Sunday 25 June 2017

Babylon 5 Rewatch: Setting the Scene - The Babylon Project

Ahead of my upcoming Babylon 5 rewatch, it may be useful to set the scene of what is going on in the B5 universe when the series pilot episode opens. This information is not strictly necessary, but it may be helpful in reminding people in what space empire did what to whom and when.

The first article focused on the major races and alliances. This second focuses on the B5 station and some of the underlying concepts of the show.

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The Babylon Project
When humanity was spared annihilation at the hands of the Minbari, it resulted in a more tolerant and less aggressively militaristic attitude taking root on Earth. Newly-elected President Luis Santiago was voted into office in 2248 on a mandate of keeping the Earth Alliance out of war and also encouraging peaceful relations with other races.

One idea that had been proposed was a version of the League of Non-aligned Worlds writ large, the creation of an interstellar forum for peace and diplomacy that could also act as a centre for trade. Just as trade had helped keep Earth out of a global war for over 140 years during the 20th and 21st centuries, it was hoped it would also create new links between the major and minor powers of local space.

The original Babylon Station shortly before its destruction in 2250.

The result of these discussions was the Babylon Project. Its goal was to build a large space station, much larger than anything Earth had attempted before, which would act as a centre for trade and diplomacy. It was modelled on the League of Nations and United Nations of old Earth, before the major powers consolidated into the Earth Alliance in 2085.

It is likely this plan would have foundered if it wasn’t for the goodwill that Earth had engendered among the League of Non-aligned Worlds for its intervention in the Dilgar War of 2230-32, as well as the sympathy it had built up during its war with the Minbari. Startlingly, the Minbari themselves agreed to send a representative to the station, which added considerable kudos and interest to the project.

Earth Alliance diplomatic station Babylon 4. Considerably larger than the later Babylon 5, it remains the largest space habitat ever built by humanity. Taking over three years to build, in Sector 14, Epsilon Eridani system, it disappeared without a trace in late 2254 with over 1,300 construction workers and Earthforce personnel on board.

It was decided to build the station in the Epsilon Eridani system. Located fourteen light-years from Earth* in neutral space, the system was close enough to permit relatively fast travel from Earth, Narn and several of the non-aligned homeworlds (and somewhat more distant from Centauri Prime and Minbar, although still only a few days’ trip). A vast construction site was set up just outside the orbit of Epsilon Eridani III, three hours from the local jump gate, and construction got underway in earnest in 2250.

Just a few months into construction, with the forward docking sphere completed and the main hull taking shape, the station’s superstructure collapsed and exploded. Most of the construction material was saved and rebuilding began immediately. The same thing happened again, and then again. Officially the failures were the result of substandard building materials and problems with the advanced technologies being used to build the station, the largest artificial construction ever attempted by humanity. Unofficially, at least two of the collapses were linked with extremist, anti-alien terrorism.

Protected by much stronger security measures, Babylon 4 was finally completed in 2254. The immense station was operational for just 24 hours when it abruptly vanished, disappearing in a flash of light with over 1,300 construction crew still on board. No explanation has ever been provided for this incident.

The Earth Alliance prepared to cancel the Babylon Project, judging it an enormous waste of time, resources and political capital. To their surprise, the Minbari Federation stepped in and offered a substantial amount of funds to help build a fifth station. The Centauri also donated a significant sum and the Narns and non-aligned worlds somewhat less. The fifth station would be significantly smaller and less grand in scale, but it would still serve the purpose originally intended for the project. It was also decided to move the construction site into orbit around Epsilon III, much closer to the system’s jump gate with significant cost savings (despite concerns over security, being much closer to an attack through the gate).

Babylon 5 was completed in the summer of 2256. It went online in the autumn, with the station’s command crew and ambassadorial staff arriving shortly after that. Against the odds, the Babylon Project had succeeded in getting on-line. Now it would be the job of the crew and diplomatic staff to make the actual diplomacy work.

Babylon 5
Babylon 5 is located in orbit** around the planet Epsilon Eridani III (commonly referred to just as Epsilon III), close enough so that several times a day it enters Epsilon III’s shadow. A hyperspace jump gate has also been constructed in orbit, allowing smaller, non-jump-capable vessels to travel to the station. The gate is located far enough away from B5 for hostile ships to be identified and intercepted, but close enough so that travel from the gate to the station is fast and smooth. Thrusters on the jump gate allow it to maintain a constant distance from B5.

