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Designing Cleopatra’s Needle (UPDATE: New image)

December 5, 2009 3 comments

In Star Trek: The Next Generation: The Buried Age, my Lost Era novel telling of Captain Picard’s “missing years” between the loss of the Stargazer and the beginning of TNG, I established that Picard had spent several years on extended leave from Starfleet, pursuing a doctorate in archaeology at the University of Alpha Centauri under Professor Miliani Langford.  (The episode “Rascals” alluded to a female Professor Langford who’d invited Picard on a dig; I wanted to fill in who she was and why she’d do that.)  While there, he learned of a great archaeological mystery and organized an expedition to investigate it, propelling him into the main events of the novel.

But first he needed a ship.  I saw this as an opportunity to examine how civilians in the Federation would pursue science and exploration, and that included establishing what types of ship they’d employ.  In the novel, I wrote the following:

While Langford worked to recruit the personnel, Picard saw about hiring a suitable ship. With university backing, he arranged with Centauri III’s leading civilian spacecraft firm to provide a custom vessel, high-powered for maximum warp speed (considerably less than Starfleet’s fastest, but excellent for a civilian ship). Since the crew would be only a dozen or so, life-support needs were reduced, increasing the power available for velocity. The ship would also be sleek and narrow, like the rocketships of old, presenting a minimal cross section to oncoming space debris and radiation and reducing the power requirements for navigational deflection. For a Starfleet vessel, designed with the possibility of combat in mind, such a design was impractical since enemies could approach from any direction. But this craft was built purely for moving forward as fast as possible.

Because of its long, slender design, Langford chose to call the ship Cleopatra’s Needle.  I established a few things about the ship in the course of the book — it included a compact bridge/cockpit, a small science lab, a small lounge, a transporter stage, and several sets of shared quarters.  Overall, though, my descriptions of the ship were pretty vague.

But then there came a TrekBBS thread called “Your favourite TrekLit ships?”  The Needle was nominated, and it attracted some interest from a couple of posters, including Mark Rademaker, a digital artist who’s contributed various Trek art to Pocket books, including several images for the Ships of the Line calendar and the design for the starship Aventine which was introduced in the Destiny trilogy, and illustrator Dwight Williams, who’s done assorted things that his site can tell you about better than I can.  We discussed the parameters of the ship’s design for a while, deciding that it had two decks, six double-occupancy staterooms, a medical bay and an engineering alcove.  Ultimately this led to the creation of the “Cleopatra’s Needle – Design Proposals” thread in the TrekBBS’s Trek Art forum.  Mark has had other projects keeping him busy for now, but several others have posted prospective designs, and it’s intriguing how many different interpretations there are for what I described in the text.

Dwight began by planning out the Needle‘s interior space.  Here’s what he ended up with for its two decks (click to see them larger on his Flickr site):

Deck 1

Deck 2

And here’s his sketch for the ship exterior:

And though Dwight hasn’t posted this yet in the TrekBBS thread, I just discovered this nice sketch for the engineering alcove I proposed:

The rest of his sketches are here: Spacecraft Design for Fiction

This is an interesting design — a bit boxier and more Starfleetish than what I envisioned, but I like its “bullet train” quality.  It’s functional, straightforward, plausible for a workhorse civilian ship.

The other main designer participating in the thread goes by the nickname Psion.  He took his design in a more stylized direction and rendered it in 3D.  His first couple of tries both had elements I liked, and he combined them into this draft:

I loved the ’50s-rocketship quality, which was sort of what I had in mind, though this design took it maybe a bit more literally.  I quite liked the separate pod under the fantail too. After a little more tweaking, we arrived at this:

A little less Buck-Rogers slick, perhaps, but more practical.  Between us, Psion and I decided that the lower bulge in back is a jettisonable antimatter pod.  In Psion’s words:

Picard approached Centauri III’s manufacturers with a specification for extreme-range operations. By modifying an existing design — the courier/scout you mentioned — an acceptable vessel was found, but the extra range at high warp required a better reactor core and a larger supply of antimatter. The upgraded reactor displaced some of the available space for antimatter containment so a pod was designed and attached to the hull. Containing most of the ship’s antimatter, the pod can be jettisoned in an emergency, leaving the warp core with small, short-term supplies. The warp core itself can also be jettisoned along with the supply pod.

The antimatter pod’s shape is defined by the vessel’s standard warp field and it looks like an afterthought because that’s precisely what it is. Obviously this is a bit of a tactical weakness, but the ship isn’t intended for combat, and just because the tank is exposed, doesn’t mean it isn’t heavily armored in case it gets shot while the Cleo is fleeing.

