This article was originally posted to the pre-magazine Freelance Traveller website in 2003, and reprinted in the November/December 2015 issue.
Gas Giant Interior Details by Bob Atmur
Original “Platform 44” scenario ©1982 Dave Bryant
Links are to Wayback Machine captures of the Extrasolar Visions website by John Whatmough
(and will open in a new tab/window).
“The Solar System consists of Jupiter and some insignificant debris.” - Unknown
“No, it consists of four planets and some dust specks.” - Bob Atmur
Gas Giant Planets. Jovians. “Gargantuan Farts Floating in Space.” “Big Gs” on the one-line UPP. Free fuel for the skimming, if you’re chintzy and/or like to live dangerously.
But there’s more…
A Gas Giant, as the name implies, is a giant planet primarily made of gases, with little or no solid planet beneath all that atmosphere.
Astronomically, planets are sized by their mass, not their diameter (as in Traveller size). Units of measure are T-mass (ME, one Earth mass) and J-mass (MJ, one Jupiter mass, 318 ME). Since only the smallest of Gas Giants have anything approaching a solid surface, diameter is measured from the 1000-millibar point (pressure equivalent to Earth sea level) in the atmosphere.
Small Gas Giants are less than 50 ME (about 1/6 MJ); as their size increases, the density (and “surface” gravity) decreases—hydrogen is very light. They are usually measured in T-masses.
Large Gas Giants are over 50 ME; between 40 and 50 ME, the increased mass starts to compress the planet, and the density then increases with size. As the size increases, so does the internal heat, radiation emissions, and magnetosphere. They are usually measured in J-masses.
Brown Dwarfs or “substars” are over 13 MJ (about 4000 ME), and form the transition between planet and star. At this size, the core temperature and pressure are high enough to start deuterium and tritium fusion but not the simple hydrogen fusion needed for a true star. These miniature “failed stars” glow infrared- to red-hot from internal heat, and have the radiation output to match. The majority of Brown Dwarfs are found as solo mini-stars, close binary systems with another Brown Dwarf, or as distant binary companions to M-class, V- or VI-size red dwarf stars. However, they do crop up occasionally in other, more “normal” planetary systems.
Like all planets, Gas Giants form from a protostar’s protoplanetary disk. Unlike smaller rockballs, they form from the lightest gases in the disk, not the heavier dust and particles. Because of this, Gas Giants must form quickly, before the protostar ignites and its stellar wind blows the remaining light gases out of the system.
This happens in one of two ways:
- Accretion: When a planet reaches about 3.5 ME (Traveller Size 12+), surface gravity becomes high enough that lighter gases (especially helium) are retained. This “helium capture” increases mass and gravity to the point where hydrogen is captured. Once hydrogen capture begins, the protoplanet keeps growing until the protostar ignites and blows away the hydrogen. Small Gas Giants normally form by accretion.
- Density-wave Collapse: In a protoplanetary disk, both random anomalies and gravitational tides from nearby protostars can cause sections of the disk to compress into standing waves of higher density. In a sense, all planets and asteroids begin as high-density anomalies in the disk, but the largest of these can collapse and capture hydrogen quickly enough to form a Gas Giant much faster than simple accretion. Large Gas Giants normally form this way.
- Brown Dwarfs also form as density anomalies, but more like a star, as the center of their own protoplanetary disc (possibly with their own planets). However, as with all things in nature, there is some overlap; some Large Gas Giants can form by accretion, some Small Gas Giants can form directly from density anomalies, and Brown Dwarfs can form like a giant planet or a mini-star.
Reality Intrudes on Scouts
Book 6: Scouts is the detailed star system generator for Classic Traveller; later revisions of the game simply revised the system generator (and returned to it in Traveller20). In stock Scouts, Gas Giants are rolled for and placed first, asteroid belts second, and other “rockball” planets last. The rules on this state:
Gas giants must be placed in available orbits in the habitable zone and in the outer system. While gas giants can be in inner orbits, they should not be placed starward of the habitable zone unless there are no other orbits available.
Place planetoid belts in available orbits. If possible, planetoid belts should be placed in the next orbit inward from gas giants.
