Glenn’s Comet

by Noel Denvir


Tom Marshall enjoyed having his son along from time to time when he went to work at the observatory. He hoped that the boy would develop a keen interest in the stars and space, an interest that Tom had always had. Why, he’d even named his son after a famous astronaut: Glenn.

It made a change to the usual routine. Explaining things to an enthusiastic eight-year old rekindled the fascination of it all. It was also satisfying to answer questions that were driven by curiosity and not scepticism. So many of his talks and tours these days as assistant director were designed to justify and defend the high budget costs of running such a facility.

First stop was the main telescopic analysis section where department head Lee Yun greeted them with his usual broad smile, ‘The Marshall family! Hi!’

‘Hi, Lee, so what’s the latest news from space?’

Lee pointed to the large screen in the wall in front of them. ‘Well, we’ve had some interesting comet activity this morning in the Procyon system.’

‘Where’s that?’ asked Glenn.

‘Oh, about twelve light years from here, depending on the traffic.’

‘Wow! You mean it would take twelve years to get there!’

Tom smiled at his son. ‘Well, that’s if you could travel at the speed of light; but with conventional technology, you’d be talking about fifty thousand years.’

Glenn frowned. ‘Really?’

‘Yes, really. Even if it came to us. We’re just picking up the signal which, of course, arrived at light speed’

‘So, Dad, what we’re seeing here is something that happened twelve years ago?’

Tom felt a rush of pride and optimism at his son’s simple but intelligent question. ‘Yes indeed, son, I still find it a strange concept, even after all the years of working here.’

‘So, where is the comet now?’

Lee clenched his teeth and breathed in as if about to impart bad news. ‘Well, it may not exist anymore. It could have burnt out or crashed into a planet somewhere.’

‘Do you know what it looks like?’

‘Well, Glenn, the thing is, we don’t actually “see” anything. We measure and calibrate signals, sounds and light intensity.’

Lee paused, feeling he hadn’t expressed this in simple enough terms, but Glenn didn’t seem phased at all. ‘Go on,’ the boy urged.

‘It’s like when you see a plane at night. When the lights change position and the sounds alter, you can explain this mathematically by saying that it’s moving. You know it has a certain shape and size but you don’t actually see it.’

Tom had his own question. ‘Do you know its course?’

Lee clenched his teeth again. ‘Hard to say just yet. It appeared quite suddenly. And seemed to be growing.’

Tom was surprised. “Growing? You mean like a tail?’

“Yes, then the trail appeared to shrink, like it was burning out.”

Glenn looked disappointed. ‘Oh, that’s a pity.’

“Yes, but the good news, Glenn, is that we always give these comets a name. How about: “Glenn’s Comet”?’

‘Oh, can we do that, Dad?’

‘Well, as assistant director, and in consultation with the head of telescopic analysis,’ he nodded and smiled at Lee, ‘I hereby officially name this phenomenon, “Glenn’s Comet”.’

* * *

One month later Lee put his head around the door of the assistant director’s office where Tom was putting the finishing touches to a presentation speech he would be making in the hope of acquiring continuing funding.

“Hi, Lee, what can I do for you?’

‘Remember that comet we were looking at last month?’

‘Comet?’

‘Glenn’s Comet.’

‘Oh yeah, Glenn loved that. You know, he drew this amazing picture of it for school. They’ve got it hanging up in the foyer.’

‘Well... we’ve picked it up again, we think.’

Tom shrugged. ‘That’s interesting, I’ll tell him. He’ll be pleased. Glenn’s comet rides once again through the Procyon system!’

‘Actually, Tom, it’s now in the Epsilon Eridani constellation.’

Tom put his pen down. ‘Then it’s not the same one, Lee. Similar maybe.’

Lee had that clenched teeth look again. ‘Lee, come on. It’s simple mathematics. We’re talking about a journey of five hundred years to cross a galaxy. Our observations are, after all, just approximate calculations. Most stars and comets appear the same from here.’

‘Yeah, maybe you’re right, it’s just... the similarities here...’

‘Yes?’

‘Well, the comet seems to leave a huge trail, maybe a couple of hundred thousand kilometers. Then the trail seems to shrink towards the comet itself at an incredible speed. And then it’s gone. Just like the one last month.’

‘Lee, we’re probably observing an as yet undiscovered comet activity. Don’t get me wrong; we could be on to something very interesting.’

Tom looked down at his presentation draft. Something like a new discovery could be very interesting indeed.

Lee smiled back and left.

* * *

Lee was not smiling a month later when he informed Tom that Glenn’s comet was there again: in the Ross Galaxy. The same sudden appearance, huge trail, rapid shrinkage, disappearance.

Glenn was delighted to hear that his celestial namesake was causing such a stir.

‘Dad?’

‘What... yeah?’

‘You don’t seem to so pleased about all this. Why?’

‘Well, Glenn, there is the prospect of an interesting discovery here about the behavior of comets.’

‘Then that’s good news, isn’t it?’

‘Well, the line between making a fascinating new discovery and making a fool out of yourself is a very thin one.’

‘Oh, you mean like when you try to ask an intelligent question in class and everybody laughs.’

