24 08 2012

(All years given in Earth orbits.)



The Colonisation of Fram: 2084-2093CE

We came to Alpha Centauri and made Planetfall upon Fram in 2084; in the following years, we explored farther and farther afield, and as we did so, our Colony grew.

Shortly after the first Foundation Day, we discovered evidence of methane ice aquifers. The basic human need for water drove prospecting for purer sources of water ice, and technical advances in aeronautics and spaceplanes drove these prospectors farther from the colony. Propelled by the need for resources in situ, the most intrepid of explorers circumnavigated the equator and reached the poles.

The first mission to the north pole of Fram, mounted in our second year, embraced the tradition of Fram, that ship after which we had named our world and which in centuries past bore the explorers Amundsen, Nansen, Sverdrup, Wisting as they explored the poles of our Homeworld. Those who stood at Fram’s north pole watched the complex auroras of two main sequence stars.

We established small-scale, automated mines far from the colonies: some to excavate metals, but most to recover clathrates from the underground aquifers. These mines processed the clathrates, burned away the methane, and stored the water ices for transport back to the colonies. By releasing that trapped methane into the atmosphere, we began the slow process of heating our world.

Exploration was not limited to the surface of Fram. Driven by the mysterious results of a gamma-ray survey in our first year, our scientists took advantage of the noiseless skies and through radio and infrared astronomy watched the heavens in many wavelengths. The surface of Amundsen was mapped and biologists further examined the fossilised remains of methanogens found on that moon. And, if only in the spirit of the age of exploration, small missions were sent to the shepherd moons of Sverdrup and Nansen.

Work began on refitting the wreck of the Quoqasi, so terribly damaged during the Texas Crisis. Most of the drive section had been salvaged, which was fortunate in that the engines were the most important and most difficult to manufacture parts of the ship. The construction of a new fusion reactor was beyond the capabilities of the colony, and so, with some difficulty, we removed the reactor from the Mayflower and installed it in Quoqasi. A new habitat section was constructed – much smaller, and lacking the extensive protection necessary for an interstellar starship – and two orbiters were mated to the ship. After four years of construction and refitting, the ship was christened as Quoqasi II, the first of Fram’s system ships. Never again would she sail across interstellar distances, but she could travel through the solar system as our orbiters could not.

Five years after Planetfall, Quoqasi II and a crew of one hundred left on a two year, round-trip mission to explore the planets of Maud and Belgica, orbiting Alpha Centauri A, over twenty astronomical units from Fram.


Immigration: 2093-2108CE

While the colonies were busy preparing the Quoqasi II for her voyage and expanding infrastructure across the globe, Earth received the first of our messages, tight-beamed back to Sol upon our Planetfall. These messages confirmed that the Quoqasi and Mayflower had safely arrived and that a colony had been established; with that information, the United Nations dispatched the Second Fleet.

Nine years after Planetfall, the Second Fleet arrived. First came the colony ship Alexander, and almost immediately we knew something was wrong. Alexander was of the same design as Quoqasi, and bore four colony pods each with a thousand colonists aboard; however, while in transit between Sol and Alpha Centauri, one of these pods had suffered a critical life support failure. We welcomed only three thousand new colonists to Fram, and, ninety days later, the cargo ship Charlotte.

The surviving colony pods of the Alexander settled, with carefully planned descents, in the same crater as those of the Quoqasi. These pods formed a sparse city, with colonists moving cautiously from pressurised space to pressurised space – and from this city we projected human habitation upon Fram. The city was like the artist’s brush, a concentrated point of ingenuity and creativity, from which an image was painted upon the canvas of Fram’s landscape.

In the year following the arrival of the Second Fleet, the failed colony pod of the Alexander was repaired and refurbished. The pod was settled near the Wisting Base on Amundsen, and, with this improved infrastructure, Wisting grew into its own colony. Together, Wisting and Port Mayflower grew into twin colonies criss-crossed by the traffic of orbiters, shuttles and spaceplanes, and grew also into the gateway between the surface of Fram and the solar system.

Fleets from Earth bearing migrants across the stars arrived every five years. The Third Fleet, of the colony ship Constantine and the cargo ship Justinian, made landing fourteen years after Planetfall; while the Fourth Fleet, of the colony ship Zheng He and the cargo ship Suleiman the Magnificent, made landing nineteen years after Planetfall.

With the landing of the colony pods of the Zheng He, a total of fifteen pods were settled in the same crater. As the colony grew, structures grew up around the dominating bulk of the pods, and, over the course of years, a connected settlement developed. Construction began on a great dome that, anchored on the apron of the crater, would encase the colony pods in a large, pressurised and warmed space, and allow the collection of structures to become a single city. Construction of The Dome took two years, and was completed twenty-one years after Planetfall, and the settlement was inaugurated as the city of Junction.

Yet, these years of progress were not sustained. The completion of a series of great projects in the years after the construction of The Dome raised questions of corruption in the governing Presidium. Dissatisfaction curdled in the government of Junction City until sparked by the contentious contract for the construction of a cracking plant; public objection led to a constitutional crisis and the collapse of the Presidium in popular revolution. Two Consuls and a Senate replaced the Presidium and the Central Committee that had governed the colony of Fram since Planetfall.

And so it was a brave, young Republic of Fram that welcomed the Fourth Fleet to Alpha Centauri, twenty-four years after Planetfall.


The Years of Kohrism: 2108-2120CE

A consequence of the establishment of the Republic was that several members of the Kohrist party suddenly came to enjoy political power. The Kohrists, born of the immigration from Earth, had existed in the years before the revolution, but had been seen less as a political force than a philosophical perspective. They were believers in the writing of Leopold Kohr, and contested the ideas of continued economic growth and ‘the cult of bigness,’ and so too rejected the benefits of unmitigated migration from Earth. The arrival of the Cato and Victoria in the months after the revolution was thus met with growing scepticism in the government of Fram.

The Kohrists might have remained a marginalised ideology. But, while the colonists of the Fourth Fleet were still establishing a second city and the Republic adapting to government beyond the walls of Junction, a journal paper was published estimating that easily accessible and easily refinable aquifers of water ice might be exhausted within fifty years. Limited water restrictions were introduced, and missions to the scattered disc were planned, where astronomers had discovered countless cold, icy objects and dwarf planets.

