So here’s a thought:
It’s no secret that Joss never really went into the technobabble — he doesn’t bother working out how the ships fly, why inertia doesn’t kill the crew when they pull a Crazy Ivan, or write episodes about the ‘crystal of the week’.
That’s good.
But one of the things that people (okay, geeky people) have been trying to figure out is the ‘rules’ of the Firefly faster-than-light drive and how that relates to moving between solar systems…
But what if there aren’t any systems to move between?

In the television-only lead-in for the first-aired Train Job, the voice over by Ron Glass reads “We found a new solar system and colonized […] new Earths.”
Now, eventually, that lead-in got re-written in such a way as to imply more than one system and a ‘bigger space’, probably because Fox wanted to imply faster than light travel and make the whole thing more ‘traditional sci-fi’ (as though that would work when the ships are hired to move things like CATTLE). Faster than light travel is sexier, and Fox is nothing if not obsessed with the Sexy.
But I’ve always thought that Joss’ original idea was that we made it to another solar system and proceeded to colonize the crap out of every rock we could terraform. (I also think he specifically DIDN’T say so one way or the other, specifically so he could leave it open, because he does that.)
But… why confine it to one system? Why even entertain the idea?
Well, because enticing as it is, FTL travel isn’t really… likely.
It’s very a popular idea that a lot of people put a lot of thought into because without some way to move MUCH faster than light we have to acknowledge that we’ll probably never move out of this solar system much further than Proxima, which isn’t a really ‘promising’ system to begin with, and that’s kinda depressing. (But realistic, and Firefly is kind of realistic about a lot of things when it comes to ‘how far have we come in 500 years?’)
We want to believe it’s possible, but if it’s not… does Firefly work inside one solar system?
Well, when I looked at it last night, I said “no”, because there’s “too many planets and moons” already mentioned in the show: the wiki has at some detail on 21 celestial bodies and/or colonies — a mixed bag of some planets and lots of moons. There’s only two more ‘canon’ ones to detail, so… twenty three. In the uncut script for Our Mrs. Reynolds, Mal says to Saffron: “There’s at least eighty Earths out there, and the Meek have inherited not a one.”
So, eighty-plus.
That’s too many to squeeze into one system, right? Like… WAY too many?
Yeah, turns out I’m the superhero named Ignorant Man.
Looking at Earths Solar System, I realize there’s a total of sixty nine planets and/or moons in our solar system — that moves to eighty-five if you count asteroids big enough to land on.
Firefly people can terraform… that’s established… they can terraform just about anything, handle nearly any kind of inertial force even on old beat-up ships, and have proper artifical gravity…
Let’s say they find a system just a little more crowded than ours, with the technology to turn all but gas giants into something you can walk around on without a suit.
That’s a lot of planets.
Just a thought.

21 Replies to “Cosmology”

  1. Then there’s this thought from Bruce Sterling:

    I’ll believe in people settling Mars at about the same time I see people setting the Gobi Desert. The Gobi Desert is about a thousand times as hospitable as Mars and five hundred times cheaper and easier to reach. Nobody ever writes “Gobi Desert Opera” because, well, it’s just kind of plonkingly obvious that there’s no good reason to go there and live. It’s ugly, it’s inhospitable and there’s no way to make it pay. Mars is just the same, really. We just romanticize it because it’s so hard to reach.

