Saturday, 27 June 2015

The Three Graces

The exploration through Phroi Pri sector revealed some surprises.

Just past the largest black hole at the centre of the galaxy, up a bit and over to the left, the high density of ordinary stars are heavily dusted with compact, hot and dangerous neutron stars. I found myself on the edge of this field after a sideways hop from Sagittarius A* to another nearby black hole with a GRS designation, coordinates provided by a fellow explorer.

Judged to be the remnants of a super nova, a neutron star is dense, hot and spinning. The sheer number of them in this volume of space calls into question what stellar event took place here. One that left behind so many?

The calmness of space of the moment actually conceals the vicious damage once wrought here. A massive star near the end of its main sequence, and in the final stages of collapse, will shrink further under its nuclear processes. Beyond a certain point the outer shell is blown away while a core of neutrons remains. A super nova is the death of a star.

Known to explorers as "The Neutron Fields", it is more like a battle field graveyard of giant fallen stars.

While it has become routine and safe exploration there a few things to keep an eye on. Such a star has an intense heat output that can overwhelm a ship's cooling systems very quickly. The distance between safe scanning and burnout can be a matter of seconds, and even turning away to try and make safe distance can bring you into danger.

A neutron star is so small that there is only a brief visual distortion on the exit of hyperspace to show where it lies. The brightest point in the nights sky for its proximity, but otherwise a point like body that is lost in the backdrop of stars. There's also no refuelling here, unless you're lucky with a companion star.

These systems are undergoing regeneration, however, showing that from the death of a star there is a rebirth. Companion stars, dense metallic worlds and gas giants form a respectful distance away from the neutron star at the centre of the system.

That regeneration can also include new life from the fallen star, carrying its own charm, beauty, and creativity.

So when I found them, I called them The Three Graces.

Three water worlds suitable for terraforming, in tight orbit around each other and huddled in protection from this neutron star. There is already carbon-water based life here, on three planets within 12 light seconds from each other, in the remnants of a dead star.

A rather unusual late sequence S-type star also caught my eye: the first I have ever seen. A detailed sensor pass for the scientists back home, but not much more to report.

Then its back towards Sol. Narrow band comms chatter with fellow explorers helps me realise that I'm not best equipped for a longer and more extended journey out here. In particular I don't have the jump range to attempt trips out to the sparse edge of the galaxy.

So with databanks brimming with data, thoughts now turn to a small bubble of intensely occupied space, where fragile life thrives and fights to survive.

Tuesday, 23 June 2015

Day 12: Slàinte mhath!

A moments pause to savour the feeling. The left hand grips at the throttle too tightly and then loosens, allowing the fingers to flex and settle again comfortably.

Nearly there.

The starfield around me is rich, dense and bright, and there isn't a place I can look that doesn't have the glow of a star. Even in an adjacent system less that 2 light years away I can see that there's something rather strange up ahead.

The space ahead looks... dimpled, and a halo of light surrounds my destination. The gravitational distortion of light behind the black star that is lucky enough to get around and not fall in.

The jump drive spools up and the throttle slides forward as it has done so many times before. There's no time to counter the dry throat that just formed.

The ship slides into witch space one more time.

A loud boom reverberates through the ship on exit and the blue Cherenhov radiation fades away from periphery vision. A rougher transition than usual to be sure, but the gravity distortion in this system is far from usual.

The canopy glare filters lift and, for a moment, I believe that nothing has happened. Directly ahead is a dark black and empty volume of space in which my eyes can't pick out any detail. As the stars in the sky return to my sight there is a moments disorientation as they swim around in seemingly unnatural directions.

The ship comes to a halt and the dark sphere fills out with light gathered from all over the sky.

Light is bent so far out of shape that I fancy I could see the photons from my own ship thrown back at me after they've made an orbit of the event horizon. The sensor net starts waking up and spewing out crazy reports that aren't too far away from that flight of fancy. The data is confusing so I just let the machines gather and store it. One thing I know is that the jump has placed me over 60 light seconds from the nearest mass.

