“Okay, Rocky,” I say. “Get comfortable. I have a lot of science to explain.”
* * *
He knocked twice and leaned into my office. “Dr. Grace? Are you Dr. Grace?”
It wasn’t a large office, but you’re lucky to have any personal space at all on an aircraft carrier. Before it held the high honor of being my office, the room was a storage locker for bathroom supplies. The crew had three thousand butts that needed daily wiping. I got to keep the room as my office until the next time we were in port. Then they’d fill it up with more supplies.
I was approximately as critical as toilet paper.
I looked up from my laptop. The short, somewhat disheveled man at the door waved awkwardly.
“Yeah,” I said. “I’m Grace. You are…?”
“Hatch. Steve Hatch. University of British Columbia. Nice to meet ya.”
I gestured to the folding chair in front of the folding table I used as a desk.
He shuffled in, carrying a bulbous metal object. I’d never seen anything like it. He plunked it on my table.
I looked at the object. It was like someone had flattened a medicine ball, added a triangle to one end, and a trapezoid to the other.
He sat in the chair and stretched his arms. “Man, that was weird. I’ve never been on a helicopter before. Have you? Well, of course you have. How else would you get here? I mean, I guess you could have used a boat, but probably not. I hear they keep the carrier far away from land in case there’s a disaster during Astrophage experiments. A boat would have been nicer, honestly, that helicopter ride almost made me puke. But I’m not complaining. I’m just happy to be involved.”
“Um”—I gestured to the object on my desk—“what is this thing?”
He somehow became even more energetic. “Ah, right! That’s a beetle! Well, a prototype for one, anyway. My team and I think we have most of the kinks worked out. Well, you never have all the kinks worked out, but we’re ready for actual engine tests. And the university said we had to do those here on the carrier. Also the provincial government of British Columbia said it. Oh, and the national government of Canada said it too. I’m Canadian, by the way. But don’t worry! I’m not one of those anti-American Canadians. I think you guys are all right.”
“Yeah!” He picked it up and turned the trapezoid toward me. “This is how the Hail Mary crew will send us back the information. It’s a little self-contained spacecraft that will automatically navigate itself back to Earth from Tau Ceti. Well, from anywhere, really. That’s what me and my team have been working on for the past year.”
I peek into the trapezoid and see a shiny glasslike surface. “Is that a spin drive?” I asked.
“Sure is! Man, those Russians know their stuff. We just used their designs and everything came out great. At least, I think it did. We haven’t tested the spin drive yet. The tricky part is navigation and steering.”
He turned the device around and faced the triangular head toward me. “This is where the cameras and computer are. No fancy-schmancy inertial-navigation nonsense. It uses ordinary visible light to see the stars. It identifies constellations and works out its orientation from that.” He tapped the center of the bulbous carapace. “There’s a little DC generator in here. As long as we have Astrophage, we have power.”
“What can it carry?” I ask.
“Data. It’s got a redundant RAID array with more memory storage than anyone would ever need.” He knocked on the dome. It echoed slightly. “The bulk of this puppy is fuel storage. It’ll need about 125 kilos of Astrophage to make the trip. Seems like a lot but…man…twelve light-years!”
I lifted the device and hefted it in my hands a couple of times. “How does it turn?”
“Reaction wheels inside,” he said. “It spins them one way, the ship turns the other. Easy-peasy.”
“Interstellar navigation is ‘easy-peasy’?” I smiled.
He snickered. “Well, for what we have to do, yeah. It has a receiver that’s constantly listening for a signal from Earth. Once it hears that signal, it’ll broadcast its location and await instructions from the Deep Space Network. We don’t have to be super accurate with the navigation. We just need it to show up within radio range of Earth. Anywhere within the orbit of Saturn or so will do just fine.”
I nod. “And then scientists can tell it exactly how to get back. Clever.”
He shrugged. “They’ll probably do that, yeah. But they don’t need to. They’ll have it radio over all the data first thing. The information gets across. Then they can collect it later if they want. Oh, and we’re making four of these. All we need is for one of them to survive the trip.”
I turned the beetle this way and that. It was surprisingly light. A few pounds at most. “Okay, so there are four of these. How likely is each one to survive the trip? Is there at least a little system redundancy aboard?”
He shrugged. “Not that much, no. But it doesn’t have to travel for nearly as long as the Hail Mary does. So stuff doesn’t have to survive as long.”
“It’s going the same route, right?” I asked. “Why doesn’t it take the same time?”
“Because the Hail Mary’s acceleration is limited by the soft, squishy humans inside. The beetle doesn’t have that problem. Everything aboard is military-grade cruise-missile electronics and parts that can handle hundreds of g’s of force. So it gets to relativistic speed much faster.”
“Oh, interesting…” I wondered if this would make a good question for my students. I dismissed the idea immediately. It was absurdly complicated math no eighth grader would be able to handle.
“Yeah,” Hatch said. “They accelerate at five hundred g’s until they reach a cruising speed of 0.93 c. It’ll take over twelve years to get back to Earth, but all told the little guys will only experience about twenty months. Do you believe in God? I know it’s a personal question. I do. And I think He was pretty awesome to make relativity a thing, don’t you? The faster you go, the less time you experience. It’s like He’s inviting us to explore the universe, you know?”
He fell silent and stared at me.
“Well,” I said. “This is really impressive. Good work.”
“Thanks!” he said. “So can I have some Astrophage to test it?”
“Sure,” I said. “How much you want?”
“How about a hundred milligrams?”