If you think this is a children's story, you are wrong…
It was a cold, but clear, December 21 evening, as heavily bundled little six-year-old Angela and her grandfather, Douglas Beauregard, French-Canadian from Louisiana, ex-military, amateur astronomer, retired to the Rockies, struggled against the railing on the narrow trail through deep snow to the observatory on the top of the ridge.
The Fosters had only been there a couple of days during Angela's winter holiday vacation from school, when they would have to return to LA in the morning. The family had been delayed in coming by heavy snow and was supposed to have arrived three days earlier. But they were caught in holiday traffic and the backup at the airports, as well as the treacherous roads between here and Denver.
Doug had taken the entire summer to build the observatory and he was damn proud of it. Unfortunately, Dave and Julie, Doug's daughter and her husband, couldn't bring Angela to the Beauregard's retirement home during the summer vacation because Julie was working as an Assistant DA overtime and Dave was unemployed as an accountant for a defunct insurance company. It was only when Doug and Marcy sent money for tickets that the Fosters were able to come during the holiday at all. The family had to leave on the 22nd to get back to see Grandma and Grandpa Foster in San Clemente at Christmas. Doug guessed it was his own fault for having built their retirement home so far from anywhere. At least this home was self-sustaining and far from the crowded cities like Denver and LA. Gated communities like the elder Foster's were just not the Beauregard’s cup of tea.
Doug had planned for the whole Foster family to go see the observatory, but the storms and icing had made it very difficult to make the trek up the mountain, so Dave and Julie politely declined, saying that they were “too tired from fighting to get here” and more than happy to just loaf around, enjoy the fireplace and drink hot toddies. In spite of the cold, Angela was excited about seeing, “Grandpa's telescope on the mountain.”
It got darker as they approached the observatory. Aurora borealis started to spread across the sky. “Look grandpa!” Angela was excited when she saw them. “What are those? I have never seen anything like that! What are they, ghosts?”
“No… No… Those are Aurora Borealis. We just call them Aurora, and, in the old days they were called Northern lights because they only appeared in the northern parts of the world. Turned out they were in the southern parts too, but there were few or no people down there to see them and call them Southern lights.” Grandpa Doug chuckled at his own little assessment. Angie was too engrossed to pay much attention to the fact or joke.
“They sure are pretty, grandpa. And look! There are other colors besides green. I see some red and some yellow but they keep moving all the time.”
“Yes Angie, Aurora do keep moving because they are caused by the Sun sending radiation into our high atmosphere where they collide with the Earth's magnetic field and create these beautiful moving curtains of light.”
“That sounds complicated. I like to think that God made them just for me. Why can't I see them at home?”
“You can't see them in Los Angeles because the city produces so much light that you can't even see the stars for all the light in the atmosphere. That's why I built my observatory high up on this mountain so that I have a clear view of the sky and can see all of its wonders, even Aurora.”
Suddenly, a meteor streaked across the entire sky, leaving a brilliant trail of light that lasted exceptionally long for a meteorite. “What's that? Grandpa! That's scary. Did one of the stars fall? There are so many.”
“No dear, a star didn't fall. That is just a meteor. It's a piece of rock that is floating in space and enters our atmosphere and burns out like a match. Haven't you ever seen a meteor before?”
“No grandpa, I haven't. Boy, being up here in the mountains sure is exciting. I never saw so many things except clouds and airplanes in the sky before. Is there anything else to see?”
“Yes dear, there sure is. That's why I built this observatory. So I can see a lot more. Oh, by the way, an old saying says that when you see a shooting star… That's what they used to call meteors… You are supposed to make a wish and the wish will come true . You can make a wish if you like.”
“I make a wish that all the world's people, that Christians, Jews, and Muslims, would stop fighting and make peace with one another.”
“My, my… That is a pretty grown-up wish for a little girl. What made you think of such a wish?”
“We learned in Sunday school that all religions are pretty much alike and all people are pretty much alike and there's really no reason for them to be fighting all the time. So I made a wish so that all the little boys and girls like me in the world would not have to lose their mommies and daddies to war. When Jesus was born, he was a Jew. A star appeared in the East, and three Kings… I think they were Arabs or Muslims, came to honor him. That star must've been telling them something for them to come all that way and honor a little baby?”
“I hope your wish comes true , Angie. The stars tell us a lot. That's why I built this observatory… So I can study them.”
