How things could be…
The night sky looms with an empty blackness. Stray stars seem to twinkle in the atmosphere above the observatory, inviting lights showing the way up to greatness, away from the dusty ground. One light, as are many others, was on the move. Scientists track hundreds to thousands of asteroids, meteoroids and comets as they soar through space. The movements of each are tracked by humanity’s software, cataloged, and cross-referenced by virtual agents, whose computing power comes from volunteer civilian laptops in the richer of the planet’s nations.
Tonight, a message flashes, as SKiWATCHER, a virtual software agent to track the movements of near-Earth objects, finds a match within its parameters.
A sleepy woman pushes off from her desk, gliding over in her rolling desk chair to the screen with the flashing icon. “! NEO detected. Preliminary analysis rating at 10 on the Torino scale. Verification required.” Half-asleep she reads the message without understanding, once, twice, but by the third time she wakes up. A lot of people will be woken up, soon, for what the message means.
Currently it means nothing. Scientists have to double check. And then triple check. They have to be sure they are right before they can share their very specific findings.
The more people she called – her boss, her international collaborators, other scientists both amateur civilian and academic expert – the more it became clear they had a positive match.
And less and less time each day to prevent the end of the world.
“What does this mean?” the news interviewer asked.
After his fourth news sit-down, Li had grown tired of that question. “It is very simple. Asteroid hunters, scientists who watch the skies for objects that could come near Earth, have found a near-Earth object that is on a collision course with the planet. The asteroid is 20 kilometers across and moving at three kilometers per second, meaning that if it hits the Earth it will have an impact force equivalent to a 100 megaton explosion. Even though it is estimated to land in the Atlantic, not far from Washington D.C. or New York City, the tidal wave and matter ejection effects would be catastrophic for the whole planet.” He could understand that such a rare occurrence was beyond most people’s consideration, but everyone knew of the story of the demise of the dinosaurs. Surely some of them must have understood what that would do if it happened in our lifetime.
“And this would be a bad thing, right, as bad perhaps as a terrorist attack on a major city, where there’d be a significant cost in damage to infrastructure, loss of electricity and services, and people needing to live out in bomb shelters, yes?”
“No,” insisted Li, growing impatient as the week went on. “The actual effect could mean the total destruction of all life as we know it. The last time we believe this happened, the dinosaurs went extinct.”
“Is that what is meant by this being a ‘10 on the Torino scale’?”
“That scale is a simplified scale to measure the potential threat of an impact. 10 means that it could end civilization as we know it and threaten to destabilize the climate further than humans already have.”
The reporter, shifting in her seat, frowned and asked, “What is the chance that the asteroid will not hit the Earth?”
Li had been dreading this question in particular. The media has a sordid history of mishandling probability, especially regarding scientific numbers. “We only use the 10 on the scale to mean that impact is certain, or of a high enough probability that we should do something about it.” Technically, there was an infinitesimally slim chance of missing the planet, but Li felt it was not worth mentioning.
The interview dragged on. Li tried to stress the severity and certainty of the matter, but also that people could still do something about, since the impact was still 30 years down the road. The interview lasted for 5 minutes. They got their soundbite from him, and went to a 10 minute commercial break. Having been given time to say his bit, Li was thanked and dismissed, and “the other side of the issue” was brought in to be interviewed in opposition of the findings. The politician who hobbled in was warmly received by the show’s host.
Li, walking off the studio lot, met up with Aron, and they walked back to the train terminal. Aron could pick up every nuanced emotion in Li’s expressive grimace. “How did it go?” Aron asked anyway.
Li removed his tie, drained. “I did the best I could, and gave them the facts. But I’m no good at media spin. I wish Kara would be taking care of this.”
“Trust me, we’re each handling our own. The men and women back at SciTech are making preparations to engineer a contingency solution. You’re answering questions when people want the facts. And Kara swims with the sharks.”
“You know they followed up my segment with some greasy politician’s tripe? That’s the problem with the press,” Li passionately ranted; “it’s great that they work towards presenting both sides of an issue when its a matter of opinion or politics, but with science and math you can’t argue with numbers. Now that fat, old-money geezer will have the final word.”
