The Reactor itself uses multiple stages to produce Python particles (discovered by Dr. Python), which are employed in the creation of the energy mantle which allows for FTL.
- 1 FTL Jump Stages
- 2 Time Problem
- 3 FTL Cool Down
- 4 High-Efficiency Mode
- 5 Components
- 6 Safety
- 7 Redundancy and Backup Systems
- 8 Operational Lifespan
FTL Jump Stages
Going from sub-light to faster-than-light requires the ship to "jump", accelerating rapidly from the maximum normal-space speed(around 70 PSL) to several times faster than the speed of light. This requires a series of events to happen in very precise order.
- 1. After plotting a course, the ship accelerates along it to it's maximum-possible sublight speed(not to be confused with it's Acceleration curve).
- 2. The Phython Reactor produces the energy mantle
- 3. The Gravity Field Generator(GFG) ramps output, reducing the ship's mass and increasing acceleration.
- 4. A burst of Pythons is released, either through the ship's N-space drive or through a special "jump" drive.
- 5. At the same time as the Python Burst, the GFGs reach their peek and reduce the ship's mass to 0, resulting in a sudden burst of extreme acceleration.
- 6. During the acceleration burst, the energy mantle moves the ship partially out of normal space.
- 7. The N-space drives kick in, and the ship is now traveling faster than light.
If everything goes right, the ship will accelerate from around 70 PSL to 2 or 3 times the speed of light in an instant. Compensation from inertial dampers is also critical, and must be precisely timed with the GFG output or the crew will end up as greasy little smears on the back wall of the ship.
Large vessels, such as capitol ships and large commercial carriers, are extremely vulnerable during the first stage. The ship must accelerate along a very straight, predictable trajectory. For some civilian ships, this stage may take several hours.
In general, a minimum velocity of fifty PSL is required to imitate a jump, though the transition is much smoother at higher speeds. The Star Hammer 90 PSL+ transitions from top speed to FTL so smoothly most passengers do not even notice.
A ship never stops accelerating while under FTL, which makes plotting a course extremely complex. FTL Factors are considered ranges, a ship is "at FTL Factor One" when it is traveling at between 100 and 900 times the speed of light. Morover, the rate of acceleration is not constant; the faster a ship is traveling, the slower it is accelerating.
The maximum FTL speed for a ship is described as the speed at which it's continued acceleration becomes so small that it is no longer a factor in course calculations. There is no theoretical maximum, though very few ships are able to reach much past factor 20.
The Time Problem can best be summed up with a comparison to a terrestrial land vehicle traveling only a short distance. Consider a car starting from a dead stop at the end of a short road. The drive presses down on the gas pedal all the way, and the car begins accelerating. Before the maximum speed of the car is reached, it has arrived at its destination, and must switch from gas to brakes. The goal of an FTL course is to reach the destination as quickly as possible, but avoid either overshooting it or falling short.
The Time Problem is also particularly vexing in regards to journey lengths. Short trips take longer than long ones; a short flight to a neighboring star system can end up lasting for days (owing to a need to level-off at a lower FTL factor), while a journey many times further can take only a day, because the trip benefits reaching a much higher velocity.
FTL Cool Down
As a byproduct of the Python reaction, heat is absorbed by the extensive shielding around the core. Any attempt to disipate the heat would reduce the effectiveness of the shielding; so starships are required to make "cool down" stops every so often. Most of the heat is produced by the coils surrounding the core that convert pythons to produce the ship's energy mantle. The reactor is kept online during these breaks, but heat has to be dissipates from the coils.
The photonic core itself only absorbes heat from the radiation, the vast majority of heat generated comes from the warp coils. The coils will usually fail before building up enough heat to melt the compounds that comprise them, but in rare cases, an FTL drive pushed well past design tolerances can experience a sudden, catastrophic chain reaction of melting coils. One coil melts, the remnants fall on the coil bellow, melting it, and so on. Along with gasses released in the process, this can produce a violent explosion. The warp coils are outside of the reactor pressure vessel, but within the radiation shielding. In some cases, the shielding can contain the explosion. In most scenarios, however, the shielding will breach and cause secondary explosions throughout the ship.
At high FTL Factors, usually in the range of 16 or 17, it is possible get the drive system into a very highly efficient configuration wherein the energy mantle is actually pulling the ship through space. The N-space drive is no longer required and heat emanations from the coils are manageable. A ship can maintain this mode for months or even years under the right conditions. This is the proffered method for very long interstellar voyages and a requirement for inter-galactic travel. While in this mode, a python reactor functions most similarly to a Slipstream Drive.
The Python Reactor is the heart of the standard FTL drive. Many races and civilizations have created their own variations, but the principles are the same. Python reactors do not generate power, their function is to turn photons into pythons, seperate pythons, and project the energy mantle.