By that time the pair had reached the door of the geodesic dome that comprised the observatory. Doug threw the heavy latch, unlocked, because one never knew who would get stranded on the mountain and need shelter, and they slipped inside to a dark, confined space that seemed colder than a morgue. Doug flipped the switch on the propane heater and its flame immediately lit the room. After turning on the fuel cell, he flipped on the lights and the room became lit with many little LEDs and LCDs brightening up the place considerably. Within five minutes, it was toasty warm and they took off their coats and boots and got down to the business of having a hot chocolate with grandpa Doug showing Angela the equipment.
After showing Angela the computers and cameras mounted to the telescope, Doug sat down on the swivel chair and lined up the telescope to the place in the sky that he thought that Angie would like to see. Before he did, Doug went to the desk and pulled out an old, tattered book with the words, “Constellations,” across the cover.
They paged through all manner of drawings of animals and mythic beasts until they came to one, a warrior named, Orion. Angela had never heard of Orion, so Doug explained. “Ancient people were comforted by looking at the sky at night and seeing that the same stars were always there. Very soon, they began to use the stars to guide them on their way. Certain groups of stars, we call constellations, were named after familiar figures, like horses, cats or bears. The Greeks named the constellation Orion after a great God warrior. What I did a little while ago was aim the telescope at Orion so that you can see it magnified. See the stars drawn here on the paper and the outline of Orion drawn on them? Let's see if you can find those stars in the telescope view.”
After having her study the drawing for a moment, Doug placed Angie on the swivel chair, and had her look through the eyepiece to see if she could see Orion.
“I can see a lot of stars, grandpa, a lot more than I could see outside and they are a lot bigger! I think I see Orion, but he's a lot bigger than in the drawing, and… and… there's something else by Orion's right shoulder… It's blurry… But it looks like… It looks like… A cross! Should I wish on that grandpa? Should I wish on the cross?”
Intrigued, Doug leaned forward. He didn't see anything on the monitor like Angie was seeing in the eyepiece. “No, dear, we don't wish on crosses that we see in the sky or we'd be wishing all the time. Here, let me take a look. Doug gently moved Angela off the chair and he sat down and took a look. As much as Doug would have liked, he couldn't see anything near the right shoulder of Orion even with Angie eagerly directing him to look up and down and left and right. Grandpa Beauregard only saw the blob of a distant galaxy where she was pointing him to. Finally, Doug had Angela sit down again and confirm that she really saw something like a cross.
“There it is, grandpa. It looks like a cross; just like the crosses in the church only it's on its side pointing toward us. It's made up of pearls. You know, strung together like that necklace mommy has. It is beautiful!”
To get to the bottom of it, Doug showed how he could use the monitor to increase the gain on the telescope to get a clearer view of any part of any constellation, or star for that matter. As he located the right shoulder of Orion on the monitor and then zoomed in on the area that Angie kept pointing to, a faint blurry object begin to appear and then got clearer as it got larger in the screen, eventually forming a cross that appeared to be pointed directly at them. The way Doug had seen actors point a cross at a vampire to ward it off in the movies. Each of the stars were blurry and seemed to be touching one another, easily mistaken for a string of pearls.
Doug patted his granddaughter on the shoulder. “My, my what a find, my girl. These old eyes aren't what they used to be. If this turns out to be a new star formation, we'll just have to name it, “Angie's Cross,” in your honor as the discoverer. I've never seen it before, and I don't believe my buddies have either. I'm going to snap this picture and send it to my friends in New Zealand and Iceland and see if they can verify whether or not it is in the catalog of known objects and maybe you found a new one with your telescopic eyes!” He laughed out loud at the thought of his granddaughter making a new discovery. Angie giggled too, happy, but unsure what she had done to make her grandfather laugh so loud.
Doug showed her how he wrote an e-mail on the computer, attached the photo, and sent it. Angie began to yawn while he worked. It was then that he realized that she had had an iPad that he bought her when she was three and sending e-mails was old hat for her. But the yawning also signaled that she was getting tired from her strenuous, cold adventure, too, and needed to get back down to the house so she could go to bed like any other six-year-old.
They bundled back up and Doug turned off the propane heater and the fuel cell. The night was still clear, quiet, and cold. The cold had penetrated their heavy sweaters by the time they reached the cabin and another hot chocolate by the fire before going to bed.
The next morning, bright and early, there were hugs and kisses all around and tears in Marcy's eyes because she was staying at home while Doug drove the Fosters to the airport. Fortunately, his late model, extended range hybrid handled the family and their luggage quite well, and because of its all-wheel-drive, only needed chains for the first 50 miles or so. It was always an arduous trip, especially in a storm like he had done three days earlier, but Doug was used to it and he got them to the airport by 11 am, more than an hour before their 1:20 pm flight. There were more hugs and kisses and tears. Grandpa Doug promised Angie that he would e-mail her the results of her find the night before as soon as he got them. Doug got back on the road for the lonely drive home up the mountain. This time, he wasn't lonely because Doug had something on his mind that kept him occupied—the object that Angela had discovered.
