The Trojan Expedition

by David Barber


The big digital clock above the main display was counting down to rendezvous. Anyone who had watched NASA space shots in the old days would have recognised the scene as a clone of the Jet Propulsion Lab’s mission control.

The team sat watching intently their rows of screens flicker and refresh. Numbers are numbers. This was the climax of the Zheng He mission at Beijing Flight Control.

Stacey. the famous teenage networker from Seattle, had a stubbled scalp and a smartwear sweater that mutely cycled a “War of the Girls” music video. Frank Long had been told he was lucky to have her covering the encounter.

“So, Mr. Long, NASA argued the mission was too expensive. Have you proven them wrong?” Her whirring flycam darted in his face. Her voice was too loud.

“There’s a big fuel cost to match orbits with asteroid 2010 TK7. But the Zheng He uses a high-impulse, continuous-thrust ion drive...”

“Should NASA be using this technology?” The networker only wanted sound-bites. “Do you really believe aliens left surveillance gear on the trojan?”

“Well, Stacey, what better place than an Earth trojan? Over the last seven thousand years it’s oscillated from one Lagrange point to another, keeping station in a fuel-free, gravitational loop.”

“Why not put a satellite in orbit, the way we do?”

“We don’t care if anyone sees our satellites.”

“But this one was seen.”

“Just a dot on a WISE photograph.”

People who knew what they were talking about usually mentioned the radar ping next.

“If it was a spaceship..”

“I’ve never claimed it is one. Something could have piggybacked on the asteroid. That would explain the diffuse radar echo.”

Asteroid 2010TK7
Asteroid 2010TK7 is circled in green.
photo credit: NASA
“So it all comes down to that famous photo.”

“The James Webb telescope works in the infrared. The trojan is small, less than a thousand feet across. There’s one frame that shows a hot spot.”

“And it’s never been repeated.”

This always annoyed him. “I’ve not been able to buy time on the telescope. And it’s rarely pointed in the right direction because of the sun.”

Behind the networker stood Ms. Chen. She was looking at her own neat shoes. Ms. Chen was his interpreter. She would wait forever rather than interrupt.

“Ms. Chen?”

“The Director wishes you to know that the Zheng He has matched velocities. The crew have tasks to do but will be operating the camera soon.”

“Thank the Director for keeping me informed at such a busy time.” He gave a slight, self-conscious bow, just a nod of the head, really.

Ms Chen returned the smallest of smiles.

A look passed across the networker’s face, then was gone. “So, the mission cost you 2.8 billion dollars.”

Long shrugged. “A joint venture between my company and the Chinese National Space Administration.”

Seven years ago, NASA had dismissed the idea publicly, for cost reasons. He was told privately that they wouldn’t be looking for pyramids on Mars either.

The Chinese maintained they were proving technology for their manned space program: superconductor magnetic shielding for the crew, and the new propulsion system.

A calculating glance from the networker: “So how do you react when people say you’re a crank?”

He leaned forward confidentially, lowering his voice. He’d learned tricks of his own. “This mission has attracted a lot of attention. You’re here, Stacey. I remember how excited I was as a child about the Moon landings. We need that again.”

“But the alien technology on 2010 KT7 you talk about...”

“You know Pascal’s Wager?” Journalism school. Of course she didn’t. “If I’m wrong, then the Zheng He still visits an asteroid, the leftovers of planetary formation four billion years ago. Good science.”

Anyone who had done their homework could have sunk him right there. The Zheng He carried no science payload, no mission specialists. Unforeseen weight limits on the CZ-5 launcher.

“But if I’m right...” He spotted Ms. Chen’s dark, glossy hair and watched as she made her way back to the VIP gallery.

“Yes?”

“Then we’ll see something amazing.“

The networker was having trouble making sense of it. The last science piece she had done was on viral cosmetics. Manned space flight was so yesterday. If it weren’t for the little green men, no one back home would care.

He smiled. The countdown dripped away.

“One last question Mr. Long...”

“I’d really like to watch this.”

The pilot’s face filled the big screen, going through a checklist in Chinese. The crew had donned suits for the rendezvous. Then the view switched to the outboard optics, still pointing safely away from the sun, dark except for the time stamp.

“How do you answer people who say the money could be put to better use here on Earth?”

“Like buying an Alamo-class stealth submarine instead? Or a year’s cosmetics sales in the U.S.? Go ask them the same question. At least this does no harm.”

Ms. Chen was standing at his elbow. “Good answer,” he thought she whispered.

He looked at her in surprise. She was staring intently at the screen. “The commander reports they have begun roll manoeuvre.”

Obediently, the camera view shifted, the distant spacecraft slowly rotating to observe the surface of the trojan.

“You want answers, this is how you get answers,” he said to no one in particular.

Bang on time, a credit to Chinese technology, the first pictures started coming through.


Copyright © 2011 by David Barber

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