The station is approximately five miles long*** and at least half a mile wide. The station resembles a long rotating cylinder, held in place by a non-rotating framework. The spinning cylinder, or carousel, contains all of the station’s living spaces, including quarters, diplomatic meeting places, commercial districts and recreation areas. It rotates at 60mph, which generates a simulated gravity field of 0.9G. A “bulge” in the hull in Green Sector represents an elevated section of the station which can actually be spun at different speeds, to allow areas in the station for species from higher or lower-gravity worlds to dwell in greater comfort. However, no such species has yet arrived on the station in sufficient numbers to justify such a change to the station’s configuration.

At the front end of the station is a large spherical structure. This is the docking sphere or Blue Sector, which contains the station’s docking bays, Command and Control (C&C) and Earthforce military facilities, as well as crew quarters. The station’s Cobra bays, from where the fighter wings launch, are located at the rear of this section, on the arms which connect the sphere to the rest of the carousel. Ships dock through the axial launch and recovery bay, from where they are carried to one of several dozen bays located around the sphere. There is a secondary bay located directly above the sphere, along the zero-gravity forward “arms” of the station, where larger ships can dock.

The carousel is divided into four distinct sectors. Red Sector, located behind the docking sphere, is the station’s primary residential, commercial and entertainment hub. It contains restaurants, hotels, casinos, conference facilities and the station’s main shopping market, known as the Zocalo. The rearward part of Red Sector opens out onto The Garden, a large section of the carousel’s interior which is effectively hollow. The part of the Garden in Red Sector contains sports facilities and some very expensive hotels.

Green Sector, located rearward from Red Sector, contains the station’s diplomatic and ambassadorial wings, as well as residences for many of the station’s non-human population and the so-called “Alien Sector”, which contains rooms where the atmosphere can be changed for the comfort of the residents. The Garden extends through Green Sector and several public parks are located in this area, such as the Zen Garden and areas designated for diplomatic functions.

Brown Sector, colloquially known as “Downbelow”, is located rearwards from Green Sector, behind the Garden. Originally planned to be a second commercial area, it suffered from the budget cuts in the planning of the station and was left only partially developed, with considerably less security infrastructure than much of the rest of the station. Almost inevitably, this part of the station has attracted an underclass of citizens, including even homeless people. Brown Sector tends to be at the centre of some of the less-savoury activities on the station, including crime, prostitution and the drug trade.

Grey Sector lies rearwards from Brown Sector, at the far rear end of the carousel. Grey Sector contains a lot of industrial areas, heavy machinery and fabrication plants. This sector of the station is heavily automated, with relatively few people working in it despite its significant size. The low population of this sector, combined with its strange noises, have led it to being dubbed the “Babylon Triangle” by some of the more superstitious station residents.

Yellow Sector is the term given to the station’s non-rotating, zero-G facilities. These include the station’s fusion reactor (located at the extreme rear of the station), atmosphere processors, the large radiator fins, the cargo pods, the zero-G docking bay and the forward cargo stabilisers. Due to the sensitive nature of its facilities, Yellow Sector is off-limits to all non-Earthforce personnel.
The station’s sheer size can be overwhelming, but relatively rapid travel can be achieved thanks to transport tubes, which provide rapid transit between floors, and the station’s Core Shuttle, a high-speed monorail which runs the length of the station from Blue to Grey Sector just underneath the main axis. As it’s located near the spin axis, the Core Shuttle is a low-gravity environment and travellers must take care when boarding and exiting the cars.

Although designed primarily for peaceful purposes, Babylon 5 is also armed for defence. The station has two fighter wings of 12 fighters apiece, designated Alpha and Delta Squadrons, along with a number of spare fighters to replace any lost in combat. These are launched from the Cobra Bays located along the arms connected the docking sphere to the carousel, and recovered via the main docking bay. The station also employs a number of shuttles (including atmospheric shuttles and zero-G ones), hazardous material-recovery ships and automated camera and cargo pods.
The station also has several dozen pulse array cannons located along its length. Most of these are located along the zero-G spine of Babylon 5, but some are mounted on the rotating section to provide coverage along the underside of the station. These cannons are designed primarily for anti-fighter operations but in concert could inflict significant damage on capital ships. Earthforce and the diplomatic corps have clashed over plans to fit more significant weaponry to the station, the former feeling that B5 is far too vulnerable to a concerted assault and the latter countering that adding such heavy weapon batteries to the station runs counter to its mission of peace.

