The Light of Another Star

Shining brightly in this Hubble image is our closest stellar neighbour: Proxima Centauri. Proxima Centauri lies in the constellation of Centaurus (The Centaur), just over four light-years from Earth. Although it looks bright through the eye of Hubble, as you might expect from the nearest star to the Solar System, Proxima Centauri is not visible to the naked eye. Its average luminosity is very low, and it is quite small compared to other stars, at only about an eighth of the mass of the Sun. However, on occasion, its brightness increases. Proxima is what is known as a “flare star”, meaning that convection processes within the star’s body make it prone to random and dramatic changes in brightness. The convection processes not only trigger brilliant bursts of starlight but, combined with other factors, mean that Proxima Centauri is in for a very long life. Astronomers predict that this star will remain middle-aged — or a “main sequence” star in astronomical terms — for another four trillion years, some 300 times the age of the current Universe. These observations were taken using Hubble’s Wide Field and Planetary Camera 2 (WFPC2). Proxima Centauri is actually part of a triple star system — its two companions, Alpha Centauri A and B, lie out of frame. Although by cosmic standards it is a close neighbour, Proxima Centauri remains a point-like object even using Hubble’s eagle-eyed vision, hinting at the vast scale of the Universe around us.

Given the announcement today of an Earth-like planet being discovered around Proxima Centauri, I wanted to share a chapter from my upcoming book, the second in the ‘Frontier’ series, and follow up to ‘The Space Cadets‘.

In this Chapter, the first African American Space Cadet, Aisha Parks, along with her co-pilots Soo-Kyung Kim (North Korea) and David (Israel) get to visit an identical planet where, after taking the first interstellar selfie, they make an epic discovery….

 

By ESO/M. Kornmesser - https://www.eso.org/public/images/eso1629a/, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=50868898
By ESO/M. Kornmesser – https://www.eso.org/public/images/eso1629a/, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=50868898

Chapter 9

The Air of Another World

Its interesting that our closest cosmic neighbor has a planet that might support life.

Its more likely that Mars would support life than that rock.

But thats not the point. Given that rocky planets with atmospheres appear to be common, there must be millions of potential Earths out there.

We just have to reach them.

And hope they arent populated.

 

EXHAUSTED, AISHA and Soo-Kyung had taken the time to sleep. It would take dozens of jumps and several hours before they would reach the desired planet. And even then they may not stop, if, upon closer inspection, it appeared to be populated or too hard to explore.

A chime from the link woke them, and they went to the mess hall. Seamus was waiting for them. Excited, he had not slept a wink.

“This system has a lot of planets,” Seamus said. “A lot of planets. At least twenty by my reckoning, and if we take the broadest parameters of whats a habitable zone, there could be two or three.”

“We dont know?”

“The folks in Stellar Cartography are working hard to search now that were here, but theres a big one that was spotted from Earth about sixty years ago. Thats where were going. A few more jumps and well be there.”

Thankfully, now that theyd gotten used to the sensation, they didnt need to spend the entire trip in the acceleration couches.

They heard the familiar countdown, and then the momentary sensation of queeziness when the next jump happened.

Simms’ voice pinged on their link. “All Cadets, get to your ships. Were going to ride the next jump out from our cockpits.”

“Good luck,” said Seamus. “Ill be monitoring from the bridge.”

As they wound the long way up the shaft — in weightless conditions once they left the rotating wheels at the rear of the ship — Aisha couldn’t help but feel the awe. Soon, they would be approaching another planet. The first that Humanity had ever seen. What would it be like? Would there be life there? Would there be people?

David brought her back to reality. “If theres anything alive down there, pray that its intelligent. Because theres not much intelligence up here.”

She smiled, despite herself, and climbed up and into the cockpit. David took his usual spot in the cockpit on the right wing, and Soo-Kyung on the left.

They made sure that all systems were green, and flagged Central Command. Once all ships had checked in, the countdown to the jump began.

“This is the last jump,” said Seamus in her ear. “We should see the planet soon afterwards. Be ready for orders to scramble.”