Python reactions happen within the photonic core. A high initial burst of energy is required to start the reaction, but once initiated and the conversation rate reaches fifty percent, it is self-sustaining. The reactor still requires electrical energy to continue producing photons, but a good critical photon/python reaction consumes less than a tenth of initial startup requirements.
Most reactors are kept running continuously. The startup routine usually takes several hours, and can take even longer to get a critical python reaction. The reactor is only brought offline for maintenance and inspection, and only when safe harbor is available for the crew.
At the heart of the Python Reactor is the Photonic Core. This key component is made from exotic, extremely high-density materials and is, in simplest terms, a giant light bulb. The core produces large amounts of photons, and among the photons is a sub atomic particle called a Python. Pythons are capable of traveling faster than light.
A mix of photons and pythons are released from the photonic core and routed through the photon traps, which filter out the photons and leave mostly Pythons. A purity rating of 80% is the absolute minimum for a successful jump, 90% is generally recommended. High-performance, well-tuned engines can reach 95. The Star Hammer used a unique, multi-spatial trap, and is the only known FTL drive to produce 100% pure Python particles.
Unused photons are routed back into the photonic core, where they react to produce additional pythons.
Particles exit the core and are routed through the photon traps. These rapidly spinning scoops travel at nearly the speed of light themselves, and require careful tuning and calibration. The traps separate out photons and channel them back into the core, sustaining the reaction and producing more pythons.
Warp coils harvest pythons from the core and convert them to produce the ship's energy mantle. They are named because they "warp" the space around the ship, transferring it partially out of normal space. A coil is similar in function to a multi-spatial circuit, though scaled up and considerably less sophisticated.
As part of the FTL drive, coils are considered a sacrifice component with a high failure rate and low operational lifespan.
The energy mantle is projected by the Python Reactor, and is itself composed of Python Particles. The interactions between the ship and the mantle are very complicated and multi-dimensional:
- The mantle "breaks" the hyperspace tension in the same way birds flying information rely on the lead bird to help overcome air resistance. This allows both for faster speeds and lower power consumption on the N-space drive.
- As the ship continues to accelerate, the mantle begins to "draw" the ship along after it, providing even higher speeds, greater efficiency, and, at maximum performance, allowing a ship to shut down it's N-space drive all together(this level is typically only achieved during inter-galactic journeys).
- The mantle also provides a sort of cushion or buffer between the ship and the higher planes of space, protecting the crew during the journey, and providing one of the most important safety functions of the entire drive system.
The biggest obstacle to reaching FTL is crossing the stop-light barrier(the speed of light). An Ion vacuum drive, the most common form of normal-space propulsion, has an upward speed limit of about 70 PSL, not enough to reach the stop-light barrier. The velocity is ultimately limited by how fast a ship can "throw" particles out the other direction. Once the speed at which exhaust is leaving the back of a ship equals it's forward velocity, it can no longer accelerate.
This is where Python Particles produced in the python reactor come into play. Python particles travel faster than the speed of light, but, like photons, have no resting mass. The Jump Drive channels pythons from the reactor, mixed with drive plasma, out the back of the ship, resulting in a massive burst of acceleration.
Dedicated Jump Drive
Dedicated drives are required on high-performance ships needing to make rapid FTL jumps, or ships who's N-space drives do not work on a compatible principle(such as those using gravitational mass-displacement); or on drives that cannot reach at least 50 PSL nativly.
In principle, a jump drive works similarly to a Deuterium Drive. Drive plasma(sometimes dry plasma, in extremely high-performance applications) is mixed with a large mass of pythons and diverted out the back of the ship. Jump drives are typically designed to create a single, high-powered, short direction pulse, as this is all that is needed to cross the stop-light barrier.
Hybrid Jump Drive
In a hybrid drive, the ship's ion-vacuum or similar normal-space engines double as a jump drive. The principles are all the same, just directing pythons into plasma combination stage of the engine. Hybdrid drives are required on smaller ships which do not have the capacity for a secondary, dedicated jump drive.
This method is not preferred because it places exceptionally high stress on the engines, shortening engine lifespan, and increasing the risk of accidents and failures. A hybridized jump drive/N-space drive engine is typically regarded as having about 1/4th the operational lifespan of an N-only counterpart.
Despite this, numerous commercial spacecraft on a scale that would necessitate a dedicated drive are still constructed with hybrid drives. This is done as a cost-cutting measure, and is most often seen on pleasure craft where a low initial investment is desirable over a longer operational lifespan(Within Joint Space, Furkea Meraki is a particularly notorious offender).
When the time comes to drop out of FTL, the ship will make use of a stop-light engine(most ships have at least two, for redundancy).
