“So, you knew all along!” Kath exclaimed in disbelief, hitting Joram on the shoulder as they approached Professor Zimmer’s office.
“Not all along,” Joram downplayed his discovery. “In hindsight, I think Zimmer knew even before I did.”
“Why do you say that?”
“Just a hunch. Do you remember the last meeting we had in the conference room at Johnson? The one where we were deciding what to do with the last three paddles?”
Kath nodded while looking intently into Joram’s face as the graduate students pressed on down the long hall of the astronomy building and stopped abruptly at the professor’s office door.
“I suspect that Zimmer knew what I was thinking all along, and that is why he pressed me on the matter. I saw a look of surprise when I suggested ramming the beam upstream at full speed, almost as if my thoughts betrayed me to him. At the time, I thought that if the paddles were simply disappearing, because they were being driven by the beam faster than the speed of light, then we might be able to see more of the trajectory of that paddle as it did an abrupt U-turn towards the downstream and disappeared. By seeing the negative rate of acceleration, we would be able to ballpark the speed of the particles in the beam. The bottom line is that I thought I read something in his expression that may have indicated he knew what I was thinking. I’m fairly certain that he had already guessed what the beam was doing. He just needed enough evidence to convince himself and the scientific community.”
“But, how did he guess? Why would he guess something so preposterous? During thousands of years of recorded human history, nobody has ever seen anything traveling faster than the speed of light. It’s so… so… unrelativistic.”
“I prefer anti-relativistic,” said a familiar raspy voice approaching Kath from behind.
Kath gave a start. “Oh, professor… I didn’t know you were there.”
“I see you two are right on time,” acknowledged the astrophysicist tapping on his wrist watch as he unlocked the door to his office. Looking down the hall in both directions, he continued. “But where is…”
At that moment, Reyd appeared briskly from around the corner of the hall which Zimmer was facing.
“Ah, there is Mr. Eastman now.” He opened the door and invited his research team into his office for the appointed meeting which all three students had been eagerly anticipating.
It was Joram’s first time in the hallowed—almost sacred—room. It was much smaller than he would’ve guessed, and he couldn’t help wonder how some of the brightest ideas of their day could come from such a humble office. If only he could interview the walls, painted in light beige; the desk, with its three modest stacks of papers; the laptop computer, which was turned on, but currently showed a black screen, as if to purposefully veil all of the secrets that were maintained inside.
There were shelves above every counter and desktop, housing an array of books, many authored or co-authored by Zimmer himself: “Quantum Forces of Nature”, “Astronomical Phenomena: Current Research on Unsolved Issues in the Universe”, “The Big Bang and Zeta Theory”, “Intergalactic Space and Matter”, “Advanced Particle Physics.” At the end of the room was a window with blinds pulled up, revealing a portion of the rooftop of Zimmer’s namesake planetarium. A hint of sunlight bathed a small corner of the office as the afternoon wore on. There was a slight hum and low tick of a wall clock above the main desk.
Zimmer invited his students to a round white oak table with four padded chairs. As they settled in, he grabbed a CalTech coffee mug filled with water, a notepad, and a pen before joining the students.
“Let me start with Miss Mirabelle’s question, first.”
“What question, Professor?”
“I think it was something along the lines of… ‘How would he have guessed something so absurd?’ Was that the question you just asked outside my office, Ms. Mirabelle?”
Kath blushed, while Joram relished this rare off-guard moment with a smile. Reyd laughed heartily at her gaffe. “Oh, Professor… I’m… I’m sorry. It was impertinent of me.”
Joram’s smile fell open suddenly. Was that an apology? From Kath Mirabelle? It must’ve been a first, he thought.
“No, no… not at all, Miss Mirabelle. In fact…” his voice trailed off with his thought. He stood up and went to his desk searching for something in one of the stacks of papers. “Ah, here it is.”
He returned to the table with a crisp piece of paper recently printed out. He placed the paper in front of Kath and asked her to read the blue-highlighted portion of a news article from the U.S.A. Today website.
