Miscellaneous Science and Technology
An active station-class fusion reactor.
Fusion power; a far-off dream in the 20th and 21st centuries, finally made reality alongside the invention of hydrogen drive in 2151. Rather than the magnetic-confinement or inertial-confinement technologies pursued by earlier scientists, modern fusion reactors rely on a mix of both. The reaction is ignited and maintained through inertial confinement methods; this entails the rapid injection of solid fuel pellets into the core, where they are bombarded from several directions by a high-energy laser pulse. This causes the fuel pellet to implode and fuse, igniting the reaction. Once fusion has begun, gaseous hydrogen fuel is pumped into the core and constrained within a magnetic bottle, squeezing it close to the pellet-spawned plasma and incorporating it into the reaction. As the reaction volume grows, so does the rate of pellet injection and hydrogen inflow; and the larger the volume, the more power generated by the reactor - fusion rips electrons from their atoms, which are extracted from the plasma via various means and sent out as electric current.
Station reactors generally adhere to a static reaction volume, which promotes efficiency. This can be changed, but the reaction takes some time to match with the new configuration, as station reactors must slowly shrink or grow the reaction to maintain a safe level of heat.
Ship reactors, on the other hand, are almost always integrated into a hydrogen drive, which requires reaction volume change to be more dynamic in order to account for potentially varying plasma expulsion rates. This makes ship reactors somewhat less efficient - partly because of the additional infrastructure allowing rapid reaction alteration, and partly because they expel some percentage of unfused fuel out from their drives.
Unlike the nuclear fission reactors used in the past, including those previously employed on Federal stations, fusion reactors cannot "melt down." If the reactor core is breached, shut down improperly, or overheats, the fusion reaction will simply dissipate harmlessly as the forces sustaining the it (magnetic bottle, lasers and pellets) vanish.
It is possible for a reactor to be sabotaged; if an enemy agent can gain physical, unfettered access to reactor hardware, it is theoretically possible for one to set up a control program that turns the reactor into a massive fusion warhead. However, even if a malicious alteration to the reactor software was done perfectly, including hiding the dangerous changes in the reaction from monitoring systems, humans responsible for manually observing the reactor's status will trigger an emergency shutdown before the reaction inside can condense to critical levels.
Date of Invention: May 9th, 2151
Official name: Pulsed Inertial Confinement Hydrogen Fusion Rocket (PICHFR)
Purpose: Rapid, efficient orbital/suborbital/intraorbital transit
Used by: All modern spacecraft
The Pulsed Inertial Confinement Hydrogen Fusion Rocket, or just the hydrogen drive, is a relatively new spacecraft propulsion method that utilizes the fusion of hydrogen atoms for fuel and water for reaction mass. The drive is much more efficient and powerful than the chemical rockets previously in use on spacecraft, and as such has been lauded for revolutionizing space travel almost overnight with its creation. Although still too inefficient to be considered a true "torch" rocket - an engine capable of high accelerations sustained over multiple days or weeks, which would open up the Solar System for rapid transit and colonization - the drive has greatly increased the speed and reduced the cost of spaceflight within the Earth-Luna system, bringing economic booms to Earth, the Federation, and the Lunar Commonwealth.
A hydrogen drive consists of several sub-assemblies - a reactor core, reaction mass and fuel storage, acceleration chamber, and exhaust cone.
The fusion reactor is responsible for providing both power for a spacecraft and plasma for the drive.
Reaction mass tanks contain liquid water for use in the drive, while fuel storage contains both solid pellets and hydrogen gas for use in the reactor.
The acceleration chamber is a specially designed funnel that uses electromagnets to accelerate the drive's exhaust, allowing for a vast boost in efficiency and acceleration.
The drive cone is a rocket bell with integrated electromagnets used to further direct and accelerate the drive's exhaust, ensuring maximum gain from the reaction. The cone is also responsible for protecting the ship from the thermal radiation of the drive's plume, via a variety of high-performance heat shielding materials. (Neutron emissions, the other hazardous plume byproduct, are captured by a ship's standard electromagnetic shielding.)
Hydrogen drives operate on a "pulse" basis - rather than providing true constant acceleration, anywhere from a few dozen to a few hundred actual reactions take place per second, providing the illusion and power of constant acceleration while saving greatly on fuel and reaction mass. The pulse cycle, while varying from model to model, follows the same rough pattern.
The reactor core fires. A certain amount of the ionized, heated plasma is directed away from the reactor.
The plasma mixes with an injection of reaction mass (water) before passing through the acceleration chamber.
