Observatory

… continued from Approach

Frustrated by her uncharacteristic outburst at Laxmi, Anna pulled herself up the longitudinal access passage toward Aniara’s bow, climbing away from the thrust gravity of the ion engines. At the top of the ladder she stepped into the forward transverse corridor. In one direction lay the control center where the crew had gathered for the long-awaited emergence into the normal space of the Kepler 62 system. Anna walked the other way, instinctively grabbing for handholds overhead clustered at regular intervals in between monitors, conduits, and access hatches, and after a few steps emerged through a hatch into the observatory, her favorite compartment in the entire ship.

The observatory was a small, transparent blister just off the nose of the ship, with an acceleration couch for but one person at a time. Reinforced glass surrounded the couch, giving an unparalleled view onto the space around the observer. Monitor screens gave access to the more serious and more sensitive instruments with which true astronomical observation was conducted, but Anna never tired of simply looking out with her own eyes, and she remained glad that Aniara’s designers recognized the importance of providing such a facility. For three years there had been nothing to see but the deep, featureless black of their relativistically warped bubble, with not a hint of a star or any other object to penetrate the extreme blue-shifting of the universe.

Now, however, she looked out to see worlds of possibility. Below, from her perspective, lay the multi-hued glow of the Sagittarius Spiral Arm and, through it, the dense cluster of the galactic core, looking much as it did before she left home. After all, despite the years of travel and great distance they had come, Anna and the crew of Aniara had traversed only a relatively short way along the length of the Orion Spur, perhaps a tenth of the spiral arm’s length, and it was but a small, minor arm, nestled between two greater ones, Sagittarius inward toward the galactic center, and Perseus between them and the vast emptiness of the extra-galactic universe. Anna kept her gaze on that familiar band of light and dust, color and darkness twisted together in aquamarine and violet hues, and let her thoughts wander for a few minutes.

Beyond the thick galactic cluster, individual stars filled her field of view. Deneb, bright and dominant in the local group, Gamma Cygni, Alpha Cassiopeiae, even the Crescent Nebula was visible to her eye, albeit faint. The great arc of the Veil filled much of spinward space, distinct blue and red filaments seeming to emerge from the brilliant Sagittarius Arm, twisting about each other in a massive shockwave from a six-thousand-year-old supernova. Turning her head to look away from the colorful nebula, after a few minutes Anna picked out the still-familiar constellation of Orion’s Belt, and Rigel, Betelgeuse, and Polaris burning brightly, though fainter now from farther away.

And… yes, there it was, a small yellow pinpoint next to Betelgeuse, nestled among the other stars of the Belt, dim from distance, but there to see if you knew where to look.

Sol.

Home.

An unremarkable star, one among tens of thousands or more, dimmer than most in the sky from this distance, and yet the seat of so much. Would anyone looking from Kepler 62 — if there was anyone to look — have seen Sol’s eight planets? Could they have noticed the indicators of life on the third planet out? With the right technology, and keen telescopes, they may have seen the evidence of oxygen, carbon dioxide, and water present on a rocky planet in its host star’s habitable zone, and presumed that all the elements necessary for life to emerge were present, much as Anna’s predecessors in her field did for Kepler 62f. But what about sentience, intelligent life, self-conscious beings capable of organizing themselves into communities and gazing out at their own night skies to wonder? Could the proverbial Keplerians have detected signs of technological use?

No, Anna realized, was the likely answer. The light from Sol now touching her eyes was twelve-hundred years old, having bathed Earth in its glow long before she was born, in an age when her forebears navigated the seas in longboats and raided English shores. No radio transmissions of technological origin could possibly have reached here yet. The only indicators of civilization on Earth, oil lanterns of Medieval cities, would hardly have been detectable from Earth orbit, let alone from another star system.

Sol would not likely have been considered a target for investigation for purposes of finding a technological civilization.

With that thought foremost in her mind, Anna turned her attention to the local star and its planets. Kepler 62 grew brighter with every day as Aniara burned inward toward a closer orbit, seeming more and more like a sun and less like just the brightest star in the sky. Reaching beside the acceleration couch, she pulled a headset and set of haptic gloves from their cubby. With the thin, tactile gloves covering her hands, she settled the visor over her eyes and powered on the system.