And then, only two months later, astronomers detected the fusion drive of another colony ship from Earth as it swung about to decelerate – two years ahead of schedule.

The United Nations had dramatically accelerated emigration from our overpopulated Homeworld. The Fifth Fleet arrived only three years after the Fourth – twenty-seven years after Planetfall – and it bore many more colonists than previous fleets. The colony ship Armstrong was of a new, larger design, with capacity for 12,000 colonists.

Tragically, in the rush to flee the population pressures of Sol, poor construction had left the colonists of the Armstrong insufficiently shielded from the ship’s engines and reactor. Almost thirty percent of the crew had died on the journey to Alpha Centauri, and the survivors suffered to varying degrees from prolonged radiation sickness. This ship of the sickly and the dead, limping through the last years of its interstellar journey in appalling conditions, conveyed to Fram eight and a half thousand persons entirely dependent upon the almost twenty-five thousand citizens of Fram. The delayed arrival of the cargo ship Aldrin barely counterbalanced this immense drain on the Colony’s resources.

With the threat to Fram’s aquifers of clathrates and the pressures of growing population, the Kohrists rose in popularity. The election of Consuls in that year, the first election since the revolution, saw the appointment of two prominent Kohrists. With this shift in the political wind came changes to the cultural climate: survivors of the Fifth Fleet were no longer called ‘immigrants’ but ‘refugees,’ and the citizenry grasped for humane solutions to the crisis.

Twenty-seven years after Planetfall, we sent a message to Earth detailing the fate of the Armstrong and requesting that migration be slowed. That message would not reach Sol for four and a half years.

In that time, the Sixth Fleet arrived; in mercifully better condition that that which preceded it. Its colonists settled with those of the Fourth and diminished Fifth Fleets and together formed the city of Lacaille, hundreds of kilometres to the west. Lacaille too had its own space elevator, connected to Port Victoria.

Fram’s population had doubled in less than six years, and now approached fifty thousand.

Earth received our request to slow migration some time in Planetfall +31; it had by then already dispatched the Seventh Fleet, which arrived two years later. The Senate permitted these colonists to settle a new city far to the east of Junction, but internal tensions in the polity were intensified by the arrival of the Eighth Fleet in Planetfall +36. This last fleet had clearly departed Sol after Earth had received Fram’s request, demonstrating the United Nations’ disregard for its extrasolar colony. Senate elections in that year gave a supermajority to the Kohrists.

Among the established citizenry of the early fleets, in the planet’s media and in the chambers of the Senate, vitriol directed against Earth was plainly evident. But this anger was not unanimous. Among the most recent of colonists, those derisively termed ‘refugees’ by those who had come to Fram earlier, there was a nascent loyalty to Earth. The massive numbers of the loyalists – clustered as they were in the young cities of Lacaille and al-Zulmān – were, however, offset by the politically enfranchised separatists, who were concentrated in the capital and enjoyed representation in the Senate.

The Senate and Consuls of the Republic of Fram voted overwhelmingly to secede from the United Nations, and, thirty-six years after our arrival on Fram, we sent a message to Earth declaring our independence and denying entry to any further ships bearing immigrants from Sol.


The Years of Independence: 2120-2145CE

Following secession, Fram looked inward. Development of the colony was focussed in two dimensions: assimilating those colonists who had arrived in the last decade, and further developing water resources. Between the arrival of the Seventh and Eighth Fleets, a mission was launched to the scattered disc; in the first year of independence, this mission arrived at the icy dwarf planet Volumnia.

AI drones constructed mines across one hemisphere of Volumnia: these mines refined water ices into deuterium isotopes, amassed this deuterium into packets, and then installed these packets at points on Volumnia’s surface. These deuterium devices were bombarded by high-density neutrons and achieved thermonuclear fusion. Thus, fusion bombs of tens of gigatons were detonated on Volumnia, and, with each detonation, its orbit was gradually altered.

An entire generation grew up on Fram watching these flashes in the sky, knowing that they were of human design, and that these human hands were shaping the solar system. Volumnia would eventually settle into a close orbit of Alpha Centauri B, would warm and melt, fashioning a watery world close to our own.

This process would take centuries. In the meantime, automated drones headed out into the inner Oort Cloud, and propelled comets into the inner system on looping, centuries-long orbits. System ships darted about the inner system to catch these comets and shift them to refineries at Port Mayflower above Junction, Port Victoria above Lacaille, and Port Golden Horn above al-Zulmān.

A few months after we had declared our independence from Earth, astronomers detected the fusion drive of another colony ship as it began its deceleration. Thirty-nine years after Planetfall, the Ninth Fleet arrived – dispatched from Sol before we had even announced secession, and, of course, received without enthusiasm. These colonists settled in a world very different from that they had anticipated. They related also tales of the effects of population pressures in overcrowded Sol.

The emigration to Alpha Centauri made a negligible difference to the population of Sol. More than eleven billion people crowded the surface of Earth, and another billion lived on the colonies of Luna, Mars and the Galilean moons. The emigration of twelve thousand people every three years to the extrasolar colony barely offset a few hours of solar population growth. But for many of those living on Earth, looking dimly through the glow of light pollution at the brightest stars above, it seemed that the natural direction of these teeming billions was upwards, and that the colonisation of the heavens was manifest destiny.

Many of Fram shared that belief, but many more believed that so negligible a difference to those billions – but so magnified an effect upon Fram – argued rationally against the intensified immigration Fram had experienced.

Earth received our declaration of independence in the year following the arrival of the Ninth Fleet.

The fortieth Foundation Day was marred by strikes and work stoppages in the city of al-Zulmān, which soon spread to sympathetic colonists in Lacaille. While these strikers continued to contribute to the colony those services necessary for survival, many of these essential services were nonetheless affected. Hydroponic crop yields diminished in Lacaille and many crops failed entirely in al-Zulmān. This sudden supply shock, combined with rolling work stoppages outside the capital and the ongoing public costs of the missions in the scattered disc, led to a sharp downturn in productivity. The colonies went on rations for the first time since the Bottleneck. Unemployment rose. The Republic of Fram slipped into a steep, U-shaped recession from which it would not completely emerge for three years.