Doug arrived home around 4 pm, tired and hungry, so Marcy had a hot meal waiting for him. Doug rushed through the meal, anxious to get back up to the observatory. Marcy saw his anxiety and asked, “Are you sure you want to go to the observatory tonight? It's supposed to be 20º below zero out there, probably colder up on the ridge. I can't see why you keep risking your life going out there in that cold and those icy conditions alone just to communicate with your astronomy buddies. Even risked our granddaughter. I was going to stop you last night, but I didn't want to start a ruckus in front of the children. At some point you're going to have to stop going out in weather like this.” Marcy spoke in her, usual, calm manner, but there was a tenseness in her voice that showed on her face that she cared. She had only been to the observatory two or three times, finding the climb too difficult even in the warm summer and fall.
“I have to go, Marcy. Angela has made a discovery that I have to check on. Who knows, she may even be famous.” Doug flashed that wry smile of his that he only revealed when he was dead sure that he was right—and that was most of the time. "And the weather is great, crystal clear, you couldn't ask for better weather to view the sky." As usual, Marcy caved in and let him go.
It was cold. Much colder than the night before. By the time Doug got to the observatory door, his feet were tingling and his nose was stinging like it was about to get frost bit. He was so glad the propane heater gave almost instant heat. Doug wasted no time turning on the fuel cell and getting all the equipment turned on and warmed up. He was eager to get to that new object and figure out what it was.
Finally, he lined up the telescope and took a look. For some reason, he could see it now when he couldn't see it yesterday—strange. He checked the monitor. The object had moved! Was it a near Earth object, a NEO? To be sure, Doug cranked the gain to the same magnification of the night before and took another snapshot of the cross like object. The individual "pearls" were larger and the fuzziness between them indicated dust or ice crystals like a comet. “Must be a comet or a group of asteroid fragments from a collision of some sort.” Doug muttered out loud. “Will have to see what the others say.”
Doug opened his e-mail to see if he had any responses. There was only one from Arni Thorson from his private observatory on Knappar Mountain, Iceland. It read: “Hi Doug, Got your e-mail and the photo… Looks interesting. Too busy to deal with it right now. Will get back to you about it after Christmas. Merry Christmas! Arni.”
"After Christmas will be too late." Doug muttered to himself.
Arni had retired and sold his .com back in 2003 for a tidy sum of 700 million and had settled in his own little enclave at the base of Mount Knappar where he indulged himself in amateur astronomy, auto racing, fine art, and various other pastimes that his considerable money could afford.
There was nothing from Allen Einhorn from the Mount Blake Observatory in New Zealand. Allen and Doug had a long relationship going back to when they were pen pals in high school and just a couple of guys studying amateur astronomy and girls at the same time. Allen was still working as astronomer emeritus from the University of Auckland, spending most of his time at the Observatory.
It's 6:15 pm, Doug thought. That means it's 1:15 am in Iceland. I'd better call Allen and see why he hasn't answered my e-mail. It's 2:15 pm in Auckland, so, it should be easy to catch him, holidays or not. Doug dialed Allen's cell phone number and waited for a response. After eight rings, he got Allen's message. Doug fired a message back, “Hi Allen. It's Doug calling. Give me a ring back at your earliest… It's important. Call me back right away, okay.”
Doug set about doing the calculations. It was a far cry from the old days when they had to take grainy black-and-white photos and then make estimates using calculators and astronomical equations to figure out a NEO's velocity and trajectory. More often than not, it took redoing the calculations over and over before they could be sure exactly where a comet or other space object was headed and how fast. With his laptop plugged in to his high-resolution monitor, Doug was able to make a cursory estimate from the data he had on the two photographs. The numbers popped up on the screen. “Damn! I never would've expected that!” Doug shouted out to no one at all in the empty observatory where it bounced around for a moment before settling down like a drumbeat.
Just then the phone rang. It was Allen. “Hi Mate, sorry I didn't get to the phone right away. We're here on the beach with the holidays. Must be bloody cold where you are at on top of that mountain.”
“Twenty-seven° below zero, Fahrenheit. Did you get my e-mail? I sent it to you twenty-four hours ago.”
“I'm sorry Doug. I must get over a hundred e-mails a day. About twenty of them are work related that I have to answer, and then I have to wade through the rest to find the gems from guys like you. Frankly, I didn't look at my e-mail yesterday or the day before. Been on holiday, you know?”
