Joram Anders looked at his watch as the helicopter touched down on Palomar Mountain. 12:50 AM. He did not feel the exhaustion of his studies of the day, his meal with Kath that evening, the surprise summon to meet Professor Zimmer at the Burbank Airport, or the relaxing helicopter ride, where Kath rested on his shoulder during the entire flight. Instead, adrenaline was flowing from the excitement and fortune of being at an astronomical observatory at the invite of his boyhood idol. Attempting to orient himself to his surroundings, his eyes searched the darkness without success. The CalTech observatory was strategically located as far away from light pollution as Southern California would allow. As he stepped onto the helipad, all he could see were the flashing lights of the helicopter, a rim of lights circling the pad, the canopy of stars overhead, and a dimly lighted path.
“Please follow me,” the professor instructed as he set out for the path. His trio of blurry-eyed graduate students followed with a quickened pace, as if Zimmer had not been the least fatigued by his day of instruction in the planetarium, the flight to and from Johnson Space Center, the intense focus and study on the troublesome data from Mars, and now, the helicopter ride to Palomar.
During the hike from the helipad, the darkness was met with silence. The stunned students did not know what to say, or if anything should be said at all. At last, they arrived at a white dome-topped cylindrical structure. Joram suspected that this wasn’t the structure which housed the 200-inch Hale telescope, famed as the largest telescope in the world for several decades of the twentieth century.
“Students,” Zimmer announced, “this is our very modern and accurate 26-inch telescope. It is one of our very best for studying near-earth objects, such as our very own solar system. With this, I believe we will obtain the best possible quality images to help us with our study surrounding the events which have transpired on Mars. Please follow me to the control room, where you will be performing all of your data collection and studies this evening.”
As they entered the control room, aptly stacked with computers, monitors and control equipment, Zimmer oriented them as quickly as possible to their workstations. He began with instructions to Kath.
“Kath, you will work here.” He gestured to a workstation. “Your first task will be to get on the phone for a conference call to Israel to discuss Martian atmospheric and meteorological conditions with experts there. According to our observatory administrator, there should be a sheet instructing you on the headset and the contact information of the individual who has been studying the situation.
“Joram, Reyd will acquaint you with the equipment over here.” Zimmer pointed out a large panel of instruments and controls, equipped with several large flat-screen monitors, already containing a set of initial data on Mars.
“I will be up on that platform over there, fine-tuning the controls of the telescope as needed in an effort to obtain the necessary images. Camp Mars is currently in view from Earth, and will be so for the next 4 hours. My first effort will be an attempt to get as many visual clues as to conditions in the vicinity of the camp. Once Earthset has occurred—that is, when Earth will not be visible to the astronauts—I will then search for clues surrounding the missing satellites and shuttle, as well as to lock a visual on the lone signaling satellite, which we know to still be functional. I would like to give you a much better briefing and overview of the equipment and task on hand, but time is critical. Are there any questions?”
Reyd was familiar with Professor Zimmer’s terse manner of instructing research students in their duty, and shook his head knowingly. Joram and Kath, on the other hand, returned glassy-eyed stares to the professor, still in shock over this sudden change of activity in their lives. Zimmer drew closer to them in a gesture of understanding.
“Joram, Kath,” his voice softened. “Any questions?”
“Well, not yet,” Kath was the first to answer. “I’ll just head over there, peruse my instructions, and get on the phone with the team in Israel.”
Zimmer smiled and nodded. “Thank you.”
“Joram?” Zimmer prompted, staring at the individual whose potential the professor was eager to explore and develop.
Joram did have a question, but he was hesitant to ask why on earth the professor had chosen him for this trip. Reyd, of course, had the expertise on the equipment. Kath had credentials from her studies of meteorology. He was just a star-gazer from Kansas. Prudence took control of his curiosity, and he realized that the professor could not be bothered with a question of such a trivial nature, when the lives of astronauts were at stake. “No, sir. I’m sure Reyd will bring me up-to-speed quickly.”
“Great!” Zimmer clapped his hands together, wheeled himself around, and was the first to reach his station. Kath filed off next in the opposite direction, while Reyd took his seat at the console. Joram remained rooted for just a moment as he watched the professor begin his work. Then excitement and adrenaline took over. With an excited spring in his step, he caught up to Reyd and took a seat next to him, ready, willing, and eager to learn the controls of the observatory, with which he hoped to become intimately familiar.
“Ok… yes, I do see that now… Aha… Yep,” Kath’s tired yet pleasant voice spoke into the headset. “Yes, I’m starting to figure the system out, Ravid. I’m sorry about this… you don’t really have the time to be helping me ramp up on this computer, while there is important research to be done on the weather…. Well, thanks for your encouragement. I hope I can be of some help as well.”
The sound of Kath’s voice filled the room, but was occasionally interrupted by an exchange between Reyd and Zimmer. “Is that any clearer, Reyd.”
