Friday, September 11, 2015

Of Tall Ships and Trading Posts

You know what, RocketFans?  It's been entirely to long since we've had some honest-to-Heinlein speculative worldbuilding around this blog.  Let's fix that, shall we?

So I was perusing that clearing house for all things Hard SF, Atomic Rockets, and came across a wonderful design for a cheap, reusable interplanetary spacecraft with the romantic name of Spacecoach.  It's an exciting idea - the ship's structure is primarily water ice and kevlar strands, a mixture known as Pykrete.  The habs are inflatable, the engines double as mining drils, and the propellant is grey water from the crew's life support.  It's a genius mixture of innovation, simplicity, and safety that would allow the average mortal to reach for the stars.

Part of the design that drew my curiousity was the large solar arrays needed to power the Microwave Electrical Thrusters.  Nothing wrong with solar - its the oldest and most mature form of In-Situ Resource Utilization used in orbit and, as they say, the sun is always shining in space.  The thing that concerned me was that the sun may always be shining, but its only half as strong around Mars, and a mere 4% of it's NEO intensity once you reach the Jovian system.  The excellent nano-fic Spaceward Ho! suggests that microwave rectennae could be utilized beyond Mars, but the price of such a system is dependance (and financial obligation) to whomever turns on the microwave beam.

Call me a recluse, but I didn't like that.

So I posed a question to the modern virtual agora that is Google+, in which I proposed the use of regenerative fuel cells to make the Spacecoach energy independant past Mars.  My reasoning was that 4% power on the solar array may not be enough to power the ship, but it could power the regenerative cycle on a fuel cell.  Since fuel cells crack water for hydrogen and oxygen, and the Spacecoach is pretty much made of see my logic, right?

Alas, Robert Davidoff, who is to the untrained writer/artist like myself what the Logisician is to Generals (Read the first entry in Logistic Quotations and know that it's a compliment) points out that you can add hectares of solar arrays for the same mass that the regenerative fuel cell and enough solar panels to run them.  I wondered if it would make sense to stow the extra panels when in the inner system, or just leave them out all the time.  Like modern Muse of Hard SF, Rob posted a quote that seved as great inspiration:

"Well, there's the potential justification of protection from micrometeors and other debris, like you said, plus just general rule of cool". Maybe something like a roller-furling jib, with a fixed "boom" and retracting flexible solar array "sail" would do? The boom could be very light, and rigged inboard when not necessary to avoid docking issues, and it'd be easy to swing it out and unfurl the array to and start making watts when necessary."

...Masts?  Jibs? SAILS!?  That sounds like... a TALL SHIP!

So my fevered brain had to design one, of course.

Here we see her shaping an orbit from Cape Dread to points beyond in the Belt.  There's a family aboard, who will use their ship's MET thruster as a mining drill to tease volatiles out of the cold rock.  They'll trade surplus water for phosphorus and other necessities. I may be hard life, but there's freedom and opportunities in the Black.

See?  Inspired!

But I'm not just interested in making fun art pieces out of these ideas; I've been crunching numbers just as feverishly as I have been drawing pictures and sculpting pixels.  And while it is only a matter of many maths to come up with the essential specs of such a spacecraft, justifying its existance is another matter entirely.  Sure, you could build one, but who's gonna buy it?  It can go from here to Marse, or even Ceres, maybe, but what will it do once it gets there?

In future posts we will start seeing what this Tall Ship can do, and why it should do it.

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