“Well, I'm about to pull you off your holiday because I've got something big that I'm going to need all your help with. I sent you a photograph twenty-four hours ago of an object that my granddaughter saw near the right shoulder of Orion. It is shaped like a cross, leaning forward, and, from my earlier calculations appeared to be a NEO from the Oort Cloud or Kuiper Belt. I don't know… May have been the result of a collision between two of the larger objects we have in the inventory. The fragments are strung out looking like a cross. That's how my granddaughter spotted it so easily. My calculations now have these fragments reaching Earth within the orbit of the moon in about 72 hours, a far Earth object (FEO)! I sure hope this is just a interesting flyby, because we haven't got much time.”
“I believe you, Mate. I'm about to tell my family I'm headed for the observatory until after Christmas. Send me what you've got to my cell phone so I have a head start by the time I get there. I'll check in with you again about three hours from now.”
“That's a Roger. Bye now.”
Doug thought for a moment, and then decided to make the other call. He would wake Arni up. The phone rang about six times until a raspy, sleepy sounding voice answered in Icelandic.
“Hi, Arni? This is Doug. So sorry to wake you up in the middle of the night, but I feel that I need your help on that e-mail I sent you yesterday. It's not just a possible discovery, it's more serious than I thought.”
“Serious? What are you saying? Is that you, Doug? I'm sorry, I'm still not awake and you know what that means for my English. Are you telling me that that e-mail was about something serious?”
“Yes, Arni. When I sent it, I thought my granddaughter had seen what might be a new discovery… a new object. Turns out that, now, twenty-four hours later, the new object appears to be a FEO made up of fragments from, perhaps, an extrasolar object or one or two other objects from the Oort Cloud or from the Kuiper Belt, headed straight for Earth! And very soon! I'm so sorry to call you like this, but I really need your help.”
“I'm awake now and hearing you loud and clear. I was supposed to preside over a big Christmas celebration for our extended family here, but I might have to bow out if this is as big as you say. I should get to my observatory within the hour and get back with you. Hopefully, we can clear this up in time for me to catch a little sleep before I have to make preparations for our celebration.”
“See you in an hour when I get to the observatory. Bye."
Doug had two more calls to make. Marcy was first on his list.
“Hi Marcy. It's me, Doug. It looks like I won't be coming home tonight. That object that Angie found last night appears to be a comet or some asteroid fragments that are headed toward the Earth and I have to stay up here and monitor them until we find out it's safe before I can leave.”
“Oh dear, these things are always so important to you. You need to come down off that mountain tonight before you freeze your tail off. I made a late supper for you.”
“I won't freeze my tail. I've got enough propane to heat this place for two years, the wind generator and solar panels are keeping the batteries fully charged and creating hydrogen. And the fuel cell is working like a charm, giving me all the electricity I need. I will need some food and a blanket, you know, basic camping stuff, for three days. Could you call George down at the ranch and ask him to bring it up to me? And, by the way, invite him and his family to join us at Christmas dinner, okay?”
“Oh Honey, you are always so right. I was thinking the same thing. Why, George almost built that observatory for you by himself. With you just watching and giving orders. We owe it to him and his hard-working family. I'll make some special treats for the kids.”
“Don't worry about me. I'll be fine. I expect I'll be back sometime Christmas morning (a little white lie). Bye now, Sweetie.”
“Bye, bye, Honey.”
The last call was the hardest. Doug had to call Dave and Julie.
“Hello, Julie Foster speaking.”
“Hi Julie. Glad I got you first. How was your flight?”
“A lot better than the last one. Everybody seems to be going the other direction. We are getting packed for San Clemente. We are getting up early and should be there by 8 am ahead of traffic that is terrible on I-5 this time of year.”
“I don't know how to tell you this, except to just tell you. You know that object that Angie found last night with me at the observatory? Well, tonight I found out that it's a FEO. You know what that means. It means that it is something that is heading our way and very quickly, probably within the next 72 hours. And… and I have a premonition. A premonition that something very bad is going to happen. I want you, Dave, and Angie to come back here right away. I don't care what it costs; I'll call the airline for the tickets and pay for them. I want you here if it happens.”
“Oh, Daddy. All this astronomy stuff is going to your head. Nothing's going to happen. The last time an asteroid struck the earth was 65 million years ago. Oh yes, there was that meteor that exploded over Siberia in 1908, but they are so, so rare…”
“I know they are rare… something like, only smaller, the Tunguska, Siberia event occurred over northern Hudson Bay in 2000. But I just have a premonition, that's all. Anyway, if you can't come, keep your cell phone close by just in case, and I'll call you after we figure this thing out. If it is bad, I want you to have time to get here and I don't want you down there on the California coast. It's just too dangerous.”
