Black Stars And Endless Seas

Makoto Yukimura
Planetes Omnibus, book 1

Planetes

2015’s Planetes Omnibus Volume 1 collects the Yuki Johnson translation of Phases 1 to 12 of Makoto Yukimura’s near-future hard-SF manga, Planetes. The Japanese original first saw print between 1999 and 2003.

By the last quarter of the 21st century, humanity’s glorious space ventures include crewed facilities in orbit, the Moon, and beyond. Gone, the energy concerns of the old days. Lunar helium three1 provides all the cheap energy humanity needs, at least for the moment. It’s a wonderful shiny future in which humans can engage in all manner of exotic occupations.

Hachirota “Hachimaki” Hoshino is a garbage collector.


Humans in space are still humans and everywhere humans go, they leave trash in their wake. In space, this propensity to litter is potentially deadly. Even a small bolt is lethal if it collides with your space craft at orbital speeds. If humans are to remain in space and reap the bounty thereof, then someone has to track down and dispose of the trash. Hachimaki and the other crew members of the space ship Toy Box are part of this necessary effort.

Of course, being necessary is not the same thing as being respected.

For Hachimaki, debris mitigation is one step towards his actual career goal, which is to own and operate his own spaceship. While he likes his companions — chain-smoking Fee, taciturn Yuri, volatile Tanabe — friendship doesn’t keep him from applying for jobs that will get him closer to his dream. Jobs like working on the first crewed mission to Jupiter, a world whose vast helium reserves could be extremely valuable to humanity (or at least that part of it in the fusion reactor business).

Fusion and space exploitation brought riches to some. Nations dependent on resources extraction found themselves excluded from their traditional markets by off-world competitors. Their plight is ignored by a world with no particular use for them other than as a market for weapons.

Some of them submit to their dismal future. Some of them attempt to disrupt the disruptors with acts of terrorism small and large. Small: the occasional IED. Large: ending space travel for centuries by triggering Kessler Syndrome, which would surround the Earth with a cloud of lethal debris.

The Jupiter mission is sure to be a target….

 ~oOo~

Jesus fucking Christ lunar helium three (increasingly vulgar cursing goes on for ten or fifteen minutes). Still, it’s interesting that this is regarded as a stopgap, with Jupiter slated to replace the Moon as the main source of fusion fuels. Mining 3He from the Moon is a silly idea for a number of reasons I would be happy to explain at tedious length, but at least Yukimura acknowledges that gas giants have rather a lot of helium (a small fraction of which is helium three.). As opposed to the moon, which has much much less helium three, which is thoroughly mixed with regolith in a way that would make extracting it extremely energy intensive.

Not that we have fusion. And if we did it would burn deuterium and tritium.

Since this is diamond-hard SF, snarking at faults in the world building is playing fair. Another striking2 error is in the depiction of atmospheric boundaries. Planetes depicts the atmosphere as having a well-defined upper limit: above that altitude and one is safe, but drop a few meters and instant flaming doom! The reality is more complicated.

It’s important to bear in mind that this manga was written in a previous century. 1999 may not seem so very ago, but it is long enough ago that it was written in an era without ubiquitous cell phones. And … aside from the helium 3 speculation (which dates from the late 1980s) Planetes’ vision of space exploitation could come from the 1970s. For one thing, space exploitation is carried out by squishy humans. If there are any robots active in space, there is little sign of them.

The focus of the manga is very much on Hachimaki (not so much the case for the anime version). He is not a sympathetic protagonist, which makes this an outlier in space industrialization stories. Tanabe, who is the voice of decency, is relegated to a supporting role. Hachimaki is willing to sacrifice friendship and marriage to his one goal, buying a spaceship. Glimpses of other, older, characters paint a sad picture of where this will lead: years spent away from families, slow death by cancer out in space. Hachimaki knows this, but feels the prize is worth the cost.

It’s a bleak view of space industrialization and the effects of ambition on personal lives, but a good read.

Planetes Omnibus Volume 1 is available here (Amazon) and here (Chapters-Indigo).

1:


2: Although the passing comment on page 228 that establishes that the exhaust velocity of the Von Braun, the cutting edge rocket headed to Jupiter, is 600,000 miles a second would be held up as yet another hilarious, mockable error except that … I think it was probably a mistranslation. 600,000 miles a second is something over three times the speed of light. The Von Braun’s exhaust velocity is also said to be 1200 times that of conventional rockets. Assuming those are chemical rockets, the Von Braun could have an exhaust velocity of 5,000 km/s, which is quite reasonable for a fusion rocket.

Combining high thrust with high exhaust velocities means that the Von Braun generates a hilariously large amount of energy. In most settings with high thrust fusion rockets, authors ignore the thermal management issues raised by terawatt rockets. Yukimura makes it clear that heat regulation is a significant technical challenge.




Comments

  • TSM_in_Toronto

    "Jesus fucking Christ lunar helium three"? I am unfamiliar with this particular allotrope (iso-isotope?) of helium, James -- which physical or chemical properties differentiate it from plain old He-3? Would they permit its ready separation from plain old He-3?

    Maybe, it is different enough from the lunar He-3 whose (cough, cough) apostles irritate you so, that in fact its extraction from lunar regolith would actually be energy net-positive?

    If so, then wouldn't "Jesus fucking Christ lunar helium three" indeed be humanity's (cough, cough) salvation?

    TSMinToronto

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  • Damien

    I think I've heard that the anime is actually 'harder' than the manga, though I did not hear in what ways this was the case.

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  • Rkomar

    It's been a while since I did any nuclear physics, but I vaguely recall that He-3 is converted to tritium in our good old fission reactors. I believe that that is the way the US military gets its tritium for bombs. So, mining He-3 for eventual use in fusion reactors isn't so far-fetched. The half-life of tritium isn't that long, so you can't really mine it directly.

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    • James Nicoll

      Zapping lithium with neutrons will produce tritium.

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      • Rkomar

        You're right, that's the way they get their tritium. My memory was plain wrong about using He-3 for that. Still, He-3 sucks up thermal neutrons readily, producing T + H the vast majority of the time. However, a little googling shows me that it is proposed to use the He-3 directly with deuterium to produce He-4 + H in the fusion reactor, thus avoiding the problematic fast neutrons you get from T+D. So, no conversion to tritium beforehand; something else I was wrong about :P.

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