  2. Depends on the limits to their technologies.
    The depth of the life zone, where there’s enough but not too much energy off the star to make Earthlike temperatures, isn’t deep enough for very many moons to be in it.
    Arthur C. Clarke posited turning Phobos and Deimos into little sunlets — causing their surfaces to undergo gradual nuclear fusion — to help warm a terraforming Mars. If Alliance tech can do something like that, it greatly expands the numbers of useful moons and planets.
    The exodus from dying Earth still has to get to another star system — without FTL. Within a fairly narrow time frame, as the year for the series is 2517.
    Assume the inertial damping tech came early. You should be able to reach a substantial fraction of the speed of light. Shielding is a big problem, as every bit of gas, every dust mote between you and your destination hits you at that same fraction, but it’s maybe doable. Maybe inertial damper shielding is possible. Assume .1c as your travel velocity.
    Now, the Alpha Centauri system is only 4.4 light years away — 44 years at .1c. It’s a triple system ( ) with one Sol type star, one a bit smaller and a crappy little red dwarf way off. Alpha Centauri A, B and C. A and B orbit each other a stable 24 times the distance of Earth to the Sun, a little farther away than the Sun — Uranus distance. Planets orbiting within the life zones of each star would be safe from the other star screwing up their orbits.
    Plant a Jupiter+ sized gas giant in the right orbit around each star (what luck!) and you’ve got a good start. If proto-Alliance tech can move big moons — inertial dampers and all — they can do even more.
    More, if Alliance tech has advanced to the point where they can do .5c or so, it opens up half a dozen other promising stars to 20 – 40 year trips.

  3. Somehow I doubt anyone’s moving planets in the Jossverse (and what a good name that is for the setting) — it just seems like too far out for what he seems to envision: “Take what you get and make it work.” seems to be the mantra of the ‘verse.
    It’s an interesting idea, but so is the ‘Firefly FTL drive’, so I guess they did a good thing in not making it solid. I can think of two big examples in the show (both in Out of Gas) that would imply FTL travel at least part of the time (and one of them supports the ideas of the FTL being based on hopping from ‘beacon’ to ‘beacon’, so there’s really no solid answer to any of this.

  4. I suspect Joss would have had to flesh out some of the details as time went on — at some point, you have to put some bounds around what’s possible to avoid cheating the viewers with solutions they couldn’t think of. So the question of how long it takes to go from world to world, locational relationships, etc., would have gotten established empirically, if nothing else.
    I agree that if we’re talking terraforming our own solar system, we’re talking about moving planets and moons around to get into the life zone. Niven’s written stories along that line — but if you have the power to do that (an offshoot of the artificial gravity and inertial dampeners that are already background tech in the Jossverse), you can probably do a much nicer job of terraforming the results, too.
    You can certainly do some fun space opera with the bounds of the solar system (some good RPG thoughts there), but Firefly couldn’t plausibly be it.

  5. Looking at the FTL option, which is the one that makes sense to me:
    There’s no indication that they have to head to some specific point (wormhole, jump point, whatever) to go to FTL.
    In OoG they say that without nav beacons, you’re lost. IMHO this means one of two things.
    One: They have to send nav beacons through normal space. Even with their nifty intertial dampeners and artificial gravity they’re probably limited to about .1c. This plus the date severely limits the maximum radius Firefly humanity could have reached, let alone done terraforming in.
    Or Two: Hyperspace travel without beacons can send you all over the galaxy, but you can detect stars and maybe planets from hyperspace. Send out lots of robotic beacon-makers (or expendable ships with expendable crews) with instructions to find planets and set up the beacons, then send explorer ships to investigate the results.
    I’d have to look at the script of OoG to see which is better supported: Are there just beacons on the destinations or are there chains of beacons in space?
    Two is much faster than One, but all in the background. Two might be very dangerous for the expendable crews depending on just how much information the star detectors can give you.
    Practically, the main difference is if you want to make up really exotic star systems or want to have planets in named systems that astronomy/sf wonks can recognize –Procyon, Tau Ceti, Alpha Centauri, etc. I don’t recall anybody in the series actually mentioning a system’s name, just the planets/moons with settlements.
    In either case there might be beacons in uninhabitable systems too. They’re still just hours to weeks away and may be useful for mining, vacuum colonies, reaver hideouts, etc.

  6. Re: the Sterling comment.
    Lunar, artificial, Mars, asteroid, etc. settlements all equal big office building to submarine accomodations, with horrible engineering difficulties, low gravity (with no cure for its debilitating results in sight) and the iron hand of Authority on you every moment. (Too easy for one whacko to kill lots of people by messing with the environmental controls. A Libertarian colony might last, oh, a month. All armed with access to explosives, y’know.) What fun. Sure the people raised there would be used to it, like kids in a Soviet Siberian town, but who writes TV shows or rpgs set in permafrost collectives.