“Roger that,” said Aisha, still feeling nervous dread. Everything was almost going too smoothly. Something had to go wrong, didn’t it?

The countdown ended, and the ship shook a little as it jumped. Suddenly, in front of them, was a large, grey planet, with about one-third of its surface obscured by wispy clouds.

“Wow,” said David. “Look at it!”

“No sign of oceans. No sign of life,” said Soo-Kyung, sounding a little disappointed.

“Nothing coming in on radio frequencies. No sign of a civilization.”

Aisha scanned near orbit. “Also no sign of satellites or other orbital construction.”

“Blue Group, launch,” came the order from the bridge.

Aisha watched, a little jealous, as the other ships took off. A number of stubby cylinders, almost coin-shaped, detached from the rear of the ship and boosted forward.

“Habitats,” said Soo-Kyung. “I’ve heard of them, but never seen them.”

“What are they?”

“Self-contained landing pods, each equipped with oxygen generators, heaters, everything youd need for landing on another planet. The scientific teams are using them.”

“So instead of shuttling people down there, we just drop those pods, and theyre good to go?”

“Not quite,” said Soo-Kyung, “and watch for the cool part.”

She watched as the Phaetons from Blue Group docked with the habitat pods. They fit perfectly.

“The Phaetons are going to fly them down, and drop them where they need to go.”

“Thats why were just flying escort.”

“Exactly, they dont trust us with that kind of flying.”

“Acknowledged.”

Once all the pods had Phaetons attached and guiding them, the order came for Red Group to launch. They split up, so each was able to escort a Blue flier with its pod cargo.

“There is an atmosphere on that planet,” said Seamus. “A bit on the thin side, kind of like Mars. Its not going to be easy to land. Prepare for turbulence and the burn of re-entry, so make sure your shields are good.”

“Shields are green,” said Soo-Kyung.

“All squads, your designated landing zones are being uploaded to your flight computers,” came a voice from Fergusons bridge. “Proceed when ready.”

“Our course is locked with Blue Seven,” said David. “Well follow right behind them.”

They took off, following the designated ship. Aisha watched as other pairs broke off, landing at various spots around the planet.

Hitting atmosphere was harder than she expected. “The Phaeton is barely able to break atmosphere,” said Soo-Kyung over the background noise and turbulence. “Its primarily a space craft, but it should be able to handle this.”

Aisha was doing her best not to throw up. She concentrated on following the course that David had plotted to keep them within visual range of Blue Seven.

“Once were out of the upper atmosphere it should get easier.”

“Shields holding.”

As quickly as it had begun, the shuddering stopped and visibility cleared. Beneath them, they could see a cloud layer, with a few spots showing a grey landscape beneath. The Blue ship penetrated the clouds, and they lost visibility.

“Get us closer, David.”

“Roger that.”

Her ship accelerated as it burst through the cloud cover. They still had their target ship on radar, so they weren’t entirely blind. Finally, they were through the clouds, and could see the terrain below.

It was bleak and featureless, but had its own kind of beauty. Wind-eroded towers jutted out of the plains like skyscrapers. Loose soil was visible, but no kind of plant life was seen to bind it together, and like the surface of the moon, it just appeared dusty.

Something caught Aishas eye, and she turned the ship to check it out.

“We should stay with our escort,” said David gently.

“Roger, but check that out. Do you see what I see?”

What looked like a ravine or dry riverbed had been carved through the landscape.

“It could be wind erosion,” said Soo-Kyung. “But it sure looks like a dry riverbed.”

“Just like on Mars,” said David. “Flagging it.”

She saw the ping back from the scientific expedition in the habitat pod. They acknowledged the discovery, and would presumably check it out at a later point.

In the meantime, their escort ship had found a landing spot, and was carefully guiding the pod down. Aisha took her ship on a course circling around the landing spot, keeping an eye on it.

The pilot of Blue Seven was masterful in how he guided the pod down. It landed as gently as a snowflake. When it detached, all lights were green.

“Mission accomplished,” the pilot said. “Red One, we are all green here. You can return to Explorer. Well fly escort for the pod.”

