Signal Loss - Story Extras Part 2

If you've stumbled upon my blog, then, congrats, you've found bonus story content! If you haven't read Signal Loss yet, stop, get a copy  (seriously, it's only 99 cents), then read the rest of this post. Otherwise you'll be exposed to some major plot spoilers.

Here's a few excerpts and commentary from Signal Loss:

Thirty-five conversations separated by seven hundred and sixteen minutes.

The edge of the solar system is so far away that even light takes twelve hours to get there.

HELIOS reports M-class flare activity expected 08.02.80 06:48 through 08.02.80 13:21. Expected magnitude M2-M4. Minor communications disruptions expected with inner planet broadcasts

Solar flares are classed A, B, C, M or X. The most powerful flare ever observed was in 1859, and is estimated to be an X45 class.

She flicked her bracelet. Twelve Minutes to Mars. The photo showed James Hayden propped up in a hospital bed, wearing a neck brace, giving a toothy smile and a thumbs up.

James was injured when Bernard's Beauty collided with the boundary in 43 Seconds. He described the impact feeling like his ship had been dropped from a height onto its right nacelle.

I’ve got my final images of Sedna. Today I’ll switch to Eris, then it’s Oort cloud cataloguing and heliopause measurements for the next eight days.

Sedna and Eris are minor planets at the outer edges of the solar system. Sedna has a huge orbit with an aphelion of 936 AU and takes 11,000 years to complete one orbit.

Object one was fifty degrees kelvin with moderate reflectivity. Distance was unknown. Rios guessed it was a scattered disc object, and Kyan confirmed.

Scattered disc objects are outside of Neptune's orbit, but not as far out as the Oort cloud. Sedna and Eris are both scattered disc objects, big enough to be classed as minor planets. Finding things with low luminosity by occultation (seeing them block out the light of something else) is a tried and true astronomical practice.

“I thought at one-fifth gee it would be light enough to lift. I wasn’t thinking.”

The 500 kg drone weighs 275 lbs at 0.25 g. That's similar size and weight as the Atlas Stones used in the real life World's Strongest Man competition. Kyan's right, he wasn't thinking. The mass of the drones will come into play later with Kyan's plan to destroy the impactor.

“The simplest answer is, if you ask an A.I. about its dreams, it will tell you.”

In 43 Seconds, the A.I. Ananke tells James about her desire to see Earth from orbit, in person, and she is awed by it when it happens. She also talks about her desire to fulfill Bernard's dreams, out of loyalty to him. Rios doesn't talk about what he wants until the very last line of the story.

“Salisbury steak and noodles.”

I imagined Kyan eating tv dinners throughout his stay. I remember salisbury steak and noodles being a popular option as a teenager.

“It is a kinetic impactor. These were used for asteroid defense between 2048 and 2062.

Credit goes to NASA for the concept of kinetic impactors used for asteroid defense.

What happens when a 500 kg mass collides with your weapon at three hundred and fifty-nine kilometers per second?

Kinetic energy is just velocity squared times mass divided by two. 359 kps is 803,060 kph, which is ridiculously fast (0.1% of light speed). If you do the math it will give you an answer in joules, which converts indeed to 7 kilotons, roughly half the yield of the Hiroshima nuclear blast.

“Rios, open the fabmod pressure door.”

This was a nod to the famous 2001: A Space Odyssey line, "Open the pod bay doors, Hal." It seems humanity is destined to argue with A.I.s about opening or closing airlock doors.

“If you don’t open that door, I will be killed.”

It was subtle, but this is a variation on a classic moral dilemma, usually phrased as throwing a switch to determine which track a runaway train chooses, where both action and inaction result in someone getting killed. It's really an impossible problem for a computer programmed with an Asimov-like law, which is why Rios is only able to solve it when he makes decisions independent of his programming.

"You know, when we get back, you should take the Turing-Day test again."

The modified Turing-Day test is fiction, although Turing tests are real and well known. The general Turing standard is: if you can't tell the difference between a computer and person, the computer is sentient. I think as expert systems become more competent and convincing, this definition will need to change. This is why Rios defines sentience as having dreams of one's own.