Writing Martian Blood

radiocommunication simulation tool

I was involved in the British Interplanetary Society’s Project Boreas, writing the section on the “Communications and Navigation Networks for Pole Station”. It was a fascinating project and left me a deep impression – my company even converted our radiocommunication simulation tool to work with Mars.

Afterwards I had this mental image of a boy flying a blimp across the surface of Mars and wondered the whos, whys and hows behind the image. From that image came the story of Martian Blood and the ideas kept coming until it was clear a single book would be insufficient and it would have be the first of a trilogy, what I now call the Noctilucents series.

The image of a blimp flying across Mars even became the front cover of Martian Blood, designed by the team at Rowanvale Books.

One of the ideas behind the book was wondering what would happen if there was a Mars base and then there was an economic collapse on Earth including a super lock-down combined with global warming, and so the base becomes cut-off? One of the two lead characters in Martian Blood is Tom, a boy born on Mars after the rocket due to retrieve the colonists explodes under mysterious circumstances. He longs to reach Earth, for him a magical place that appears as a blue dot in his sky.

Another of the lead characters is Sophia who is the daughter of the AI expert head of a resurgent space program trying to send a mission to recover them. They must content with anti-technology fundamentalists who are against space missions and artificial intelligences.

One of the big themes of the books is the tension between the risks and benefits of technology, in particular space and AI, and how humanity should respond. As someone who reads Spaceflight and the Journal regularly, I’ve tried to keep the technology feasible, if extrapolated forty years into the future.

Three areas, in particular, required further research: the design of the Mars Base, its location on Mars (and of Tom’s adventures on that planet), and the orbital dynamics required to send a mission to Mars to recover the colonists.

front cover of Martian Blood

A good source of information about the Mars base was indeed the Project Boreas Report. From this came the idea of core structure of hexagonal components supplemented by additional structures such as a hydroponics “garden” and inflatable (but collapsed) structure.

To get a feel for Mars and places that Tom could explore I used Google Earth, switching to Mars to look for locations for the base. I chose somewhere near the equator, as that would be easily accessible, near ancient riverbeds and not far off interesting places such as the Juventae Chasma.

To model Tom’s flight in the blimp – which was, after all, the starting image – I could even use the flight simulator built into Google Earth to fly from the base to reach the [spoiler deleted here]. You can fly the route yourself in Google Earth using a KMZ file which can be downloaded from the book’s web site here:

https://www.noctilucents.com/martianblood

flight simulator built into Google Earth

It was also important to me that the astrodynamics were realistic. For example, at the start of Martian Blood, Tom sees the Earth as the morning star on Mars while Sophia sees Mars in the dusk on Earth. This defines quite specifically the relative position of the planets and hence the delta-vs required to launch a mission towards Mars to recover them.

The software tool Celestia was initially used to predict the positions of the planets and what an observer like Tom would see, though later this was supplemented by author’s own software using the Project Pluto (https://www.projectpluto.com/) source code with JPL ephemeris data.

Given these tools, the actual position of the planets can be predicted with relative accuracy forty years into the future and from a number of possible dates for the books, one was selected, and the predictions based upon that. Given the resulting delta-vs were greater than that for an optimised Hohmann style transfer, this first mission was assumed to use a scaled up NERVA style propulsion system using a nuclear reactor with water as propellant and aero-breaking when arriving at a planet.

You don’t need to know this level of detail to enjoy the books, which focusses on the story and the characters, not the technology which is kept in the background. But having the technology right makes the story more “real” and is in the tradition of the type of hard science fiction I read when I was Tom’s age – including the great Arthur C. Clarke, another Fellow of the BIS.


John Pahl (FBIS) has designed a navigation and communication constellation for a Mars Polar Base including predicting mobile phone coverage.  A keen sailor, he has sailed across the Atlantic and undertaken the Fastnet offshore race. He also enjoys photography and combined both hobbies on a sailing trip off the East coast of Greenland where he first saw, and photographed, noctilucent clouds.  Since then he has also seen them from his home in London.

Martian Blood is his first novel and is available now at book sellers such as Amazon: https://www.amazon.co.uk/Noctilucents-One-Martian-John-Pahl/dp/1912655624/

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