Solar Voodoo: Burnt Offerings to the Sun

In 2017 the Solar Orbiter will be sent to stare directly at the sun, proving that nothing is dumb if you’re smart enough. We’re throwing an outer space gris-gris of space age titanium and burnt bone at the source of all life. We’re rocket shamans.

The shaman cyborg material is in the heat shield: titanium with its surface oxide layer blasted off to be replaced with black calcium phosphate. Aka bone char. The burnt bones of animals. You might think the heat shield should be shiny but in space the big problem isn’t staying warm, it’s keeping cool. There’s no material around you to conduct or convect heat, only space (hence the nam). Insulate yourself and you’ll bake long before you eventually freeze. Which will only happen because you’ve stopped generating heat, caring about temperature, and breathing. Since the Solar Orbiter’s systems generate their own heat it’s more important that they be able to radiate than reflect.

The surface coating isn’t paint: the black calcium phosphate takes the oxide’s place in chemical bonds, creating an armor of dead metal material to stand up against the source of all life. The burnt bone skin is made by Irish company Enbio and is rather brilliantly (and exactly oppositely to brilliantly) called “SolarBlack“.

We’re reducing the sun’s bounty to burnt ash and offering it back to learn more about existence. It’s a scientific sacrament. And will work a lot better than burning good animals for greek gods. Who are good model here, because we’re tackling Apollo like ancient heroes: pitting everything we’ve ever learned (from cave paint to aviation metallurgy) against an awesome power in the heavens.

We’re studying the Alpha and Omega, the source of all life, the shining light in the sky which gathered up our land and sea, which stirred the soup until it started moving around by itself, and even now bathes it with warmth and every way of surviving. Every movement you’ve ever made, every thought you’ve ever had, the creator is there. Because the adenosine triphosphate bonds you’re breaking to exist were all made with solar energy. Which is also the inevitable end of our world. When it swells up red-faced, like a middle-aged Zeus, it will burn our Earth bare of anything even approximating life.

Art often envisages a god as shafts of sunlight, or a blazing ball in the sky, and it turns out the metaphor wasn’t wrong, it was revesed. The sun doesn’t describe a creator. The creator is a description of the Sun.

I love the combination of space-age and cave-age technology. Because they’re both still technology. And they both still work. Sticks still work, and no matter how advanced your iPhone it won’t help when you need to prod something. There are doubtless other ways to make black calcium phosphate, but it’s still best to let something else do most of the work. Biological organisms are still the masters of nanofabrication. Just think of it as an extreme form of smelting.

And I love the idea that the mission to our big star will sit on the outer-space menu with another little star beside it.

Solar Orbiter(*) 1 billion

*This item is not vegetarian.

Space is the Place with

The Worst Thing Ever Put In Orbit

I wrote about the 5 coolest inanimate objects in orbit you might not have heard of, because when I found out about the Space Disco Balls of Science I had no choice in the matter.

Orbital Orb of Awesome

Orbital Orb of Awesome

Someone asked why I didn’t include the Salyut-3/Almaz 2 station’s 35 mm Nudelman machine gun.


The first reason is that the only sources for the gun are Wikipedia, fan pages, and mentions in a book which doesn’t have any references. Which is to say, there are no sources at all. A Wikipedia article without numbers in little square brackets is like a gun without any bullets: trying to use it in public will make you look stupid, get you in trouble, and you will lose any resulting fight very badly.

The second reason is that if it is true, it’s the most depressing thing I’ve ever heard.

The “self-defense” gun was allegedly bolted into place along the space station’s axis. Meaning the entire station had to be reoriented to aim. So if you wanted to shoot someone, they had to co-operate almost as much as if they were docking with you. And anyone who knows what the hell they’re doing with orbital attack will just have fired a cloud of shrapnel to pepper your orbit. You might as well try to shoot gravity to stop it from slamming things into you at orbital velocity. Even firing the gun apparently vibrated the station so violently it was forbidden while people were actually in it. Then there’s recoil, meaning that your “self-defence” weapon was obscenely expensive to install, wouldn’t work, and its only function would be to kill the people it claimed to protect. Making the space gun the ultimate analogy for cold war weaponry.

