Science for Scifi: Breaking Into Orbit

Rockets are expensive. Not only are they limited by the weight of their fuel, but also by their cargo capacity and reusability. While commercial entities like SpaceX and Virgin Galactic have been unveiling new systems that promise alternative ways of reaching low orbit or reusing rockets, there are still a lot of limitations that prevent space travel from becoming ubiquitous in the short term.

This is not necessarily a bad thing. Space flight does not have to be easier for good scifi, in fact, I would argue that it should be hard. It helps to impose limits on the characters and promote conflict. A thriving space industry could still be expensive and thus impose limits on who goes to space and why.

That said, once your setting is to the point where colonies throughout the solar system are becoming viable I think that it’s time to start exploring other ways of getting to orbit. I think rockets will always have a place, but forms of mass transit will make the entire endeavor a lot easier.

Space Elevators

Orbital elevators are a staple of science fiction. How it works is that a giant tether is built connecting the surface of a planet to a station in orbit. The tether is then held taught, allowing elevators to move up and down its length.

One of the primary challenges with an elevator is making a material strong enough to build the tether in enough quantities to make it work. A lot of authors choose to use some kind of carbon allotrope and this part might require you to invent your own very special flavor of carbon fiber or synthetic diamond. Remember that the tether will need to be much, much thicker than you think it will need to be.

My favorite part about this concept is that it allows a world to have regular trips to orbit and back in an environment that might resemble a modern airport or train station. Elevator pods could have large cargo areas and multiple passenger areas divided into economy, business, and first-class. You could have observation windows and restaurants. All the trappings of comfort or the lack thereof.

An elevator is probably best in a setting where space travel has become common enough for such a project to be profitable. A single planet will likely only have one or two placed in neutral or autonomous regions or controlled by a specific faction. Of course, the resources needed to build one might limit which worlds have a space elevator and which do not. If your setting involves multiple star systems it is likely that only the most developed of them will have one.

It goes without saying that such a large piece of infrastructure will make a very tempting target. If destroyed an elevator could cause immense damage to any settlements built around its base and cripple and the economies of multiple factions in a given system.


For worlds that are not yet capable of a project as massive as a space elevator but still need regular surface-to-orbit transit, skyhooks may be the perfect solution.

You can think of a skyhook like a satellite that spins as they travel along the edge of the atmosphere. Its hook can latch onto craft flying in the upper atmosphere and accelerate them into orbit, and can also grab craft in orbit and bring them down into the atmosphere.

These are a good in-between stage between rockets and elevators for travel and could probably be set up a lot faster than a full-sized space elevator could. Which would make them perfect for worlds with some orbital traffic but not enough for a full elevator. Or they could be an option for planetary factions that do not want to rely on a space elevator that someone else owns. Or in instances where orbital infrastructure needs to be set up quickly. I’ll talk about a possible scenario for that in the next section.

An Invasion Scenario

Surface combat in the far future is likely to be small-scale and asymmetric. There isn’t much use in landing millions of ground troops when ships in orbit can turn a continent into radioactive glass. But we seem to crave depictions of ground-based combat anyway.

Let’s say a planet is host to an environment that is hospitable to humans or contains some vital piece of infrastructure that would be destroyed in a bombardment and that this necessitates the use of ground forces on a large scale. The first wave of troops could be brought to the surface with a combination of capsules and landers that glide down through the atmosphere much as the space shuttle did. Some of these crafts might be designed to return to orbit with a variety of energy-intensive designs. Since we all know that military objectives beat concerns like cost and efficiency any day.

If the planet already has extensive orbital infrastructure, which it probably does if its world attacking, these initial forces would work to establish beachheads and try to capture any space elevators that might be present. The attack on a space elevator could very well commence on both ends since it would be hard to use if the people at the other end of the tether were waiting to shoot you as soon as the door opens.

But perhaps the space elevator was destroyed or the planet really doesn’t have the infrastructure. Once landing sites are secured, ships in orbit could deploy prefabbed skyhooks to provide the infrastructure of occupation. From that point on if the locals continued to resist the war would probably resemble something like the conflicts in Vietnam or Afghanistan. Massed tanks and infantry make for awesome illustrations but are nothing a few “rods from God” couldn’t fix. In the long term, the construction of a new space elevator could be seen as the ultimate mark of ownership of the planet. A massive, sprawling symbol that the invaders are there to stay.

