With the discovery of the alien derelicts in orbit around Titan during the 1980s, Saturn would become the next big goal of space exploration, though it was mostly a matter of trying to be the first to arrive at Saturn to claim the derelicts.
Due to the competitive nature during the Mars landing, followed by the crisis at Venus and finally the improved relations, there had been something of a ‘Gentleman’s Agreement’ between the United States and the Soviet Union. Neither would try to go for Saturn until the 2020s. It was just that no one had considered to mention this to Europe and China, who had set their sights to Saturn as a way to get the same advantages from the derelicts there, as the United States and the Soviets were gaining on Mars and Venus.
Both had more experience and more advanced technologies and thus plenty of time, before the others would even be able to build a spacecraft able to reach Mars, let alone Saturn. Then came their wake up call as the achievements of the Marco Polo and the Zheng He changed all that.
ESA had just shown to be able to mount an extremely fast mission, while China potentially could go even faster. To make matters worse, ESA officially announced to launch a mission to Saturn in 2016 with the official intention of claiming the Titan derelicts.
After the Marco Polo returned home and docked with the L1 station Da Gama in 2014, ESA began to prepare for its Saturn Mission. After making sure that everything was okay with the Z-Pinch thruster, ESA began to optimize the software of the thrusters, based on the weeks worth of data from the continuous operation of the thruster during the Mars Mission. The thrust could be increased a little bit, while the ISP remained the same.
Additionally the Marco Polo was refit, adding a Tactical Module and a number of Flamberge nuclear rockets to the structure to give it some offensive and defensive ability.
The Chinese had already finished their Zheng He by early 2015 and tested its engines, but realized that they might not be able to pull ahead, due to the relative low thrust of their thrusters.
As such China made use of its increased payload of the Tianlong to carry a number of conventional chemical boosters to give them a bit of help during the initial phase of their Saturn Mission. All that remained was waiting for the right launch window for an optimal trajectory, as well as for showing off by passing by the Europeans on their way to Saturn.
NASA and the Soviets on the other hand had to act quick and build their own spacecraft for a Saturn Mission as swiftly as possible. The largely modular nature of their space programs, as well as decades of planning and preparation and their existing infrastructure greatly helped out in this case.
The moment it became clear that Europe was building a large advanced spacecraft at Da Gama, training of crews for the upcoming Saturn mission began, preparing the crews for a whole lot of time doing various forms of experiments, that, while they were not vital, would make sure that they didn’t get bored and fight off ‘Deep Space Depression’.
The United States constructed their Saturn Mission at SOC Hephaestus, using their new VASIMR engine to propel it, also, like the Zheng He, it made use of external boosters for the initial thrust towards Saturn.
The NASA Lewis & Clark was considered to be the most advanced US spacecraft at the time and quite capable of reaching every place within the solar system within a relative short time.
The Soviets Saturn spacecraft was named Smirnova, after a famous Soviet astronomer, giving the space craft a more civilian touch. Unlike the approaches of the other big powers, the Soviet Spacecraft made once again use of their basic MEK design, only this time expanded with a rotating section and replacing the solar arrays with a nuclear reactor.
Four of the large RD-650 open cycle gaseous fission engines propelled the Smirnova, fueled by a number of large tanks that could be jettisoned once empty.
Longer duration thrust was achieved by using a number of high powered ion thrusters, rather than the laser thrusters that had originally been designed for deep space missions.
By October 2015, all four spacecraft were ready for their mission to Saturn, just waiting in orbit for their launch windows.
The Zheng He launched first on October 25, 2015, being the comparably slowest of the four spacecraft, which was celebrated all across China. The Chinese Plan was to reach Saturn by late April 2017.
The Smirnova followed on January 17, 2016, beginning with a high thrust burn towards Saturn, before switching over to the ion thrusters for a long duration burn that would make sure that the spacecraft would reach Saturn in early May 2017.
