Tag Archives: spaceship

Thoughts on designing a scifi spaceship

Freehauler Alcione - 3d model in progress
Freehauler Alcione – 3d model in progress

Continuing  to work on Alcione using Blender.  As a proper render doesn’t come out properly (no doubt I’m not doing something correctly), this updated screenshot is posted here instead.  While it doesn’t show light and shading, it does show the various modules more clearly.

The front is the right, with the chionic (quasi organic)  module that helps pull the ship forward in paraspace.  As currently I’m assuming one blender unit = 50 meters, this puts the forwards module at about 125 meters, not including the orphiopluteuii (long arms facing forward, named after  a type of echinoderm larva with similar structures), although I may increase the size of this forward element.

The other structures at the front are sensors and twin gauss guns.  Originally Alcione was going to be unarmed apart from an anti-meteor laser or perhaps a token anti-piracy gun, but I wanted to give her some nerd love and the story some excitement and battles.  The idea is that she is a sort of armed merchantman and part time privateer that travels between civilised space and the lawless outer colonies of the human diaspora.

There follows the bridge crew quarters, forward hanger, thermal panels, etc, with a holographic logo on the side (I’m using Jacques Cousteau’s design until I can create my own).   This module extends for another 160 meters.  When I was doing deck plans using MS paint I was thinking in these terms (although with less space), so I’ll try to reuse some of that older material.

The large sphere is biospherics, about 80 meters in diameter on this plan, followed by 16 spherical water tanks around the central axis.  With the exception of Silent Running, cinematic spaceships don’t seem to have biospheres, and for that matter most literary ones don’t.  Everything is austere and mechanical and functional, or if spacious and comfortable it is in the way a Star Trek federation vessel is; all sterile corridors and lounges and holodecks.    It’s as if nature doesn’t exist in these universes.  I remember being impressed reading something Lynn Margulis, the co-inventor of the Gaia Hypothesis, said about this upon watching Star Trek.  Thanks to the magic of Google, I was able to recover her comments:

Until recently, when I visited the Star Trek commemorative exhibit at the Smithsonian Air and Space Museum in Washington, I had never seen a single Star Trek episode.  For ten minutes, indolent curiosity, nostalgia for the 1970s, and the crowds at my back induced me to watch it: very United Statesian and very dated.  I was struck by its silliness. The lack of plants, the machinate landscape, and in the starship, the absence of all nonhuman life-forms seemed bizarre. Humans, if someday they trek in giant spaceships to other planets, will not be alone. In space as on Earth, the elements of life, carbon, oxygen, hydrogen, nitrogen, sulfur, and phosphorus and a few others, must recycle. This recycling is no suburban luxury; it is a principle of life from which no technology can deliver us. Human voyages into deep space require ecosystems composed of many nonhuman organisms to recycle waste into food. Only very short stints in constant contact with mother Earth are possible in the absence of ‘ecosystem services.

– Lynn Margulis, The Symbiotic Planet: A New Look At Evolution

When I encountered those words (it probably wasn’t the entire quote) some decades ago, they really impressed on me how unrealistic much of science fiction is (more comments alongside the above quote here).  I just cannot envisage spaceships without ecosystems., carrying little portable versions of Biosphere 2 along with them wherever they go .  Of course, a lot depends on worldbuilding; if FTL starflight is as quick and easy  as it is in low realism TV and movie space opera, essentially equivalent to a modern intercontinental jetliner, or even a drive to the local shopping center, there isn’t a need for ships to carry their own biosphere.  My own preference however is for outer space to be very large, very hostile, and very difficult to traverse.  Even if this is as much about plot devices and cosmic anxiety as it is about actual hard science.  Some space operas, like the Alien(s) franchise, do have that sense of loneliness and danger, even if their monsters are biologically absurd.  There is little appeal in space opera that mimics today’s crowded Earth.

After the biospherics section (I wonder if this also is too small, or if it should be kept small for crapsack world reasons) there is another module with the machine shop, large shuttle hanger, and what have you, this is about 110 meters long and 40 meters wide.

Then four large colourful hexagonal cargo modules (each about 75 x 175 meters) , which give an overall carrying capacity of four of the largest modern container ships combined.   Of course such comparisons are unfair, realworld surface ocean container vessels are limited by canals, port facilities etc; assuming a medium-hardness (say 6 or so on the scale of scientific hardness/realism) handwavium reactionless drive, a staple of a lot of science fiction, space opera ships need have no size limitations at all, other than those arbitrarily imposed by worldbuilding and plot devices..