Then a mental correction that reminds me of the situation I'm in: its not mass, but the nearest singularity in space and time. A super massive black hole hiding over half a million solar masses.

A cramp starts to form in the muscle of my hands, and it takes me a moment to wake up to the fact that I've gone back to gripping tightly on the throttle. Releasing the controls entirely I relax and let the tension drain from me.

I've made it.

The local comms channel static clears up and a message comes through in clear: "Hello friend!"

Another commander from our original exploration team of nine has arrived, only a few minutes earlier, and is also assimilating the view. We return to normal space and line up to capture evidence of our arrival. We share the survey data for the system, and swap stories on the journey up (he's not been to the Great Annihilator yet, and plans to do so on the way back).

A small glass of Eranin pearl whiskey from personal supplies celebrates the moment, though it wouldn't be wise to drink more while this close to something so dangerous. The hours pass quickly, and this seems a very quiet part of space.

Sensors carry their familiar warning beep and another ship jumps into the system. Another commander from our group has arrived, having had some trouble with navigation computer for the last few hundred light years.

We let him savour the moment, the view, and the achievement.

As we all will. For the rest of our lives.

With thanks to Cmdr Stoneage and Cmdr Ol for the assistance in taking of photos on the edge of the event horizon.

Also to Cmdr Bikky, Cmdr Ian Norton, Cmdr Jeffrey Stoob, Cmdr Cluseau, and Cmdr Iain McC for the company and camaraderie  on the journey.

We lost one along though: started the journey but we lost touch along the way. We hope he made it back safely.

Sunday, 21 June 2015

Day 12: Eaten by the Great Annihilator

Taking the low road isn't always the slowest. Or least interesting.

While the pedant would probably point out that there is no concept of low in space, only that up and down are both relative terms that make sense when you are planet side. Having an external direction imposed by gravity means that relative directions are easily adopted, and mankind was doing it long before space travel was the norm.

Of course when it comes to practical matters, such as working with others, it isn't always about being right (through pedantry or otherwise). Much more important is about being able to have useful casual conversations rather than technically obtuse but accurate ones. Taking advantage of millions of years of evolution trumping only a few hundred years of space travel.

Not that there is any gravity to help when looking at the galaxy, but the convention appears to place Sol above the galactic plane, and ships systems consistently display maps with the Alliance at the top of the pile and generally closest to the old north star, also known as Polaris. When the home system is at (0,0,0), and the centre of the galaxy is off thataway, then consistency as about all you can hope for.

So old habits die hard and the low road it was. The others in the exploration group went high up over the top of the galactic plane and we've rarely been closer than 500Ly.

And so that low choice put me within range of another fine galactic sight of great natural interest.

The Great Annihilator. Not the first choice for a star catalogue, but a name that has stuck.

At just under 3000Ly from Sagittarius A* this is perhaps the second most familiar black hole in the galaxy. Not many know however that it has a companion black hole around 210,000Ls away.

I'm just about to jump in for a visit...

Space distorts in a dangerous way around a black hole. Light itself, normally one for flying as straight and true as possible, suffers almost turning back on itself when near a gravitational field of this magnitude.

When the transition from travelling faster than the speed of light has settled down, there's a huge eruption in the stars that make up the galactic plane. Turning in on themselves, eating each other whole, and then being regurgitating again.

It seems I've found the black hole. Putting off dinner seems like a good idea right now.

Some detailed sensor sweeps and flybys of the gravitational lensing, and then onward to the companion black hole.

That was too close! The gravitational incline of the companion causes the safety systems to kick in, and the ship drops out into whatever counts as normal space around a black hole. The singularity spins less than 250km away, and meanwhile my adrenaline surges through the roof. A fight or flight decision has to be made. Quickly.

There can be no fight with a an object that commands the power to bend light and space. Turning away so the black hole is behind me, I keep a close eye on the ship's heat levels and start the jump sequence. The ship's computer helpfully tries to throw up an escape vector marker on the holo-display. Throttle up and continue increasing the distance away from danger. The charging engine spool up reaches a crescendo.

Nothing happens.