So far, so good. Based on Sol system, with its four outer-system Gas Giants separated by an asteroid belt from the four inner rockballs. (Very symmetrical, if you count Pluto-Charon as part of the Kuiper Belt and not a true planet…)
However, at early Tech Level 9, astronomers were able to discover planets of other suns by Doppler Spectroscopy, measuring their gravitational influence on the star’s spectrum as the planet orbits. And what they found at first was clearly impossible under Scouts: “Epistellar Jovians” or “Red-hot Jupiters”, Large Gas Giants of up to many J-masses in “torch orbits” incredibly close to their suns. Since then, Large Gas Giants (the only planets detectable from interstellar distances) have been found in every orbit imaginable.
The following rule enhancements make Scouts compatible with these later discoveries:
Placement: Gas Giants may be in any orbit whatsoever, including “torch orbits” and under some special cases, “Unavailable orbits”.
- Torch Orbits are defined as the innermost half of the Inner Zone orbits, rounded down. Example: According to the Scouts Table of Zones, a G0V star has three Inner Zone orbits (Orbits 0-2); Orbit 0 is the torch orbit. An F5V star has four Inner Zone orbits (Orbits 0-3); Orbits 0 and 1 are the torch orbits.
- Unavailable Orbits are defined in Scouts as “orbits are subject to intense heat from the star and have temperatures of greater than 2000 degrees. A planet in such an orbit would be converted to vapor and dissipated. Such orbits cannot be occupied by planets.” However, a Gas Giant is already made of vapor; the heat can and will boil off the atmosphere until nothing remains, but against the gravity of a Large or Very Large Gas Giant, dissipation will take some time. And the stars most likely to have unavailable orbits—Class B main-sequence stars and most giants—are the shortest-lived, with the least amount of time available to boil off these planets. Class Bs are short-lived supernovae-in-waiting and orange/red giants are dying stars which were originally much smaller.
Size: Scouts divides Gas Giants into Large and Small Gas Giants, but does not break them down any further. However, size does matter in appearance, number of moons, and other game effects described later.
- Small Gas Giants: Roll 1D on Table 1 for the actual size.
- Large Gas Giants: Roll 1D on Table 2A for the actual size. If a 6 is rolled, go to Table 2B and roll again. Continue until you roll other than a 6 or end up on Table 3.
- If the rolls reach Table 2C (Very Large Gas Giant), the orbit inward of the Very Large Gas Giant will always be asteroids or empty—the Very Large Gas Giant’s gravity will scour that orbit clean. In addition, if there is more than one Gas Giant in the system, subtract one of the other Gas Giants, again favoring the next orbit inward; the Very Large Gas Giant has absorbed the hydrogen that would have formed the other Gas Giant.
- If the rolls reach Table 2D, clear out the orbit outward of the Very Large Gas Giant as well as inward. The orbit inward of the Very Large Gas Giant will be empty; the orbit outward may be asteroids or empty. If a second other Gas Giant occupied either the two orbits inward or the first orbit outward, it is also subtracted from the system.
- If the rolls reach Table 3 (Brown Dwarf), clear out the two orbits inward of the Brown Dwarf and the first orbit outward. These will be empty orbits. Subtract two or three other Gas Giants from the system.
Satellites: Scouts describes Small Gas Giants as having 2D-4 satellites (moons) and Large Gas Giants as having 2D moons.
- Very Large Gas Giants (Tables 2C and 2D) in the Outer Zone will have 3D moons, and Brown Dwarfs (Table 3) 4D.
- All Inner Zone Gas Giants will have a maximum of 1D moons; all satellites of Inner Zone worlds use only the Close orbits table to determine orbital distance. At this range, the sun’s gravity will strip off anything in Far or Extreme orbits.
- Gas Giants in torch orbits will have 1D-3 moons for the same reason.
- Any Gas Giant in an Unavailable orbit will have no moons whatsoever.
- If two moons roll the same orbit, they can optionally share the orbit as a “double moon”, i.e., the two moons orbit each other as both orbit the primary. These “moons with moons” are rare, but do illustrate the ambiguity between planet and star of a Very Large Gas Giant or Brown Dwarf.
The typical image of a Gas Giant is Jupiter in Sol System, with pastel cloud bands broken by one or more “Great Red Spot” cyclonic superstorms. In reality, Gas Giants’ appearance varies greatly depending on the distance from their sun, and secondarily from their mass.
