Companion piece: In a Stranger Space

My short story In a Stranger Space was published in September 2016 by Nomadic Delirium Press in their yearly anthology The Martian Wave. It is available in both print and as an e-book from mayor online retailers like Amazon, Barnes and Nobles, or straight from the publisher’s website. The anthology focus on stories about exploration of the solar system. Here are some of my notes regarding the story, where the themes come from and some of the science and technology behind it.

The Capgras Delusion.

In early 2016 I was reading a lot about neuroscience and particularly certain disorders related to brain damage or age related deterioration of the brain. I find the subject matter utterly fascinating because it touches upon our definition and perception of the self, who we are, and how we interact with the world around us. In fact, the more you learn about neurological disorders, the more you realize that there is no such thing as the world around us, there is only our perception of it, or at least, that is the only part that matters. The late great author and neurologist Oliver Sacks wrote many anecdotal books and stories about his patients and their disorders. I devoured his books. They are both entertaining, educational, and accessible to someone like me who does not have any training in neuroscience. I highly recommend reading The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat and Awakening, but many of his other books are great as well. Another recommendable book on a similar subject matter is The Tale of the Duelling Neurosurgeons, by Sam Kean.

One particular, and fortunately rather uncommon disorder, is known as the Capgras Delusion. Those who suffer from the Capgras Delusion will recognize people in their lives – friends and family – but their brain fails to elicit any emotional response to seeing familiar faces. This means that although you can recognize someone as your mother, sister, or friend, you would not generate the usual feelings when seeing them. Your brain intuitively concludes that something is wrong. If you are looking at a person that looks and acts like a family member, but you feel no affection for them, your brain will conclude that you are looking at an impostor. Someone who has taken the place of a loved one and is now pretending to be them. It can be difficult or even impossible to convince a Capgras patient that they are in fact interacting with the real person and not an impostor. Rejection usually ensues. The patient will be estranged and can even become paranoid and hostile.

The Capgras Delusion is caused by some very specific neural pathways being blocked usually by trauma to the head. These neural pathways relate to the visual cortex that processes information from our eyes, which means that the delusion is typically limited to people you are viewing. A Capgras patient can talk to a relative on the phone and not have any problems believing who they are, but as soon as they meet and see each other, the delusion returns.

I wanted to use the Capgras Delusion as a device for exploring how a character perceives others and in turn how that defines himself as a human being. I also wanted to set the story in a place where only a small number of people were available and could interact. Hence a spaceship in a near future mission to Mars.

Getting to and from Mars.

Setting the story on a spaceship heading for Mars also gave me plenty of other material for the story, that tied nicely into the Capgras Delusion. The reason for the spaceship going to Mars was for setting up habitat there using remote controlled machines. The crew was never meant to land on the planet, but simply control the machines from orbit. Landing would inevitable entail launching from Mars to get back home to Earth, which is complicated to say the least. Mostly because of all the fuel you would need. Let’s run through some of the calculations for what it would take to escape Mars’ gravity in a small capsule and rendez-vous with an orbiting vessel, similar to how the Apollo moon landings worked.

Imagine we use a spaceship that weighs 2.1 tons to take off from the Martian surface. This is the same weight as the moon lander used to visit the Moon in 1969.

With Mars’ gravity of 3.711 m/s² we would need to reach an escape velocity of 11.200m/s to take a spaceship back into orbit. Compare that to the just 2.420m/s escape velocity of the moon and it is clear that we would need to generate a lot more thrust to get away from Mars than we would to get off the Moon.

The problem now becomes the tons of fuel needed to generate Mars escape velocity, because that fuel itself also adds to the total weight of the vehicle and thus we would need even more fuel for lift-off. Hence the more fuel we need to lift of, the more it weighs and we need even more fuel.

This is a well-known problem with launching rockets and this is the reason why rockets use massive boosters to take off from Earth. The problem is somewhat diminished on Mars, as Mars is smaller and has less gravitational pull than the Earth, but it is still a problem. When the Apollo missions went to the moon in the late sixties and early seventies, they had a similar problem, but the moon’s gravitational pull is much smaller than both Earth’s and Mars’.