“In an announcement which has rattled the scientific community, world-renowned astronomer, Carlton Zimmer issued a statement from the California Institute of Technology theorizing on a discovery of ‘warp’ed proportions…”
“Ah, yes… I love that statement,” Zimmer interrupted. With childlike excitement, he thrust a finger at the word ‘warp.’ “Clever, isn’t it? It’s a double entendre on the word warp, meaning both faster than the speed of light, and also implying that I’ve just plain lost my marbles. Please do continue, Miss Mirabelle.”
Stunned by his careless attitude towards the disrespect of the journalist, Kath continued slower than before. “The continually-studied yellow beam, he claims, consists of matter which is traveling faster than the speed of light—a superluminal comet. If his theory proves correct, he’ll have Albert Einstein turning in his grave for defusing his heretofore unchallenged Theory of Relativity.”
After a brief pause, Zimmer indicated to Kath, “If you wouldn’t mind, Miss Mirabelle, please read the last paragraph as well.”
“Ironically, it was this same Dr. Zimmer who—years earlier—was quoted as saying, ‘it would be absurd to assume that anything could ever travel faster than the speed of light. There is a good reason why we’ve never observed such travel—it is because it simply cannot occur.’ Now Zimmer finds himself in the awkward position of having to prove Einstein—and himself—wrong.”
“You see, Miss Mirabelle,” Zimmer now got to the point. “There is nothing shameful about challenging my position. In fact, they used the same word that you did, ‘absurd.’ The criticism is coming from everywhere. Am I truly warped? Is my position preposterous? Certainly!” Leaning over the table was an effective mechanism for gaining every bit of attention of his students. “Until I can prove otherwise.” He sat back up, waiting for the questions to begin.
“Can you?” asked Reyd.
“Easily, Mr. Eastman. The data is very convincing, and once I’ve had a chance to convey it properly in a paper that will be published in the Journal of Astrophysics, some—but not all—of the disbelief will be assuaged.”
“What do you mean by ‘some’, Professor?” asked Joram.
“Mr. Anders, I will be able to show evidence that the material that created that beam is traveling faster than the speed of light. But, I still won’t be able to prove how that is happening. I do have some speculation, but scientists will continue to live in denial of the claim until they are shown how this phenomenon occurs.”
“But, how did you solve that, Professor? And what evidence will you list in the paper to prove it?”
Zimmer’s expression clouded over, and Kath slowly turned her head to assess what the astrophysicist was studying on the wall behind her. Finding nothing, she turned back to realize that Zimmer was caught up in a thought, or perhaps a memory, which caused him deep concern.
“A few years ago,” Zimmer began with a slow hoarse whisper, still staring at the wall behind him, “I met someone who—”
All three students leaned in closer to the table when Zimmer paused mid-sentence. Returning from somewhere else, Zimmer blinked, smiled, and looked one after the other at the trio of graduate students seated before him. “I met two men who tried to convince me that Hyperwarp travel is feasible. They were very convincing. I was certain that they knew it could be done.”
Reyd asked curiously. “Why haven’t they published their findings, if they were so convincing?”
“Because… they were silenced.”
Kath gasped as a dark expression clouded Zimmer’s face.
“You mean—they were paid off?” Reyd suggested the most positive meaning for Zimmer’s ambiguity after giving a concerned look in Kath’s direction.
Zimmer sighed and shrugged his shoulders. “I never did get a straight answer from them as to what happened, but I have a suspicion that they will come out and share everything... it’s a fascinating story.”
Quickly changing the subject, Zimmer stood up, and returned to the topic of their research. “Let me come back to the subject at hand. You asked, Ms. Mirabelle, how I came to realize that we were dealing with a superluminal body. You see, shortly after paddle nine ceased communicating with the USL, there was one final heartbeat received from it. There were at least three things that didn’t add up. First, the timestamp of the final blip indicated a time on the clock that was too early. Relativistic experiments show that the clock of an object approaching the speed of light will slow down. This clock had obviously slowed down significantly. Second, the modulated signal was recovered at an ultra-low frequency, indicating a huge Doppler shift. The paddle was still alive, but it was booking. Third, the positional information conveyed in that final blip indicated that the paddle had already traveled farther down the beam than it possibly could have in the allowed time. As a result, I concluded that the beam had a force that was quickly accelerating the paddles to a velocity approaching the speed of light, but in order to accelerate an object with significant mass to near the speed of light, the material in the beam must have been traveling faster than the speed of light itself.”
