Ryan K. Hunter Ryan K. Hunter Ryan K. Hunter

A.I. Assist: Space Toilets and Exoplanets

Examples of how to avoid falling down the research rabbit hole.

Before we dive in, I want to say that this is another of my 'walking tour' articles. Not a technical brief by any means, but more about practical examples for authors who want to use AI to speed up their craft. That is, without ever having an AI write any prose for them.

This test arose from a conversation with another author about how a writer could research a sci-fi novel if they're not overly-familiar with space travel. That said, I believe the practices demonstrated here apply across genres.

The Questions

What would the crew complement of various types of starships be, and where would humanity look for potentially habitable planets within a reasonable range if we, as a species, had cracked FTL (Faster Than Light) space travel? In this case, I chose to ask ChatGPT4. I'll explain my reasoning behind that a bit later.

Something I would ask you keep in mind while reading this article is that once I entered my questions into the AI, I received my answers within ten to fifteen seconds.

In Search of Colonizable Planets

Before I had access to an AI assistant, if I were writing a sci-fi piece about visiting a habitable exoplanet, I would go to something like the NASA Exoplanet Archive. It's a really cool site, with lots of detailed info about various planets and their suitably to support life. However, it looks like it was designed in the mid-90's and isn't exactly user-friendly for the uninitiated.

Alternatively, I might have visited NASA's Exoplanet Exploration page, which is designed to be far more user-friendly and actually meant as a helpful resource for science fiction writers. Also, an absolutely amazing effort on NASA's part. Seriously, our space boys (and gals) are awesome for all they do to help out creatives interested in their work.

That being said, both of these sites share a pretty serious drawback: Most people have never bloody heard of them. And good luck happening across them with a Google search unless you're already familiar with some degree of jargon. This is where I believe AI really shines: Lowering the barrier-to-entry to detailed, useful information without wasting hours slaving over a search engine.

Prompts Matter

The first step is crafting a prompt (question) to ask your AI assistant. You can see my first prompt here below:

Assuming the existence of FTL space travel (or at the very least, lightspeed). Can you provide a list of known planets that are candidates for colonization (in the 'goldilocks zone') that are within a 40 lightyear radius?

Please attempt to be as exhaustive as possible, placing the results in a table with the first column being the planet name, second column being the system name, the third column being the distance from Earth in lightyears, and the fourth column being the distance from Earth in AU. Thank you.

While this isn't a detailed guide on prompting, I want to draw your attention to a couple of key details here. You'll notice that I have requested that ChatGPT give me the data in a table, and I have specified exactly what columns of information I care about. This is incredibly helpful in keeping information tidy and readable. ChatGPT (and numerous other text-based AIs) have been trained to format their results in a special syntax called Markdown, which makes it easy for websites to convert that text into nicely-formatted HTML without having to write complex code. That includes presenting information in tables like the one in its response.

The other thing to take note of is that I end my prompt with "Thank you." No, the AI can't think and feel, and no I don't think that it'll be my buddy. On the other hand, I do understand that these AIs are probability machines at their core, and they associate certain responses (tone, in particular) with how questions are asked. If your question comes off as adversarial or dick-ish, you're more likely to get mean-spirited or less-than-helpful responses. Think of the kind of snobby, rude answers you might see on Yahoo! Answers once upon a time, or more currently Quora and Reddit. By being polite, I usually get more thoughtful, intelligent answers because it associates helpful answers with not being a dick. Just something to keep in mind.

ChatGPT's Response on Exoplanets


Certainly! The "Goldilocks zone" refers to the habitable zone around a star where the conditions could allow for the existence of liquid water, a prerequisite for life as we know it. Here are some of the known exoplanets in the habitable zone within 40 light-years from Earth. Please note that the information provided is up to my knowledge cut-off in January 2022, and there might be new discoveries or updates after that.

