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.

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Criticality

29 11 2010

“We’ve had some serious problems with the purity of the graphite,” Faraday said.

Clarendon exchanged a quick glance with the other members of the Presidium. “How serious?”

“Well,” Faraday replied, “at first we were measuring cross sections of between fifty and five hundred by ten to the negative twenty-seven square centimetres. Unacceptably high. Using graphite of such unrefined quality would only lead to a runaway reaction and a meltdown.”

“And now?”

“After some to-and-fro with our colleagues over at Alpha-4, we’ve managed to get the average cross section down to four point oh to four point seven by ten to the negative twenty seven square centimetres.”

Faraday took a stylus to his tablet and wrote: 4.0 – 4.7 x 10-27 cm2.

“For a uranium and graphite reactor to operate at all, we need a cross section for slow neutron absorption of no more than this.” Beneath his scrawl, Faraday scribbled another figure: 4 – 5 x 10-27 cm2. “It turned out after some testing that our first batches were contaminated with traces of boron and other rare elements.”

“So it – the graphite – it is safe to use?”

Faraday smiled. “We would not be here today if it were not.”

Faraday went on to explain to the delegation that, in the six months since the First Congress, the two mining sites had assembled a stockpile of six tons of uranium and almost four hundred tons of graphite. Not all of this graphite had been mined in that half-year; much had been mined before the Congress, and, after refinement, was put to use as the moderator in the nuclear reactor.

Through the transparent blast shield, the group looked down on a channel dug into the regolith and bedrock. The channel sloped downwards through a shallow gradient over fifty meters, at the end of which was the reactor. The reactor was dug into a pit a further ten meters into the ground. The regolith and fractured bedrock were the primary shielding for the reactor. Between the control room and the reactor were blocks of basalt lined with concrete and paraffin, and lead walls filled with boric acid.

The pile itself was a cubic lattice of uranium metal rods suspended within a sphere of graphite. This sphere was embedded within polished slabs of basalt, so that the entire reactor appeared as a black-grey monolith set into the red-brown crater wall. Steel cables ran from the top of this sphere along suspended pulleys back to the control room. These cables were attached to the control rods: six bars of cadmium that hung above the centre of the pit.

“The cadmium rods control the reaction.” Faraday explained, as he gestured to the point where the cables disappeared into the pit. “They can be lowered or raised into the reactor. Cadmium is a strong absorber of neutrons; dropping these rods into the reactor prevents a chain reaction from developing.”

Clarendon asked, “And, presumably, these rods can be dropped down in an emergency to prevent a runaway reaction?”

“Indeed. We call that a ‘scram.’ ”

The reactor had been constructed in assemblies. Graphite was laid in layers and into this mass of graphite were drilled the holes for uranium slugs. There was room between each of the uranium slugs for neutrons from one slug to bounce off carbon atoms in the graphite before entering another slug. This action slowed the neutrons and allowed them to better resist absorption by U238 nuclei and instead be absorbed by U235.

“This is a rather modest design,” Faraday said. “Necessarily so because of our limited resources.”

Clarendon stepped forward and brushed his fingertips along the control panel. “Mmm. Once we have amassed more experience from this reactor, we may build others. Larger, more efficient. But the colony does not yet have an urgent need for trans-uranic elements.”

Faraday brought up a display on the blast shield, and tapped away at it with his stylus. Graphs slipped from the heads-up display into the margins until the central display was flanked by a half-dozen graphs and tables. Through these coloured images, Clarendon and Faraday watched a group of figures retreat from the generator several hundred meters away.

Faraday turned to Clarendon and the other delegates. “Shall we?”

The Presidium members nodded, and Faraday worked the controls and began to withdraw the cadmium control rods from the reactor. Immediately, the neutron counter began to click away, and a line graph on the right spiked. Faraday pointed out a number of graphs – gamma-ray and neutron counters, reactor power levels, galvanometers – and commented on their significance. Faraday pointed at one graph in particular.