The United States overreacted following the launch of the Chinese and Soviet Missions and launched the Lewis & Clark before it was tested a final time before the mission, with the launch happening on February 1. With more powerful long duration thrusters, the NASA spacecraft was expected to reach Saturn ahead of the Soviet Mission.
ESA, rather than giving in to the public outcry to launch the Marco Polo, kept its flight plan secret until the last minute. Finally on March 4, 2016, the Marco Polo was launched on a trajectory that would take it to Saturn in a surprisingly short time of about four hundred days.
While most of the public interest was directed at the large spacecraft being built in Earth orbit, a group of private investors, chief along them Elon Musk of SpaceX Inc., had other plans, a little closer to Earth.
Many of the investors for private space flight had their own dreams of space and in many cases for the younger generation that dream was to go to Mars and visit Honore City. A few of them even went further, dreaming of living on Mars permanently.
Originally founded in March 2014, the Mars Society saw its goal in the colonization of Mars and prepared to do so, largely away from the public eye. The Peregrine III of SpaceX Inc., with a lift capacity of nearly 100 tonnes into low Earth orbit, was a cornerstone for the preparations and planning sessions.
As the Mars Society had no access to faster travel methods, such as nuclear engines, they were forced to make use of conventional chemical engines. They had also taken a look at the hardware that already worked on Mars, used by Americans and Soviets. The need to return people back to Earth was practically non-existent, as all of those that stepped up to go to Mars wanted to remain there. Still the Mars Society planned for a return trip, should the need arise.
Aside from SpaceX Inc., the Rocket Company supported the planned establishment of a private Mars colony as well, and designed a planetary version of their DH-1 orbital stage, which was capable of landing a payload of fifteen tonnes on Mars as well as launching the same payload into orbit if needed.
Early 2016, the Mars Society announced its plan to colonize Mars, though it largely was only mentioned as a footnote in the mainstream media due to the mass coverage of the Saturn Quartet. A number of smaller media companies, mostly those in the GlobalNet as well as social media were quite interested in following the mission. To increase mainstream media interest, the colonists would film their work, from training to eventually actually living on Mars, and every three days the Mars Society would release a one hour video on the most popular video streaming sites of the GlobalNet.
Once on Mars, the space suits of the colonists were to add to the available footage as they contained additional cameras and microphones to film what they were doing. In some cases it provided a few lifestreams for special occurrences.
This was the closest to space people could experience in their living room, giving the ‘Mars Colony Hour’ a steady and steadily growing audience, as well as the needed attention it deserved from the mainstream media. It also was the best the Mars Society could do to gather more and more interest for a general civilian use of space.
Nevertheless the first launch of the Peregrine III launched a chemical propulsion module into orbit, the following three Peregrine III launches added additional tanks to the initial module. Three launches of the smaller Peregrine II lifted two commercialized NASA Inflatable Habitation Modules to the growing spacecraft, as well as two large payload racks of 60 tonnes, containing inflatable habitats, solar cells for power and everything the Mars Society needed to establish its rudimentary Martian colony. To make construction easier, the Mars Society worked together with Virgin Space to use Virgin One as a construction site.
By early March 2016, two DH-1 Interplanetary Stages, named Constant and Godspeed, and one conventional DH-1 Orbital Stage, named Discovery, launched to dock with the Mars Society spacecraft, which by now was named Mayflower after the most well known ship to ship immigrants to North America, carrying a crew of ten hopeful colonists.
On March 12, just a few days after the departure of the Marco Polo, the Mayflower departed as well, aiming for Mars. This was filmed from orbit by Virgin One in a life broadcast in the ‘Mars Colony Hour’, which was one of the most viewed video streams on the GlobalNet.
The Mayflower arrived at Mars in late November 2016 and entered orbit around the Red Planet, where they were officially welcomed by NASA’s Lowell Mars Research Center and the Soviets Mars Expedition Headquarters.
The Soviet Union, originally expecting the Mars Society to fail, suddenly saw the growth of capitalists on Mars as a threat to Soviet interests on Mars and prepared to set up their own colony on the Red Planet. Only the Soviet plan involved making use of the existing infrastructure, rather than the use of inflatable habitats.