After the usual moment of disorientation, she settled in to the virtual augmented display of surrounding space, becoming in her mind one with the ship. The ship’s sensors and cameras became her eyes, and turning her gaze about she saw the immediate space surrounding Aniara in far more than just the visible spectrum. Colors took on more intensity, with infrared and ultraviolet rendered visible across the field, and with a twist of her hand she brought x-ray and gamma radiation into focus, and a twist the other way revealed microwave and radio transmissions. Focusing upon the star, Kepler 62, the visor drew a circle around it with a text callout highlighting features of the star’s spectrographic and electromagnetic characteristics. Twisting fingers again narrowed the band of data from the star, expanding upon elements of the visible spectrum and revealing the relative composition of hydrogen, helium, and heavy metals. Kepler 62’s metallicity was already well-known, and indeed the star was metal-poor compared to Sol, but nevertheless enough heavy metals were present to form five rocky planets. Another twist and Anna focused upon the star’s non-visible radiative output, especially the radio wave noise, and saved this pattern as a signature.

Anna shifted her focus beyond the star, zoomed in, and located the bright point of Kepler 62f, fifth planet out. She dragged a light filter over the brightness of the star’s photosphere, leaving only a corona surrounding a blackened disc, and used the saved signature pattern to filter out the star’s radio noise. Although still billions of kilometers distant, 62f became a clearly visible planet, a blue-green disc awash in the orange glow of its cool sun, orbiting a hundred-million kilometers out, or roughly the orbit of Venus around Sol. Anna zoomed in tighter, and clearly discernible continents emerged on its surface, alien shores upon alien oceans.

No, Anna remembered, that’s not right. Laxmi’s correct, we’re the aliens here. We’re the visitors from that distant, barely-visible pinprick in Orion’s Belt. We’re the ones no one would expect, because we outran our own historical radio waves to get here.

And that was the problem. Where were the Keplerians? With the star’s radio signature filtered out, Anna observed only silence from the planet. She ran her focus up and down the spectrum, looking for anything from gamma rays to extremely low frequency radio waves, from x-rays to microwaves, and there was nothing.

The Aniara mission to Kepler 62 ranked as the most expensive venture in the history of space exploration, and arguably among the most dangerous as well. Earlier interstellar probes had mostly been uncrewed, little more than oversized circuit chips pulled along by vast reflective sails, pushed by powerful lasers fired from Earth’s Moon. The fastest of these had reached a sizable percentage of c, a fifth of the speed of light, but with no way to slow down they simply zoomed quickly through their target star systems, making what rapid observations they could and beaming the data back to Earth before continuing on their lonely, endless journeys into the interstellar abyss. All of these mission targets had been within twenty light-years of Earth, and yet the probes had taken a hundred years to arrive, and their data another twenty to return. EASEA, the Euro-American Space Exploration Agency, was still waiting to hear from the farthest of these, the original mission planners all long retired, or long dead.

More ambitious, and most controversial, had been the few crewed missions. Using the same lightsail technology, though with far bigger sails, and with braking mechanisms developed for arrival, a crew had successfully reached Proxima Centauri, the nearest star outside the Solar System at just 4.2 light-years, and investigated the famous exoplanet, Proxima b, known to be there, though they found it to be an irradiated wasteland of rock and water, awash in the ionizing emissions of its host star, and thus inhospitable to the natural emergence of life. That mission took twenty-five years to arrive at Sol’s nearest neighbor, and although they did not find life, nor land the crew on the planet surface, they did leave a satellite in orbit, as well as a rover roaming the surface, before starting their return journey. Most notable about the Proxima mission, however, had been the use of cryonic preservation. As the mission was so long in duration, and as the mass of the vessel that could be accelerated via lightsail had to be kept as low as possible, most of the ship was taken up with cold sleep chambers and associated systems, and even then the crew numbered only three. Of those, only two survived the automated revival process at Proxima to carry on with the mission, and of those two, only one survived the return journey. Cold sleep worked, but it had proven highly hazardous.