Following is the weapons, sensors, and manufacturing module, which is based partly on the standard Wet Navy capital ship space opera design, of the Blender Shipyards, which I incorporated because I want to get away from the rigid radial symmetry of the earlier designs.  This measures about 150 x  150 x 40 meters.

These measurements are to help with deckplans.  Nerds like myself love these little worldbuilding details.  My idea in writing and worldbuilding is of a ship big enough to easily get lost in, or for an enemy or scary monster to hide in, with some parts much older than others and associated with a history and urban legend, such as being haunted, but not so large as to be unmanageable.  Hence a bit over a mile (say between 1.6 and 2 km), a mile being the length of a Star Wars Star Destroyer, seems a good size.

It’s interesting here to think about the difference between military scifi/SF (Star Wars, the later Star Trek), which has mile long ships full of officers and ratings walking to and fro, pilots dashing their fighters, and stormtroopers marching aimlessly about, and the space  horror (Alien(s), space comedy (Red Dwarf) ships which, while equally huge, are mostly deserted, with only a handful of crew or misfits struggling to manage the whole thing.  My approach is midway between the two, and it is likely that automation will make it easier for smaller crews to manage larger vessels.

Further on is engineering, the reactor, and the drive system, but I’ll leave explaining that for another day.  My next project is to use Blender to render Freedai Reynofar, the protagonist of Up the Well, the first novel in this series

The Alcione modelled with Blender

Freehauler Alcione, initial Blender version

Freehauler Alcione, my initial Blender version

Above is my first posted image of the Freehauler Alcione, as modelled in Blender.

When I started, I found Blender extremely bewildering.  It was a huge learning curve .   My original rough attempt at modelling the Alcione was simply a series of shapes put together to represent the general outline.

After about a month of study, I started really getting the hang of it, focusing mainly on the 3d modelling side.  Without a high-end graphics card it’s not really worth my while doing a lot of rendering and attempting movies and so on, assuming I even had the time to put into the latter.

While now much more familiar with the interface, I still found 3d modelling tedious because of all the details.

There’s a number of youtube tutorials and guides that show you step by step how to model your own spaceship, beginning with a simple cube, although some familiarity with the Blenber interface and shortcut keys is required.

With a  few exceptions, all these blender spaceships, while beautifully built, follow the traditional design of a wet navy ship in space; bilateral symmetry (distinct up and down and front and rear) and small (equivalent to jet) engines.

Here the confluence of the design team George Lucas hired for Star Wars, and science fiction writers using the Space is an Ocean trope, have created the naval analogy that is now de rigour for space opera covers, self-published military SF, and nerd ship art nowadays.

The breakthrough idea with my modelling the Alcione was to download creative commons licensed models of spaceships in Blender format, and copy and paste parts of them to wrap around my rough outline, along with giving acknowledgements.  After downloading several scifi spaceships it became evident this wouldn’t work; either they were too hard to convert to the scale and symmetry I was after, or they were too detailed (which normally would be perfect, but it means they take too long to render).

In the end, the only one that turned out to be appropriate is an awesome free for use collection of hulls, parts, and greebles, called “Shipyard” posted on Blend Swap. Although I still had to modify many of them to get the extra axis of symmetry I’m after, though I couldn’t resist sticking a big gun on the central hull section!

As this is 3d software so I can show the Alcione in any position, but in comparison with earlier images I’m posting it in right side view. This is very much a work in progress; I still have to add things like airlocks, hanger doors etc.  As I develop this design more, I’ll post further updates.

On a scale of realism (if you’ve followed my realism in science fiction gradations; latest version here) this would be about a 6 out of 10; if Star Wars is 2, Kim Stanley Robinson is 9, and the postulated Alcubierre FTL drive is, I dunno, 7 1/2. I’m deliberately not writing hard SF though because I want to go crazy with my imagination. I also don’t use the Alcubierre Drive because (a) it’s still problematic at FTL speeds (tho works just fine as a STL (slower than light) reactionless drive), and more importantly (b) my story and worldbuilding combines FTL and Theosophical planes of existence.

There’s a lot in this new design that’s tied up with my worldbuilding. I’ve replaced my previous ideas of Torchship (not viable at more than 5,000 tons or so) and NegMass drive (really awesome cool idea but technological problems I expect would be insurmountable) in favour of good old handwavium, the fallback of every serious science fiction writer.