“That’s a boron trifluoride counter, buried under the reactor. It’s showing neutrons have penetrated the basalt shield around the pile.”

Faraday withdrew more of the control rods, but kept two of the emergency rods within the pile. Neutron levels multiplied. There was linear growth of reactor power, a steady but shallow rise on a line graph updated in real-time. The clicking noise grew rapid. One of Faraday’s colleagues was calling out data from counters in decimals of one.

“Point seven five. Point eight. Point eight five. Here it comes.”

When the neutron intensity reached one, Faraday locked both the control and emergency rods in place. He turned to the information that his colleague was examining. After a few moments of altering the filters and examining the data, he turned to the Presidium members.

“We have achieved criticality.” Faraday smiled. “We have a self-sustaining chain reaction.”

“Mmm,” Clarendon replied. “That’s it?”

“That’s it. There are no bright lights or loud noises to announce criticality, but with nuclear reactors, it is generally better that way.”

Clarendon did not return Faraday’s grin. “And to introduce lithium to the reaction? To breed tritium?”

Faraday explained that the design of the reactor included a channel, like one of the holes drilled for the uranium slugs, into which materials could be remotely introduced.

“We’ll need to boost the power of this reactor before we do that, however,” he continued. “Reactors produce one gram of plutonium per day at a thermal power level of 500-1500 kilowatts. This pile could be powered up to around three thousand kilowatts, but not for any substantial period of time.”

“And it is now running at…?”

“About 500 watts.”

“Ah.”

“As more uranium is refined at the diffusion plant, we’ll add more assemblies to the pile and slowly boost its power. Nonetheless, we should appreciate the first nuclear reaction generated using materials not of Sol.”

Now Clarendon smiled. “With the exception of the stars themselves, Dr. Faraday.”





Aurorae

25 03 2010

“The MSB Aurora. Can’t remember what the ‘B’ stood for. Modular Service…something. Anyway, controversial things. We set them to work mining the ring of hydrogen and oxygen. There were only a handful of them, and they were small. What amount of volatiles they collected was mostly converted to their own reaction mass. Very low bang for buck. But we didn’t have any other use for them – yet – and we figured it was better to put them to work, see, than have them sitting around in storage…”

The orbiter Ethel Rosenberg rolled over gracefully, exposing its flat belly to the light of Alpha-A.

The payload doors along the orbiter’s dorsal surface opened. Interior light spilled from the joins and illuminated lines of ice crystals. The crystals spun away in a spiral as the Ethel Rosenberg continued its roll.

“Payload bay wasn’t fully depressurised,” Borzęcki spoke into the mike. “No matter.”

Now the fuselage clam-shelled open, and Borzęcki could see straight down into the payload bay of the orbiter. He touched the controls of his MMU, and two of its ten thrusters fired. He inched downward toward the opening doors.

“Payload bay doors show green.”

Borzęcki’s eyes lifted to the bow of the orbiter; there, in the command module, he could see the silhouettes of the commander and pilot. Borzęcki formed two thumbs-up as best he could in the pressurised suit, and waved them toward the shapes of his crew.

“I confirm,” he replied.

The two Auroras were aligned facing one another, and they only just fit into the payload bay. Their hulls were painted a shade of blue Borzęcki had not seen for years – a flat, late autumn afternoon blue – while their manipulator arms, ramscoops and processing modules were painted a pale cream. Borzęcki fired his forward thruster once, cutting his momentum, then twice, bringing him to a stop at the rear of the payload bay.

“I have positive contact.”

Each Aurora was the size of a satellite, maybe twenty-five feet in length. Borzęcki placed his gloved hand against the drive nozzle of the Aurora he stood behind. From his perspective, looking along the length of the craft, the main hull formed the shape of the letter H. There were two internal cargo modules set inside a rounded double-hull; connecting these two pods was the flattened engine. In the gaps formed by the vertically-aligned cargo pods sat the various, mission-specific modules.

