SPACE FRIENDS INDEED: Chapter 2

After a short silence Kathy said, "I'm not sure I really believe in premonitions and hunches, but there's something very odd about this whole thing. They say that they were asked to come to our aid. Who asked them?"

"Yes, and even if they are another race of sentient beings, are they just pretending to be our friends."

"Friends or not, this could be the greatest thing for astrobiology. There are a lot of other unanswered questions. For one, how do they know all our languages? For another, why hasn't this so-called spaceship been seen before if it's so big?"

"Well, said David, "We've been pouring out radio and television signals for more than a hundred years and communicating with spacecraft for nearly as long. The object is in an uninteresting-looking patch of sky, and it didn't attract attention to itself until a little while ago."

Kathy realized that the baby had fallen asleep and texted Minnie to take the child to the nursery. The robot came and took the baby with a tender smile on her holographic face. David asked her to return to the radio room. She reported that Bob would not give up his phone and go to sleep. Kathy went to deal with the situation.

It was long past Anne's bedtime, but neither parent mentioned it. She was certainly too excited to get any sleep.

Minnie came back and took her place in the special chair that David had designed. It had charging coils in the seat which were activated by her weight. And it had safety belts, so she wouldn't fall out if she was put in computer mode. After all, she was by far the most powerful computer in the house.

Kathy returned looking thoughtful. "Davy," she said, "we've got to get one of the big telescopes on that thing. We need a spectrum. If it's really that big it must have considerable gravity. It may even have an atmosphere. A spectrum would tell us a lot."

"Right. Maybe some of your colleagues could do something."

"I'll talk to the astronomers at the University. Most of them are analyzing data. Only a couple are at observatories now. Professor Thompson is a good friend and heads the astronomy department. He may be able to pull some strings."

"It's late, but I don't think this can wait." said David. "It's night in this hemisphere. A good time for observing. But it'll be tough to preempt anyone who has time on a big scope this night."

"Tough is right, but I'll try."

Kathy began dialing her phone and talking animatedly. Responses were initially grumpy, but when she could persuade someone to look at the star with binoculars they became excited. Professor Thompson said he would see what he could do and call back.

Sleep was finally overcoming Anne. Kathy led her to her room and put her to bed.

David asked Minnie to bring coffee for the two of them. She returned in a few minutes with a steaming pot, two cups and some energy bars.

While they were pouring their coffee Professor Thompson called back. Kathy activated her speakerphone.

Dr. Thompson said< "As expected, the big telescopes, both on earth and in space, are booked for months to come. However, we have a 1-meter telescope that we use for educational purposes. It has a fairly good spectrograph. I'm on my way there now. That will give us a start. To get much information about the object's atmosphere we would need one of the space telescopes. But if we get some good data NASA or the military may kick someone off."

"Surely they know about it already," said David.

"Yes, but we can move faster than they can."

The baby monitor beeped. They could hear a soft cry. David went to see what Jenny needed. As he changed her he chuckled, reflecting that his grandfather wouldn't have known how to change a diaper to save his life.

Back in the radio room they waited. It would be at least an hour before Dr. Thompson could get back to them. They tried to relax in their chairs. The coming day would be very busy for both of them.

Finally the call came through. "It certainly looks like a planet. In fact, it even has a moon. You can download images of both and spectra at our astronomy website. We'll keep on it. In a day or two we can calculate the moon's orbit. That will tell us the mass of the system. in a month we should be able to calculate the orbit of the planet itself. That will give us its exact distance from the sun."

David said "Minnie, Suspend robot mode."

"Thumbprint please."

David pressed his thumb against the reader on her temple. She fastened the chair's safety belts, because the processors that controlled her motor functions would be preempted, and folded her hands in her lap. Her projector showed the operating system's 3d start screen.

David began giving commands from his station computer over the encrypted wireless connection. Minnie downloaded the main image. It was a mottled disk. It was brighter around the edges than it could be expected to be, and the edges were a bit fuzzy - an indication of atmosphere. When David applied shading and perspective the disk swelled into a half-globe with markings that might be clouds. A little more than half, because when it was slightly rotated they could see that light from a source behind it was being bent over its horizon by its atmosphere. Its spectrum was mostly reflected sunlight, but with a blazing green line--the laser.

Next the moon. It was a featureless sphere even with enhancements, except for tiny dark spots, hardly more than single pixels, that were spaced regularly in what seemed to be part of a circle. It appeared to be made of polished metal.

Kathy asked to see the enhanced image of the planet again. After studying it for a moment she said: "From the amount of sunlight it's getting its temperature must be well below 100 kelvins, colder than Titan. If it is really inhabited the creatures will have a form of metabolism that is completely new to us. At that temperature it would be very slow."

David said: "Well there are electronic devices that function nicely at those temperatures, and the mechanicals could be worked out. Remember the speculations about a life form consisting of hives of robots. Some members would have the job of repairing others. Some would make new robots. When the hive wanted to reproduce it would swarm like bees."

"Interesting. But how would something like that get started? Of course we don't know how life on Earth got started."

"Really?"

"Yes. With great effort we can build simple cells from scratch, but that proves nothing. We weren't around when such cells first came into existence."

Kathy called Professor Thompson and described their findings. He asked that the enhanced image be uploaded and gave the credentials.

David instructed Minnie to perform the upload and commanded her to store the enhanced image and resume robot mode.

She unfastened the safety belts, looked around, and asked, "Do you want more coffee?"

They shook their heads. "We want to get some sleep." said Kathy.