The computer bleeps helplessly as the jump fails to engage and the engines start to flood the ship with heat. The emergency jump sequence shuts down and mercifully the heat begins to dissipate safely. My trigger finger moves away from the heatsink launch button, the charge remains available and unused, while the temperature drains back to sensible levels.

Am I trapped?

The computer is so confused by the local distortion that it can't provide a safe escape. I'm not even sure if there is one - perhaps I'm too close. Try again.

The jump announcement signals ready and the heat builds again. I scour the sky for a weakening of space that will allow me free, trusting to the physics of the situation to find a path free instead of the onboard navigation imbecile. There's no sign of an escape vector where I'm pointed.

The controls lock and the timer countdown begins. There's more visible distortion of the galactic plane as the black hole spits me out.  The ship climbs to a safe distance and begins the acceleration away from danger.

Relief sets in and my stomach growls its hunger pangs.

Only when I've made it to the next system.

(Editor's note: the original intro video has now been replaced with an extended version at around 13 minutes of HD black hole footage)

Saturday, 20 June 2015

Day 11: The double scoop

Collective madness.

Those who have been out amongst the stars, travelled far, and returned, will know that a certain routine sets in after a while. We've managed to maintain a good camaraderie at the times when comms has been established over the distance that we've been travelling, and the separation between the ships in space.

But a need to try something different steps to the fore. A break to the routine. The taking of a risk in a profession mostly noted for being adverse and always looking to the longer term result.

So something like this was bound to happen, a rebellion of sorts that allows you to shake something out of your system. Otherwise a tension builds up that distracts in an even more dangerous way.

The cabin temperature builds up as the heat accumulates in the ship. 85%... 92%... 97%. Insistent klaxons demanding attention and prompt action are rendered meaningless. There is nowhere to go and nothing that can be done except to complete the transit between the stars. The cabin fills with an intense dry heat as the cooling mechanisms struggle to cope.

It flattens out at 98% and then falls back in relief to more normal operating levels. A bead of sweat runs down the side of my temple and the cooked feeling fades away.

Moments later a fellow explorer in our group reports arriving at a similar tight binary star system over 500Ly away. After hearing of my exploit the madness jumps this distance and he has to repeat exactly the same manoeuvre. Communication is lost for a moment from the interference of the stars, but resumes with a jubilant cheer and laughter with a slightly manic edge to it. I know how that feels.

The journey continues with the tension released and balance restored.

For both of us.

Yesterday's waterworld with rings clearly wasn't nearly as unique as I'd thought for. After only a few jumps in there was another one waiting for me, this time with caps of ice.

The A class star that it orbits also casts a disturbing muddy white hue that I don't think I have ever seen before. It makes the gas giant look altogether gruesome and unreal.

As if on cue I hear the drip...drip... drip behind me of water onto a metal plate. The fresh water condenser and purifier, recently broken, has started working again for no apparent reason. A few drops of water drip out as the machine goes through an internal cleaning cycle. Operation is restored.

The transit between the twin stars must have shaken something lose, but I'll still have to keep an eye on it. I have fresh water again and the storage containers accumulate a supply that will keep me going much further. I'll draw some water out and build up a reserve in case it packs in again.

Getting back into the routine and I find myself in a fortunate position. Close enough to another stellar object with a most appropriate name, and also worthy of a visit.

Course change set. Jump initiated.

Video link (YouTube): Elite Dangerous: Binary star refuelling
Duration: 0:50

Friday, 19 June 2015

Day 10: Escaping the sea of rocks

The navigation controls vibrate recklessly in my hands. This is a dangerous approach that I'm undertaking and there's precious little out here to help if things go wrong. The nearest ship I can contact is over 1000Ly away and unaware that I'm conducting an operation of this nature.

It won't matter anyway. The remlock's oxygen supply would fail before they could get here.

There is no nav beacon to assist the drop to normal space, and the dizzying rush of rocks in the ring brings makes the throat constrict. That dangerous part that I mentioned? One unlucky roll of the dice and I could end up with an asteroid directly in my path. A starship grave in a system unlikely ever to see human eyes again.

