Why Do Rockets Need Stages? The Quest to Build a Single Stage to Orbit (SSTO)

Single Stage To Orbit!


Now, don’t get me wrong, Science Fiction is awesome. Like almost everyone working in the field of space and astronomy, I was deeply influenced by science fiction. For me, it was Star Trek and Star Wars. I had a toy phaser that made this awesome really loud phaser sound, and I played with it non-stop until it disappeared one day. And I was sure I’d left it in the middle of my floor, like I did with all my toys, but I found it a few years later, hidden up in a closet that I couldn’t reach. And I always wondered how it got there.

Anyway, back to science fiction. For all of its inspiration, science fiction has put a few ideas into our brains which aren’t entirely helpful. You know, warp drives, artificial gravity, teleportation, and rockets that take off, fly to space, visit other planets orbiting stars, land again.

The Millennium Falcon, Firefly, and Enterprise Shuttles are all examples of single stage to orbit to orbit spacecraft, or SSTOs.

Consider the rockets that exist in reality, you know, the Atlases, Falcons and Deltas. They take off from a launch pad, fly for a bit until the fuel is used up in a stage of the rocket, then they jettison that stage and thrust with the next stage. The mighty Saturn V was so powerful that it had three stages, as it made it’s way to orbit.

Diagram of Saturn V Launch Vehicle. Credit: NASA/MSFC

As we discussed in a previous article, SpaceX is working to make the first stage, and maybe even the second stage reusable, which is a vast improvement over just letting everything burn up, but there are no rockets that actually fly to orbit and back in a single stage. In fact, using the technology we have today, it’s probably not a good idea.

Has anyone ever worked on a single stage to orbit? What technological advances will need to happen to make this work?

As I said earlier, a single stage to orbit rocket would be something like the Millennium Falcon. It carries fuel, and then uses that fuel to fly into orbit, and from world to world. Once it runs out of fuel, it gets filled up again, and then it’s off again, making the Kessel Run and avoiding Imperial Blockades.

This concept of a rocket matches our personal experience with every other vehicle we’ve ever been in. You drive your car around and refuel it, same with boats, airplanes and every other form of Earth-based transportation.

But flying into space requires the expenditure of energy that defies comprehension. Let me give you an example. A Falcon 9 rocket can lift about 22,800 kilograms into low-Earth orbit. That’s about the same as a fully loaded cement truck – which is a lot.

SpaceX Falcon 9 poised for Jan. 14, 2017, Return to Flight launch from Vandenberg Air Force Base in California carrying ten Iridium NEXT comsats to orbit. Credit: SpaceX

The entire fueled Falcon 9 weighs just over 540,000 kg, of which more than 510,000 kgs of it are fuel, with a little extra mass for the engines, fuel tanks, etc. Imagine if you drove a car that was essentially 95% fuel.

The problem is specific impulse; the maximum amount of thrust that a specific kind of engine and fuel type can achieve. I’m not going to go into all the details, but the most efficient chemical rockets we have, fueled by liquid hydrogen and oxygen, can just barely deliver enough thrust to get you to orbit. They have a maximum specific impulse of about 450 seconds.

Because the amount of fuel it takes to launch a rocket is so high, modern rockets use a staging system. Once a stage has emptied out all its fuel, it detaches and returns to Earth so that the second stage can keep going without having to drag along the extra weight of the empty fuel tanks.

After stage separation of the Falcon 9 rocket, flames are barely visible around nozzle as the second stage engine ignites and the first stage falls back to the Earth below. Credit: SpaceX

You might be surprised to know that many modern rockets are actually capable of reaching orbit with a single stage. The problem is that they wouldn’t be able to carry any significant payload.

At the end of the day, considering the chemical rockets we have today, the multi-staged profile is the most efficient and cost-effective strategy for carrying the most payload to space for the lowest cost possible.

Has anyone tried developing SSTOs in the past? Definitely. Probably the most widely publicized was NASA’s X-33/VentureStar program, developed by Lockheed Martin in the 1990s.

The proposed X-33 spacecraft. Credit: NASA

The purpose of the X-33 was to test out a range of new technologies for NASA, including composite fuel tanks, autonomous flight, and a new lifting body design.

In order to make this work, they developed a new kind of rocket engine called the “aerospike”. Unlike a regular rocket engine which provide a fixed amount of thrust, an aerospike could be throttled back like a jet engine, using less fuel at lower altitudes, where the atmosphere is thickest.