(Due to a physics phenomenon called “Rayleigh Scattering”, almost all atmospheric gases are a very faint blue color. This is the reason the sky is blue on a world with an atmosphere—dark indigo with a Class M sun, sea blue for a Class K, and “sky blue” for Class G and above. The sky is darkest at the zenith because the line-of-sight passes through less atmosphere than near the horizon.)
Orbit/Temperature Effects on Appearance
- Unavailable Orbit: The planet will glow white-hot on the sunward side and red-hot on the dark side; the atmosphere being boiled off forms a long comet tail spiraling outward from the sun.
- Torch Orbit: The sunward side of the planet will glow red-hot, with a brighter spot directly facing the sun; the dark side will be cooler and would be the default blue if it wasn’t in shadow, with a small “cap” of white clouds at the antipodes. The atmosphere is constantly being heated on the sunward side and blowing in supersonic winds to the dark side, where it cools and sinks back into the interior. Transit data shows these “Epistellar Jovians” to have about twice the diameter they should (shown in the tables); this is probably due to thermal expansion.
- Inner Zone Orbit: The planet will be a featureless medium-light blue; the atmosphere is too hot for any clouds to form. The atmosphere may be very violent, but without clouds its motion is invisible. Diameter will be about 1½ times the base diameter from the tables due to thermal expansion.
- Habitable Zone Orbit: Here clouds begin to appear, in the form of white clouds starting at and concentrated at the poles, where it is cooler. A Gas Giant in the “Goldilocks Orbit” (not too hot, not too cold, just right) in the middle of the Habitable Zone will have about 50/50 white clouds and blue atmosphere. Due to Gas Giants’ rapid spin, clouds will normally sweep into bands by latitude—the familiar cloud bands. Alternatively, suntide could slow the rotation to where the clouds swirl across the face of the planet instead of forming bands; this is most likely for a smaller Gas Giant in a Habitable Zone orbit of a smaller K- or M-class star.
- Outer Zone Orbits: As the planet orbits farther and farther out, its appearance becomes more familiar; colors change throughout due to temperature effects on various gases and impurities in the atmosphere. First, near the inner edge of the Outer Zone, near-total cloud cover; the planet appears white with some blue trim bands along the equator. Then, a little farther out, chemicals condensing out in the cold give the cloud bands pastel colors. Still farther out, other chemical reactions take over and the planet appears more yellowish. Finally, cryogenic conditions return the outermost Gas Giants to a blue or blue-green hue with only faint banding in the faint light of a distant sun.
Size Effects on Appearance
- The larger the Gas Giant, the greater its internal heat. This changes the appearance as if the planet was in a slightly closer orbit and warmer, though not so warm as if in a torch orbit. The largest Gas Giants (Tables 2C and 2D) might even be the featureless blue of an Inner Zone Gas Giant, radiating in the infrared.
- Brown Dwarfs (Table 3) generate even more internal heat, to the point they glow a dull red. The oldest ones are cool enough for cloud bands and storm spots to form in the upper atmosphere; this results in a “backlit” effect, with dark cloud bands backlit with glowing maroon. Younger Brown Dwarfs are hotter, and glow a uniform red like miniature red dwarf stars.
- The larger the Gas Giant, the more violent its atmosphere from internal convection. Larger Gas Giants (Tables 2B and up) will have more “Great Red Spot” cyclonic storms caused by upwellings in the atmosphere; Very Large Gas Giants (Tables 2C and 2D) will probably have so many of these upwellings that they appear “speckled” instead of banded, with constant eruptions streaming banner clouds halfway around the planet for a “banded by speckles” look. Note: Each of these “spots” or “speckles” is actually the top of a planet-sized tornado funnel extending tens of thousands of km deep into the Gas Giant.
- Conversely, the smaller the Gas Giant, the less violent its atmosphere. Small Gas Giants in Outer Zone orbits will have faint or no banding and few or no cyclonic storms/upwellings—almost completely featureless spheres of “calm air”.
- The larger the Gas Giant, the faster its rotation and the shorter its “day”. The largest and fastest-rotating Gas Giants can appear visibly flattened instead of spherical.
There is a more detailed essay on Gas Giants’ appearance under varying conditions of temperature and size at http://tinyurl.com/xsvisions-specs.
Epistellars and Flare Stars
A Large Gas Giant in a torch orbit can have devastating effects on the entire system. Gas Giants have magnetic fields to match their size, and a torch orbit is close enough so this magnetic field interferes with that of the sun. As the planet orbits low and fast, its magnetic field sets up eddy currents in the star, drawing plasma from the star’s interior to its surface.