Borzęcki crawled forward carefully and moved his way along the dorsal surface of the closest Aurora. Mounted asymmetrically along the upper surface were the AI unit and an articulated manipulator, folded at each of its joints and locked in place. Borzęcki held his wristpad over the AI hub and checked the network signal.

After a few moments, the capcom’s voice came through Borzęcki’s earpiece:

Ethel, Mayflower. Board’s green.”

Borzęcki struggled backwards until his boots made contact with the orbiter hull. The manipulator arm set into the orbiter bay closest to Borzęcki started to whir; he felt this movement through his magnetised boots. The arm began to extend, and the Aurora – secured at its base to the end of the manipulator – rose slowly from the bay.

Borzęcki made a visual inspection of the ventral surface of the Aurora. Here the diffusion plant had been installed. There was a ramscoop mounted forward of the Aurora, a simple, boxy module jutting forward and beneath the bow of the craft like a challenging jaw thrust forward. Behind the ramscoop were twin booms which would deploy perpendicularly downward of the hull. For now, these booms were locked in place beneath the hull.

The orbiter’s manipulator arm was clamped around a load-bearing dock set inside the ventral hull, between the processing module and the drive nozzles.

“Seal looks good,” Borzęcki spoke into the mike. “She’s just popped out of the payload bay.”

A line of light crawled down the Aurora, like a terminator crawling across the face of a globe. The light of Alpha-A was sharply demarcated by the shadow of the payload bay door.

Before the orbiter manipulator disengaged, Borzęcki made a visual inspection that the ramscoop apparatus had properly deployed. Port Mayflower sent the activation signal to the Aurora. The lock holding the twin booms in place beneath the Aurora slid back to where the booms joined the hull. Then they lowered, silently.

These were the magnetic loops: when activated, the wands would generate alternating positive and negative currents. This action created a magnetic field which charged particles within the field and channelled those particles into the ramscoop. The resulting magnetic field was weak, but this weakness helped filter the fines from the solid particles. Once through the ramscoop, the processing module would sort silicate and metal from precious volatiles; oxygen would be converted into lox to fuel the Aurora, the hydrogen would go into storage in the twin cargo modules along the flanks of the Aurora.

Borzęcki  said, “Okay, everything looks good from here. Go for deployment.”

The commander confirmed, followed moments later by capcom. They ran through the checklist. Then manipulator arm disengaged. Centrifugal force imparted by the Ethel Rosenberg’s roll worked on the Aurora, and it drifted up and away to the left.

When the Aurora was obscured by the payload bay door, Borzęcki stepped carefully toward the second craft, and worked his way up onto its dorsal surface…





U₃O₈

8 02 2010

The miners at the COIL rig in Yom Kippur doubted very much that any significant concentrations of uranium would be found in the base of that crater; they said as much at the conference, when the question was posed to them.

“Sure, the bases of craters are where a lot of metals and minerals are concentrated,” they explained. “Pressure, temperature, fractured bedrock, fused basalt – but the impactor itself is mostly vapourised, and the pressures of impact can’t concentrate what isn’t really there to begin with.”

Yom Kippur, like Hashoah and Yerushalayim and the other nearby craters, were hundreds of millions of years old; the pair of craters laid over each other in which the four colonies were nestled were older yet. Beneath the surfaces of each crater were hundreds of meters of eolianite, regolith deposited by the wind and built up over those millions of years. In this layer the regolith had been compressed by the weight of subsequent layers, and now formed a soft sandstone, tinged purple by high levels of manganese. This layer of desiccated eolian sandstone was laid over bedrock fractured by the force of the impact which had created the crater. It was through this deep fracturing that volatiles and liquefied metals had seeped upwards from the ancient asthenosphere.

“The bigger craters have sheets of basalt overlaid the brecciated bedrock. The tremendous forces and temperatures of the impact that made those enormous craters fused the regolith and eolianite into great sheets of melted, crustal silica – evidence that these impactors created their own magma lakes…”

None of the minerals brought up by the COIL rig had shown substantial concentrations of uranium, which lent strength to the theory that pitchblende veins simply didn’t exist in Fram’s unearthly geology. Uranium might be found in brecciated rocks, of which there were no shortage on Fram, although those rocks might preferably be rich in copper or hematite. More likely, it would be found in the eolian sandstone layer between the regolith of the surface and the comminuted bedrock.

