Space Sunday: Mars visions, gateways and James Webb

Elon Musk has bold plans for building a permanent human presence on Mars. Credit: SpaceX

The 68th International Astronautical Congress (IAC) ran from September 25th to September 29th, 2017 in Adelaide, Australia, and brought forth a plethora of announcements, presentations and updates from all those involved in space exploration.

one of the more attention-grabbing announcements came – unsurprisingly – from Elon Musk and SpaceX. Already leading the way in private sector launches and launch vehicle reusability,  SpaceX has in many respects set the bar for the launch industry as a whole. Musk, meanwhile has raised eyebrows with his longer-term goals, which focus on human missions to Mars and – eventually – the colonisation of the Red Planet. At the September 2016 IAC, he laid the outlines for achieving these goals, and in 2017 he returned to the IAC to offer further updates and insights to the SpaceX approach.

Most surprisingly, given the company’s reliance on it for revenue generation, Musk indicated that he is prepared to phase out all Falcon 9 launch operations, including the yet-to-fly Falcon Heavy, at some point in the near future in order to focus the company on the development and operation of its Interplanetary Transport System (ITS), which Musk still likes to refer to as the BFR (for “Big F***ing Rocket” on account of its overwhelming size).

The updates ITS launcher, seen here in comparison to the Falcon 9 and Falcon Heavy, will be 106 metres tall, powered by 31 first stage engines (down from the original 42), and capable of lifting 150 tonnes to low Earth orbit. Credit: SpaceX

Fabrication of parts of the first ITS launcher – which is the linchpin for Musk’s Mars ambitions – has been in progress for some time, and SpaceX hope to start on the assembly of the first vehicle in the series in mid-to-late 2018. Musk is now so confident in the vehicle’s development status, he is hoping to have two of the launch vehicles ready to fly cargo missions to Mars during the 2022 launch opportunity – although he emphasised this time frame is “aspirational” rather than a fixed deadline.

This version of the ITS will be slightly scaled-down from the version announced last year, reducing the overall launch height and mass of the vehicle, and the number of main engines it will require – 31 instead of 42. The 2022 mission will have a two-fold purpose: deliver core components required for human operations on Mars to the surface of the planet; located subsurface water / water ice which could be extracted and used to generate oxygen which could be used within the atmosphere of a future base, and as an oxidizer in fuel used by vehicles making the return flight to Earth.

The upper stage of the ITS is an interplanetary craft powered by a mix of methane (CH4) and oxygen (both of which can be manufactured on Mars, allowing the craft to be re-fuelled there for return flights to Earth) and carrying either cargo in its upper section, or up to 100 passengers in 40 cabins and common crew spaces which offer living space in excess of the space found in an Airbus A380 airliner. Credit: SpaceX

According to Musk, should this mission proceed to plan, it will be followed in 2024 by four craft carrying a mix of equipment, supplies and crews to Mars to commence human exploration of the planet.

All of this is highly ambitious, technically and financially. On the technical front, there are significant issues to be addressed, most notably – but not limited to – that of the radiation threat posed by Galactic Cosmic Rays (GCRs). As I’ve pointed out in past Space Sunday articles on this subject, solar radiation – often seen as “the” radiation threat – can be managed relatively well, simply because it is generally low-energy radiation.

The ITS upper stage on the pad at Musk’s future Mars colony and awaiting refuelling / a return to Earth. Credit: SpaceX

GCRs, however, are high-energy particles which are much harder to deal with: and there is a lot of them in interplanetary space to deal with. Data from the Mars Science Laboratory’s flight to Mars in 2012 revealed that an unprotected astronaut on a similar flight would face the equivalent radiation dose as having a full-body CAT scan every 5-6 days for six months – definitely not a healthy proposition. There are technologies  being developed which can mitigate GCRs, such as such as hydrogenated boron nitride nanotubes (BNNTs), but these are still some way from being available for general use in spacecraft and spacesuit designs. Musk didn’t expand on how SpaceX plan to handle things like GCRs.

He was, however, more forthcoming on how SpaceX would finance the construction and operation of the ITS system. firstly, SpaceX will build up a “stock” of Falcon 9 units which could be used (and re-used) as launchers and components for Falcon Heavy launchers. Secondly, and once available, the revised ITS will be offered as a commercial launch vehicle capable of placing 100 tonnes into low Earth orbit and delivering objects to geostationary orbit or the moon; payloads could be single large items or multiple items. The plan is to use the stock of Falcon boosters through until customers have confidence in the ITS launcher (which will also be reusable) in order to switch over to using it, after which, all Falcon operations will be phased out.

Musk plans to offer the ITS for launches to LEO, the space station, geostationary orbit and even to the Moon for cargo flights, etc. Shown here, an ITS upper stage with solar panels deployed, releases a large single payload into LEO. Credit: SpaceX

In addition, and with usual Musk showmanship, the entrepreneur indicated further revenue could be obtained by offering sub-orbital aerospace flights between major cities in record time. According to his calculations, he claimed that such flights could ferry customers between Bangkok and Dubai in just 27 minutes, or between Tokyo and Delhi in 30 minutes, using a smaller variant of the ITS.

Quite how these system would work or how the necessary support infrastructure needed to support launch / recovery / refurbishment operations around the globe would be financed was not made clear – nor was the potential cost of tickets.

Continue reading “Space Sunday: Mars visions, gateways and James Webb”

Murder, alien encounters, monsters and magic

Seanchai Library

It’s time to kick-off another week of storytelling in Voice by the staff and volunteers at the Seanchai Library. As always, all times SLT, and events are held at the Library’s home at Holly Kai Park, unless otherwise indicated.

