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Saturday, March 7, 2015

Design Day

So I have not been able to keep up a daily blog posting schedule, not yet anyway.  I am therefore going to shoot for at least a weekly if not a bi-weekly update schedule.

For today I'm going to talk design.  Maybe it's because I'm an engineer by training but bad and/or inconsistent designs have always bugged me.  I will not say that my own designs are perfect but I have always tried to keep my designs consistent and believable.

For this design day post I'm going to go over the progression in design of one of my own craft.  The Splicer-1000 "Dagger" fighter/trainer that plays such a critical role in Spiral War: On Dagger's Wings.

My original inspiration for the Splicer 1000 was a cross between the venerable X-Wing fighter from Star Wars and the proposed delta wing X-15 rocket plane.  I wondered what it would would look like flipped over and with a delta wing instead of its trademark split wings.

I originally designed many of my craft using paper and pencil, and unfortunately most of those drawings are now gone.  If I can find them, which is doubtful, I will scan and attach the image.

I then transitioned to CAD back in the mid-90s and redrew the designs in TurboCAD.  While I still have most of those files, I cannot access them anymore, the version I used back then is too outdated for any program I have to read the old 2-D drawings.

Then in the late 90s I started using AUTOCAD.  While I have again lost most of those early images I do have some of early redesigns.

Splicer 1000, Circa 1998.

The overall design was locked in earlier than this, a delta winged single seat light fighter with a mid-fuselage mounted cockpit, with twin engines, fuselage mounted weapons (story concession) and wing mounted missiles (in the pods).  It also features obvious thermal radiator wrapped around the engines and sensors in the wingtips.  
The texture maps here were cribbed straight from the old X-Wing alliance game.  I had no skill with them at the time, and it shows.

Splicer 1000, Circa 2001

The overall design here is not much changed, but I attempted to add details and some realism via textures and subtle additions.  The craft now features maneuvering thrusters in the nose and wingtips, along with runners of the cockpit to open and an actual cockpit interior.  The reverse thrusters are still pretty rudimentary but I added some basic maintenance hatches, the landing gear bays, and moving control surfaces for atmospheric flight.

Splicer 1000, Circa 2003

In 2005 I upgraded my autocad package and with it began a serious redesign effort of all my craft.  For the Splicer 1000, I wanted to start from the ground up and threw out the whole design, but endeavored to keep the major salient features, final result seen above.  I kept the delta winged design, but made it more of a cranked arrow similar to the F-16XL.  I also gave the outer section an anhedral, dropping it down.  The inakes of the earlier design are gone, replaced with simple reverse thrusters.  And I added a ton more maneuvering thrusters, this are space fighters and with damage expected I wanted plenty of redundancy.  I also redesigned and moved around the weapons, keeping the plasma laser cannons on the belly, and added new external missile hardpoints.

But it didn't start out that way.

Around this time is when I first really started documenting my design work.  This is how the design started, a grey blocky mess.
In short order I gave it a quick yellow color scheme to match with the standard cadet colors I described in the novel, added weapons, chamfered the wings to give them a more realistic shape and replaced the ovoid cockpit with something more angular and framed in looking.
In short order I darkened the color and shifted around the weapons, burying the larger cannons in the wings and I added the docking claw hardpoints to the engines.  These were something I always toyed with.  The fighters could launch or "land" on their motherships via arms that would extend and hold them in place.  Power could be recharged, fuel tanks filled, as well as life support systems.  I also cut in the reverse thrusters.

Next came the first version of the thruster emplacements and the moving of the Plaser cannons to a better location, that also fit the book narrative better.  There is also a vertical stabilizer there and the early wingtip sensor pods, upon which more thrusters are emplaced.
The landing gear came in next, which necessitated redesigning some of the thrusters and their placement.  Even is science fiction design compromises take place, at least if you want to maintain a sense of realism. 
Inert Training Missile:  Tactical Round Simulator (TRS)
Speaking of realism, these missile simulators for the trainer version are actually based on the CRS/PRS RAM simulators I helped to design during my time working at NAVSEA PHD.
Electron Particle Cannons (EPCs)

Plasma Laser (Plaser) cannons.

While on the subject of weapons, check out these close ups on the guns.  Notice all the thermal radiators built into each one.  Weapons in space will get hot, and they need expel that thermal energy away somehow.

At this point, the design has pretty much come together, complete with cockpit.  Now comes the DETAILS.

This shot does a good job of showing all the panel lines I cut in to make the craft look more user and maintainer friendly.

Finally come the textures. These really help the design come to life, showing wear and tear and dirt marks show that a craft is used and real.  Now, notice how there are no giant thermal radiators in this design?  For this generation of designs I changed my text base, the wings help serve at the thermal radiators as do the thrusters themselves when not in use, and internal heat sinks.

