Blackberry Targeted Content

Ship Focus: Epona Transatmospheric Shuttle

Type: Ground-to-space transfer vehicle.
Original manufacturer
: AUSCOM surplus, later USRE shipyards.
Current pattern status
: Open-source.
Propulsion: Chemical reaction drive (oxygen-hydrogen, kerosene, red flowers or metastable nitrogen).
FTL capable:
Length:  20 meters.
Payload : Upwards of two tons.

Crew: up to 6, generally between 2 and 4.
Also known as the Contraption, the Creature (affectionate).

Space access is easier than ever in the interstellar age -- be it via reusable two-stage-to-orbit launchers in use on most worlds, tailsitting fusion landers or even hypersonic dirigible for the most adventurous, bridging the gap between the ground and low planetary orbit is as mundane a journey as international travel was in the industrial age. Arguably more, in a sense; while few Terrans have ever taken a plane in their life, half of them have travelled beyond the Karman line. However, even in this era of (relative) energy abundance and exotic aerospace designs, the age-old dream of horizontal take-off, horizontal landing single-stage-to orbit spaceplanes has yet to be fully realised. Such crafts aren't technically impossible, they are just useless, as their perceived benefits do not make up for the stringent payload restrictions and added complexity.

The Epona is the exception to the rule. This early Low Age design was salvaged from AUSCOM surplus a century ago and has since then managed to carve out a niche in the sprawling world of surface-to-orbit trans-medium craft. This little shuttle is roughly the size of a jet fighter, takes off and lands like one, and effectively pilots like one...all the while reaching all the way into low planetary orbit and only requiring basic servicing and facilities. This miracle of simplicity is made possible by a clever mission profile that comes from the depths of decaying collapse era militaries and their energy-constrained mindset. The Epona takes off with a minimal fuel load, ascends to the higher atmosphere, performs aerial refuelling, then ascends to low planetary orbit at Mach 15. Purists would argue that this makes the Epona a single-stage-and-a-half-to-orbit, as the tanker acts as an an intermediary section, but semantics matter little in the face of performance. As it takes off very light, the Epona can skimp on wing area and landing gear strength, allowing it to retain a very small and limited profile; and as it is also a plane, it can ferry itself, relocate easily (if needed via suborbital hop) and "launch" far away from its deployment site.

By design, the Epona is too payload-limited to replace "proper" space shuttles, let alone TSTO heavy lifters, but it found a niche as a cheap, simple way to get a few spationauts and their gear to low planetary orbit. Easy to manufacture, it is bought in bulk, with many communes operating a fleet of ten to twenty Eponas on a rapid rotation schedule. The little spaceplane is especially prized on lightly-developed planets such as Vyiranga or Tyra, where operating fixed launch sites proves too expensive for all but the largest outfits. Higher-tech configurations, such as the use of metastable nitrogen propellant or orbital skyhooks, allow the Epona to act as a "true" single-stage-to-orbit spaceplane, but its use as a "bush spaceplane" is the most prevalent. Eponas have been operated from dusty runways on Earth, tabular icebergs on Smyrnia-Silesia, limestone tepui on Masan, aircraft carriers on Elora, ancient continental ribcages on Tyra or Sequence temples on Draugr. Rarely mentioned or even considered, they're a background element of orbital operations, mundane but ever-present.

Much like other "Karman skimmers", the Epona has often been weaponized, either as an anti-ship platform or a suborbital bomber, but as far as official history is concerned, it has never been used in actual combat except -- as expected -- on Smyrnia-Silesia. 

Illustration commissioned to aircraft artist Fisher. 

Ship Focus: Firebase-class

Type: Space superiority platform. 
Original manufacturer
: USRE Shipyards.
Current pattern status
: Diplomatic License.
Propulsion: Fusion drive (inertial laser-ignited fusion).
FTL capable:
Military laser grid, long-range laser artillery, 50x to 75x missile hardpoints.
Length: 650 meters.
Payload : Upwards of 10,000 tons.

Crew: up to 150, usually between 50 to 60.
Also known as Broken Arrow.

What makes humanity different from the myriads of empires that now litter the galaxy with their ruins? We learned to let go. The lesson humans took from the collapse of their industrial civilisation and their six centuries long Low Age is one of humility. Humankind abandoned its imperial dreams, its drive for control and for expansion. We will never be as powerful or as numerous as the alien empires of old -- and that is by choice. We are wide-eyed wanderers and pioneers, not conquerors or colonizers. Our ships reflect this ethos. They are cargo vessels and exploration ships first and foremost. Combat vessels are rare. The brunt of military fleets is made of Luciole derivatives -- a century-old design, a tactically nimble ship designed for skirmishes and ambushes. For small, largely inconsequential wars.

