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Chapter 2 Glitch
As he sat with his coffee cradled in one hand, Rob tapped his virtual keyboard and displayed an animation of MEG1 to the center wall screen. Xplore’s systems built the animation from the telemetry being received. MEG1 rotated the satellite Trisha had selected towards the sun. With another tap, Rob sent the satellite’s visible-light image to the left wall screen. Mars slid slowly across the left screen as MEG1 rotated into position and the sun moved into view in its place.
For someone standing on Mars, the sun would look about half the size it does from Earth, and no brighter than the sun might appear on a cloudy Earth day. But floating in black space, with nothing for comparison, MEG1’s image of the sun seemed exceptionally brilliant. The sun was so bright it swamped out the view of any background stars and dominated the screen. Rob adjusted the zoom until the sun occupied a quarter of the screen’s surface. The sun sat right in the center once MEG1 had completed her rotation, and Rob relaxed back into his chair. His work was done, barring trouble, and now he could just watch the data stream in as the researchers at Arizona and UPMC exercised their instruments.
Light imagers, spectrometers, and a topography-measuring laser altimeter were among the gadgets MEG1’s satellites carried. Not all could be tested in open space. She needed an object below her to measure topography, for example. Arizona’s visible-light image was more easily evaluated. Arizona was fiddling with something and the image quality improved. Filters were being adjusted, Rob noted, glancing at his work station screen.
A blank spectroscopy chart popped up on the right-most wall screen in preparation for displaying the French university’s data. Xplore was contracted to store the data, so they were receiving the telemetry at the same time as the spectroscopists, but UPMC was selecting the display mode. Rob glanced at the storage status displayed at his work station. No problems.
Rob understood the lab was right along the Seine River. ‘Sounds like a nice place to locate mission control,’ he thought idly as the university control rooms took over the calibration run.
MEG1’s telemetry indicated the spectroscopy instruments were warming up, the observation port was fully open, and a spectrum began to fill in the chart on the wall screen. Since the sun’s composition is well known, it made an excellent calibration standard. The sun is mostly hydrogen with some helium, a little oxygen, and traces of carbon, iron, sulfur, nitrogen, silicon, and neon. Colors and lines formed and brightened as the spectrum formed.
The French crew was busy checking various functions. Rob had their chat appearing as text crawling across the bottom of his work station screen. He checked the crawl from time to time in case they had problems he should be solving. But generally, Rob watched the view of the sun on the wall screen. His mind began to drift as he stared at the bright disk.
‘The sun is rising right now outside,’ he thought, glancing at the local time. He could only tell by the clock, since the light levels in the windowless control room never varied.
Then something caught his eye. Abruptly, Rob sat up straight.
“What’s that?” he said out loud. “Is something changing?” Turning on the voice connection to Arizona, he said into his headset mic, “Arizona, are you losing your imager?”
“No. Everything is good here. Why?”
“Why is the sun getting squished?”
“Hey, you’re right Xplore. We show the brightness down three percent. Stand by. Checking.”
Lee scowled at the wall screen. “The spectrum is showing less intensity, too, I think. Yes, UPMC confirms a three percent drop.” Lee tapped his controls. There was no doubt about the flattening now. It was definitely visible along one edge of the disk.
“Does that look like an eclipse starting to move across to the sun?” Lee asked.
‘Dammit, dammit, dammit’ Rob thought as he pulled up various charts. They all told him the same thing as the visible-light image on the wall screen.
“Are we behind an asteroid?” he asked out loud.
“That would be an incredible piece of bad luck,” Lee said. “We’re not near any of the large asteroids. For something to look that big against the sun, MEG1 would have to be right on top of it.”
“We are looking towards the sun,” Lee continued. “If there were an asteroid, we’d be looking at the night side, so it would be a dark blob.”
“No, no, no!” Rob said through his teeth, hoping to banish the possibility. “If we steered MEG1 into an asteroid, we’re in trouble.”
“Trisha! Ping that blob. How close is it? And how big?”