It has been a while since I've flown in a ring field. The drills from the res combat come back quickly though. Fight in the illuminated rings. Only boost towards clear space. Disable flight assist only when you can see where you'll drift. So the pleasure of flying tightly among the rocks returns. A perverse and risky pleasure perhaps, considering where I am, but a satisfying one nonetheless.

So the reason why I'm here? Another water world. But an unusual one with its own ring system this time. A close survey for the research scientists back home to determine the composition of the object that once orbited this planet and then broke apart.

One enthusiastic boost too many and the Diamondback leaps clear of the sea of rocks for a moment, framing the water world against the backdrop of a dense curtain of stars.

With the secrets of that waterworld now stored securely in my exploration logs, it is time to move on. This close to the centre and curios start to arrive thick and fast.

A cluster of Herbig Ae/Be stars divert me from the journey on. Spinning at visible incredible rates, and not quite yet on the hydrogen burning main sequence, these incredibly bright stars will continue their gravitational collapse and ignite into huge class A/B stars that burn a blueish white.

The other T-Tauri stars are a bonus... almost a complete system full of them!

Still travelling above the galactic plane means that I can now look down on the stunning disc of our galaxy. It washes past the edge of my canopy and back towards the distance star systems I know of as home.

With the density of Herbig and neutron stars on the increase it is inevitable that another stellar object makes an appearance. A smaller brother to its sibling at the centre of the galaxy, it still manages to distort the bright stars as space and time are bent under an intense gravitational flux.

Dropping to within a few tens of kilometres is a frightening experience. This is good practice for the arrival at the giant ahead though, so I grit my teeth and keep an eye on the ships health reports. Rumours and bar scuttle tell of a path to immortality through a black hole, of ships going in and never returning, forever visible as they fall into the horizon until their last photons are no longer able to escape.

I'm not prepared to take a leap of faith like that.

Thursday, 18 June 2015

Day 9: Boxing clever

Their illumination fills the cockpit. Space is no longer dark and empty.

So bright that they are visible while scooping fuel in tight orbit around the sun: a dense wall of pinpoints scattered across the sky in vast quantity and without care.

It might take a lifetime to visit them all, catalogue all of the bodies that are in orbit, and find all the curiosities that are hidden away. A part of me would love to go and explore, but there is another, stronger, siren call to darkness.

The stars are now close enough together that route planning is taking its toll on the computational power at my disposal and it takes a few seconds to calculate the next route. I'm still over 9000Ly out from the core and the star density field only gets tighter from here. Something to keep an eye on.

And then a curious thing.

The density of stars just suddenly falls off as if I've thrown myself off of a cliff. The skies are clear and empty, with darkness once again dominating the the backdrop. Orienting the ship with the next destination brings a second surprise.

There is a tight cluster of bright stars ahead.

It is almost as if a surgeon's scalpel has cut away a volume of space. Not needed to make this part of the galaxy as it is clearly surplus to requirements. Imagination flares up and, for a moment, I imagine that volume of space tucked away in the galactic equivalent of a "lost and found" department.

I'll have to compare notes with Cmdr Ol, who has passed through similar box like volumes of space recently.

A few other curios and frustrations come to the fore. A gas giant with life in its upper atmosphere, a thin layer of turbulent water vapour.

That there is life on this scale and in this hostile a location speaks for the tenacity of life. The assumption that it is truly aware, or even intelligent, in a place like this is difficult to imagine however. Being born in such a place suggests a low glass ceiling on the size and complexity for this form of life. So I can't help but reflect on the privileged position that I have.

For my species the glass ceiling has been very high. At least... I assume it has.

A brief moment of disappointment when I find that I've mistaken a heavy metal planet with rings for a water world or even an earth-like. Hopefully that won't happen again. The clarity and structure in the rings is still a triumph over entropy though, and an elegantly beautiful view, so I don't begrudge the journey in-system to get here.

Finally, another beautiful waterworld that carries the recommendation from the ships computer that it is terraformable. Any life on this planet would not even know where to begin when looking for stellar constellations and heroes in the stars.

