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Website / Atomic Rockets

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Atomic Rockets is a website by Winchell Chung, intended as a resource for science fiction writers. The site contains information on a large number of science fiction tropes, as well as reams of technical data on the scientific basis (or lack of it) for those tropes.

It also has three sample settings: "RocketCat's Universe" (the most fleshed out), "Ring Raiders," and "Cape Dread."

Tropes discussed and analysed:

  • Applied Phlebotinum: The introduction discusses this in various flavours:
    • Handwavium: Defined as anything that outright breaks physics.
    • Unobtainium: Used in the classic sense; i.e. something that's beyond modern technology but still obeys real-world physics.
    • Macguffinite: The reason you're out in space in the first place. Usually some form of mineable resource.
  • Artificial Gravity: Various methods are discussed, including Centrifugal Gravity and classic handwavium.
  • BFG: The article on Surface-to-Orbit launch techniques details using an array of free-electron lasers to explosively plasmatize bricks of solid fuel, launching a payload at 30 gravities without using stage 1 boosters. This means it can double as a Planetary Fortress, either by zapping enemy ships directly, or by yeeting launch canisters full of rocks up their noses. This can be set to fire in Spam Attack mode (launching several cans/beams at once) or Wave-Motion Gun mode (all lasers fire simultaneously).
  • Cool Starship: Most of the technical information is focused around creating these. As is pointed out in the introduction, the ship is usually the centre of attention in Space Opera.
  • Faster-Than-Light Travel: Discouraged, as are many soft science fiction tropes, but Chung's advice if you have to have it is to follow consistent rules.
  • Generation Ship: Plausible, but fraught with problems.
  • Justified Trope: Using particle beams allows the author to use other tropes that make sci-fi "fun," like Deflector Shields and radiation-absorbing armor plating. How to keep synchrotron radiation from killing everybody on the ship is left as an excersize for the writer.
  • Matter Replicator: Amusingly called a "Santa Claus Engine," because you tell the machine what you want and then you get it, unless you ask for something untoward, in which case, you get punished somehow (ie, you're on the naughty list and banned from using it until you've served your prison term). It's discussed how such a thing would work (and it's a little more involved than how Star Trek does it): using a fusion torch to vaporize raw materials, which then get squirted over magnetized plates with frequencies attuned to the elements in the plasma stream. These plates are emptied into containers, which feed a machine called a "fabber, which assembles the refined materials into useful things. It's also posited that there'd be a dedicated police force monitoring their use, in case someone replicates illegal goods (illicit drugs, nuclear weapons, etc).
  • Most Writers Are Human: As are most readers, to which Chung attributes the difficulties in writing convincing aliens and artificial intelligences.
  • Misapplied Phlebotinum: The knock-on effect of certain machines are discussed in their relevant sections (one example given is how replicators would immediately wreck the economy), and writers are encouraged to think real hard about the unintended consequences of their fantastic, plot-hole sealing machines.
  • Mundane Utility: Mass drivers and laser launch facilities can be easily weaponized into planetary defense fortresses, but usually would launch sattelites and spaceships.
  • Nuclear Torch Rocket: Atomic Rockets has an entire section on these, and their various types. It also notes that the exhaust plumes of any kind of torch drive could obliterate a small city, and therefore the military would want to keep a very close eye on anyone who has such a ship, since they're effectively riding around on the recoil of a Wave-Motion Gun. It also notes that a fusion rocket would want to have the reaction well away from the ship, contained within a well-insulated/shielded magnetic cage, lest the ship "glow blue-white for a fraction of a second before vapourizing." One interesting tidbit of information it mentions is that, if you're using a fusion torch, the atoms in the fusion plasma can be manipulated to "point" in a certain direction simply with a strong enough magnetic field (way stronger than the ones used in MRI scanners), allowing you to "aim" the neutrons emitted from the nuclear reactions for thrust, as well as the energetic plasma, and you also get a beam of other subatomic fragments going in the opposite direction, which can be captured for power, or directed away for yet more thrusting power.