The COIL geologists went on. “Yeah, eolianite might be best. I think about 20% of uranium on Earth comes from sandstones, although we can expect much less on Fram because it’s so much smaller and so much drier. More to the point, we wouldn’t be sacrificing the other metals we dig up. We’ll have to prospect along basal channels.”

Irrespective of where the uranium was located, we wouldn’t be digging it out with a COIL rig.

“The concentrations will be so low,” the geologist continued, “that digging enough of its out to enrich into yellowcake is a really volume-intensive endeavour. We’d be better off with an open-pit mine. In fact, we’ll take a look at the tails of the open-cut mine to the north; start prospecting from there.”

A climatologist from Alpha-1 spoke up. “And who’ll notice a little radon gas in an atmosphere already 80% poisonous?”

The conference attendees laughed.





Energy Security

6 02 2010

We held a conference in Alpha-1 at Planetfall +150, eight weeks after the arrival of Mayflower. The meeting was nominally called by the upper soviet, but in reality it was the response to a grassroots, bottom-up venture. Now that the supplies and equipment from the May had been assimilated into our fledgling economy, there was a drive to plan the next steps of our colonisation of Fram, and to set ourselves a series of achievable and practical goals.

One of the more important issues raised by the conference was energy security.

The Mayflower had borne from Sol enough deuterium to fuel our four fusion reactors for a period longer than that which we anticipated being reliant upon such supplies. But we had also learned the bitter lessons during the bottleneck that not everything went according to the plans written before we had left Jupiter. Fram had its own way of dictating our progress. And so it became an important matter for that part of the conference dedicated to energy security to identify alternative sources of fusion fuel.

Our reactors used a D-D fuel cycle, meaning that strictly speaking we only required input of deuterium to maintain the reaction. Indeed, deuterium was the only fusion fuel which the Mayflower had carried – a payload of some 75,000 tonnes. Deuterium existed naturally as one part in every six thousand parts of water; we could separate it from water ice, but Fram was a dry world, and what little hydrogen could be found was pooled in the shaded bases of craters or frozen into the walls of canyons. The richest source of hydrogen from which we could refine hydrogen-2 – deuterium – were the icy Kuiper bodies at the edges of the Alpha Centauri system. The supply of deuterium was not yet a guaranteed thing, and efforts were to be made to supplement that amount of deuterium already in the colony’s possession.

The conference looked at other fuel cycles. A D-T cycle, introducing tritium  to the reaction, was easier to facilitate than a purely D-D reaction, although its optimum temperature was slightly lower at 15KeV. While using tritium would make our supplies of deuterium last longer, we would have to produce our own tritium, as none had been carried on the Mayflower. Fortunately, the miners in Alpha-4 had been bringing up surprising amounts of lithium from the new open-cut mine to the north of the colonies. Lithium could be bred into tritium inside a nuclear reactor in much the same way that uranium was bred into plutonium. Over 90% of the material mined thus far had been the lithium-7 isotope, while the remainder was lithium-6; this meant that we did not have to actively enrich the lithium before introducing it to the nuclear reaction.

The short-term consequence was that we would have to build our own nuclear reactor, not for power, but to breed new metals and fuels. The engineers of Alpha-4 were already drawing up plans for both the reactor and the gaseous diffusion plant to enrich the uranium mined by the COIL rig. That same rig had also brought up enough graphite to moderate the reaction, sparing the use of deuterium as a moderator.