The test of twin Linear Aerospike XRS-2200 engines, originally built for the X-33 program, was performed on August 6, 2001 at NASA’s Sternis Space Center, Mississippi. The engines were fired for the planned 90 seconds and reached a planned maximum power of 85 percent. Credit: NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center

Lockheed Martin was working on a 1/3rd scale prototype, but they struggled with many of the new technologies. In the end, their failure to be able to build a composite fuel tank that could contain the liquid oxygen and hydrogen forced them to abandon the project.

Even if they could get the technology working, so the X-33 was fully reusable, its ability to carry a payload would have been dramatically lower than a traditional multi-staged rocket.

In order to really achieve the dream of single stage to orbit, we need to step away from chemical rockets and move to a type of engine that can deliver thrust more efficiently.

We know that jets work more efficiently than rockets, because they only need to carry fuel. They pull oxygen in from the atmosphere, to burn the fuel. So one intriguing idea is to make a rocket that acts like a jet engine while in the atmosphere, and then acts like a rocket once it’s out in space.

And that’s the plan with the British Skylon rocket. It would take off from a regular runway, accelerate to about 6,600 km/h reaching an altitude of 26 kilometers. All this time, its SABRE engine would be pulling in oxygen from the atmosphere, combining it with hydrogen fuel.

An artist’s conception of Reaction Engines’ Skylon spacecraft. Credit: Reaction Engines

From this point, it would switch over to an internal liquid oxygen tank to provide oxidizer, and complete the flight to orbit. All the while using the same flexible SABRE engine. Once in orbit, it would release its 15-tonne payload and then return to Earth, landing on a runway like the space shuttle orbiter did. It’s a really creative idea.

Unfortunately, the development of the Skylon has taken a long time, with shrinking budgets limiting the amount of tests they’ve been able to do. If everything goes well, the first prototype might fly within a few years, so stay tuned to this story.

Another idea which has had some testing is the idea of a nuclear rocket. Unlike a chemical rocket, which burns fuel, and blasts it out the back for thrust, a nuclear rocket would carry a reactor on board. It would heat up some kind of working fuel, like liquid hydrogen, and then blast it out the back for propulsion.

The key elements of a NERVA solid-core nuclear-thermal engine. Credit: NASA

NASA did some tests a few decades ago with a nuclear thermal rocket called NERVA, and found that they could sustain high levels of thrust for very long periods of time. Their final prototype, provided continuous thrust for over 2 hours, including 28 minutes at full power.

NASA calculated that a nuclear-powered rocket would be roughly twice as efficient as a traditional chemical rocket. It would have a specific impulse of more than 950 seconds. But flying a nuclear rocket into space comes with a significant downside. Rockets explode. It’s bad when a chemical rocket explodes, but if a nuclear reactor detonated while making its way up through the atmosphere, it would rain down radioactive debris. For now, that’s considered too much of a risk; however, future interplanetary missions may very well use nuclear rockets.

There’s one more exotic fuel system that’s really exciting – metallic hydrogen. This solid form appears naturally at the heart of Jupiter, under the incredible pressure of the planet’s gravity. But earlier this year, researchers at Harvard finally created some in the lab. They used a tiny vice to squeeze hydrogen atoms with more force than the pressures at the center of the Earth.

Microscopic images of the stages in the creation of atomic molecular hydrogen: Transparent molecular hydrogen (left) at about 200 GPa, which is converted into black molecular hydrogen, and finally reflective atomic metallic hydrogen at 495 GPa. Credit: Isaac Silvera

It took an enormous amount of energy to squeeze hydrogen together that tightly, but in theory, once crafted, it should be relatively stable. And here’s the best part. When you ignite it, you get that energy back.

If used as a rocket fuel, it would provide a specific impulse of 1700 seconds. Compare that to the mere 450 from chemical rockets. A rocket powered by metallic hydrogen would easily get to orbit with a single stage, and travel efficiently to other planets.

Single Stage to Orbit rockets would be awesome. Science fiction has foretold it. That said, at the end of the day, whatever gets the most amount of payload into orbit for the lowest price is the most interesting rocket system. And right now, that’s staged rockets.

However, a bigger issue might be reliability and reusability. If you can get a single vehicle that takes off, travels to orbit and then returns to its launch pad, you can’t get anything simpler than that. No rockets to restack, no barges to navigate. You just use and reuse the same system again and again, and that’s a really exciting idea.

Right this moment, reusable staged rockets like SpaceX has the edge, but if and when the Skylon gets flying, I think we’ll have some serious competition.