‘Yep, just like that. So don’t tell anyone about it.’

‘I promise, Dad.’

‘You see, Glenn, Lee and I are... well... afraid of being right about this.’

‘About it being the same comet?’

‘Exactly. The idea is ridiculous. There has to be another explanation. Maybe we’re seeing some sort of giant mirror image. Some kind of light-based echo effect.’

Glenn didn’t seem to have any problems accommodating these grand theories.

‘Maybe that’s the last we’ve seen of it... or them,’ he offered reassuringly.

‘No offence, Glenn; I hope you’re right.’

Glenn, however, was pleased to find out one month later that he hadn’t been right. His cheeky illusive pal was back and, yes, of course, in another galaxy: the Sirius constellation.

A pattern was emerging: The comet was behaving in a symmetrical way. The expanding and contracting took about five Earth days. Then the ‘black-out’ about twenty-five days.

And another pattern: Each new appearance brought it one light-year closer to our own solar system.

‘I think we should go public on this.’

‘Lee, we just can’t announce that we think there’s a—’ He couldn’t bring himself to say it. The phrase of the fool, the fantasist, the deluded, the uninformed: ‘Alien space craft’ — ‘an “unexplained phenomenon” heading our way.’

Of course, ‘coming our way’ could mean millions of miles away. But there would be a chance of picking up actual images from deep-space telescopes and probes.

Lee replied, ‘I’m not suggesting little green men in a 1950s cooking utensil, just a celestial phenomenon, a scientific event. There’s nothing hocus-pocus about this.”

The fifth appearance was in the Wise system, 7.2 light years away. Same pattern, same timing.

Same comet.

Tom was starting to feel nervous about it all. Something, someone, somehow, was moving through the heavens with design and purpose. There was a possibility of a fly-by, maybe even a chance of an image of the thing. He privately took back what he had said to his son. He prayed that the comet would come all the way.

Sixth appearance: Barnard’s Star. 5.9 light years.

‘Okay, Lee, let’s say this is some sort of intelligent... uh, mechanism. So, what’s happening?’

‘It seems to be like some sort of elastic effect. It stretches like a rubber band, then it lets go. The result is that it’s catapulted out of existence, only to be reconstituted somewhere else.’

‘So, what we see reappearing is, strictly speaking, not the same thing. It’s a reproduction.”

‘Yes, Tom, one suggested solution for long-distance exploration is the transmission of neutrino or sub-atomic particles. You beam the particles somewhere else, where they can rebuild themselves.

‘For example: they once moved London Bridge from London to Arizona. Not by moving it as such but by breaking it up into small parts and reconstructing it at the other end. Maybe something like this is happening with the comet.’

‘Which presents us with an interesting metaphysical question.’

“Which is?’

‘Is it the same bridge?’

Alpha Centauri: 4.3 light years. The news had broken, it couldn’t be stopped.

Tom had to report to his superiors. Glenn’s comet spelt the biggest PR exercise ever, with offers of new funding coming in from all quarters: sponsorship deals from all sorts of multinationals hoping to get their names associated with the super celestial traveler.

Another factor was that Glenn’s comet was possibly even closer than people thought because, of course, the light and signal data was by mathematical logic, years out of date.

Still, the comet’s sudden appearance at the edge of the solar system took everyone by surprise. Satellites and probes confirmed a huge light trail expanding forwards and then shrinking from the back over a distance of about a quarter of a million kilometers.

The “comet” was also slowing down. Sensors picked up strange sounds that, when synthesized for the human ear, had a low-pitched tone like a slow exhalation of breath.

The leading edge of the vapor trail reached the Earth’s outer atmosphere three days later, and the crystal band gently settled itself into a great white ribbon encircling the Earth. Most of it could be seen with the naked eye. By day, a gigantic vapor trail. By night, a snake of stardust.

It also continued to shrink. Some weeks later, it was only a few hundred kilometers long. Then finally, a silver grey lozenge about ten meters long and five wide.

The world waited as it continued to orbit. After two weeks, it was decided to fetch it. Of course, there were concerns about whether it was some sort of Trojan horse, a weapon, a disease?

But readings reassured time and time again that it was... Nothing.

No mechanics, no life signs, no signals. A dead piece of crystal that also seemed to be impenetrable.

All that could be done was keep it out of harm’s way at a remote desert location. After six months of nothing, they even considered opening it to the public, like a piece of moon rock.

Glenn’s Comet. The Crystal Singer. God’s Arrow. A lot of names were going about. Until the end of the first year when it started to dissolve, if that’s the right word. The grey lozenge became more and more transparent. The world held its breath; there was something inside.

When the final casing completely dissolved, everyone gasped as they recognized instantly what it was. Tom, Glenn, and Lee were among those at the service.

The president herself delivered the final words. ‘We are here today to say goodbye to a legend. The first man to leave the Solar System. A brave astronaut we lost over a hundred years ago. Commander Sebastian Glenn has been returned to us to be buried with honor and dignity on his home planet. And although he cannot speak to us, he has brought us the greatest message in the history of mankind: We are not alone.’


Copyright © 2015 by Noel Denvir

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