There is one exception. The ship class known as Firebase. A class and not a model, for Firebases number in the dozen and are practically hand-assembled, like the Saturn V rockets of the old Apollo program. If Lucioles are made to win battles, Firebases are built to win wars. When the venerable Luciole Interceptor is 150 meters long, a Firebase is 650 meters long, making it the third largest ship class in existence. Contrary to most combat ships, improvised or not, a Firebase is not meant to merely engage in space, but to control it. Though it contains a large complement of FTL point to point ship-to-ship missiles, its main weapons are immaterial. The primary armament of a Firebase are long-range laser emitters, used both defensively and offensively.

Extremely dense laser grids allow the Firebase to create a nigh-impenetrable point defence halo, extending all the way into its one thousand kilometers large FTL exclusion bubbles. When a missile swarm hits the defensive perimeter, the sudden influx of light as laser point defence engages the threats and disintegrates them creates the brief illusion of an energy shield, like in the mythological tales of imagined futures. A single Firebase can protect an entire flotilla, providing a defensive anchor point in space, and two Firebases with overlapping laser grids are invulnerable to saturation attacks, except when carried out with immense swarms of stand-off ammunition such as Casaba Howitzers.

What elevates a Firebase from a merely dangerous opponent to a formidable one, however, is its laser artillery. While all human combat ships, be they legit or improvised, use lasers in some capacity, Firebases are the only real "laserstars" -- a warship meant to engage with laser beams at very long ranges. The fusion drive of a Firebase powers several arrays of pulsed lasers capable of disintegrating several meters of armor per second at ranges in excess of fifty thousand kilometers. With nigh-instant time to target at these ranges, Firebases are almost guaranteed to damage enemy vessels before they can perform FTL translations. Contrary to point-to-point FTL missiles, laser artillery cannot be evaded nor intercepted: in that regard, Firebases are the only ships that can provide a "flat" no-fly zone in the image of ground or station-based weaponry. When used aggressively, a lone Firebase can effectively interdict an entire area of space; two of them, positioned above both hemispheres of a planet, can blockade it completely. Their cone-shaped laser armor and point defence also allows them, should the need arise, to make extremely aggressive passes at an enemy fleet as they can afford to stay in kill zones for minutes instead of seconds as is the rule for smaller warships. Should human fleets engage in large-scale battles, squadrons of Firebases would surely lead the assaults, carving paths of molten debris in their wakes.

All of this is theoretical, however.

Even the largest Terran superpowers control only a handful of Firebases and would be hard-pressed to actually deploy one in battle -- in no small part because it would require large wars to be feasible under the current ideological and ethical paradigm of interstellar humankind. But it is besides the point. Firebases are not truly meant to fight. They are kept in cold storage, on empty orbits, daggers facing the stars, silent but pristinely maintained. For their promise is both strange and blasphemous in the interstellar age. Firebases are control, in its purest form: the elimination of the other, geopolitics through the threat of simple, definitive destruction. This is not a language the world can hear any longer; yet the aspiration remains, hidden but ever-present.

[Addendum: Firebases currently in service]
There are currently 8 Firebases in service in human space.
USRE: In Your Heart Shall Burn, People's Parliament, Embers of the Revolution (under construction).
Laniakea: Object 001, Object 002, Object 003 (under construction).
Moon Communes: Ancient Heart Of the Machine.
Eloran Ekumen: Harmonium Over Matter (under construction).
Algorab: There Lies The Abyss (repurposed for anti-Sequence operations).

Illustration made by Lilly Harper for Starmoth. She writes most excellent sci-fi prose on the Beacons in the Dark blog and also takes on ship commissions.

Ship Focus: Spacecoach

Type: Ultralight multirole vessel.
Original manufacturer
: Unknown.
Current pattern status
: public domain.
Propulsion: Microwave electrothermal drive.
FTL capable:
Length: 20 meters.
Payload : 20-50 tons.

Crew: up to 5, optionally manned.
Also known as Duct Taped Miracle.

In space, what is the most common molecule you can build things out of?

Water. The answer is water. Water ice, more specifically -- an ubiquitous substance, found in asteroids, on gas giant moons, on planets, everywhere. So why not build a spaceship out of water ice? After all, water is already used as shielding for a variety of vessels. Why not the whole hull? Turns out, someone already had that idea a while ago -- almost two centuries ago, in fact. And the result of their cogitations is the Spacecoach.

