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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Mirrorshades: Sometimes, Yesterday’s Science Fiction Becomes Today’s Reality

When Mirrorshades first came out, many saw it as a warning shot across the bows of the science fiction genre. Designed as a showcase for the newly-emergent Cyberpunk movement, the anthology featured early stories by writers William Gibson, Greg Bear, Bruce Sterling, Pat Cadigan, Rudy Rucker, Marc Laidlaw, James Patrick Kelly, Lewis Shiner, Paul  Di Filippo, and John Shirley, and it took few prisoners.

The very first story, Gibson’s ‘The Gernsback Continuum’, drew a very deliberate bead on the techno-utopian sci-fi of the pulp era, contrasting its shining cities and thirty-lane highways with the world as it actually was: a world of crumbling gas stations, rented Toyotas, and cinemas showing Nazi Love Motel. The future it implied wasn’t a future constructed by heroic American engineers, but an international, improvised future cobbled together from necessity. The prose is stripped-down and elegant, with hardly a wasted word; the characters just people doing their jobs. Science fiction, Gibson seemed to be saying, could get along fine without being pompous or self-consciously experimental. 

As a statement of intent, ‘The Gernsback Continuum’ illustrated everything that Bruce Sterling claimed in his introduction: especially a fascination with the fabric of daily life, and an acknowledgement of, and desire to build upon, the SF that had gone before.

That point is reinforced by Sterling’s choice to include a story co-written by himself and Gibson. ‘Red Star, Winter Orbit’ tells the tale of a Russian astronaut marooned on an orbital space station as his country collapses beneath him. Space, it says, will not be settled by handsome USAF pilots riding gleaming Von Braun rockets, but by those who pull themselves up there anyway they can, and repurpose and reuse whatever they can find in order to do so. Rather than an expansionist future of stellar empires, the story postulates a gradual dispersal of bohemian settlers in jury-rigged habitats built from the cast-offs of a dying space programme.

“Cyberpunk,” Sterling wrote, “has risen from within the SF genre; it is not an invasion but a modern reform.”

Whether all the stories in Mirrorshades reflect that statement is a question open to interpretation. For me, one of my favourite stories in the book is the least ‘cyberpunky’ of them all. Rudy Rucker’s ‘Tales of Houdini’ is set in the 1940s and features magic and fantasy rather than the usual associated tropes of the sub-genre. On first reading, I found it hard to understand why it had been included. Each of Rucker’s ‘Ware’ trilogy of novels is a classic Cyberpunk text; but this story – highly entertaining though it is – doesn’t seem to fit the purpose of the book.

Of the other stories in the book, John Shirley’s ‘Freezone’ imagines a shantytown floating in the Atlantic, accreted around the remains of abandoned oil platforms, and a rock musician struggling with the encroachment of electronic music.

Pat Cadigan’s ‘Rock On’ and James Patrick Kelly’s ‘Solstice’ also concern themselves with the evolution of drink and drugs and rock ‘n’ roll. 

My personal favourite is the last story in the collection. ‘Mozart in Mirrorshades’, co-written by Sterling and Lewis Shiner, is a time travel romp in which corporations have discovered that changing the past has no effect on the present, and are therefore enthusiastically dedicating themselves to plundering history. Intent on turning the eighteenth century into a massive Third World of cheap labour and abundant natural resources, they trample over everything, creating a world where Amadeus Mozart is a hustling street kid who plays electric guitar over synth riffs sampled from K-Tel pop cassettes, Marie Antoinette reads Vogue, and one of Genghis Khan’s generals rides a Harley.

Yes, aspects of the stories have dated – everybody smokes; nobody owns a mobile phone; and some of the ‘futuristic’ technology already looks dangerously obsolete – but science fiction is always about the time in which it was written, and these stories are most definitely about the 1980s. And yet, as we do more and more of our socialising, shopping and banking online, they still seem curiously prescient. And, when you consider that these stories helped shape the minds of the people who built the Internet we see around us today, I guess that’s hardly surprising. 

