The Numbers


Occator Crater on Ceres, courtesy of NASA

“Glaring at the display isn’t going to change the numbers.”

The surveyor settled back into his seat, struggling not to turn his glare on the pilot of the tiny survey vehicle. She was bringing them down inside Occator Crater, inching down slowly to keep from kicking up any planetary debris.

“This thing has already swallowed us,” he muttered. The jagged walls of the crater already rose up out of view, and they hadn’t landed yet.

“You’re not claustrophobic, are you? Bad time for something like that to come up,” the pilot replied, slowing descent so much that the craft seemed to hover in place. “Don’t worry. The numbers never really give a good idea what something will look like, we’ll touch down in a minute.”

Tel shrugged, but didn’t continue distracting Lyra’s attention. He knew life was circumscribed by numbers. They told him when to wake up, when to sleep, how long to sleep, how much to consume…and they controlled his work of determining whether mineral deposits were worth the expense of mining. They also controlled the pilot’s decisions related to speed, angle of descent, and where to land.

He felt the barest shudder as the survey vessel touched down. A small puff of dust welcomed them to the barren dwarf planet. Idly wondering how many specks of material they’d disturbed, he punched the controls for the survey ‘droid. Its operating ID flashed briefly on the screen, followed by its operating condition. All systems go.

“Okay, we’re good to begin,” Lyra told him as she locked down the board. “Be mindful of the gravity. If you do anything fast with the ‘droid or ramp, we might get knocked around a bit.”

“I know, gravity here’s less than half that of the Moon,” he replied absently, his attention focused on the panel. They were settled down about 300 meters from the shining deposits in the crater, and he was eager to begin his assessment of the material. The chemical analysis showed it was a type of salt, but it was like nothing on Earth.

They felt a stronger shudder as he lowered the aft ramp so the ‘droid could begin its survey. The heavy machine didn’t know it yet, but the numbers dictated that it was on a one-way mission. Gravity meant that heavy machinery would have an easier time staying on the surface, but limited fuel space meant that all extraneous weight had to be left behind if they were to lift off and return to the mining ship.

It’s always about the numbers, Tel thought as he watched the heavy treads of the mining ‘droid raising a haze that obscured the bright patches beyond it. The machine lumbered along, its slow pace geared to its weight and the uneven surface inside the impact crater.

“How much do you think is out there?” Lyra asked as she started laying in the instructions that would return them to the mining ship.

Tel shrugged. “I wasn’t able to get a direct measurement of how deep the deposits are, so it’s impossible to estimate.”

Two alarms went off simultaneously as Tel watched the ‘droid begin to sink into the edges of the white deposits.

Lyra looked over as Tel desperately began recall measures, trying to edge the ‘droid back towards the ship, sardonically asking, “Didn’t you run the numbers on what would happen to a machine that heavy if there wasn’t solid rock below the deposit zone?”.

“There’s no way. This is an ice world, the surface is solid under that…”

The ‘droid disappeared from sight. Lyra and Tel stared at where it had been, then looked at each other. “Are you still reading anything from it?” she asked.

“Yes, it’s fully online, just not…wait. Its descent stopped. According to the sensors, there’s solid metal under it.”

“There’s what?”

“Solid metal.” Perplexed, Tel refreshed the data feeds. “Not ore. A solid surface, seems to be an alloy of some sort. There’s no way manufactured material can be here…” His voice trailed off as he saw Lyra begin to shake her head.

“The survey data showed that this crater has gone undisturbed for about three million years,” she pointed out. “So…it’s not human. Now what?”

“Now this will either make or break my career,” he sighed. “We’ll either go down in history as the surveyors who found the first alien object, or I’ll just be known as the engineer who couldn’t get the numbers right.”

© Copyright 2016 Christine Clukey Reece






Space News Updates

There’s an amazing amount of astronomical stuff to check out this week. First off, if you haven’t seen Cassini’s pictures of Earth from Saturn’s orbit, you need to look at them now. Our pale blue dot is stunning and incredibly delicate as seen from a billion miles away.