Planet Name System Name Distance
(Light Years)
Proxima Centauri b Proxima Centauri 4.24 268,770
Ross 128 b Ross 128 11.01 696,340
LHS 1140 b LHS 1140 40.0 2,530,000
TRAPPIST-1e TRAPPIST-1 39.6 2,504,000
TRAPPIST-1f TRAPPIST-1 39.6 2,504,000
TRAPPIST-1g TRAPPIST-1 39.6 2,504,000
TRAPPIST-1d TRAPPIST-1 39.6 2,504,000
Teegarden's Star b Teegarden's Star 12.5 790,000
Teegarden's Star c Teegarden's Star 12.5 790,000
Gliese 667 Cc Gliese 667 C 23.62 1,491,000
Gliese 1061 d Gliese 1061 11.99 757,000
Gliese 1061 c Gliese 1061 11.99 757,000
Gliese 1061 b Gliese 1061 11.99 757,000
TOI 700 d TOI 700 101.4 6,400,000


  1. The distance in AU (Astronomical Units) is calculated using the conversion factor 1 light year = 63,241.1 AU.
  2. TOI 700 d is included in the list for reference but is outside the 40 light-year range specified.
  3. This list is not exhaustive, and the habitability of these planets is theoretical, based on the conditions required for life as we know it. The actual conditions on these planets may vary, and further observations and studies are needed to confirm their potential for hosting life.

Would you like me to search for any updates or additional planets discovered after January 2022?


If you're writing sci-fi, or just a story with sci-fi elements, it's imperative to get the details right. By 'right', I mean grounded in reality, but extrapolated in new and interesting ways. Of course, this is a lot of work, and can take a tremendous amount of research. There's also a balance to be struck between adhering to reality and creative license in the name of telling a good story. In fact, Andy Weir (author of The Martian) gave a fantastic talk on this.

That said, we wanted to see how we could get things 'right enough' without wanting to cave our heads in over wasting untold hours on researching minutiae. To kick off our theoretical exercise, it just so happened that I had a coffee-table book of ships from the Halo universe, which is known to have excellent and thoughtful ship design. For those unfamiliar, Halo is a very well-regarded sci-fi video game franchise, which features combat both in space and on the ground from a first-person perspective. We went through a few examples in the book, and I managed to pluck out a handful that were applicable to our conversation.

Our questions centered around the crew complements of these ships, as this would give us a frame of reference to inform our theoretical protagonist's experience onboard vessels of comparable size.

Here's some images of each, to give you an idea of what we were working with.

Small Reconnaissance Ship

For our small recon ship, we chose the UNSC (United Nations Space Command) Forward Unto Dawn, a light frigate in the fleet.

UNSC Forward Unto Dawn

Mid-Size Colony Ship

The stand-in for our smaller colony ship would be the UNSC Pillar of Autumn, a light cruiser. Probably the most recognizable ship in Halo canon.

UNSC Pillar of Autumn

Large Colony Vessel

Lastly, we have the UNSC Infinity, the largest ever constructed in canon. I figured it was a decent approximation for a generational colony ship. It's the vessel in the background at the top right, with the ship at the bottom-left being of the same class as the aforementioned Pillar of Autumn (helpfully included for scale).

UNSC Infinity

Okay... So you're a nerd. What about AI?

Now that you're all probably wondering how many lockers I got stuffed into in High School, let's get back to the fun part. Here, you can see that I crafted my prompt based on some of the information gleaned from my coffee table book:

I'm a massive Halo dork and need some help with estimating crew complements of two ships using as much information as possible from canon.

The first is the UNSC Pillar of Autumn (or really any heavy cruiser in the UNSC fleet).

The second is the UNSC Infinity (which, to my knowledge, is alone in its class).


You'll notice that I had not included the small recon ship in this one, that comes a bit later.


Absolutely, I can certainly help with that!

1. UNSC Pillar of Autumn (Halcyon-class Light Cruiser)

The UNSC Pillar of Autumn is a Halcyon-class light cruiser, not a heavy cruiser, but it's a significant ship in the Halo series nonetheless. The Halcyon-class ships are known for their robustness and durability.

Crew Complement:

  • Total Crew: Approximately 1,000 personnel.
  • Marines: It can carry a complement of 800-1,000 Marines.
  • ODSTs: It also has a contingent of Orbital Drop Shock Troopers (ODSTs), but the exact number is not specified in the canon.
  • Naval Personnel: The rest of the crew would be naval personnel, including officers, pilots, engineers, medical staff, and other support staff.