On December 1, Constant, Godspeed and Discovery decoupled from the Mayflower to descend into the Martian atmosphere and landed about one point three kilometers away from the South Eastern edge of Honore City with 30 tonnes of material and all ten colonists.
For the first two weeks, the colonists lived within Discovery while they built up the first two inflatable habitats of the colony, as well as a large solar array and a chemical plant to purify Martian water and to create methane, oxygen as well as replacement atmosphere for the habitats.
Afterwards they moved into the habitats, while waiting for the chemical plant to produce enough fuel for Constant, Godspeed and Discovery to return to the Mayflower. Additional an inflatable greenhouse and additional material were landed on Mars.
The Mayflower was converted into a space station that was slated to grow in the following colonization mission to create something of an immigration station for more colonists.
On December 24, the Mars Society officially announced the foundation of the New Plymouth Colony on Mars and that it would welcome more colonists. The ‘Mars Colony Hour’, as well as well as the by now fully grown mainstream media coverage made the mailbox of the Mars Society overflow with applications.
On January 2, 2017, the Mars Society published the plans for the following Colony Missions to New Plymouth. Picking up a plans that NASA had, but never realized, the Mars Society would build a pair of Aldrin Cyclers. Both were designed to be identical, but one was only meant for the journey to Mars, while the other was designed for the return to Earth. Both would carry massive life support and radiation shielding systems, but only needed to be pushed into the correct orbit once, followed by a number of smaller corrections at every meeting with Earth’s gravity.
To the Mars Society this was a perfect way to drop the costs for travel to Mars and might even allow to rent out places to NASA, ESA and anyone else who was interested.
The Plymouth Colony and the Mars Society would have remained in the headlines for a while longer, if it were not for the fact disaster struck the Lewis & Clark on the way to Saturn. Having just passed Jupiter orbit, a small asteroid hit one of the reactor modules of the spacecraft, destroying it almost completely. To make matters worse, a slight amount of radioactive material was released into the atmosphere of the Lewis & Clark and absorbed by the astronauts. Thankfully it later turned out to be too little to cause immediate problems, though it did increase the future cancer risk for the astronauts.
For NASA this was the first major accident since Apollo 13 and the ‘Mars Depression Incident’ and the reactions in Houston were more chaos than anything else, leaving the astronauts on their way to Saturn to try and deal with the problem by themselves, especially considering the time difference needed for communication.
The astronauts were forced to undock the damaged reactor module to stop it from contaminating the rest of the spacecraft, but doing so damaged one of the inflatable habitats and one of the hydrogen tanks, which had to be undocked as well. What made matters worse, was that the damaged inflatable habitat contained a part of the spacecrafts supplies, and a strict rationing had to be put into place. The Lewis & Clark continued on its way to Saturn, but was reduced in capability and left with lower fuel reserves than NASA had liked.
While the big players in space were on the final stretch to Saturn, Planetary Mining and Manufacturing was ready to begin its first steps into space, to build up some infrastructure that allowed for asteroid mining and manufacturing within a space environment.
Using both the SpaceX Peregrine II and the OTRAG ORT II launch vehicles, PM&M launched its own space station into a medium Earth orbit at an altitude of 2500 kilometers, made up of several NASA designed modules, though it used an European Truss system for power. The station was named Heinlein Point and prepared to become the stepping stone for PM&M.
While most prospecting was done using the Asteroid Database of the Asteroid Patrol, PM&M also used a group of four two meter telescopes installed on the truss of Heinlein Point for closer analysis of interesting asteroids. A pair of DH-1 Planetary Stages, named Dinkum and Thinkum, were also bought and further modified for habitation period of up to six months, while retaining a payload of 10 tonnes to carry to an especially interesting Near Earth Object.
The NEO named 2002 AA29 was selected as the first target of PM&M, and Dinkum was prepared for the six month long journey to the about 60 meters large asteroid. The small spacecraft launched on February 2, 2017 as the first manned spacecraft meant to do research on asteroids.