Once we master metallic hydrogen, spaceflight will look very very different. Science reality will nearly match science fiction, and I’ll finally be able to fly my own personal Millennium Falcon.

Book Review: The Caloris Network

Thinking of taking a vacation this summer? Maybe you want to distract yourself with a bit of light science fiction fun. How about a deadly alien life form harbored within our solar system? That’s what Nick Kanas presents in his scientific novel “The Caloris Network.” Being placed not too far into the future, this novel lets the reader enjoy a believable taste of first contact that’s hopefully just as good as the contact from their first summer kiss.

caloris network
A pleasant novel has an intriguing plot that’s embellished with the interaction of fun characters. Sometimes it will also carry a somber undertone ringing in the background. So unravels the novel “Caloris Network.” The main character, Sam, is an astrobiologist fresh from looking at multicellular life on Europa. At home, her family suffers serious health concerns but she’s continuing with her efforts. Her research takes her to Mercury where something is raising the concern of the spacefaring military. Her fellow crew members involve a possible Martian secessionist, a cranky commander and a love triangle. All this is pretty typical fare.

Next up you may think there’d be the traditional English speaking alien biped threatening the very existence of the human race. But not this time. Instead Kanas identifies the protagonist as a silicate based lifeform on Mercury. No legs for walking and no lips for speaking. Further, this is the proverbial first contact between the human race and a living, thinking organism from another world. Will it be confrontational? As usual. Will it involve death rays? Kind of. Will it force the reader to ponder how to interact for the first time with an alien? Certainly! This is the best part of the book in that it places the reader not so far into the future so as to make the story readily believable. Being barely over a hundred years away, the reader can connect with the technological advances for an expedition on Mercury, for living on Mars and for the poor environmental state of Earth. With the simple lives of the expedition’s crew, the constrained space travel and the understated alien, Kanas has written a novel that would be fun for that long car ride or a day on the beach.

As a bonus, the author includes a chapter at the end of the book that discusses some of the science presented. It has details on what we’ve discovered of Mercury, particularly with regard to what a human visitor might encounter if standing on its surface; the temperature from searing heat to mind numbing cold, a Sun that changes direction in the sky and effects of a molten interior.

For even more fun when you’re at the beach, there’s an inclusion of how to define life. For instance, “Does it need to move?” “What do we mean by reproduction?” “How do we test for the ability to think?” and most entertaining of all, “How do we communicate with it when we can’t even communicate with dolphins yet?” These and other ideas in the novel may keep you up late discussing our very existence while watching the embers of the cottage campfire settle to a deep dark red.

Certainly something on Europa, Titan and Venus awaits people. Maybe it’s alien life. Maybe the life prefers to exist without humans coming to explore. Maybe they will be exactly as what Nick Kanas writes in his scientific novel “The Caloris Network”. With your imagination, take this novel’s plot as believable and see where it takes you. And maybe by reading this on your vacation, you may think that you’ve waited long enough and it’s time to go find out.

This book is available through Springer.
About the author, Dr. Nick Kanas.

Review: In “Interstellar,” Christopher Nolan Shows He Has The Right Stuff

Science fiction aficionados, take heed. The highly-anticipated movie Interstellar is sharp and gripping. Nolan and cast show in the end that they have the right stuff. Nearly a three hour saga, it holds your attention and keeps you guessing. Only a couple of scenes seemed to drift and lose focus. Interstellar borrows style and substance from some of the finest in the genre and also adds new twists while paying attention to real science. If a science-fiction movie shies away from imagining the unknown, taking its best shot of what we do not know, then it fails a key aspect of making sci-fi. Interstellar delivers in this respect very well.

Jessica Chastain, the grown daughter of astronaut McConnaughey starts to torch the cornfields. Interstellar viewers are likely to show no sympathy to the ever present corn fields.
Jessica Chastain, the grown daughter of astronaut McConnaughey takes a torch to the cornfields. Interstellar viewers are likely to show no sympathy to the ever present corn fields. Image courtesy Paramount.

The movie begins quite unassuming in an oddly green but dusty farmland. It does not rely on showing off futuristic views of Earth and humanity to dazzle us. However, when you see a farming family with a dinner table full of nothing but variations of their cash crop which is known mostly as feedstock for swine and cattle, you know humanity is in some hard times. McConaughey! Save us now! I do not want to live in such a future!

One is left wondering about what got us to the conditions facing humanity from the onset of the movie. One can easily imagine a couple of hot topic issues that splits the American public in two. But Nolan doesn’t try to add a political or religious bent to Interstellar. NASA is in the movie but apparently after decades of further neglect, it is literally a shadow of even its present self.