The recession was an inauspicious beginning to the independence of the Republic. It began also as much a social crisis as a financial one. The established colonists of the capital blamed the strikes in the other cities for the crisis, and resented the distribution of Junction’s crops to feed the starving of al-Zulmān; while the loyalist colonists in the regional centres suspected that the separatists had sabotaged their hydroponic facilities to weaken the pro-Earth power base.

But, instead of driving the centre against the periphery and cleaving the Colony along established lines, the deepening of the recession banded these disparate camps together. By the third consecutive quarter of contracted growth – and the growing risk of Lacaille and al-Zulmān dragging the entire Colony down into a narrowing of the bottleneck – a sense of cooperation pervaded the colonies. Living standards declined, foremost in al-Zulmān where they had never been as high as the capital, but starvation and poverty were avoided. There were a bumpy series of small jumps in growth before the bottom of the recession; at its depth, the Senate voted to expand the Consulship to include a third Consul, and this reform enfranchised each of the cities in a manner they had not previously enjoyed.

No fleet from Earth arrived during the recession. It seemed that our declaration of independence was received with more concern than our earlier request to slow immigration. Over the next five years, astronomers detected bursts of gamma rays in the vast spaces between Sol and other stars in the neighbourhood: first Wolf 359, then Barnard’s Star, then Lalande 21185. These bursts were from starships ploughing through the interstellar medium, impacting dust particles at significant fractions of the speed of light. It seemed that the United Nations had begun to colonise other stars.

What we did not detect was the approach of a series of reconnaissance drones from Earth. These drones did not decelerate as they neared the system, meaning that we were unable to observe their fusion drives as they turned to face their destination; we detected them only when they swung around Proxima and angled into the Alpha Centauri system. There were three drones that fanned out across the Solar System, and, travelling at a velocity close to 80% the speed of light, they shot through the system in under a fortnight. The drones rapidly tight-beamed intelligence data back to Earth as they receded away in the direction of the constellation Circinus.

That data reached Earth some fifty-five years after Planetfall, and, with a certainty our astronomers had not felt since they turned their instruments toward Sol to search for signs of the earliest fleets, the emissions of a decelerating fusion drive were detected four years later.

This ship, however, aimed not for Alpha Centauri B and Fram but for Alpha Centauri A and the twin worlds of Maud and Belgica. The ship disappeared behind the ultraviolet glow of Alpha A while Maud was at superior conjunction from Fram. It did not reply to any of our messages.

And so Earth established a beachhead in our solar system.


The War with Earth: 2145-2156CE

In the following year – the sixty-first of the Fram colony and the twenty-fifth of an independent Republic of Fram – United Nations mining ships spread out from Maud and moved into the debris of asteroids and failed planets of the solar system. The polity regarded these mining ships with suspicion and with resentment and with debate: loyalist and separatist alike considered the resources of the solar system more Fram’s than Earth’s, but there was no consensus for a course of action; the impasse was broached when high-quality images of the Maud colony from our missions in the scattered disc suggested that much of it was automated – certainly the mining ships, and possibly even the base itself. The removal of considerations of human life simplified the debate and rendered it unambiguous: the Senate advised the Consuls to launch a pre-emptive strike.

Republic system ships and AI drones engaged the United Nations’ mining ships across the system, often fighting over ranges of many AUs. Flashes of fusion fire dotted the skies of Fram over the next eighteen months as the mining ships and their refineries were one by one destroyed. The drones then converged on the Maud base; however, MKVs and ASAT missiles dismantled the Republic attack with ease.

Fram’s response was dramatic. The drive sections of ten colony ships were installed on the surface of a large piece of the disintegrating Amundsen, some eight kilometres in diameter. The impactor was propelled up and out of the gravity well of Fram, slingshot around Alpha B, and fired across the solar system at Maud. As it crossed the barycentre the impactor was peppered with missiles from Maud, and this string of medium-yield detonations traced the trajectory of the impactor as it pressed on to its target.

It took three years for the impactor to cover the more than twenty AUs to its target. The impact briefly outshone Alpha Centauri A, then hanging low on the horizon as seen from Junction and Lacaille. That point of light flared and grew in brightness, diminishing only after several hours. Alpha A had fallen below the horizon in the city of al-Zulmān, but the moons and the ring were brightened in the light of the impact. The energy of the impact was estimated at tens of teratons; the surface of Maud was devastated for a second time in its history.

Fram spent the next years studying the Maud impact – and preparing for Earth’s response. We made efforts to catch up with the technical developments evident in Earth’s use of ASAT weapons and kinetic interceptors. We seeded spy satellites and anti-ship warheads around Belgica and the molten, cooling Maud. And our system ships hurled small asteroids along the path between Sol and Alpha Centauri – these latter on the infinitesimal chance that an incoming ship would strike an object at a velocity of hundreds of kilometres a second.

The Colony also grew. The quiet years of the war were years of growth and prosperity, as the united cities pursued a common agenda and substantial public spending drove the Colony. Vast shipyards were constructed in orbit, suspended in a web of traffic from the space elevators and Wisting. From these orbital shipyards, our eight remaining system ships came and went on their missions around the solar system, or were docked for resupply or refitting. These tremendous vessels – kilometres in length, adapted from the colony ships that bore us to Fram – were balanced between a lattice of connected girders and beams, and surrounded by tugs and repair bots. Observers on Fram’s surface could hold a hand to the glare of Alpha B and watch the system ships in the orbital shipyards.

Fram’s was a sky full of wonders, striated as it was at most times by dozens of slow-moving comets. These were sent looping into the inner system by the automated drones in the scattered disc and were chased down by manned system ships. The comets were refined in Wisting, our space city, and, with the low escape velocity from Amundsen, water and hydrocarbons were easily shipped to the Ports and then down to the cities of the surface of Fram.

Shortly before the seventieth Foundation Day, astronomers detected the deceleration of a number of starships from Sol. The celebration of our seventieth year on Fram was thus subdued as we prepared for the coming storm. The system ships slipped their moors and spread out in a cordon across the system; the shipyards appeared as empty and delicate as the wings of a dragonfly without a body.