In the 1980s, Cyberpunk predicted that in the early years of the 21st Century, we’d be living in a post-Cold War dystopia ruled by greedy and all-powerful corporations, in a world where data was the most important commodity and misfits and loners stalked the virtual frontier in search of mischief. Forty years on – as I scan headlines concerning international cyber war, corporate tax avoidance, online fraud, and the latest information war between Russia and the West – that prediction doesn’t sound so far off the mark.

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Gateway by Frederik Pohl

What would you buy if you won the lottery? For Robinette Broadhead, protagonist of Gateway, the answer is adventure and escape, and the chance to make even more money. He wants to get away from a short, dirty life spent mining shale, so he buys a one-way ticket to the eponymous space station, which is an ancient artefact filled with thousands of abandoned spaceships.  

Little is known about the alien builders of Gateway  – a mysterious race dubbed the ‘Heechee’ – but humanity has figured out how to start up their abandoned spaceships; and now a thriving gold rush is afoot as volunteers ride these ships into the unknown, seeking their fortunes. A ride on a Gateway ship is the ultimate gamble. The controls are unfathomable; the ships follow preset courses of unpredictable length; and your chances of returning alive are only one-in-three. Some crews simply vanish, never to be seen again; some come back with their blood smeared all over the cabin walls by unimaginable forces; and others starve because their food and water runs out before the ship returns to base. But of course, there are always a few gamblers who think they can beat  the system, and the potential rewards are huge, as returning pilots are handsomely paid for new discoveries.

At the start of the book, Robinette (or “Bob”) is back on Earth again, years after his time on Gateway, having apparently survived his experiences and made his fortune. His story is presented to us through a series of exchanges with his robot psychiatrist, Sigfrid. Chapters alternate between their discussions on Earth and Robinette’s first-person account of his life on Gateway, through which we – like Sigfrid – begin slowly to piece together the truth of what happened on his fateful final flight. 

The trouble is, Bob isn’t a very reliable narrator, and there are some things he doesn’t want to talk about. Sometimes he’s downright evasive. All we know for sure is that he suffers from a crippling sense of shame.  Bob seems to despise himself, and it’s not just survivor’s guilt. He seems to hate himself for some of the sexual choices he’s made. For him, sex seems bundled up with guilt and self-loathing, and a deep resentment of his feminine-sounding first name. Since making his fortune, he’s been throwing himself into hedonistic romps with bimbos as a way to suppress his misery. But does that misery derive from his suppressed homosexuality, or from something deeper? And what happened to Klara, the woman he ostensibly fell in love with?

As Bob slowly recounts his tale, Pohl brings the echoing corridors of the Gateway station to life, painting a brittle portrait of men and women suffering from the psychological stress of living in a claustrophobic and potentially-lethal alien environment. Memos and personal ads dot the narrative, adding flavour. When not out risking their lives in space, the denizens of Gateway throw themselves into sexual experimentation and gambling. They are obsessed with games of chance: and none more so than Bob. His very presence on the station has come as the result of a lucky lottery win. Life, Pohl seems to be telling us, is all about chance and coincidence. We may have free will, but only to the extent that we get to decide how we’re going to respond to the hand we’ve been dealt. Luck alone decides if we’ll be wealthy or poor, if we’ll live or die.

Gateway deserves its reputation as a classic (the year following its publication, it won the Hugo, the Nebula, and the John W. Campbell awards, and has since been reprinted as part of Gollancz’s SF Masterworks series). The plot zips along at an agreeable rate, but it is the central figure of Bob who keeps us turning the pages. We view the marvels of the universe through the eyes of a flawed everyman, and we root for him to succeed, despite already knowing that (on some levels) he does; and we feel his discomfort as he squirms ever closer to revealing the events of his final trip, and the decision he has been forced to make. We know something terrible happened to him, and Pohl cleverly uses our trepidation to draw us unstoppably onwards. Like watching a car crash in slow motion, we’re wincing in anticipation of what we may discover but, at the same time, we dare not look away. Even though he’s flawed and sometimes makes bad decisions, we’ve come to like Bob, and we’re worried what he might have done.