When this effect has built up enough—usually around once a century—the star mega-flares, blasting off plasma down the magnetic lines of force. For a short time, the star becomes a miniature nova, increasing its brightness many-fold; the surge of radiation and heat can boil off planetary oceans and melt planetary surfaces smooth. (Larry Niven’s short story “Inconstant Moon” describes the effects of such a mega-flare.)
Naturally, such “flare stars” do not have habitable worlds. The only long-term colonies in such systems would have to be dug-in underground to survive the mega-flares.
Rings are composed of rock and ice particles in close orbit, and vary considerably. Scouts allows for multiple rings in multiple orbital positions, but does not otherwise describe their appearance.
- Most planetary rings are pretty dim; brilliant rings like Saturn’s are found only in the outer system, where ring particles are mostly highly reflective ice.
- Assume a ring covering one orbital position is going to be a narrow band; wide rings like Saturn’s actually cover more than one ring orbit, and would roll up in Scouts as more than one ring.
- If a wide-ringed planet has no moons, the ring will probably be continuous, without gaps.
- If a wide-ringed planet has moons, harmonic tidal effects will open gaps in the ring at points where the orbital period is an even fraction of that of the moon. This produces the Cassini Division between Saturn’s A and B rings (an exact harmonic with Mimas, the innermost moon); lesser harmonics with the other moons give the rings their detailed appearance of gossamer strands of ringlets laid side-by-side. Similar mechanisms have split Uranus’ ring into five narrow string-like rings.
- Another alternative for a thin ring are “ring arcs”; incomplete crescents of rings such as were found around Neptune.
Almost everyone who has never flown a starship thinks of evading pursuit by cutting through a planetary ring. This is possible, but collisions with ring particles will chew up a ship—hopefully not as much as your pursuer. Treat these collisions as equivalent to missile hits; roll 1D for the number of collisions when cutting the ring.
The moons of a Gas Giant are subject to some unique effects, all having to do with the Gas Giant’s gravity and magnetosphere.
- Gas Giant moons are subject to extreme tidal stresses; they will almost always be in “tidal-lock” rotation, with one side always facing their primary; their day is equal to their orbital period. If there are other moons (especially large ones), the resulting tides will pull on the moon, causing a lot of seismic (moonquake) activity.
- Inner large moons will be under so much tidal stress, they will be volcanically active as well as seismically. The innermost moons will be like Jupiter’s moon Io, with constant multiple mega-volcanoes constantly reshaping the surface. The lava from these constant eruptions varies with the orbital zone; in the Inner and Habitable Zones, the lava is molten rock; in the Outer Zone, volcanoes may instead erupt either liquid sulfur or water (Inner Outer Zone) or liquid methane and nitrogen (Outer Outer Zone), all of which are normally solid minerals at the ambient temperature.
- A little farther out, a large moon will resemble Jupiter’s moon Europa, whose surface of ice cracks open as the tides pull liquid water up from the depths.
- Gas Giants have magnetospheres to match their size. Inner moons orbiting through the magnetic field act as planet-sized electric generators, building up electrical charge until the charge arcs from the moon down the magnetic lines of force to the polar regions of the Gas Giant in lightning bolts the size of a continent. This “electron stream” effect causes brilliant aurorae at the polar regions, easily visible on the dark side of the planet.
- The magnetosphere also traps stellar-wind particles (plus the radiation emitted internally from Very Large Gas Giants and Brown Dwarfs) into giant Van Allen belts; close-in moons are immersed in a sea of hard radiation.
The image of a habitable satellite world—with its parent gas giant hanging in the sky—is one of the classic images of “alien world”. As stated in Scouts:
If a main world already exists, it should be placed in the habitable zone. If a gas giant is in that orbit, the main world will be a satellite of the gas giant.
If the “satellite of the gas giant” is to be surface-habitable, this is easier said than done. A habitable satellite world has to be in a certain orbit to be viable; too close and the satellite is bathed in lethal radiation from the Van Allen belts and constantly turning inside-out with tidal-caused volcanism; too far and the orbital period and (tidal-locked) day become too long to support surface life.
A surface-habitable satellite must orbit 10-15 radii from its primary to clear the Van Allen belts, yet have an orbital period less than 80-90 hours (preferably 50 or less).
