Return to Sender
by David Ferrett
No no, this is simply an error, said Professor of Astronomy Gavin Hart.
He lifted his head up from the magnifier and rubbed his eyes. For starters, its not where it should be. Second, there is no way that it could have gotten in this position. So he looked at his young college assistant questioningly.
Ah so it cant be it then? said David Morrison.
Correct, smiled Dr. Hart. However, he raised his index finger, a good scientist always double checks. Hart lowered his head to the magnifier and gazed at the small black dot on the negative image. Realign the scope, get some more images, and then well see that this is indeed one of those awful computer glitches."
David Morrison moved to the control panel of the Large Binocular Telescope. He adjusted the computer control to move the two large mirrors to a spot in the sky and triggered the auto-imaging system.
* * *
Three hours later, David Morrison had passed the latest set of images to Professor Hart.
This is really amazing Professor, David said, wiping his sweaty palms on his trousers.
I dont believe it, said Hart. Are you absolutely sure the scope was positioned correctly?
Yes sir. I checked it all five times. Everything was set correctly, said Morrison.
Hart moved across to the alignment computer, tapped out a command on the keyboard, and read the results from the display. Correct co-ordinates. Fifteen minutes elapsed between images. Binocular field within limits. Hart returned to the backlit viewing table that held a number of the most recent images.
Sir, I have checked everything five times, Morrison reminded the professor.
Hart stared at one image, pushed it aside, and dragged another onto the light box and gazed at it through the magnifier. This is impossible. How on Earth did it get there?
Morrison snickered to himself at the professors unintended pun. So you think its really it, sir?
Harts head did not budge from its position over the images. My better judgment says no, Mr. Morrison. However, the facts speak for themselves.
Hart lifted his head, removed his glasses from his coat pocket, and put them on. All right Mr. Morrison, check the Ames web site to see if they have detected any change in position. Im going to call Will Pearce over at NASA.
* * *
Dr. William Pearce sat at the head of the conference table. Familiar negative images of space were strewn across the table, mixed amongst hundreds of sheets of paper, computer printouts, and colour photographic images. Others around the room were arguing across the table, picking up images and papers, and pushing them in front of others to make their point. Gentlemen ladies please, said Dr. Pearce. He raised his voice. People, please!
The others ignored him and continued their bickering. Pearce reached out and picked up his almost empty glass of water and banged the base of the glass down on the tabletop like a judge's gavel. Everybody, please.
The banging of the glass made the others start, and they quickly quieted down and stared at the man who had broken their argumentative conversations. Dr. William Pearce was Chief Scientist in Charge of Interplanetory Missions. A hell of a title that basically meant that he was boss-man as far as any missions that utilised unmanned exploratory probes. This included all the past probe missions since the inception of NASA.
Thank you. Look, we really need to focus here as a group and not get involved in personal attacks and bickering. Pearce gently placed his glass back down on the table and then realised a small pool of water had gathered under the glass, splashing out from the banging on the table. William lifted the glass and removed some of the papers that had sat under it and were now wet, their ink smudged. Damn it, William muttered to himself as he gathered the wet papers by the corners and shook them over the carpet.
Dr. Pearce, we have been in here for nearly six hours and we are no closer to a final decision as to what NASA intend to do about this situation, said one of the scientists from JPL.
I have explained what NASA intend to William began.
Yes, you have Dr. Pearce, but many of us here do not believe that that course of action is appropriate, said the same scientist. He looked around the table for encouragement. Discussions started again as some of the other scientists agreed and some disagreed.
William again started using his glass as a gavel. Quiet please!
William continued quickly as the conversations fell to murmurs. The NASA decision is final. We will continue to monitor the return of Pioneer 10 to the inner solar system. Its too early to make any other plans. Also, shes still too far out to get any reasonable data. If she continues on her current course, we expect it to be close enough to Earth in about 10 years to enable a close examination. In fact -- he looked around the faces of the men and women in the room -- if it continues on its current trajectory and speed, which by the way is faster than it was traveling when it left our solar system, our people calculate that it may even be captured by Earth's gravitational pull and orbit the our planet.