Since a ship cannot reach FTL without the aid of the energy mantle, any disruption in the FTL drive would cause it to immediately slow to 99.999~ PSL. The stop-light engines use python particles from the reactor to slow the ship in the same way the jump drive accelerates it(it is possible, but not recommended, to employ the jump-drive as a stop-light engine).
A stop-light engine typically has three modes: normal stop, emergency stop, and safe slow.
- Normal Stop is typical operation, the command has been given to leave FTL and the engines are brought online at the right interval to slow the ship to it's typical cruising speed. In some applications, the stop-light engine one slows the ship to around 70 PSL, and the N-space drive does the rest.
- Emergency Stop assumes a serious engine problem or eminent reactor failure, and an immediate slow to near zero velocity is required. This is extremely taxing on the components, and is considered an emergency function.
- Safe Slow is used in a wide-ranging failure, and assumes other supporting systems such as the inertial dampers, cannot be trusted. It is also an emergency function. In this case, the engines work with both the python reactor and the N-space drive to slowly and safely bring the ship to a stop.
Traveling beyond the speed of light, while necessary to cross the distances between stars, is not inherently safe. All safety measures, save for the mantle, are engineered and subject to failure.
The most common and immediately deadly point of failure is the inertial dampers. Similar in function to gravity field generators and artificial gravity systems, the dampers exist to reduce the g-forces on the crew, arguable the most fragile part of the ship. A damper failure is instnatly fatal, even in sub-light manuvers.
Complicating matters is that multiple inertial damping fields canel each other out(two fields running at the same intensity over the same area have a net-zero effect). Spacecraft overcome this issue in two ways. The first is through the use over overlapping fields of different strengths. If to emitters are used, one running at 70% and the second at 30%, the net effect on the area is 40%. The failure of the 70% field would reduce the effect to only 30%, while the failure of the 30% field would have no impact. Assuming in this instance that a 30-40% output is sufficient, the end result is a redundant field(note that in this example "field strength" reffers to the output of the emitter, not the amount of g-forces being dampened). The second safety measure is to use a sort of instnat-on field emitter that can go from an idle state to a protective state in a tiny fraction of a second. Though not fast enough in key moments, the instant-on technology has saved countless lives. Most space-fairing cultures eventually develop one of the two techniques, and modern starcraft nearly always use both.
It is still common to find ghost ships, either from ancient times, or from less advanced civilizations, in which a key inertial damper failure killed the entire crew.
The Gudersnipe Foundation takes few chances, and employs a highly redundant series of damping systems on it's spacecraft.
Each emitter module is a self-contained set of three instant-on emitters, and every area is covered by four emitter modules total(two for overlap, and two hot-spares. Since any one emitter can protect the crew, this alone creates ~8 levels of redundancy. The Foundation also installs the emitter clusters with a switch; power can run to one or the other, but cannot be disabled to both. Also installed on each emitter node is an uninteruptable power supply(a battery). It is functionally impossible to cut power to the inertial dampers without physically seperating the lines.
In addition, Foundation ships employ a system that can sue the gravity field generators to reduce the ship's mass(and the crews) to near-zero, greatly reducing the risk of injury.
In all, the system has roughly 10~ levels of redudnancy. However, the threshold for these various levels is "prevents instant death", injury, including serious injury, is still possible.
Typically, a ship will have an additional backup set of inertial dampers tied to the stop-light engines. The prefered configuration is a large, "ship-wide" damper that can have it's own redundant power source and be activated automatically by emergency systems.
Additionally, even if the ship is not using hybridized jump-drives, the necessary systems will be in place to use the engines in a hybridized mode, in the event that the main stop-light engines are not functioning.
Python Reactor Safety
A python reactor cannot fail in a catastrophic way that, in and of itself, is capable of exploding. While pressure levels within the core can get very high, this occurs only over a tiny area that is inertially confined. In the even of a core breach, radiation leakage is of considerably greater concern than actual pressure release(most of the core is a vacuum, in a loss-of-confinement incident, the pressure within the entire vessel would not reach even one atmosphere).
The core itself, while in operation, produces deadly levels of radiation, and has to be shielded quite heavily. On larger ships, shielding is passive, usually very thick layers of dense materials. In order to make FTL practical for smaller spacecraft, active shielding is required. The core only produces radiation while a python reaction is happening, though the levels are intense enough to change the composition of contaminants within the core and cause them to become radioactive. The area inside a python reactor, when at full vacuum, is among the most empty spaces in existence, with an entire core champer having as few as a dozen free-floating atoms.
The primary dangers are twofold-failure in use, and failure on root.