The Republic of Fram lost three system ships before the taskforce from Earth had passed the orbit of Proxima. While at the peak velocity of their interstellar journey, the Earth ships had fired relativistic missiles ahead of them – moving so close to the speed of light, these warheads were almost impossible to detect or avoid. The remaining system ships began high-gee manoeuvres and squadrons of drones swept the space around them; a fourth ship was nonetheless crippled and left adrift near the barycentre.

AI drones from both sides engaged one another in a battle that spread across hundreds of AU and lasted nine months. The Earth drones gained the upper hand, and one by one Fram’s AI drones were destroyed. Our surviving system ships were heavily damaged or scattered and beaten back, and the Earth taskforce bypassed Alpha A and speared directly toward Fram.

The battle of Alpha Centauri became the battle of Fram, and it was a rapid and spectacular affair. The ships of the Earth taskforce laid down blankets of thermonuclear explosions ahead of them, and the x-rays and gamma rays produced in these explosions reflected the acquisition radars of Fram’s ASAT and MKV weapons. The confused radars were then bombarded with decoys and penetration aids. Kinetic interceptors managed to take out a pair of escort ships, but the main troop ships easily got through Fram’s defences. And then they were suddenly in orbit of Fram, deploying dropships to the surface, and those troops rapidly encircled the capital.

The Consuls of the Republic surrendered Junction to the United Nations, and the other cities capitulated thereafter. Seventy-two years after Planetfall, and thirty-six years after secession, the Republic of Fram was annexed by Earth.


After the Storm, the Sun: 2156-2167CE

There were troops in the streets of the cities and there was increased surveillance of the citizenry – but life on occupied Fram was not immediately different from life beforehand. The surviving system ships stood down and returned to Fram, or commenced operations to assist the ships from both sides damaged and adrift throughout the system. The Senate was dissolved and power transferred to a Governor, but society functioned along lines almost the same as years past.

We learned that Alpha Centauri was important to Earth as a springboard to further expansion into the spiral arm. The limit of endurance for both ships and crew of interstellar voyages was roughly ten light years, and there were approximately as many systems within ten light years of Alpha Centauri as there were from Sol. Immigration to Fram would resume, but, the Governor promised, this might be offset by emigration of the generations born on Fram farther out into other star systems.

The Governor spoke on behalf of a government four and a half light years away. That distance imposed limits on administration, just as the distance between Moscow and Siberia, or between London and Australia, did upon colonies in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Directives from Earth arrived half a decade after they were issued, and many were redundant by the time they arrived. Moreover, Fram could be selective in its obeisance to Earth’s dictates – protected by that same distance that lightened the heavy foot of interstellar government.

Like the refugee generation that settled in the cities of Lacaille and al-Zulmān, the occupiers gradually came to be assimilated into a self-determined polity of Fram, as was the manner of humans mutually reliant on one another for survival and for progress. New cities were settled as immigration increased, and, eventually, natural, native population growth matched the numbers of migrants from Sol.

Eventually, Volumnia settled into orbit of Alpha Centauri B, and was bombarded with comets from the inner Oort Cloud. This small water world became an oasis in a cold and dark desert, and fuelled by this bounty of water, our colony grew from Fram to the moons and eventually to the other planets of the system.

Eighty-three years after Planetfall, the last of the colonists of the Quoqasi passed away. Xu Sze Leng was one of the first humans to dig her gloved hands into the regolith of Fram. She was 112 years old when she died, and her passing was a sombre and solemn occasion. Those who had founded the Colony, struggled through the Bottleneck, explored the world and its moons, and received each of the subsequent colony ships, had at last passed from their world, and left it to their heirs.




Fram’s experience was not unique.

Within the lifetime of the first Quoqasi colonists, humanity had migrated across the space between stars and continued to grow outwards into the galaxy. That small bubble of colonisation stretched ten light years in all directions from Sol, with colony ships on their way to Sirius, Tau Ceti and Epsilon Indi. But the limits imposed by the speed of light upon both travel and communications between these stars, isolated as they were by unimaginable distances, disconnected the colonies from one another. This isolation encouraged an affection of independence in the young colonies that usually preceded secession. The nations of Earth imposed their will upon these colonies only with an implicit, if deferred, military threat; they were obliged to exercise this threat on many occasions, and each time the weight of her numbers and her vast economy made Earth victorious.

The colonies of these stars grew independently from one another, and would in time expand farther into the Orion Arm. Some went to war with one another, most cooperated; all existed as tiny points of light suspended in an infinite night.

The vast imperfections of the Universe made life harsh for the colonists. Around every star, the habitability of planets and their moons was determined by the vagaries of orbital tilting, eccentricity, atmosphere, magnetosphere, the dim infrared glow of red dwarfs. Another Earth was not found in this tiny bubble around Sol, and existence was always eked out of the best of a hardscrabble selection.

And so the human mind, evolved on the most habitable and exceedingly rare planet in local space, spread out into that space – and in so doing brought the purpose of that mind to a mindless cosmos and the dance of its blind energies…




Farewell, Fram, and thanks for all the fun. AC and DB.


A Stroke of State

11 05 2012

Today marks five years since the first post in Orbital Shipyards, a not-insignificant anniversary! To celebrate the fifth birthday of Orbital Shipyards, presented here is a full-length short story set in the OS universe, featuring many familar characters – and some new ones as well.

As always, please feel free to share your thoughts, opinions and feelings regarding the colonisation of Fram.


A Stroke of State

An Orbital Shipyards Story

Dave Blades

Read the rest of this entry »

In the Beginning

7 04 2012

Submitted to the 125th Session of the United Nations General Assembly by the permanent Member States of the United Nations Security Council on 30 September 2070.


Submitted with the concurrence of: the European Union, the Eurasian Union, the United States of America, the People’s Republic of China, Japan, the Republic of India, the Federative Republic of Brazil, the Forum of Mars and the Galilean Federation.




125/1. International Cooperation in Peaceful and Extrasolar Colonization.

