Tuesday, 14 July 2015

Exploration promotion - Data analysis

A compilation of some of the statistics from the journey to Sagittarius A* and back again. Promotion jumped from Pathfinder(54%) to Ranger (67%).

The journey

  • Start date: 10th June 3301
  • Returned on: 8th July 3301
  • Days travelled: 29
There were times when it felt longer, however the company was excellent and the time passed in a most agreeable way.

  • Systems visited: 2204
  • Systems newly discovered: 613
  • Distance travelled (estimated): 55,000 Ly

The number of newly discovered systems is lower then I'd thought for, and it turns out that the Pilot's Federation only counts the system if there is a deep scan of a body in it. In my interest in getting somewhere else, and if there wasn't anything worth the time then there was no deep scan. Something to bear in mind for the next trip out.

  • Hull damage: 6%
  • Total cost of repairs (ships systems): 6,490Cr
  • Ship integrity: 4%, 18,191Cr repair
  • Paintwork remaining: 3%
  • Heatsinks used: 3

I can see why the Diamondback Explorer is a popular ship for exploration. The repair bill has been quite respectably low, and the ship resilient to heat issues.

Special bodies found

The number and types of special bodies that were scanned can be summarised as:

Earth-like Worlds (ELW)
Water worlds (WW)
Neutron Stars
Black Holes
Herbig Ae/Be

  • Total credit for all exploration data: 32.95MCr
  • Time taken to sell exploration data: 82 minutes

While I'm sure that there are a lot more Earth-likes and water worlds that could have been explored, their placement in the system would have made them time prohibitive. Also there are a few black holes in there that have already been well visited by other commanders: Sagittarius A* and The Great Annihilator spring to mind.

Several ELW have already picked up names where no-one else has visited. The first found was named Charybdis: quite naturally and without any vanity in exploration involved at all. After that additional names followed such as Triffid, Cupid, Fueleus Ratteus, Fiji, and Cuchulainn as discoveries were offered out to other commanders for naming.

Some of the rather special systems found:
  • The Three Graces were at Phroi Pri VU-V d3-1246 and not too far from Sagittarius A*.
  • An S-type star in Phroi Pri WU-V d3-1033
  • The littlest nebula of NGC 6153 was at CD-39 10464 with a Wolf-Rayet star.
If you're ever in the area then they're worth a visit.

Although there are many ELWs in the galaxy this one caught my eye, having a lovely triple sun in its sky.

Thursday, 9 July 2015

The escort home

A favourite pastime of explorers is the canyon run, something that seems to draw us like moths to a flame. The rules are simple enough to comprehend and, with a data bank full of exploration data, the risk can also be high. There are brave and smart ways to run the canyon. But many more stupid ones as well. A few are even unlucky.

Find a binary star system where the two stars are close together. Very close together. Tweak your heat management to start as low as possible, line up for the gap in between and then try to push through. The fuel scoop will engage but that's the least of your worries. The heat rises and rises while you slow down in the gravity well of both stars, making it feel like wading through molasses.

The only sweet thing is when you get out the other side both intact and without damage. You feel like you want to get out and push the ship to safety: to a point where radiative heat works in your favour to take away the heat instead of heavily piling on more.

It always helps to have something to aim for. Trying to kill your friends isn't one of them though.

750 light years from civilised space.

Before embarking on this journey I used to think all humanity occupied a huge volume of space. Now I'm not so sure. Ingenuity means that there are many systems where we can live and work, although the edges are pretty rough. After this trip I know can jump across human space in around half an hour.

We're very densely packed in and that feels so very small now.

I'd like to say that the hands grasping the throttle and joystick are steady, but that wouldn't be true. The last time I saw another human being was in the cockpit of another ship at Sagittarius A* over two weeks ago. For this last leg of the voyage I bring friends with me though, and that'll make all the difference.

Friends in combat ships and prepared to take on any trouble that shows an interest in this much exploration data. I'm glad they're going to be there as I'm feeling more fragile now than at any time out there beyond the human bubble of space.

The elements are somewhat more predictable after all, and don't bear a grudge either.

The first challenge however is meeting up just outside the bubble, and a likely candidate system pops up: my choice of HIP 71462, and it just so happened to have an inconvenient and tight binary star formation. For me its passing through the Lupus Dark Regions to get there and I'm third to arrive. Dropping out of witchspace and it's damn good to see two combat capable ships from the wing waiting for me: a Vulture and a Cobra.

Old habits die hard and, after completing a quarter orbit of the nearest sun while checking my heat levels, can't help but dive my ship through the gap between the stars. Peaking at 97% and then falling away that will be the last canyon run for me before docking.

