The science fiction epic of our time has arrived.
Three years ago, an object one hundred miles across was spotted on a trajectory for Earth's sun. Now, its journey is almost over. As it approaches, two competing manned vehicles race through almost half a million kilometers of space to reach it first. But when they both arrive on the entity, they learn that it has been sent toward Earth for a reason. An intelligent race is desperately attempting to communicate with our primitive species. And the message is: Help us.
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July 05, 2011
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Excerpt from Heaven's Shadow by David S. Goyer
"To Find the Sea"
Near-Earth Objects are comets or asteroids that have been nudged by the gravitational attraction of nearby planets into orbits that allow them to enter the Earth's neighborhood.
- NASA Jet Propulsion Lab, Near-Earth Object Program FAQ
What if it comes from farther away?
- Poster Almaz, July 7, 2016
Blue planet Earth and its seven billion human beings lay 440,000 kilometers below--or, given the arbitrary terminology of orientation in space, off to one side. If the sheer magnitude of the distance failed to provide a mind-boggling thrill, Zack Stewart could, by looking out the window, cover his home planet with his thumb.
That small gesture got the point across: he and his three fellow astronauts were farther away from Earth than any human beings in history.
Farther than the Moon.
Yet... they were still dealing with its politics, dragged down as completely as if trailing a 440,000-kilometer-long chain complete with anchor.
It irritated him. Of course, the fact that he had now been without sleep for thirty hours meant that everything irritated him. He was forty-three, a compact, muscular man with considerable experience in spaceflight, including two tours aboard the International Space Station. And now he was commander of Destiny-7, responsible for four lives and a multibillion-dollar spacecraft on a mission unlike any ever attempted.
He knew he should be pacing himself. But the stress of preparing for today's unprecedented maneuvers--440,000 kilometers from Earth!--had robbed him of sleep. Mission control in Houston had been uploading scripts for burns that would adjust Destiny's flight path, but the computer code was too fresh from some Honeywell cubicle and kept crashing. NASA called these commands e-procedures. To Zack, the e stood for error.
The process reminded him of the time he had tried to load Windows onto a laptop in Antarctica... with dial-up. Then as now, the only choice was to grind slowly through it.
He pushed away from the forward right window of the Destiny spacecraft and turned toward the lower bay ten feet away, where Pogo Downey had his 20/15 eyes pressed against the lenses of the telescope. "See anything yet?"
Pogo, born Patrick but rechristened in flight school, was a big, red-haired Air Force test pilot wearing a ribbed white undergarment that made him look like a Himalayan snow ape. "Nothing."
"There should be something." Something, in this case, would be a faint point of light against a field of brighter lights... Brahma, a crewed spacecraft launched toward Keanu by the Russian-Indian-Brazilian Coalition... Destiny's competitors. "We've got two tracking nets looking for the son of a bitch," he said, as much for his own morale as for Pogo Downey's edification. "It's not as though they can hide."
"Maybe Brahma's pulling the same stunt--your gravity whatever."
"Gravity gauge." Destiny was about to make an unscheduled and unannounced burn that put the American spacecraft closer to Keanu than its Coalition challenger. "The wind is at your back, your opponent is in front of you. For him to attack, he's got to tack against the wind." Pogo still seemed unconvinced. "Didn't you ever read Horatio Hornblower? Where they mention weather gauge?"
"I'm not a big nautical fan, in case you haven't noticed." Pogo was fond of referring to astronauts with Navy backgrounds as pukes.
"Okay, then... it's like getting on their six." That was a fighter pilot term for getting behind--in the six o'clock position--an opponent.
Now Pogo smiled. "Does that mean we can take a shot at them?"
"Don't get any ideas," Zack said, not wishing to open that particular subject at this time. "Besides, they can't pull the same stunt. Brahma's too limited in propellant and they're too nervous about guidance." The Coalition craft relied on Indian and Russian space tracking systems that were far less capable than the NASA Deep Space Network available to Destiny. "Just keep looking," he told Pogo, then floated back up to the main control panel.