“I will Daddy. I will… Bye."
" Bye, bye.”
By that time the phone was ringing. It was Arni.
“You sure got there in a hurry, Arni. Let me send you an e-mail with the second picture so you can see what I'm talking about.”
“The wife was pretty disappointed, but I told her to carry on without me, and I'll get back to the party as soon as I can. I need to be presiding on Christmas Day. So… What have you got for me?”
“A new FEO, I'm afraid. I'm going to call it, Angela-Beauregard 1, for the moment. It doesn't appear to be a comet yet, but rather a series of asteroid fragments that form a kind of cross, leaning forward, as if directly toward Earth. You can see it clearly in the second photograph. Have you got it?”
“I sure do, let me save it and get both copies up on my monitor… There, it's done. I see what you mean. It certainly does look like fragments. There doesn't seem to be any flaring or tail like a comet yet. More solid than ice.”
“I'm looking at it now. Can you still see Orion?”
“No, it's just slid over the horizon. It'll be 15 hours until I have a good view like you. Tell you what I'll do. I'll do some calculations and send you an e-mail with my best guess and call at the same time. Should be able to do that within an hour. You will still be there, won't you? And then, I'll go back on down the mountain and work on the party for a while and then get back up here 10 hours from now. Okay?”
“Sounds like a plan. Stay close to your cell phone. I'm here for the duration. Will catch a little sleep when I can. Over and out.”
“The same… Bye."
It was now 11:34 pm and Doug was tired. He curled up on the wood floor of the observatory. It was warm but Doug couldn’t sleep with the sound of the propane heater and the thoughts running around in his head.
About 2:30 am the phone rang again. Doug was a bit groggy, but caught it after three rings.
“Hi Doug. It's Allen. I took the liberty of looking at your two e-mails and have compared the pictures. Also have done a little calculating myself. You are right. The FEO may be fragments of an asteroid and not a comet. I've also done a trajectory of the orbit it is taking. I think I know where it came from. It may be that object that Hubble found, 2060 Chiron, or just, Chiron.
“I just looked, and Chiron is not where it's supposed to be from the last time it was photographed. That sucker is over 170 km in diameter. The size of those fragments would indicate that something has collided with Chiron, causing it to break up, whip around Neptune, change orbits and head our way.”
“That's what I suspected, a collision. Hence the fragments. As you know from my e-mail, I have the FEO passing within the Moon orbit and reaching the Earth about 3 pm, Mountain Standard Time (MST), Christmas Day. I've got Arni working on it too, but you'll have a window on Orion much earlier than he will. We can get him into the conversation anytime we want on a conference call or via Skype. What's your preference?”
“Skype is better because we can share sketches and calculations faster without having to rely on e-mails. I suggest we include Ashra Putka Mirindi, you know, Puky, who reneged the crown of Nepal after the massacre in 2001 and retired to his observatory and Buddhist ascetism. Puky's in the right location to give us readings between Arni and me and there's nobody that can calculate orbits and trajectories better than Puky. Four of us are enough for now. Don't want to set off any false alarms or any panic over nothing."
"Puky is a great idea. Let's see, it's about 11 am in Kathmandu. If he isn't in prayer, we should be able to make a conference call right now. First, let's pull up Skype so we can compare what we have right away."
Doug looked up Puky's phone number on his directory of observatories and made the call, linking it to the connection he had with Allen. The phone rang about 10 times, but then a diminutive voice answered the phone in English but with a heavy Indian accent. "Hallo."
"Hello, this is Doug Beauregard calling from the United States. Are you sitting down?”
“Of course, I am assuming the usual position I find most restful for my work. I knew you would call.”
“You knew I would call? How could you know that? It was just moments ago that Allen…”
“It was during the morning prayers. The Sun had a rainbow around it. While I know from astronomy that it is only ice crystals, Buddhist teachings tell us that a great astronomical event is about to take place. Hence, that is why you called.”
“You're damned right it is. It's amazing how the mystic brain can surmise these things. Here's the scoop. My granddaughter, Angela, spotted a FEO on the right shoulder of Orion about 31 hours ago. It is coming at a tremendous speed, and, Allen Einhorn, Arni Thorson and I have calculated that it will arrive at Earth approximately 3 pm MST on Christmas Day in the United States. If and where it will hit we are trying to figure out before time is up. We really need your help. Do you have Skype?”
