A shot in the dark

The team huddled around the instrument and communication benches in the control centre. consoles flickered and camera crews focused. The focus was on the faces of the mission command staff as they gazed up with rapture at the main screen. The culmination of years of planning and decades of operation was about to be revealed. This would be more than a full day after the event had actually occurred some twenty billion miles away.

In the corner the now reclusive billionaire bank-roller sat pensively. No emotion crossed her face but she still managed to emit an air of quiet self-satisfaction.

The main screen showed the carrier signal positive diagnostic symbol. The giant, automated spacecraft was emitting a directed signal back to Earth from the near complete darkness beyond the Kuiper belt. in the corner of the screen were two clocks. one showing mission time and one counting down to the expected image receipt time. The craft had sent periodic ETA’s every few hours. The timer currently read 2 minutes.

Only ten years ago the  craft had left Earth lunar orbit in a dramatic blaze, riding a series of thermonuclear pulses and carrying more than 2000 100 megaton charges to be taken to it’s final destination. The craft was immense.  The initial sourcing and construction costs alone were unprecedented, and that was before the incredible feat of transporting the components to orbit for assembly.

The timer ticked along. One minute to go.

The craft had used more sensory and computing power than any previous automated probe in history. The machine’s  gravimeters had  detected, analysed and responded to it’s path in the dark in real time. The machine had interpreted, from the raw data it’s sensors collected, whether the body it found in the dark had rings, moons, a diameter more or less than expected and by how much. The extrapolation involved was extreme. and the machine had to do it alone.

Thirty seconds to go. There were so many unknowns in how the mission would unfold. There were so many possible outcomes based on what the machine would find and how it would decide to proceed. Would it have the necessary resources? would it’s imagination be enough to engineer a plan and execute it to success? Would it be lonely?

Such a machine had never been deployed in such a way. There was a serious hope among the original planners that the craft’s gravimeters would find enough moons of sufficient size to gain a suitable image. However this couldn’t be left to chance. contingencies were made to the craft itself but no-one could be sure they would work. As it was, there were over 200 moons, 30 of them large enough to be used and 12 expected to be in position at the right time. that allowed for effective use of the medium distance unfolding visors carried on board the craft.

10 seconds. Everyone held their breaths. This was the defining moment for many lives  both in the control room and out of it.

The timer ticked over to zero and the data stream began. The influx was a fax machine squeal accompanied by holding of hands and reassured smiles. It would take just 2 minutes again now.

The first information began to register on the monitor. the text stream stated that the detonations had succeeded perfectly as planned. The synchronised atomic clocks had not failed. The signal continued to screech it’s way in.

Then it stopped. A moment’s buffering later and there it was. A beautiful purple orb, Glittering with deep mauve lines and white poles. The first image of our solar system’s planet X.

-W

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