We dance around the stars like fireflies: bright pinpoints of light in space. There's a short wait while our last companion reaches the meeting point.

The Python's exit from witchspace travels visibly on the scanner over the last few thousand light seconds as the ships slows down and comes to a virtual stop. The jump exit point has bisected the binary stars dangerously, and that ship now nestles deeply in between them trying to push itself out. Involuntarily running hot and even hotter with nowhere to dump waste heat from the jump, and much more flooding in.

The hairs stand up on the back of my neck as the comms comes to life squawking temperature readings. "93...98...100...110...127...at least the fuelscooping is done!" There's a pause that just runs on longer than it should and then the ship emerges, accelerating away: "Ah... just a bit of heat damage, it's minor and no problem."

That was downright unlucky. That's a wry smile on my part though: he's been calm under fire and a complete professional about the whole thing.

Dropping back into normal space we all form up to take a look at each other's ships. The Python looks fine, though for the rest of the journey I'm pretty much convinced that I can see or hear bits falling off from heat stress.

You know its time to start moving on when pilots flying fast, agile and well shielded ships take it upon themselves to zip around and in-between those that are still parked up.

I've previously run escort for a returning explorer and now that favour is kindly being returned, and so we plan the remainder of the journey based on what we learnt the last time. The Diamondback has the largest jump range of all and could easily outrun the escort, so a more practical wing formation is needed.

We pick up on the strategy that we used last time to good effect with 4 vessels: the lead ship with the shortest jump range plans the route and jumps onward first. Then the escorted ship, and finally followed by the 2 remaining. It means that there was always a ship in the system to assist and cover, and the 1-1-2 formation made sure this was always true.

Post-op review refined it down to a 1-2-1 diamond backed formation giving more ships with the escorted. We learn and refine.

A python pilot's concern: does my wake look big in this?

Practice and preparation count for a very great deal, and escorting valuable goods across occupied space carries its own kinds of tension. A destination recommended by a fellow explorer was our target: the Dohkwithi system has an Alliance Orbis station within only a few tens of light seconds from the sun, minimizing risk all round.

We set out knowing where we had to go and what we had to do.

So I wasn't quite sure how to feel when it was strangely quiet and uneventful, and went down without a single hitch.

Every ship that we saw showed a masterful disinterest in what was going on. Everyone went about their business and declined to stick their nose into ours. Exactly what was wanted and hoped for. But I still can't help but feel that I would have liked to give my bodyguards something to point their trigger fingers at.

Arriving in Dohkwithi we formed up around the station and took group photos of the safe return. Immense relief on my part now safely at the end of this journey, and grateful for the support of friends.

Then for something that no-one else could help me with. I had to remember how to dock.

For the moment there is exploration data to unload, around 2200 systems worth. A quick scan through GalNet to catch up shows that I might just have found my next calling. A coded message perhaps, but if so then not very subtle.

Now how might they have known I was back?

With thanks to CMDR Sturmwaffel (Python), CMDR Paws (Vulture), and CMDR Unrealization (Cobra) for providing escort and fine company back into (un)civilized space. Also to those who joined us in TeamSpeak for the journey on the way (you know who you are).

The littlest nebula

One last item piqued my interest on the way back. NGC 6153 is a curiosity, of that there's no doubt.

The star charts report it as a "planetary nebula" - one that is only around one light year across - and the expanding remnants of an old red star. Viewed from the nearest system the size of the nebula is quite apparent and, despite the name, there is no connection with planetary objects here. The composition is highly unusual and very nitrogen rich, suggesting that the star originated in another part of this galaxy.

There are enough explorers out there now to make a search for the origin of this star will happen, at least in breadth of the galaxy if not in depth.

Easily missed on the map, it has a characteristic emission profile that draws attention. The chemical spectra are coming back with neon, argon, oxygen, chlorine and carbon at far higher levels than expected from the local neighbourhood.

The Wolf-Rayet at the centre of the planetary nebula is also a common feature of this kind of phenomenon. With most of the outer core gone the inner body carries the remaining heavier elements. Incredibly hot, and emitting much of its light into the ultra-violet.

The Pillars of Creation

Having seen a fair few number of water worlds and Earth like planets so far, it still surprises me that there is a tug at the heart strings when I find another. A glimpse at the possibilities, the opportunities, and the paths that life might take.

A reminder of the origin system, still over 7000Ly away. Having spent most of my life largely ignoring it while in easy travel, perhaps I have come to appreciate it more from this distance.

There is no lack of interesting things to find out here.