“Does the Dalai Lama have followers? And you shouldn't cuss… although what you're telling me should probably have me spouting some epithets in Sanskrit or other appropriate language. I am opening my Skype as we speak. Beam me in, Douggie.” Everyone giggled. They needed to lighten up. Puky was always fun to be around.
“You should get a window on Orion about eight hours from now. You will be our best shot at getting good numbers if we are going to tell anyone else what is happening. By the time Arni sees it, it may be too late. Do your magic on the information I'm giving you and let us know what you think as soon as you have done your calculations.”
“I don't do magic. I am a scientist with mystic intuition. I will do my best for you. I know you must be tired and lack sleep. I will wait until Allen gets his pictures before I get back to you. In the meantime, I will check Skype every few minutes if you have anything new to add. In the meantime, get some sleep Doug. Allen and I will pick it up from here.”
Doug dozed off for a while. He was exhausted. He heard knocking on the door. It was George. George Bearclaw was an imposing man in many ways. His great great-grandfather was a scout for Union troops settling the West after serving in the Civil War. For his service, John Bearclaw had been given this ranch in the high country that had seen many a challenge from blizzards to droughts, to cattle diseases and cattle rustlers, until it was only by tenacity that the family held on. George was the fortunate one, having studied and got his degree in agriculture from the University of Nebraska. So now, the ranch was finally prospering. George and his wife Anna had four growing children from ages 4 to 17, and George's father, Charles, still active at 74, to help keep the ranch going. Doug had bought his little piece of heaven from George some twenty years ago when they met at a symposium in San Francisco, both intrigued with each other's lives. Doug had helped George make the ranch produce electricity for the grid and George had helped Doug build his little piece of heaven, including the observatory for his retirement.
“Ahh…Ahh… who is it? Who's there?” Doug was still too sleepy to realize that it could only be George.
“It's me, George. I brought all those things you ordered. You must think I'm a pack animal. There must be 200 pounds of gear here!” George was prone to a little exaggeration and good humor at 7 am. Where's that hot coffee! It's cold out there!” The door was open and George was already inside by the time he stopped his wake-up call.
“Thanks George. For that I'll have to make some coffee for both of us. I sure hope you brought some bacon and eggs, because I'm hungry.”
Doug confided in George what had been happening and told him not to even tell his family until they knew for sure what was going on. They had breakfast together and then George had to get back to his ranch, protecting his animals from the weather, keeping them well fed and watered. “Bring the family to the house for dinner on Christmas Day. I'm not going to let this little thing stop us from celebrating. Check on the mine though, make sure everything is in place and working.”
George left and Doug felt refreshed enough to check on Allen and see what he had found out. He pulled Allen up on Skype and took a look. “Aye there, Mate. Are you on board?” Doug mocked Allen's accent as he tried to get his attention to Skype.
“I be here, Mate, a working on your problem. I just got Orion in view. It's far from zenith, but I've already taken a couple of shots, because, as you know, this thing is moving awfully fast—it's got to be extra stellar—probably from deep space and may not even be orbiting the sun. So far from what I can see, and I'm posting the pictures as I speak, it has some of the characteristics of both comets and asteroids. And its pattern, no longer a cross, but more like a mass of rubble more than 100,000 km in diameter, could be the result of some deep space object colliding with Chiron in orbit of the Sun, throwing everything off course into a rapidly deteriorating orbit into the Sun. It came from just the other side of Neptune but it's already inside the orbit of Mars, faster than anything I've seen in a long time.”
Arni popped on the screen, and Puky was close behind. Arni declared, “George, it looks like you were right. My calculations say sometime in the afternoon of Christmas Day MST, just like you predicted earlier.”
Puky, the human computer, put in his two cents. “I think, more precisely, the first strike will be approximately 3:47 pm MST. It will be substantial, but mostly over ocean. Others will follow, but I'm not sure exactly when and where they will hit. I'm still going over the calculations from the dim photographs that Allen is sending. Perhaps I can more precisely determine these things once I have Orion in view in another three hours.”
Doug tried to come to some conclusions. “Okay then. Allen's superior equipment is telling us that the objects are multiple and coming very fast, and, as I earlier predicted, will probably strike the Earth at some point. If they do, the destruction will be immediate and catastrophic. There is no way of warning anyone in any way that would save lives. If we told anyone now, panic would likely set in and kill more people than a meteor strike. On the other hand, if we don't. I'm sure that United States military surveillance will, and the cat will be out of the bag anyway.”
