Sci-Fi Eye: designing a flying Saucer

With ‘UFOs’ grabbing the headlines recently, science fiction author Gareth L Powell speculates on the potential engineering challenges of safely visiting an inhabited alien wold

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As I write this, the news reports are full of talk about ‘UFOs’ being shot down by the US air force, and whilst there is currently no indication that these objects are extra-terrestrial in origin, the idea has thrown up an interesting engineering challenge. Let’s pretend for a moment that aliens have flown 400 light years to pay us a visit. If they possess the resources and technology required to make such a journey, I think it highly unlikely they would be vulnerable to anything we could throw at them. So, let’s imagine the shoe’s on the other foot and try to design the kind of landing craft we would need if we were contemplating a visit to a strange new world.

Firstly, we’d want to make it durable. This craft will need to deal with unpredictable weather and the stresses of atmospheric entry, not to mention the attentions of the locals. So, we won’t be using anything analogous to the Eagle lunar lander, which was basically a thin-skinned bubble of aluminium balanced on a rocket engine. Nor will we be using something like our existing space shuttles, whose heat-resistant tiles would be seriously compromised by a sustained burst of canon fire.

Besides, the shuttles are essentially giant, ungainly gliders. They have a certain amount of manoeuvrability, but once they start going down, there’s no hovering or going back up—and if things go badly, we’re going to want to go back up very quickly!

Secondly, assuming we want to study the locals before making contact, we’ll need to make our landing craft stealthy. That means we need quiet engines, a low radar profile, and perhaps even some visual shielding or some sort of cloaking device. How would we achieve that? Rockets and jet engines would make too much noise; so perhaps we could use fans, much like the ones that keep our present-day drones aloft. This would enable us to fly quickly and relatively quietly, while also giving us the ability to hover over points of interest, and to land and take-off vertically.

We already have some stealth aircraft technology used to minimize the detection of an object by radar, infrared, or other means of detection. The concept of stealth is based on reducing the amount of energy that is reflected or emitted by an object, making it more difficult to detect.

The development of stealth technology was first explored during World War II, when researchers sought ways to hide aircraft from radar detection. However, it was not until the 1970s that the technology became viable for military use. The first aircraft to be designed with stealth technology was the Lockheed F-117 Nighthawk, which was used in the Gulf War in 1991.

There are several techniques used to achieve stealth. One of the most common methods is to shape the object in such a way that radar waves are deflected away from the source.
This is achieved by using smooth, curved surfaces and angles that minimize the amount of energy reflected back to the radar source. Additionally, the use of radar-absorbing materials can also reduce the amount of energy that is reflected, making the object harder to detect.

Another important aspect of stealth technology is the reduction of infrared emissions. Infrared detection is used by heat-seeking missiles, so reducing the amount of heat emitted by an object is crucial for reducing the chances of detection. This is achieved through the use of materials that can absorb heat, as well as the strategic placement of engine exhausts and other heat sources.

But to render our craft invisible to ground-based cameras and telescopes is another matter altogether. Optical camouflage is a technology that uses cameras and projectors to make an object disappear in its surroundings. It works by projecting an image of the surrounding environment onto the surface of the object, effectively making it blend in with the background. However, achieving this requires a large number of cameras and projectors to create a seamless effect. The technology is also sensitive to changes in lighting conditions and weather, which can affect the quality of the image.

Landing on an alien world would be an experience of a lifetime. The anticipation and anxiety would be high as the spacecraft descends through the atmosphere, and the ground slowly approaches. As the ship lands, the foreign landscape comes into view. The view of the surrounding terrain, flora and fauna could be breath-taking, yet nerve-wracking. The air might be different, and the gravity may be stronger or weaker. The unfamiliarity of the environment would likely create an overwhelming sense of awe and wonder. Exploring the world would be a significant challenge. It would require advanced technology, extensive training, and a great deal of patience to learn about the planet’s geology, atmosphere, and life forms. Regardless, the discovery of a new world would be an incredible feat, and the data gathered could potentially advance our understanding of the universe.

Gareth L Powell is an award-winning and widely lauded author at the forefront of speculative fiction. He has won the British Science Fiction Association (BSFA) Award for Best Novel twice, and been a finalist for the Locus, British Fantasy, Canopus, and Seiun awards. You can find him at