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Science Fiction as Collective Anxiety

Convention panel discussions often raise the question of how accurately science fiction predicts the future. I gave the following answer on a panel at BristolCon in October 2021:

I disagree with the premise of the question, in so far as I don’t believe it is science fiction’s job to predict the future. Rather, we use the genre to project ourselves into realms of possibility rather than predicting what it will be like with any kind of accuracy. It’s more a kind of collective anxiety than it is a planning tool, in that we are freewheeling through all these terrible things that might happen and how it will feel and what will go on, instead of having a rational discussion. A completely rational prediction of the future would probably be boring as fuck, because there comes a point where the future would have no understandable relevance for us and it would be very, very difficult to establish an interesting character or coherent story within that. If we look at the Singularity for example, the very fact it is a singularity means we cannot predict what the world will be like after with any sense of confidence. It would be hard to create a story. And what we’re doing is telling stories; telling stories about ourselves and what might happen to us. Because the three main questions of life are: Who are We? What do we do while we’re here? And, where are we going when we die? And science fiction messes around with all three of those quite nicely… We’re humanity’s equivalent of that voice that whispers in your ear at 4am and says, ‘What happens if this goes on?’

Science fiction is subversive

The act of imagining the future has always been a quietly subversive activity. Portraying a different or changed society cannot help but be a deeply political exercise. By doing it, you’re implicitly passing comment on our present world and the way it will be altered by coming events or technologies. From HG Wells onwards, SF writers have imagined what will happen if we continue down our current path. If things go badly, we get a dystopia to warn us of the consequences of inaction; if things go well, we get a utopia to which we can aspire and work towards.

One of the core messages of the genre is that, “this too shall pass.” The world we know today – it’s political, economic and social systems – cannot endure forever. Change will come. Some people don’t want to hear that, but come it will. As SF writers, we get to model a vast array of possible futures. To remake the world according to our personal fears and desires.

The forces of conservatism seek stasis and security. They fear change, but SF writers revel in it. We dream of better worlds. We are literally paid to imagine that things are different to the way they are today, and that can be a hell of a subversive act.

Standing on the edge of the world

In my fiction, I’ve been fascinated by the liminality of ports. They are where the everyday intersects with the extraordinary, the start and end point for thousands of journeys, and portals connecting this place with every other place.

Being a SF writer, I have a particular fondness for space ports. The idea that you can run away from life as a colonist, get to the port, and then have the whole universe open up before you…

In this sense, as in Star Wars, the space port is a bridge between the main character’s old life and the adventure awaiting them. Between who they were and who they are going to be.

Perhaps it’s because I grew up in the port city of Bristol, which historically served as a jumping-off point for merchants, pirates, explorers and (despicably) slavers. Standing on the quay in the late afternoon, you can imagine the ships slipping their moorings and heading for the gorge, and beyond it the Severn Estuary and the Atlantic Ocean, and it feels as if you’re standing on the edge of the world.

The same applies to beaches. They are an ever-changing no-man’s land between the eroding coastline and furious sea. A place where we can stand and contemplate our relationship to the vast elemental forces of the Earth, and maybe yearn for a way to touch that distant horizon.

Top 10 spaceships in fiction

From Jules Verne’s far-sighted Victorian moonshot to the self-aware starships of Iain M Banks, here are some of the most compelling flights of fantasy.
Cosmic slingshot … a still from the 2015 film of The Martian. Photograph: Allstar/20th Century Fox

Some of my earliest memories are of watching Star Trek in the early 1970s, on my grandparents’ black and white TV, and then getting caught up as a schoolboy in all the hype surrounding the release of Star Wars in 1977. But while movie and TV spaceships such as the USS Enterprise and Millennium Falcon – and even the Red Dwarf – are firmly established as part of our shared cultural vocabulary, the worlds of printed fiction contain many other ships that are every bit as iconic.

In science fiction, spaceships are more than vehicles. They’re often characters in their own right, whether they can think for themselves or not. One of the lead characters in my new book Embers of War is the sentient warship Trouble Dog. Shaken by the horrors of war, she has chosen to resign her position in her fleet. 