Impossible! laughed another scientist. William could not recall where this one was from. The scientist continued: It may pass nearby, but enter a stable orbit? Its a runaway, Dr. Pearce. It will likely continue back through the inner planets and end up burning up as it nears the sun.
William picked up a computer printout and passed it down the table to the scientist. Check the calculations yourself, Doctor. Youll find them very accurate. At the very least, she is going to pass very close by. So close its amazing. After all this time, she somehow turns around and decides to return home. Why? How?
The room erupted as every man and women in the room directed a tirade of questions at William. He leaned back in his chair, closed his eyes and wished they would all go away.
* * *
Dr. William Pearce sat in Mission Control, Houston. The launch of the STS had gone smoothly, as they usually did these days. No longer did they have to launch using the dangerous solid-rocket boosters of the past. The new STS designs took off from a regular runway like a normal aircraft and then utilised modern ramjet technology to boost into orbit. Like the shuttles of the past, they would land like a normal aircraft; however, unlike the older shuttles that glided down to land, these days they were fully powered landings, making them far easier on pilots and far less dangerous.
William sat in front of a multi-function flat-display panel and checked the orbit of the orbiter and compared it to that of the orbit of Pioneer 10. The calculations carried out nearly ten years ago had been correct. Pioneer was launched from Earth in March of 1972 to study the two largest planets of the solar system. It was never meant to return to its home and was headed for the deepest reaches of space in the direction of Aldebran in Taurus. Incredibly, in late 2021, Pioneer 10 returned home and quietly slipped into a perfect orbit around the Earth.
Over the last ten years, as the details of the return of Pioneer were made public, theories abounded about how the old probe had returned and a million more as to why. Many of the worlds top scientists believed that Pioneer had come across an unknown planet far outside the known edge of our solar system, some seven and half billion miles from Earth. They theorised that Pioneer 10 had been dragged towards this planet and been flung back to the inner solar system like a slingshot. A trillion-to-one chance.
However, whilst many accepted this theory, it did not explain how, after travelling another seven-and-half billion miles back to where it had left 50 years ago, it fell into a perfect orbit around its home planet. What were the chances of that?
William had his own theories about the return of Pioneer, one of which he preferred over the others. He deeply hoped that the probe had been discovered by another race and was being returned with a sign of their existence or a reply to the message that was attached to Pioneer -- a plaque that explained the origin of the probe and who created it. He hoped that examination of the probe would answer all the questions and not leave any lingering doubts about the reason for its return home. If, William thought, this is a sign of another race of beings; it would change the world forever.
Houston, STS947. We have acquired visual on Pioneer and are commencing approach, reported Major Daniel Bennett, Commander of the mission aboard the STS947 Orbiter.
STS947, Houston. Roger that, Dan. Proceed as per plan, responded Capcom for this mission, Frank Dean.
The plan was a simple one, much of the work carried out by computer. The orbiter would manouver into position near Pioneer and would then use its robotic arm to capture Pioneer. A team of two astronauts would then suit up and examine the probe before moving it into the storage bay of the orbiter for its return to Earth and further scientific examination.
William and everyone present in Mission Control watched the large displays carrying the video feed from the orbitor as it manouvered in close to the Pioneer probe. The room was silent as they saw the old probe for the first time in 50 years. For many, they had only ever seen pictures.
William was less than one year old when Pioneer was launched, yet after watching her return for the last 10 years, he felt like he knew her very well. Welcome home, he whispered.
Pardon, Doctor? inquired Frank Dean.
Huh? Oh umm, nothing Frank. Just talking to myself.
Houston, STS947. We have the probe in the arm and Karen and I are about to suit up for EVA, radioed Dan Bennett. Dr. Karen Spence was the orbitors satellite mission specialist.
STS947, Houston. Roger, Dan. Have a good one and keep the channel open for a running commentary as to what you find. We got a heap of people down here waiting for some answers. Frank said.
STS947, Houston. Roger that, Capcom. Ill give a full blow-by-blow. Ask the white coats to hang in there, Dan replied.
Capcom Frank Dean turned to the gaggle of scientists sitting in the observation room, smiled, and gave them the thumbs-up sign. The scientists stared blankly back. Frank shook his head slowly. No senses of humour, those guys.