Beauty Shots.

Splicer 1000 Circa 2011-Current

Round about 2011 I decided to redesign my craft once again.  I had just completed re/modelling some of my enemy craft and now the hero craft didn't meet the same standards.  Also, the means by which I textured the craft had changed too, and the old method made it a serious pain to change color schemes.  As these things do, the redesign started small.  I like most of the old model, so I wanted to preserve it as much as possible, but change the parts that bugged me most.

I started by stripping away the old engines, but kept the parts on them that were most important, in this case the docking points.

From there I cut in a new, blended fuselage and engines.

A whole lot of cutting and chamfering later and I added the docking points back in, though they are angled this time.

This highlights one of them major design changes, the engine size and shape.  I went with a more octagonal exhaust this time with more details inside the engine itself.  See the old jet engine style exhaust on the old engine to the right.

With the main engines redesigned also adopted this clamshell design for the reverse engines.  This cleans up the profile of the ship for atmospheric flight and still allows a measure of thrust vectoring of the plasma exhaust.

A nice closeup of the cockpit, notice the minimal railing this time around, though I still need to redo that HDD console.

As part of the redesign I really considered the world I'd created.  The confederation has been space faring over a millennium.  In that time they would have something more advanced than simple gas thrusters like I modeled before.  So I sat down and did my research into proposed future propulsion systems, especially ones I could have double as thermal radiators.  The result is the hexagonal magnetic accelerator panels seen above that accelerate miniscule particles up to extreme speeds to kick the fighter around.  The downside, they burn out quick and require regular replacement.  Little details like this add a lot of realism to a story,

At this point, the single vertical stab just looked out of replaced with twin stabs.  Also, chekc the mirror image beneath.  That red panel is landing gear that I preserved from the earlier version.  But that grey panel next to it, that slides away to reveal an internal missile bay.  This is also a good time to point out the grills on the front of main engine.  Those serve two purposes:  #1 they are hydrogen ram scoops allowing the fighter to self refuel while on patrol or if it comes to a nice hydrogen gas giant.  #2 they act as thermal radiators, venting away excess heat.

Tt's all in the details.  For the most part, the grey bits in these shots are parts that carried over from the last version or we only minimally modified to onto the new design.  Next step texturing.

Standard Cadet Scheme
Fleet, Light Fighter
Sukhoi Flanker Inspired Scheme
Factory Fresh

These images serve to illustrate how much easier the new texturing method is and how it has allowed me to create various schemes with much greater ease as seen with the trio of fighters that grace the cover of Spiral War: On Dagger's Wings.

Cover Fighters

Tuesday, March 3, 2015

Sci-Tech Tuesday

100 Years of NACA

For those outside of aviation, NACA may look like a misspelling of NASA, but the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics actually predates NASA by 43 years.  Established March 3 1915, the agency was founded to undertake, promote, and institutionalize aeronautical research.  It eventually became part of NASA, but it served as the foundation of all things aerospace for quite some time.  Find any aerospace engineer and through a NACA number at them, they'll probably start describing the wing shape attributed to it.

NASA is holding a celebration of the founding of it's parent agency March 3 and 4 and will be broadcasting the whole thing live on NASA TV.

Stratolaunch is Coming Together.

In short, Stratolaunch is Paul Allen's private space launch concept.  It will utilize the largest plane ever built to hoist a rocket up to altitude and the launch the rocket with it's payload into space.  Originally SpaceX planned to partner with them, but decided to focus instead on making their rocket reusable.

The concept here is not new, even the Germans in WW2 played with the idea, and it is how Virgin Galactic and the Spaceship Company deploy Spaceship 2.

The mothership plane is finally coming together, and it is one big mama.  I watched the hanger it is being built in go up.  That structure is mammoth in size, but as the pictures in the link show, it still won't be large enough to hold the completed aircraft once they attach the wings.  This one of those programs to watch.

Wavicles Imaged

Light is a funny thing.  Is it a wave, is it a partcile?  It acts like both and neither, coining the term Wavicle.  Researchers have now imaged light acting just that way proving the quantum-mechanical theory behind how light works.  It's quite the interesting experiment and worth a read for anyone interested in physics.

Monday, March 2, 2015

Book Review: Star Wars: Heir to the Jedi by Kevin Hearne

As a boy I grew up on Star Wars, devouring all things Star Wars I could find, and that included the books. I even read all of the novelizations, and as they arrived on scene the Expanded Universe books. Though, I admit, that I stopped reading early in the New Jedi Order series of EU books. Therefore this was my first foray back into Star Wars literature in many years, and I was not disappointed.