Further Reading (And Watching)

I realize that this post is less technical than previous Science for SciFi entries. I chose to do this because I am not a physicist nor am I an aerospace engineer. Instead, I wanted to highlight a few interesting concepts in science fiction and point you all towards some resources that can be an inspiration for your next story of a planetary invasion. If you liked this content consider supporting it by signing up for my newsletter or exploring my page of recommended products on Amazon.

For a start, Atomic Rockets is a great site for anyone who wants to dig into the physics of science fiction and learn how science has been incorporated into many great science fiction classics. For a fun and straightforward explanation of skyhooks, you can look to Kurtzgesagt on Youtube. The same channel also has a great explanation of space elevators.

Science for SciFi: Peer Review

When a research project reaches completion, the investigators often write up their results in a peer-reviewed journal. Once the investigators decide what journal is most appropriate for their research, they submit their paper, if the editor of the journal decides that the research has merit and is a good fit for the journal, they begin the peer review process.

For many scientists, the peer review process can be stressful and drawn out, sometimes for all parties involved. But the peer review process, despite its faults, is vital to ensuring that honest, quality research gets published.

It’s also likely to be a major source of stress for the scientists in your novel.

There are A LOT of memes about Reviewer 2 out there. Source

Article Anatomy

Each publisher and journal will have its own formatting guidelines. These are the essential bits. Sometimes results and discussion will be a single section and not separate.

Abstract – in science we pack the conclusions into the headline. Abstracts vary in length but are normally about a paragraph. An abstract’s job is to convince someone to read the entire article and to help put what follows into context. Writing an abstract is hard, in just a few sentences you need to explain why the research matters, how it was done, and what conclusions were made.

Introduction – this is (for me) the most fun part of the article to write. The introduction explains the basic principles of an article. An introduction should explain the motivations behind the research and what gap the research aims to fill.

Experimental/Materials and Methods – every journal puts this section in a different place within the article. For someone interested in learning the impact of the research this section is fairly boring, for someone who wants to judge how reliable the data is or replicate certain techniques, this section is essential. Experimental contains a list of what tools and materials were used, who manufactured them, and how they were prepared.

Results- this section explains the collected data in excruciating detail. The data is often supplemented by a variety of graphs and other diagrams.

Discussion – here is where the authors get to explain what the data means. This section is filled with explanation and interpretation.

Conclusion – these are short. Almost as short as the abstract. A conclusion should be short and sweet.

References – any claim that is not common knowledge for the audience or data gained from the research needs to be cited. This might include established experimental techniques, general background information, mathematical formulas, computer code, and so on.

How To Read An Article

How you read an article will depend on what you are trying to get from it. If you are trying to discern the salient points you will probably read the abstract to decide if you care about it. Then maybe the introduction, then the discussion and conclusion.

If you want to explain how the authors reached those conclusions you will spend a lot of time reading the experimental and results sections. You will want to know what they did, understand why, and try and see where the project’s weak points are. This can take a good deal of time and may require multiple readings of a single article.

If you want to know the current state of the field, then a single research article just won’t do. You might find many other sources from the reference list at the end of the article, but you’ll quickly find yourself falling down a rabbit hole. If you are new to a field, you will want to find a review article. A review article is meant to summarize the current state of a given field or subfield and will highlight that field’s important developments. These articles may have hundreds of references.

The Review Process

Once the authors submit a paper, the first thing the editor does is decide whether the article is suitable for their publication. Basically, does it fit the focus of the publication and does it have a large enough impact? Some journals are “high-impact” and some are not. But that is a discussion for another day.

If the paper makes it past this stage the article is sent to a set of reviewers. These reviewers are chosen because they are experts in the field. They are the authors’ “peers” and are likely to have the knowledge needed to evaluate the quality of the research.

These experts comment on the experiments, the data, and may suggest changes that need to be made before the paper is ready for publication. This is where many of the Reviewer 2 memes originate. Authors may often feel that a reviewer’s comments are unreasonable, or that they are trying to manipulate the authors for their own benefit. The good news here is that authors can respond to reviewer comments, and if they can convince the editor that the comments have been addressed then the article can be published.