“I still can’t make anything out, Professor. The features just aren’t coming through that clearly. Even the common areas of varying light intensity aren’t coming through as expected.”
“Ok, it looks like the dust storm is still pretty intense down there then. I’m going to try to zero in on Olympus Mons. We should be able to at least calibrate our image quality there… the peak has got to be above the dust storm.”
Joram focused on the images of Mars, and while he knew enough about the planet to find his way around the geographical features, he admitted that he was lost with this view. Finally, however, as the telescope zoomed and focused in on the massive dormant volcano, he gasped at the sight of it. He was surprised to see the mountain come into view.
“Something wrong?” Reyd turned to Joram with concern in his voice.
“It’s delightful!” Joram exulted boyishly. “I’ve just never seem Mars so clearly depicted.”
Indeed, the reddish-brown caldera and impact craters deep on the top of the volcano were in exquisite view. Anders easily discerned which impacts were older based on the portion of the crater which was obscured by more recent impacts.
“That looks good, Professor,” I’m seeing the top of the mountain in clear view. Looks like we could use a little sharpening… That’s better… better… perfect!”
“How much of the mountain is in clear view, Reyd? How far down are we obscured by the dust storm.”
“I’m not really sure. I’m not very familiar with the features of the mountain. I’ll have to digitize the image and compare it to the database. It should just be a couple of minutes.”
Lowering his voice, Reyd continued to speak to his fellow student. “So, to get to the image database, Joram, simply gesture with your finger like this to pull down the database menu, select Solar System, and then Mars. You can see a list of objects here. We’ll select mountains and just scroll down the list here… Nereidum Montes, Oceanidum Mons, Octantis Mons… Ah, there we are, Olympic Mons.
“Now the default view, as you can see is straight above the top of the mountain, but we’ll want to rotate the 3D image to coincide with the angle of the satellite. Hover over the mountain with your finger and drag like this… Ok, it looks like we have an approximate angle, judging by our picture on the right. Now, we just need to spin the mountain around to the correct side. To do that, we move our finger in a little bit closer and swipe with a curving motion like this to spin the digital image around, and there. Now, we’ll pull down the tools menu, and select the measure tool. We’ll pull it to about here. Well that looks like a pretty close match.”
Reyd pointed to a feature on the side of the mountain in both the left and right frames of his monitor where the digitized image and the live image of Olympus were depicted respectively.
“Ok, so that gives us the distance along the slope, but we need to know the elevation difference between these two points, so we gesture with a spiral—like drawing a lower case ‘E’ in the air—to give us the elevation.”
Another voice interjected from the back. “Thirty-two thousand feet!”
While Joram focused on the controls of the system, he didn’t notice that Professor Zimmer had now appeared behind the two students observing the data.
“Wow!” Joram exclaimed. “That’s some elevation… several thousand feet taller than Mount Everest altogether! But then again, Olympus does stand eighty thousand feet above the surface of Mars! Does that means we’re seeing a dust storm that is nearly fifty thousand feet deep?!”
Zimmer frowned as he turned to look at Kath, hoping that her time spent on the phone may provide some additional clues.
“Yes, I do see the wind patterns and speeds now on my computer, Ravid.” Kath was quickly ramping up on the weather simulations that the team in Israel had been putting together for the last twelve hours.
“So, if I understand correctly, we have a ton of dust in the air, but not much wind. It looks like average global wind speeds are about fifteen kilometers per hour, and that the maximum is about fifty, right?”
“Yes that is correct,” said Ravid. “It is actually a calm day on Mars. This dust just makes no sense.”
“This thing seems to cover the entire planet, right now. How large can dust storms get to, Ravid?”
“Well, storms can cover the entire planet, and when they do, they can last for a month.”
Kath let this last comment settle. “Ravid… are you telling me it could be a month before we get a visual on the astronauts up there?”
“I don’t think so in this case, Kath. The typical scenario for a global dust storm is that wind speeds reach one hundred kilometers per hour. This kicks up dust, which absorbs sunlight and heats the atmosphere. This heating then creates convection that only increases the wind even more. By the time these atmospheric conditions subside, we’re talking easily a month of global dust cover. However, the winds are too light in this case.”
“But you just told me that dust in the air will heat the atmosphere…”
Ravid completed her sentence, “… and increase the winds. Yes, this is what has us very concerned, also. If that proves to occur, then it may be weeks before we are able to assess the status of the astronauts. At this point, we don’t believe that will happen and must hope for the best. We need to break through visually as soon as possible to understand how the astronauts are coping with this atmospheric anomaly.”
Kath’s eyes raced across the screen. She rotated the planet to the east, west, east, and west again in order to get a better picture of the wind patterns across the globe. She tilted it north and south in order to assess the differences between the polar and equatorial patterns.
“Ravid,” she spoke into the phone after a long silence. “So we’ve assessed that this is not a typical wind-induced solar storm. I don’t want to ask stupid questions, but could this be caused by an impact?”