So, we need tons of fuel to take off from Mars, and that fuel needs to get there somehow. In Andy Weir’s The Martian, the fuel for returning is generated in situ on Mars by an automated system launched years in advance. This is indeed a way to do it,  but it is difficult and time consuming.  If something unexpected happens with the system, it could also be difficult to service. Instead you could option for bringing the fuel from Earth. However, we run into the same recursive weight problem we had before. If a large amount of fuel were to be transported from Earth, it would add to the weight of the Earth launch vehicle and using the same principle  as before, we can calculate the amount of fuel needed to take off from Earth.

As is clear, transporting the fuel from Earth that we will later need to on Mars is not a viable option. Many have observed this before and it is one of the reasons why manned missions to the red planet are so difficult to achieve. You could of course do what Mars One proposes and simply leave the people there without a plan for getting back to Earth. Not ideal though.

The story In a Stranger Space relies on systems for setting up habitats on Mars, before actual human missions to the surface is done. These habitats could be in place for long-term settlement while mining and processing of resources on Mars is done. This way humans could stay on Mars for a longer time, eventually creating the fuel for a return trip.

Creating a habitat on Mars

The question then becomes how to set up a habitat on Mars before we have people there. People have suggested to send pods with ready-made facilities down from space. This is a possibility but it sets strict limitations in terms of weight and structure of what can be built. The key to building a sustainable habitat on Mars is ISRU – In Situ Resource Utilization. If we could somehow send sturdy autonomous machines to Mars and have them set up the habitat for us by utilizing resources naturally found on Mars, the problem would be solved.

Unfortunately, machine autonomy is far from sophisticated enough for them to reliably carry out such a task. We have certain semi-autonomous machines roaming the red planet. The most famous is of course the Opportunity Rover. The vehicle is moving around on the surface collecting samples and analysing its environment. Though it is directed remotely from Earth, it has a certain level of autonomy. This is necessary because of the distance from Earth to Mars. Both planets describe an elliptical orbit around the sun, but Mars takes 687 days to complete its orbit and Earth takes only 365 days. This means that the distance between the Earth and Mars varies between 56 million kilometres and 400 million kilometres. A radio signal that travels at the speed of light, 1C or 299.792 km/s would take between 187 seconds (3.1 minutes) and 1,334 seconds (22.2 minutes) to get from The Earth to Mars, depending on where in the orbit each planet is found. Therefor the reaction time for a remote-controlled machine on Mars is a minimum of 374 seconds (the signal would have to go from Mars to Earth and back again) and at most 2669 seconds. The Mars Opportunity rover moves at a maximum speed of 0.05 m/s. It needs to be able to autonomously determine and avoid obstacles because if it were to rely exclusively on instructions from Earth, it would at full speed move a minimum of 18.6 meters and as much as 133 meters before reacting to an obstacle. By which time it might have driven into a chasm.

To remote control machines on the surface of Mars, we would need to be much closer so the time delay would be less pronounced and complex operation would be possible. One place this could be done from is a spaceship in orbit around Mars. By not descending to the surface of Mars, the spaceship would avoid the fuel problem, and could safely return to Earth with its crew after having completed its mission. The distance from orbit to the surface would only result in an insignificant signal delay.

Perfect control and the Neural Lace

What would be the best machine that we could possibly use for construction? What would give us the ultimate flexibility and control to build something as though we were there doing the hammering and screwing ourselves? In my story, I describe a proxybot. The proxybot is a high-powered construction robot, which two legs, two arms and a general human shape. It is a little bigger than a human and a lot stronger so that it can do the actual construction. I envision something like the Power Loader from Aliens. The one Ellen Ripley rides inside and has the final battle with the Queen alien in.

Except In this case, you wouldn’t be controlling it with joysticks and other such manual controls. To achieve perfect control of such a machine, they would interface directly with the pilot’s brain and feel like he was moving his own body. This is a common trope in science fiction. Iain M Banks wrote about the neural lace, that interfaces man with machine. A small construction that can connect with individual neurons in the human brain.

One of the interesting ways we can push information into cells is through a technology known as optogenetics. Opto from light and genetics because the cells we want to affect needs to be genetically modified to be susceptible to light. Optogenetics is a real thing and many animal experiments have been done with it. Mice behaviour has been controlled through optogenetics by directing tight light beams at specific neural centres in the mouse brain. Optogenetics has the possibility of being a neural lace.

In a Stranger Space combines all the above, I hope you will check it out and enjoy it.

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