The key thing to remember is that just because an article has gone through peer review does not mean that it is free of mistakes. A research article is the result of the best possible measurements and analyses that were possible at the time. Peer review means that a small group of experts has decided that the research has merit and that it is free of major flaws.

This doesn’t mean that there are no mistakes, that there is not a larger picture, or that better analysis or measurements won’t be done in the future. A single research paper tells just one small part of a larger journey of discovery.

Emotional Costs

The impact of one single paper is likely to be minuscule, but to the authors, it might well be everything. PI’s (principal investigators) are often established, professors. The other authors, however, are likely students. These students spend years working on a project that might result in just a handful of papers. For these students, the process can be very draining. No matter how “small” the project may be in the grand scheme of things, it has, by the time of publication, been a major part of their life.

For many in academia, publishing is everything. Publishing is how graduate students build a resume. And it’s how many professors achieve tenure. Research activity is frequently measured in publications and grants.


There are a lot of ways to write a scientist’s motivations. But based on what we have just talked about above I will provide a few examples. The examples in this list are for creative purposes only. These are WRITING PROMPTS, not recommendations or endorsements.

  • After years of “publish or perish” the character sees their self-worth only in terms of publications. They frequently overwork themselves and lose sleep in order to make progress.
  • Eager to increase their number of publications, the character divides their research into smaller and smaller chunks to get more papers out. This practice is sometimes called “salami slicing.” It’s frowned upon, but they hope that most observers will only see the publication count and not look much deeper.
  • Desperate to publish in a high-profile journal, the character begins to falsify or omit data. After getting away with it multiple times they think they are safe. Then, several years later, they are found out and their career crumbles around them.
  • The rat race of academia is too much. Fed up with the constant publish or perish mentality, the character decides to take a post at a teaching-focused institution. They publish a paper every few years, but what they really care about are the lives of the students they help shape.

Further Reading

I don’t have any book recomendations about the peer review process. However, peer review and publishing play big roles in the lives of scientists. So here are a couple books where you can learn about the history of science and the people who do it.

Planet_Insert Name

I’ve been working on a new setting. It’s a grimdark science fantasy setting inspired by Frank Herbert’s Dune. I will not offer specifics at this time.

But I have had ideas for a planet. A planet that is relatively young and dominated by volcanoes and magma flows. This planet is called Corsan.

The humans on this planet care most about the valuable ores that are continuously pushed to the surface by the constant eruptions. The ruling class live in large citadels, anchored to the planet’s crush by deep pylons.

From their citadels they reap the profits of an army of slave and convict workers who are forced to work the dangerous lava fields. These workers are in turn watched over by an army of cloned janissaries.

Five years from now I will be free.

Five years from now I will walk into the Overseer’s office.

Five years from now I will receive my pittance.

Five years from now I will leave.

Five years from now I will go somewhere cold.

Five years from now I will be free.

Miner 44-0372 died in a sudden pyroclastic event 4 days after writing this.

Constant eruptions make mining easy, and this planet excels in the production of weapons and ships. But this planet’s population remains low. Too low to risk open war.

What scares the rest of the Empire is this world’s willingness to depend on clone soldiers.

Clone is not the right word, but the best word. The Citadels do not just grow soldiers. They grow servants and maids and gardeners and whatever else they need. These clones are very expensive, which is why House Gravin refuses to use clones in the mines.

To do this they do not draw on any one genome. They pick and choose from the specimens that enter their prisons. Because of this their clones are not true clones. Their clones are amalgams of those who pass through. From one batch to the next there are subtle differences introduced by the engineers. But no matter the differences all are unflinchingly loyal to House Gravin.

The most concerning part of this is therefor not the number of clone soldiers, but the potential of the clone soldiers if House Gravin ever decides to grow more.

So why does this planet matter?

Well, it doesn’t. Not in intrinsic worth at least. House Gravin buys criminals from other houses. These criminals are then set to work in House Gravin’s mine for a much shorter term than they would have served otherwise. But the real value is in the genes.

House Gracin depends on cloned soldiers. Something that most other houses would not want to risk. By bringing in greater amounts of genetic stock the House’s gene wizards have more choices to choose from.