“No, it is not a stupid question. We keep coming back to that question ourselves. However, we have seen impacts, and it doesn’t have the characteristic signature of an impact. For example, impacts are always more localized. This layer of dust covers 75% of the surface of the planet.”
“How about a really big impact, then?” Kath offered.
“An impact that you are suggesting would have to come from a known object. Radio astronomers would have certainly detected an object this large as a shadow in the magnetic signature of the solar system. Besides, an impact of an object that kicks up this much dust would have to be large enough to alter the orbit or rotation of the planet. We have no indication that this has happened.”
“Lots of little objects, then?”
“Again too much dust. Small objects would not kick up this much dust.”
“Can we tell how high the dust has been? Perhaps the objects kicked up the dust, and then the wind continued to agitate it, by kicking it up higher and higher into the atmosphere. No that sounds ridiculous, again, because the winds aren’t strong enough.”
Kath received a tap on her shoulder. She gave a start and turned around quickly to see who had been watching her.
“Kath, can you put Mr. Avram on the speakerphone for me,” Professor Zimmer asked.
“Ravid, I’m going to put you on the speaker. Professor Zimmer would like to talk to you.”
With that, Kath looked around to find Joram. He was still engaged with Reyd. Their voices were low, but she could tell by their gestures that Joram was engaging Reyd in a question and answer session on the control panel they were working together. Reyd pointed to a series of buttons on the control panel, and Joram responded with a nod. Another gesture, another nod.
“Ravid, this is Carlton Zimmer.”
“Good evening, Professor. How are you?”
“Tired, naturally, and perplexed. Hey, I couldn’t help overhearing that you two were wondering about the depth of the dust cloud?”
“Yes, we think it would help us to understand how much volume we are talking about. We suspect that it is thousands of feet deep, based on the obscurity of features that we have observed. However, we cannot tell for sure with the images we are working from.”
“We just got a visual lock and measure on Olympus Mons which indicates the depth of the cloud to be nearly 50 thousand feet at this region.”
There was silence on the other end.
“Ravid, are you still there, can you hear me ok?”
“Yes, professor, but… that just can’t be! How can it be that deep? Typical dust storms kick up no more than ten kilometers into the atmosphere. Here we are talking fifteen kilometers… and there is no wind to do this. Are you sure of your calculation?”
“It looks accurate to me. Unless—it could also be that the dust has whipped up on the slope of the mountain as well, giving us the impression that the cloud is really that deep.”
“Professor, the atmosphere is so thin at those elevations that the dust should settle quickly above even thirty thousand feet, let alone fifty thousand. It’s a fascinating data point, but it only creates more questions and fewer answers. I will have to share this with my team and see if we can make sense of it.”
“Well, I will let you get back to Ms. Mirabelle. She’s probably got more questions for you as well. In the meantime, I’ll go take a look at the Tharsis region. If the cloud is truly at fifty thousand feet, then we will be able to assess this from the elevation of the cloud on these mountains. If the cloud is simply whipping up on the slopes of these mountains, then we may see a different elevation profile on these mountains than we do on Olympus.”
“That will be a very helpful piece of data. Thank you, Professor. Keep us informed if there are any further developments.”
“We’ll do just that, Ravid. And good luck on your end as well.”
Kath placed the headset back on her head again as Zimmer walked back to the telescope. From the sound of the conversation, she quickly returned to her brainstorming session with the Israeli areologist. He approached Reyd and Joram to inform them of their next data collection effort.
“Gentlemen,” Zimmer stated as he sat down in a vacant chair next to Reyd. The two students leaned away from the console which had engaged their attention for nearly an hour. “We are going to the Tharsis Region. Dr. Avram, an atmospheric specialist with whom Kath is speaking, is baffled by the dust patterns on Mars. We believe that we have found a fifty thousand foot cloud of dust covering much of the surface of Mars. However, we’re not sure if the cloud really isn’t lower, and that we’re seeing dust coming off of the surface of Olympus Mons itself.
“In other words, we need to figure out if the dust has only kicked up a few hundred feet from ground level all the way up the slopes of the mountains. If we look at a smaller mountain peak, where the atmosphere is more dense than it is on the upper reaches of Olympus Mons, we might get a clearer idea of how much dust we really have swirling around up there.”
Wheeling back to the telescope platform, Zimmer announced, “Give me a few minutes to dial in the coordinates and calibrate the surface angle for best imagery. You guys might want to warm up the image database for the Tharsis Mountains. We’ll be performing similar elevation calculations there as well.”
The professor returned to the telescope and began calculating coordinates for Ascraeus Mons, the tallest mountain in the Tharsis Region, and the second highest peak on Mars.
Reyd whispered to Joram, “My money is on the professor’s theory, and the dust proves to be a thin layer that’s just being stirred up to low levels all over the planet.”