Somehow, recent science fiction movies — Gravity being one exception — would make us believe that the majority of American astronauts are from the Midwest. Driving a John Deere when you are 12, being raised under big sky or in proximity to the home of the Wright Brothers would make you hell-bent to get out of Dodge and not just see the world but leave the planet. Matthew McConaughey adds to that persona.

Dr. Kip Thorne made it clear that black is not the primary hue of Black Holes. His guidance offered to Nolan raised science fiction to a new level.
Dr. Kip Thorne made it clear that black is not the primary hue of Black Holes. His guidance offered to Nolan raised science fiction to a new level. Image courtesy Paramount.

We are seemingly in the golden age of astronomy. At present, a science fiction movie with special effects can hardly match the imagery that European and American astronomy is delivering day after day. There is one of our planets that gets a very modest delivery in Interstellar. An undergraduate graphic artist could take hold of NASA imagery and outshine those scenes quite easily. However, it appears that Nolan did not see it necessary to out-do every scene of past sci-fi or every astronomy picture of the day (APOD) to make a great movie.

Nolan drew upon American astro-physicist Dr. Kip Thorne, an expert on Einstein’s General Relativity, to deliver a world-class presentation of possibly the most extraordinary objects in our Universe – black holes. It is fair to place Thorne alongside the likes of Sagan, Feynman, Clarke and Bradbury to advise and deliver wonders of the cosmos in compelling cinematic form. In Instellar, using a black hole in place of a star to hold a planetary system is fascinating and also a bit unbelievable. Whether life could persist in such a system is a open question. There is one scene that will distress most everyone in and around NASA that involves the Apollo Moon landings and one has to wonder if Thorne was pulling a good one on old NASA friends.

Great science fiction combines a vision of the future with a human story. McConaughey and family are pretty unassuming. John Lithgow, who plays grandpa, the retired farmer, doesn’t add much and some craggy old character actor would have been just fine. Michael Cane as the lead professor works well and Cane’s mastery is used to thicken and twist the plot. His role is not unlike the one in Children of Men. He creates bends in the plot that the rest of the cast must conform to.

There was one piece of advice I read in previews of Interstellar. See it in Imax format. So I ventured over to the Imax screening at the Technology Museum in Silicon Valley. I think this advice was half correct. The Earthly scenes gained little or nothing from Imax but once they were in outer space, Imax was the right stuff. Portraying a black hole and other celestial wonders is not easy for anyone including the greatest physicists of our era and Thorne and Nolan were right to use Imax format.

According to industry insiders, Nolan is one of a small group of directors with the clout to demand film recording rather than digital. Director Nolan used film and effects to give Interstellar a very earthy organic feel. That worked and scenes transitioned pretty well to the sublime of outer space. Interstellar now shares the theaters with another interesting movie with science fiction leanings. The Stephen Hawking biography, “The Theory of Everything” is getting very good reviews. They hold different ties to science and I suspect sci-fi lovers will be attracted to seeing both. With Interstellar, out just one full day and I ran into moviegoers that had already seen it more than once.

Where does Interstellar stand compared to Stanley Kubricks works? It doesn’t make that grade of science fiction that stands up as a century-class movie. However, Thorne’s and Nolan’s accounting of black holes and worm holes and the use of gravity is excellent. Instellar makes a 21st Century use of gravity in contrast to Gravity that was stuck in the 20th Century warning us to be careful where you park your space vehicle. In the end, Matthew McConaughey serves humanity well. Anne Hathaway plays a role not unlike Jody Foster in Contact – an intellectual but sympathetic female scientist.

Jessica Chastain playing the grown up daughter of McConaughey brings real angst and an edge to the movie; even Mackenzie Foy playing her part as a child. Call it the view ports for each character – they are short and narrow and Chastain uses hers very well. Matt Damon shows up in a modest but key role and does not disappoint. Nolan’s directing and filmography is impressive, not splashy but one is gripped by scenes. Filming in the small confines of spaceships and spacesuits is challenging and Nolan pulls it off very well. Don’t miss Interstellar in the theaters. It matches and exceeds the quality of several recent science fiction movies. Stepping back onto the street after the movie, the world seemed surprisingly comforting and I was glad to be back from the uncertain future Nolan created.