The accelerated exhaust is redirected out from the exhaust cone, providing the ship with a kick of acceleration.
Repeat. Each pulse usually takes no more than several milliseconds, sometimes less if the drive is set for a hard burn (>1 gee.)
The average hydrogen drive-equipped ship is capable of making a round trip from the surface of the Earth to the Moon before refueling is needed. Longer-range ships, like the autonomous drones used to redirect asteroids for eventual mining at Federation stations, are capable of accelerating large asteroids at several gees for upwards of a day. This comes at the cost of 98% of the ship being occupied by the drive assembly, including water and fuel tanks, as well as the drive needing comprehensive overhaul (and sometimes even replacement) after multiple trips.
Nota bene on drive vulnerability: While hydrogen drives are not prone to damage under normal operation, they represent a crticial weak point in space combat. The cone of a hydrogen drive must always be unencumbered and mostly unarmored in order for effective management of the drive's excess thermal energy to take place. If the cone is destroyed or significantly damaged - a relatively trivial feat - the drive must be shut down to prevent further damage to the ship. Taking out a ship's drive cone is therefore a surefire way to turn it into a sitting duck.
A drive cone also represents a directional weak point. The acceleration chamber in a hydrogen drive can easily act as a conduit for projectiles, which will then shred the drive reactor.
A blanket term for a variety of technologies and scientific applications, stealth tech allows the Federation to turn weapons platforms, ships, and other installations practically invisible. This includes:
Stealth Alloy Hull - an alloy made from a top-secret molecular formula, this material absorbs practically all electromagnetic radiation and emits a small, frequency-shifted fraction of it. This makes a ship or station indistinguishable against cosmic background noise; unlike previous stealth tech, which began to appear as a painfully obvious void once sensor resolution grew high enough.
Heatsinks and Directed Radiative Systems (DRS) - even when running solely off battery power, ships and stations still emit some level of heat, which can be distinguished on infrared scans. Heatsinks, alongside a complex network of coolant piping, reside directly beneath the hull of a ship or station. When activated, they absorb almost all heat that would normally radiate from the craft. This heat is then used to power a generator, which in turn powers one of several infrared lasers that pumps the converted thermal energy out into space.
Since it is a laser, the emissions are not detected by enemy sensor hardware. This allows ships and stations to run dark indefinitely; in fact, most stealth-equipped assets have sufficient heatsink capacity that any onboard reactors can run at full power without altering the assets' thermal signature.
A.I. (Artificial Intelligence)
Although truly sentient, human-equivalent (or greater) artificial intelligence constructs have not come to pass - and likely won't for centuries to come - the Federation does employ varying levels of AI technology, which are roughly sorted into three categories.
Classifier-level AI - Classifiers have existed in one form or another since the 20th century, and have zero personality and limited adaptability. Usually designed to automate a single complex task, Classifiers can "learn" over time from data they utilize, but none can communicate like a human. Classifiers are used to guide aircraft, sort and recognize images, extrapolate statistics, and other simple tasks.
Sub-personae - Sub-personae have existed since the early 21st century. They appear to have some anthropomorphic qualities at a quick glance, and are capable of handling some level of unstructured complex tasks, but any dedicated probing will easily show that they are simply advanced classifiers, capable of learning and communicating to a limited extent. Sub-personae are often used to run more complex devices, such as cars, entertainment systems, and smart homes.
Personae - The theory and successful execution of Personae AI has only existed for about a decade; they are non-sentient, but indistinguishable from a human in conversation and intelligence. Some Personae are fairly dumbed-down, and used to operate complex tasks such as spacecraft operation. More advanced Personae with less restricted code and higher processing power are capable of extended conversation on complex topics, including personal relationships, spacecraft engineering, and theoretical mathematics. Personae are used in a wide variety of tasks; most notably in the control of drones that capture asteroids and bring them back to mining facilities in Federal space.
Personae are also widely employed by the Federal military; in an effort to deploy untraceable weapons infrastructure, the newest stealth weapons platforms are run totally autonomously by Personae. These Personae are told to place the platform in a random orbit not known to anyone in the Federation or elsewhere; they then wait for an open-broadcast fire order.
Some Federal citizens have petitioned for Personae to be legally recognized as sentient beings worthy of human rights; however, both Federal and private studies of Personae-class AI have shown such programs to be devoid of sentience; they have just advanced to the point where their behavior is indistinguishable from sentience.
Gaseous Retention Fields
A photo taken from inside an Orbis station's dockslot displaying gaseous retention fields in action.