The Spacecoach is one of the simplest ships a commune can get their hands on. It is the purest, simplest expression of what a vessel can be: an engine, a few RCS modules, an inflatable crew and machinery section, propellant tanks and a scaffolding to link all of the parts and greebles together. The main superstructure is built out of carved ice, the engines are microwave electrothermal drives that run on water propellant while the outer hull made with slow melting ice compounds such as pykrete. With the exception of its inflatable parts and mechanical elements, the Spacecoach is built out of and runs on H2O. Considering that all of the non-watery modules can be 3D printed for cheap in any self-respecting workshop, the Spacecoach is not just cheap, it's almost free.

Such simplicity comes at a cost, of course. Spacecoaches are so slow their acceleration can be measured in units of snails, they tend to temporarily melt and lose cohesion when a powerful drive or laser merely sneezes at them and the word "cramped" doesn't begin to describe how the manned units feel. Not that it is show-stopper, mind. Spacecoaches aren't meant for long-range travel or complex operations. They are pure utility vessels, the larger-scale equivalent of jinn drones. They are very well-suited to simple, repetitive tasks with low capital investment. Spacecoaches are thus often found in space mining operations, where they are used to capture loose asteroids, work around them, ferry drones in and out of the extraction zones and, in general, fill the role of "space forklifts." They are also appreciated in orbital spaceports, where they are often present in stripped-down versions, devoid of drives and moving on RCS only. Large vessels such as Farseers often have a small flotilla of multi-purpose Spacecoaches, jokingly referred to as "gnomes." The Spacecoach pattern being in the public domain, everyone uses it, everywhere. 

For such an ubiquitous vessel, though, the Spacecoach is strangely rare in pop culture -- it is more of a background element, like the ads in noir movies depicting the late industrial era -- with the notable exception of the Elora Grand Tour, a highly publicized "slingshot race" where brightly-colored Spacecoaches run circles around the system's main gas giant all the while engaging in rap battles through laser-transmitted Morse code. It has a very serious following.

llustration by Maciej Rebisz for Eclipse Phase, distributed by Posthuman Studios under a Creative Commons Attribution Non-Commercial Share-alike 3.0 Unported License.

Ship Focus: Simurgh Courier

Type: Light transport ship.
Original manufacturer
: Aqualonde.
Current pattern status
: open-source.
Propulsion: Lazward Drive. Metastable nitrogen rocket drive for SSTO capability.
FTL capable:
Civilian laser grid. Optional EW module and weaponized probe bays. 
Length:  40 meters.
Payload : 200-500 tons.

Crew: up to 6, minimum 3.
Also known as the Lazward Ship, The Courier.

The Simurgh Courier is a light transport vessel manufactured by Aqualonde, an Elora-based shipbuilding cooperative. While it has been in development for almost thirty years, the Courier is a relatively recent ship, whose first prototype performed its maiden journey nine years ago.

Most messenger vessels are large, powerful ships equipped with fusion drives or high-power fission engines for long-range translations requiring extensive velocity matching burns. However, few courier ships are destined for interplanetary or short-range interstellar travel, and this is the niche the Simurgh Courier aims at filling. This gunship-sized vessel is meant for the transportation of light, high-value cargo -- typically, physical letters and packages -- in the smallest envelope possible. The Courier's compactness is all the more remarkable as it doesn't come at the expense of crew habitability or cargo capacity. The Courier is even widely considered as a highly liveable ship. Instead of compacting its cargo and cramping its crew, the Courier finds room where most designs wouldn't even dare touch: the engines.

The Simurgh Courier is one of the only interstellar ships not to use any sort of nuclear propulsion. Instead of mounting the fission drive one would expect on such a vessel, the Courier uses a Lazward drive. This unconventional engine, powered by superconducting batteries (Superconducting Magnetic Energy Storage or SMES), uses a mixture of microwave chambers and direct battery quenching to provide thrust for velocity matching burns. A metastable nitrogen engine is used to give the Courier additional punch or perform SSTO operations. While the Courier will not win any acceleration contests, its small frame makes the Lazward engine more than adequate for the majority of velocity matching burns.

The performance trade-off more than pays for itself, however. The absence of any sort of radiation shielding and fission chamber makes the Courier extremely compact and allows for the geometry drive to be placed right at the centre of mass. With very few interference coming from the engine and such a small frame, the Courier can reach FTL performance levels more commonly found in much larger, long-range vessels. It results in pinpoint accuracy and an ability to "chain" short-range jumps, as well as to plot translations even in high-interference areas. Some engineers consider the Courier as one of the first geometry-drive centric ships, where the main sublight engines are purely auxiliary to the faster-than-light device.