The General Assembly,

Having considered the report of the Committee on the Peaceful Uses of Outer Space on the work of the one hundred and twenty-third session,

Recognizing the common interest of mankind in furthering the colonization of outer space and the need to coordinate international cooperation in this field,

Believing in the common interest of mankind in expanding the use of outer space, as the province of all mankind, for peaceful purposes and in continuing efforts to extend to all States the benefits derived therefrom, and also of the importance of international cooperation in this field, for which the United Nations should continue to provide a focal point,

Convinced of the benefits to all Members derived from the expansion of human economy and population to stars other than our own,

1. Requests the United Nations Office for Outer Space Affairs, in co-operation with the Secretary General and making full use of the resources of the Member States of the General Assembly;

(a)   To develop capabilities for extrasolar colonization, recalling its resolution 1721 (XVI) of 20 December 1961, in particular article A;

(b)  To coordinate the exchange of information of Member States relating to extrasolar colonization through an international Project, on a voluntary basis;

2. Invites the Member States of the Security Council to contribute space capabilities to the successful realization of the goals of the Project, including but not limited to those outlined in resolutions 119/10 of 18 September 2064, 120/11 of 28 November 2065, 122/2 of 29 May and 123/9 of 20 September 2068.

3. Further requests the Committee on the Peaceful Uses of Outer Space to continue its work, in accordance with the present resolution, to consider, as appropriate, new projects in extrasolar activities and to submit a report to the General Assembly at its one hundred and twenty-sixth session, including its views on which subjects should be studied in the future.

Air Burst

7 04 2012

A high-pressure system had formed far to the north of the Colonies. Air warmed at the equator, upon which the Colonies straddled, had risen and drifted away toward the poles; short of twenty degrees north latitude, this mass of air descended to the surface and created a cool, slowly-moving ridge. That ridge pushed down toward the equator, weakening as it moved.

It was thus a clear, cold day as Mierhof and I stepped from the crawler and out onto Fram’s surface.

We were four hours’ north of the Colonies, just over two hundred kilometres from the Yom Kippur mining site. Here there was a clear plain, hundreds of kilometres wide, between two ranges of mountains formed by the uplifted ejecta of massive, ancient craters. The regolith was shallow and, with the bedrock, we made good speed on this relatively flat terrain.

There was a light wind stirring the regolith, and, due to Coriolis force, it came from the northeast. Mierhof swore.

“God damn it’s cold,” he said, tensing up against the wind and holding his body heat jealously. “Reminds me of winter back Home.”

The average atmospheric temperature had dropped as we moved away from perihelion. I tapped at my tablet with the stylus.

“Nine degrees,” I replied.

We both wore knit caps to cover our heads, the most exposed parts of our bodies. Mierhof wrapped a thick scarf around his neck; I enjoyed the bracing cold on my skin. I took a deep breath and pulled away my facemask. I exhaled slowly, watching the steam roll away from my mouth. My breath looked strange, stunted, suppressed as it was by the thick atmosphere. I smiled, and quickly replaced my mask.

“It’s not a Goldilocks world,” I said to Mierhof, “but we could have done a lot worse.”

To the west, the plain rose in a long but gentle incline, and the horizon was far above us. The parallel tracks of our crawler diminished into a point at the crest of that incline. The constancy of that incline belied the violence of its formation: we stood in the basin of a astoundingly large impact crater, so large and so old that it was almost unrecognisable to human eyes. This basin was almost a thousand kilometres across, a depression in Fram’s surface that had been weathered by three billion years of anabatic winds and pockmarked by thousands of younger craters. The force of the impact had punched the surrounding crust upwards, forming extensive highlands that planed away to the far hemisphere.

Mierhof and I unpacked the ground-penetrating radar system from the flatbed of the crawler. Mierhof was remarking at how long it had been since we had used the survey system. We cleared an area of regolith with snow shovels, creating a flat space to deploy the rig.

“You get on that side and get that plate locked down,” he said.

With a thumpthumpthump I hadn’t missed at all, we drilled a borehole and then inserted the GPR antenna into the shaft. I attached my tablet to the rig and brought up the radargram. The terrain at the edge of the basin was heterogeneous, composed of brecciated, smashed bedrock suspended in regolith. With the GPR we might penetrate fifty meters below the surface, far less than had we been working on basalt bedrock.

With Mierhof and I holding each side of the rig for stability, the A44 began to thump out subterranean radar pulses of ultra-high frequency microwave and radio energy. Immediately, reflections reached the rig’s sensors, creating a blurry radargram on my tablet that was clarified with each pulse.

“God damn,” Mierhof said. “They might have been right.”

“Fram!” I replied. “Let me see!”

There were a series of colours, moving like infrared from the warm surface down through yellows and greens to a deep blue. But those colours between red and blue were arranged in parallel bars, and from those bars I could see what was buried beneath me as though staring up at a cross-section of the strata.

There were half a dozen elliptical shapes, like the bow wakes of ships moving up the screen, that showed the presence of large bolides of basalt, and these shapes were suspended on strata lines at various depths. But most interesting was the bottom half of the image. The various stratigraphic layers of regolith and spalled bedrock, written in yellow and green, trailed away into featureless blue; beneath this area of ultrafine regolith there was a second section, an area of high reflectivity, a strata of green highlighted yellow and arrayed in a smooth, flat strata.

“Huh,” I managed.

“Clathrates,” Mierhof replied.

“Looks like it.”

Forty meters beneath my feet, it seemed, in the basin of this impact crater, was a layer of methane ice, a clathrate compound of methane trapped within a lattice of ice. This was a deep sedimentary structure, buried beneath a billion years of regolith. And this layer was thick: from this preliminary GPR pulse, possibly tens of meters thick.

We had found methane ices pooled in the basins of craters near the Colonies, but these had been thin sheets, preserved by the regolith that covered them, ices so thin that once exposed to the thick and warm atmosphere of Fram, sublimated away like magical vespers. But calculations had suggested that, assuming similar ices to be found in craters across Fram, the total amount of water ice was much higher than we had ever expected from the hydrogen and oxygen in the atmosphere.

