2501 Early Extraplanetary Exploration Missions
There is a lot of space between the stars in our region of the Milky Way. Interstellar space is a thousand billion times the size of a solar system. And it is not empty. Outside the orbits of regular planets, there are other minor planets and the Kuiper Belt. Even farther out in extraplanetary space are the Oort Cloud and the Baqannoo Sphere. There are stray objects, asteroids, planets, brown dwarfs, pulsars, uranids, dark matter clusters, and other exotic things, even artificial remains of past civilizations. There is very much to discover and explore. But the distances are vast, and most objects are too far away for rocket engines however sophisticated.
To counter this problem humanity had developed spacecraft propulsion based on the space distortion principle by the middle of the third millennium. At first, these distortion drives were only used on diagonal routes across the solar system far below light speed. These ships now appear to us like the first biplanes: they were clunky, expensive, unreliable, and very slow at just one thousandth the speed of light.
That was 120 years ago. A lot has happened since then. Today, commercial freighters are 20 times faster, with engines that run continuously at 2% c. There are even distortion drives that (effectively) reach 4 c. However, this technology is pushing the boundaries of what is technically achievable. These drives are not yet suitable for sustained operation over long distances. Yet, they can take you far into the Oort cloud if you are willing to accept some risk.
Ever since they were developed, experimental space distortion drives have been used by astrophysical research expeditions trying to get far out into the unknown effectively conducting stress tests for the next generation of drives in addition to their scientific research programs.
Modern interplanetary instruments, with their remarkable range and accuracy, empower scientists to uncover intriguing new celestial destinations, extending our reach into the vastness of space. Luckily, space distortion drives now offer the opportunity to visit astronomical discoveries in the closer interstellar neighborhood of the Sun, in extraplanetary space. So, there are many flights to extraplanetary destinations. There are scientific expeditions, secret military missions, private ventures but also spectacular failures.
Venturing deep into interstellar space using experimental propulsion systems is one of the final great frontiers of exploration. However, technical problems could leave you marooned in the emptiness of space, potentially light weeks or even months away from any assistance. There, quick rescue is impossible given the immense challenge of locating a ship within several cubic light months of space. Even the transmission of a distress signal will take weeks, and the availability of equally capable vessels for a rescue mission is limited.
Here are some notable expeditions during the first 100 years of extraplanetary travel:
- Pontos, initially called the ninth planet, the so-called wonderland of ice. Pontos was hit by a Mars-sized body hundreds of millions of years ago. The kinetic energy liquefied the entire planet and for a few million years the slowly cooling core caused its 1000-kilometer-thick ammonia water ice shell to experience a period of tectonics and weather. The planet has since solidified again into a stunning icy landscape.
When an expedition visits Pontos in 2390 disaster strikes on the return journey leaving the crew stranded 1000 astronomical units away from the inner system, with a drive broken. Despite valiant efforts to evacuate the crew's infomorphs, they are left adrift for 37 long years until a rescue mission can be mounted.
Trivia: The name Pontos, borrowed from the ancient Greek sea god, was intentionally selected to maintain the initial 'P' in mnemonics commonly used for recalling the order of the planets, thereby substituting Pluto.
- Another intriguing celestial object is Tyche, a brown dwarf situated 1.1 light years away, equivalent to 80,000 astronomical units, from the sun. It remains gravitationally bound to our sun, tracing an expansive, slow orbit that spans millions of years. With a mass fifteen times that of Jupiter, Tyche is a relatively small and chilly brown dwarf, with an average surface temperature of -20 degrees Celsius. Encircled by four moons — or planets, depending on your point of view — some of which possess their own satellites, Tyche is essentially a miniature solar system in itself.
The system is first visited in 2493. Tyche A, the inner moon houses a permanent research station in the late 27th century. The scientists are particularly interested in the possibility of finding native life at hot water springs which are powered by tidal heating.
Trivia: Tyche's name originally referred to a hypothetical planet in Oort cloud that was believed to produce long-period comets. However, a survey with infrared telescopes in the 21st century revealed that the planet did not exist. The celestial body now known as Tyche is much farther away than the hypothetical Tyche of the 20th century. The suspected source of long-period comets later turns out to be an oscillation in Oort's Cloud itself. Tyche also does not correspond to a previously suspected periodic Oort disturbance that was thought to have caused the extinction of the dinosaurs.
- In addition, there are many more planet-like celestial bodies up to a distance of two light-years. These objects are stray planets formed around other suns and flung out of their original systems. They come in various sizes, from small Mercury-sized rocky planets to frozen gas giants and brown dwarfs. Together they constitute what is known as the Baqannoo sphere, named after Iddo Baqannoo the 22nd century astronomer.