Sci-Fi Book Review: “Pilot” by R.D. Drabble

Pilot,” a new sci-fi thriller, follows law enforcement officer Legitt Redd, as he finds himself in the middle of an extraordinary set of circumstances. It is set in a solar system where humans occupy 6 life-supporting planets. Each planet has a different role to the civilisation, one being an energy source, another a prison, another a holiday destination, for example. Legitt is a low ranking officer whom serves for the oppressive government, ‘The Ministry.’ He is introduced as a fairly ordinary, uninspired man whose main duty is to transport prisoners to and from the Prison planet Gorby for processing. He has a long standing friendship and affiliation with one such prisoner – Afyd Geller whom has a reputation as a leader in the underworld and has the respect of many amongst law enforcement. Once a free man, Afyd often invites Leggit for drinking sessions. It‘s on one of these ordinary drinking sessions that the out-of-the-ordinary sequence of events begins. After a few adventure and violent encounters, they travel to the Litton where the apparent real figure head of the underworld resides. Leggit find out that the mythical ‘boogie man’ of child stories of old, Murlon Furlong is in fact a real person, and the all-powerful ruler of criminals.

Murlon sets Leggit, Afyd and other members of this motley crew, on a task to kidnap a spiritual leader. There is a back story of the civilisation’s theology which, in short includes the beginning of time and the eventual coming of salvation.

When this goes horribly wrong Legitt realises his true potential, and attempts to conquer Murlon and avoid swift and violent punishment of The Ministry. This means a whole lot more than he realises and intends the reader to question what is good and what is evil.

This book has great potential. Author R.D. Drabble paints pictures with his words, as if he can see them all around him. Initially this was inspiring to read. You can really imagine the frames in which Drabble was describing. But this positive is also a negative and too much visual description means at times it reads like a script, rather than a novel. There is only the present tense and only one story line, which leaves the reader feeling a bit flat with this one dimensional presentation of an otherwise interesting plot. It would have been a lot more enjoyable if there was a sub-plot or scenes that did not include the main character. Even though Leggit was in every scene, I still felt I didn’t have much insight into him as a character.

Having said that, there are definitely great moments. The technological creations and concepts found in Pilot are really inspiring. They seem to mix the spiritual human elements with technological fantasy. And the Drabble paints an Orwell-esque picture of the Ministry ruled worlds, and there were some phrases that were so poignant and poetic, that is will make you read them twice. The book starts of in a very certain black and white view of the world but progresses a grey outlook, at the same time that character Legitt questions his own morality in certain situations.

But these great moments are sandwiched between cliché, yet lovable characters and the many un-foreshadowed random unnecessary scenarios. There is an appendix of illustrations to support the story lines and backstories, but these don’t really add value or are explored.

Having said that it is clear that Drabble has an amazing amount of imagination. The 6 worlds and their stories are quiet intricate and to be honest, could be explored further in future books. I hope Drabble can express this obvious talent of imagination in future stories, especially if they are in comic or graphic novel format.

Overall, it’s a great read with some cool concepts.

R.D. Drabble is an electrician and science fiction fanatic who has had a lifelong obsession with the strange and inexplicable. It was his love for the unusual that inspired him to write his debut novel Pilot.

Pilot is available on Amazon.com and Lulu.com

Star Trek Teaser: “Into Darkness” Trailer Released

James T. Kirk and the crew of the Enterprise will be back for a second pre-quel of the young original Enterprise crew with next summer’s “Star Trek Into Darkness.” From this new teaser trailer just released today, it certainly looks dark, with lots of explosions, fight scenes, women screaming, Chris Pine’s Kirk having omnipresent cuts on his face, and what looks like a starship falling into an ocean.

The description of the film on the IMDb website:

After the crew of the Enterprise find an unstoppable force of terror from within their own organization, Captain Kirk leads a manhunt to a war-zone world to capture a one man weapon of mass destruction.

The bad guy (actor Benedict Cumberbatch) has a British accent (wasn’t that big in the 1960’s?) and rumors are starting to surface with Cumberbatch playing either a villain similar to the classic ‘Trek’ nemesis Gary Mitchell, who gains glassy eyes and superpowers and tries to take over the world in the second pilot episode “Where No Man Has Gone Before” for the 60’s TV series, or Khan, the genetically-engineered tyrant who first appeared in the original Trek TV series episode “Space Seed” but was killed in the “Star Trek II: Wrath of Khan” movie. So, in my mind, revisiting Khan would would cause the Trek world to get complicated.

But while the villain hasn’t yet been revealed, it is someone who “has returned,” so expect it to be a familiar name.

