Managing Research in General: Researching Exoplanets and Interstellar Travel in Particular

Check out Icarus Interstellar

Ah, research! necessary and dangerous territory. In general I try to keep research to a minimum, so that I can keep my fiction writing at a maximum. My motto is “Just enough and no more,” but it can be hard to stick to when the world, the universe, the galaxy, and beyond is so fascinating.

After I get an idea that sticks around -a little zygote of a story- I’ll do just a smidge of preliminary research, something to help me set the story in a particular time and place and nail down the main characters. This week I’m writing a story about people traveling to an exoplanet at sub-lightspeed on a generation ship. There is enough basic information just within the genre tropes to get me started, so I didn’t do any research until I hit the halfway mark.

From xkcd!

Since this is a science fiction story, I need to make it plausible. I’ve now come to the point in the story where certain elements of the plot are constrained by the the reality of space travel as we know it. I’m researching while I draft. Whenever I come to a detail that I don’t know, I put in a place holder (like [XXX]) until I can come back and plug in the details.

Now, I’m not an astrophysicist or an astronomer. My background is in English lit, so I’m never going to write stories with hard science as the centerpiece. For me, it’s  about learning enough to make the world of the story plausible. But I do love science and reading about it, so the trick is to not get sucked in. Really. It’s hard. Below are some of the goodies that I came across in my cursory research about what it would take to actually travel outside our solar system to an exoplanet. There is so much fascinating stuff. I could so go down this rabbit hole for weeks, but I’m just going to leave it here and get back to writing.

Exoplanets are any planet that orbits a star outside our solar system. We’re discovering new ones every day. Most of them are larger than earth, sometimes they’re called “super-earths.”

Tragically, I don’t have an iPad, but if you do and have ten bucks burning a hole in your virtual pocket, you might want to consider  Journey to the Exoplanets, a “book app” by Scientific American and Farrar, Straus and Giroux. Drool. Drool.

There’s a fair amount written about what it would take to travel to one of these planets. Universe Today has a piece about traveling to our nearest star in the Alpha Centauri system, and Kurzweil’s  website has an article about traveling to Tau Ceti. I don’t know if the intrepid characters in my story will be going to either of these systems, but after reading these articles I decided that wherever they’re going they’ll be going via a nuclear pulse propulsion ship.

This method of space travel is still theoretical, but there is a wealth of information about it out there. Icarus Interstellar has all the information I’ll need for this little story (and plenty more to fuel dozens of other story worlds). I’ll be building my ship using Project Icarus‘ handy “Colonized Interstellar Vessel: Conceptual Master Planning” document.

As far as where my characters will end up, I’m still shopping for planets from the dozens of exoplanets listed on the Planetary Habitability Laboratory’s Habitable Exoplanets Catalog. It’s an embarrassment of riches.

The key for me, is knowing enough about my characters and story, so that I can do focused research. Even though I’ve gathered just enough information to create a plausible world for the characters in my story, the biggest challenge some days, is to step away from the research and back into the story. So, I’ll just leave this here for you. Check out the links, explore. It’s back to the word mines for me.

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