William turned to the Capcom. Come on Frank, this is a big thing for these guys. Shit, its a big thing for all of us. Nothing like this has ever happened before.
Yeah, I know, Dr. Pearce. Theyre just such a surly lot. I wish all scientists were like you. At least you know when to laugh.
Im taking this very seriously, Frank. Ive been involved in this for 10 years and finally, hopefully, were going to find out what brings our old friend up there home. Will looked up to the video feed and saw the storage-bay camera showing two bulky suited figures emerge from the orbitor.
Houston, STS947 EVA team. We are outside the orbiter and moving toward Pioneer, Dan said.
Frank replied, STS947 EVA team, Houston. Roger that, Dan. Well drop the formalities for now so you can give us your running commentary.
OK, Frank. We are about 25 feet away from the probe. I can see some pitting and other surface damage, but otherwise she looks in pretty good condition for a 50-year-old lady. Antenna is intact and looks as good as new.
Any sign of activity on your sensors, Dan? Frank asked.
Negative, Frank, shes as quiet as a baby. We are now about 10 feet away. We are going to go around her to check all sides. Everything looks in pretty good condition. If I didnt know better Id say that she has been in the shop for some repairs whilst she was away. Dan turned his head slowly from side to side, so as to let Mission Control get a good picture of the probe via his helmet-mounted camera.
Karen Spence spoke for the first time. Dan, come and check this out.
On my way, Karen, what is it? Dan said.
Its something that doesnt look right on the side panel here. Karen was pointing at a large ball-shaped object attached to one side of the probe just above the welcome plaque.
What the hell is that? Dan said as he cast his gaze over the object. Its not on any of the original plans of the probe that we reviewed.
Frank looked across at William and raised his eyebrows. William placed his headset on. Dan, this is Dr. William Pearce. What is it? What have you found? Can you give us a picture?
Dan adjusted his view so that his camera pointed directly at the strange sphere. Its a large spherical object that has been attached to a side panel of the probe. It has some strange characters on it that I dont recognise. Karen and I are sure that it was not on the probe design plans that we studied. Can you ask the white coats down there to check their plans? This thing is on the panel just above the welcome plaque. Dan reached out toward the sphere.
William confered quickly with the scientists who had the detailed design documents of the Pioneer 10 probe. Dan, this is William. The guys down here confirm there is nothing like that on the original designs.
Just as Dans gloved hand touched the attachment, it came to life. Shit! Dan exclaimed. The attachment started to steadily glow to a bright blueish hue.
Dan, whats happened? Capcom said.
Uh, I uh when I touched the sphere it started glowing. My radio sensors are going crazy. Jesus! The antenna is realigning itself. Its transmitting. Its transmitting.
Dan, look at this, Karen said.
Dan Bennett moved down a little so that he could view what Dr. Karen Spence was looking at. No. No. It cant be, uttered Dan.
Dan, this is William. What is it? Whats going on? There was no response. Dan! William repeated.
Dr. Pearce, this is Karen. The device is flashing brightly now. Our radio sensors are off the dials. The radio transmissions coming from the probe are incredibly powerful. We have to get back inside the ship. Dan has lost it, he's in shock.
Shock? Why? What is it? William asked.
The plaque, Dr. Pearce. Its the plaque, Karen said.
The plaque? What about the it? William said.
The Earth has been erased. The diagram showing Earths position in relation to the other planets. Its gone, Doctor. The Earth has been erased from the diagram.
Oh my, God! William said. Something did find it.
The unit was flashing so quickly now it blurred into a single light. Karen was dragging Dan back towards the airlock when it detonated.
A new sun burned in the sky for a fraction of a second for Earth that day. In the next fraction of second it grew to a thousand suns, then a million, and then it was gone.
Where the planet Earth once existed, there was now a large cloud of fine debris. Over time this cloud spread and thin out, to become another Oort cloud, between the orbits of Mars and Venus.
Story © 2003 by David Ferrett firstname.lastname@example.org
Illustration © 2003 by Emily M. Hanson email@example.com
Back to Table of Contents