Just as worlds are a birthplace for life, so the stars themselves must also have their own stellar nursery. That life births into existence, struggles and fights to survive, grows old, and then dies is a familiar thing. Harder to imagine for stars where the scale is over billions of years, and our lives are ephemeral by comparison. Mankind didn't even exist as a species when these stars entered the galaxy.

The Eagle Nebula is actively birthing new stars, a bright cluster burning incandescent in the sky. A search through those stars will reveal much about early solar system, the formation of planets and the other ancillary bodies that are left over.

The scientists are always keen to obtain more information and run comparisons since the last visit by an explorer. There have been quite a few explorers in this part of space, as markers from previous visitors are plainly visible.

Inside Eagle Nebula and looking towards the birthing stars

Stars born from the remnants of a dead supernova at the Eagle Nebula

Leaving the Eagle Nebula behind, and running parallel to the bright cluster of stars reborn anew.

That tug at the heartstrings is growing rather strong now. Only one more detour before making the run back to the bubble of humanity.

Tuesday, 7 July 2015

Roll up, roll up!

"Roll up! Roll up! Witness the daring explorer place life, limb, and exploration data on the line!"

The ships engines hum in a routine and disinterested manner. The occasional plinking sound from mechanical systems that carry the heat generated to the outer edge of the vessel. 

"Stare deeply into the black hole! A monstrous beast that shouldn't exist in the universe! A thing to scare all common sense and bravery!"

The water extractor has developed a small rattle and a tinny whine. I'll get it overhauled when I get back, but for now there's enough water stored to be able to make the rest of the journey safely. There shouldn't be any trouble on that front.

"Risking life and limb to wring every last nanogram of data, the explorer can stand on the brink of danger! And some reckless souls will fall, never to be seen again, in our universe or the next!"

Another system with an M-class star fills the main view. There is still more than half a tank of fuel so no need to refuel here. Pulling back on the controls points the ship off to the next destination. Scanned data captured and stored, a quick look shows nothing worth staying for, and the countdown begins.

"Moving over to the other side of the Orca, as we continue this tour of fearsome and noble galactic monstrosities, you can see the accretion disc hurling matter into the black hole."

The tourist guide in my head has stopped speaking for the moment, and is no longer replaying the events in my mind.

Its all quiet now. Back to normal. But a few hours ago all hell had broken lose.

The stars pirouette around the gravitational mass, drawing all of the galaxy around itself as a cloak to hide its singularity.

More sensor data streams in about the nature of these beasts. Studied by many explorers before me, and many more to follow, the black hole still has some mysteries to reveal. Setting up another sensor pass should capture enough for now, and then onto another exploration bounty claimed. 

The feeling of being at the eye of the storm is one that can't be shaken.

The black hole isn't a large one as they go, I've already visited larger, and the orbit around the body is one that even the onboard computer can calculate. Leaving the computer to continue the orbit, my full attention turns to the sensors to ensure they remain pointed where they should.

One star races across the field of view, up to the edge of the hole, then takes an abrupt right angle turn and traces a path around the event horizon, before continuing on its way. If I can get the spectral profile of that star then the event horizon might be mapped with greater theoretical understanding.

My distraction is my undoing. The klaxons go off and, deep in concentration chasing the star, the blaring sound is a distance call on my attention. Only a moment mind, but that could be enough to be fatal, while the ship grinds and threatens to shake itself apart in protest. In relief it drops out into sub-light space with a vicious rattle.

Though normal doesn't quite begin to describe this volume of space. I've been close to a black hole before, more by accident than by design, but this one has a rather murky and claustrophobic feeling to it.

The physics inside here is still playing havoc with my sensors and eyes. The engine trails seem to be falling behind me and to one side.

Sensor data continues to pour in. But really it is time to go. This doesn't feel safe to me.

An invisible barrier pushes up and I can feel my ship veer off to one side.

Yes, really. Time to go.

Lining up the next system it is tucked off to one side, and away from the black hole. There is no personal experience here of jumping into witch space from where I am.

Deep breath. Stab at the drive engage and hope...

The rush into hyperspace was most welcome. Jumping from inside the black had clearly been safer than I'd thought, and I now have the sensor records to show for it. One day this will become a tourist spot for hordes of Orca full of gawping holidaymakers.

"Moving on to the noble and beautiful! The three graces are a rare sight in our galaxy! And one of extreme beauty I must say! Named by the Commander of the Federation of Pilots who first discovered them..."

The tourist guide is back. 

I'm making his life possible by risking my own. Remind me not to tip him at the end of the voyage.