UPDATE: Here’s Psion’s latest version, with more hull detail added:

Read more about it in Psion’s post here.

Later on, I was contacted at another board by an artist called Arkady, who’d lost his TrekBBS account but still wanted to participate.  He sent me this sketch:

This is a very interesting design.  Like Dwight’s, it has a “Federation” look to it, but isn’t too Starfleetish.  It conveys both sleekness and functionality.  And Arkady added an interesting twist.  In his words:

[T]here’s a segment just in front of the airlock between that part of the hull and the rest of the bridge area. One thought was that was actually the lifeboat section, driven by a smaller set of impulse units (part of those being visible as the fairings on the lower part of the forward section. In an emergency the rest of the hull would be explosively seperated from the rest of the vessel.

For more detailed discussion of these designs, follow the links above to the TrekBBS threads.

And that’s as far as things have gotten to date.  The various artists — including Mark — have their own lives and other projects to deal with, so it may be a while before they do their final designs.  But their sketches are all quite promising and interesting.

So what will I do when everyone’s finalized their designs?  Will I pick a single “winner” and post it on my site as the “true” design?  It’s possible, but I haven’t decided.  I might just post all of them and let the individual reader choose.  Keep in mind that this is purely my own undertaking and that of the various artists; nothing I decided would in any way represent the official judgment of Pocket Books or CBS.

Anyway, it’s very flattering and fun to have both amateur and pro artists taking such interest in designing a vessel I created.  I hope it’s not the last time.

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Alpha Centauri: It’s a beautiful place, you oughta see it

December 3, 2009 3 comments

From Paul Gilster’s Centauri Dreams blog:

New Search for Centauri Planets Begins

Debra Fischer: Details of the Centauri Hunt

There’s now a big push underway to try to detect an Earthlike planet around Alpha Centauri A or B.  α Cen is the closest star system to our own (discounting any brown dwarfs not yet discovered), so it’s one of the best places to look for planets.  Not to mention that it has two stars that are good candidates for hosting habitable planets.  Simulations have shown that both stars have a very good chance of having terrestrial-mass planets in their habitable zones.  So that improves the odds.  Wouldn’t it be cool if they both had life-bearing planets?

And with all the searches now underway, if there’s anything there to find, we’ll almost certainly find it within the next 2-3 years.  If we find a terrestrial planet (or two), then we can try to detect the spectral signatures of oceans, chlorophyll, oxygen, ozone, methane, and other biomarkers.  If we knew there was life in the nearest star system, one we could theoretically reach in a human lifetime using some of the theoretical propulsion technologies that are routinely discussed on Gilster’s site (and in his book of the same name), it might spawn a new era of space exploration.

Here’s Solstation.com’s detailed overview of the Alpha Centauri system.

In Star Trek, we know canonically of a University of Alpha Centauri, a planet called Centauri VII, and a Proxima colony and Proxima Maintenance Yards, presumably located around Proxima Centauri, the red-dwarf C component of the system, which is in a wide orbit around the main binary pair and is currently the closest star to Sol System (hence “Proxima”).  And we know that Zefram Cochrane, the inventor of warp drive, emigrated to Alpha Centauri later in his life.  Past Trek novels (notably Crisis on Centaurus by Brad Ferguson) postulated a colony on Centauri IV.

Quoting from my annotations for The Buried Age:

But according to recent simulations performed by Elisa Quintana et al., the gravity of Alpha Centauri B would have prevented more than 3-5 planets from forming around Centauri A (with A’s gravity allowing only 2-4 around B). Quintana’s simulations generally place either the second or third planet (or both) in Centauri A’s habitable zone, which is why I went with Centauri III instead of the Centauri IV seen in TOS: Crisis on Centaurus.

I reconciled “Centauri VII” by making it the second planet of α Cen B, “added to” the five planets of the A star.

But who knows?  In just a few years, some of my guesses from TBA may well be obsolete.  One might be already.  At the time I wrote TBA, it was estimated that α Cen was 2 billion years older than Sol, but then a paper came out suggesting it was half a billion years younger.  Such are the occupational hazards of SF.

Poor James Cameron.  His upcoming Avatar takes place on an inhabited moon of a gas giant around Alpha Centauri, but radial-velocity observations have ruled out the possibility of a gas giant-sized planet in that system.  So his movie’s already been contradicted before it even came out.  Then again, based on the clips I’ve seen, the planet does seem to have mountains floating in midair, not to mention implausibly humanoid aliens, so maybe scientific accuracy isn’t a priority there.

Still, just think — before much longer, before there’s even time to make a sequel to Avatar, we’ll probably know if there are real planets around Alpha Centauri and whether they have a chance of supporting life.  It’s exciting to be so close.