Earth as seen from Saturn’s orbit

Next up, have a look at the stunning eclipse of an extrasolar planet, as seen by astronomers at the Chandra Observatory:

Chandra Observatory shows view of extrasolar gas giant eclipse

NASA found a giant hole in our sun:

NASA’s SOHO finds giant hole in the Sun

And then NASA decided to catch a thief. Er…asteroid.

NASA plans to catch asteroid and tow it to the Moon

In other news, a Canadian company plans to begin streaming a live feed from two cameras on the International Space Station. There will be one fixed viewpoint camera offering a panoramic view as the station cruises around the planet, and there’ll be a second camera that people can use to zoom in on objects as small as one meter. However, you’ll have to pay for the privilege of zooming in on something in particular…

BC company plans live feed from the International Space Station

And finally, we have a bunch of cool stuff visible in the night sky over the next month:

Sky charts for August 2013 – Jupiter and Mercury and Mars, oh my!

Hope you enjoy everything. More flash fiction coming this week!

Iapetus – Sometimes You Feel Like a Nut?

Found a lovely article on Iapetus as I was wandering through today’s news. Great picture, eh?

Iapetus, courtesy of NASA/JPL/Space Science Institute.

In case you’re wondering, Iapetus is one of Saturn’s moons. It also happens to be one of the coolest moons thanks to the fact that it has a geological feature that’s unique in our solar system. And yes, the article refers to the poor thing as “Saturn’s walnut moon”.

If you look closely at the photo, you’ll see it – it looks like a small ridge around the moon’s equator thanks to the photo resolution, but that ‘ridge’ stands higher than our Himalayan mountains. Imagine someone building an icy Great Wall of China on an airless moon, except that the ‘wall’ is around 12.4 miles tall and about 124 miles wide. And it extends more than 3/4 of the way around the equator.

There’s a few theories on why Iapetus has that ridge, and I’d like to take a moment to explain why this makes me so damn happy. There are a few competing theories on how that ridge developed, and none of those theories will be rejected unless someone investigates, performs research and experimentation, and determines whether those theories are possible.

I love science. I love the fact that there are so many curious and intelligent people out there trying to figure out how the world (and our universe) work. I am in awe of their curiosity and their desire to explore both macro and micro domains. I greatly appreciate their explanations of natural phenomenon and their ability to turn the unknown into the know. I love the fact that true scientists don’t shrug things off as miracles or magic – they can willingly admit they don’t know something. And then they’ll go see what they can do to figure out the answers.

You know why they’re able to do this? Because they’re honest. They are honest with what they know, how they know it, and what they can tell us. We should respect that honesty and not dismiss people who use their skills and smarts to show us how and why things work the way they do. They deserve better.

We have a long way to go before we’ll be able to say with certainty how that ridge developed. What we can say is this: that ridge is there, and we will eventually figure out how it got there. Thank you, Science.



Check Out Mercury!

We’ll be able to see the planet Mercury real soon now (depending on which hemisphere you live in):

Mercury, courtesy of NASA

We don’t often get so many planets visible in the sky all at the same time. Currently, Venus, Mars, and Saturn are hanging in view, and we’re still getting a small glimpse of Jupiter as well. Thanks to its petite and dainty size, Mercury won’t be terribly big or bright, but the linked article tells you when and how you can spot it on the horizon.

I think it’s amazing that the ancient Greeks figured out it was a planet. I grant you that planets, stars, and moons have very different patterns, but the Greeks didn’t exactly have modern optics and telescopes to use when checking out our stellar neighborhood. I wonder how many people sat outside observing the skies at all hours of the day or night just so they’d have an excuse to avoid their families.

Anyway, enjoy your view of Mercury. I’d love to travel there some day, but I think it’d be a one-way trip. Imagine the engines you’d need in order to escape the sun’s gravity well – probably not something humanity will be capable of engineering anytime soon.