  7. One problem, visually, is that in some of the shows (OoG comes to mind) you never even see a sun sized star. It’s always the “out in deep space” kind of shots.
    Also eighty planets gathered in the narrow band of life supporting space would make life really easy for the Alliance to control everything.
    A “Core Worlds” approach like Star Wars would be more diffuse and allow something like the Brown Shirts to rise and be some sort of a threat to the Alliance.
    But as OoG proved, Joss didn’t really want to think about the “how and why” of things. He just wanted to tell stories.
    Game mechanics wise, I would have to go with the Hyperspace/gap drive/Nav-beacon version. Multiple worlds and terraformed moons in each system. A really close cluster of stars like the pleaides (sp). Say no more then a few light years apart from each other.
    Another thought.
    Didn’t the planet/moon in “Trash” orbit a Gas giant. You could only get one or two of those in the life band of say a star double the size of the sun. Plus you could have the fun of the “week o’ night” as those types of moons went behind the parent planet.
    Yet another thought.
    In “trash” it is in implied that the “Earth-that-was” was a major battlefield during the fight against the Alliance. It is unlivable due to NBC weapon use. So they would have the ability to move inter-system fairly quickly (at least B5 level of movement).
    But since Joss’ didn’t care about the “How and Why” of the universe, a game designer may not need to either. Just a list of planets in a database with say up to 6 different route length/times and call it good.
    But this leaves the alliance problem. Why don’t they control everything, completely. There is no external threat to guard against. But they have some huge Gorram ships just to do trade/smuggling interdiction. The black market should not be able to exist in a interplanetary level with that kind of fire power sitting around. You would have to have away to spread out the ships over a great amount of space. A 5000 ship fleet would be no problem for the Alliance to build. And if set up like a water navy could overwhelm anything it wanted.
    It’s to bad you can’t just go and pick Joss’ brain and ask him what his vision of the universe is and how he saw it working.

  8. Western thinking.
    Since “firefly” was also a western would have to approach your cosmology creation that way. Think post civil war western U.S. without the comfort of a Mexico to escape to.
    You would be looking at a time period between 1865 and 1895. A thirty year time period. You would have a few “big” supply type city’s (San Francisco, Chicago, Kansas City, and New Orleans) and a lot of nothing in between them. You would have “supply” routes ( think railroads and stagecoach routes. You may be able to go out of your way to allude the authorities, but you take your chances with the Indians/bandits…oh, um, I mean Reavers.
    You would have a few outpost “forts” near these trade routes, but these would be few and far between. You older/first colonized planets with all of the good stuff (more Earth like) would be the “core worlds”. This would mean that it would be problematic to move the “huge” capital ships in between systems, and you would need a planet in system that could build such a huge ship and support it and it’s crew.
    All of this would lend itself to a multi-system type universe. One in which small ships are more able to get around (less power/fuel/supplies needed to “move” the ship) easier then a huge “fort” type ship. That might be the mechanic that you would use. The larger the ship, the harder it is to move it through space. But it is nice to have one on the doorstep of a core world to keep the peace and to keep the Straights happy.

  9. Re: gas giants.
    Nah, they can be anywhere in a star system. They’ve detected at least a couple of star systems with “boilers” –superjovian planets in closer-than-Mercury orbits. Sol’s orderly system of little rock ball to bigger rock ball to gas giant to littler gas giant seems to be a fluke.

  10. But as OoG proved, Joss didn’t really want to think about the “how and why” of things. He just wanted to tell stories.
    One point: Joss didn’t write Out of Gas: Minear did — he’s the techie one of the two.
    Sit down and talk with me about that episode — I can explain all of it — even the air supply thing you mentioned.
    And… finally… for the record… I’m not stuck on the one-system idea, I’m just playing around with it in my head to see which is feasible.