“The Internet may have it already. There are any number of astronomers around the globe that could have seen it. There are also many surveillance programs on the Internet monitoring telephone lines and Internet traffic that could have picked up our discussions or even our pictures from our e-mails or Skype. I'm not saying we shouldn't use these devices to communicate. I'm just saying that it could be entirely possible. As for the kind of warning we could give. I would hate to think that it would get in the hands of political leaders coming up with rash statements about how to deal with a disaster that hadn't even happened—yet.”
Arni laughed. “Allen, I know you work for the government and all that where conspiracies reign supreme, cranking out papers about all sorts of possibilities that never happen. But, the fact is, having worked with the Internet, that most information on the Internet goes undetected and unmonitored. Are you suggesting we start a rumor?”
“No, Arni. I'm only saying that it won't be easy to warn anybody the way rumors get started and politicians pontificate from lack of knowledge on how to deal with real disasters. Besides, the public always panics and it creates more problems. If this is big, and it looks like it is, more people will be killed in panic than in the actual disaster.”
Doug asked, "What do you think, Puky? You seem uncharacteristically quiet."
"I've been thinking. My brother is King of Nepal. That status enables him unlimited access to heads of state. For example, he can call the President of the United States without going through protocol. I suggest we formulate a statement. I will pass that statement to my brother and my brother will pass that statement directly to the President of the United States. Once that is done, we are not to blame for what happens next. We will have adequately warned the world, regardless of the outcome."
"That's brilliant!" Arni cheered the idea on. "We haven't much time, we need to make a statement now, and once the world is alerted, we can modify our projections as time would allow, like weather reporters."
"Like weather reporters? Even here, down under, weather reporters are wrong most of time." Allen chuckled. "Puky's the one that's supposed to be funny."
"Yes, but we are not dealing with atmospheric changes here, the closer this thing gets, the more precisely we can predict where the pieces will go. We are sidetracked. We need to focus on a Statement to the World." Doug let everyone know that he was dead serious and in charge of the biggest challenge they would ever face.
They worked together for about 15 minutes and came up with this statement:
"Citizens of the World. Four astronomers have discovered and are tracking a new comet or asteroid titled, Angela-Beauregard 1 (AB-1). This object is a cluster of objects traveling at great speed and scheduled to arrive at the Earth approximately 5 pm EST on Christmas Day. Prior to that time, in preparation, people living near the sea should evacuate to higher ground, more than 1000 feet above sea level. All others should remain in their homes and gather family around, along with as much water and nonperishable food supplies as they can gather in such a short time. Those with underground shelter should gather there. Basements and the centers of large buildings should also be sought out. All windows should be shuttered or boarded up. Several objects may strike the atmosphere with tremendous explosion, fire, and heat. Some may reach the Earth's surface and cause untold damage. For that, no one can prepare. We urge everyone to go about their business with kindness and urgency so that as many lives as possible can be saved. We urge everyone to stay connected to communication for any updates to this message. It is our hope that these objects will not strike the Earth. However, only time will tell and we have very little of that. So, please pray that these objects will not hit the Earth and disaster will be averted."
When everyone had agreed to the wording of the message, Puky agreed to take it to his brother, immediately. Now it was only a matter of beginning to predict, precisely, when and where. Allen's pictures were coming in and they were getting the best images they had seen so far.
Fifteen minutes later the phone rang. Doug was expecting Marcy or Julie. Instead, a terse voice said, "Stand by for the President of the United States."
"Hello. This is President Mark Swanson. I have just received a message from Nepal that you have discovered an object or objects hurtling towards the Earth. Is that correct?"
"Yes... yes. Three of my fellow astronomers around the world and I have made a discovery and preliminary calculations that are very frightening. We need more time to be more precise, but we have very little."
"I'm in the Situation Room right now conferring with our military and best scientific minds on how to act. Is there any military threat?"
"No... none whatsoever. If disaster strikes it will include the entire Earth and no country will be safe. We must warn everyone at the same time. And you, Mr. President, can do that."
"Okay then, I'll throw the best we have in to help you determine where this thing or things will hit. I will also notify all the world leaders and prepare the United States for whatever inevitability may arise. We have multiple plans for multiple scenarios. In any case, it's my job to stay light on my feet and meet with any obstacle that comes my way. Thanks for your alert. Godspeed in your efforts." He hung up before Doug could answer.
Within an hour, the head of NASA's astrophysical division was Skyped into the mix along with I-COMM, a top-secret quasigovernmental worldwide network of spy satellites and computers designed to listen in on the Earth and Space. The Hubble Space Telescope was directed towards the cluster to get the best photographs possible. These two entities were there only to receive information and offer support. President Swanson's strict written orders were that the four astronomers would call the shots.
