It’s been a while since my last column as I had a medical emergency which put me in the hospital for intestinal cancer. Fortunately it was caught early enough that I should make a full recovery and it did force me to rest more than usual. Finding even UK television tedious, I picked up my reading and managed, among others, to binge read all eleven books in Jack Campbell’s Lost Fleet series. As a beginning writer, it was impressive to see the depth of detail brought to both the universe and the characters. One thing I am finding as I try and fit short stories into a consistent universe is that it gets more and more important to understand the who, where and why. My latest story really slammed into a wall when I realised it needed the backstory to be more fully developed and of course that had to fit into the two stories already written. So I have a lot of homework to get through during my recovery process so I can get back to the actual story!
In the space news, you may have heard the Chinese landed a rover on the back side of the moon. This is an amazing achievement and, ironically, I have some connection to this mission. When I was working on spacecraft avionics, we developed a novel camera concept which operated in the ultraviolet rather than visible for imaging stars and the earth’s horizon. This had massive advantages as although the lens was pure sapphire, it could be machined to get the optical properties we needed and then down-converted to visible. This meant that the sun was very dim and stars very bright which eliminated the need for expensive baffles and the back end could use conventional CCD sensors. We developed two flight prototypes and flew them on the back of the Wakeshield Facility spacecraft and two shuttle missions to prove the concept. As with many of the projects, the company fumbled around and lost contract opportunities, tried to sell it and let it die.
Later I received a call from a Chinese engineer who had read one of our papers and who was very interested in the technology for navigation. I told him I couldn’t tell him anything that wasn’t published and he thanked me and I didn’t think more about it until several years later. It turns out the Chinese developed a UV navigation sensor for the lunar mission and they referenced our papers so I guess the idea wasn’t lost after all.
What’s unique about the Chinese mission is also the way it connects to their culture. The lunar lander, Chang’e-4 and its six wheel rover Yutu-2 landed on the far side of the moon and as this is out of line of sight, they used the Queqiao relay satellite to communicate with Earth. Chang’e is essentially the Moon goddess and Yutu, the Jade Rabbit is her companion. Queqiao or the Magpie bridge provides the essential communication to Earth and is based on another Chinese story:
Zhi Nu, the seventh daughter of the goddess of heaven, fell in love with the cow herder Niu Lang. They lived happily for many years. Both were sad when Ziu Nu had to return to heaven. But the goddess of heaven took pity with the sweethearts and allowed them to be reunited once every year. On this seventh night of the seventh moon, magpies form a bridge with their wings in order that Zhi Nu might cross and meet with her beloved husband. That day (during August) is the Chinese equivalent of Valentines day.
- The legend of Magpie Bridge
Meanwhile in the news, tech darling Elon Musk continues to have problems as Space-X lays off 10% of its workforce in spite of a successful launch of next-gem Iridium satellites. None of this bodes well for the US space program. I suspect, as I use in my story line, that it will be the Russian-Chinese space program which will attract more and more support and push the frontiers with several ambitious programs in the works.
On the bright side, NASA is looking at a mission to my Uranus (Lúth) and Neptune…