Babylon 5 is run by a crew of 6,500 Earthforce personnel, who provide the station’s administration, security and defence forces. In addition to this, there are 1,500 dockworkers on the station and thousands more permanent civilian residents who work on the station and keep its businesses and other amenities running. There are also well over 100 ambassadorial staff on the station, with each ambassador usually attended by a senior aide/chief of staff and other assistants.

The construction of the Babylon 5 jump gate has also provided a handy junction point for hyperspace routes leading between the Earth Alliance, Narn Regime and several of the non-aligned worlds. This has made the station a hub for both travel and commerce. The station has a total population – residents and transients combined – of around 250,000 at any one time.

Hyperspace as it appears from the "inside".This image is taken from the Conflict of Loyalty 2 mod for Nexus: The Jupiter Incident, since the series shots of hyperspace are not great in quality.

In the 20th Century it was said that travelling faster-than-light is impossible. Technically, that is correct. It is not possible for any spacecraft to exceed the speed of light, which is why the first few interstellar ships launched from Earth travelled at achingly low speeds, taking decades to cross a single light-year, the crew cryogenically frozen until they reached their destination.
However, it is possible to get around the limitation. There are multiple layers of reality nestled within one another. Many millennia ago, ancient civilisations discovered how to create wormholes – jump  points or vortexes – linking our universe to the one next door, known as “hyperspace”. Every point in hyperspace corresponds to a point in normal space, but hyperspace appears to be many orders of magnitude smaller. Enter hyperspace, travel for a few hundred thousand miles and pop back out in normal space several light-years from where you were.

This sounds much simpler than it is in practice. Hyperspace does not have any stars, planets, black holes or other phenomena like our realm, but it does have immense gravitation eddies which ebb and flow. Some areas of hyperspace are utterly impassable due to such phenomena, creating obstacles which ships have to take long detours around. These tides can also sweep unsuspecting ships off course without warning, leaving them stranded with no frame of reference on how to get back home.

To this end, the first ancient civilisations which explored hyperspace began building a network of beacons. These beacons are anchored in real space, but with signals that penetrate hyperspace (and thus remain fixed and immobile from the perspective of ships in hyperspace). Over the course of millennia, other species have joined the interstellar community and added to the beacon network.

Today tens of thousands of beacons link the disparate worlds of known space together. Even hostile species have hesitated over destroying the beacons, since without them entire sections of the galaxy could be cut off before the painstaking work of rebuilding them was attempted. Network beacons can be shut down, however: during the Earth-Minbari War, the hyperspace beacons for the Sol system was disabled once the Minbari overran the outer colonies, delaying the Minbari advance for many months until they located Earth by other means.

An exit vortex or jump point leading from normal space to hyperspace.

Passing from real space to hyperspace or back again requires vast quantities of energy, far beyond the capability of most small ships to generate. Smaller ships require the use of free-standing jump gates to pass from hyperspace to real space and back again. Jump gates take the form of massive, multi-pronged constructions which charge up and generate a jump point between their prongs. More advanced species, like the Minbari and Centauri, have gates with three prongs, whilst Earth and many of the non-aligned worlds use four-pronged gates. The gate prongs can usually be adjusted to allow extremely large ships to enter or leave hyperspace, but a galactic standard size exists which makes this almost never necessary. Jump gates require colossal amounts of energy to operate, with multiple fusion reactors built into them along with failsafes and redundancies. The destruction of a jump gate – aside from being a crime on a par with disrupting the beacon network – releases titanic amounts of energy in both hyperspace and real space. It is strategically unsound because it is impossible for any ship to get out of range of the explosion (since it propagates in both realms simultaneously) once the detonation has begun. Trying to open one jump point inside another has the same effect.

Many species have large vessels which spend months exploring the fringes of the network, building new jump gates and beacons and expanding the limits of known space. The Earth Alliance delegates this task to its largest vessels, the Explorer­ class. More than two miles long each (although most of that space is given over to cargo), each Explorer has enough resources to build multiple gates and beacons before returning to the core systems for resupply. Earth only has a few of these ships and the programme is expensive, but it maintains it because of the goodwill it engenders with smaller races and the positive impact it has on trade.