“But all of the circumstances have just been bizarre enough so far that I wouldn’t be surprised if we really have a fifty thousand foot tall dust cloud,” Joram rebutted. “Remember that this dust is really just a barrier to the real task at hand here. We need to find out how a group of satellites and a shuttle just disappear into thin air, or thin space. I’m guessing there is a link to the disappearance and the dust… hopefully, if we solve one mystery, we get all of our questions answered.”
“That’s a good point. Either way, let’s start taking a look at the Tharsis Mountains, shall we?”
Reyd started negotiating the database menu again, when he stopped suddenly.
“What’s wrong?” asked Joram looking at his companion.
“Well, I’m trying to recollect the names of the mountains that the professor needs us to look at… but I’ll just go to the ‘regions’ portion of the database to find the names of the Tharsis mountains. I know I’ve heard them, but I forget now.”
“Ascraeus, Arsia, and Pavonis,” Joram said.
“What?” Reyd didn’t grasp that his peer had just named all three Tharsis mountains in two seconds.
“Oh, I’m sorry… I gave them to you in order of elevation. Did you want them in terms of their geographic alignment. Ascraeus is the northernmost, Arsia is on the south end, and Pavonis sits right between them.”
Reyd’s jaw dropped as he stared at Joram. “Where did that come from?”
Joram blushed a bit. He did not intend to condescend, but being caught up in the moment of research, he couldn’t help blurting out a little too much knowledge perhaps. “I’m sorry… I read a book on Martian geography a couple of years ago. The chapter of Martian mountains really left an impression on me, I guess.”
“Apparently so.” Reyd flushed slightly as he shook his head in amazement and turned back to the console. He got ready to dial into the Ascraeus database in an attempt to beat Zimmer to the punch, while the telescope was quickly zooming towards its new subject. “Ascraeus Mons… there it is.”
Zimmer called out, “How does she look, Reyd.”
“It looks great, professor. However, we don’t have quite the same angle on the slope of the mountain, as we did for Olympus. It might be tricky to pick a spot that we’ll want to measure from the digital image.”
“The lava flows might help us find our spot,” Joram pointed out on the database image. “They extend all the way around the mountain.”
Joram pointed to the northeast and south sides of the mountain where dark slits cut all the way around the mountain. Larger gashes where those of dried up lava flows at the surface of the mountain.
“Those are really amazing geologic structures there,” admitted Reyd. “At this zoom level, those flows make the mountain look more like a scratching post than a volcano. It makes for a very distinguishable feature. However, they may be too low in elevation for them to be any use to us. Wow… look at the scar over on the west side of the mountain where it looks like a landslide has left a huge gash in the mountain. Again, that’s way too low to be of use to us, but what about this?”
Reyd pointed to the east side of the mountain. “These pits here may be caves or perhaps the end of lava tubes opening up on the surface of the mountain. Some of these might be high enough. Otherwise, there isn’t a whole lot of distinguishing features around the mountain to tell where a cloud may end.”
“Take a look at the live image right there.” A long finger belonging to Professor Zimmer had reached between the pair of students and pointed to the live image on the monitor. Just above the cloud was a distinguishing feature, either a cave, or perhaps a large boulder, but it was easily spotted by the shadows being cast by the afternoon Sun.
“Let’s see.” Reyd worked quickly to spin and focus on the object. “That’s just north of west on the mountain. Interesting, I didn’t remember noticing many features on that part of the mountain. Could that be a new exposure or perhaps a crater?”
Silence ensued for a few minutes as the two teams examined both the left and right frames, as if watching a rapid volley at a Wimbledon tennis match.
“Right here,” Joram pointed on the left side of the screen. “Look at the database image. The lighting isn’t as favorable, but I think there is a slight difference in coloration which may match to the shadow in the live image.”
Zimmer suggested, “Hey, Reyd… can we scan the remaining images in the database? It would be nice to find an image with similar afternoon lighting in order to pinpoint that structure.”
“Yes, sir.” Reyd negotiated through the menus quickly to bring up the full catalog of images available. He set the default 3D model to provide a west-side angle.
The team scanned through image after image for a couple of seconds each. After flipping through more than a dozen pictures, Zimmer shouted, “There!” He pointed at a pinpoint of a black spot, not as large as that of the live image, but certainly in the same location. “It’s a shadow,” Zimmer stated confidently. “It’s not being cast as long in this image, certainly because it was taken earlier in the day, but make no mistake, that’s our spot.”
With accepting nods from his students, Reyd went quietly to work, clicking and measuring. He leaned back in his chair and clasped his hands behind his head, as the trio of astronomers clearly understood the data they were looking at.
Professor Zimmer nodded approvingly. “Kath!”
Kath gave a start and spun around quickly.
“Kath, do you still have Dr. Avram on the phone?”
“No, Professor, but I can call him back. What did you find out over there?”
