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Excerpt from Tianhou Queen of Heaven. Amended version 2021

20/04/2021

Chapter 2

P rofessor Vinod Rajkumar never went anywhere in a hurry. That’s why he felt hard pressed when he was woken in the middle of the night to take a call from the Director of the JPL (Jet Propulsion Laboratory in California) ordering him to take the next flight to Washington. Most people did not know that the headquarters of NASA were situated in Washington. Raj, as he was known, could not have cared less. He was not part of the decision-making clique and would have hated to be.

“...the object they named Tianhou (Queen of Heaven) is not an asteroid or any natural celestial body. ”

Even more, he hated flying with a hundred people in such a small space, yet here he was in a jet which was rolling furiously to reach airborne speed. Raj smiled to himself as he wondered, how could that impress me? After all, he had designed the Space Probes which were capable of freeing themselves from the grip of the home planet at more than twelve kilometres per second. He returned back to his immediate concern, why the hell do they want me in Washington? It could not be to do with PEARL. The space probe was in excellent condition and would place itself in orbit around Uranus in only six months. And flight control was already preparing the procedures to get PEARL out of its hibernation state; this would happen in one week and it made absolutely no sense that NASA would amputate him from his team at such a critical moment. If it had nothing to do with PEARL, then what? Prof Rajkumar was not a man to insist on answers when the amount of data was insufficient to adequately process, so he closed his eyes. In a few hours he would know.

Now that he knew, he still could not believe it. Sherman had spoken for an hour which had passed by in a flash, even for a man like Raj. Sherman swallowed half a glass of water and said,

"Gentleman to summarize, eight months ago the Chinese were busy calibrating their new 500-meter radio telescope in Guizhou Province, South-West China. This is one of the many calibrations they are still undertaking.” Raj welcomed this summary, he wished he could hear the story ten times more to be sure that he was not the victim of a hallucination due to the notoriously awful food they serve on airlines.

Sherman on the other hand was loving it. He had in front of him some of the most eminent scientists and engineers of the United States and was obviously taking great pleasure in seeing their dumbfounded faces. He continued slowly. “They were incredulous as they expected to find nothing in this region of the Solar System and first deduced a malfunction of some kind, and while spending another month trying to track the problem, they ordered their most powerful instruments to scan the region. They found something there, something resembling an asteroid or comet, on a path towards the sun. Such a discovery is of course not unusual, the object was approximately 3.5 kilometers in length and 300 meters in diameter. What was unusual was its density. That made them conclude that the object was basically hollow. This, added to the fact that the object emitted a radio signal every two hours specifically directed towards Earth, made them reach the only obvious conclusion possible. Our Chinese friends for a reason known only to themselves, probably for fear of seeming ridiculous or simply needing time to sort all this out, then took all this time to contact us. The Chinese are convinced that the object they named Tianhou (Queen of Heaven) is not an asteroid or any natural celestial body. The notes that are now being distributed to you contain all you need to know. And all that we know."

Raj observed the lady in charge of handing over the copies which had deliberately not been placed on the table before Sherman's speech began. No doubt about it, the man knows how to raise attention, he thought. Everything was here, the tests the Chinese did to contradict their own conclusions and the best pictures they could make of an object this small lying beyond the orbit of Neptune which showed up as nothing more than a big dot of light. Most of the assembled contingent were now reading through the material and at about the same time, everyone understood that even though the radio signal was directed towards Earth, Tianhou was on a more cometary trajectory than a direct path towards Earth. Even though the spaceship (what else could it be?) could still change its trajectory, Tianhou would circumnavigate the sun on an eternally stable orbit of 300 years. The last time it would have been visible in the skies of earth as a moving star of magnitude 7.4, Denmark and the Netherlands were devastated by a dramatic flood claiming the life of thousands, the so-called Christmas Flood of 1717. Tianhou would easily have passed unnoticed in the sky over Europe as it would have lacked the bright extensive hair dressing of any comet deserving the title. But Tianhou was no comet. Was that the reason why astronomers of olden times did not notice its passage or was this it's very first orbit around the sun?

