Listen to this episode narrated by the author while reading along! (note: this is still “experimental” at this time)
The image on Anna’s monitor faded to life, shifting from black to deep violet, then a splotchy blue as shapes took form on the screen. Over the course of the next hour, she occasionally glanced away from her instruments as the distant central star gradually turned from blue to green, then yellow, and finally its natural brilliant orange, while the space around it lost its blue tinge to become a more normal black, a black filled with the pinpoints of visible stars rather than the absolute black of the folded space Aniara had just exited.
“Captain, we’ve attained normal space, and the Alcubierre drive is shut down. Sensor sweep indicates a successful insertion into the outer system with no risk of gamma damage to any planetary bodies. Scanning now to chart current planet positions and spectrography.”
The announcement was purely formal, of course, as Captain Benetton could plainly see the same data on his own screen from his station beside Anna’s.
“Thank you, Mr Laukkonnen.”
Three years Aniara had spent riding a folded wave of space, surfing a negative energy state to compress the distance ahead of them and expand it behind them. For three years the small crew of five had lived in their isolated bubble, cut off by heavily warped Einsteinian physics from any possible contact with the universe around them. Not even the light of passing stars had been visible, as all was blue-shifted in front and red-shifted behind to the point of absolute blackness. For three years their lives had been dull routine, checking ship and environmental systems, day after day, every day, while keeping themselves healthy, occupied, and off each others’ nerves. Now the day had finally arrived, the unwarping of space as they shut down the massive ring of exotic matter comprising the Alcubierre drive that surrounded their ship. A day of meaningful activity after months of boredom. A day when they finally again saw stars, albeit constellations viewed twelve-hundred light-years from home, a distance great enough that almost every star visible to their eyes was a star they could not see in the night skies of Earth.
Aniara’s journey was far from over, however. The nature of the Alcubierre drive was such that every tiny speck of interstellar dust, every microgram of matter drifting in the twelve-hundred light-year void between Sol and Kepler 62, had been caught up in the highly compressed folds of space ahead of the ship, pushed before them on the edge of their tiny bubble of extra-relativity. As the drive shut down and space unwrapped, smoothing out again, all those dust motes launched ahead of Aniara at the speed of light, emitting lethal doses of gamma radiation and moving with enough force to smash anything in their path, no matter their tiny mass. For this reason Aniara’s trajectory intentionally brought them into normal space well outside the orbits of the known planets of the destination star.
“Sir, positions of planets 62b, c, d, e, and f identified, orbits plotted. Initial spectrography indicates the presence of a significant ocean on 62e, perhaps encompassing the entire surface, while 62f appears to have a terrestrial mix of continents and oceans. Both planets show evidence of nitrogen-oxygen atmospheres. 62f also shows a presence of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, indicating a likelihood of Earth-normal temperatures and a possibility of life on the surface.”
A quiet buzz sounded through the control center at Anna’s statement. This, after all, was what they had been hoping for, what they had traveled all this way for. This was why all of the crew crowded into the small room, gripping straps on the bulkheads behind Anna’s and the Captain’s seats and drifting in the microgravity. Anna herself could not suppress a small shiver of excitement. She paged through the screens of sensor scans, and then…
“Electromagnetic spectrum is consistent with K-type main sequence stellar background radiation. I don’t see any radio emissions comparable to those detected before the mission launch.”
The buzz quieted as the crew contemplated the meaning of this observation.
“Very well, Mr Laukkonnen. Plot a course for approach and orbital insertion around 62f, and engage ion engines. Let’s go see up close.”
The space-warping Alcubierre drive may have been very useful for rapidly crossing the almost unimaginably vast distances between stars, but it was essentially useless for intrasystem or interplanetary travel. As it caused such disruption to local space when it was engaged, both consuming and releasing vast amounts of energy, it could not safely be used in the direct vicinity of stars or their orbiting planets. Even using it inside Sol’s heliopause, or the stellar bubble of other stars, was considered risky, but this was deemed a necessary risk. For one thing, the drive required such a massive expenditure of energy upon startup that a certain amount of nearby matter was necessary for consumption by the engine, and this matter was easier to find in the dusty regions of a star’s outer system than beyond where comets fly. For another, travel from outside the stellar bubble to the inner habitable zone of planets at the slower speeds of an intrasystem engine could take as long, if not longer, than the warped travel between stars.
For this purpose, Aniara was equipped with three ion-electric drives, capable of providing a small but constant thrust while utilizing very little in the way of carried fuel. Anna powered up the drives, accelerating charged xenon to begin moving the spacecraft, and angled the thrust nozzles to adjust the ship’s attitude and vector toward the inner star system. The force of the ion drives was so small that the crew felt only a modicum of thrust gravity, slightly sinking Anna and the Captain into their seats and bringing the three others to rest against the wall, now become the floor, of the control center. After three years on the float, however, living in the null gravity of interstellar space, even this tiny sense of a new “down” was enough to play tricks on Anna’s inner ears. She wasn’t sure if the slight queasiness she felt was due to the new gravity sensation, or to the lack of the expected radio transmissions.
“Course set. Acceleration burn commenced. Approximate time to orbital insertion is 43 days.”
… continued with Approach
image credit: JAKO5D / pixabay.com
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