From the teaser, it appears all the main actors from the 2009 “Star Trek” film have returned, but does Spock have a new haircut?

A disclaimer: this was posted for all our Trek fans, so don’t complain that this isn’t space or astronomy news, because in our Trekkie minds it is space news.

Science Fiction Author Ray Bradbury Dies

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Author Ray Bradbury — who sent generations of readers on travels to fantastic future worlds — has died this morning in Los Angeles, at the age of 91.
Author of more than 27 novels and story collections, such as his famous “The Martian Chronicles,” the enduring “Fahrenheit 451,” “Dandelion Wine” and “Something Wicked This Way Comes,”and more than 600 short stories, the influential Bradbury has been credited with bringing a bit of class to science fiction, helping to move the sometimes maligned genre into the real literature.

In a podcast on the 365 Days of Astronomy, Bradbury said that he wanted to be buried on Mars.

“I don’t want to be the first live person to arrive there,” he said. “It’ll be too late. But I want to be the first dead person that gets there. I want to arrive in a Campbell’s soup can. Bury me on Mars in thing called the Bradbury Abyss. They gotta name a place on Mars for me, and I will welcome that.”

Bradbury definitely needs to have a place on Mars named after him.

Bradbury wrote this advice in “Fahrenheit 451”: “Stuff your eyes with wonder, live as if you’d drop dead in 10 seconds. See the world. It’s more fantastic than any dream.”

Ray Douglas Bradbury was born Aug. 22, 1920, in Waukegan, Illinois and used the ambiance of small time life to enhance his fiction.

“When I was born in 1920,” he told the New York Times Magazine in 2000, “the auto was only 20 years old. Radio didn’t exist. TV didn’t exist. I was born at just the right time to write about all of these things.”

Bradbury will be missed.

The sad news came via i09.

Visions of the Cosmos: The Enduring Space Art of David A. Hardy

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For over 50 years, award-winning space and astronomy artist David A. Hardy has taken us to places we could only dream of visiting. His career started before the first planetary probes blasted off from Earth to travel to destinations in our solar system and before space telescopes viewed distant places in our Universe. It is striking to view his early work and to see how accurately he depicted distant vistas and landscapes, and surely, his paintings of orbiting space stations and bases on the Moon and Mars have inspired generations of hopeful space travelers.

Hardy published his first work in 1952 when he was just 15. He has since illustrated and produced covers for dozens of science and science fiction books and magazines. He has written and illustrated his own books and has worked with astronomy and space legends like Patrick Moore, Arthur C. Clarke, Carl Sagan, Wernher von Braun, and Isaac Asimov. His work has been exhibited around the world, including at the National Air & Space Museum in Washington, D.C. which houses two of his paintings.

Universe Today is proud to announce that Hardy has helped us update the banner at the top of our website (originally designed by Christopher Sisk) to make it more astronomically accurate.

Hardy has also recently debuted his own new website where visitors can peruse and learn more about his work, and buy prints and other items.

We had the chance to talk with Hardy about his enduring space art and career:

'Skiing on Europa' by David A. Hardy, 1981. Used by permission.

Universe Today: When you first started your space art, there weren’t images from Voyager, Cassini, Hubble, etc. to give you ideas for planetary surfaces and colored space views. What was your inspiration?

David Hardy: I got to look through a telescope when I was about 16. You only have to see the long shadows creeping across a lunar crater to know that this is a world. But I also found the book ‘The Conquest of Space‘ in my local library, and Chesley Bonestell’s photographic paintings of the Moon and planets just blew me away! I knew that I wanted to produce pictures that would show people what it’s really like out there — not just as rather blurry discs of light through a telescope.

UT: And now that we have such spacecraft sending back amazing images, how has that changed your art, or how have the space images inspired you?

Hardy: I was lucky to start when I did, because in 1957 we had Sputnik, and then the exploration of space really started. We started getting photos of the Earth from space, and of the Moon from probes and orbiters, then of Mars, and eventually from the outer planets. Each of these made it possible to produce better and more realistic and accurate paintings of these worlds.

'Ferry Rocket and Space Station' by David A. Hardy. Used by permission. Hardy’s description: ‘A wheel-shaped space station as designed by Wernher von Braun, and a dumbbell-shaped deep-space vehicle designed by Arthur C. Clarke to travel out to Mars and beyond. The only photographs of the Earth from space at this time were a few black-and-white ones from captured German V-2s.’