  11. Well…it might be set in a cluster where stars are not light years apart.
    As for FTL not being possible…
    My biggest problem with listening to scientists pontificate about what is , is the fact understanding of science changes so much over time. Sure right now as far as the scientists figure FTL is impossable. In 1945 DNA wasn’t known. In 1941 nuclear reactors didn’t exist and splitting the atom in a chain reaction was light FTL travel is today.
    I didn’t get the impression from Firefly that it all took place in a single system.
    As for “Earth that was” I got the impression that it was lost a while back, not during the recent Civil War, or War of Sino-Anglo Agression, as illustrated by the fact that Alliance Officers were running around collecting artifacts from those who had them during the war.

  12. I didn’t say that you couldn’t have gas giants in the life zone. Just that you couldn’t have two because the gravity well problems would be problematic.
    On the subject of location: the found one last week that is located just a hair outside of where Mercury is located. The gas giants magnetic field was frelling with the star as it traveled around it. The magnetic field reaches the star and causes a hot spot on the stars surface.

  13. Okay, I’m going to act like nobody else has posted, since I side with Joss here. “The Rules.” You have to have ’em, but what you’re really talking about is the story. Hey. Maybe they churtle. i.e., they tell stories until they get there–it makes the time shorter, just like any car trip. Good enough story=FTL. You know how they kick in the hyperdrive? They watch Firefly episodes.
    If you don’t get that, it’s okay. LeGuin reference–clever girl but she still bothers me.

  14. If you get too abstract, then all I know is I don’t want to play the engineer. Too hard to get into character. “I’ll go make my mech — engi — astro — generic roll to try and fix the . . . thing for doing the . . . space stuff.”

  15. It’s exactly the same, actually. I just make a number up.
    Hell, everyone talks like any of the Star Wars universe was any more defined than Firefly’s when the first three movies were done — fact of the matter is almost everything about the hyperspace rules was added by West End Games after the fact.
    No… all of it was, actually.

  16. RE WEG and SW Hyperspace.
    Well not *all* of it. TIE fighters couldn’t go hyperspace and that was establishes in ANH and X-Wings could which is from ESB :).
    RE Firefly and Hyperspace.
    I got the impression that the big old turbofan that spins around makes em go FTL when the assend of the ship is doing that cool orange glow, but some of the time they cruise around normally, like in Mrs. Reynolds and the Firefly Zapper ep.

  17. Yeah… my basic thought is that the firefly engine puts them into FTL, and that ‘cool spinny ring’ around the waist of the ship basically keeps them there until they’re ready to come back out.
    The VTOL engines on the side are clearly only for planetside use (Joss says as much in the commentary) — they appear to be little more than very-durable, huge-ass jet engines. For space manuevering, they’ve got you’re basic Apollo-13 “pff” sprays to change attitude.

  18. If I was really geeky I could make the Firefly in X-Plane’s Planebuilder and see how ungainly it’d be in Atmo…
    The big engines on the side would be better known as Tilt-Jets, “pff” sprays are known as Reaction Jets or Reaction Thrusters or Manouver Thrusters.
    From a geek point of view, I’d reckon that the tilt-jets get some sort of ion thrust from the central engine or plasma from there.
    Seems the central engine does it all.

  19. Yeah, added by WEG for the game which is what we’re talking about doing or — high abstraction — not doing for a Firefly game.

  20. Engines and propulsion related systems.
    Tilt Jets. IMHO they don’t look like they put out enough thrust to lift and maneuver Serenity all by themselves, not as handily as that ship moves.
    Artificial gravity and inertial dampening. Probably the same system. Probably a gravity drive both for space and to augment the Tilt Jets in atmo. I think the glowy-ass-exhaust effect is the ID on high in combination with the gravity drive, enabling 30 to 50 g accelerations.
    Hyperspace device. Might just take them into hyperspace while the gravity drive moves them around there.
    Power sources. Fuel cells were mentioned — some sort of super effecient batteries? Jet fuel for the Tilt Jets.

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