2. UNSC Infinity (Infinity-class Warship)

The UNSC Infinity is indeed unique, being the largest and most powerful vessel in the UNSC Navy, serving as its flagship. It is an Infinity-class warship, and as of my knowledge cut-off in January 2022, it is indeed alone in its class.

Crew Complement:

  • Total Crew: Approximately 17,151 personnel.
  • Spartans: It carries a complement of 300 Spartan-IVs.
  • Marines and Army Personnel: It also has around 6,000 Marines and Army personnel.
  • Naval Personnel: The rest of the crew would be naval personnel, including officers, pilots, engineers, medical staff, and other support staff.

Additional Information:

  • Length: 5,694.2 meters (18,682 ft)
  • Width: 833.3 meters (2,733 ft)
  • Height: 1,041.2 meters (3,415 ft)
  • Armament: The Infinity is heavily armed with MAC Cannons, missile batteries, and various other weapons.
  • Aircraft: It also carries a large number of aircraft, including Broadsword fighters and Pelican dropships.


These are general estimates based on available canon information up to January 2022. For the most accurate and up-to-date information, you may want to refer to the most recent Halo lore sources or official publications.

Would you like me to search for any more recent information or details on these ships?

There is quite a bit of info here to work with, and I appreciated its attention to detail. I found it hilarious that it corrected me on the Pillar of Autumn being a light cruiser, which is correct. There was a later retrofit of the Pillar of Autumn's class that was designated a heavy cruiser. I point this out for two reasons: 1) So Halo nerds don't pounce on me like white on rice. 2) To highlight how robust ChatGPT's knowledgebase really is.

Some of the extra information around the UNSC Infinity directly corresponded to the information from my coffee table book, which gave me more confidence in ChatGPT's answers here. Now, here's an example of how to ask for follow-up information with simpler prompts (note that this was in the same chat):

Could you please do the same for a UNSC frigate, like the Forward Unto Dawn?


Absolutely! The UNSC Forward Unto Dawn is a Charon-class light frigate in the UNSC Navy. Below is the information on the crew complement and other details of a typical UNSC frigate like the Forward Unto Dawn.

UNSC Frigate (Charon-class Light Frigate)

Crew Complement:

  • Total Crew: Approximately 215 personnel.
  • Marines: It can carry a complement of around 90 Marines.
  • Naval Personnel: The rest of the crew would be naval personnel, including officers, pilots, engineers, medical staff, and other support staff.

Additional Information:

  • Length: 489 meters (1,604 ft)
  • Width: 155 meters (509 ft)
  • Height: 139 meters (456 ft)
  • Armament: The Charon-class frigate is armed with a Magnetic Accelerator Cannon (MAC), Archer missile pods, and point defense guns.
  • Aircraft: It can carry a number of Pelican dropships and other support craft.

Specific to Forward Unto Dawn:

  • The Forward Unto Dawn (FFG-201) played a significant role in the Human-Covenant War and was instrumental in the events of Halo 3.
  • It was equipped with a Shaw-Fujikawa Translight Engine for slipspace travel.
  • It was also equipped with a detachable section to deploy ground forces and vehicles.


These are general estimates based on available canon information up to January 2022. For the most accurate and up-to-date information, you may want to refer to the most recent Halo lore sources or official publications.

Would you like me to search for any more recent information or details on the UNSC frigate or the Forward Unto Dawn specifically?


Space Toilets

In recent weeks, I've been geeking out with a buddy about miniatures of starships. A hobbyist had recently gone viral, building a model of the starship Enterprise (NCC-1701) from Star Trek the Motion Picture. The dude was building it in such detail that he had even estimated the number of toilets to place on each deck, and was incorporating that into his design.

Naturally, I had to ask ChatGPT about toilet counts on ships from Halo for my own amusement, and I wasn't initially planning to incorporate it into this article. But, it turned out a to be a fantastic example of how you can work with an AI to workshop ideas around real-world facts. Here's my prompt to ChatGPT (once again, within the same conversation you've seen with it so far in this article):

Now, this question stems from a humorous conversation with a friend of mine, but could you speculate on the number of toilets required to be onboard each vessel, and provide your rationale for those estimates? Thanks!


That's a fun and interesting question! While there is no canonical information on the number of toilets on UNSC ships, we can make some educated guesses based on real-world naval practices and standards.