The theory went that methane produced by the methanogens was trapped within water ices deposited by cometary impacts, and that, in the deep winter of aphelion, water and methane snowed from the skies. This snow was buried by the movement of regolith and, preserved in the depths of craters by the cold of that surface regolith, large reservoirs of methane clathrates might form in the oldest and deepest basins.

Aquifers of vital water and methane might exist across Fram’s surface, undetected and in unimaginable quantities. And so we looked to the largest and most ancient craters for proof.

“Imagine it,” Mierhof said. “All that water, there all the time, waiting to be mined.”

I smiled.

“Think of the energy! We could burn the ice for power and heat. Natural gas. God. Water – and a warmer world.”

That was when it happened.

I had just told Mierhof to get the equipment for a core sample when, from the corner of my eye, I saw a streak of blue-white light, arcing downwards toward the horizon in the north-east. As I turned, I saw that streak begin to fragment into pieces, and as I stared at that cone of smaller arcs of light, I immediately knew what I was looking at.

“Christ, get down!”

I jumped at Mierhof, and with both hands on his shoulders I pulled him to the ground. There was a flash of light. I closed my eyes and buried my face in the regolith, but still I could see the light, and the back of my neck grew hot.

After a moment, Mierhof stirred.

“’The Fram was that?”

We both got to our knees. I wiped away dust from my faceplate. Suspended on the horizon was a dirty column of brown and black, a thick stem of fire and dust balanced on an expanding cloud at its base. Separated from that firestorm were a series of geysers, high plumes of regolith shot up into the sky by dispersed impacts.

“Air burst,” I said at length.

“God damn,” Mierhof replied, rubbing one hand through his beard. “Look at all those impacts. Broke up in the air and shot all those fragments down like a shotgun.”

“What do you think, five or six kilotons?”

Mierhof laughed. “More like ten! My God, look at it.”

The base cloud continued to expand, driven by a pressure shock in the atmosphere. It engulfed the geysers of suspended material that surrounded the airburst cloud. That airburst cloud rose upwards as the heated column of air rose, drawing in cooler air around it; the rolling updraft slowly formed a sinister mushroom cloud. But the wind from the high-pressure front pushed the cloud south-east, and it began to disperse even as it was still rising, raining regolith and vapourised comet across the basin.

Then the sound wave rolled over us, a massive clap that trailed away into a low roar punctuated by the a series of crisp bangs that might have been the impact of the fractured pieces. With that roar came a ground tremor to announce the violent creation of Fram’s youngest crater.

“Here’s a scary thought,” I ventured. “That comet must have travelled billions and billions of kilometres. Imagine if it had fallen just twenty kilometres short.”

Mierhof looked at me with eyes that held little patience for cynicism.

“Here’s a nicer thought: imagine that much force hitting a clathrate deposit. All that methane and water vapour quickly dumped into the atmosphere. We might warm Fram in decades, not centuries…”

We watched the cloud disperse for half an hour before we began to drill the bore for the core sample.

A, G, U and X

19 02 2012

Ngan said to Lindenmeyr: “Let me show you what we’ve learned so far.”

He moved away from the trough of methanogens and retrieved a tablet from his workbench. The tablet awoke from hibernation, and, in the reflection on Ngan’s faceplate, Lindenmeyr saw a series of brightly coloured images, rotating in imitation of three dimensions.

“If you’ll indulge me,” Ngan began, “I might ask you a question. How do you imagine alien life? How do you imagine something entirely new?”

Lindenmeyr paused for a moment.

“Is this a philosophical question?”

“Oh yes,” Ngan replied. “Imagine, if you will, a new colour. A colour no one has even seen before. Or imagine a taste you’ve never tasted. Anything you imagine in your mind is based on what you know, what you’ve experienced, what is familiar.”

“Of course.”

“We can’t possibly imagine something entirely new and different. And if we saw it, we likely wouldn’t recognise it.”

Lindenmeyr cleared her throat. “Like Stanislaw Lem.”

“Exactly.” Ngan returned to the trough of methanogens with the tablet. “The likelihood that any kind of life that evolved away from Earth would be recognisable to us, much less look like humans with pointy ears, is infinitesimal.”

“And yet we recognise these methanogens.”

“Oh yes. And here we return to that philosophical question.”

Ngan explained that the basic building blocks of life as humans had experienced it were readily and widely available in the Universe. Organic compounds such as hydrocarbons and amino acids were found in comets along with methanol, formaldehyde, ethanol and ethane, even hydrogen cyanide. The emergence of life was not some religious miracle, but rather a simple matter of chemistry – the interaction of methane, water, ammonia, hydrogen and the creation of amino acids, the building blocks of proteins.

Astonishingly, more complex nucleobases could also be formed on meteorites, asteroids and comets. Together with amino acids, these nucleobases could under the right conditions evolve into complex proteins, nucleotides, DNA.

Ngan showed a series of slides to Lindenmeyr who, although not an expert in organic chemistry, recognised the association of molecules of hydrogen, nitrogen, carbon and oxygen into an amino acid.

“So we took it back to the beginning,” Ngan said. “Because the end product is so different, we go back to the building blocks that the methanogens must have started with.”

“Ah. Now I see the point of your question. Here is the experience we use to recognise the alien.”

Ngan nodded.

“To continue with the ‘building blocks’ analogy, we figured that all life starts with the same materials and then goes about building different shapes, forms, assemblies.”

He flipped to another slide that showed a complex structure of tangled lines branching from a single curved strand. Where the tangles were clustered they grew away from the thicker strand, and bunched together like fruit on the limb of a tree.

“What is it?” Lindenmeyr asked.

Ngan chuckled. “Oh, this is the only macromolecule that composes the methanogens.”

Ngan continued and grew more animated as he explained. When tested, the methanogens had not demonstrated chirality because they were composed of neither proteins nor DNA. But here, rotating in false colours, was their analogy for both.

“It is somewhat similar to RNA,” Ngan said. “Essential for all life on Earth. In fact, viruses use RNA for genetic material. But it’s not RNA. We don’t know what to call it. We liken it to RNA only because we need that anchor of familiarity. It is only similar to RNA in so far as both are single-stranded molecules with shorter chains of nucleobases, that in turn produce some quite complex three-dimensional structures.”

