As computers have become more advanced, faster, and more capable, the arguments in favor of manned spaceflight have become weaker, and space travel has increasingly become the domain of machines. Long before the invention of the microchip, Isaac Asimov proposed exactly this, describing unmanned, computer-controlled space exploration vehicles that would be able to venture into territories too extreme and too dangerous for humans. That vision has come to pass, and it is now commonly argued that humans are indeed too soft, vulnerable, and unreliable to utilize in spaceflight, and that removing them from the paradigm removes the weakest link. Manned spaceflight has largely been relegated to an oft-maligned holdover of Cold War international competition and patriotism. This is a mistake.
Other than indulging my penchant for expounding on space-related topics, and perhaps providing you with some insight into rocketry, I bring this discussion up because it informs a way I have been slowly coming to approach writing. I, probably like a lot of new writers, was approaching the writing of my stories like a single-stage-to-orbit. When I sat down to write, I had an expectation in my head that I would sit down and craft all of the components of a story in a single pass, and that revisions were mostly just for changing around wording and cleaning up typos. Which, it turns out, is really challenging to do, because stories are complicated.
As a bit of a side project at work recently, I did some modeling work on TESS, which is a NASA spacecraft that was launched to help search for exoplanets using the transit method (I know, you could never have guessed that from the name's acronym breakdown). Working with satellites as much as I do, this was a really interesting project, because it was quite distinctive in its orbit and mission architecture from most spacecraft that I get to study on a regular basis. For one thing, it is a remarkably low-cost, robust, straightforward system, quite different from what you often see with NASA programs, which because of their scientific goals are often pushing the very edge of our capabilities and therefore become very complex and very expensive. For another, it utilizes a simply fascinating orbit. Since I've been trying to post occasional in-depth articles on various academic topics, it seemed appropriate to share some of what I learned from that project here.
There are certain principles that I have found underpin an astonishing number of our modern systems, and gaining a thorough understanding of a principle like that can enable you to understand or surmise how so many different things work. One of those, which is what we will be discussing today, is the photoelectric effect. It seems like at least once a week I come across some new piece of technology that leverages the photoelectric effect in a completely new or different way, and increasingly I marvel at how such a relatively simple principle underpins so much of our modern world. So let's talk about the photoelectric effect.
A while back now we posted about 5G technology as part of our efforts to develop educational content here on the site. This post about quantum computing technology and some of the ways in which we can anticipate it being implemented is in the same vein; quantum computing has been increasingly touted as another sort of “miracle” technology about which we hear a great deal of hype, but without a lot of insight into the details. This post will hopefully rectify that a little.
If you follow the news, you've probably heard something about 5G. It's been billed as the foundation of a new technology revolution, as the next thing that is going to change the way people do everything. I'm always cautious of people trying to make predictions like that, since it's notoriously challenging, and we have a tendency to only remember the people who were right about what happened in the past, but even if half of what is being hyped about 5G comes to be, it would change a lot...on the backend. Users might not even notice much of a different in daily life. Yet for all that this is supposedly a world-changing technology, it seems that most people have no idea what it actually means.
A few weeks back, we posted about how NASA was planning to contract with commercial entities to obtain material from the lunar surface, known as lunar regolith. I came across an article on NASA's website this morning (which may or may not be my internet browser's homepage) that announced they had made selections for that exact mission.
This post is primarily intended as an educational one, to discuss some of the terminology and thought-processes involved in materials science, but it was inspired by world-building considerations. As you may recall, if you've been following along with what I've been reading (and my regular book reviews), I recently read a book called The Substance of Civilization, which detailed how the materials to which our species has had access have shaped the course of cultural evolution over the past ten thousand years. It prompted me to think in more detail about choice of materials and construction techniques in world-building.
We've been hearing a lot recently about how we need to "trust the science," and "follow the science." Anyone who does not agree with the science or the above statements tends to be labeled as unintelligent, ignorant, or otherwise mentally backward, perhaps irresponsible. It is one thing for politicians to use such phrases for political leverage and advantage: science has been invoked for political purposes for about as long as science has existed. To me, it is far more dismaying to see people who claim to be scientists themselves undermining the very essence of what science is supposed to be.
I didn't put any really complex thought into deciding what the first educational post was going to be about; I just came across an article that I found interesting, and went from there. In this case, it was an article from NASA about purchasing lunar regolith (yes, NASA.gov is my browser's homepage). There were two, primary dimensions to this article, and they're worth analyzing independently: in-situ resource utilization, and international space law.