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Friday, July 22, 2016

F3 Run Aground

            Nina stared at the spreadsheet. Many people envisioned that astrophysics was all about gazing through the eye pieces of telescopes, or looking at images downloaded from satellites. To be fair, that made up a bit, but it wasn’t the bulk of everything. Most of astrophysics came down to spreadsheets and numbers.
            Radio, x-ray, and microwave telescopes worked more by data than images. The numbers could be applied to images, and even the radio signals could be hooked up to speakers to produce sounds, but a lot of it was number-crunching data through spreadsheets and databases.

            She stared at the data from Zheng He’s nanosats. The platform had let out one thousand of the sail-bearing satellites, casting them into the dark energy winds so they could map out the patterns.
            Just like the tiny probes put into earth-bound tornadoes, the satellites went where the wind carried them. And she stared at the numbers on the spreadsheet. Each satellite would transmit a pulse every second. Each pulse only contained the specific ID of the satellite. With Zhen He at one end of the solar system, Frontier at the other, and Earth in the middle, They could triangulate the location of each probe when it sent the signal by measuring the time it took for the signal to reach each point.
            And Nina now collated all of that data, looking at the individual timestamps from each position for each satellite. The data rolled in at a snail’s pace. Despite the satellites pulsing every second, they were received hours apart. On average, a pulse arrived after five hours. Some were quicker, if they changed direction to come back closer to the solar system. Others even sped up, taking over nine hours for each pulse to arrive.
Even so, there were one-thousand satellites to track, as it arrived at each triangulation point in the solar system. The spreadsheet in front of her represented ten minutes’ worth of transmissions from one satellite, coming in over the last 127 days, and clocking in—Heh—at 600 rows. Once she verified that there was no corrupt data in the spreadsheet, she could feed the numbers into a coordinate calculation, which could be used to generate the specific path of this satellite.
            She hit page down to bring up the next set of numbers. As the numbers blurred, so did her vision. She rubbed tired, burned out eyes and blindly sipped at her coffee. She was three hours into this.
            Why isn’t an intern doing this? Oh, right. Payback for the green screen. Jenny needs a better sense of humor. Walker only escaped because they’re dating. You know what, screw this. After this satellite, I’m making an intern do this. Yeah, right. Like the interns aren’t responsible for five satellites each. Hope Peterson gets that projection program working soon so we can turn a lot of this over to the supercomputers.
            She opened her eyes, scanned through the numbers, and paged down to row 476. She scanned the numbers, noting no corruption of the number sets until something caught her eye on 507. It had duplicate numbers as the row before it. All three triangulation points registered identical numbers. In row 508 the numbers had changed, but only minutely.
            Row 509 was identical to the row before it. And then 510 was slightly different. She quickly scanned through more rows, matching up identical timestamps, sometimes for three rows, a few times for four, but mostly for pairs. The pattern continued to the end of the dataset.
            She copied the data and fed it into the mapping program. The satellite tracked on an erratic path, subject to the dark energy winds, and then, as it got to the rows she had noticed, the satellite stopped. It didn’t move any longer, at least not with any kind of real speed. Before, the satellite it had been moving at approximately 1.6 light years per hour; now it travelled in kilometers per second. According to calculations, it was moving at over 190 km/s, but that was nothing compared to before.
            “It’s . . . stuck. But if it hit something, why didn’t it simply obliterate. It would have been carrying enough speed to vaporize if it struck ordinary matter. What the hell?”

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