Pontos and Tyche are the most well-known members of this group. There are currently over 300 of these Baqannoo objects, but only three of them have been visited by extraplanetary explorers in the early days of space exploration. Unfortunately, a fourth expedition was lost, and no one knows what happened to them. The sudden loss of contact occurred during their outbound flight at a distance of 4000 astronomical units, leaving no clues as to their whereabouts.
Trivia: the discovery of the fourth Baqannoo object prompted a re-evaluation of Pontos' status as the ninth planet of our solar system. As more interstellar planet-like objects were discovered, Pontos was eventually reclassified as a semi-planet by the International Astronomical Union, thus losing its status as a planet.
- Moreover, there is an old pulsar known as XA-2314c-M, situated 1.5 light-years away. It rotates every 4.2 seconds, but its beam cone doesn't point towards the inner solar system, causing its relatively late discovery. Its initial detected signal was a reflection off another Baqannoo object. This pulsar was first encountered by a flyby of nanoprobes in 2443 travelling at 20,000 km/s during the Starprobe mission. The Kublai-Khan expedition then made the first crewed visit in 2498.
- A remarkable type of object are unique cometary nuclei from the Oort cloud with an unusually high uranium content, called Uranides. The uranium's decay heat provides the comet nucleus with liquid water, which moderates the neutrons of uranium fission, essentially sustaining a natural nuclear reactor. Uranides were formed when a supernova’s heavy element deposit shattered an ice giant, scattering debris across interstellar space. Millions of years later, some of this debris was captured by our Sun.
The closest Uranid is located 2,800 astronomical units away. They were discovered in 2373 due to an explosion when a nucleus became supercritical, causing a natural five kiloton blast. Gamma detectors in the inner solar system recorded the explosion, and more signals were discovered through constant optical, infrared, and neutrino detectors. The precise location was determined by triangulating these various signals.
In 2477, an expedition was able to take samples of Uranid material. The large number of different isotopes and decay chains assisted scientists dating the time of the supernova explosion with great precision. This event occurred on March 31, 8,131,606 years BCE. at 13:29 h GMT.
- A particularly exotic extraplanetary object is the Shen Depression located 22,000 astronomical units away. Named after its discoverer, astronomer Shen Li, this object is a massive accumulation of ultracold dark matter.
Since dark matter is only detectable through its gravitational effects, the Shen Depression was serendipitously discovered in 2289 during a gravitational lensing event. Typically, dark matter isn't expected to be compact, as its constituents don't interact with each other. Yet, the Shen Depression defies these expectations by possessing a Neptune-equivalent mass within a mere three million kilometers despite lacking any known mechanisms for deceleration or clumping. The mass of the Shen Depression must have been slowed down by an as-yet-unknown effect, leading its components to follow neighboring trajectories around the Sun at very low relative velocities.
Fast forward to the year 2413, when the ultra-telescope BISON detects several satellites, captured Oort objects, and an asteroid oscillating in a peculiarly linear way through the force-free center of the Shen Depression. This discovery incites two rival expeditions in 2484 to study the Depression: Tsegaye-Gubennya-13 from the Astrophysical Institute of Jupiter's Mek'ele orbital, and the vessel Terra Nova carrying the Scott-Gravity-Research-A expedition from the Isle of Sol habitat on Venus. The Terra Nova arrives at the Shen Depression a few weeks after the Tsegaye-Gubennya.
During the return flight, the Terra Nova encounters another hitherto unknown gravity anomaly even more compact than the Shen Depression. This newly discovered depression, now known as Terra Nova Reef, orbits the Shen Depression along with several other dark matter clusters.
The Terra Nova runs into the depression at full speed, instigating a violent reaction in its dark matter constituents. Although these don't consist of baryonic matter, they do react to gravitational spacetime distortions caused by the Terra Nova's drive, resulting in a disastrous explosion visible from Earth with large telescopes.
The tragedy of the Terra Nova explosion quickly prompts scientists to suspect that there may be many more dark matter clusters in extraplanetary space. However, these gravitational anomalies are difficult to detect, as they are just empty space with a small gravitational potential.
And it turned out that the scientists were right: there are indeed many dark matter clusters between the stars, and they continue to pose a significant hazard to interstellar travel even today.
The Great Expansion
There are still lots of small an short entries. The are great ideas and great milestones. They deserve more detail and love. First results of the expansion campaign:
2136 1000 in Space
2154 New Living Space
2155 Asteroid Mining
2158 Space Patrol
2179 Private Asteroid Base
2182 End of Venus Terraforming
2187 Moon Deportations
2192 Anti-Expansionist Terror
2197 Lunar Revolt
2205 Corporate Cosmos
2222 Space Piracy