  • Pillar of Light: Downplayed in the "Laser Launch" portion of "Surface-to-Orbit." Laser beams can be used to provide rocketless spacecraft launch by vaporizing a block of solid fuel or igniting a gas, either a hydrogen/dust mixnote , or, with a top-shaped mirror and cowling vents, regular-ass air. This being a hard science fiction, the beam would be invisible until it hit something (ie, the solid-fuel brick) or passed through a cloud of something (like the aforesaid dust), but Artist's Impressions show a reddish beam.
  • Pocket Rocket Launcher: The site calls these simply "rocket guns," and specifically name-drops the gyrojet. It notes that the launchers are very light and cheap (which is great for spaceships with conventional engines, as they have very strict weight restrictions), and due to the nature of rockets, are nearly silent, and have next to no heat buildup or recoil (recoil is way less of a problem than you might think in zero-gee combat-in short, a soldier in full battledress, plus gun, outmasses a bullet so much that they'd go precisely nowhere even if they don't Take Cover!, which they of course will; barring deliberately using the gun as a very inefficient thruster for some reason-but nobody likes having their guns melt; especially if they burn a hole in your spacesuit doing so). With specialized ammo (various kinds of Trick Bomb warheads, and/or dial-a-range rounds to prevent decompression of a habitable spaceship compartment), it could be a great future-tech weapon to arm your characters with.
  • Reactionless Drive: Strongly discouraged, but for less obvious reasons: according to Chung, even a weak reactionless drive is more than capable of shattering planets.
  • See the Whites of Their Eyes: Chung loves debunking this one. He and others have pointed out that a space warship wouldn't have windows as there is nothing to see, especially the ship you're shooting at. See that dot? That's a star, the ship is a dot you can't see with your Mark I eyeballs.
  • Space Elevator: Three types detailed under "Surface to Orbit":
    • Beanstalks, which is just a very long rope attached to a very tall tower, requiring unobtanium to build. But once it's up, you can just add ballast to the "down" car (eg, a broken-down satellite or a metal-rich asteroid) and tow up a spacecraft.
    • Lufstrom Loops, which resemble a single truss of a brobdenaggean suspension bridge, and keep themselves up by accelerating a conveyor belt. They don't require any exotic materials to build, but will collapse under their own weight during a power outage. They can have spacecraft magnetically attach and detach from the belt to launch.
    • Space Fountains, which use electromagnetic accelerators and a constant stream of ferromagnetic "particles" (probably between the size of marbles and bowling balls) to levatate a skyhook. These have the advantage of being smaller than either launch loops or beanstalks (they can be any height you like and go straight up), and can be built anywhere (beanstalks require being built on the equator because of physics and lufstrom loops should be built over the ocean so they don't fall on anyone's house when they break). They can also be made safer by having redundant streams with independant power supplies. Similarly to launch loops, ships magnet themselves on and detach at the top.
  • Standard Sci-Fi History: Several pages about how authors can play with this model.
  • Starship Luxurious: Not even. Most "Scifi" ships in movies and on television, (we're looking at you Star Trek.), have massive hallways and large open spaces more in line with ocean going vessels, particularly passenger ships. (Military vessel hallways are in fact narrow and not so big. Especially on submarines.)
  • Stealth in Space: Chung is of the school that believes this is highly unrealistic, if not outright impossible, as all that waste heat from the ship's power source and crew has to go somewhere.
  • Technobabble: Chung naturally warns against this, but advises readers to A) keep it consistent and B) include just enough real science that an untrained reader would 'stub their toe' into thinking that it's plausible.
  • Time Dilation: The site includes relativistic equations, for writers who want to depict this trope.
  • Writers Cannot Do Math: averting this is the entire point of the site.