As three of the Saturn-bound spacecraft had long since turned around to decelerate, the Marco Polo kept going towards Saturn at full velocity, passing first the Lewis & Clark in early February, the Smirnova in mid February and the Zheng He just before entering Saturn’s sphere of influence.
As the Marco Polo initially began its several day long deceleration burn to be captured by Saturn, the Zheng He passed the ESA spacecraft again, following a trajectory correction to come close to Saturn, using the gas giants gravity to capture the Chinese spacecraft, as orders were to be at Titan first, at all cost. The maneuver was risky however as it made the Zheng He pass right through the rings of Saturn. While the spacecraft was aimed to pass through the Huygens Gap of the Cassini Division, it managed to just barely graze the Huygens Ringlet.
Several collisions destroyed three of the six inflatable modules and cut off two spokes of the rotational habitat. Additionally all four radiators were all but destroyed, as was one of the thrusters and the propellant tanks, releasing 30 tonnes of plutonium oxide. Part of the crew was killed by explosive decompression, while one got sucked out into the vacuum of space. The other half of the crew was able to survive however, if only barely.
The Zheng He did pass Saturn closely and the gravity maneuver dropped its velocity low enough to be captured by the planet. Information on the spacecraft’s orbit showed that it could only make two more orbits in relative safety before flying directly into Saturn’s B-Ring, destroying it completely and killing the remaining Chinese crew.
On Earth the near destruction of the Zheng He shocked everyone and the media unanimously stated that the Chinese were going to lose their craft and thereby the race to Titan. Only the Marco Polo was within the Saturn sphere of influence at that point, with the Lewis & Clark and the Smirnova slated to arrive a month later.
ESA’s decision was hard. To rescue the remaining Chinese crew would mean a diplomatic bonus for the European Union, but in doing so, their claim of the derelicts in Titan orbit would be in jeopardy. Political pressure from the EU member nations to claim the derelicts did not help either.
In the end the head of ESA, Marco Delacroix, decided that the Marco Polo had to rescue the remaining chinese crew. The lives of fellow taikonauts were more important to him than the derelicts.
With a series of precisely planned and increasing difficult maneuvers, including a swing by at Rhea, the Marco Polo was able to rendezvous with the remains of the Zheng He and slowly approach it only six hours before it would meet up with Saturn’s B-Ring. The two Taurus capsules carried by the Marco Polo for excursions, undocked from their mother craft and approached the Zheng He.
As the Chinese docking ports were incompatible to the European ones, the remaining four taikonauts had to don their space suits to be picked up. The incompatibility of the docking ports was brought up all over the world and the remaining G-12 nations began to put pressure on China to adopt a docking system that was compatible. The Soviet Union, which used its own docking system as well, noted that at the very least China needed to have one internationally compatible docking port available in the future, much like the Soviet Union.
The operation took three hours, until the Taurus’ docked back with Marco Polo and the European spacecraft immediately began a full power burn to direct it away from a direct meeting with the B-Ring. The burn was able to point the craft through the Huygens Gap, but managed to avoid the same fate as Zheng He, passing without colliding with any of the ring particles. And as expected the remainder of the Zheng He did not survive the crossing of its orbit with the B-Ring.
Not keen to encounter the same problems as the Zheng He, the astronauts on the Marco Polo had been prepared to use the onboard weapons of their spacecraft to destroy any ring particle coming near them. ESA had even thought about detonating one of the Flamberge nuclear missiles in the Huygens Gap ahead of the Marco Polo to reduce the danger, but decided against it, as it was unknown what effects that could have.
Afterwards ESA had to get the Marco Polo back on course to Titan, while the Lewis & Clark and the Smirnova were already preparing for their Saturn capture.
The Lewis & Clark was the first to enter Titan orbit, on May 10, followed by Smirnova three hours later and Marco Polo five hours after the NASA spacecraft. Now only a few orbital maneuvers would decide who was able to claim the derelicts.