The optimum size for a Gas Giant with a habitable satellite appears to be between 20 and 200 ME, with 20-40ME and 100-150ME being the most desirable. Larger than this, and the satellite is too close, burning from hard radiation on the outside and volcanism on the inside. At these mass ranges, a satellite should be able to orbit 10-15 radii away without too long a day. (Since Traveller measures orbits in radii of the primary and mass determines the orbital period, the middle range of 50-100ME has the lowest density—and the largest radii—for their mass; at 10-15 radii, the orbital period will be longer than for a denser primary.)
Even so, a satellite world will still be very seismically and volcanically active, and will have a larger amount of background radiation. At 10-15 radii, the primary will appear fixed in the sky, with an apparent diameter of 15-20 times the Moon as seen from Earth, blue banded with white clouds like a mixture of sapphire and quartz in ever-changing detail. By day, the primary is a huge crescent, eclipsing the sun for an hour or two every day. During the eclipse, sunlight leaking around the primary’s atmosphere turns the Gas Giant into a crimson ring flickering with polar aurorae and flashes of mega-lightning, bathing the satellite in a ruddy twilight.
At night, the full or near-full planet shines brightly enough to make the concept of “night” a joke, bathing everything in a blue light second only to daylight.
In extreme cases, tidal effects on long-term orbital dynamics can result in the Type E (Elliptical) atmosphere, where the satellite is elliptical instead of spherical, with nearside and farside tidal bulges extending out of the atmosphere. A more common version of this phenomenon is to have the satellite’s hydrosphere in a “ring ocean” with landmasses/highlands concentrated directly beneath the primary and at the antipodes.
Nothing living can survive the temperatures and pressures deep within a Gas Giant; all human experience will be with the “surface” regions and upper atmosphere. The basic rule-of-thumb is the deeper you go, the higher the pressure and temperature and the more extreme the conditions.
A useful analogy is that of a waterworld’s planetary ocean, except the “ocean” is a hydrogen atmosphere that becomes red- and white-hot in its depths. For Traveller purposes, the pressure/temperature is rated in “Crush Depth”, where the pressure and temperature destroy a vessel with all hands—first crushed like a sinking submarine, then melted by the ambient heat and dispersed in the winds. Armored ships (like System Defense Boats) have a greater crush depth; for simplicity, rate crush depth in whatever Armor Factor is in general use for ships—High Guard, Striker, MegaTraveller, whatever. A ship can survive inside a Gas Giant so long as it is above its crush depth.
Complicating this simple image is weather—supersonic winds, updrafts, and downdrafts; gigantic electrostatic effects; and tornado funnels the size of planets. Gas Giant atmospheres are a cosmic exercise in fluid dynamics, and tend to sort out into two main conditions:
- Calm Layers of clear air and frictionless superfluid laminar flows, with steady smooth horizontal winds, with the highest winds (around 3000 kph) along the equator. Clear-air lightning is common but not continuous; electrostatics normally manifest in coronal discharges (“St Elmo’s Fire”) around any foreign object.
- Storm Layers filled with dust, impurities, clouds, and turbulence—as in supersonic to hypersonic wind gusts, updrafts, downdrafts, and forests of gigantic tornado funnels, all lit by never-ending continuous lightning bolts like cosmic strobe lights.
These are called “layers” because they tend to form in horizontal layers within the atmosphere, storm layers forming at the interfaces between calm layers of different wind conditions. These layers are not continuous like the skins of an onion; storm and calm layers break the “surface” at different latitudes, forming the cloud bands. Cyclonic storms (“spots” and “speckles” on the “surface”) are spinning vertical columns of concentrated storm layer—tornadoes the size of planets drawing hot impurities from deep within the planet.
For Traveller purposes, treat the vertical cross-section of a Gas Giant as alternating calm and storm layers, with crush depths for increasing Armor Factors at increasing depths. Note that Inner Zone Gas Giants have no clouds to indicate the presence of their (larger and more energetic) storm layers. Small Outer Zone Gas Giants will be mostly calm layers, with storm layers only in the depths.
Beneath crush depth, temperatures and pressures continue to rise with depth—red-hot, yellow-hot, white-hot. Finally the pressure is enough to liquefy the hydrogen; after thousands and thousands of km of red-hot hydrogen fog comes the “true surface”, a planetary ocean of white-hot liquid hydrogen. If any carbon exists at this state, the temperature and pressure compress it into macrocrystalline form—a rain of diamonds down to the molten rock core.