To briefly explain this vessel, I assume a new type of reactionless drive is discovered which uses negative energy like the Alcubierre drive, but doesn’t have such a gigantic power requirement (although still pretty intimidating). In my universe I assume economics of scale make it practical to create gigantic reactionless drive ships. The only reason is because I love giant spaceships, but even so they still have to be justified in-universe.

The spiky ball in the illustration is the fusion generator for the (slower than light, realspace) reactionless drive field, the spikes are heat radiators (this particular design is inspired by Ken Burnside of Ad Astra Games, whose spaceships designs (see this page for 3D modelled screenshots) are as realistic as you can get, and whose Attack Vector Tactical, is perhaps the only hard science space combat games ever written.  David Pulver’s GURPS Transhuman Space also features equally rigorous and realistic space combat, but the emphasis is still on roleplaying rather than specific wargaming..  Mr Burnside’s radiators are obviously a more realistic design because they are an open framework; an enclosed sphere would instantly vaporise.   (hence the need for copious amounts of unobtanium and handwavium in even the most realistic scifi universes).  In my less realistic universe, this chamber only functions for a very brief period, which is luckily enough to generate the reactionless field

Surrounding the super fusion reactor it is the quasi Alcubierre ring,  (see also the cute Kerbal Space Program version); which, thanks to the magic of handwavium and the eloquence of technobabble, is able to create a partial warp in spacetime by using negative energy to generate a repulsive gravity field.  I can’t call this the Alcubierre field, because it’s not that; I’ll have to invent a fancy name for it.  Diametric Field, whatever.  Essentially, as a plot device, I wanted something like Negative Mass but without the need to generate it and exactly balance it with the positive mass.

Behind this are the scifi gizmos which generate the actual reactionless field.  Actually these greebles are too ordinary, this part should be more crazy looking. I’ll probably have to completely model my own design here.

For those wondering what “greebles” are, they’re the irregular bits of tech that have been stuck on the outside of spaceships ever since George Lucas’s Star Wars.  Presumably, greebles must serve a purpose, but the purpose is never defined, it’s simply part of the huge complexity of a starship, which, paradoxically in most space operas can easily be managed by a crew of only about six or seven, including a  single engineer.  I read somewhere an idea that adventure space opera is inspired by WWII bomber crews as by the tramp steamship, as they have the same number and similar roles, but infuriatingly haven’t been able to find the reference.  Most likely this is just convergence, but the parallels are still intriguing,.

I was even considering a totally smooth version of Alcione, but when I sketched it, it didn’t look right.  So I’ve stuck with greebles.

Returning to the design here, in front of the reactionless drive complex, the icosohedron module contains the unobtanium gyroscopes that rotate the ship into the hyper-spacial dimensions where FTL is possible. I’ll need to stick a fusion reactor somewhere in front or behind this to power the rest of the ship’s systems; this is different to super fusion generator in the spiky sphere and will have normal thermal radiators.

Then the middle assembly with engineering, and more modules, including the machine shop. Actually there’s plenty of space for the fusion reactor which will be pretty small, say 500 megawatts I’d guess, which being enough to power a small city, should be more than enough for any lasers and gauss guns. Then in front of that cargo, biospherics, the crew quarters and bridge. Then there’s the thermal radiators (which being edge on aren’t clearly visible) and the crew and habitation modules.

The structure at the front marks a divergence from the earlier Alcione designs. This has aetherspace thingies and chionic generator at the front. The idea is it’s part mechanical, part organic. The long branch like things which carry the ship forward in aetherspace. The original inspiration was plankton, such as echinoderm and crustacea larva. I was actually at one point thinking of revising the Alcione as a bioship, so it looked like a giant organic plankton creature (and the comparison between microscopic plankton and floating in space, while not scientifically accurate,  is still quite evocative and mythopoetic) , but the idea of a giant hunk of metal and fullerene is just too appealing, even if it does have organic components

The overall length of the Alcione in-universe is a bit over a mile, say 1.8 kilometers from tip to tip. To give a sense of scale, the large ring is about 600 meters in diameter.

After this, my next Blender project will be a portrait of Freedai, the protagonist of my first novel (in the currently rearranged series), who later (after some dramas and adventures) finds herself as a junior crewmember on the Alcione.