Over the years, spaceships in fiction have come in many forms and guises. These are some of my favourites:

1. From the Earth to the Moon by Jules Verne
In the aftermath of the US civil war, members of the Baltimore Gun Club construct a cannon capable of launching three men to the moon. Published in 1865, this novel was one of the first to take a serious stab at describing a space vessel and its means of propulsion (earlier attempts involving balloons and geese notwithstanding). Although Verne got a few of his calculations wrong (the length of the cannon’s barrel would have to have been much longer), most of what he describes seems remarkably prescient when you consider it was written a century before the first real moon landings.

2. Non-Stop by Brian Aldiss
As members of a tribe of primitive people undertake a quest through an overgrown jungle, it slowly becomes apparent that they are aboard a huge spaceship, and the descendants of its original crew. They may have forgotten the fact and purpose of their voyage, but the ship itself has shaped them. The confines of its interior have led to them becoming smaller; the wild, over-spilling hydroponics garden has provided them with food and shelter. For Roy Complain and his little group of explorers, the spaceship literally is their whole world.

3. Nova by Samuel Delany
Completed when the author was only 25, Nova is a swaggering, heady smash-up of gritty space opera and serious literary ambition. It takes the tropes of traditional space opera and bolts them to a self-consciously mythical framework of grail and tarot lore. The main character, the doomed Lorq van Ray, leads a crew in search of a metal than can only be mined from the heart of an exploding star. They are flying an aged ship called the Roc, which requires the crew to physically and mentally connect themselves to its systems in order to fly.

4. Ancillary Justice by Ann Leckie
The all-conquering story of a murdered starship’s quest for vengeance, and the human body in which it now finds its consciousness trapped. Leckie’s debut novel, the first volume in her Imperial Radch trilogy, won a stack of honours, including the Hugo, Nebula and Arthur C Clarke awards.

5. Children of Time by Adrian Tchaikovsky
Due to a technical blunder, the last humans alive find themselves confined to their starship for centuries, while a different (and surprising) Earth species grows and evolves on the planet where they wanted to settle. Generations grow and wither in the corridors and cabins, while a few survivors of the original crew sleep in suspended animation, observing the same mistakes of power and aggression being played out again and again. Yet all the while, the ship remains a constant and unchanging presence around them, keeping them safe as the centuries pass.

6. Consider Phlebas by Iain M Banks
A rollicking adventure featuring space pirates, shape-changers, sentient ships and interstellar war, which somehow also manages to simultaneously provide a deep and acutely painful meditation on the moral and emotional futility of conflict. When it comes to self-aware starships with quirky names, Banks is the touchstone.

7. A Fire Upon the Deep by Vernor Vinge
Famous for the author’s vision of a galaxy segregated by “zones of thought” – areas in which certain technologies such as FTL and AI simply won’t work – A Fire Upon the Deep also presents us with a vision of a galaxy-wide internet chatroom and the terrifying incursion of an artificial super-intelligence into human society: perhaps the definitive use of the Singularity in space opera. Racing to rescue a pair of stranded human children, the starship Out of Band II carries its passengers on a long haul into the unknown.

8. The Martian by Andy Weir
While the focus of this book is on the astronaut Mark Watney’s attempts to survive alone on the surface of Mars, his crewmates spend months aboard the Hermes, the ship that brought them to Mars and which they’re now using to slingshot around the Earth and return to rescue him. Through cleverly sketched scenes, we get a vivid impression of life on board the cramped vessel. And in the end, the spaceship itself aids in the rescue attempt, at some cost to itself.

9. Leviathan Wakes by James SA Corey
In the colonised solar system of a not-too-distant future, political tensions between Mars, Earth and the Belt threaten the stability and future of humanity. When a stealth ship attacks an ice-mining vessel, the survivors find themselves in possession of a small warship, which they name the Rocinante after Don Quixote’s steed. But while the Rocinante offers them a way out of their predicament, it quickly becomes much more – their home, the thing that holds them together as an ersatz family, and the means and muscle they need in order to survive, and bring the fight to the enemy. 