There are some places on this planet that remain free. Escaped prisoners and occasional escaped clones have found refuge in the poles of the planet. In these relatively cool areas they have made their home in the empty magma tubes. They sell ore to smugglers and hunt native insectoid lifeforms for sustenance. Their lives are hard, but they live their lives the way they want to.

House Gravin is brutal, but I think I could imagine brutal-er. This setting is still in its early phases, and there is a lot of room to grow. What kind of house would you imagine? Let me know on twitter @expyblg.

Pirates…In Space!

Who doesn’t love a good brigand? Whether they are a robinhoodesque crusader or someone who is only looking out for number one, we seem to love pirates. So what about pirates in space? A lot of science fiction seems to treat space like an ocean. There are plenty of reasons to love these tropes, but they do present a challenge for worldbuilding. There is no reason why your science fiction can’t have hordes of swashbuckling brigands, but you should still attempt design your world in such a way that allows their escapades to make sense.

Treasure Planet had a wonderful age of sail aesthetic. Unfortunately, it does require a lot of worldbuilding to make believable. Source

For piracy to exist there needs to be something that is worth moving before star systems. Travel between planets, or even star systems, would be horrendously expensive, dangerous, and may take years depending on what kind of FTL your universe has. With so many risks inherent in moving goods from one place to another there has to be some reward.

In order for piracy to work there need to be reasons for a ship to stop. False distress calls are one way to do this, but might quickly reach its limit. The other way is to create a universe where FLT is accessible but still has logical choke points. There are a few ways to make this work. Portals are the easiest.

Portals provide natural choke point. Areas where ships have to pass through in order to get from on planet to then other. In the case of The Protectorate or Star Gate this is somewhat artificial. But in a setting like the one we see in The Interdependency naturally occurring portals can be found. Here Scalzi presents a universe where ships are able to travel between stars thanks to what amounts to a series of interstellar tunnels that still require large chunks of travel time between portal and planet. While traveling between portal and planet, a ship may fall victim to pirates or to mutiny, but one would hope that designated exit points would allow the navy to keep a close eye on affairs.

Another option for navigation to be difficult enough that everyone uses the same well mapped trade routes. Star Wars works this way. In Star Wars, or at least in Legends, trade is focused on a series of major hyperspace lanes. This means that finding new hyperspace lanes or knowing of secret ones has incredible value, and that a blockade of a given lane or the ability to intercept ships in transit can wreak havoc with the local or even galactic economy. While pirates are not likely to have the ability to stop ships in transit, common and well traveled routes makes travel predictable and gives pirates the opportunity to intercept ships as they drop out of FTL.

Star Wars features well mapped trade routes and interdictor ships capable of pulling vessels out of hyperspace. It makes finding new or secret routes an important plot point, even if travel times seem a little too brief. Source

Now that we’ve covered how goods might be moved between planets, let’s talk about the why. What could be worth flying between stars?

Information can be transmitted between stars, and even if data needs to be moved on some physical media there is not really a reason to send a person instead of a drone. A story about software pirates would be hard to pull off, so we need a universe where moving physical goods between stars is worth the immense costs and risks that come with it.

Ideally, every new colony will be founded with the goal of one day being self-sufficient. Over time the settle core of systems should become major producers of food, finished goods, and raw materials, and this settled core should then be connected to the newer colonies by a network of trade routes designed to prop these new colonies up until they can support themselves. This begs the question of why the core planets care about founding and propping up these new colonies. For this reason I think for most pirate settings it helps to assume that trade occurs between a mix of developed worlds and struggling colonies, that colonies are set up with the goal of producing a specific resource, and that monopolies prevent many colonies from becoming fully self-sufficient.

Now let’s go through some good space piracy tactics. Assuming that colonies are dependent on their home worlds for support.