“Acknowledged,” said Aisha, a little disappointed at being asked to return to Explorer. It made sense. While the pods were landing, it was good to have backup in case something went wrong. Now that they had landed safely, it also made sense for the Phaetons to return to the ship just in case they were needed. This world seemed dead, but you never knew.

She took one more pass around the alien landscape, longing to set foot on it, and turned to climb the ship towards the upper atmosphere. As she was about to punch in the course, a communique from the pod interrupted.

“Red One,” it said. “Interesting landscape feature that you tagged. Can you do us a favor? There are large caves nearby and your ravineappears to be emerging from them. This suggests that there might have been underground water in the past, and there may still be some now. Can you get a camera over there?”

Are you kidding, she wanted to say. “Roger that, Survey Station. Were on our way.”

***

The caves were big, but not big enough for the Phaeton to enter.

“Atmosphere isn’t breathable,” said Soo-Kyung, “but it protects us from radiation doses, and is near Earth-normal. Our suits should work.”

“One of us should stay on board,” said David. “I will. You guys can go walk about.”

“The chance to walk on another planet,” said Aisha, “and youre not taking it?”

She felt a little guilty. As captain, she should be the one staying behind. But David had insisted.

“There’ll be other chances.” She could hear him smiling as he spoke.

 

They found a landing spot that looked to have an easy walk to one of the caves. Gently, Aisha set the ship down. For the umpteenth time, she checked the seals on her suit, and they were all good.

“Popping canopy,” she said, as it opened with a hiss. She could see Soo-Kyung doing likewise.

She had left Earth only a few months ago and had already walked on the moon. Now, she was about to set foot on the surface of an alien planet. She would be one of the first humans to do so.

She climbed down the ladder, thinking of the words of Neil Armstrong when he landed on the moon. Less than a century before, but such a different world. She remembered watching television of that period, when people like her were treated like animals in some parts of the country, while others reached for the stars.

She wondered what Neils generation would have felt when one of the people taking a small step onto the surface of an alien world was black.

But she remembered she had to try to leave all of that behind.

She reached the bottom of the ladder, and paused a moment. She remembered Patrices kind face, and she longed for him to be here with her.

She took the step. She heard the sand crunch beneath her boot. Kneeling, she took some in her hands. It was like the coarse sand from beaches in Oregon she went to as a child. Grey and black like that on the moon. There were patches of redness, most likely oxidized iron, like on Mars.

She had made it. She was on another world. Looking up, she saw the binary star of this system, the larger, closer star with its smaller neighbor.

She had reached the stars. She laughed when she realized she still had her cell phone in her equipment belt.

She took it out and aimed it at herself in order to take a picture.

“Tell me youre not taking a selfie,” said David. “We come all the way to another star system, land on another planet and the first thing you do is take a selfie?”

She could hear him laughing. Soo-Kyung had reached the bottom of her ladder, but, without pausing, she took a little jump onto the surface. Aisha could see her beaming through her helmet.

“Can I have one too?”

Together, the girls huddled, arm in arm, light of another star above their heads. They smiled, and took a picture.

“We have a mission here ladies,” said David, trying to sound cranky, but failing.

Surprisingly, it was just like walking on a rocky beach, as they made their way towards the cave.

“Sensors detect nothing inside,” said David. “No heat source. Nothing. Its just a cave. Take a quick look around, and grab some pictures. The science folks also want some soil samples.”

“Roger that.”

Aisha stood at the mouth of the cave and shone her flashlights in. It went deeper than her light could penetrate. She started walking forward into the cave to see if there was more. Stalactites from the ceiling would indicate that there had once been water here, but she couldnt see any.

“Wait,” said Soo-Kyung. “Stop.”

“What is it?”

“Dont go any further. Come back here slowly.”

“What?”

She turned and saw what Soo-Kyung was doing. Turning over rocks. She had one in her hand, and held it up for Aisha to see.

Circular blotches discolored the rock. They were mostly pale grey, but some yellows and reds were mixed in.

“Lichens,” she said. “Theres life on this world.”