Saturday, August 6, 2011

Saving the World: Redux

Headlines read “ASTEROID ON COLLISION COURSE WITH EARTH!” Before people start forming cults and building underground shelters, the government comes on all network channels to allay everyone’s fears. A rocket, obviously not the Space Shuttle, is on its way to fix the problem.

What do they have: an atomic bomb, a strap-on rocket, a powerful laser, or Bruce Willis and his crew? No, they have “smart foil.” Huh? You heard what I said. Smart Foil. I mention this device in my book Transmat World where it is used to steer slugs of lunar regolith into position in orbit around the Moon. In the book, it is already wrapped around its payload before it is launched from the Moon’s surface--very neat, very efficient. Once in orbit, this film covering the load changes its albedo selectively from black to a mirror finish on different parts of the load to “herd” it into its proper position using the pressure of photons from the sun. After all the loads are in one spot, they are...hey, wait a minute, that’s for another post. Let’s get back to Smart Foil.

It will be a little more difficult getting this Smart Foil onto the surface of an approaching asteroid. Our NASA rocket has delivered a payload that is now approaching the asteroid. The payload begins to spin about its longitudinal axis. The outer panels come off. Twelve or more weights on tethers begin to spool out from the payload. At some point the outer edges of the Smart Foil begin to appear and spread in a circular geometry. The tethers run all the way to the center of the circle of Smart Foil. Likewise, a strand of the same stout material runs around the perimeter of the Smart Foil and at intermediate points resembling a spider web in structure. This is to keep the more fragile Smart Foil intact as it engages and wraps around the asteroid. The weights on their tethers act much as the bolas used by South American gauchos. As they wrap around their target, they become entangled and hold the Smart Foil in place around the asteroid.

This is not a far-fetched scenario and here’s why. Because of its simplicity of construction, we will custom construct this device to match the size of the asteroid. We will know the direction of rotation of the asteroid and how fast it is going, so the payload will rotate accordingly. We can simulate the contact sequence to figure out how long the tethers must be to properly engage and fasten the Smart Foil to the asteroid. Let’s now get on to the hard part--the foil itself.

Properly speaking, it may not be a “foil” at all. It may be simply a plastic film. In fact, at this point in our technology, it would most likely be similar to an OLED; organic light-emitting diode. This OLED would be sprayed onto a flexible substrate and attached to an absolute paucity of chips to do the job it needs to do. Basically, the circuitry will include some kind of inertial solar system guidance system and controls over what portion of the Smart Foil will absorb light and what portion will reflect light in order to guide the asteroid away from its collision course with Earth. The Earth is saved! Thank you! Thank you! Please quiet down; there’s more.

We will, or at least should, have this technology developed before it is needed. Humankind’s demands on Earth for raw materials will eventually outstrip the Earth’s ability to deliver. With this technology we can send out these intelligent tarps to round up material in our solar system and bring it back to orbit around the Earth where it can be more easily accessed. It beats the heck out of lugging mining equipment all the way to the asteroid belt to look for stuff, mine it, then transport it back--expensive and risky. It will wind up being one of the simple tools for the complicated job of keeping mankind from going the way of the dinosaur.

Not only can this device go get material from space, it may be the tool to allow us access to space. Unfortunately, space debris has become a serious impediment to the future of all space programs. Particularly troublesome are the large pieces. These range from rocket parts to defunct satellites. You can't just blow them apart because that just creates more debris. The ideal solution is to bring them down to burn up in the Earth's atmosphere. This type of application is where Smart Foil shines. Fifteen thousand objects weighing more than 220 pounds make up 98% of space debris by mass. There is a fear of these objects colliding and breaking into smaller pieces. SpaceX's new spacecraft, the Falcon Heavy, is scheduled to launch this year. With a payload of 117,000 pounds it could carry a swarm of miniature Smart Foil modules into space to take down the most serious of these orbital debris problems at the rate of about 250 pieces per launch. Six launches, the number of manned lunar missions, would eliminate 98% of space junk.

Transmat World begins with a description of the effects of a large asteroid strike. It is one of the most well-researched, vivid, and exciting depictions of an asteroid strike that you will ever read. The book is out right now on Amazon. To read a couple of chapters click here: Transmat World

Glen Hendrix, author Transmat World

1 comment:

  1. I'm totally jazzed. Blazing fast narrative fiction, which could very well really happen, wrapped in the technology to deal with the threat. I love the novel's hip, vivid narrative style that doesn't get too fancified, and puts you right in the action. This Glen Hendrix is for real!