Chapter 2 - Science Shoving

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“:CONCERN:” al said, and Captain Garcia went rigid. She began to ask al what the concern was, but I was already pulling up the latest data from the detonations even as Dr. Musa and Lewis looked at me, and then each other. On my screen something like a flower bloomed - a terrible, destructive blossom that was our only hope. I had had the final say in the deployment of the devices that we had brought clustered around the stem of the UNS Herald and then deployed like a dandelion blown in the wind (using flower metaphors helps me cope with the anxiety)(I like flowers, my first job was in a florist shop) out from the stem of the ship. After initial distribution al and I had poured over the positions, nudging those horrible seeds into position with the positioning jets on their drones. At the scale we were operating at precision was a matter of decameters, but still, measure twice, cut once - and what a cut it would be.

I had been part of the first meeting in the RW James Building conference room where Mayeso had called us together (it was not in a basement as James likes to say)(it was downstairs, but not - why do I argue this with him). His first observational data of (802743) Tea was loaded into all our tabs and even as we began we were all re-running all of our trajectory data because no one could believe what the numbers said. But the numbers never lie, even when we want them to. I happened to be visiting the university to speak about nuclear drive developments for deep space mining, a topic so theoretical that I’d only ever been asked to speak three times on it. Suddenly that seemed more relevant, so the astronomy department had invited me in. Mayeso had also shared the data with the bright lights at other universities across the world, but the global North was taking its time in reacting, paternalistically “verifying” the massive asteroid and planning who would speak at the press conferences.

“Can we just blow it up?” asked a junior researcher on the other end of the table. There is a James Lewis in every room. Several heads swiveled my direction, so I responded “My speciality is more focused on the non-explosive aspects of nuclear power, but, no. No, the yield of even our largest devices would only put a dent in (802743) Tea, or even worse energize a fault line and result in many large rocks on a collision course with the Earth.” The researcher scrunched up her face for a moment and then replied “But what if it was a really really big explosion?” Was this a junior researcher or a middle schooler, I wondered to myself as people shifted in their seats. “Wait, that might actually work.” Mayeso suddenly sat upright. “Dr. Burns, how much energy is imparted from a standard nuclear warhead explosion?” My face must have done something, as Mayeso added “…if you happen to have that sort of information on hand?”

I took a deep breath. I did. Through some strange quirk of personal history, my mother’s family had roots in Nagasaki, and my father’s great-great-grandfather had been involved in the Manhattan project (my nuclear nuclear family). I had gone into nuclear research as a kind of personal redemption for the good of humanity, but I couldn’t avoid knowing about all the destruction it could muster too. “An average device would generate 5 petajoules on detonation, and the range of extant devices goes up significantly from there.” Mayeso was nodding slowly, “And presuming Tea is made of basically silicate materials like Earth rock, vaporizing a cubic kilometer would take about four orders of magnitude more energy, not to mention how much energy would be spent heading away from Tea. So we’re not just talking some nukes, we’re talking all the nukes. If that would even be enough.” I was running numbers on my tab, the remote processor heating up a room somewhere. “Not only that, but the detonations would have to be distributed very carefully across the asteroid.” Nodding all around the table now, but our plucky junior researcher look confused (I had been a junior researcher once, was I like this?)(I was definitely like this)(…was I still like this?). She began to open her mouth but I got there first. “The energy must be evenly distributed or the heating and momentum imparted would cause chunks to spin out of the blast radius and escape vaporization and we’re back to the problem of fracturing.” That set the wheels spinning, while the rest of us shifted to less explosive conversation.

