THE AIRSHIPS OF BARSOOM
. . . HOW DO THEY FLY?. . .
A quasi-scholarly discussion of possibilities, scientific observations, conjectures, facts, assumptions, and speculations –
with the occasional headlong rush to judgement based on randomly placed and poorly justified conclusions.
Robert Allen Lupton
Did you ever wonder how the Barsoomian airships work? I sure did.
According to the novels, the airships keep aloft by harnessing the 8th Barsoomian ray. Burroughs explanation of the 8th Barsoomian ray is brief. He says that “buoyancy is provided by buoyancy tanks on each aircraft that are filled with “the 8th Barsoomian ray”.
The 8th ray provides lift, not propulsion. Illustrators frequently draw airships with sails. Sails don’t work to propel or steer such aircraft. A lighter than aircraft quickly accelerates to match the speed of the wind, at which time the sails will simply droop uselessly. Lighter than air aircraft move at the speed and direction of the wind. No more and no less. Sails are pointless.
Propulsion is provided by a thrust system not unlike that used in conventional Jasoomian aircraft. Propellers and jet propulsion are the most likely choices. Burroughs never explains the propulsion. However, he does say, that Equibilibrimotors or flying belts are one-man flying machines, consisting of a broad belt, similar to an earthly life belt, filled with enough eighth ray to equalize the pull of gravity. Attached to the back of the belt is a small radium motor and controls are positioned on the front of the belt. Projecting from each side of the upper rim of the belt is a strong, rigid, light wing with small hand levers for quickly adjusting the wing’s position. Without information to the contrary and for the purposes of this article, it’s easy to assume that the propulsion system is fueled by radium. More about that later. The only thing missing from the apparatus pictured below is the 8th Jasoomian Ray. The parachute (the wing) is above the flyer and is controlled by hand levers – just like on the Equibilibrimotors.
There are several types of Barsoomian airships, ranging from small one man or woman flyers to gigantic troopships carrying thousands of warriors. A troopship or battleship can carry many scout ships and other types of battle aircraft. Barsoomian aircraft are similar to early naval vessels with turrets, propellers, decks, and rigging. Because lift is provided by the 8th ray contained in buoyancy tanks on the various aircraft, aerodynamics and speed don’t provide the lift necessary for flight as in conventional heavier than air aircraft. That means that wings, wing surface area, wing support structure, and design limitations of our aircraft don’t apply to Barsoomian aircraft. When lift is independent of flight speed, some other flight concerns such a stalling (dropping below the speed necessary to maintain flight) don’t apply to the operation of the airships. They can hover in place like a helicopter, hummingbird, or bumblebee. The Barsoomian airship can hover quieter than a helicopter. It there is sufficient 8th ray present in the tanks, the 8th ray generator would not have to run and the airship would float as silent as a cloud.
However, there are new problems for the pilot on Barsoom. Actually, the problems aren’t new, just different. Since the 8th ray neutralizes gravity, the Barsoomian airship functions like a manned balloon or dirigible. There are a special problems for lighter than air aircraft. I am a balloon pilot and am familiar with the flight issues.
The first is weather. Lighter than air airships are at the mercy of high winds. A lighter than air airship sucked into a cumulonimbus storm system will be blown for miles off course in a best case scenario. More likely than not the lighter than aircraft will be pulled sideways, upward, and downward in the massive updrafts and downdrafts prevalent throughout a storm system. These high speed wind sheers will buffet, twist, turn, and tumble the aircraft until it is torn to pieces. The day before I wrote this, a hot air balloon was pulled into a storm system in Georgia. An updraft lifted it to 18,000 feet and then shredded the aircraft. This worst case scenario is more likely than just being safely blown for many miles off course.
Trim and balance are an issue. With the buoyancy tanks beneath the aircraft it is incumbent on the pilot to maintain weight distribution equally across the decks “fore and aft” and “port and starboard”. Positioning of the tanks properly below decks minimizes this concern, but it would be a poor pilot who would not oversee the loading of his airship. The nautical term “high side” applies here. Sailors tack (maintain course) close to the wind, the wind force on the sails will tip the ship over. The crew moves to the high side and uses their weight to counterbalance the wind’s force.
Lighter than aircraft work the same way. A poorly balanced ship will turn over. Dirigibles solved this problem by positioning the entire payload under the lifting agent (the gas bag). Barsoomian ships do the opposite. The payload rides above the lifting agent. In that situation, it is critical that the crew position themselves to maintain equilibrium.