Fuel Skimming (and Complications of Same…)
Travellers will most likely encounter a Gas Giant when skimming fuel. This looks straightforward; just skim the Gas Giant’s hydrogen atmosphere, scoop a load of free fuel, and take the risk of Unrefined Fuel, right?
The optimum Gas Giant for fuel skimming is between 30 and 50ME; this is the point of minimum density and minimum surface gravity, where even a 1-G ship has enough acceleration to climb out in a worst-case situation—all the fuel in the universe won’t help you if you can’t make escape velocity after the skim. (Generally, if the Surface Gravity from the tables is less than the ship’s Maneuver Drive G-rating, the ship can skim safely.) Outer Zone orbits are preferred, as less heat increases the chance of “calm air”. (Cloud banding is the most obvious clue; if the Gas Giant is small and cold enough to not have cloud bands, chances are the calm air extends over most or all of the “surface”.)
There is Unrefined Fuel, and there is Really Bad Fuel—contaminated with heavier elements. If the Gas Giant is less than 20 ME (low-end Table 1) or greater than 1½-2 MJ (Table 2C and up), the raw fuel will be not just unrefined, but Contaminated. Less than 20 ME, and the mini-Gas Giant has not accreted enough hydrogen to dilute the heavier gases; more than 1½ MJ, and the atmosphere is too active from internal heat, upwelling heavier elements from the depths in planet-sized convection cells. Inner-zone Gas Giants also suffer from this problem—doubly treacherous, as their atmosphere is too hot for any telltale clouds to form.
Contaminated Fuel has the following in-game effects:
- Apply a DM of +1 on the misjump/drive malfunction rolls if using it unrefined. This is above and beyond the existing DMs for Unrefined Fuel.
- Refining takes two or more passes through the processing plant; allow double the time or use double the processing plant to refine. (A single refining pass changes Contaminated Fuel to simple Unrefined Fuel.)
- This idea can be extended to several grades of Unrefined/Contaminated fuel; as the contamination gets worse, the greater the DMs (and the number of refining passes needed).
At the other extreme, some Gas Giants have little or no heavy gas contaminants, and are natural Refined Fuel. These Gas Giants are always found orbiting the oldest stars in the Galaxy (Class M, Size V “red dwarfs” and Class K or M, Size VI “subdwarfs”) with no other bodies in the system—no moons, no asteroids, no planets, nothing. When these systems formed, the only thing existing in the proto-Galaxy was hydrogen. (The formal astronomical name for this is “low-metallicity”.) Yes, they are natural Refined Fuel, but they’re in another system where all support to exploit this has to be brought in by Jump.
Fuel Skimming is more complex than its general image of “dive in, hit the atmosphere, skim the fuel, and boost out”. The basic idea is to hit a calm layer and run with the wind, avoiding radiation and turbulence.
- Approach: Initially, the skimming ship will approach the gas giant diagonally, avoiding the hard radiation at the magnetic poles but getting under the Van Allen belts, aiming for atmospheric entry between the cloud bands in mid-latitudes.
- Enter Atmosphere: The best place for this is between the storm/cloud bands in the mid-latitudes, avoiding any cyclonic-storm “spots” or “speckles”; this maximizes the chance of entering inside a calm layer. Once in atmosphere, the ship stays in the calm layer, matching speed with the laminar winds, and works its way towards the equator. This may require diving through the top storm layer to get into a calm layer beneath that emerges closer to the equator.
- Skim: Once in the calm layer, open scoops and start skimming and condensing the hydrogen as you run with the wind, matching speed with the increasing wind as you approach the equator. During this process, the ship will be sandwiched in a layer of “clear air”, with exotic-colored cloud decks tens to hundreds of km above and below dancing with constant lightning displays and writhing with ever-changing tornado funnels above and “thunderhead” upwellings below; the ship itself will stream a brilliant blue corona of St Elmo’s Fire, attracting lightning bolts and other electrostatic displays; sheets of rain, salvoes of hailstones, and/or flurries of snow (water, ammonia, or whatever chemical impurities condense or freeze at the ambient temperature and pressure) splattering on the hull surface.