While the Courier is a purely civilian design, it is surprisingly good as an improvised combat vessel. With such a low-signature engine, the Courier is harder to detect than the average cargo vessel and can run with all radiators retracted for extended periods of time. While it doesn't generate enough power to use combat lasers, the generous thermal headroom allows for extended electronic warfare capabilities, while the two sliding probe doors only need a simple software update to perform as acceptable missile launchers.

Ship illustration by Valahor.

Lazward Engine

The Lazward drive is a hybrid space engine for small-size vessels.

It can be best described as battery-powered microwave drive with optional quenching injection and chemical fuel enhancement. It is used in places where fusion drives are not readily available and fission engines would interfere too much with the geometry drive given the layout of the ship -- or for any other situation where fission is not desirable, for example due to fissile material availability.

The typical use case of a Lazward drive is a courier or light cargo ship expected to be primarily employed for interplanetary and low-end interstellar travels. It is mostly used for velocity matching prior to FTL translations but can also be employed for SSTO operations with chemical fuel boosting.

The core of a Lazward drive is its energy storage module, made of superconducting magnetic energy storage (SMES) units. Made of room temperature superconductors, these toroid-shaped coils are used to store large quantities of power produced by an external source. A typical Lazward unit may contain several hundred to thousands of them. The SMES units are stored in revolving cannisters that allow them to be rotated in and out of the engine section easily. The SMES are installed alongside the main tanks of metastable nitrogen used for chemical fuel enhancement. Finally, the propulsion module contains a foldable rectenna that can receive beamed power from a space station or another ship.

The Lazward drive has three propulsion modes -- a main one, and two optional modes.

-- The main mode of propulsion is a high-power microwave drive. Hydrogen propellant is pumped into the engine section and rapidly heated in a microwave plasma chamber, powered by the gradual discharge of an SMES unit. This mode allows the ship to match velocity with interplanetary targets, at moderate specific impulse and moderate thrust. The quantity of energy stored in individual SMES units make this drive vastly more powerful than regular stationkeeping ones, and comparable to low-end "nuclear lightbulb" rockets.

-- When in need of additional power, one or several SMES units can be diverted towards an auxiliary chamber where they are voluntarily ruptured. The superconductor disintegrates in an arc discharge and the generated gases are used to produce additional thrust. Quenching enhances the base thrust of the Lazward drive, giving it more punch for velocity matching, though it destroys SMES batteries while doing so.

-- Finally, when conducting surface-to-orbit operations or when in need of even more thrust for velocity matching, the Lazward engine uses an auxiliary high-thrust metastable nitrogen chemical rocket. Such propellants are sometimes called "nitromemes", for reasons better left to historians to elucidate.

If the ship runs out of SMES units, emergency beamed power can be used, but at a much lower efficiency. A solar moth unit is often paired with the Lazward module in case of emergency.

All consumables -- SMES batteries, hydrogen propellant, chemical propellant -- are relatively easy to source with a minimal industrial base. Specifically, they are commonly produced by high-tech systems with limited access to mass production of fissiles or industrial-grade fusion drives. These systems are the ideal location for the deployment of Lazward drive ships. Battery recharge is handled by local stations or gas giant habitats. It is possible to conduct fast recharge operations by simply swapping the SMES cannisters through hull openings.

The performance of Lazward drives is perfectly adequate for interplanetary velocity matches and the majority of interstellar ones, though faster destinations will require the help of a carrier ship. Lazward engines are civilian drives through and through. Their thrust is too low for effective combat manoeuvers and they are too complex to power a missile.

However, the lack of a nuclear drive and its accompanying shielding allows for a very compact engine section. Furthermore, heat rejection is low: while the design does need radiators (especially during quenching), the drive is fairly stealthy and only really visible from the rear. The Lazward engine doesn't require complex maintenance. SMES units are a well-understood technology while both microwave and nitromeme rockets are known quantities. Lazward schematics are under public domain licenses.

The main weak point of a Lazward are the SMES units. The energy storage coils are fail-deadly: if one of them is physically compromised, it can accidentally quench and propel high-velocity shrapnel through the ship. Cascading failures are not unheard of, due to the nature of the revolving cannisters. There are two main failsafes for SMES failure. The first one is to pre-emptively quench the failing SMES units, which melts them instead of creating shrapnel, scrapping the engine section but saving the crew. The second one is the emergency ejection of the entire cannister, using the same mechanism that allows for rapid charging.

The name "Lazward" is derived from the persian word for "blue". The origin of the nickname is unknown butiIt may come from the faint blue glow of the exhausts when quench-enhancing the drive.

Source: NASA public domain. 

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