Fuel management is a concern in any aircraft. Fuel keeps the aircraft aloft. A helium balloon isn’t exception, eventually the helium will leak through the tightest fabric. The pilot considers the balance between lift available and ballast the same way fuel is managed in other aircraft. When the pilot exhausts the ballast, the ability to cause the balloon to ascend is lost because of the slowly leaking helium will reach a point where it can’t keep the balloon aloft. Once ballast has been exhausted, a quick safe landing becomes the best option. Or, as flight instructors tell student pilots. “The aircraft will land. If you don’t land it, the aircraft will land itself.”
A Barsoomian airship operates similarly to a dirigible, in spite of that pesky problem of having the payload on top and the lifting medium on the bottom. (There is a reason that the balloon is on top and the payload is underneath.) The 8th ray buoyancy system functions in the same fashion as the gas in a dirigible. The lifting agent provides the lift. A loss or increase in the lifting agent will change the altitude of the aircraft. A loss of ballast will change the altitude by putting the aircraft in an immediate ascent. On a neutrally balanced gas balloon, throwing a tablespoon of sand overboard can cause the aircraft to ascend two or even three hundred feet before the aircraft re-stabilizes at a higher altitude. On a Barsoomian aircraft, the pilot can vent 8th ray to descent or engage the 8th generator to ascend. This is actually a better system of control than is available on dirigibles or balloons.
Back to fuel management. Once fuel runs out to provide propulsion, the aircraft will drift with the wind. Without propulsion, the rudder is useless and the aircraft will immediately begin to drift at the same speed and direction as the wind. Without a difference between the aircraft’s speed and the wind speed, turning the rudder has no effect of the direction of the aircraft. A rudder works like a lever. There has to be force and resistance for it to work. The only effect that the rudder has once propulsion has stopped is to cause the aircraft to corkscrew, or turn in place, as it ascends of descends. This is not a desirable situation. When any aircraft spins around and around, control of the aircraft is a serious problem. The pilot can’t visualize where the aircraft is going. This makes landing even more exciting than one would hope. Picture an airplane approaching a runway spinning like a top and you begin to understand the problem.
The next fuel management problem for a Barsoomian airship pilot is the 8th ray generator. The ability to control level flight, ascents, and descents is dependent on the ability to vent and generate the 8th ray. The generation of the 8th ray is dependent on the operation of the generator, which requires fuel. A good pilot uses the wind when he can to conserve fuel. Minimizing unnecessary altitude changes or keeping the aircraft at equilibrium without constantly venting and replenishing the lifting agent conserves fuel. It works the same way on earthly air aircraft. An automobile’s gas mileage is different if the car is driven with a tailing wind or into the wind. Burroughs never addresses the type of fuel used to power the generator or the propellers. My guess is the fuel is radium. Barsoomians have the technology and use radium for Equibilibrimotors and firearms.
The Barsoomian pilot has to contend with weather, balance, and fuel issues. The concerns about going getting to your destination, finding your way and knowing where you are remain as universal for the Barsoomian pilot as they are for the pilot of a boat or aircraft of any sort. The Barsoomian compass solves this problem admirably. It’s better than GPS.
The good news for the Barsoomian pilot is that the 8th ray is not flammable. The potential for fire/explosion on a conventional dirigible is a problem that was never solved on earth. Commercial advertising dirigibles are operated with non-explosive helium, but the cost is generally prohibitive and the supply is extremely limited.
This brings us to a critical question about the operation of a Barsoomian airship. What is the 8th ray? How does it work? I read Chessmen of Mars when I was 12. I understood that sunlight light strikes all the planets. Some of that light is reflected back. If some of the reflected light is the 8th ray, then capturing and concentrating those rays would cause the airship to be “reflected” away from the surface along with the light from the planet. This would support flight.
Here’s the problem. When you turn a light bulb off, the light goes out. If you shine light into a room and then close the door, the light is not conserved in the room for future use. Light can be converted into electrical energy by solar panels and stored in batteries. Burroughs never described Barsoomian airships as festooned with solar panels. That means that the 8th ray is not actually light. It doesn’t have any of the properties of light. So, what is it? Consider the possibility that some of the terms used by Edgar Rice Burroughs have other meanings. If the 8th ray is light, sunlight, reflected light, or even a specific component of light and the 8th ray generator is actually a high capacity battery system, then the power for Barsoomian aircraft could be a solar powered system. I use the term “solar” because it is familiar. The system could be one where light, or a specific component of light, is converted into electricity. Solar power is a possibility.