They boarded the light rail, and headed back to work. “Only for those watching this program,” Aron replied, his face an indifferent neutral. “This is just the beginning, and we’ll be right in the end.”
Li sat on the train bench, grasping the vertical bar as the train glided forward. Then slumping into his seat, he said, “We’ll get it right in the end, or we’ll all be dead.”
* * *
Kara volunteered SciTech’s expertise front and center to the world stage. The best and most cost-effective method to handle an asteroid headed towards Earth was to push it off course with a laser array, using the blasts of light to change its vector to miss the planet. (Though a gravity-tow from a massive space craft was discussed, it was rejected due to budget concerns, though many still contested the idea.) Kara showed her company’s expertise in past civil construction projects (like the recently finished third-largest fusion reactor sitting outside D.C.) and changed politician’s minds into action. When hard-ball businessmen asked her for statistics she could not call off the top of her head, she had Li feed her facts in her ear via smart-phone extension. When international actors insisted on a particular site for laser array construction (to boost the local economy by drawing in technical jobs), a border settlement was established in high-altitude far west Asia to satisfy the Chinese and Europeans. The only major opposition was from the competition, with the US government’s 10th Technology Department being outbid by a hair, taking second place to spearhead the international effort and winding up a subcontractor for non-technical construction.
“SciTech and the international scientific community assesses that the asteroid is best left deflected,” Kara responded. The US government’s 10th Technology Department, represented by the unsavory but business savvy Mrs. Taylor and her corporate and investment allies, proposed the capture of the asteroid as an orbital mining field. Scans had revealed it is rich in platinum-group metals, estimated to be valued at over one trillion US dollars.
“The focus on the laser array must be the safe deflection of the asteroid away from an Earth-crossing trajectory, to prevent catastrophic impact,” Kara protested, at a summit to discuss project status and goal feasibility. “Since the technology has never been field tested on an actual asteroid of this magnitude before, all efforts must be maximized to ensure that the survival of Earth is assured. Attempting to bring the asteroid into a stable orbit for monetary gain puts every living thing at needless jeopardy.”
Taylor sneered, asserting, “The potential damage this asteroid could do is not in question. Department 10 is aware of the risks, but also the incredible opportunity to bring typically costly riches to humanity from distant space.” Arms outstretched she appealed to the audience, not with scientific charts, but with human images and measured graphics to suggest prosperity. “This is a potential gold mine, whose value as a treasure of rare resources should not be underestimated. Yes, man should protect itself from destruction, but why not turn this crisis into an opportunity?”
“It’s only an opportunity for them to line their backer’s pockets and secure asteroid mining rights,” Aron assessed after the summit. “I had some people do some digging, friends of mine in intelligence offices. They’ve been buying deals left and right with every major private spaceflight company and mining venture they could get their hands on. For a company that only plans to help with the laser array’s gross infrastructure, they seem to be preparing for something.”
“They claim they’re attempting to make up for the revenue cost from the budget cuts that have been bogging down the project,” Li remarked, staring at a clipboard of papers. His eyes narrowed in disgust. “That there even are budget cuts on a project to save humanity from certain doom infuriates me!” he exclaimed.
Aron shrugged, unsurprised. “I’ve given up being shocked or angry about the stupidity of humans. After all, you tell them the sky is going to fall on their heads, you thought they were going to act rational?” Leaving, he added, “Color me cynical, but I never expected us all to band together, pitch in and solve the problem in the interest of mutual survival. I’ve learned to always expect backstabbing.”
Sometimes Li hated working with Aron. Ex-soldiers could be terrible pessimists.
* * *
Construction slowed with the eventual adoption of the secondary goal of capturing the asteroid. Months became years. A city sprang up around the project. Border wars threatened site security, flooding the area with various international military groups for extra protection. The security protocols delayed construction further. As the asteroid flew closer, time slipped away. They could not wait until the day of impact to avert disaster – it was easiest to push it off course the farther away it was, even though it required greater accuracy due to the distance. The deadline was coming when it would not matter what they did anymore, and they wouldn’t be able to save anyone.
Last Push Day, as everyone called it.