Three hours later, Puky began to get good pictures of the objects. About the same time, Doug relayed pictures from Hubble. The Hubble shots clearly showed the "string of pearls" image that everyone remembered from Comet Shoemaker-Levy 9 colliding with Jupiter in 1994. There were comet tails on some of the objects, but some of them seemed to be solider and had no tails. It was a mixed bag that had to be sorted out. The cluster was dispersing slightly, probably from interactions between the pieces and gravitational shifts between the cluster and other bodies in orbit of the Sun. From these images numbers were crunched and conclusions were drawn by each of the four observers.
Doug led off the discussion. "The Hubble images clearly show we've got two kinds of objects here. Some mostly ice, and some nickel iron chrondrite. We've got 10 big ones, over a kilometer across, over 50 medium-sized ones the size of buildings, and thousands of pieces in between—a real mess. The only good news is that the central mass of objects should pass directly between the orbit of the Moon around the Earth.”
“My calculations show a similar path, but I have been observing the individual objects in the cluster, and they seem to be changing position all the time, making it difficult for me to pin down what each one's final trajectory will be.” Allen was being cautious. He knew that some of the objects were moving away from the others, but he didn't want to announce it too soon.
Arni had another slant. My Google calculations are nearly complete. I have smart categorized and labeled all the pieces. See the diagram I just placed up. There's good news and bad news. The good news is that the majority of the cluster, rapidly dispersing, will not have enough mass to cause any gravitational effects. Unfortunately the fragments on the lower left-hand corner, labeled 5, 7, 13, and 66 have trajectories that could enter the Earth's atmosphere approximately 2:56 pm MST. There are other, smaller bits and pieces among these four large and medium sized objects, but they are of small concern and will probably burn up in the atmosphere.”
Puky had the last word. “I am just now seeing the objects we have been discussing from my clear view here in the Himalayas and have just downloaded the latest from Hubble. The object you call #5 is 20 km across and is made up primarily of ice. This object will strike the atmosphere over the Philippines traveling westward to impact all of Southeast Asia including all of the islands of Indonesia, Vietnam, Thailand, Taiwan, New Guinea, and Malaysia precisely at 2:55 pm MST. This one will probably melt and evaporate in the atmosphere, but the shock wave will heat the area immensely and cause a tsunami of unknown proportions. The one you call #13 is a bad one. It is 1.2 km across and is made up of very solid material, iron and nickel. This one will enter the atmosphere over India and Pakistan and surely strike Iran at precisely 2:57 pm MST. It will be a near extinction event, but, if we prepare and persevere, life on earth will return to normal in approximately 3 years. (Puky could be heard crying even though his face wasn't on the screen). Object #7 is like #13 but about half the size, and will strike Jerusalem at precisely 3 pm MST. (Puky 's voice was now just a whisper as he struggled to get through what he was saying). Finally, the object you call #66 will reach the atmosphere over Spain and disintegrate over the Atlantic Ocean, providing a tsunami for the Eastern Coast of the United States. This one is also made up mostly of ice and the size of a large office building. There are many other objects accompanying these four major ones. They appear to be mostly ice and should not cause any damage. But we can expect meteorites to reach the surface of the earth like small bombs almost anywhere 500 miles on a line between the Philippines and Portugal. The ice reaching the atmosphere will be primarily turned to water vapor and dust and will cause tremendous rain and flooding for many days after the events. We can expect many earthquakes and volcanic eruptions as a result of shifting of the tectonic plates by the asteroids' impacts.” Puky was sobbing in the background and his Skype connection went dead.
“How does he know all that?” Allen was impressed with Puky 's ability to predict what would happen.
With a shudder running down his back, thinking of what was to come, Doug summed up his conclusion. “He just does. That's why I called on him to join us. I've never known anyone with a brain like that who could do the calculations better than the best computers. We are grateful to have a colleague like Puky. Now, we must deal with the bad news. We should keep on monitoring, but the focus now should be on preserving as much life as possible. That will be up to individuals and governments. I'm asking you all to join your families and preserve what you can. I already have plans for my family, here in the Rocky Mountains. The President's people are listening to us right now and making plans for the government and for as many people as possible. I will try to stay online as long as possible. You are invited to contact me at any time during the remaining few hours until impact. After that, I hope we will connect again. Good luck and Godspeed.”
See Part 2 for the rest of the story...
Copyright 2012 © Ronald W. Hull
4/4/12 Revised 4/27/12