After a few more rounds of expressing shock and intellectually flailing our arms in the air, the junior researcher (I have to find her name) spoke up again. “So the main problem with bombs is getting enough energy to spread out wide enough so that nothing fractures and everything is affected.” She looked deep in thought, Mayeso looked slightly pained, and I wouldn’t want to guess what my face was doing. “Yes, that is the crux of it - to “blow it up” as you say, there are far too many risk factors to make it worthwhile.” I replied, trying to think of something else to move the conversational track to. “But what if we didn’t vaporize it?” she asked. “What, uh, what is your name? And what would be the point of not vaporizing the enormous asteroid headed for Earth?” I countered, a bit incredulous. “My name is Winnie, and what if we didn’t vaporize it, but we just, shoved it? All that energy, it doesn’t only melt things, you said it imparted momentum. What if we science-shoved it away from Earth?”

The room went quiet, well, quieter. Then tabs were up and muffled taps were happening across the table. “Well you’d need to really spread the force around over tens of kilometers for each device. And ideally you would transform some of the heat energy into more physical collisions, like if you could lock the energy into other particles.” I started to say. “Like a massive bed of nails, and Tea is the yogi…” Mayeso pondered. Winnie spoke up again - “What if we wrapped the nukes in something, I don’t know, dense and cheap, that would actually vaporize, and just make sure those vapors are jetting the right direction?”

And that is how I found myself in space, checking the status of nuclear devices that had been wrapped in the trash generated by the largest 10 metropolises on Earth (hurray for multitasking). Al’s concern was quickly born out though, as one device had not in fact detonated, and was now drifting lazily in space, an ideal location for that evil thing had it not been for the oncoming matter and excess energy on the other side of it from the Herald. Fortunately the rest of the terrible garden had bloomed right where and when we wanted, so we were mostly out of danger already. The chance of a) the errant floret would be blown our direction and b) the glowing wind would trigger the device and c) the radius of its petals would include the Herald was not high, but it was not nothing, and when dealing with nuclear explosions 0 is the ideal number. I plotted in the minimum safe distance and worst case trajectory in broad terms and checked our delta-v budget - we could make it, but sacrifices would have to be made.

I did not realize at the time one of those sacrifices would be my sanity. James Lewis, diplomat from the United Nations and all around Nice Guy, was doing his best to be a good roommate, which is to say annoying me endlessly with attempts to bond. He really did mean well, respected my identity and my expertise, but I struggle with the clueless (and social interaction in general, if I’m fair; I am generally not). “So what are you going to do when we get back? You saved the Earth, I’m thinking a book deal is a must!” he grinned, knowing books are my favorite thing, other than flowers. “If all goes to plan, I won’t have much down time.” I replied. James wouldn’t be involved in the next steps (small relief)(he’s not so bad, his replacement will probably be worse). “If the asteroid settles in to L4 then the real work begins, and my actual focus area in deep space mining becomes much more relevant.” He leaned back in the cubby-cum-cot that we had arranged for him. “That’s a part I don’t get - isn’t it easier to mine ore on Earth? We haven’t run out of copper that I know of, right? This is a real “Mom says we have metal at home” moment.”

That was a common question - why go into a dangerous, cold, airless void to get materials we have under our feet. The answer in this case was three-fold: “Firstly it is getting harder and harder to get to rich deposits, and the human cost of much modern mining is abhorrent. Conflict ore, political boundaries, and market manipulation make for an increasingly challenging industry.” I held up a hand as he opened his mouth, “Yes, most of those can impact even asteroid mining, but it is also a clean slate that we can try to get right this time - we will stop any nascent Leopold II’s from making Tea his Congo. Industry-wise, mining in low gravity makes transportation of equipment and mined ore much more energy efficient - why build mine tracks when you can just float the material down the tunnel? There will be new challenges, but Tea is in a sweet spot of being small enough for minimal gravity and internal inconsistency, but large enough to build permanent facilities to support mining.” “Okay, so it could help us do better, and it will be cheaper in the long haul to get materials. Still, once they get the materials, then what?” he asked. He knew the biggest picture plan the global community had in mind, but didn’t know how we would get from A to Q (or possibly W, there were a lot of steps to this plan).

