2015-11-27: Two Years At The Hot End

On the Orbiter Forum (discussion of topics related to the Orbiter space flight simulator), someone mentioned that they were reading Two Years Before The Mast, by Richard Dana, and that the story might work if set in space. I re-read the book, and tend to agree. I envision it set in late 21C, with asteroid mining having recently become established as an economical activity. The narrator would serve on a ship making passes to/from the asteroid belt, with a nominal two-year tour of duty.

Some of the assumptions I would use:

  • Fusion power plants providing great amounts of power, based on the Bussard polywell ideas, and the boron-proton reaction. The reactors and radiators are at the rear of the ships: the “hot end”.
  • Ships based on a rhombic dodecahedron module, such that any size ship could be built by connecting an appropriate number of modules, or a large ship could be split into smaller units (limited by the number of power plants).
  • 3D printing capability (“makers”) on board to fabricate any material needed, from tanks of raw materials, refined by atom-sorters. Capacity to make panels for modules, if maker operates within an open module (one panel removed).
  • Module panels have flanges to construct modules; attachment points for exterior shielding, sensors, thrusters, structural support, landing gear, etc.; large opening for hatches; smaller opening and channels for liquids and gases; signal and electrical power channels.

Some observations that might influence the story:

  • Asteroid belt characteristics: semi-major axis range 2.1 to 3.3 AU; edges and Kirkwood gaps at 2.1 AU (4:1 resonance with Jupiter), 2.5 (3:1 resonance), 2.82 (5:2), 2.96 (7:3), 3.28 (2:1).
  • Volume of torus 2*pi*pi*r*r*R = 19.2 cubic AU.
  • Total mass ~3×10^21 kg; 1/3rd mass in Ceres; 1/2 mass in Ceres (mass 9×10^20 kg, dia. 950km), Vesta (2.6×10^20kg, 525km), Pallas (2.1×10^20kg, 512km), Hygiea (8.7×10^19kg, 431km); 200 have dia > 100km; 2 million have dia > 1km; eccentricity < 0.4.
  • Density of asteroids with dia > 1km = 2*10^6/19.2 ~10^5 per cubic AU, < 1 per 10^19 km; average distance of 10^6 km.
  • Average speed at a=2.1 AU = ~20km/s; at 3.3 AU = ~16km/s. Typical passing speed 4km/s. To detect potential collision within 24 hours, need detection range of ~4×10^5km.
  • Odds of a belt-crossing probe hitting asteroid is < 1 in a billion.
  • Chief engineers on all ships are called “Scotty” for obscure historical reasons.
  • Learning is in two phases: theory and practice. Theory is learned rapidly (a few days) by use of drugs and tech, but lost unless practiced (which takes much longer).

In addition to the story, I would develop modules and ships for Orbiter, and for printing as desktop models.


  • 2015-11-27: Vision only
  • 2015-02-01: Proof-of-concept 3d-printed rhombic dodecahedron faces/clips (5cm long)


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