The Destiny cabin had twice the interior volume of the Apollo spacecraft, which still wasn't much, especially with the tangle of cables and the two bulky EVA suits.
"Gotcha!" Pogo used a touchpad to slide a cursor over the image, clicking to send the image to Zack's screen. Only then did the pilot turn his head and smile crookedly. "RCS plume. Dumb bastards." The Air Force astronaut's contempt for the competing vessel, its crew, and its politics was well known. It had almost cost him a seat on this mission.
"Everybody's got to tweak their traj," Zack said. He actually sympathized with Brahma commander Taj Radhakrishnan and his crew. An experienced flight control team would not need to fire reaction control jets--RCS--at this stage. But the Coalition had flown only three piloted missions total, and this was the first beyond low Earth orbit. Its control team, based in Bangalore, was naturally cautious.
Now the fuzzy image of Brahma appeared on Zack's screen, trajectory figures filling a window. "Houston, Destiny, through Channel B," Zack said, touching the send button on his headset. Without waiting for an acknowledgment, he added, "We have Brahma in the scope." Destiny's 440,000-kilometer distance caused a four-second lag for each end of a conversation. That was going to be increasingly annoying.
Sure enough, mission director Shane Weldon's reply was out of sync. "Go ahead, Destiny." It took several seconds to give Houston the information that Brahma had been spotted, and for Houston to confirm that the burn was still go.
Zack relinquished the left-hand pilot seat, then floated down to the telescope. To hell with Brahma... what he wanted to look at was Near-Earth Object Keanu.
Three years ago, a pair of amateur astronomers--one in Australia, the other in South Africa--had spotted a bright Near-Earth Object high in the southern sky... literally over the South Pole.
The NEO was designated X2016 K1--an unknown ("X") body sighted in the first half of July 2016--but, to the horror of professional astronomers, quickly became known by its more popular name, Keanu, after the actor who had played the iconic Neo in the Matrix movies.
Within days, as Keanu's size (more than a hundred kilometers in diameter) and trajectory (originating in the constellation Octans and heading sunward, passing close to Earth in October 2019) became clear, imaginative elements in the space community began to talk about a crewed mission to the NEO. A spacecraft already existed--NASA's Destiny, designed for flights beyond earth orbit, to the Moon and Mars--and to Near-Earth Objects.
But with budgets tight and benefits uncertain--what would a crewed mission learn that a fleet of uncrewed probes couldn't discover for a tenth the cost?--enthusiasm for the idea faded away as Keanu grew in brightness in the southern sky.
Until the Russian-Indian-Brazilian Coalition announced that it was diverting its first planned lunar landing mission to Keanu. The first flag planted on its rocky, snowy surface would not be the Stars and Stripes.
That announcement triggered a frantic amount of replanning by NASA comparable to its fabled 1968 decision to send Apollo 8 around the Moon ahead of the Soviets. "It's going to be like NASCAR," Pogo Downey liked to say. "Only this time we might actually be swapping paint."
In search of an edge, NASA's great minds had cooked up several disinformation gambits. At this moment, the two other astronauts in Zack's crew, Tea Nowinski and Yvonne Hall, were talking on the open loop, visual and audio of their preparations from the Venture lander being fed through the NASA Deep Space Network. Meanwhile, Zack and Pogo did their dirty work on an encrypted loop transmitted via military satellites.
The last-minute gravity gauge prank had been forced on the Destiny crew when bad weather at the Cape allowed Brahma to launch a day ahead of them.
Much as he enjoyed the challenge of spoofing the Brahmans, it killed Zack to be looking for another spacecraft instead of the hundred-kilometer-wide bulk of Keanu, now less than two thousand kilometers away.
And invisible! Both Destiny and Brahma were approaching Keanu's dark side, just as several of the early Apollo missions had sneaked up on the Moon--the crew hadn't even seen the cratered surface until moments before making the burn that put them into lunar orbit.