  • Distress Calls – space is huge, and dangerous. If a ship malfunctions in transit there might be little chance of rescue or of witnesses. A distress cal would not be out of place, and might even be seen by less than scrupulous captains as an opportunity for some illicit sabotage. All our pirates need for the ruse to be convincing is a an appropriately derelict ship. Once within range the pirates will be free to disable the approaching ship, or wait until a salvage team boards and can be taken hostage.
  • Sabotage – the easiest and safest way for pirates to operate would be to have contacts back on the home world. A few port workers on the payroll could ensure that incoming freighters come loaded with all manner of malfunction. Then when a freighter’s engines fail and its left drifting in space our favorites brigands will approach ready to “help.”
  • Mutiny – a mutiny could happen for a variety of reasons. The crew could be under paid and overworked, or could have cut a deal to steal their ship’s munitions cargo and sell them to local rebels, or might be trying to steal the ship’s load of vital pharmaceuticals to help their families instead of the local oligarchs. Mixing motives here offers opportunities to put a mix of corrupt and sympathetic characters in the ranks of the mutineers and play their conflicting personalties against each other.
  • Ambush – many flavors of FTL result in natural choke points. This is especially true if portals are involved. Incoming ships would have little idea of what is actually waiting for them just beyond the portal’s exit, and would have to trust in local security. In developed systems the jumping off point will likely be well policed, but worlds that exist on the periphery are much more likely to experience gaps in protection. FTL systems that require cool down times will result in similar, but likely more dispersed choke points. This gives pirates an opportunity to ply their craft with less threat of detection. Although locating targets would be more difficult in this situation.
  • Privateers – people love to make money and governments love to save costs if they can. Disrupting an enemy’s supply lines can be hugely advantageous, but in the vast expanse of space no force will be able to be everywhere at once. Privateers offer a low cost option to hinder the enemy’s activities without putting a faction’s own ships at risk. There are other advantages as well. In a setting where spaces are vast and travel times long, armed conflicts could go on for decades. Employing privateers allows governments to put distance between themselves and the actions they take against rival factions.

There are almost certainly other strategies for our space pirates that I have over looked. Technological advancements would surely create new opportunities for our brigands. If you have any ideas for how pirates could work in the far future I would love to hear about them on twitter @expyblog.

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Dreadnought Approaching

“Captain! Martian dreadnought approaching! Camera four!”
Captain Davis pulled into his chair and fastened the tethers that would hold him there if the ship had to make any sudden maneuvers. “Faction identification?”
“No beacon sir. Still waiting on a report from Optics, but no visible markings.”
“Crap.” Davis switched his console to the number four camera and a silvery dot appeared on his screen against the emptiness of space. “How long until it gets within range?”
“Six minutes.”
“And the Portsmouth? How far out is it?”
“Eight minutes.”
Davis swore. He had allowed their escort to go too far from them. They’d be sure to regret not having the cruiser and its guns if the dreadnaught came within firing range. “Get ready to hail them. All frequencies.” He turned to his left and selected a prerecorded message in eleven martian dialects, all demanding to know the dreadnaught’s intentions.
Davis resolved not to wait for the radio waves to go across the space between them and back. “Put the ship on alert, and call back the Portsmouth. Are the spitfires fueled?”
“Almost. Forty-two are reported ready, twenty-two still in progress. Autocannons are all loaded.”
Davis nodded to himself. Had the dreadnought appeared earlier during their test flights they would have been defenseless. “Launch all of our fighters.”
The alert aircraft took off immediately, becoming blips on the ship’s radar screen. Davis was relieved to see his untested crew working without hiccups as they readied the other spitfires for launch.
Meanwhile, the minutes ticked by with no response from the dreadnought. Davis hoped that theirs was a chance encounter, but he knew the odds of that. The space around them was completely devoid of anything of value. That was why they had picked it. It was a place to test Earth’s new carrier away from prying eyes.
“Two minutes.”
Still no response from the dreadnought. “And the Portsmouth?”
“Four minutes.”
Davis looked back to view of the dreadnought on his console. It was now close enough for him to begin to make out more details of its design. Like most martian ships it resembled a slab of iron with an engine strapped to one end. On its hull was an assortment of weapons clusters, sensor arrays, and docked support craft that looked like off-color pixels on his display.
Davis knew that in a one-on-one fight the carrier would be outgunned by the dreadnought. Their ship was designed to carry and support fighters, not exchange broadsides. He also knew that many of their spitfires would be lost to martian point defense canons. Space combat was still new to humans, while martians had over a century experience. His pilots would be turning theory into practice as they went. It was going to get a lot of them killed.
“One minute.”
Davis glanced at the blips on the radar screen. All of them were waiting for his orders. If he hesitated any longer the dreadnought would be on top of them.