After giving the students a chance to digest this epiphany, he continued. “Then there were paddles eleven and twelve. Remember how quickly paddle eleven turned downstream and spun out of control? Even Kath’s paddle twelve gained acceleration way too quickly for mission control to handle it. Based on the amount of impact that was collected by the paddles’ sensors, the acceleration was simply too fast. The material that was powering those paddles must have been traveling faster than the speed of light.”
“But we saw the material in the beam… it was glowing yellow. How would we be able to see it if it traveled faster than the speed of light?” Kath pointed out with more curiosity than skepticism.
“Yes, you did see material in the beam, but that wasn’t the stuff that was propelling the paddles. What powered the acceleration was material you could not see. The paddles were able to detect this matter, but it could not identify it.”
Zimmer turned to look out the window and weighed his thoughts before turning back to the table. “I trust that all of you have studied at least basic particle physics in your undergraduate programs?”
All three heads nodded.
“Good… then you are aware that the quantum state of particles can be altered. For example, it is the weak nuclear force that causes radioactive decay, inducing some of the heavier elements to shed protons and neutrons, thus changing their atomic structure. At the sub-atomic level, fundamental particles can decay into entirely different fundamental particles. I surmise that the superluminal comet which is currently orbiting the black hole at the center of our Milky Way consists of a very large clump of quantum material. As the particles on the surface decay, they do so from a state which is able to travel faster than the speed of light to a state which is not able to travel faster than the speed of light. Once they have decayed into this state, they must decelerate quickly, shedding off energy in the form of photons which we are able to see with our very eyes.”
“But what is the stuff that we can’t see, and how can it break the rules of relativity to travel faster than the speed of light?” asked Joram.
“Ah that is the question, isn’t it?” Zimmer pointed out. “Scientists, in general, think we know so much more about the universe than we really do. For example, for all of our observational astrophysics, we really can only see less than five percent of the universe. The remainder consists of dark matter and dark energy. Thus, for all of our knowledge about this universe, it may only apply to the five percent we can actually see. Do all of the discovered laws of physics apply to the other 95%? For example, we know that dark matter is subject to gravity. It clearly exerts gravitational forces, because that is how we detected it in the first place. Otherwise, we have no way of explaining the gravitational effects on the universe without introducing the concept of dark matter. Now, while this unseen substance is subject to gravity, it does not interact with the photon—the carrier for the electromagnetic force. If it were subject to electromagnetism, we would be able to detect its presence on the EM spectrum, but we cannot. Let me define the term ‘observational physics’ to therefore mean the set of universal laws which apply to everything which can be observed. Traditionally that which can be observed is subject to light so that we can see it. Light is nothing more than the electromagnetic force, demonstrated through its carrier, the photon. The reason that nothing observable can travel faster than the speed of light is because it is subject to light.”
He paused again. “Let me repeat that. Nothing which we can see is able to travel faster than the speed of light because it is subject to light.”
The proverbial light bulb came on for Joram. “Professor! I see what you’re saying. Matter that can be seen—particularly baryonic matter—must travel no faster than the speed of light, because it is subject to the properties which constrain light itself. The corollary to this would be that if there is matter which is not subject to light—such as dark matter—then that matter may not be subject to the speed of light.”
Joram continued his thought process. “Non-baryonic matter may indeed be traveling around faster than the speed of light.”
Kath had to interrupt at this point to keep from getting lost in the conversation. “Professor, I remember the term baryon, but I forget. Is that the stuff that has the integer spin or half-integer spin?”
“You’re thinking of bosons and fermions, Miss Mirabelle. So much jargon for one year of study, I know. When we talk about baryons, we are usually referring to the triple combination of up and down quarks that comprise the neutron and the proton, so really it makes up the bulk of matter that we interact with.”