Gaseous retention fields, also known as pressure-retention fields and air force fields, are one of the most complicated technologies employed by the Federation. They allow spacecraft to pass in and out of station docking bays without the need for a complex airlock system, and prevent atmosphere from escaping a station in the event of an unexpected hull breach. In practice, the fields operate by creating a "mesh" - all edges of the field area emit a stream of aligned plasma, which cross over each other to form a functionally coherent seal against the interior pressure of the station. This field is effective at blocking the transfer of gasses, but does not impede the movement of solids or liquids - spacecraft pass through the field unhindered.
The system is also implemented in the hulls of stations; sandwiched in-between layers of metal, the thin plasma mesh covers the entire station. When the hull breaches, the hull material on each side of the field is destroyed - however, the field remains, creating an automatic seal.
In the event of a station-wide power failure, the fields used in station dockslots are equipped with a battery backup that keeps the fields active for several seconds; enough time for the mechanical safeguards in place to engage and form a solid seal on the bay.
Instrumental in keeping Federal transmissions private and efficient, tightbeam arrays are generally used in favor of radio for inter-station communication. Rather than transmitting data over a broadcast that any scanner can listen in on, tightbeams encode information into low-power lasers - on means one, off means zero. Tightbeam communications, while somewhat more energy-intensive, have a bandwith orders of magnitude larger than radio broadcast, and cannot be intercepted.
Atmospherics and Recycling
The Mechanics of Spin Gravity
Stasis/Cold Sleep - The engineering of nontoxic cellular antifreeze in the late 21st century finally made human cryonics - the act of freezing a living being and reviving it later - a possibility. The technology has not seen much demand, except for on the handful of crewed missions to the Outer Planets.
Corliss Engines - A variant of hydrogen drive technology created by a lone engineer (Sam Corliss.) These miniaturized plasma thrusters are crucial to the maneuvering of larger ships, such as freighters.
Dropjets - At high enough velocities within Earth's atmosphere, trace hydrogen can be gathered quickly enough to fuel the ravenous appetite of a hydrogen drive. This mechanism is coloquially referred to as a dropjet, and is most often seen on suborbital passenger transports.
Life-masks - A crucial piece of survival gear in the event of a catastrophic disaster aboard a ship, life-masks consist of two connected parts - an airtight face mask, and a life support package that rests against the back of the neck and head. In the event of vacuum exposure, an inflatable pressure bubble will deploy from the mask, enveloping the wearer. This bubble is then pressurized with helium, and oxygen and water are provided through the mask. An embedded emergency subpersonae will facilitate communications and provide rescue updates, and medicate the wearer as necessary. A life-mask is capable of sustaining the average person for approximately six hours without sedation; with sedation, this can be stretched to twelve hours - more than enough time for a rescue drone to arrive.
Magnetic Shielding - While stations are protected from the dangerous radiation of the sun and the cosmos by their sheer bulk, ships have no such luxury, instead relying on the generation of artificial magnetospheres along their thrust axis. These magnetic fields capture particle-based radiation, which makes up the vast majority of radiation in space, and absorb or deflect is safely at the poles of the field. Electromagnetic radiation, including X-rays and Gamma rays, are not affected by the field - ships rely on a layer of physical shielding within the hull for protection instead.
Genetic Engineering/Editing - Modified life is ubiquitous in the Federation, with everything from bacteria to humans being touched by genetic tweaks. Editing technology has progressed to the point where modifications can be made to a live organism, including adult humans. Some examples include:
Plants designed to flourish in the low-CO2 environment of stations, and fish engineered to grow in microgravity tanks.
Several species have been engineered for domestic use. For example, "coonies" are a popular household pet descended from engineered racoons.
Some bacterial vaccines utilize edited macrophages that target and kill a single bacterium with ruthless efficiency, providing a way to protect against diseases that traditional vaccination methods can't touch. Additionally, immunotherapy has become a mature field, and retroviruses such as HIV are easily cured via genetic editing tools.
The gene pool of humanity has been heavily edited in the past century. Engineered traits such as efficient metabolism, increased tolerance for radiation, decreased cancer risk, and hardier immune systems have been passed and spread through generations. A prominent example is INT-5, a collation of specific gene edits that grant boosted intelligence - thanks to inheritance and standardized embryonic edits, roughly 76% of humanity now possesses INT-5. Cosmetic engineering is considered taboo, however, and truly extreme changes (such as altering aging or giving someone wings) remain impossible.