“Thirty thousand feet, Kath. The cloud is at thirty thousand feet on Ascraeus Mons. On Olympus Mons, it was fifty thousand feet above mean surface level, so it would appear as if the height of the dust cloud is relative to the surface features.”
“That means there isn’t as much total volume of dust in the atmosphere, right, Professor?” asked Joram buoyantly.
“Yes that is correct, which means…”
Kath, the meteorologist, finished his sentence. “…it won’t absorb as much heat, won’t generate as much wind, and will settle out quicker. Maybe we’ll be able to see our astronauts soon!”
Professor Zimmer looked at his watch. 3:30 AM. He dashed back to the telescope controls. “Reyd, small mountains… give me coordinates to one of the smallest mountains on the planet.”
Reyd’s eyes opened wide as he grasped Zimmer’s plan.
“If we find the dust low on a small mountain, then we will know for sure that the dust is not thick. I’ll dial up the list right away.”
Reyd spun back to the control panel quickly, and worked the menus again. Within moments, a spreadsheet emerged on the screen with a long list that Reyd sorted by ascending elevation.
“Professor,” Reyd announced abruptly. “Some of these features are below the zero elevation. What elevation should we start our search at?”
“Reyd,” Joram pointed to the screen. “Can we eliminate all of the patera from the list? These are usually low-lying craters that won’t benefit us. We need just the mons features that actually project upward from the surrounding surface.”
“Yes,” Reyd nodded. “Good point. Let me filter farther.”
While Reyd worked, Joram jumped to his feet, startling his partner at the control panel. He raced towards Zimmer. “Professor! What about Valles Marineris? Rather than iterating on various mountain elevations, we should look at Marineris! The canyon is of varied elevation throughout, and if the cloud is relatively low to the nape of the planet, then we’ll be able to see the canyon walls, and we’ll be able to tell exactly how deep the cloud is inside of the canyon. Besides, Marineris is to the east of Tharsis, where the sun will be setting soon. We’ll have good afternoon shadows to give us perspective of the canyon walls.”
Zimmer smiled at Joram and hopped down from the telescope. “Ok, then… give me coordinates to Marineris and an image of the canyon system. That is one long trench, and we’ll need to figure out where to start looking.”
Within moments, an elevation-shaded relief map of the deepest canyon in the solar system was portrayed on the full widescreen monitor, replacing both the live and historic images of Ascraeus Mons.
“Well, let’s start right here in the middle,” the Professor stated.
“The Candor region,” interjected Joram. “Excellent choice, Professor. We could start here in the Candor Chaos and work our way to its chasm, where the elevation differences are varied, and the walls are more step-like than the main branch of the canyon. We can tell based on which steps are exposed, the elevation of the dust cloud, I believe.”
Joram didn’t notice that both Reyd and Zimmer were staring intently at him as he focused on the screen.
Reyd was slowly shaking his head. “How… how do you know all of this?”
Zimmer’s eyebrows were raised. He wasn’t certain whether to be irritated or impressed with this upstart college kid. “Candor, it is! Coordinates, please!”
Zimmer bounded back to the telescope and arrived in time for the coordinates from Reyd. He worked rapidly at the controls. “What do you see gentlemen?”
“A lot of dust,” answered Reyd sharply.
“Can we side-by-side the current coordinates, Reyd?” asked Joram. “We need a clear reference to see where we’re at here.”
Once again, the screen was split with the live image on the right and the best database image on the right. Both images were bounded by the same exact coordinates, guaranteeing that the mouse cursor hovered over exactly the same location on both images.
“Wow!” Joram exclaimed. “Look at that, Reyd.”
“Professor, can you zoom in on grid cell D6? Joram’s found something interesting here.”
Both students leaned forward in their chairs.
“Professor?” called Reyd. “You should come see this.”
Zimmer scaled down the telescope platform again and met up with his students. He turned to Kath. “Kath, can you come take a look at this?”
“Absolutely, Professor.” She looked over Reyd’s left shoulder intently. “What exactly am I looking at?”
The professor briefed her on the discovery. “This, Kath, is Valles Marineris, the longest canyon in the solar system, and if some sources are to be believed…” He cut a glance over at Joram “…we are looking around the Candor region.”
Joram blushed while shrugging his shoulders almost imperceptibly.
The Professor continued: “Anyway, look at this billowing cloud of dust. This is down inside the canyon. And right here, you can see the border of the canyon wall. Any ideas what might cause a dust cloud like that to occur?”
“I’m having a hard time with perspective here. How wide and deep is the canyon here?” asked Kath.
“About one hundred miles wide and three miles deep,” answered Reyd.
“Three miles deep? That thing is three miles deep? And I thought the Grand Canyon was impressive… My goodness.”
Professor Zimmer brought Kath back to the task at hand. “Any ideas about this cloud, Kath?”
“Well, it looks like it’s bubbling up from the middle. I’d say that there must be wind rushing down both sides and creating a violent turbulence right in the middle.”
