Pluto awaits. Photo credit: NASA/Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Lab/Southwest Research Inst.
To those of you who’ve waited so patiently for me to finish FARSIDE, thank you. If you’re wondering how long a wait there might be for the next book, don’t worry. I’m on it. In fact, I’ve been sitting on this one for a long time and have been anxious for the right time to share it with you. That would be now…
NASA’s New Horizons probe has been in the news a lot, as it’s now finishing its nine-year journey to Pluto. I’ve been fascinated to see what discoveries will come of it as we’ve never had clear photos of our Solar System’s most distant planet (okay, so it’s not technically a planet anymore but it was when the probe was launched).
Having an overactive imagination, I couldn’t help but wonder what might happen if they found something totally unexpected. As in not natural.
And with that, I give you the prologue to FROZEN ORBIT:
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As the decades passed, men would hotly debate whether the chance encounter had been one of divine providence or blind luck. After nine years of sailing across the solar system, faster than any other machine flung by humans from Earth’s gravity well, the nuclear-powered New Horizons probe had finally entered Pluto’s fragile sphere of influence. It was to be fleeting, for despite carrying the hopes and expectations of so many, the event amounted to not much more than a cosmic one-night-stand.
At least that was the cynic’s view. After a whirlwind of begging and pleading, a small yet determined horde of scientists and engineers had prevailed upon the politicians to fund their little mission before it was too late. At almost literally the eleventh hour, they had managed to convince the Budget Committee that Pluto’s tenuous atmosphere—barely detectable from Earth—would collapse onto the tiny planet’s surface within the next decade, frozen into crystals by their host planet’s unstoppable migration away from the Sun.
“How long until it reappears?” one Senator had asked.
“Two hundred years,” a planetary geologist had replied. But since he was a geologist, the Senator had to ask the physicist seated next to him, who in turn had to produce a meteorologist who could verify their assumptions. Despite his protests of not knowing a single thing about extra-planetary atmospherics, the meteorologist agreed that, yes, the thin envelope of gases would indeed turn to ice and fall to Pluto’s surface. And no, it would not reappear for another two centuries. Only after he’d cited sophomore-level physical science to support his reasoning had it finally been enough to satisfy the gathering of political scientists.
And so, New Horizons had been put together largely from off-the-shelf components meant for other (cancelled) missions. It resembled nothing so much as an ambitious grade-schooler’s concept of what a space probe might be: about the size and shape of a grand piano, but covered in gold foil with a massive dish antenna and sporting a radioisotope generator at one end.
After a quick pass by Jupiter to steal the energy from some of that giant planet’s gravity (which it wasn’t going to miss, after all), the little probe went into hibernation until being awakened by its masters back on Earth. That it would be in position to capture such amazing images and data after such a long sleep, so far from home, was a stunning enough technical feat. That it was further able to capture the image that had triggered so many arguments was indescribable.
Some had called it miraculous. Others, carefully adhering to their notions of detached objectivity, simply marveled at the luck and explained it with mathematics. In private, they whispered among themselves that it was indeed stunning, phenomenal, and extraordinary.
That this golden radioactive piano, the first to encounter the solar system’s most distant planet (as it was still called back in 2006), zipping past at nearly forty thousand miles per hour, would be in a position to see what it saw (and that what it saw was in a position to be seen to begin with) was difficult to describe as anything other than, well, miraculous.
If this was a game of cosmic billiards, it was a blindfolded double-reverse bank shot. Once the masters had removed the blindfold, what they saw was beyond anyone’s ability to describe: there was Pluto, its prime moon Charon, and the two minor moons discovered along the way. All of them appeared in full color, high-definition detail, imagery of a depth and quality that the probe’s masters could scarcely have hoped for.
Yet it was those things which they didn’t expect to find that were the most breathtaking, such being the nature of exploration. In this case, it had at first appeared as an unexpected source of gamma radiation in orbit around Pluto. Just a trace, it was nevertheless odd as it would have normally been associated with some kind of high-energy source: a faraway supernova, maybe a black hole. On Earth it could have only emerged from the violent fusion reaction of a thermonuclear bomb.
The strange radiation signature only became noticeable during the final weeks of New Horizon’s approach, and was at first thought to be the result of instruments in dire need of calibration after being asleep for six years. When the probe was two weeks from its closest approach, the radiation trace disappeared.
That made it all the more surprising when it reappeared three days before New Horizons’ closest approach, leaving its masters on Earth with barely enough time to adjust their aim. As the tiny probe swept past its long-awaited target, its cameras were briefly trained on a point in space from where the gamma emissions appeared.
The first image showed only a pinprick of visible light reflected from the distant Sun, but it corresponded to the weak radiation and even weaker thermal signature.
Energetic and warm—not what anyone had expected from a tiny moonlet orbiting a minor planet. Some wondered if it was volcanic like Io, though the lack of Jupiter-sized tidal forces ruled that out. Nonsense, others argued: we’d been convinced that Mars was devoid of water for decades, remember? The atmosphere was simply too thin to keep it from evaporating, until we discovered a naturally-occurring antifreeze below the surface. Just because a phenomenon doesn’t line up with what we’ve come to expect doesn’t make it impossible.
The next day’s imagery caused more consternation for the masters. That point of light had grown larger as the object followed its own orbit while the little probe flew closer. But this time the light had taken on a more definitive shape: irregular, yet roughly symmetrical. One commented that it looked like a dragonfly.
If the second day had created turmoil, the final day had uniformly shut them up. The dragonfly had resolved itself into something completely unexpected: faded green, with metallic highlights randomly dotting the surface and ungainly ebony protuberances clustered around one end. Startlingly familiar, there could be no mistaking it for a natural object.
To a chorus of groans, one wag in Mission Operations had nailed it: that’s no moon; that’s a space station.
For all of the mystery surrounding this unexpected find, it was perhaps the markings that surprised them most: CCCP, the Cyrillic acronym for the long-extinct Union of Soviet Socialist Republics.
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