- Should the ship venture near the edge of a storm layer, expect a wild ride—sudden supersonic crosswinds, updrafts, and downdrafts, solid sheets of rain and/or giant hailstones (the largest of which can damage the ship like Missile hits), as well as becoming the target for every lightning bolt for a hundred km around. The equator directly beneath an inner moon is especially dangerous—even in a calm layer, the ship will intercept the “electron stream” flowing from the moon to the Gas Giant; such mega-lightning can hit like a spinal-mount particle beam.
- Boost Out: Ideally, the ship will emerge from a calm layer near the equator, blue sky above and storm layer below. In order to match speed with the wind and skim, the ship has to have bled off its original orbital velocity. The planet’s fast rotation and higher winds near the equator will help, but the ship must now boost out using its Maneuver Drive, just as if it was taking off from the “surface”; this is why the Gas Giant must have “surface gravity” less than the ship’s Maneuver Drive.
Class A to C Starports with Gas Giants in-system make use of special Fuel Lighters to skim and process their fuel. A fuel lighter is a streamlined non-starship, usually around 800 tons or so, with powerful Maneuver Drives to pull itself out of a Gas Giant’s gravity well and all possible interior space devoted to fuel scoops, fuel tankage, and fuel processing plant. They boost to the Gas Giant, skim themselves full of fuel, and refine it on the return trip, unloading Refined Fuel at the starport or directly to ships. Tankers are starships similarly equipped; these accompany naval task forces or make runs to nearby Gas Giant-bearing systems (especially the aforementioned “low metallicity” systems) for those systems without a source of fuel.
Some high-tech worlds mine their Gas Giants for exotic chemicals when no other source is available. On small scales, this is done with specially modified fuel lighters whose “fuel refineries” effectively work in reverse, discarding the hydrogen and storing the specific chemical “impurities”. Since these “impurities” are normally found in storm layers, these chemical lighters seek out the edges of storm layers for their skimming. Because of the danger, these craft are often unmanned, with autonomous AI robotic brains controlling them in-atmosphere. Sometimes a live crew flies them to the Gas Giant, “abandoning ship” in a carried small craft and re-boarding upon emergence; others are remote-controlled from a home base on one of the Gas Giant’s moons.
(Legally, this is complicated by the ancient maritime law that a completely-abandoned ship is a “derelict” open to Right of Salvage by anybody; the equally-ancient safeguard to this is to have an animal aboard who is technically on the crew roster as “ship’s mascot” who is left aboard when the crew evacuates. As long as one of the “crew” is aboard, the ship is not legally “abandoned”.)
Large-scale “atmosphere mining” is done by large, heavily armored, purpose-built robotic refining platforms. Essentially giant unmanned chemical lighters, these platforms dive deep into the storm layers to skim and collect their chemicals, surfacing into the upper atmosphere to transfer their refined chemical loads to manned fuel lighters acting as chemical tankers.
Life in a Gas Giant
Some Gas Giants are life-bearing—all the precursor organic chemicals and molecules are present at some point, and the solar and interior heat (and lightning) provide the energy. The best candidates for life-bearing are similar to the best candidates for skimming—small, temperate-to-cool Gas Giants with relatively calm atmospheres.
Gas Giant life forms will be floaters or flyers, analogous to ocean life. Most of the time they will be floating bacteria, microscopic “aero-plankton” visible only as strangely colored clouds or haze. This aero-plankton tends to congregate along the borders of calm and storm layers, where the storm layers bring nutrient chemicals up from the depths like “black smokers” along deep-ocean vents. Alternately, photosynthetic aero-plankton could ride winds in the upper atmosphere and sunlight.
Multicellular life could be simple floating “sheets” of “aero-algae” colonies or more organized forms including the “balloon-beasts” of common imagery (like the Jgd-Il-Jadg); actually, the majority of worlds—Gas Giant or rockball—rarely get beyond bacteria.
Because of the turbulent environment on the edge of storm layers—life-forms could easily be drawn into a storm layer and destroyed by downdrafts into the depths—Gas Giant life would probably reproduce quickly and prolifically, spawning offspring faster than the turbulence and downdrafts could destroy them. Colony creatures have an advantage in this regard; if they are torn apart by winds and turbulence, each surviving fragment can regrow into a new colony. Though there is theoretically no limit to the size of Gas Giant “balloon-beasts”, the winds and turbulence normally limit size to smaller than commonly believed. (Such as 3m gasbag diameter in the case of the Jdg-Il-Jadg.)
