Alright – today we get to have some fun. Lets journey far out into the future…and our solar system to check in on Lord Cornwall. Along the way we will explore the difficulties with military communications, and why transit hubs are a kind of big deal.
THe Fun Part
December 30, 2099
Titan, Jupiter Orbit
It was just past mid-day, local time, when Lord Cornwall, Governor General of Her Majesty’s Colony on Ganymede was interrupted by a blaring alarm on his phone. “Fucking security drills” he mutters as he pulls it out, blanching as he reads the alert. TO ALL HER MAJESTY’S GOVERNMENT PERSONNEL ON TITAN, THE EMPIRE OF BRITTANIA IS NOW AT WAR WITH THE REPUBLIC OF JAPAN AND OCEANIA. UNTIL FURTHER NOTICE SECURITY PROTOCOL EPSILON IS IN EFFECT.
The governor’s aide bursts through the door to his office as the governor gets to the end of the message. “Sir, I have alerted our Royal Marine commander, and your cabinet. They are en-route.” The governor sighs, and nods. “James, do you realize how bad this is for us?”
“What do you mean sir? We are at least three days travel from the nearest Japanese outpost, and ten from their closest fleet.” Lord Cornwall shakes his head, “No no no James that isn’t it at all. Security Protocol Epsilon will cripple our economy.” “You know we are the transit hub between the Belt, and commercial exploration fleets further out.”
“Of course sir” James replies “most of our income is as a waystation for those fleets why would that stop?” “Because James, under Epsilon we are no longer permitted to use wireless communication. With how widely the radio and laser signals attenuate as they reach the inner or outer system, there is literally no way to know who else could intercept the signals.” “Epsilon orders all British facilities to switch exclusively to in-person or hardwired communications…which as you probably just figured out means we should probably have maintained our courier boats better.”
The Real Deal
Ok ok – you are right – this is way more fictional than most of my stories. And this is true – but honestly how could I pass up the chance to write about a governor-general. Well that and a colonial war in space. In this section of the Real Deal, we aren’t going to explore some things that are not likely in humanity’s second century in space (a British space empire for one), but instead some of the problems that the governor brought up, which almost certainly will be factors as we reach for the depths of our solar system.
So, we take wireless communication for granted here on good ole earth. Well I suppose I take wireless communication for granted…if you are older than about 35 you might still remember being dependent on landlines and the like. But in space we don’t get ‘landlines’ or anything except wireless communication (if I need to explain why, then you and I might not make good friends).
The critical limitation with wireless connectivity on earth is the range a signal can go before a receiver unit cannot discern anything useful because of atmospheric interference. This is most commonly reflected in the ‘bars’ on the top of your cell phone screen showing how good your signal is. In space there is not an atmosphere to break up signals, so they can, for all intents and purposes, keep going forever.
While these signals can go on forever, they, like visible light, spread out as they travel. This means even a very narrow beam laser fired from Mars to the Earth may end up being receivable over a large swath of the planet. This isn’t a problem so long as we aren’t worried about hiding our presence from hostile aliens. But if you are a military, attempting to hide your communications from a rival, that quickly becomes a critical vulnerability of wireless communication.
Already military’s around the world take this into consideration in their battle plans; formulating backups that can’t be intercepted. How will this be solved in space? Well, the easy answer is returning to the good old fashioned courier. While it might take weeks to get a secret message between bases, it getting there in secret might be the difference between life and death. Alternatives include quantum communication, although that remains decades in the future.
Have you seen the Expanse? If not, then again…we can’t be friends. But if you have, what is the purpose of the station on Ceres? It is a transit hub. Oh sure there are thousands of people living on it, but its core function is to refuel and supply operations happening in the asteroid belt. This isn’t just a nice story element for an otherwise awesome show. It is an absolute necessity for humans travelling away from Earth orbit.
Our spacecraft, at least for the next 40-75 years, will remain dependent on stockpiles of fuel, food, water, and other consumables to carry passengers beyond Mars. It isn’t so much that a ship couldn’t carry enough supplies for a multi-year trip, but the cost in space to do so will be seen as prohibitive.
I’ll paint the picture of what it would look like. Ok, imagine you are taking a road trip with 7 of your friends in a minivan. You have been looking forward to this trip for weeks, and these are some of your best friends. The first day is great, and you all are having a great time. But instead of being able to get out and stretch, or have fun at the end of the day, you have to stay in the van. And instead of a two day road trip to the beach, this is a six month trip. Starting to understand more why it might not be a great idea to cram every inch of living space with food and water?
We will build these way-stations, if for no other reason, than to provide the fleshy little meat sacks that ride in our ships a chance to get off and waddle around. We will do it for the same reason we have movie theaters, bowling alleys, and tennis courts here on earth. People need spaces to relax, blow off steam, and socialize. That is most certainly going to be in even greater demand up in the infinite black of space.
Yep – this was a little different from my normal posts, and there will be more of these to come in the future. We all like stories that are just a tad over the top. And as someone who is more over-the-top than most…I felt the need to go all out. If you are just joining us on this journey through humanity’s pre-history of space, check out some of my old posts. Like the one about the view from orbit, or riding a space elevator, or about and orbital coast guard.