“That’s where the second point comes in. The biggest limiting factor to exploring and exploiting -“ “Explorting!” he interjected. I tilted my head by a degree and looked at him. He didn’t stop smiling. “The biggest limiting factor in humanity’s expansion into our local space has largely been getting materials up the gravity well. It probably seems easy enough to launch a rocket, but getting it to go where you want and not wreck itself and whatever it is carrying is much harder than it seems. Explosive force wants to expand in all directions, but we have a funny way of wanting it to go only one direction, which it doesn’t like.” “Ah, so if we have these Mines In Spaaacce” (I could hear the capitals in his delivery) “then we can build things in orbit directly and not risk the explosive forces. Kind of like how the Herald herself was built.” “Similar to the Herald, yes, though all of the components to construct the ship were manufactured on Earth and only final assembly was done in orbit. Still more manageable than building something that could launch the entire Herald into orbit in one go, but drastically less efficient than the new factories could be.” (Side note, I will never understand the need to gender craft, from boats to trains to space ships; humans barely need them, I don’t know why constructs would) “And once they are able to pump out space ships, actual space ships, then what? It’s not like they can go all that far, we don’t have warp speed or anything, though I would like to go ludicrous speed.” That was probably a reference to a book or film, but I pressed on - “But they could do a lot to help make settlements on the Moon or Mars sustainable. Even in ideal conditions those environments would need a very long time to become self-sustaining, but if Earth can more easily ship materials and resources they could become new frontiers, without the dangers to indigenous people.”

James grew somber (his moments of seriousness give me hope that he is more than a standup comedian practicing)(badly). “And the Earth needs frontiers again. After the refugee crisis in Southeast Asia last year we have been making plans for more equatorial peoples to migrate. Did you know that some of Micronesia is now fully underwater? It is a few of the more minor islands, but the livable land is shrinking.” I was aware. My grandmother’s retirement plans for Florida had been cancelled a decade ago as the rising tide didn’t so much lift all boats as make formerly coastal regions sea floor. After a moment of looking at the module floor, James looked at me. Very nearly through me, his eyes so sharp. “The third thing. The big big picture for Tea. What do you make of that?”

Tea was more than just a miners paradise. All that mining would leave big tunnels curling through the crust and core of the asteroid, and Winnie’s capacity to not just think outside the box, but outside the whole building, had resulted in a truly wild idea. “Well, some of the big firms have already started registering proposals for the architecture, and Tea is big enough that they could try more than one at a time. And the theory is sound - Tea is as solid as any construction material we would use planet-side, done right there is no reason the drills couldn’t make some living spaces even as they haul out their ore.” “Okay, so creating the, I guess buildings within Tea are doable, but is it livable?”

There is a problem with exploring the universe. No matter where you go, Einstein is there with his speed gun to make sure you don’t go faster than c (well, actually Mileva Marić is probably the one holding the speed gun, but they are both watching the readout). And you can only get to c if you are willing to give up all your matter, so don’t worry too much about matching your belt to your shoes. One solution to this, that isn’t really a solution at all, is just to accept your status as an interstellar snail and plan accordingly, packing all the things you need in your shell, including children. That’s why we called the project the Generation Ship, because it would carry families who would need to, well, generate, new generations. For a very long time - even Alpha Centauri was going to be the providence of someone’s great-great-great-great-grandchildren, at best. It would also have to generate its own resources, which is why in trade for minimal excise tax the mining firms would be building truly industrial manufacturing capacity on Tea. Being able to build what you need while in flight was going to be crucial if they were to survive.

Which brought me back to James’ question. “Livable is a sliding scale. People can live in a lot of different circumstances.” “You know what I mean - healthy living, humane living. The kind of life that people would leave the Earth behind for.” I thought again of the sea levels, the record storms making a new record every year, the people who had to leave home anyways and carried their world on their back and in their arms already. “I think it is going to be the kind of living a lot of people will find worth taking a chance on. There is a long way to go before we even know what kind of life they might have, and a lot of problems to be solved along the way. Better to just focus on the hope and do the work.” He nodded, and nodded some more, then slowly smiled. “It’s like planting a seed I guess, we just have to water it and wait.” I smiled at that.