10. The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet by Becky Chambers
A space opera that has all the classic ingredients: a beaten-up ship, a crew of misfits and a galaxy filled with danger and adventure. Like its multi-species inhabitants, the starship Wayfarer is a bricolage of mismatching parts fused into one ugly but endearing whole. It isn’t here to win a beauty contest; it’s strictly a working vessel. But like the Rocinante above, it’s also a home and its crew a family bonded by their interdependence with, and love of, their vessel.


The Fermi Paradox

So, I’ve been thinking about the Fermi Paradox. For those of you unfamiliar with it, the paradox was suggested in 1950 by physicist Enrico Fermi, when he asked, “Where is everybody?”

His argument was that it tool 4 million years for potentially space-travelling life to evolve on Earth, but the universe is a thousand times older, so there should have been plenty of time for other star-faring races to evolve and overrun the galaxy–and yet, we don’t see them.

Many (mostly depressing) solutions have been put forward, postulating some kind of Great Filter that prevents civilisations reaching the level of technology necessary for us to detect them. Candidates for the Great Filter include nuclear war, pollution, the impossiblity of interstellar travel, and killer robots that destroy life wherever they detect it.

On Earth, life evolved in response to a series of great extinctions and a variable climate. When the dinosaurs died out, mammals just happened to be in the right place at the right time. And when climate change started to make life on the savannah difficult for our ape ancestors, they had to get smart or die. They had to diversify their diet, learn to hunt, and ultimately harness fire and travel north, into Europe and beyond. We wouldn’t have survived without our intelligence and desire to explore. But an alien species in a more stable environment (a sub-surface ocean beneath the ice of a frozen moon, for example) might never have the need to develop those characteristics. They may have curiosity, but their options for exploration or technology would be limited by their environment. Their world would be covered by kilometres of ice, beyond which only vacuum lies; and they probably wouldn’t discover fire and smelting on a seabed. The desire to look outwards and seek new frontiers may be an extremely rare trait.

My own personal thoughts on the matter are that given the size and age of the universe, intelligent alien life almost certainly exists, but given those vast gulfs of time and space, we are extremely unlikely to ever meet them.

Look at the picture of the Andromeda galaxy accompanying this post. Look how many stars there are there. Roughly a trillion. If one of those stars housed an alien race at the same technological level as us, how would we ever detect it? You could drop a fair-sized galactic empire in there and unless they were using spectacularly noisy star drives to power their ships, we’d still never know they were there.

But it isn’t just the distance. Every light year we peer into the cosmos is a year back in time. Andromeda is 2.537 million light years away, so we’re seeing it as it was when the first Homo habilis on Earth were just beginning to experiment with stone tools. Given that some estimate it would take humanity only 100,000 years to colonise our galaxy using self-replicating, slower-than-light craft, that’s plenty of time for a species to have done the same to Andromeda. There might be whole reefs of Dyson spheres, and a galaxy-wide civilisation existing there right now, but we won’t know anything about it for another 2.5 million years.

Or perhaps we simply missed them. Perhaps that vast empire collapsed a billion years ago, and we simply can’t see their ruins.

Perhaps vast waves of colonisation have already swept through our own galaxy and we simply don’t recognise their traces.

In our own solar system, there are anomalies. Mercury appears to be the solid iron core of a larger planet, stripped of most of its crust. Venus spins in the opposite direction to the rest of the planets, and has the slowest rotation of any of the planets. Did something smack into it, or could its rotational energy have been tapped by a supercivilisation in order to power an interstellar wormhole, slowing (and reversing) its rotation? Or perhaps, given that it was once apparently habitable, could it and Earth have been targetted by planet-killing robots that wrecked Venus’s climate and dealt us the blow that birthed our moon?

We exist in deep time and deep space. I live in hope that one day, we’ll find evidence that we’re not alone, but realise that given the distances involved, any species we detect will most likely have gone extinct by the time we detect them. And alas, the same holds true in reverse. By the time we’re spotted, we may be long gone.

“Look on my works, ye mighty and despair.”