UT: We are amazed at your early work — you were so young and doing such amazing space art! How does it feel to have inspired several generations of people? — Surely your art has driven many to say, “I want to go there!”

Hardy: I certainly hope so — that was the idea! In 1954 I met the astronomer Patrick Moore, who asked me to illustrate a new book in 1954, and we have continued to work together until the present day. Back then we wanted to so a sort of British version of The Conquest of Space, which we called ‘The Challenge of the Stars.’ In the 1950s we couldn’t find a publisher — they all said it was ‘too speculative!’ But a book with that title was published in 1972; ironically (and unbelievably), just when humans visited the Moon for the last time. We had hoped that the first Moon-landings would lead to a base, and that we would go on to Mars, but for all sorts of reasons (mainly political) this never happened. In 2004 Patrick and I produced a book called ‘Futures: 50 Years in Space,’ celebrating our 50 years together. It was subtitled: ‘The Challenge of the Stars: What we thought then –What we know now.’

I quite often find that younger space artists tell me they were influenced by The Challenge of the Stars, just as I was influenced by The Conquest of Space, and this is a great honour.

'Mars From Deimos' 1956. Credit: David A. Hardy. Used by permission. Hardy's description: 'The dumbell-shaped spaceship (designed by Arthur C. Clarke) shown in the previous 'space station' image has arrived, touching down lightly in the low gravity of Mars's little outer moon, Deimos. The polar cap is clearly visible, and at that time it was still considered possible that the dark areas on Mars were caused by vegetation, fed by the melting caps. On the right of the planet is Phobos, the inner moon.'

UT: What places on Earth have most inspired your art?

Hardy: I’m a past President (and now European VP) of the International Association of Astronomical Artists (IAAA; www.iaaa.org), and we hold workshops in the most ‘alien’ parts of Planet Earth. Through these I have been to the volcanoes of Hawaii and Iceland, to Death Valley CA, the Grand Canyon and Meteor Crater, AZ, to Nicaragua. . . all of these provide not just inspiration but analogues of other worlds like Mars, Io or Triton, so that we can make our work more believable and authentic — as well as more beautiful, hopefully.

UT: How has technology changed how you do your work?

Hardy: I have always kept up with new technology, making use of xeroxes, photography (I used to do all my own darkroom work and processing), and most recently computers. I got an Atari ST with 512k (yes, K!) of RAM in 1986, and my first Mac in 1991. I use Photoshop daily, but I use hardly any 3D techniques, apart from Terragen to produce basic landscapes and Poser for figures. I do feel that 3D digital techniques can make art more impersonal; it can be difficult or impossible to know who created it! And I still enjoy painting in acrylics, especially large works on which I can use ‘impasto’ –laying on paint thickly with a palette knife and introducing textures that cannot be produced digitally!

'Antares 2' by David A. Hardy, shows a landscape looking up at the red supergiant star, which we see in Scorpio and is one of the biggest and brightest stars known. It has a small bluish companion, Antares B.

UT: Your new website is a joy to peruse — how does technology/the internet help you to share your work?

Hardy: Thank you. It is hard now to remember how we used to work when we were limited to sending work by mail, or faxing sketches and so on. The ability to send first a low-res jpeg for approval, and then a high-res one to appear in a book or on a magazine cover, is one of the main advantages, and indeed great joys, of this new technology.

UT: I imagine an artist as a person working alone. However, you are part of a group of artists and are involved heavily in the Association of Science Fiction and Fantasy Artists. How helpful is it to have associations with fellow artists?

Hardy: It is true that until 1988, when I met other IAAA artists (both US, Canadian and, then, Soviet, including cosmonaut Alexei Leonov) in Iceland I had considered myself something of a lone wolf. So it was almost like ‘coming out of the closet’ to meet other artists who were on the same wavelength, and could exchange notes, hints and tips.

'Ice Moon' by David Hardy. Used by permission.

UT: Do you have a favorite image that you’ve created?

Hardy: Usually the last! Which in this case is a commission for a metre-wide painting on canvas called ‘Ice Moon’. I put this on Facebook, where it has received around 100 comments and ‘likes’ — all favourable, I’m glad to say. It can be seen there on my page, or on my own website, www.astroart.org (UT note: this is a painting in acrylics on stretched canvas, with the description,”A blue ice moon of a gas giant, with a derelict spaceship which shouldn’t look like a spaceship at first glance.”)

UT: Anything else you feel is important for people to know about your work?