Lindenmeyr turned from the spinning macromolecule on the tablet screen to the methanogens arrayed in a line between her and Ngan.

“Wow,” she managed.

“Oh yes,” Ngan replied. “At the moment, we’re half-jokingly calling it FNA.”


Ngan grinned. “Framnucleic acid.”

And, arrayed around that single-strand backbone, were many of the building blocks seeded throughout the Universe: the primary nucleobases of adenine, guanine, the A, and G from DNA-based life, along with uracil, the U found in RNA; and the modified purine bases xanthine and hypoxanthine. Of these four nucleobases, FNA clustered into groups of two, rather than the groups of three into which DNA clustered.

“Actually,” Ngan said, “the simplicity of FNA is more akin to very, very early precursors to DNA than RNA as we know it. Say, four billion years ago. The precursor used only two nucleobases and a handful of amino acids, and worked well long before life evolved the triplet code it uses now. These doublets seem to work well for such a simple lifeform.”

Conspicuously absent from the image of the FNA macromolecule were thymine and cytosine, two of the nucleobases of DNA. Lindenmeyr asked Ngan why C and T were missing from FNA.

“We have a theory about that,” he explained. “Thymine and cytosine bonds are most susceptible to damage from ultraviolet light; in fact, most skin cancers from exposure to ultraviolet are a result of a thymine dimer, where ultraviolet photons damage the bonds between nucleobases and distort the macromolecule. Because of the direct exposure to ultraviolet light, we think the methanogens have evolved without thymine and cytosine.”

“A clever adaptation to the environment,” Lindenmeyr ventured, “but it cripples their genetic complexity.”

“Oh yes. Unfortunately, the methanogens won’t teach us a new way to deal with ultraviolet light; they’ve simply evolved away that part of them damaged by UV.”

Ngan brushed through the next slides. The absence of proteins dramatically simplified the process of replication, he explained. The FNA in the methanogens did not appear to articulate with a Fram version of ribosomes, and so did not communicate instructions to assemble amino acids into proteins through protein biosynthesis.

But it was so much easier to describe what life on Fram didn’t do, rather than what it did do. This difficulty was related, Ngan said, to his earlier comments about conceptualising ideas through the familiar.

Nonetheless, early work suggested that the FNA contained some amount of genetic information, but rather than communicating that information to assemble cells, the FNA duplicated itself in a manner similar to a virus; it did so, however, without a host cell. This duplication was in part related to the complex structures that the single-strand backbone of FNA allowed. The form of that structure was repeated in each duplication – limiting the opportunity to evolve, but allowing for very durable structures once natural selection identified a viable arrangement of nucleobases.

“These methanogens don’t so much ‘grow’ as they ‘self-copy,’” Ngan concluded. “We still don’t know how FNA forms these fronds, in the absence of both proteins and cells.”

Lindenmeyr turned over the fronds in her hands.

“Is it life?”

Ngan paused. “Yes and no. They are subject to natural selection, as evidenced by the absence of thymine. They possess analogues of genes. But they grow through self-assembly, rather than cell division.”

“Life,” Lindenmeyr said again. “Wow, I don’t even know how to communicate what I’m trying to say. I mean, we’re life, you and I, and we evolved from amino acids and nucleobases, and we go out into the Universe and we find these methanogens, and we stand here in this room and…and life asks if life is life.”

Ngan chuckled.

“Oh yes. I think of it like this: spread around the Universe are kits containing all the parts to make something. But there are no sets of instructions, no recipes, in these kits; not even someone or something to assemble the parts.”

Lindenmeyr nodded. “That’s the magic, I think. As best they can…the kits assemble themselves.”

Ngan spread his hands.

“And here we are.”

Empire of the Setting Suns

8 02 2012

Like spray whipped from a wave, grains of regolith blew from the crest of the dune that stretched away to either side of Sze Leng and Ruslan. These shifting, shimmering sheets of dust were held aloft by the thick atmosphere and carried away by the wind, a force patiently shaping and rearranging the surface of Fram.

They sat in the lee of the dune, slightly beneath the crest. Sze Leng sat in front of Ruslan and her slender body was huddled up against him. Stretching away before them was a rippled surface, a sea of regolith wrinkled into dunes and gathered in parallel curves by katabatic winds. This was Fram’s softer landscape: kilometres of deep regolith uninterrupted by outcroppings of fractured bedrock or by the spalling of craters, although both underlay this basin, Ruslan knew, tens of meters below the surface.

Ruslan adjusted his faceplate by rubbing his chin against the top of Sze Leng’s head.

“Well worth the hike,” Sze Leng said.

Her voice was quiet, and Ruslan tapped the volume on his mike.

“We first noticed it in an areomagnetic survey,” Ruslan explained. “You can’t tell from the regolith, but this entire basin is pockmarked with craters that show up on the magnetometer. We think they’re quite ancient, based on the layering of regolith. The deeper layers have lithified into eolianite .”


Alpha Centauri B was almost below the horizon. Its orange-yellow light illuminated the sky above its disc in a stunning stratum of incandescent orange through a fiery spectrum to vermillion. The ocean of dunes stretched off to the horizon. The setting suns lit the crests as darkness gathered in the troughs between dunes, creating alternating bands of gold and deep purple. Fram’s ring bisected the sunset, and cast an almost translucent shadow across the sky and landscape – offset from Alpha B by Fram’s marginal axial tilt.

Separated from Alpha B by an apparent distance of perhaps half the diameter of its disc was Alpha Centauri A, an intensely bright point a thousand times brighter than the full moon from Earth, but which could be entirely blocked out by a thumb held outstretched. Although higher in the sky than Alpha B, Alpha A was following B below the horizon.

“Tell me there’s nothing to mine out here,” Sze Leng said. “It would be such a shame.”

She turned her head over her right shoulder to face him and Ruslan sensed that she was grinning, but the gesture was lost in the glaring reflection of the sunsets in her faceplate.

“The underlying bedrock showed concentrations of magnetite and iron oxide. That’s how we detected the craters. But they’re not rich concentrations.”