An in-use failure is protected by the energy mantle, which does a great deal to slow a ship's velocity even as the reactor fails. The mantle, in conjunction with well-designed spacecraft and inertial damping, prevent the ship from being instnatly torn apart in the event of a reactor failure.
In use failures are very uncommon. Once a python reaction becomes self-sustaining, very little can cripple the drive system besides a loss of electrical power. In this case, if the python reactor itself is not damaged, the supporting systems can most likely be repaired.
Much like a light bulb, an FTL drive is most likely to fail when it is being turned on or turned off. An on-root failure is a much more dangerous problem. While not resulting in immediate death, it could mean stranding a ship in deep space. Traveling at sub-light speeds is functionally impractical. If the FTL drive cannot be repaired, the crew can die from lack of resources.
There are two failsafes used to combat on-root failures. The first is to plan a course that sets all FTL cool downs at a location where resources are available. A star system with a habitable planet is preferred, although a well-prepared crew can usually survive in nearly any star system. Since the majority of starcraft follow this procedure, and added benifit is that the chances of being rescued increase dramatically. Mid-space cool downs(cool downs in inter-stellar space are highly discouraged.
Reactor Core Breach
While the python reactor cannot explode catastrophically, the photonic core itself can breach. The breach would not cause damage outside the reactor pressure vessel and would pose no immediate threat to the crew. It would, however, cripple the drive. A breached or cracked photonic core cannot be repaired.
Redundancy and Backup Systems
Python reactor size does not scale linearly with the size of the ship; a larger spacecraft needs a larger relative reactor size. Those posses a problem for redundancy; the typical response to a scenario in which a single component failing can doom a ship is "put in two of that component". Unfortunately this does not work well for Python reactors. Moreover, it is functionally impossible to meet the Foundation's triple-redundancy requirements; if a ship can't fit two python reactors, it sure as hell can't fit three.
The first approach is to engineer the reactors over and above requirements. If a failure would cripple the ship, then there had better not be a failure. Production standards are very high, and the designs themselves are above and beyond all expected events. Further, support systems are deliberately built "weak" or with sacrifice parts.
The goal is that, in the event of a problem, one of the support systems will fail before it does damage to the python reactor itself. In that scenario, the support system can generally be fixed; the core itself is still functional.
It is possible to construct a dual reactor that shares a single photonic core, but has two sets of support systems. While seldom done for redundancy, this type of drive is often used on long-range ships, providing both an inter-stellar and inter-galactic FTL drive that share the same core. The inter-galactic drive is designed to get into high-efficiency mode, while the inter-stellar drive is used for short jumps.
A few groups build reactors with two photonic cores that can be operated independently or in series. This design has proven to be less reliable than a single core, though one variant uses a two-chambered core design that has been adopted by many other operators. There is still a single "core" with a major and minor lobe, and in a pinch either can be operated independently.
Speaking generally, it is not economical to operate two python reactors on a ship, even a very large ship. Though they can share some support systems, the complex field interactions require considerable expertise to operate. Large commercial ships are exclusively single-reactor design. Some cultures, wishing to be able to construct large capitol ships but lacking the ability to build large FTL drives, do attempt to field vessels with many small FTL drives.
The Gudersnipe Foundation actually reached a point where multiple drives became a necessity. On the largest class of capitol ships(battleships and dreadnoughts), a large enough core is impossible to construct economically(though there are formally no limits on core scale). This led to the advent of dual-reactor ships which, owing to the FOundation's fetish for redundancy, actually meant tri and sometimes quad-reactor designs.
The largest fielded capitol ships, ultra-heavy dreadnaughts like Yaffers, used six. In the tri and quad reactor ships, any two reactors could take the ship to FTL, and in rare cases one could be used for short, emergency jumps. The six-reactor ultras needed at least three, but always ran with four(multiple-reactor vessels are very difficult to operate, but many of the procedures from a two-reactor design worked on a four, but three proved to be entirely too complicated).
In the event of a core failure, assuming all of the support systems are still functional, a very clever reactor operator might be able to re-configure the system to function as a Python Inverter. This mode is very energy-inefficient and considerably more dangerous, but may be useful in making a short trip. Notably, the Saratoga mistakenly ran it's reactor in this mode for quite some time.
The Python Reactor and Photonic Core are designed to last the life of the ship. Every other component may be replaced during routine maintenance or have a lower lifespan, but the core has to last forever. Replacing a cracked or breached photonic core typically means dismantling the entire ship.
As such, a ship with a damaged core is typically considered "beyond economical repair"
There is no known upward limit on phonic core lifespan. The Foundation has operated some ships for thousands of years(though the oldest known ships may not use python reactor technology at all). In the case of terraforming ships, some were known to operate for three thousand years, and these definitely had python reactor FTL drives.