“What could cause that?”
“A sudden drop in barometric pressure inside the canyon perhaps? That could cause a vacuum-like effect and suck the wind from the plateaus above… or a sudden change in temperature inside the canyon to cause convection… or…”
“Or…” Joram interrupted while he pushed the mouse cursor along the canyon wall in the database image. “Or… the canyon wall is crumbling.”
Zimmer couldn’t help chuckle at this suggestion, mainly because of the matter-of-fact nature of Joram’s idea. “What do you mean by that, Joram?”
“Well, Professor, at first, I thought the images weren’t lined up very well, because look at the cursor here on the south side of the canyon. It is set some distance inside of the live image. But then, if you point the cursor to the north canyon wall, it also looks offset from the canyon wall, but in the opposite direction. Simply put, the width of the canyon is narrower in this satellite photo than it is over here in the live image.”
Zimmer offered an explanation. “Perhaps the zoom factor is different? Reyd, can you calibrate the two images?”
“I don’t think so, Professor,” countered Joram. “Look up here in the Candor Chasm. There is a ridge right here. It is inside the rim of the canyon, and yet it overlays perfectly on both images.”
“Joram… this is ludicrous. Mars is not a geologically-active planet. There is no rain to erode the surface features, and there isn’t enough wind to cause landslides like this! For centuries, we have relied on pretty much the same exact look at Mars. Today, you’re telling me that Marineris is growing wider?”
“Professor, it fits with the billowing cloud. If the walls of the canyon were crumbling, tons of rocks and sand would rush down the slopes, creating a downdraft that would meet in the middle and balloon up from the canyon.”
The professor buried his head in his hands and rubbed his eyes deeply. He turned away from the students. “How does this happen?” Sarcastically, he offered, “Has somebody just nuked the surface of Mars? That might explain all of the dust, and crumbling canyon walls.”
“Professor,” Kath interjected. “I would propose in this case that the wind patterns for a nuclear reaction would be too violent for this. We aren’t seeing the kind of wind needed.”
“Agreed, Kath. It was a ludicrous theory to being with, but it’s just that this is growing more and more frustrating,” he whispered as much to himself as to his students. Turning back, he completed his thought. “Team, what we really need are more answers and fewer questions. It seems that with every turn, this whole mystery grows more and more complicated.”
Reyd was the first to try to console the professor. “There does appear to be one answer, Professor.”
Zimmer looked up and gave a half-smile to his student.
“We now know that the cloud is not deep enough to obscure the entire canyon. We can see some of the walls. The cloud may be a couple of thousand feet thick, but certainly is not fifty thousand feet thick.”
“We might be able to get a better estimate,” began Joram. “If we scan the telescope along the canyon to the west, it will bring us to the Labyrinth, where we will be able to see various depths of the canyon and whether the cloud fully covers these more shallow regions or not.”
Without saying a word, the professor scaled the telescope platform again. Slowly guiding the telescope towards the west, they continued to see the occasionally billowing cloud of dust, indicating that the dynamics of the event causing this phenomenon were not local to the Candor region. Where clouds were not billowing, they saw a flat layer of dust hanging off of the valley floor. As they approached the western edge of the canyon, a massively wide expanse ended abruptly into a series of canyon narrows which intertwined in a chaotic, mazelike structure known as the Noctis Labyrinthus.
Joram broke the silence. “The Labyrinth of the Night. Professor, this is wonderful! We are nearing the end of the labyrinth where the canyons get narrower and shallower and yet we are still able to make them out.”
“What is the depth of the canyon here?” asked the professor turning away from the telescope controls and looking at his trio of helpers intently.
Reyd clicked the mouse a couple of times and noted the elevation on the plateau above and the floor below. “Twelve hundred feet, Professor!”
“Twelve hundred feet,” the professor nodded approval. “That sounds much better than fifty thousand feet! Kath, please call Dr. Avram again and let him know of our results. See if you can get him to assess a time frame for when this type of dust will settle out and give us a visual on the camp.”
“Yes, sir.” Kath raced back to her station and quickly placed the headset on her head.
“Gentlemen,” proceeded Zimmer. “It is time for us to turn our attention to the satellites. I’d like to get a visual lock on Satellite Four. Could you please calculate its current position and provide me with coordinates? If we can find this satellite, then we’ll be able to tune our telescope accordingly, and spot the remaining satellites in their current locations. Then, we’ll turn our attention to the shuttle, although it might be tougher to calculate its precise location and distance. Looking at my watch, I can see that we only have about an hour of nighttime left, so we’ll still have much to do tomorrow night as well.”
While Reyd pounded at the keyboard in front of them in an effort to make some very hurried calculations, and while Kath reintroduced herself to Ravid Avram to notify him of their discovery, Joram was beginning to feel a bit more helpful. His knowledge of the Martian terrain and suggestions for where to turn to for answers was proving to be a valuable asset to the team after all. Turning in his chair, he saw Professor Zimmer reclining in a chair with his hands behind his head and his eyes closed.
