Friday, September 26, 2014

Between the Stars

 Soundtrack: [1]

Space is a big place, and the challenges of negotiating such enormous distances are staggering. While mankind long since been mastered interplanetary travel, thanks to the advent of the quantum thruster, humanity is interstellar exploits span only a few generations.

Subluminal Travel

From the early days of space exploration, humanity sought ways to increase fuel efficiency on spacecraft. Chemical rockets are grossly inefficient, and require the use of extremely slow, and often complex, transfer orbits, and later ion drives, while capable of attaining much higher speeds, couldn't move large loads. Despite theoretical nuclear rockets and plasma drives, mankind eventually forsook traditional reaction engines when it developed the quantum thruster. Still a reaction engine, these motive systems continuously excite the virtual particles of the quantum vacuum and push off of them via an electromagnetic field. This allows a ship to forgo massive fuel tanks because its fuel supply suffuses the entire universe; all the thrusters require is electricity. As efficiencies increased and more compact energy sources became available, ships began to use constant acceleration to both traverse interplanetary distances in days or weeks and provide the illusion of artificial gravity to the crew. Today, quantum thrusters are mature technology utilized for virtually all subluminal conveyance.

With the advent of gravity-manipulation by the Jovian Aerospace Group, a new sort of truly reactionless thruster became available to the market. Extremely expensive, it is typically used on military vessels that require extreme accelerations to outmaneuver their opponents at subluminal speeds. By bending and warping space-time around the vessel, which does not actually move relative to the bubble, the ship can attain tremendous accelerations without adversely affecting its crew. Theoretically, this should allow a ship with sufficient power to accelerate far beyond the speed of light, but to date, nothing of the sort has been developed. It appears that further refinement in the drive mechanism itself is required. Other hurdles would involve seeing where the ship is headed while outrunning any sensor signals, and the effects of space dust and debris at superluminal speeds.

Superluminal Travel

For most of humanity's existence, it has been bound to the confines of the solar system. Even with the advent of unlimited thrust, the closest star was unreachably far away – the crew may experience 4.5 years of time, but due to time dilation, hundreds of years would pass on Earth before explorers would arrive at their destination. This all changed when the Jupiter Aerospace Group announced its hyperdrive. Humanity was able to reach other stars in a matter of weeks, most of which was spent performing extensive and complex calculations for the jump itself. The jump itself was quite unpleasant for the crew, resulting in severe pain and unconsciousness, but today, jumps merely leave crewmembers and passengers stunned and nauseous. And as Jupiter Group works to mitigate these effects, more and more people move to the frontier worlds. And still, after almost eighty years, no one has unlocked the secret of the hyperdrive’s function.

Jupiter Aerospace Group has gone out of their way to protect the secret of the hyperdrive’s inner workings. They have not patented the drive, maintain extensive security forces at all of their manufacturing sites, and conduct the bulk of their research and development on Triton – far from humanity’s strongholds. While they have released no specific explanation about the theory behind the hyperdrive, they have given the oversimplification that the drive shunts a volume of space into another universe momentarily, and then shunts it back at a preprogrammed location. The calculations required for an accurate jump requires incredibly complicated calculations performed by a dedicated “jump computer,” also produced by JAG, and the risk of arriving off course increases drastically with distance. For that reason, humanity has explored space via a series of shorter, surer jumps at the cost of taking extra time for calculations and charging jump engines.

Lost in Space

There may be times that a superluminal mishap sends a starship off course. The crew may arrive in an unexplored arm of the galaxy tens of thousands of light-years off course and utterly unaware of their own location. Luckily for them, the galaxy provides hundreds of lighthouses by which a lost ship can regain its bearings. Pulsars are rapidly rotating neutron stars that emit pulses of radio waves in frequencies and intervals unique to each pulsar. If you know the exact arrival times of pulses from a couple of pulsars, a navigator can calculate the position of the lost ship. Most exploration ships and military vessels carry sophisticated radar arrays that can rapidly detect and analyze the signals from pulsars and feed them into a navigation computer, colloquially called a "navicom", that tracks the location of the ship.

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