At this very moment, the room broke into a cacophony of questions! Raj didn’t interact and could not have cared less. Many people became upset by his perceived extreme slowness but what they did not see was his remarkable brain working at terrific speed, forming possibilities, calculating approximate interception trajectories. Humanity would have a short window if it decided to intercept this what? Planetary emissary? Parked spaceship? Still, what was he doing here? Why was he invited? He knew that there was no intention to inform the general public, at least not right now. There was only one possibility. At the same time that he arrived at this stunning conclusion, his ears filtered part of the last sentence of Sherman's speech.

"...Yes, Bill you are right, but Professor Vinod Rajkumar can offer a quicker way to have a closer look at this bird. Raj?"

Professor Raj stood up, raised his left hand to salute the assembly accompanying it with that movement of the head that only the Indians know the secret of. He struggled to find the best way to answer.

"You are thinking about PEARL. Correct Doctor Sherman?"

"Have the Chinese calculated the feasibility of rerouting PEARL?"

"Obviously," replied Sherman, "but did they know the level of your fuel reserve capacity?"

"I will have to check all the numbers, but we were supposed to orbit Uranus for eight months and explore most of its moon systems. We have more fuel in case the mission life expectancy of the probe exceeds its allocated mission time. We will have to recalculate our trajectory to get a gravity assist push from Uranus and effectuate a flyby instead of getting into orbit. It will indeed be a close fly by, my team will not like that." he added and almost immediately regretted it.

"We will take care of that Raj." NASA's administrator interrupted abruptly, "Do you think it is possible?"

"I would say yes but if you want a definitive answer you will have to give me several hours. But can I ask, what about the public and the technicians of the deep space network around the world? We do not have much time if we want to make the necessary corrections and I must add that, at best, you will have only a handful of pictures as the probe flies by the object. hmm Tianhou, at several times the speed of a bullet. We need to consider that there are not many instruments on board capable of analyzing such a small object. They were not designed for this."

Having nothing more to add, Raj sat down. Burt Sherman had calculatedly reserved this time for the last speaker, Lt General Cummins who was from Homeland Security. Sherman needed to diminish the aversion the scientific community would have for this level of public officialdom by including the fact that Cummins was himself part of the same community. He had flown military missions on the Space Shuttle and was now in charge of the unmanned long duration space plane X-37B. Cummins was now in his early sixties. He cleared his voice which was tinted with an accent from the northern American states.

"I am not here officially as part of Homeland Security but more as an advisor to the emergency committee set up by the President. For the moment, it consists only of my eminent personage and a hysterical colonel running around the US trying to find the few competent people capable of assessing the situation. However, I swear on the blessed soul of Von Neumann that they will be apolitical."

His remarks started the laugh intended to relax the assembly. At least it was comforting to have a man like him advising the President, thought Raj. The man in his impressive Air-Force uniform continued.

"As for the public, I know they are a deep concern for all of us here and naturally we prefer to know the nature of this object before letting the matter go viral with all the associated implications. Moreover, there is the chance that PEARL can show us that Tianhou is only a kilometric potato-shaped rogue asteroid with a natural anomaly provoking the emission of radio waves every two hours. We do not want to scream about wandering Martians before we see one. I don’t personally see any possible natural explanation and the fact that this signal has to be adjusted to stay aligned with Earth is in itself, how can I put it..? Let's just say, it’s a possible source of concern. Is there something on earth or was there something listening to this signal? The probability appears fantastic. If it follows its path, this object will never arrive on Earth, but this signal still looks like being part of a network. We have millions of questions to answer, and it has already been decided that we will inform the public as soon as PEARL give us the first pictures and..." He continued for a while longer in his usual long-winded way.

As it happened, events did not go exactly as planned.

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