“That’s right… sorry about that.” Kath hung her head in embarrassment for having to ask the question.
“Mr. Anders, your thought was that this non-baryonic matter may travel faster than the speed of light, but it might be even more than that. I’ve been thinking a lot about this, since we left Johnson last weekend. My thought is that the real reason that this matter is not subject to electromagnetism is because it must be traveling faster than the speed of light. That is, once matter—non-baryonic, or otherwise—escapes the effects of electromagnetism, it is guaranteed to travel faster than the speed of light. That mystical constant, c, which we know to be equal to 299,792,458 meters per second, could be considered the escape velocity of electromagnetism. Once any matter can exceed that velocity, the electromagnetic force no longer applies. So, we cannot see dark matter, nor can we see our superluminal comet, simply because they are traveling around in the universe faster than the speed of light. Thus, they are no longer subject to the force of the photon, which we know can travel no faster than c, you see?”
Three eagerly nodding heads indicated that they did see. Heaving an exhausted sigh, Zimmer sat back in his seat now that he could tell that his researchers were beginning to comprehend these brand new ideas.
Joram Anders sat alone on a bench by a paved walkway, watching the sun dip below the top of the pine trees across the large vacant field to the West. A family of four passed through a door after their visit to the Hale Telescope, returned to their car, and drove off. While open to visitors during the day, few continued to make the long, windy drive up the mountain to enjoy the history of the aging observatory. Overshadowed by so many newer, larger and more important telescopes, most haven’t even heard of the 200-inch mirror, nor realized the fact that way back in the 20th century, it was the largest telescope in the world for a while.
Distracted by a whirlwind of thoughts, it took several efforts for Kath to get his attention. “Joram. Joram!”
“Oh, Kath… sorry I didn’t see you there.”
“When I didn’t see you in the dormitory, I assumed you must still be sleeping,” she stated.
“Oh, no… I come out here every evening. I never get tired of watching the sun set from up here.”
“I didn’t know this was such a favorite spot of yours.”
“I suppose you wouldn’t… you usually sleep until well after the sun sets,” Joram elbowed Kath playfully as she took a seat next to him on the bench. Eying her suspiciously, he asked, “Why are you up so early this evening?”
“I got a phone call with great news,” she beamed. “The astronauts at Camp Mars have been recovered. They are a suffering from exhaustion, and some mild bumps and bruises, but otherwise, they’re going to be just fine! The rescue vehicle just launched from Mars, and is on the way home.”
Joram took in a deep breath and leaned back on the bench. “That is great news indeed! It must’ve been a horrifying experience for them.”
“Yeah, I can’t wait to hear their story,” Kath stated as she turned her gaze to the West, Kath observed, “Well, I can see why you enjoy it here. Such a beautiful sunset, and so quiet.” “Sunsets in Kansas could be pretty spectacular, but the horizon always left something to be desired. It was so flat. No pine trees, no mountains. Just flat, waving fields of grain.”
Looking at his watch, Joram suggested that it was time for dinner. The two stood from the bench as the last strong rays of the sun penetrated the atmosphere, bathing the clouds in brilliant yellows, pinks, and oranges, contrasting them to the blue and purple of the sky.
They met Reyd for dinner in the common room of the astronomers’ dormitory and the threesome engaged in pleasant small talk, but they were distracted by all that had happened in the last few weeks. The disaster on Mars, the mysterious yellow beam, the mission at Johnson Space Center, the discovery of the superluminal comet created a mental overload, and in fact, all three had been dealing with an increase in headaches, insomnia, and fatigue. Even Joram recognized in himself a diminished ambition for the work ahead of them that evening. The mental stress and exhaustion was starting to affect each researcher.
The situation was not much better for Carlton Zimmer. Being advanced in years, having been ridiculed for his near-obsessive interest in finding a parallel earth, and now enduring near rejection by the scientific community for the anti-relativistic and heretical proposal that there was an object—right in their own galaxy—which was traveling around the center of the Milky Way faster than the speed of light were each starting to add up and take their toll on the relentless astrophysicist. While he tried to put on his best face, his graduate students were not oblivious to his suffering.