Real-World Basis:

In real-world naval ships, the number of toilets (or "heads" as they are called in naval terminology) is determined by the number of crew members and the ship's design. Typically, there are communal heads with multiple facilities in different sections of the ship to accommodate the crew.

Speculative Estimates:

1. UNSC Pillar of Autumn (Halcyon-class Light Cruiser)

  • Crew Complement: Approximately 1,000 personnel.
  • Speculative Toilet Estimate: If we assume one toilet per 25 personnel (a rough standard for some modern naval vessels), we would have around 40 toilets on board. However, considering the extended duration of space missions, a more generous estimate might be one toilet per 10 personnel, leading to around 100 toilets.

2. UNSC Infinity (Infinity-class Warship)

  • Crew Complement: Approximately 17,151 personnel.
  • Speculative Toilet Estimate: Using the same generous ratio of one toilet per 10 personnel, we would have around 1,715 toilets on board.

3. UNSC Forward Unto Dawn (Charon-class Light Frigate)

  • Crew Complement: Approximately 215 personnel.
  • Speculative Toilet Estimate: Using the generous ratio of one toilet per 10 personnel, we would have around 21 toilets on board.


  • Space Missions: The duration of space missions and the enclosed environment might necessitate a higher number of toilets to accommodate the crew's needs.
  • Communal Heads: The toilets are likely to be in communal heads with multiple facilities in different sections of the ship, similar to real-world naval vessels.
  • Spartans and Special Forces: Special considerations might be needed for Spartans and other special forces due to their enhanced physiology and unique requirements.


Remember, these are purely speculative estimates based on real-world naval practices and do not have any canonical basis in the Halo universe. The actual number of toilets on UNSC ships could be higher or lower depending on various design considerations and the specific needs of the crew.

What I want to highlight here is that AI models are capable of incorporating laws, regulations, and conventions of design into their speculation when asked. It's a very useful tool to keep in one's back pocket when it comes to research.

The Conversation Around AI and Writing Needs Reframing

In my personal opinion, I believe that the media has done an excellent job of scaring the ever-loving crap out of people, particularly creatives, when it comes to this technology. And while there are real and valid concerns about the use of AI, particularly by large studios and publishing houses, I feel that the disproportionate amount of attention being paid to breathless, fearmongering 'news' pieces is robbing creatives of the real opportunities that come with the technology.

If I'm doing research for a novel, I don't want to have to spend untold hours combing through technical documentation or obscure informational websites to get something right (or at least in the ballpark of right) in my work. I also don't want to handwave away important details. That's where AI really shines in its potential to help creatives cut to the meat of what they really enjoy: Creating.

Now, I'll put away my soapbox.

Why ChatGPT?

Those who have heard my talks (or, if I'm being honest, rants) about AI will know I'm not a fan of corporate-controlled AI models in a number of ways. Without retreading that ground, I'll summarize my views like this: It's bad for privacy, and I don't trust corporations or governments to curate information for the public where it doesn't align with their interests.

Totally a ringing endorsement, right? But here's the deal: When it comes to general facts, larger models like ChatGPT are more accessible and stuffed to the gills with useful info. I certainly have reservations about entering details about my work (such as characters, plot structure, etc) into a corporate-owned platform. However, I have no such reservations about punching in research questions or a fact-check for my work. From a privacy perspective, it's no different than using a search engine like Google. If I do have something more sensitive that I want to workshop, I tend to defer to my self-hosted AI models that I run on my own machine.

It's important to note that, were this research I was conducting for a novel I was attempting to write, it would by no means be the end of my search for information. It would be a helpful first step or two down the road to understanding the topic at hand. A way of surfacing specific jargon related to the fields in which my characters work, tasks they may encounter on the job, or fleshing out details of scenarios I've already written to make them more grounded.

Wrap Up

Now that we've walked through all that, I'll ask you to imagine how long it would have taken to answer these questions on your own. When writing a novel, any author will tell you there are dozens, if not hundreds, of questions like these that can bog you down in a project. This is what I don't want other writers to miss out on.

I hope you've enjoyed this venture into research with AI, and maybe even got something useful out of it. Keep an eye out for more of these articles, as I'm thoroughly enjoying documenting my journey with AI as a writer. 'Til next time.