Hardy: I do feel that it’s quite important for people to understand the difference between astronomical or space art, and SF (‘sci-fi’) or fantasy art. The latter can use a lot more imagination, but often contains very little science — and often gets it quite wrong. I also produce a lot of SF work, which can be seen on my site, and have done around 70 covers for ‘The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction’ since 1971, and many for ‘Analog’. I’m Vice President of the Association of Science Fiction & Fantasy Artists (ASFA; www.asfa-art.org ) too. But I always make sure that my science is right! I would also like to see space art more widely accepted in art galleries, and in the Art world in general; we do tend to feel marginalised.

UT: Thank you for providing Universe Today with a more “accurate” banner — we really appreciate your contribution to our site!

Hardy: My pleasure.

See more at Hardy’s website, AstroArt or his Facebook page. Click on any of the images here to go directly to Hardy’s website for more information on each.

Here’s a list of the books Hardy has written and/or illustrated.

The Leonids over Stonhenge by David A. Hardy. Used by permission

Warp Drives May Come With a Killer Downside

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Planning a little space travel to see some friends on Kepler 22b? Thinking of trying out your newly-installed FTL3000 Alcubierre Warp Drive to get you there in no time? Better not make it a surprise visit — your arrival may end up disintegrating anyone there when you show up.

“Warp” technology and faster-than-light (FTL) space travel has been a staple of science fiction for decades. The distances in space are just so vast and planetary systems — even within a single galaxy — are spaced so far apart, such a concept is needed to make casual human exploration feasible (and fit within the comforts of people’s imagination as well… nobody wants to think about Kirk and Spock bravely going to some alien planet while everyone they’ve ever known dies of old age!)

While many factors involving FTL travel are purely theoretical — and may remain in the realm of imagination for a very long time, if not ever — there are some concepts that play well with currently-accepted physics.

Warp field according to the Alcubierre drive. (AllenMcC.)

The Alcubierre warp drive is one of those concepts.

Proposed by Mexican theoretical physicist Miguel Alcubierre in 1994, the drive would propel a ship at superluminal speeds by creating a bubble of negative energy around it, expanding space (and time) behind the ship while compressing space in front of it. In much the same way that a surfer rides a wave, the bubble of space containing the ship and its passengers would be pushed at velocities not limited to the speed of light toward a destination.

Of course, when the ship reaches its destination it has to stop. And that’s when all hell breaks loose.

Researchers from the University of Sydney have done some advanced crunching of numbers regarding the effects of FTL space travel via Alcubierre drive, taking into consideration the many types of cosmic particles that would be encountered along the way. Space is not just an empty void between point A and point B… rather, it’s full of particles that have mass (as well as some that do not.) What the research team — led by Brendan McMonigal, Geraint Lewis, and Philip O’Byrne — has found is that these particles can get “swept up” into the warp bubble and focused into regions before and behind the ship, as well as within the warp bubble itself.

When the Alcubierre-driven ship decelerates from superluminal speed, the particles its bubble has gathered are released in energetic outbursts. In the case of forward-facing particles the outburst can be very energetic — enough to destroy anyone at the destination directly in front of the ship.

“Any people at the destination,” the team’s paper concludes, “would be gamma ray and high energy particle blasted into oblivion due to the extreme blueshifts for [forward] region particles.”

In other words, don’t expect much of a welcome party.

Another thing the team found is that the amount of energy released is dependent on the length of the superluminal journey, but there is potentially no limit on its intensity.

“Interestingly, the energy burst released upon arriving at the destination does not have an upper limit,” McMonigal told Universe Today in an email. “You can just keep on traveling for longer and longer distances to increase the energy that will be released as much as you like, one of the odd effects of General Relativity. Unfortunately, even for very short journeys the energy released is so large that you would completely obliterate anything in front of you.”

So how to avoid disintegrating your port of call? It may be as simple as just aiming your vessel a bit off to the side… or, it may not. The research only focused on the planar space in front of and behind the warp bubble; deadly postwarp particle beams could end up blown in all directions!

Luckily for Vulcans, Tatooinians and any acquaintances on Kepler 22b, the Alcubierre warp drive is still very much theoretical. While the mechanics work with Einstein’s General Theory of Relativity, the creation of negative energy densities is an as-of-yet unknown technology — and may be impossible.

Which could be a very good thing for us, should someone out there be planning a surprise visit our way!

 

Read more about Alcubierre warp drives here, and you can download the full University of Sydney team’s research paper here.

Thanks to Brendan McMonigal and Geraint Lewis for the extra information!

Main image © Paramount Pictures and CBS Studios. All rights reserved.