“I’m worried about Zimmer,” Kath said while poking at her mashed potatoes. “Have you guys noticed how tired his eyes look, and how pale his complexion is.”
“Yeah,” Reyd agreed. “I’ve been around Zimmer for three years now, and I’ve never seen him look so unhealthy. His whole countenance almost appears sunken, defeated.”
“Which is all the more reason,” Joram realized out loud, “that he needs our help in piecing all of this together. We need to convince the world that he his right!”
“But what if he’s not right this time?” asked Reyd.
“You don’t believe him?” Kath’s jaw dropped in disappointment of her colleague.
“All I’m saying, Kath, is that there’s still a lot of speculation. We can’t exactly track down that comet and catch it can we?”
“Actually, we can.” Joram announced flatly.
“What?” Kath and Reyd both turned their attention to him.
“I overheard Zimmer last week explain that we were going to continue to study the beam to determine its exact speed and orbital path. That’s what we’re going to start doing tonight. He suspects that it’s traveling fast enough to orbit the galaxy once every five years.”
“Five years! Absurd. I mean, if we’re going to see it five years from now, why didn’t we see it five years ago as well?” Reyd shook his head and wrinkled his forehead as he worked the math, mumbling numbers incoherently. “26000 light years… two-pi-r… five years…” And then announcing his results out loud. “You see, the old man may be losing it. He’s not suggesting that this thing is traveling at 1.2c, or even 3.5c. He’s talking tens of thousands of times the speed of light. I really think Zimmer may be losing it. Not that I’m criticizing—he’s been through a lot recently. He might just need some time off.”
“He might just need some students to roll up their sleeves and get the work done,” Joram countered with a calm voice and yet a hot look in his eyes. “Let’s just get in there and see what we can discover, ok?”
Too tired and drained to fight, Reyd nodded and continued nibbling on his sandwich. “Mmm… this is pretty good,” he said with one cheek full of corned beef and marbled rye, a hint of brown mustard in the corner of his mouth. All three recognized it as a lame, yet genuine attempt to change the subject. Quiet settled over the table, but their thoughts were still rampant as Zimmer walked in to escort the group to the 26-inch telescope.
A glimmer of light cast the still treetops into a gray silhouette against a violet sky. Joram strained to see the yellow beam, but it had faded so much now that it was no use attempting to spot it with the naked eye anymore. No matter! He would be using Palomar-26 for the next several hours in order to continue to study the trajectory of the comet. Could it really be tens of thousands times the speed of light? Would they really get another fly-by in just five years? And if so, would they be able to take advantage of it? Even if NASA was able to inject a probe directly in its path, it would be pulverized. How could they possibly be able to study it and determine its makeup?
So many thoughts, so many questions, so many distractions. Patience is the proper prescription for just such a time. Joram had his whole life ahead of him to study these exciting and difficult challenges, and preparing himself under the tutelage of Carlton Zimmer was just the beginning of a promising lifelong adventure that hopefully could be just a small bit as fulfilling as Zimmer’s had been.
“It might take me a while to develop that model, Professor,” Reyd assessed.
“I understand. Better to get started right away then, Mr. Eastman.”
“And the model may take a while to simulate. With billions of stars being flown by, it will take an inordinate number of calculations just to get hundreds or thousands of orbits, and I don’t have all of the parameters yet. We still need to know the shape and duration of the orbit.”
“Mr. Anders, Miss Mirabelle, and I will be working on getting you those parameters as quickly as possible. I trust that you’ll be able to develop the model with placeholders in the meantime?”
“Yes, sir. But let me make sure I understand the task at hand. You want to know every star which has encountered a fly-by of about two million miles of the comet in the last 50000 years. Is that right?”
“Professor, how will that help us in our study of the beam?” Kath inquired earnestly.