Solar Impulse 2, a solar powered airplane, is powered by four electric motors. Energy from solar cells on the wings and horizontal stabilizer is stored in lithium polymer batteries and used to drive propellers. In 2012 the first Solar Impulse made the first intercontinental flight by a solar plane, flying from Madrid, Spain to Rabat, Morocco.
Completed in 2014, Solar Impulse 2 carried more solar cells and more powerful engines, among other improvements. In March 2015, the plane took off on the first stage of a planned round-the-world trip, flying eastwards from Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates. Battery damage caused the craft to land in Hawaii, where its batteries were replaced. It resumed the circumnavigation in April 2016 and reached Seville, Spain, in June 2016. The following month it flew to Abu Dhabi, completing its circumnavigation of the world.
Is it possible that what the Barsoomians call the 8th ray could just be a lighter than air gas? Unlikely. A lighter than air aircraft will fly within the atmosphere, but can’t possibly be used to travel between planets. Burroughs addresses this conundrum in “The Moon Maid” by the invention that modifies the airships. But, I think the evidence from the novels and current science makes it clear that the 8th ray is not a gas. Let’s explore that further.
The 8th ray generators apply an unnamed process to reflected Barsoomian light to separate out the 8th ray and concentrate and store it in buoyancy tanks. We have generators on earth that separate oxygen and hydrogen from water. Calling a hydrogen separator, a generator is over complicating the process. An electrical power source is connected to two electrodes, which are placed in the water. Hydrogen will appear at the cathode (the negatively charged electrode, where electrons enter the water), and oxygen will appear at the anode (the positively charged electrode). That’s not too complicated. Hydrogen contained in a balloon will support flight because hydrogen is lighter than air.
Military pilots once carried small hand-cranked hydrogen generators of this type. In the event of an emergency landing at sea, the pilot could generate hydrogen from sea water to inflate a small balloon to carry a tethered emergency beacon into the sky.
Hydrogen and all other gasses don’t neutralize or repel gravity. Hydrogen, helium, and even ammonia balloons or dirigibles will only rise in air so long as the craft is in air that has a higher specific gravity than the specific gravity of the entire aircraft. Archimedes figured this out a long time ago. It had something to do with how much gold was in a crown. I think he was visiting Eureka, Illinois at the time. Simply, a lighter than air ship will only ascend as long as it is “lighter” than the ambient air around it. A gravity neutral ship or heavier than air aircraft is able to ascend as long as it has sufficient power to do so. The implication is that increasing the 8th ray allows the airship to be repelled from the surface and ascend. It would follow that by reducing the amount of 8th ray, the pilot can control the descent and have an aircraft descend at whatever rate desired.
The buoyancy system used by scuba divers works the same way. The diver wears a device called a buoyancy compensator. By adding air to the device or by venting air from the device, the diver can ascend or descend through the water at a controlled rate of speed without any effort on the diver’s part. The diver, like the airship, moves up or down until a new point of equilibrium is reached.
The 8th ray doesn’t work like a gas and it doesn’t work like light. Burroughs said the 8th Ray was contained in sunlight reflected from the surface. It travels within light like the electrons and protons that travel with sunlight. Could the 8th ray be solar wind? Perhaps not direct solar wind, but Barsoomian reflected solar wind. The reflected sunlight is changed by striking the Barsoomian surface making it a distinctly separate lightwind. It has to be distinct because Burroughs says that every planet creates its own 8th ray. Something in the Barsoomian soil and atmosphere changes the sunlight as it passes through the atmosphere and reflects back from the planet’s surface. It is likely the atmosphere.
Think about it this way. There is an 8th Jasoomian or 8th Earth ray. The earth’s surface is water, mountains, ice, deserts, forests, plains, steppes. The Barsoomian surface is consistent and Earth’s surface is very inconsistent. Perhaps these surface differences create the variances between the 8th rays of the many planets. The same could be said for the atmosphere. Each planet has an atmosphere, or lack thereof, that is different than that of any other planet. Different surface and atmosphere components create a different spectrum of reflected light. Mars shows up as a red planet and Venus as a white planet. Earth is a blue planet when viewed from far enough away.
One possible conclusion about the 8th ray requires that we accept the differences in reflected light from each planet. Solar wind is a stream of charged particles ejected from the upper atmosphere of the Sun. It mostly consists of electrons and protons. The stream of particles varies in temperature and speed over time. These particles escape the Sun's gravity because of their high kinetic energy and the high temperature of the corona.