Writing, blender, and more

A lighthugger from Alastair Reynolds Revelation Space Universe. Artist unknown. Downloaded from Alastair Reynolds com

Since I’ve last posted, a lot has happened.  I’m now living in the countryside for one, and tranquility has been great for my creativity.

My setting now includes five major characters: Triumvar Jonas Lothfield, the captain (of sorts) of the eponymous starship and one of the protagonists  of  Freehauler Alcione, teenage Kamren Sortnoi-Valentinon and her friend Marcel Landin, the two protagonists of Mechacross, who are gifted a mech by a rogue military entertainment complex AI, Marcel’s older brother Perryn Landin, the main protagonist of The Universe is full of starving xenopaleontologists, and mechaneer and spacer girl Freedai Reynofar, who joins the crew of the Alcione.

The Alcione herself has had a makeover.  I wasn’t really satisfied with the old modular design.  It was too much a compromise between high realism hard SF (an actual hardSF spaceship would certainly be modular, but it would be much smaller, say 100 meters, and use some sort of torch or nuclear pulse propulsion (such as feature on the excellent Atomic Rockets site), and the more fantastical space fantasy type universes of Star Wars and Warhammer 40k.

I decided to scrap the modular design and make the ship a single integral vessel.   I wanted to keep the vertical skyscraper/tower design, but add various organic elements, and also mechanistic greebles (bits and pieces on the outside of a ship hull that have been an essential part of the “giant starship aesthetic” for 40 years, since Star Wars revolutionised the way space opera should look).

Because I wanted a huge ship, I also kept the reactionless drive, but reluctantly decided to get rid of the negative matter propulsion idea.  Despite its hard science credentials and originality it felt too fidgety from a practical tech reason (the amount of negmass would constantly have to be modulated to exactly counterbalance the ship’s positive mass) and, more important, a great big ball of negative matter chasing the ship would be counter-intuitive and not accommodating to space opera aesthetic

One thing I definitely wanted to retain was the tower design.  The whole artificial gravity perpendicular to the direction of motion thing is so contrived and derived on the need to rationalise human actors in a 1 gee environment (only Gravity breaks the mould) combined with the naval ships in space trope of Star Trek and Star Wars that it makes absolutely no sense in a worldbuilding and storytelling context.

The result is a vertical spaceship a mile high, in which gravity is generated by acceleration provided by a handwavium drive, and when the drive is switched off, e.g. when the ship is docked, the situation is one of weightlessness.

The nearest I can think of to this configuration is Alastair Reynolds Lighthugger, and of the artwork available, the one at the top of this page, with its massive construction and menacing sense of power is the closest to how I currently envisage the Freehauler Alcione (part freighter, part privateer), although it would likely present a somewhat less intimidating appearance, if only to encourage trade.

Indeed, my own worldbuilding could probably be described as Revelation Space meets Warhammer 40k Rogue Trader, with some  Heinlein Citizen of the Galaxy thrown in for good measure

As I want to create my own scifi representations, I’ve started learning Blender (a popular open source and free 3d modelling package), with an eye to making a 3d model of the Alcione, although I may have purchase a powerful graphics card, because of the computational demands on rendering an image.

It’s turned out to be a steep learning curve indeed, as Blender isn’t the most user friendly of programs (though for all I know the professional packages that cost thousands of dollars are just as hardlearn).

Originally I was going to attempt the interior as well, but with the complexity and time requirements it looks like an exterior view will be enough for now.



Alcione re-envisaged as a reactionless drive freighter

The freehauler Alcione as a reactionless drive ship
The freehauler Alcione as a reactionless drive ship. Lateral and dorsal/ventral views. Graphic by M Alan Kazlev, copyright 2016.

The latest iteration of the Freehauler Alcione, incorporating the theme of negative mass propulsion, which better fits the story setting and the trope of the tramp space freighter than the harder science Daedalus drive.

At 300 meters, and a dry mass of around 80,000 tons, this is a respectable sized vessel, the size of modern day nuclear powered aircraft carrier or unladen oil tanker.

But when you take away all the space dedicated to reactionless drive,  reactor, thermal radiators, FTL zone-transit, manoeuvering rockets, fuel, container haulage, hanger, storage, water and volatiles, biospherics, defensive lasers, radiation and armour shielding, etc etc, there isn’t much space left.  