Trisha tapped at her controls, selected a packet from a command menu, and hit ‘send’. They’d have to wait for the transmission going out and coming back, plus however long it took for MEG1 to send a signal and have it reflected back to her.
“I’ve sent commands to emit a radar pulse and record the bounce-back. If that blob is close, we’ll have an answer in…”, Trisha looked at her work station screen, “ten or twelve minutes.”
Rob pulled out his personal pocket pad and dropped it into his lap, out of sight of the net-cams. He opened his message center, and tapped out a line.
‘r u ther?’
Rachel Davis was an old friend; an old girl friend. They had been graduate students together at the University of Arizona. Rob had figured out he really liked the nuts and bolts of space flight, rather than the big questions of the PhD program. He’d left with a Masters degree, which was viewed as a booby prize by the rest of the class, and started working at Xplore five years ago. Rachel had finished her PhD. Now she and two business partners owned “Southern Skies”, a telescopes-for-hire company. They had some awesome instruments set up in the Red Center of Australia. Where it was night, right now. Where MEG1 was visible, in the constellation of Taurus. Where, maybe, a rogue asteroid could be spotted.
‘Hi Rob.’ Her answer came back right away. For privacy, Rob kept his personal pocket pad set to text-only while he was at work.
‘crisis here image 4 me?’
Rob pulled up some navigation tables on his work station and carefully tapped in MEG1’s right ascension and declination.
‘RA 21 40 41 Dec -23 11 01’
Rachel came right back.
‘This is a business you know. I’m imaging for a paying customer now.’ She must have her messages set to complete sentences, or maybe she was talking into a headset.
‘crashing in2 asteroid. Plz,‘ Rob sent back. He was in no mood for banter.
‘I’m already entering the coordinates. You realize I can’t see your piddily little space craft?’
‘look 4 asteroid.’
‘Okay. The scope is moving now. It’ll take some time to collect enough light for a decent image. I’ll call when it’s done.’
‘thx gotta go’
‘I really should leave this thing on auto-complete,’ he thought, changing the option on the pad. ‘My messages look stupid otherwise.’
Rob slid his pad back into his shirt pocket and looked up at the wall screens. There was now a clear, flat edge of black along one side of the sun’s disk.
‘I can always count on Rachel,’ Rob thought, trying to calm his trembling fingers with a deep breath. He had no more time to think about her. Chatter from Arizona and France was crawling across the bottom of his screen. Everything was functioning perfectly, but the sun was slipping away on the screen.
“Trisha! Ping that thing again. And anything around MEG1 in any direction. I want to know exactly where she is. Are any gravity sources pulling on us? Has our trajectory changed?”
“Lee!” he called. “Turn on the topography laser. Can we see any kind of surface?”
“Already on it.” Lee had a menu of commands on his work station.
“There. Sent.” Lee leaned back in his chair. “MEG1 will look for a surface. Now we just have to wait.”
The time lag had never seemed longer. But MEG1 was half way to her destination around Jupiter, and even light took an annoying amount of time to travel that far. Rob used the time to send alerts.
‘We have encountered an anomaly,’ he sent to Terri Yuan, Xplore’s project manager for MEG; Dr. Gary Rivera, MEG’s principal investigator at Arizona; the next shift’s crew leader; and the rest of a short list of key personnel. ‘See this link.’
They would all be able to view the same frames the crew had on the control room wall screens. It was still early in the morning, but Rob flagged the message as urgent; most people would have their ComCores set to wake them up for urgent messages. Questions would start flooding in shortly. The Internet site would be lighting up, too, since somewhere in the world, subscribers would be watching even while MEG’s principal investigator slept.
Rob looked up at the wall screens. The sun had a significant section cut off now, and the blackness had a slight convex curve.
“I’m getting zilch from topography,” Lee said. “There’s nothing there.”
“And so far, zero trajectory deviation,” Trisha reported.
Rob ran a hand across his tight, short curls, and then leaned forward with his elbows on the bench and his chin against his knuckles.
“Then what the devil…” he whispered, mostly to himself, “are we looking at?”
Continue reading Chapter 3