Tropes used:

  • Awesome, but Impractical: Many of the weapons and systems the site discusses sound awesome in theory, but are substantially less so in practice:
    • Standard nukes in space warfare. While extremely powerful, a combination of the inverse square law and the effects of the vacuum (there's no blast wave in space) means that even a large nuke in the megaton range will fail to deal notable damage against an armored target unless detonated at a ridiculously close distance (single digit kilometers or less), which is impractical given how fast ships can be moving relative to the missile carrying the nuke (not to mention the missile's limited delta-v budget). The fact that explosions deal damage omnidirectionally also means that the energy per square meter is quite low even if you do manage a point-blank detonation. Better to go with a laser, railgun, or shaped charge, which can obtain absurdly higher energy densities even with a fraction of the total energy, which is what matters for penetrating the enemy's defenses.
    • Bomb-pumped lasers. It doesn't get much more awesome than focusing a nuclear explosion into a laser beam. The problem? Only a tiny fraction of the warhead’s X-rays, which are emitted in all directions, are intercepted by the metal tube that focuses them into a laser. From those, a tiny fraction of that fraction is converted into coherent X-rays. In the end, only about a millionth of the bomb's energy is actually converted into a laser - and that laser is still limited in range by the wide divergence of the beam. On top of that, it works for just a microsecond, wastes an expensive nuclear bomb, and each shot destroys its surroundings by detonating. It's potentially useful as a one-shot point-defense weapon for taking down thin-skinned ICBMs, but that's about it (and even in that role, it's outclassed by reactor-pumped lasers for civilizations advanced enough to have them).
    • Deuterium-tritium fusion power. At 340 terajoules per kilogram, it's one of the most powerful fusion combinations (only exceeded slightly by deuterium-helium3 fusion at 353 terajoules per kilogram, and by proton-proton chain reactions at 645 terajoules per kilogram), so it'd make a great way to propel your spaceship, right? Well, not exactly. See, it produces 80% of its energy as neutrons, which heat your spacecraft and don't provide propulsion unlike soft X-rays; thus the energy you can actually use is far less than the total energy, and you have to space out your drive components hundreds of feet from where the reaction happens so that the reaction doesn't literally melt them. By contrast, Deuterium-helium3 is just awesome without the impracticality, as it only gives off 5% of its energy as neutrons. Deuterium-deuterium is the Boring, but Practical method: it's almost as wasteful as deuterium-tritium and produces about a quarter of the energy per kilogram, with 66% of its energy being lost to neutrons, but the fact that it only requires deuterium and nothing else gives it effectively infinite fuel (tritium is extremely rare, while deuterium is plentiful in oceans and can be widely synthesized by a Type I civilization).
    • Kinetic Weapons Are Just Better, because you only have to throw something-anything, really, one example given was a can of ravioli-very very hard to hurt someone (and how hard they get hit is subject to how fast whatever you're shooting at is moving; the example given was an astronaut tossing the cat's litterbox out the airlock at a shipload of space pirates), whereas lasers and particle beams are inefficient (to the point that if you find a power source capable of making them viable, you might as well chuck the power source at the enemy instead) and subject to blooming after a comparatively short distance. Furthermore, energy weapons have other attendant problems. Lasers will cook your ship with their waste heat, and particle accelerators emit radiation in the course of normal operation, turning the ship into a flying graveyard. Besides which, if thrown hard enough, mass driver bullets create nuclear reactions on impact anyways.
  • Cute Kitten: RocketCat, the site's mascot.
  • Quote Overdosed: An estimated half of the text on the site is inside a quotation. This is mainly due to the writer repeating parts of books as examples or copying a discussion others had about the topic.
  • Raygun Gothic/Atom Punk: Referred to as 'rocketpunk', to go with Steampunk and Cyberpunk. The whole site is decorated with classic SF art, mostly of this era.
  • Retro Rocket: The Polaris, featured heavily throughout the site.
  • Shown Their Work: The technical information, including mathematical formulae, is (mostly) accurate. The writer himself admits that he isn't a real rocket scientist or anything and is not a good source, so everyone should probably check something else as well. He does link to documents written by actual rocket scientists, though, so you're free to check those out if you want to see how he reached his conclusions.
  • Wave-Motion Gun:

Tropes used in sample settings:

  • Beast Man: Rocket Cats are Uplifted Animals based on cats, employed to track down Riggers (or, rather, any genetically engineered species, but only Riggers officially exist).
  • Dem Bones: The antagonists of "RocketCat's Universe" are the Riggers, a hostile group of Trans Human Aliens who look like skeletons.
  • Generation Xerox: Elon Musk III is mayor of Cape Dread.
  • Land of One City: Collectively called "Asteroid-Athens," city-states on asteroids. They house covens of psychics, hive-minded cyborgs, a colony of Space Elves, and scissor-happy feminazis.
  • Little Green Men: Tremlins (Techno-gremlins), who look an awful lot like Kerbals. A nicer product of the same genetic engineering program that created Riggers. They come in Tame and Feral varieties. Most of the tame variety are employed by Wincell Chung's Atomic Rockets Inc (a shipbuilding company with an endearingly eccentric CEO in "RocketCat's Universe"). Feral Tremlins stow away on commercial ships and pay their way by helping with the ship's upkeep. Tremlins officially don't exist, because if they did, then they'd all have to be killed because there's no transhumanism allowed.
  • Living Ship: Rigger ships. They're noted to be significantly worse than mechanical ones, with the sole exception of the fact that they can heal from damage (that a normal ship wouldn't have gotten at all).
  • No Transhumanism Allowed: The disastrous result of using humans genetically modified to be extremely light (namely, the cannibalistic, refugee-from-halloweentown Riggers) means that genetic modification is illegal.
  • Orion Drive: Canada, of all places, has a fleet of nuke-propelled battleships due to having some of the richest uranium deposits on Earth.
  • Shout-Out: Atomic Rockets Inc is set up like the Willy Wonka Chocolate Company, complete with Mad Artist CEO and Oompa-Loompas.
  • Solar Sail: Several ship designs utilize these, snd there are several companies who provide laser beams for a quick boost as well.
  • Straw Feminist: Astro-Amazons, a Human Subspecies that reproduces parthogenically and castrate every male human they meet.
  • Wave-Motion Gun:
    • The backstory of "RocketCat's Universe" has Texas build laser-launch facilities, sending pioneers to the solar system... as an economic stimulus plan.
    • Rocket Cat ships have a Casaba Howitzer cannon, which focus nuclear bomb explosions into spear-like beams of plasma.