“Once we figure out the orbit of our comet, Miss Mirabelle, we will be able to compare it to any interactions of stars or planets with which the comet has interacted. For example, let’s say that Reyd’s model finds a star about 10000 light years away. If we can project that the comet came to within a couple of million miles of that star and any planets in its solar system, about 9,998 years ago, then we can be fairly confident that the interaction between the comet and that star’s solar system will be observed by us in the next couple of years. We can keep an eye out for any and all such systems that might help us understand the makeup of the comet by determining the type of radiation that is being generated by the material that is shed by the comet as it orbits the galaxy.”
“But we couldn’t even detect the radiation that occurred when we were affected a couple of months ago,” Kath posed curiously.
“It is true that we observed a radiation impact here on Earth as well as on the sun, and that we didn’t determine what it was. However, we were blind-sided by that event. We just weren’t prepared for it. Further, don’t forget that NASA is bringing back samples of soil and debris from Mars with the rescue mission, and it could well be that extensive interviews with astronauts O’Ryan and Boronov might prove useful as well. Since the comet practically grazed Mars, we might get a lot of answers right there. Ideally, we’ll be positioned to find a star that experienced a similar fly-by, which would interact with the star in such a manner as to generate a radiation event to be studied here on Earth in the near term. Therefore, we really need Reyd to focus on programming that model for us, so we know which of the billions of stars we’ll want to focus on to study this phenomenon in the future.”
“Professor,” It was Joram’s turn to join in on the interrogation. “If this comet has been orbiting the solar system for a long time now, why is this the first time that we’ve noticed the beam? You suggested that it may be orbiting every five years. Why wouldn’t we have seen it five, or ten, or any number of its previous orbits.”
“I think we need to figure out that there is an orbit, and what shape it entails. Remember that it was a fairly thin beam to the naked eye when it was just a million miles away. What if it were ten million or more miles away during its last fly-by. Because our solar system is orbiting the galaxy, it could well be that our orbits do not coincide very well, but have now come together close enough to observe it. Again, we won’t know for sure until we get a closer look at the orbit and the speed of the comet.
“Any other questions, or shall we get to it?”
Everybody understood this invitation to be more of a command. The time for questioning an astronomer is during daylight hours. The time for action was now!
Reyd quickly assumed his position on the far side of the room, at the computer terminal where Kath once studied the meteorological effects of the wind storm on Mars. Joram and Kath sat down at the main terminal, while Zimmer assumed a position on the telescope platform in order to search for the current trajectory of the beam in its orbit. It was a tedious night of work for the team. Reyd worked as quickly as he could on programming the mathematics into the computer to simulate the comet. Joram, Kath, and the professor took measurements, calculated, took more measurements, calculated some more, and then took the same measurements and calculated all over. For Reyd’s model to have the precision that it needed, they had to figure out the orbit of the comet with the utmost of quality. Otherwise, deviations in the model would contribute to gross errors in calculation as the computer calculated the projected location of the comet backwards for tens and hundreds of thousands of years.
Towards dawn, the professor handed Reyd the data to plug into the computer.
Upon reviewing and crunching some preliminary numbers, Reyd had to admit that he was wrong. “Professor, I just don’t understand how this can be! Based on the absolute magnitude of the beam, and the position of is trajectory, it is in an elliptical orbit around the center of the galaxy with an orbit of 6.369 years.”
“Hmmm,” the professor thought out loud as he rubbed his forehead. “I was quite a bit off in my estimates. I was thinking just under 5 years. Maybe the orbit is more elliptical than I had imagined.”
“No matter, Professor,” said Reyd in astonishment. “This is simply massive. When and how did you know it was going so fast?”
“You all seem surprised that this thing is traveling so fast. I’m guessing that means you all missed the most important clue. Miss Mirabelle, what happens when you are standing on a sidewalk, and a large truck travels by with immense speed?”
“Well, it’s normally very loud… and it generates a lot of wind.”
“Exactly! It’s very similar to our comet. When it flew by at approximately 25000c, it expelled a radiation wind that not only devastated Mars, but remember… it also took out all three satellites and the Mars Shuttle simultaneously. Remember how it was all timed in exact simultaneity with radiation detection on Earth as well as solar activity from the Sun? All at the same time?”