Sunday, October 1st

13:30: Tea Time at Baker Street

The pages of The Casebook of Sherlock Holmes, the final set of twelve Sherlock Holmes short stories first published in the Strand Magazine between October 1921 and April 1927, are once again opened for another tale from the diaries of Dr. John Watson…

This week: The Adventure of the Lions’s Mane

“It is a most singular thing that a problem which was certainly as abstruse and unusual as any which I have faced in my long professional career should have come to me after my retirement, and be brought, as it were, to my very door. It occurred after my withdrawal to my little Sussex home, when I had given myself up entirely to that soothing life of Nature for which I had so often yearned during the long years spent amid the gloom of London. At this period of my life the good Watson had passed almost beyond my ken. An occasional week-end visit was the most that I ever saw of him. Thus I must act as my own chronicler.”

Thus begins the second of only two stories of Sherlock Holmes’ adventures to be narrated by the great man himself. As the opening suggests, Holmes is now in retirement in Sussex, where he meets an old friend whilst on the beach. Harold Stackhurst is the headmaster of a local preparatory school, and as the two men chat, one of the masters from the school, Fitzroy McPherson, staggers up to them, his torso covered in livid welts as if he had been whipped with a hot wire. McPherson manages to utter the words, “Lion’s mane,” before dying.

More mystery ensues when it emerges that McPherson was involved with one Maud Bellamy – much to the chagrin of her father and brother -, and he had a sometimes strained friendship with another of the school’s masters, Ian Murdoch. What’s more, Murdoch may have also once been a suitor for Maud Bellamy.

Is murder most foul in the air? Could hatred or jealousy be the reason? Is McPherson’s death the result of his involvement with Maud Bellamy? The mystery seems to become more perplexing when McPherson’s dog is found dead, apparently having suffered as agonizingly as its master. But is its discovery the clue Holmes has been seeking?

To find out more, be sure to turn up on time for a spot of afternoon tea at Baker Street!

18:00 Magicland Storytime: The Black Cauldron

Join Caledonia Skytower at Magicland Park.

Monday, October 2nd 19:00: Reckoning Infinity

Gyro Muggins reads John E. Stith’s alien first contact story, once described as “Rendezvous with Rama meets James and the Giant Peach“!

Lieutenant Commander Alis Mary Nussem, her body partially bionic, isn’t to happy about finding herself aboard the same space vessel as the man she deems responsible for the accident which robbed her of a part of her natural body. However, she must put aside her differences with scientist Karl Stanton when a massive object enters the solar system, apparently on course to be swallowed by the Sun – but not before it will collide with a space station in Earth orbit.

Ordered to investigate the object, which is as large as a moon and quickly given the name “Cantaloupe,” Nussem, Stanton and the crew of their ship rendezvous with it, only to find they are not the first: the wreck of another vessel lies on the surface, a hole drilled into the object close by. The only means of entry to the Cantaloupe, Nussem and Stanton lead a team down through it – to make a stunning discovery.

Like Nussem, Cantaloupe is an bio-mechanical entity. It is alive, but it’s interior also have pipes, elevators chambers and more within. But it is also a place of danger – as Nussem and her also companions quickly discover – some to their cost. It’s also a place of unexpected surprises, as the crew’s biggest discovery proves…

Tuesday, October 3rd 19:00: Monsters of the Midwest

Join Kayden Oconnell for tales of bigfoot, werewolves and other legendary creatures! They are all absolutely true … except the ones that aren’t …

Wednesday, October 4th, 19:00 The Water Mirror

Faerie Maven-Pralou reads Kei Meyer’s tale of magic.

Merle is apprenticed to a maker of magic mirrors. She even has one of her own, with a surface of water into which she can reach without ever getting wet – magic being a relatively common thing in Venice. Meanwhile, her friend Serafin, once a master thief, now works for a weaver of magic cloth.

Both Merle and Serafin accept the wonders of the city, from the mermaids in the canal to the stone lions on which the city guards ride on their patrols. But all is not well; beyond the walls of the city, the Egyptian Empire is laying siege, an army of mummy warriors and flying sunbarks held at bay by the power of the Flowing Queen, which runs through the city’s canals and hold the enemy forces at bay.

Then Merle and Serafin overhear a plot to capture the Flowing Queen and render the city defenceless. And while no-one actually knows what the Queen looks like, they set out to protect and / or rescue her. In doing so, they must ally themselves with the Ancient Traitor and journey into the realm of Dark Reflections…

Thursday, October 5th

19:00 From the Shadows

Shadows is a series of eleven horror anthologies edited by Charles L. Grant and published by Doubleday between 1978 and 1991. Grant, a proponent of “quiet horror”, initiated the series in order to showcase this kind of fiction. It dispenses with the traditional trappings of horror and avoids most physical violence. Instead, the stories take place in every day settings, and feature a slow accumulations of dread through subtle omens. While Grant himself was very adept at this kind of fiction, he contributed no stories to the anthologies, writing only the introductions and author profiles.

For this reading, Shandon Loring has selected Mrs Clendon’s Place by  Joseph Payne Brennan, and The Haunting by Susan Casper, both of which appeared in Shadows 7 in 1984 (also presented in Kitely hop://

21:00: Seanchai Late Night

Contemporary science fiction with Finn Zeddmore.


Please check with the Seanchai Library’s blog for updates and for additions or changes to the week’s schedule.

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