Larger ships can generate their own vortexes through the use of a jump drive. Jump drives are extremely expensive to construct and fit to a ship, and the energy requirements are quite startling. The Centauri have developed quite impressive jump drive technology, later sold to Earth and stolen by the Narns. Minbari jump technology is superior still, with the Minbari both able to fit jump drives on ships smaller than even the Centauri have managed and also able to precisely target the departure jump point in real space from beacon coordinates. During the Earth-Minbari War the Minbari would open jump points in the midst of Earthforce flotillas, destroying several ships before the Minbari ships even arrived.

A four-pronged jump gate (probably of Earth construction) and an entry vortex leading into hyperspace.

Due to the gravitational inclines and eddies in hyperspace, not to mention the disorienting visual distortions (the source of which remains unknown; according to instrumentation, hyperspace should be completely black) which make following a target almost impossible, space combat is rarely attempted in hyperspace.

Because of hyperspace distortions, travel times in hyperspace do not always scale linearly to distances in real space: it is a two-day jump from Earth to Babylon 5, for example, covering just 14 light-years, whilst from Babylon 5 to Centauri Prime, over 75 light-years distant, takes just over three days. There are also hyperfast gravitational currents in hyperspace which can carry ships to parts of the galaxy thousands of light-years away in just a few days, but the use of these currents is highly dangerous and is not advised, due to the unreliable nature of the beacon network in these areas and the fact that the destination regions are completely unexplored. Exploration vessels attempting to use these currents often disappear and are never seen again.****

The superstitious sometimes claim that there are alien creatures native to hyperspace which do not take kindly to intrusions from our realm. However, there are several species which have had hyperspace technology for over a thousand years and these have never turned up a single shred of evidence to support such claims, and they must be dismissed as fanciful.

* More recent, more accurate measurements suggest that Epsilon Eridani is actually 10.5 light-years from Earth and have confirmed that it possesses two significant asteroid belts, one gas giant and one smaller planet (not directly observed but inferred from the stable orbits of the two belts).

** Publicity material for Babylon 5 and occasional official comments suggest that B5 was actually not in orbit around Epsilon III but located at the planet’s Lagrange 5 point with respect to its moon (presumably not Epsilon Eridani itself, as that would be located around 5 million kilometres from Epsilon III and the planet would be barely visible). This is not borne out by the show itself, where B5 is said to be in direct orbit around Epsilon III several times.

*** The Babylon 5 station was originally designed to be one mile wide and eleven miles long: only the centrifuge (the main rotating cylinder, containing the Garden and Green and Red sectors) was going to be 5 miles long, with the forward command sphere and the rear power section and the front cargo arms adding the remaining length. However, in-episode dialogue constantly refers to the whole station being five miles long. This creates inconsistencies since the CGI in the Garden sequences (particularly the end of the episode The Fall of Night, the Season 2 finale) clearly shows a much wider station than the 0.45 miles it would have been to keep the scaling correct.

**** This is a retcon needed to explain how Z’ha’dum can lie on the “Galactic Rim”, which is at least 20,000 light-years from Earth, and still be reachable from known space in just a few days whilst everyone else takes days just to travel a few dozen light-years across explored space. This explanation was required when Z’ha’dum moved from being on the “Rim of Known Space” to the “Galactic Rim” between the third and fourth seasons.

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Anonymous said...

This is cool. I've never watched Babylon 5 but always wanted to. So I'm going to read your stuff then watch along with you. Looking forward to it.

Marcus said...

Great write up. Still watching B5 series and movies on DVD or online in 2018. Seems there timeless. I've read many of the books, shorts and so on. Both Canon, Semi-canon and full blown non canon. Fanfic stories for the most part are well written and in keeping with the show. Any resource material you may have please consider sharing it.

On a personal note as a lifer in the the military (22 years USN retired SCPO-IT)I have to nitpick Cpt Sheridan especially when under fire, he takes to long to act or gives unnecessarily long explanations before acting. Truth is you give an order period, no hesitation, no second guessing act and live with the results. I get it for dramatic effect, still, unnecessary for this audience.