Here, Zimmer paused to make sure his students could see where he was going. “The truth is that those events weren’t exactly synchronized, but when something is traveling at tens of thousands of times the speed of light, you don’t exactly have the ability to calculate the timing of the event to as many decimal places needed. I’ve been thinking about the timing mystery for a long time, and the only thought I could come up with was that something was traveling a whole lot faster than it should be.”
Heads nodded slowly. A knowing smile came across the face of Joram Anders as if to say, “Why didn’t I think of that?”
Zimmer c, “In the meantime, we need to find as many fly-bys that we can study, so get those numbers crunching. When we return here in two weeks, we’ll need to get busy studying those star systems which are closest to delivering a radiation signature from the comet in the past.”
“Yes, sir,” answered Reyd, spinning around in his seat to face the computer. Typing furiously and finishing with an elaborate twist of the wrist on the enter key, Reyd started executing the program on a distributed system of hundreds of supercomputers that Zimmer had at his disposal throughout a university and government intranet. For now, all that the exhausted students and their mentor could do was wait for the results.
For Joram, it seemed like the slowest two weeks of his life. The thrill of returning to Palomar for hands-on study of the galaxy was so much more rewarding than the textbook study of astronomy. It was like those two weeks leading up to his ninth Christmas where he had asked for that first pair of star goggles. But now, he was even more excited as the research team consulted with Zimmer over a growing list of candidate star systems for study. A few possibilities had emerged within a couple of days. With more time the list grew to dozens, and by Friday morning, just before Kath and Joram drove up to Palomar, thousands of candidates had emerged.
Prioritizing the list was difficult. They knew that they needed to focus on those stars whose fly-bys of the comet would be closest to reaching Earth, and yet the list of stars which could possibly be studied in the next couple of months numbered around fifty. Of those, about a half dozen appeared prominent among stars which may have had the closest fly-by. After much deliberation with his team and consideration on his own, Zimmer selected ZB-5344, a class F9 main sequence star about 27000 light years from Earth. A fly-by of the comet was calculated at just 2.3 million miles, making it a target for intense study by the team.
As the team entered the Palomar-26 observatory, Zimmer briefed his trio of research students on the agenda for the evening. “We first point our 26 to ZB-5344 in an effort to find any extrasolar planets orbiting the star. There is data in the ZB catalog suggesting the possibility of planets due to minor movements discovered in the star—wobbles that may indicate orbiting planets, especially those whose brush with the comet may have been closer than the star itself. If so, we will certainly want to study those planets for any radiation that may have ricocheted off of the planet, which might be indicative of the destructive forces of the comet on Mars. 2.3 million miles will be an interesting study, but if we can find planets which may have a closer fly-by, then those planets will be of extreme interest. Once we’ve detected any spectral data suggesting the location of planets, we have Kepler3 on standby for further study. I think everyone knows their duties, right?”
All three heads bobbed affirmatively.
“Are there any questions?”
After a moment of silence, Zimmer spurred the team to work. The pattern of searching for planets around the fly-by stars, relaying location information to Kepler3, and continuing throughout the star system would persist all night. They needed to work furiously to cover all six or seven stars on the short list over the weekend, because by the time the supercomputer network had an opportunity to crunch two more weeks of numbers, the short list may grow into the dozens or even hundreds of stars, all but outpacing the team’s inadequate efforts to keep up with the data collection of Reyd’s model.
The team communicated details noisily throughout the evening.
“Professor, the movement of ZB-5344 indicates a plane of planetary activity about 65 degrees to the plane of the galaxy.”
“Kath, can you confirm that from Earth’s perspective, there’s a 12 degree angle, not quite edge-on, but it should narrow down the field of play.”
“Based on the mass of 5344, it looks like the system should have gravitational effect on its planets to about 100 AUs. Can we calculate a field of study for the orbital area of interest, Mr. Anders?”