There are apparently real Russian guns in space, kept in locked containers in any Soyuz capsules – like the one connected to the International Space Station. They’re intended to defend the crew from wild animals in case of an off-course landing in a remote area.

It’s sort of wonderful: a gun actually used as an intelligent tool by highly-trained specialists. When you crash-land in bear country, you’ve just used your enhanced brain to survive space itself as well as punching through an entire atmosphere: you’re damned if you’re going to let nature kill you now. That’s the gun as physical intelligence projector. “Keep away, bear, for I am smarter than you.”

The unexpected part is that, of all countries, the US doesn’t let their astronauts have guns. Any random citizen who can keep the voices quiet long enough to show ID? No problem, please insert your VISA card and pick up your hundred bullets. Astronauts, the most rigorously trained and selected people in the country? Have a machete.

That’s just going to make the the leverage and cutting-implement stats look better on the bear’s mauling card. You don’t go up against a few hundred kilos of pure carnivore in a sharpened-leverage fight. When you’ve used a few hundred tons of propellant to get back into orbit, a few more grams is a sensible way to make sure your next great adventure isn’t through a Ursidaen alimentary canal.

The thinking is that you don’t want a device which could kill everyone in a space station. Because we all know that guns have a completely different function on the ground.

It’s just odd to think that the smartest gun on the planet usually isn’t.

China Wins E3

Last night the internet was alight with Sony’s targeted trouncing of the Microsoft X-Bone. But no matter whether you prefer the unique x86-64 cores of the Xbone, or the distinctive x86-64 architecture of the PS4, one fact is clear: neither detonates three hundred tons of rocket propellant to put people into space. Meaning both suck compared to the Shenzhou-10 which launched last night while everyone was arguing.

Shenzhou-10 launch

“We’d love to stay and argue about DRM but we’re GOING TO SPAAAAACE!” (Xinhua/Wang Jianmin via

 Some commenters praised the PS4’s relatively less insane price, seemingly unbothered by how it wasn’t elevating three people to a literal Heavenly Palace (Tiangong-1) made of human ingenuity incarnate. Others adulated how the lack of DRM generously granted players the basic consumer rights they hadn’t even known were up for debate until recently, meaning the console would be even better at keeping people motionless and not advancing the entire species, unlike the three spacenauts at this second escaping all the inconceivably tedious conflicts raging on the Earth’s surface. 

Nie Haisheng, Zhang Xiaoguang and Wang Yaping are scheduled to spend two weeks testing docking technologies with the orbiting space laboratory, working towards the construction of a permanent space station, and proving that most “geek” news sites are unworthy of the word.

BBC: Shenzhou-10: China launches next manned space mission



Test-firing the Falcon 9 Reusable prototype

Behold, a rocket booster which won’t just hurl humanity into space, it’ll come back and  ask for more. The Falcon 9R is designed to punch through the sky then kiss it better with rocket fuel, decelerating on descent until it lands neatly back on the original launch pad, ready for refuelling and the next cargo of coolness. Which means that SpaceX is finally building Thunderbird 3.


The best bit is how it’ll be tested by destruction. Future Falcon 9 launches will test the landing system in action, completing their space-business before roaring back to Earth to see what happens. The test landings will be in the most uninhabited bits of water they can find, as SpaceX candidly expect all kinds of explosive education in how not to land before getting it right.

That’s the human race in college – learning how to do things right by making all the awesomely fun mistakes first. Because we’ve finally grown up enough to start thinking about leaving home. People talk about losing the stars, but back in the sixties we were heroically reaching far beyond our grasp. Now the technology is so accessible there’s an online form to fill for lofting off the Earth.


Putting things in orbit used to need a Presidential decree. Now it needs a printer. We’re just getting started.