“Mr. Anders,” the professor spoke without opening eyes or appearing to be awake at all for that matter.
“Thank you for your suggestion on using Marineris to assess the dust cloud. A very astute suggestion that has provided us with a significant answer to an important question.”
Joram’s head lowered in humility for this recognition from a giant of an astrophysicist. “Thank you, Professor. I really just want to be as helpful as possible.”
The professor maintained his position and did not respond, but nodded his head slowly and took a deep breath.
“Professor,” interrupted Reyd. “I believe I have the coordinates for you, but I’m afraid that Satellite Four is behind Mars presently. It won’t emerge for another 6 hours.”
“Ok, if it wants to play hide-and-seek, then so be it. In the meantime, I think I’ll simply zoom away from the planet and put ourselves into needle-in-a-haystack mode of operation. In the meantime, can you calculate the remaining satellite coordinates?”
As Reyd typed again, Joram sat back and watched the show. The telescope slowly zoomed away from the labyrinth revealing Marineris on the left and Tharsis on the right. Olympus shortly came into view and a host of other unidentifiable features, but for the most part, the entire planet seemed to be covered in a cloud of dust. Joram was stunned that a dust storm could occur on such a global scale.
Presently, the entire globe was within the view of the telescope, and continued to diminish just a little more before the professor locked its position. Joram continued to wonder at the view and dream about what it would be like to be on Mars. How he envied those astronauts who had been able to step on its surface and study its features up close. And then… he saw… well… he saw something, but did not quite know what to make of it? He leaned forward, tilting his head and wrinkling his brow.
“Reyd, what the heck is this?”
Reyd looked up to where Joram was pointing at a dim undulating yellow stripe in the upper right hand corner of the screen. He shrugged his shoulders and stated indifferently. “Imaging anomaly, I guess. We see some strange things from time to time depending on the lighting situation and the optics.”
Reyd went back to typing on the keyboard, but Zimmer overheard the conversation and wandered over to take a look at what Joram had noticed.
“Can you try to clean that up, Reyd? It’s a curious piece of imagery.”
“Do you think that is necessary, Professor? It’s surely just some image problem,” Reyd rebutted.
“It may not be necessary,” responded Zimmer honestly. “However, I always lose faith in my data when optical abnormalities need to be filtered.”
For a few minutes, Reyd and Zimmer worked on their stations respectively, talking back and forth about their efforts to remove this figment. While the stripe was in the image, Zimmer worried about their ability to pinpoint the satellites. He figured that image problems would only turn their task of looking for a needle in a haystack into something much worse.
After persistent attempts to clean up the image, Reyd and Zimmer grew increasingly frustrated. This was not the time to be having technical difficulties. In just minutes now, the earliest light of dawn would begin.
“Professor, may I make a suggestion?” Joram spoke out.
“Would it be prudent to zoom out a little bit more and see if the optics will clean up the stripe?”
Zimmer slowly retracted the telescope and the red globe began retreating slowly from the screen again. The yellow streak persisted.
“Maybe we should try to pan as well,” suggestion Zimmer. “In case there is some pre-dawn light that might shift out of view with a different horizontal angle.”
This, however, drew more perplexing concern from the team, since the relative position of the stripe remained fixed, and as the red planet dipped out of the bottom of the image, the yellow stripe continued to pulse its dim straight beam of light just as a flashlight might do inside of a dark, dusty cave.
“Well, it just can’t be a real object,” stated Zimmer. “There must be some technical reason for this stripe to persist in our system. I’ll have our maintenance team look at it today…” He paused… “and yet, the stripe remains straight as an arrow. I would expect an imaging problem to demonstrate more curvature, because of the curved nature of our lenses.”
“Could it be a tail of a meteor or some other object, Sir?” suggested Joram.
Zimmer shook his head readily. “No, this… thing appears to be emanating light. Look at the undulating pattern. If this were a tail of some object, we might see some reflectivity of sunlight coming off of the dust and ice, but this pulsating… waving… geez… it almost looks like an Aurora in a straight, thin yellow line of light. Very strange.”
“I agree, Professor,” joined Reyd. “It may not be an imaging problem, but it may be some rendering problem with the image digitization software.”
“We definitely need maintenance to look at this.”
A few moments of thoughtful pondering and wonder was broken by the ring of a cell phone.
Zimmer tapped his ear implant and answered, “Hello, Carlton Zimmer here.”
“Hello, Professor, this is Vurim Gilroy at Johnson. Have you been able to assess anything this evening?”
“Yes, Dr. Gilroy. We’ve noticed that the dust cloud is much thinner than originally anticipated. We are talking with Ravid Avram now to assess a time frame for visual assessment.”
“Anything else odd, Professor?”
