our words might inspire others to change our future. Our hopes, empathy, and warnings might galvanise young readers to go into engineering, politics, science, agriculture…

For me, to quit writing would be to give up on life. It would be to admit defeat. Because, after all, who really wants to live in a world without the beauty of books?

As writers or artists, we’re often preoccupied with our work. But sometimes, real world events intrude and leave us feeling unable to summon the energy to be creative, or leave us questioning the value of art in the face of tragedy.

When there’s a disaster or an unfolding crisis on the news, it can sometimes paralyse us. Why am I writing books about spaceships or painting pictures of abstract nudes, you might think, when there’s been an appalling disaster or terrorist attack, or when the economy’s tanking and the threat of global warming seems so pressing and bleak? How can art possibly matter in such a world? What’s the point?

How do we, in short, keep functioning in a crisis?

When I start to feel that way, I think back to everything writers and artists have had to contend with in the past. Our Paelolithic ancestors daubed handprints on the walls of their caves, and carved figures from stone and wood. The Vikings told their sagas. Even as Rome fell, there were poets writing and sculptors sculpting. In the Dark Ages, people were still singing songs and telling folk tales. Poets wrote in the trenches of WWI. While the Cuban Missile Crisis raged, people were still reading and writing novels and short stories. In 1984, at the height of the Cold War, with nuclear obliteration seemingly imminent, movies and TV programmes were made and watched, books were written and paintings painted and sold.

Art doesn’t stop for history. In some ways, art is history. It’s the way we record how we feel about our present, and a window on the thoughts and feelings of the past. And it’s also one of the best means we have to influence the future.

The language of a civilisation determines its development. If that language is one of fear and exclusion, oppression and hatred, the phrases and concepts those words encapsulate become ingrained in the fabric of everyday thought. They become normalised, and therefore more readily accepted. But if the language employed is one that favours tolerance and empathy, it can be those qualities that come to the fore.

Art and fiction are important because they put us in the shoes of others. They create empathy and understanding, and promote education and intelligence. They allow us to share ideas and discuss what it means to be human, and unpack the fundamental commonalities we all share. They can reveal truths, expand our minds, and provide lifetimes of enjoyment. But most of all, they encourage us to dream of other, better worlds, and begin to imagine how we might reach them.

No single painting or novel can change the world, just as no single drop of rain can wash away a town. We may feel we have no control over global events. But culture is a cumulative phenomenon, and every drop helps create the flood.

We all need a little escapism sometimes. Life would be a drudge were we unable to escape into fantasy worlds now and again, and there’s nothing frivolous about providing readers with fictional boltholes. Indeed, it’s a vital role that bards have been playing right back into the dawn of prehistory.

As artists and writers, our work allows us to express what’s in our minds and hearts. As consumers, it can comfort and distract us; but it can also educate and inspire, and nourish our souls. If we ever lost our art and fiction – or simply gave up producing them – we’d have lost a fundamental part of ourselves, and be all the poorer for it.

Art is one of the candles of civilisation. If we abandon it, the bad guys win.

So, excuse me if I keep right on imagining futures in which we’ve survived the challenges currently set out before us. For my children’s sake, and for my own sanity, I have to believe that somehow, we’ll get through. And so, I’m going to keep on writing and hoping and talking as honestly as I can about what it means to be human and alive. 

Literature is the soul of a civilisation, and I fully intend to keep that flame burning.

So, pick up that paintbrush. Open that Word document. Every stroke of paint or line of prose you make is a blow struck against entropy and ignorance, and a contribution to the net beauty of the world. You are not being self-indulgent, you are communicating – and communicating is what people do. We’re a social species, and we need you to help bring forth and express our shared inner lives. To add your voices to the chorus of those who have gone before, uncounted, into the darkness, and simply say to the universe, “WE ARE ALIVE!”

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Fishing for Inspiration

Stop overthinking everything. Sometimes, you just have to stop trying to second guess yourself and just start typing (or painting, or playing music, etc.) You can plan and plan, but a lot of creative inspiration comes in the moment. Ideas are forged in the flow of the work, and improvisation is the mother of creativity. So, lay the groundwork and then just get out there and do it.

Inspiration can strike in the most unexpected ways but in my experience, it strikes hardest while I’m actually wrestling with the story in my net, and its important to capture its bounty before it slips back beneath the waves.

Our imaginations are like the sea. So much lurks beneath the surface, seemingly lost to us; but occasionally, a tempestuous thought or sudden fortunate confluence of tides will throw up a gem of an idea.

So, don’t wait for inspiration to strike. Start typing and see what happens.