After the Proxima Centauri mission had launched, but even before its arrival at Proxima b, scientists and engineers with EASEA improved upon the cryonic process, greatly enhancing its efficacy and safety. Later missions became more ambitious, the most famous being the mission to Trappist-1, a star system forty light-years from Earth but hosting seven rocky, terrestrial planets, with three in the habitable zone, and conditions considered ripe for abiogenesis, or the formation of life. As Anna sat looking for radio emissions from Kepler 62f, she knew that the crew of Morpheum was still sleeping away the light-years, unaware of the many controversies, and frankly conspiracy theories, surrounding their mission.

And then came the Alcubierre drive, which changed everything. First proposed as little more than a thought experiment in the late twentieth century, a means of teaching students how to think about Einsteinian physics and general relativity, it was long considered physically impossible due to the requirements for exotic matter and extreme negative energy states. The initial proposal from Miguel Alcubierre would have required the equivalent energy output of the entire galaxy, though later refinements to the equations by Harold White brought this down to roughly the annual energy output of North America, at which point NASA, one of EASEA’s predecessors, took a more active interest. Over the next several decades, the energy requirements were refined, the means of producing never-seen-outside-the-lab negative matter were developed, and tiny proofs of concept successfully took place. However, these were very tiny proofs, on the scale of a petri dish, and they all bore one seemingly insurmountable problem: the warp bubble generated enough Hawking radiation inside itself to completely fry any biological inhabitants.

However, EASEA engineers have aways loved a good challenge. The Hawking radiation problem proved the hardest to solve, but solve it they did, redirecting the radiation into the bubble wall where it created a feedback loop, incidentally increasing the effectiveness of the warp and thus allowing the enclosed vessel to apparently go even faster. Prior to this advance, Alcubierre-driven vessels had been limited by the bubble wall thickness to approximately ten times the speed of light, which admittedly was still very fast compared to all prior methods of space travel. Any faster, and the bubble wall would become thinner, to the point of approaching the Planck length, or the theoretical minimum unit of measure. Anything smaller than a Planck length becomes lost in the quantum foam, or so the joke around the relativity labs went. At ten times c, a vessel would still need a hundred and twenty years to reach Kepler 62, so the Hawking radiation engineering advancement was critical.

And there was the rub for Anna and her crew’s mission. Kepler 62 was a keen target for EASEA and the SETI community. Not only was the system known to harbor at least one, if not two, potentially habitable, life-friendly planets, but astronomers had detected radio transmissions that strongly indicated the presence of a technological civilization. No one had deciphered the transmissions, no one knew what they might mean, but the majority of scientists agreed that they were unlikely to have been caused by natural phenomena. This added new emphasis to the Alcubierre research, and once a vessel was ready, once it had passed all safety tests — EASEA sent the ship under AI control alone out a distance of two light-years and then back, measuring for conditions within the crew quarters — the first crewed flights began. On Aniara’s shakedown cruise, Anna flew her to Proxima Centauri to visit the now-famous satellite around Proxima b, arriving in just four days.

The possibilities were now considered vast, but to create a warp bubble for a ship large enough to carry five crew, life support and science systems, ion engines and associated xenon fuel, nuclear reactor for power, plus a lander and small orbital shuttle, required that a significant mass of matter had to be gathered from the far regions of the Solar System. Decades of research and years of construction went into preparing Aniara for this voyage. EASEA had invested all available funds on a mission to find an extraterrestrial, technological civilization that had been beaming out the evidence of their presence for a very long time.

Laxmi was right about this, too. As an exobiologist, she had indeed bet her career on this mission.

But the silence from Kepler 62f was deafening. If someone had been here to broadcast, they weren’t broadcasting now.

… continued with Ring


image credit: NASA


© Matt Fraser and mattfraserbooks.com, 2018. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this site’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Matt Fraser and mattfraserbooks.com with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

One thought on “Observatory

  1. Pingback: Celestes: Observatory – Matt Fraser

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