Having had too many late or sleepless nights, Li and his teams had been ordered to take some rest before the laser arrays could be activated. As per their usual jobs, Aron headed security, centralizing all data of comings and goings and coordinating with the defense forces. Kara handled the press, who had a continuous and growing presence for at least 6 months. And Li, now awake and refreshed, grabbed his coffee and headed for central control.
Have I missed anything? he asked to himself. He picked up the seven-hundred page checklist and began speed-reading through it. Some things he saw to personally, but most were tasks delegated to various SciTech employees, 10th Department sub-contractors, and various other experts in the field.
He went through the items in his mind. Ms. Builder headed the array’s design, and she assures me everything checks out. Professor Foster seconds her assessment, he’s overseen the system triple-checks as of 21:00 last night. Martinez oversaw Department 10’s construction, and she says everything meets parameters. For this array to work, everything has to be spot on.
A smart-dressed woman in white called out to Li. “Mr. Qiang, are we ready?” director Chance asked.
It’s the question the world is asking. Is mankind ready to preserve life on this planet, to prevent its own extinction? Have they gotten everyone together to get it done, used all the right expertise, and are ready to face a challenge never achieved before?
Li looked down at the checklist as thick as his fist. If they were ever going to be ready, it had to be soon.
Li looked confidently into Mrs. Chance’s eyes. For 10 years he lived, ate, slept and breathed this project, celebrated its commencement, raged at its setbacks, vehemently opposed its detractors and labored towards it fruition. He knew, perhaps subconsciously, the answer. “Yes, director. We are ready to begin.”
The process took several hours. Telescopes were called in to observe the asteroid for minute-by-minute updates. The distances involved meant a dozen minutes would pass between where the asteroid was and when people would be able to observe it on the ground.
Collaboration was complicated. Secure internet connections were established on high-protocol channels to protect the endeavor from apocalyptic sabotage. At least 25 state-level actors, many of them major multinational corporations, had poured huge financial resources into the project. Yet everyone watched as life as they new it rode on the outcome.
As the checklist was run through, minute by minute – power generators brought online to a cacophonous hum, vectors calculated within a dozen decimal places, arrays angled by precise calibration, and visuals confirmed over long range telescopes – they reached the point when someone was going to have to push the big red button to fire the lasers. The responsibility of “pulling the trigger” on a project of this scope, to have the finger that could save the world, was not taken lightly, and there were many candidates. In typical bureaucratic fashion, no less than 3 ad-hoc committees were established to decide who should do it. Mrs. Chance, head of SciTech, was given the honor, and she stood before the console.
“Mr. Qiang, would you like the honor?” she asked at the last minute. She knew how hard he worked on this.
Stunned, Li admitted he would, and took the control from her. He positioned his finger above the shiny button, eyes fixed with intense seriousness at the countdown to laser deployment.
The numbers reached 0:00:00.
With the labor of a decade of the planet and mankind’s hopes to save the world, he fired.
The minutes passed. To a casual observer, nothing seemed to happen. At nearly three hundred thousand kilometers per second, invisible light blasted silently through space in an amplified beam towards a carefully chosen spot on the most well-studied space rock in human history. Bombarded with photons, the careening asteroid was pushed ever so slightly from its path as the laser array tracked its precalculated change in direction. In time, pictures came in from observation satellites, building the most up-to-date flight paths. The change was infinitesimal at first, but as the minutes turned to hours of pouring focused light on the massive asteroid, using massive amounts of electricity, the course of the asteroid was changed, little by little.
Within three days and multiple blasts of light, the scientists were prepared to tell the world that the asteroid had changed course. The situation was downgraded on the Torino scale from a 10 to a 0 – no chance of impact.
* * *
Several years had passed. The heroes of SciTech went on to write books, give speeches, and make attempts to build on the spirit of collaboration that was shared on a saved world. It disgusted many how quickly things returned to normal, though. Mankind went back to its petty squabbles over wealth, placing political blame, and the sparking of new costly wars.
And overhead, silently, in the skies a comfortable distance from the Earth, an asteroid of mineral wealth shot past, heedless of the planet rich with life. Shooting stars were seen that night, from small space rocks in close orbit around the asteroid pulled to Earth by the stronger gravity. Asteroid hunters, continuing their work now better funded than ever and better supported by a now-praising media and public, got a great view of the meteor shower that clear October evening.