There are some rare Herbig Ae/Be stars that I can see up ahead - setting course and destination.

Wednesday, 17 June 2015

Day 8: Out of the blue

The sky is very much brighter than I have ever seen it before. Travelling coreward I know that there will be more stars: a full sky that leaves no dark place to hide.

I've heard the rumours and stories told in bars, and seen the holo-vids from those that have returned.

There's a particularly bright patch - a much higher density of O, B, A and F types than burn so very hot at the blue end of the spectrum. The bright light crowds in and I'd better start getting used to it.

There's bloody nothing else to look at right now so carry on... carry on...

Tuesday, 16 June 2015

Day 7: A waterfall of stars

It is necessary to get away from the routine every now and again.

Much of the time is spent replenishing ship fuel, choosing the next navigation destination, or in transit to the next system. Time mostly spent in proximity to the main star, and dealing with the brightness of tonnes of hydrogen fusing energetically every second. A brilliant glare that forces the canopy to dim and conceal beauty.

The journey so far has taken me out of the galactic plane and closer to the edge. Only a few hundred light years mind, but there seems to be a sweet spot at around half way towards the centre of the galaxy. A sweet spot where the intense glow of tightly packed stars is still ahead, and the dim sparse light of edge of the galaxy lie far behind.

Speeding out of the suns corona causes the brightness filters lift and clear, revealing the waterfall of stars cascading off the edge of the galaxy.

Looking up and across the centre of the galactic plane obscures the detail, and leaves a familiar darkness that is only punctured by a few close stars. Looking down I can see the broad smudge of stars ahead that are at the edge of the bright core of the galaxy.

The waterfall curtain will part and surround me on travelling further forward, but for now their subtle illumination of the night sky is a beautiful sight for this explorer.

Monday, 15 June 2015

Day 6: Not a drop

They say that the space rat that doesn't stay clean doesn't care about life.

When its a closed volume of space, and you rely on all of your systems working at high efficiency, then a messy ship is dangerous. A leak could be an early sign of imminent failure, or a strange irregular sound a harbinger of trouble.

If the signs of danger are difficult to spot amongst the dirt and the loud noises then the dirt and loud noise must themselves be a danger to life. So a space rat keeps his ship clean, quiet, and tidy, taking comfort from the flash of console lights and hum of safety devices keeping the ship functioning and you alive.

Which is why the breakdown of the water reclamation unit came as a complete surprise. A stream of cool and refreshing water one minute, then only a drop or two from condensation on the cooler. Then nothing.

Stopping for investigation showed no sign of a problem that needed to be fixed. Just no water flowing.

A quick calculation and I had just about enough water to get there and back if the rationing started now. The practice of using the recycling devices at this early stage in the journey meant I'd caught an issue before it was critical and there was a full reliance on it being operational.

Onward then. I haven't quite reached the point of no return. Knowing what was recycled to become fresh water - well lets just say the storage tanks can cope and it won't be missed for a while.

Then a cruel twist in the exploration gives me a hard to shake sensation that the universe is having its own private little joke at my expense.

A water world to the left of me.

A water world to the right of me.

A chilled ice world at 223Kelvin, with only a thin layer of unfrozen water caps.

And even a water world that acts as a moon.

None are within reach and landing on one would probably solve my water problems for good, though the ship is not yet equipped to do that kind of exploration.

So you probably can't blame me for finding the sight of water worlds a little bit too much at the moment. I'd give much to see something forest-like and with carbon based indigenous life of its own.

Not furry though... definitely not furry.

Sunday, 14 June 2015

Day 5: Sun flare

Mostly travelling today, but before moving off into the desert of stars outside NGC6357, one last look around found a rather unusual looking system. This star formation of a large number of T-Tauri type stars in a single system might well be a characteristic of the star formation within this nebula.

The gravitational collapse of the T-Tauri, towards a density sufficient for hydrogen fusion to initiate, places them as pre-main sequence stars. They are also the bane of travellers as they often appear to be the more common M-type star, with the main characteristic of being unscoopable.