Sze Leng’s head rolled lazily back into that comfortable space where Ruslan’s neck met his shoulder at the collarbone, and she stared upwards. The stars had begun to populate the darkening sky with glimmers of white, red and blue, flickering in the shifting atmosphere. Her eyes immediately sought familiarity: the trinity of stars that composed Orion’s Belt, and the brightening sparks of Rigel and Betelgeuse, a formation of lights unchanged by the distance from Home.

“Sometimes, when I’m out surveying,” Ruslan whispered, “I try to think of what will be here in a hundred, five hundred, a thousand years. We’re just starting out. Imagine a city that stretches from the Colonies out here to the Periphery, a great city, like those we left behind on Earth. Maybe someone will live here, eat here, sleep here, right where we are sitting, and will watch the suns set like us.”

Sze Leng smiled.

“Maybe.” she replied, dreamily. “Maybe, when we’ve warmed Fram and thinned the atmosphere, this plain will be a forest, filled with tall, spindly trees, creating soil and turning carbon dioxide into oxygen. And lovers will walk through the gardens, maybe even without suits, dreaming of some place called Earth.”

Sze Leng turned around so that she was facing Ruslan, and, without the tall reflection of the sunsets in her faceplate, Ruslan could see the look of wonder on her face.

Alpha B slipped beneath the dusty horizon, and the twilight deepened. Ruslan imagined Fram spinning, and the terminator line between light and dark crawling over its face. The sky above him grew blue-black, chasing the plum, vermillion and deep red toward the horizon. Amundsen was behind them, close to setting in the east; lit by both stars, it glowed brighter as the day dwindled away, turning the blackness around it into the colour of faded rubber.

The intoxicating majesty of the sunsets diminished, and Ruslan’s thoughts became darker.

“Maybe nations will rise and fall and fight over these dusty plains.”

Caught between day and night, framed by the light of both moon and star, Sze Leng stirred and asked,

“Should we head back?”


8 02 2012

The effect of the gravities of two stars upon Fram’s orbit was quite pronounced.

Fram’s orbit was highly eccentric, meaning that it was a not a simple circle around Alpha B, but rather an elongated ellipse. Traced simply, Alpha B sat inside one end – called an apsis – of that ellipse, while the other apsis stretched away toward Alpha A. But neither Alpha A nor B were stationary, and themselves orbited a mutual barycentre. Their own orbit greatly complicated Fram’s orbit. The apsides changed with each orbit relative to the position of both stars. This was called apsidal precession. Each time Fram completed an orbit of Alpha B, Alpha A had moved relative to its binary partner, and its gravity tugged at Fram. As a result, each completed ellipse reorientated itself toward Alpha A.

Astronomers explained apsidal precession by tracing a complex spiral that represented Fram’s orbit. The lines of that spiral converged at periapsis – the apsis that coincided with perihelion, Fram’s closest approach to Alpha B – but diverged in wandering arcs near aphelion, as each orbit traced a different apoapsis. Fram was moving away from periapsis and, slowly, methodically, irrevocably, gliding toward apoapsis. Fram had only in the last week passed periapsis, and took roughly three Earth years to complete an orbit, meaning that the apoapsis of that orbit was about eighteen months away.

There were many concerns about the habitability of Fram, almost all of which had been foreseen and discussed long before the Quoqasi left Sol. Only one among these was its wandering orbit, which itself posed the major problem of exposure to ultraviolet light.

Alpha B was less of a concern than Alpha A. Alpha A was larger, hotter and brighter than Sol, while Alpha B was similarly smaller and cooler. We knew that hot objects preferentially emitted radiation at shorter wavelengths and higher frequencies. Wien’s displacement law described the relationship between temperature and peak frequency. The hotter the object, in this case a star, the shorter the wavelength at which it emitted radiation. This was why hot, A-type stars like Sirius tended to emit blue light in the visible spectrum, while cooler M-type stars like Proxima tended toward red light.

But visible light was only one component of the electromagnetic spectrum. Higher up the spectrum according to frequency were ultraviolet, x-rays and gamma rays. Hotter stars not only pumped out more light, but also preferentially emitted these higher frequency, shorter wavelength types of electromagnetic radiation.

Not only did Alpha A pump out more energy than both Sol and Alpha B, but it also preferred to emit more dangerous energy.

Humans had evolved while sheltered from most ultraviolet radiation by Earth’s ozone layer, a belt of the stratosphere where the interaction of molecular oxygen and solar ultraviolet light continuously interconverted oxygen from O2 to O3; the process also converted ultraviolet radiation into thermal energy. But Fram, of course, possessed no ozone layer. Almost all of the oxygen in Fram’s atmosphere was covalently bonded with a carbon atom to form carbon dioxide, which was not only poisonous to breath but offered no shelter from ultraviolet light.

From Earth, it was easy to miss some of the features of Fram that would challenge our early efforts, such as the damage that the regolith would pose to our vehicles and equipment. But it was comparatively simpler to understand the stellar system, and we were prepared for the worst of the ultraviolet light. Equipment at risk of UV degradation, like synthetic polymers, had been reinforced with stabilisers and absorbers – such as benzophenones, zinc oxide, and titanium dioxide. Moreover, the same lack of independent oxygen in the atmosphere that prevented the development of an ozone layer also suppressed the reaction between ultraviolet rays and free radicals that led to the worst of polymer degradation.

All of these measures would be tested at apoapsis, when Fram was suspended between the two stars and at its closest approach to the more threatening Alpha A. At that point there would be no real night, but rather a bright twilight, the sky dark blue and the terrain of the planet lit with a quality of light like the totality of a solar eclipse on Earth. Exposure to ultraviolet would be highest at apoapsis.

Some of the biologists noted the similarity of the colonisation of Fram to the emergence of life on Earth. Early prokaryotes approached the surface of Earth’s oceans billions of years ago, before Earth had developed an ozone layer, and, exposed to the worst UV light, promptly died out. Those that survived had developed the necessary enzymes, base excision repair enzymes, which identified and corrected the genetic damage caused by exposure to ultraviolet.

And so, as Fram continued gracefully along its complex orbit, we began to study how the methanogens had evolved to tolerate such intense ultraviolet light…