Arthur C. Clarke wrote a science fiction short story called “Sunjammer”. It is also known as “The Wind from the Sun”. Great short story. Read it. Basically, racing space ships are powered by the impact of solar wind on giant sails, just as sailboats work on earth. I loved the story, but I had no clue that it was based on fact. Solar wind does exist. In theory, a large enough sail, with no atmosphere to resist movement, would continue to accelerate through space until it moved at the speed of the solar wind.
NASA says the solar wind travels at about 400 kl/s or about one million miles an hour. Not the speed of light, but that will get you home from the sun in four days. NASA’s Cosmopedia website says, “Solar wind is the plasma of charged particles (protons, electrons, and heavier ionized atoms) coming out of the Sun in all directions at very high speeds -- an average of about 400 km/sec, almost a million mph! It is responsible for the anti-sunward tails of comets and the shape of the magnetic fields around the planets. Solar wind can also have a measurable effect on the flight paths of spacecraft.”
Is there any evidence that solar wind strikes a planet’s surface and bounces back changed into Barsoomian wind, Earth wind, or moon wind? In a paper published on June 13, 2013, Scientists at Cornel University report,” The Moon appears bright in the sky as a source of energetic neutral atoms (ENAs). These ENAs have recently been imaged over a broad energy range both from near the lunar surface, by India's Chandrayaan-1 mission (CH-1), and from a much more distant Earth orbit by NASA's Interstellar Boundary Explorer (IBEX) satellite. Both sets of observations have indicated that a relatively large fraction of the solar wind is reflected from the Moon as energetic neutral hydrogen.” The full report is available at https://arxiv.org/abs/1306.3675.
The biggest problem with my solar wind theory is that I can’t explain how the “solar wind” can be generated, distilled, concentrated, and stored in any type of container. A battery system, like one for solar power would work. One potential solution is that lift isn’t provided by the storage of the Barsoomian ray, but by electricity generated by the ray and the gradual or rapid dispersal of the said Barsoomian wind or Barsoomian ray generated electricity. Could that work? Possibly, and it could explain how a Barsoomian airship could hover in one spot for weeks or even months. However, the generator, if powered by an almost inexhaustible supply of power (light), could operate for months and years. It could work.
Is it some form of magnetism? Could the 8th ray be the distillation of airborne particles that have a magnetic charge opposite that of the surface of the planet? There are devices, mostly toys and parlor tricks) that use magnetic levitation to suspend an object against gravity. While visually impressive, gravitational forces function normally in such devices. Some high speed trains work by electromagnetic suspension and propulsion. These magnetic levitation trains are fast and relatively inexpensive to operate, however the train has to have an opposite magnetic pole (the track) in order to function. Current science won’t let the train operate at altitude. It must follow a designed path. We must conclude that the 8th ray is not magnetic levitation.
My best conclusion is that the 8th Rays are a component of sunlight, modified by each planet’s specific atmosphere and surface. The ray generators are actually very efficient batteries. The 8th Ray is converted to electricity, stored, and dispersed at a rate determined by the pilot in order to maintain the desired altitude. The piloting skill to do that is no more difficult than using the joystick and speed controls on conventional earthly airplanes. The concentrators (batteries) are powered by the same form of energy, with a little boost from a radium powered engine – clean, safe, and long lasting. How exactly does it work? I don’t know. If I did, I’d patent it and be living on my own island somewhere. At the end of all my conjecture, I’m left with this. Current science can’t explain or duplicate exactly how Barsoomian aircraft work. That’s my conclusion, solar (8th Ray) generated electricity with a side order of radium, but because I say it doesn’t make it so. There’s an old saying that will always applies when listening to political speeches or insurance salesmen. “Just because a man says something with conviction and sincerity doesn’t mean he’s right.”
Kurt Vonnegut said, “Science is magic that works.” Quoting Arthur C. Clarke, “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.”
The limits of our understanding and beliefs don’t change the truth. The Earth was always round no matter what people believed. The Pacific Ocean was there before Europeans “discovered” it. A sportswriter once told Sandy Koufax that curveballs weren’t real. He claimed the pitch was an illusion like something Harry Houdini conjured up. Koufax replied, “Stand behind a tree 60 feet from me and I'll beat you to death with an optical illusion.”
So walk up the gangplank, strap yourself to the rigging, and don’t fall off. Like the lady said, “Fasten your seatbelts. It’s going to be a bumpy night.”
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