Project Hail Mary

Page 45

“All is attached,” said one of them. “Checklist is done. Ready for test.”

“Good, good,” Dimitri said. “Dr. Grace, Ms. Stratt. Come, come!”

He led Stratt and me into the vacuum chamber. A thick, shiny metal plate leaned against one wall. The middle of the chamber had a round table with some kind of device resting on it.

“This is spin drive.” Dimitri beamed.

It wasn’t much to look at. It was a couple of feet across, mostly circular, but with one side of it cut flat. Sensors and wires came out from apertures all over the place.

Dimitri lifted the top casing off to reveal the innards. Things got more complicated. Inside was a clear triangle on a rotor. Dimitri gave it a little spin. “See? Spin. Spin drive.”

“How’s it work?” I asked.

He pointed to the triangle. “This is the revolver—high-tensile-strength transparent polycarbonate. And this”—he pointed to a nook between the revolver and the outer casing—“is where fuel comes in. IR emitter inside that part of revolver emits small amount of light with 4.26 and 18.31 microns wavelength—that is wavelengths which attract Astrophage. Astrophage go to that revolver face. But not too hard. Astrophage thrust is based on strength of IR light. Dim light make weak thrust. But enough to make Astrophage stick to surface.”

He rotated the triangle and aligned an edge with the flat part of the casing. “Rotate 120 degrees, this face of revolver with Astrophage stuck to it now points out the back of the ship. Increase strength of IR light inside. Astrophage now very excited, push very hard toward IR light! Their thrust—Petrova-frequency light—leaves back of ship. This pushes ship forward. Millions of little Astrophages pushing on back of ship make it go, yes?”

I bent down for a look. “I see…this way no part of the ship has to be in the blast area of the light.”

“Yes, yes!” said Dimitri. “Astrophage force limited only by the brightness of IR light attracting it. I did very much math and decided best is to make Astrophage exhaust all energy in four seconds. Any faster and force will break revolver.”

He rotated the revolver another 120 degrees and pointed to the remaining third of the casing. “This is cleaning area. Squeegee wipes dead Astrophage off revolver.”

He pointed to the cleaning area, then the fueling area, and then the open face. “All three areas active at same time. So while this area cleans dead Astrophage off this face, fueling area adds Astrophage to that face, and other face is pointed out back of ship, providing thrust. This pipelining means the part of triangle pointed out back of ship is always thrusting.”

Dimitri opened my vial of Astrophage and set it in the fueling chamber. I guess since the Astrophage will find their way to the triangle face, no special handling was required. He could just…let the fuel see the IR.

“Come, come,” he said. “Experiment time!”

We left the vacuum chamber and Dimitri sealed it off. He yelled something in Russian, and all the Russians started repeating it. Everyone made their way to the far side of the hangar deck, including us.

They’d set up a folding table. It had a laptop on it with Cyrillic writing on the screen.

“Ms. Stratt. How far is carrier from closest land?” Dimitri asked.

“About three hundred kilometers,” she said.

“This is good.”

“Wait, why?” I said. “Why is that good?”

Dimitri pursed his lips. “It is…good. Time for science!”

He pushed a button. There was a muffled whump from the far side of the bay, followed by a hum, and then nothing.

“Experiment done.” He leaned forward to read the screen. “Sixty thousand Newtons of force!”

He turned to the other Russians. “60,000 ньютонов!”

They all cheered.

Stratt turned to me. “That’s a lot, right?”

I was too busy staring slack-jawed at Dimitri to answer her. “Did you say sixty thousand Newtons?”

He pumped his fist in the air. “Yes! Sixty thousand Newtons! Maintained for one hundred microseconds!”

“Oh my God. From that little thing?!” I started to walk forward. I had to see this for myself.

Dimitri grabbed my arm. “No. You stay here, friend. We all stay here. One point eight billion Joules of light energy was released. This is why we needed vacuum chamber and one thousand kilograms of silicon. No air to ionize. Light goes directly to silicon block. Energy is absorbed by melting the metal. See?”

He turned the laptop toward me. A camera feed from inside the vacuum chamber showed the glowing blob that was once a thick plate of metal.

“Whoa…” I said.

“Yes, yes,” Dimitri said. “That Mr. Einstein with his E = mc2. Very powerful stuff. We let the cooling system work on it for a few hours. Uses seawater. Will be fine.”

I just shook my head in awe. In just 100 microseconds—that’s one ten-thousandth of a second—Dimitri’s spin drive melted a metric ton of metal. All that energy had been stored up in my little Astrophages. Slowly harvested from the carrier’s nuclear reactor heat over time by my breeder. I mean, the math all checked out, but to see it actually demonstrated like that was another thing entirely.

“Wait…how much Astrophage did you use there?”

Dimitri smiled. “I can only estimate based on thrust generated. But was close to twenty micrograms.”

“I gave you two entire grams! Can I have the rest back, please?”

“Don’t be greedy,” Stratt said. “Dimitri needs it for further experimentation.”

She turned to him. “Good work. How big will the real drive be?”

Dimitri pointed to the video feed. “That big. That is real drive.”

“No, I mean the one on the ship.”

“That,” he said, pointing again. “You want redundancy, safety, reliability, yes? So we don’t make just one big engine. We make thousand little ones. One thousand and nine, actually. Enough for all thrust needed and much to spare. Some malfunction during trip? Not a problem. More thrust from the others to compensate.”

“Ah.” Stratt nodded. “Tons of little spin drives. I like it. Keep up the good work.”

She headed to the stairwell.

I stared at Dimitri. “If you’d set off all two grams of that sample at once…”

He shrugged. “Fwoosh! We are vapor. All of us. Carrier too. Explosion would make small tsunami. But three hundred kilometers away from land, so is okay.”

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