The flare of a star while fuel scooping is a beautiful sight to watch. Almost reaching out to my tight orbit I felt it better to peel off than continue into the mass of ejected material.

Heat management of the Diamondback continues to amaze - a thoroughly modern ship with safety in exploration in mind. Moments later I'm starting the jump to the next system while still scooping fuel.

After leaving NGC6357 a small volcanic planet, rich in metals and minerals catches the eye. I don't know when the mining teams will be able to get out this far, but the scarring on the surface makes for an angry and hostile visage.

Day 4: The 3 ages of man

Drawing away from the Cat's Paw nebulae and, leaving behind this explorer's disappointment, the journey continues on to the next nebula.

NGC 6357 grows larger as its inky blackness soon blots out the sky. The stars of our galaxy disappear as the heavy black curtain is gradually drawn to a close.

The bright points of hot class A and O stars come to the fore. A constellation obscured by distance and the bright background now takes prominence in the sky. Our ancestors created shapes in the stars and worshipped them, told stories of great acts of bravery that placed heroes and symbols in the sky to watch over them.

For a moment's indulgence between jumps I try and imagine a story behind this configuration of stars. A brave young man, spear held high, ready to slay an implacable foe.

Jump. Moving clear of the bright star and locating the constellation again, it has become a stalwart mature hunter carrying provisions home to family.

Jump. An old man hunched over and relying on a walking stick. Revered in wisdom and experience.

Shaking my head clears the picture from my mind as the journey of 60 light years has distorted the formation of the stars beyond recognition. The old superstitions surrounding the configuration of the stars are long gone. It is difficult to worship the stars when you wander among them, and much has fallen to the wayside because it could only be seen from the single viewpoint of Sol, our origin system.

An awe still remains though: of the true scale unknown and un-knowable. Fears and superstitions of another kind now live out here amongst the stars.

Entering the darkness of the nebula leaves behind the bright glow of the galaxy. A chance to survey the nearby stars for curiosities, and the cartography maps are throwing up a few named systems.

A neutron star! Intense brightness from this collapsed remnant of a supernova floods the canopy, and the brightness filters struggle to control it. The scars and scratches on the canopy fog the view ahead.

The heat of the star threaten to overwhelm the ships systems, rising sharply towards the upper safety limits. Better to back off, and veer away from the approach, than be caught in a maelstrom of heat death.

Finally! Small black holes of only a few solar masses in size. Three of them in one system CL PISMIS 3.

Flying close shows their gravitational lensing of the background, and the swirl of stars and drawing a cloak around the mysteries of these singularities. Scanned for the stellar cartography scientists back home, their secrets will remain veiled for a while longer I'm sure.

The curiosities of NGC6357 have been exhausted and thoughts return to fuel scooping for the journey onward.

This leg of the trip has made good progress, and we're almost 1/3 of the way to our destination.

The expanse ahead is a long desert with grains of stars and no oasis of nebulae in easy sight. I'll have to keep an eye out for other curios, but for now its time to take a rest.

Out of range of the nearest black hole of course.

Saturday, 13 June 2015

Day 3: Paw of the Cat

More trouble with binary suns.

After yesterday's adrenaline rush of almost crashing into the second sun of a binary system, it happened again.

Better prepared this time, though I know not what I could do if I ended up inside one of these behemoths.

Progress has been sure and the light years are starting to accumulate. Part the way through Day 3 and around 1/8 of the distance covered.

Moving onward to the Cat's Paw nebula. Not too far off of the main highway to Sagittarius A*, and there's some hope that it will be a place of interest.

I'm not one to take a selfie, but seeing the Cat's Paw reflected I couldn't resist.

Ever closer. The nebular soon grows to dominate the sky.

The anticipation of arrival was, however, far higher than the excitement of arriving at the nebula to survey it. Only small in size and there was little to see here. It was a cloud of dust, hydrogen, helium and other ionised gases and not yet making a contribution as a stellar nursery.

A little disappointed having made the detour especially, however there's another larger and more promising smudge of darkness ahead in the form of NBC 6357...