Which of course makes for  fun writing.  I want to keep the sense of claustrophobia.  Space may be vast, infinite even, but the ships that traverse it aren’t necessarily large.  Sure, some can be, like the classic starliners and kilometers long corporate bulk and container haulers and giant mining vessels, the huge worldships and hab ships and the dreadnoughts and carriers.  But I expect most ships would be small and cramped, the equivalent of a  WW II sub.  Add jerry-rigged construction and a mishmash of parts and modules from other ships, or matter printed on the fly, and the FHSS Alcione may not be the shiniest ship in the spacedock.  But she’s still home for those who sail her across the infinite ocean of space.

The only two really spectacular piece of tech on this vessel is the reactionless drive, with negmass stored in hyperspace and constantly transferred back and forth to balance the changing positive mass of the ship (as the two have to be equal at all times, though I suppose there would be some margin of error or the system would probably be unworkable), and the ortho-rotational FTL unit which enables the ship to shift from real space to superluminal zones and back.  

From whence comes such miraculous pieces of clarketech (technology so advanced as to be indistinguishable from magic)?  Luckily, being a scifi writer I can cheat (if I was rigorously hard science I probably couldn’t!) and say they were gifted to humanity and other lesser races by technologically more advanced aliens (and more than one race.  The race that has the reactionless drive isn’t the same as the FTL race).  

This is actually an old trope. Arkady and Boris Strugatsky’s Roadside Picnic has hyper-advanced aliens visiting Earth, and leaving extraordinary tech with their refuse, after they depart. Alastair Reynolds Revelation Space universe uses the classic &gifting& trope, but replaces aliens with a posthuman clade called &conjoiners&.  It really doesn’t matter what literary or worldbuilding device you use.  Aliens, posthumans, and the gods of mythology are all equally symbols and metaphors of the transcendent.

But why would these aliens do this, if being so advanced they could take whatever they want by force?  

Well, any number of reasons.  They may need humans as cannon fodder to fight their futile and monstrous wars.  They may be scavengers who stole it from some other race, and in turn trade it for whatever (but whatever they trade it for, the price is horrendous).  They may be engaged in some vast strategic game of which we cannot even glimpse (and if we do, any glimpse we have is totally wrong).  Or they may just be nice and generous people.

The freehaulers who just break even keeping their horrendously expensive ships running on whatever profits they make from cargo haulage to grey market profiteering to honest freight transport to on the side smuggling, don’t really care.  They love their austere lifestyle and libertarian-anarchist freedoms and wanderlust, travelling from world to world and space station to space station, beholden to no-one but themselves and their fellow merchanteers and freehaulers.  

And like everyone else, they never stop to think of the terrible cost humankind paid (or didn’t pay, does anyone really know or care?) for the stardrive.  They just want to keep doing what they’re doing.

Freehauler Alcione, rough diagnostic sketch

Freehauler Alcione, rough diagnostic sketch.
Freehauler Alcione, rough diagnostic sketch. Concept and illustration by M Alan Kazlev (c) 2015

Here’s a revised sketch of the eponymous space freighter Alcione. Overall length about 1300 meters, dry mass about 400,000 tonnes. From left to right, meteor shield, lasers, forward reactor and radiators, forward manoeuvering rockets, forward hyperjump node and paraspace units, small freight containers, habitation rings with radiators, shuttle hanger and shuttle fuel depot, large freight containers (15 & 20 meters each), hyperspace, paraspace, negmatter drives (multiple FTL modes), short range fusion thrusters, reactors, and reaction mass, rear manoeuvering rockets, main reactors, large tanks for fusionable material, main radiators, blast shield, handwavium-enhanced variable thrust orion/daedalus type drive

Space freighter Alcione

Rough sketch of the space freighter Alcione.
Rough sketch of the space freighter Alcione. Scale bar in meters. Image copyright M Alan Kazlev 2015

All good space opera has a spaceship at its heart, and this is mine, the freighter Alcione. 500 meters and 180,000 tonnes dry mass of starship, designed as a series of modules along the main axis. It might look spaceous but it’s not; the crew and passengers are crammed in the little radiation shielded, one gee module at the far left. Other modules are for biospherics and zonal translation (aetherspace, etc), hanger, machine shop, etc. The cargo is in huge containers placed between the front and rear Alcubierre rings. The Daedalus drive is the huge fusion torch at the right, located a safe distance from the living quarters and life support. The triangular wings are actually high performance heat radiators.

The Alcione is mentioned in Madverts, but makes a full appearance in the fourth or fifth novella of the Freehauler Alcione series.

Postcript: Updated sketch here