“No, nothing else at the moment, we will certainly continue our study tomorrow evening. Hopefully, Madrid can make some good progress tonight as well.”
“Professor, there is a report…” Vurim paused.
“A report, Doctor?”
“Yes… it appears that an amateur astronomer from the Mojave Desert called in a report at 4:15 AM pacific time. NASA has been notified that he discovered a faint yellow streak across the south-eastern sky stretching to both horizons.”
Zimmer stopped dead in his tracks, grew pale, and fixed a gaze at the telescope monitor, walking towards it slowly.
“Vurim! We are seeing it as well, but we assumed an imaging problem. This thing has no visual signature that I can ever recognize seeing.”
“There’s one other thing you should know, Professor.”
“Go ahead,” Zimmer said while remaining fixed on the yellow stripe.
“There are reports of a spike of electromagnetic activity on portions of Earth.”
After a brief pause, Zimmer asked quietly, “What kind of radiation are we talking about, Vurim?”
“Well, we’re not sure yet, but it is some form of high-energy ionizing particle radiation that is detectable, but not identifiable. It was a very quick, sudden, and low-volume burst… we don’t believe there is any harm to communications at this point, but there is something very odd about it, Professor.”
“The time of impact coincides with the Martian anomalies, and only the portions of the Earth which were facing Mars at the time of the incident report any such detection.”
“So, you calculate the impact to be about the same time as the satellite disappearance.”
“Not ‘about’, Professor. Exactly the same time.”
“Sounds like a significant piece of the puzzle, Vurim. Martian satellites disappear due to a radiation event, and the event is detected after the radiation hits sensors on Earth.”
“Professor, there is no after. Let me clarify. The radiation is detected synchronously at several stations on at least three continents. Then, three minutes and forty-seven seconds later, an alarm event in our control room indicated that we’d lost communication with the satellite up there. Considering that we are about forty-two million miles from Mars, three forty-seven is precisely the time it takes for signals to travel from Mars to Earth. That means, the exact point in time when the satellite stopped transmitting was the same point in time when the radiation hit the Earth. They are perfectly simultaneous events.”
Zimmer weighed this new information for a moment, stood up and clapped his hands.
“Vurim! This is great news.”
“What do you mean, Professor?”
“Well, what has stumped us the most is the exact timing of the loss of signals between objects at different distances! Now, we can relate this to a radiation event which probably knocked out all of your sensors at the same point in time… on Earth, not up on Mars.”
“Yes, it would seem so, but we’ve been studying the sensors, and they seem undamaged. They are able to receive signals from test sources in the labs here at the space center… And there’s one other thing.”
“A solar observatory in South Africa noticed a flash of intensity from the Sun—”
Zimmer paused, not wanting to admit he knew the point Gilroy was about to make.
“—at the exact same time!” Gilroy concluded. “Well, the clock at the African facility wasn’t accurate enough to show exactness in simultaneity, but they can confirm that the event occurred approximately at the same time, plus or minus three seconds.”
“I’m guessing the radiation couldn’t have screwed with those solar readings?”
“South Africa was not in the radiation path, Professor. They were on the opposite side of the planet when the rays hit.”
Zimmer shook his head vigorously. “I’m sorry, Vurim, but I’m not convinced. There simply must be a correlation. Sensor failure is the only rational explanation. The solar event could be a coincidence.” Then he glanced back at the yellow stripe. A sickening feeling hit his stomach. His voice grew quiet, as he spoke more to himself than to the NASA administrator. “But then again… there hasn’t been anything very rational about this whole mystery, has there? Dr. Gilroy, thank you for the call. We will continue to investigate.”
As he tapped his ear to terminate the communication with Gilroy, he stared at the streak in the image. Briefing his researchers on the situation, he explained, “So, we have a yellow streak in the sky, the likes of which have never been seen. Further, we have a communication failure from Mars, a radiation event on Earth, and a solar flare on the Sun that all happened within three seconds of each other.”
“But, Professor,” Reyd protested. “Light takes twelve minutes to travel from the Sun to Mars. No single event would be synchronized between these three heavenly bodies within a matter of seconds, unless the source of the event was equidistant to all three orbs.”
“Or, perhaps three different synchronous sources which were all equidistant to their respective locations,” suggested Kath.
“You realize,” Joram chimed in, “that either of those answers would suggest something orchestrated.”
“But, but whom? And why?!” Zimmer spoke more to himself than to the students as he fixed his gaze on the yellow undulating beam in the large video monitor overhead. “And what does that yellow beam have to do with it?”
Zimmer shook his head slowly, his brow furrowed in confusion and frustration. “I—I—don’t know.”
As the world’s foremost expert on all things astronomical, he tried to formulate a theory, but failed to think of anything reasonable. The entire room was embraced in silence. Zimmer, flanked by three confused graduate students, looked back up and continued to watch the yellow streak until the light of dawn persisted in obscuring it completely from view.