Told from a first person perspective, Heir to the Jedi follows Luke Skywalker on a series of missions to secure weapons, allies, and a key intelligence operative while making a personal journey of discovery where he begins to develop his Jedi abilities without a teacher.

The first thing to strike me about this book is that is written in the first person. The last Star Warsbook I recall written in that fashion was Michael Stackpole’s I Jedi, an excellent book. This was handled very well, and keeping it in the limited POV made it a far more personal story for Luke. This did however make it feel less Star Wars like as we never got into the head of any major antagonist or any of the other Star Wars characters we all know and love.

As I progressed through the book I found myself enjoying it, not so much as a Star Wars book, but as a general Science Fiction Space Opera. I have long said that the best Star Wars books are the ones that don’t feel written as Star Wars Books. This one accomplished that, it felt like it could have been at home in its own universe or a myriad others just by changing the characters and some key scenes. 

That same factor made me like the book also worked against it at points. Luke does not use his Force powers in an active way much throughout the book. Given where it takes place, shortly after the Battle of Yavin, this is to be expected. He has had little teaching in the ways of the Force and actively tries not to make the wrong decisions about how to progress. The scenes where he does actively use the Force are excellent however and really show that Luke has little, if any idea, of what he is doing. His failed attempt at bending someone else’s will comes across great, as do his first forays into Force telekinesis. When Luke does make active use of the Force it is always remarked upon by his companions, as does his passive use of the Force, though the narrative does not touch on these much. I expected Luke to use his lightsaber much more than he did in the book and was somewhat disappointed that he did not employ it more, but again, given where he is with his training that is understandable.

 This book also is one of the first I can remember that showed the true temptation of the Dark Side. I won’t go into details but when the Dark Side seduces Luke, you, as the reader, can understand feel its pull right alongside Luke.

The story seems to meander at first, with Luke heading off on a trade mission where he is momentarily sidetracked and rescues a smuggler ship under attack by the empire. This gets the ship he is on marked by the empire, forcing him to repaint it and get a new transponder. On the trade mission he is led to the grave of a fallen Jedi, where he is given the Jedi’s lightsaber and after dissecting it learns just how far he needs to go to become a Jedi himself.

Luke’s adventures continue from there, where in an effort to get funds for his primary mission he has to go on an exobiology expedition for a rich pharmaceutical baron. He undertakes the mission with the baron’s beautiful and capable daughter. This part of the book had a decidedly un-Star Wars twist, and I never thought I would read the phrase “brain sucking alien” in a Star Wars book. If this is the direction that all new Star Wars books and movies are taking, then I am all in.

I also quite appreciated that Kevin Hearne tried to inject some real science in the book. When Luke enters one star system we actually see him reflect on how long light takes to traverse great distance, in this case light minutes, and how that will delay other ships trying to detect him. I also liked that the book emphasized that Luke is not well educated in the scholarly arts as well. He struggles to memorize a complicated math formula he must use as a greeting, but when another is given in return his narration of it is priceless and he doesn’t even attempt to repeat it to the reader/listener. If I had the text version of the book I would have checked the math on his greeting, but hey, I’m an engineer. 

I reviewed the audiobook version of this novel, and it being a Star Wars product, it was filled with sound effects and music from the movies. The musical cues were well placed and fit the scenes. The sound effects however had a bad habit of either giving away things to come, or changing the intensity of a scene. This was especially true in some of the firefights.

The narration of the book was great, and the reader does a good job of sounding like a young Luke, whiney voice and all where appropriate. As an old school Star Wars fan though I would have loved to have heard Mark Hamill in the role, but he might have sounded too old. I did not like some of the other character voices though, especially that of his love interest in the book. The voice just felt too forced to me, given that this was released by a major house.

I would have expected a voice actress for such a prominent role. I would highly recommend this book to any Star Wars fan, but if you have strayed from the Star Wars world for a while then I recommend having at least one of the alien species source books close at hand. While Kevin Hearne does a good job of describing some of the aliens, if you are not familiar with them, or what they look like, you might want to have a visual reference.

Book Shield Rating: 88%

Audio Shield Rating: 81%

Heir to the Jedi: Star Wars by Kevin Hearne (narrated by Marc Thompson)

Audible Audio Edition
Listening Length: 9 hours and 2 minutes
Program Type: Audiobook
Version: Unabridged
Publisher: Random House Audio
Audible.com Release Date: March 3, 2015
Language: English


Hardcover: 304 pages
Publisher: LucasBooks (March 3, 2015)
ISBN-10: 0345544854
ISBN-13: 978-0345544858