Effectively, in finding planets that were 27000 light years from Earth, the team was looking for a needle in a haystack. Even narrowing down the effort to just one star, the field of study was immense. The effective field of view was about 200 Astronomical Units tall by 50 wide. That represents an area which would be 1020 times larger than the visible area of Jupiter. So, if the team were to find a Jupiter-sized planet in such a large place, the odds of any given search yielding the location of that planet would be 1 in 1020.
Of course, the team would not simply pick random points within the total possible planetary field and point the telescope there. They were able to calculate the presumed plane of the planets in orbit around ZB-5344. Projecting the orbit of the comet back in time about 27000 years, they found a point where the orbital line passed through the plane at the distance of a couple of million miles away from the star. They could then narrow down the search to an orbit around ZB-5344 which would traverse through the intersection of the plane and the orbit of the comet.
For a couple of hours, the team slowly scanned the segment of sky in question. Up. Down. Left. Right. Orbital motions around the star. The telescope worked its way around the orbit of interest. At long last, an infrared detection was discovered, indicating a pinpoint of heat in the otherwise blackness of space.
Zimmer came down from the telescope platform to inspect the data on the monitor. “Let’s zoom in on that point Mr. Anders, and please sharpen the visual data, Mr. Eastman.”
The students worked at the computer, each typing away at his respective keyboard.
“Miss Mirabelle, please run a full spectral analysis.”
After a few silent moments, Kath blurted, “Professor, this could be interesting. Come take a look.”
Zimmer, who was standing over Joram’s shoulder walked over to Kath’s terminal, with Joram and Reyd following quickly behind. On Kath’s screen appeared a low resolution circular shape. Towards the bottom left, the circle was filled with red, but about a quarter of the circle in the upper right was filled with a more reddish-purple color, and the upper right hand edge was nearly blue.
“Exactly right, Miss Mirabelle! 5344 sits down here,” Zimmer pointed off the bottom left side of the screen. “Your temperature distribution demonstrates that the warm side of our dot faces the star, whereas the cooler side—this purplish blue color on the fringe—is away from the star. We have an uncatalogued planet, here, team. Great work—an excellent discovery.”
“Actually, it was more a bit of luck than real work,” Reyd pointed out. “I mean, we just happened to find a planet exactly in the orbit where we pointed the telescope. What are the odds of that?”
“In this game, odds don’t matter, Mr. Eastman. It’s the discovery that counts, and you can now add ZB-5344 to the list of known stars harboring the galaxy’s five million known extrasolar planets. I’ll contact the Kepler3 team, and they’ll be able to perform a high-optics visual of the planet to see what we’ve got.”
Zimmer dismissed the team for a break, since he knew that the moon-orbiting Kepler3 telescope would require at least an hour of calibration and location tuning before the first images of planet ZB-5344-P1 would be available for study. After the break, the team pulled chairs close to a computer monitor, and lounged around while watching a black screen with red text that spelled, “Awaiting Kepler3 Imaging.” The text flashed every few seconds to garner the attention of the spectators.
“Wow… watching telescopes calibrate is like watching paint dry,” Reyd broke the silence.
“Mr. Eastman, I’m surprised at you,” offered the astrophysicist in mock disgust. “I personally think it’s more like watching grass grow.”
Exhausted and giddy, the students laughed raucously at Zimmer’s humor. Another wake-up call occurred in the moments that followed, as Zimmer’s cell phone chirped loudly throughout the room.
Kath jumped instinctively while Joram stood upright. In the quiet of the room, the students were able to hear the hurried voice on the other side.
“Professor Zimmer, we’re shooting the first images your way right now. You’ve got to see this, Sir—we’re still—well, we’re not sure, but you’ll see.”
“What do you have, Mr. Jefferies? You sound like you’ve never seen an extrasolar planet before.”
“Actually, Professor, it’s quite the opposite. It’s exactly like I have seen this planet before. Why, at a glance it looks just like—”
The cell phone went dead the moment the image came across, as Zimmer unconsciously dropped it to the floor with a reverberating thud that nobody heard.
In shock, Joram slowly stood from his seat and was the first to complete the sentence of the Kepler3 team member on the other line. The word was slow, breathy and nearly inaudible.