There were other, longer-term benefits. Excess tritium not introduced to the fusion reaction decayed into helium-3. We expected that our second-generation of fusion power plants, many years into the future of the colony, would operate using a deuterium-helium-3 fuel cycle: probably the most efficient and clean fusion fuel cycles we could achieve on Fram. There were significant deposits of helium-3 on the surfaces of the moons of Fram, and these deposits would be our ultimate source of fuel for the second-generation reactors. But until we had set up lunar mining stations and developed a way to cheaply and efficiently return the helium-3 to Fram, the by-product of decaying tritium would assist research and development.

Three points came from the discussions on energy security at the +150 Conference:

1. In the short-term, an industrial nuclear reactor and gaseous diffusion plant would be constructed to breed tritium from lithium-7. This reactor would be constructed by Alpha-3, but designed and operated by Alpha-4.

2. In the medium-term, further exploration of the lunar system would be undertaken by Alpha-1 with the objective to identify sources of helium-3 for future fusion projects.

3. In the long-term, missions to the outer solar system would be launched in order to capture and return comets to the near-Fram system. Deuterium would be mined from these objects for use as both a fuel source and as a moderator to the nuclear reactor.

Clear, concise, achievable goals, set in response to the current context but also in anticipation of future complications – the delegates for energy had set an example to the rest of the conference. The bottleneck had passed. Now it was down to the business of building a world…





UC-104 Utility Crane

20 05 2007

UC-104 Crane

“…the UC-104 roamed the desolate rubble-strewn plains, in its wake lay the stripped-back solar panels from the outpost ships. It was eventually destroyed upon the wasteland in a shower of debris from Amundsen as the moon arced over Fram; but its battered, shattered carcass remained to become a feature and monument to the stark world they had endeavoured to settle.”

I was watching the UC at work. The big boom crane swung across, stacking the solar panels where the KOVTARs – their light COILs replaced by load-bearing clamps mounted on stubby arms – could access them. This was raw functionality; utilitarianism and modular designs were foremost, while aesthetics were distant.

The KOVTARs and the UC had the easiest work of the terrain. Bipedal – quadrupedal, in the case of the heavy UC – locomotion suited this planet much better than did the caterpillars and wheels of the haulers and ATVs, though it was by no means the perfect answer to Fram. In the mid-term, the goal was to remove the Colony’s reliance on these latter altogether: arterials, constructed of carbon ribbon, would connect the Outposts, mining sites, supply depots and the spaceport; maybe we would even construct our own vehicles, the first of a new generation that we didn’t haul all the way from Sol in prefabricated pieces, walkers like the KOVTARs or maybe even hover vehicles, short-range aerial vehicles, VTOLs or helicopters, to take advantage of Fram’s thicker atmosphere…

But that was a way off. The Colony was still establishing itself, trying to subsist on what we’d brought and buy ourselves enough time to set up the infrastructure to start living off the resources of Fram.

The boom locked into place, and the winch, bearing the rhomboid shape of a solar cell panel, lowered to the pair of KOVTARs below.

We were weeks behind on our timetable, months in some areas. The spaceguard project was the most worrying: we weren’t sure if we’d have the anchor station in a suitable, stable orbit by the time the Mayflower arrived. Even work on these solar fields, our big project now that the mining rig was running, was going around-the-clock.

Eventually, these solar stations would reflect enough energy to power the anchor station in orbit. But for now we needed them not for energy (we had four of our own stars, bottled up behind magnetic fields) but to target the objects in the ring system above, wrapped in reflective blankets by our orbiter crew, and push them into more stable orbits.

The orbiter mission had identified dozens more objects that needed their orbits modified by us, many more than the ground stations had observed. We had a lot of work ahead of us. These stations needed to be ready within a week, so we could make NFO safe for the anchor station (and, not to mention, the skies safe for us kickers down here).

Another convoy of haulers came rumbling towards our base camp. More solar cells, stripped from the Outposts, were stacked in their trays, meters high. There were replacement crews, too, to keep the operation going through another shift. But there were no replacement KOVTARs, or a replacement UC – the operators could be rested, but we didn’t have enough machines to keep up with this timetable.

We’d been lucky so far, but surely something would break down soon. And when that happened, we probably didn’t have enough parts, or time, to recover…