Life can complicate fuel-skimming; bacteria and aero-plankton would just be another “impurity” to refine out, but multicellular/colonial life can clog fuel scoops or in extreme cases cause collision damage (as Missiles).
Belters are operating in a flare-star system with an epistellar Gas Giant. The star is showing massive sunspot activity, prominences flaring visible to the naked eye; a mega-flare is imminent. For various reasons, the belters are staying and extracting until the last minute, betting on outrunning the flare. Do you feel lucky today?
Platform 44 (©1982 Dave Bryant)
A chemical lighter (of hundreds to thousands of Traveller tons) starts its climb out of the Gas Giant; above, its crew in their Cutter descend to rendezvous with the unmanned lighter and fly it back to the main world. A freak mega-bolt blanks out the Cutter’s sensors for over a minute, blowing every circuit breaker in the avionics; when they recover, the lighter—now silent, wreathed in St Elmo’s Fire and lightning arcs like a Tesla Coil—is dropping in a glide path back into the Gas Giant. Can the player-character crew board, repair, and salvage it before it hits crush depth?
As the out-of-control lighter drops, it will fall through several calm and storm layers before reaching crush depth. Each storm layer can damage the lighter further, as it falls out of control and is knocked about by the turbulence; this allows the referee to orchestrate the scenario, as updrafts or downdrafts could speed or temporarily reverse the descent.
If the damage (from the initial accident or subsequent storm-layer tumbles) has weakened the hull, it could crush before its official crush depth, killing all aboard—remember, the pressure is always increasing to and past ocean-bottom levels, and any breach or damage weakness only has to let the pressure in. As the pressure increases, the hull will creak and groan ominously. (Don't overlook the “horror value” of the gory details of a crush-depth collapse and the fact that they’re falling without ever hitting bottom because a Gas Giant has no surface to hit.) If the interior atmosphere is breathable, there will also be a fire/explosion hazard long before crush depth as the increasing pressure literally squeezes the outside hydrogen through the hull itself (remember, hydrogen atmospheres are classed as Type C—Insidious—as hydrogen molecules are so small they can interpenetrate almost anything solid, literally squeezing through the spaces between the hull molecules). The lighter having an armored hull and a greater crush depth than the crew’s escape cutter complicates salvage—if the crew stays with the lighter past the cutter’s crush depth, they will be unable to escape. Again, do you feel lucky today?
This scenario was developed by Dave Bryant and run in several incarnations at several conventions in the early 1980s; in the original version, “Platform 44 Linda” was a large dedicated refinery platform; the corporate tanker docking with it was also damaged, but managed to boost out; the player-characters were the crew of a Scout/Courier on detached duty who were skimming fuel near the accident and volunteered to salvage the platform as it plunged through the atmosphere.
From experience in the original scenario, I recommend the referee measure the fall by calm and storm layer, with crush depth for cutter and platform measured in so many layers below the “surface”, not by a hard-and-fast time-and-distance track. This allows the referee to orchestrate the danger for maximum drama without getting bogged down in detail. One crowd-pleasing effect in the upper atmosphere (first calm layer?) was an EVA along the exterior of the platform’s hull to reach a damaged area, vacc-suited PCs dragging themselves from handhold to handhold in a blast of ammonia sleet, like mountain climbers in a blizzard. Later on, when the platform’s emergency “hot-air balloon” gasbags had been deployed to halt the descent, they ran afoul of local balloon-beasts in rut, attracted to the gasbags.
Illustrations are by John Whatmough,
captured by the Wayback Machine
from his website “Extrasolar Visions”, formerly at http://www.extrasolar.net/.
TinyURL links in this article are to captures at various dates at the
approximate time this article was originally added to the
Freelance Traveller website.
A full list of images is available from the Wayback Machine captures at http://web.archive.org/web/*/http://www.extrasolar.net/usage.asp.
|Table 1: Small Gas Giants
|(Point of lowest density)
|Table 2A: Large Gas Giants
|Roll again on Table 2B
|Table 2B: Large Gas Giants
|Roll again on Table 2C
|Table 2C: Very Large Gas Giants
|Roll again on Table 2D
|Table 2D: Very Large Gas Giants
|Roll again on Table 3
|Table 3: Brown Dwarfs