There’s been a lot of discussion lately about how scientifically accurate works of science fiction should be. It’s an endless and ongoing debate, and a question to which there is perhaps no answer. But if there’s one thing we can all agree on it’s that we should at least try to make the science in our stories seem plausible. Arming ourselves with a full scientific vocabulary is key to this effort.
To that end, I’ve decided to begin sharing a series of weekly articles by writer James Pailly. The series aims to embiggen our vocabularies and first appeared on the Planet Pailly blog – we’ll be borrowing the articles from there.
We’ll start by looking at a few backdated articles from 2014 before catching up to James’ more recent output. Enjoy.
Today’s post is part of a special series called Sciency Words. Every Thursday, we take a look at a new and interesting scientific term (or in today’s case, four terms) to help us all expand our scientific vocabularies together.
Space travel really isn’t complicated once you understand the terminology. Words like left, right, up, and down don’t mean much in zero gravity, nor do words like forward or backward. If you’re aboard a ship that uses centrifugal force to simulate gravity, even the terms port and starboard might cause confusion. So in order to navigate in space, we need to use a whole new vocabulary.
I recently started playing Kerbal Space Program as a way to learn more about space travel. Thanks to the game and various game F.A.Q.s I’ve found online, I’ve picked up four new sciency words every space navigator needs to know.
- Apoapsis: the highest point in your orbital path.
- Periapsis: the lowest point in your orbital path.
- Retrograde: if you fire your rockets in the opposite direction to your movement, you’re firing them retrograde. This will cause you to slow down.
- Prograde: if you fire your rockets in the same direction as your movement, this is prograde, and it will cause you to speed up.
Kerbal Space Program
When you want to move your spaceship to a higher orbit, fire your rockets prograde. If you want to lower your orbit, fire your rockets retrograde. According to my research and my experience in Kerbal Space Program, lowering your orbit from your apoapsis (highest point) is the most fuel-efficient option. The same is true for increasing your orbit from your periapsis (lowest point).
These four terms are still new to me. I’ve only been playing Kerbal for a little while now. So if anything I’ve written here is mistaken, either in regards to Kerbal Space Program or real life, please let me know in the comments below.
Written by James Pailly.
To read the full ‘Sciency Words‘ series, visit the Planet Pailly blog.