SPACE FRIENDS INDEED: Chapter 4

The conference table in Chancellor Roberts' suite was crowded. He had opened the meeting by noting that the University was one of the first to take the possible extraterrestrial contact seriously. Now he called on Professor Thompson to report the latest astronomical findings.

"We've just received very interesting information from our friendly rival, the University of Hong Kong," said Dr. Thompson. "The Chinese government jumped at the chance to upstage the West and turned their Long March space telescope on the object. The image they sent is like Dr. Stephens', but with more detail. The really interesting thing is the spectrum. The Planet - we might as well call it that - has an atmosphere composed of nitrogen and oxygen with traces of water vapor and carbon dioxide. It looks like ours, in fact. Incredibly, the amount of energy it's radiating in the infrared is more than two hundred times as much as it could be getting from the sun at the distance it seems to be."

"Can you tell us the surface temperature?" asked Kathy.

"The infrared radiation indicates a temperature of about 220 Kelvins, but that's just the temperature of the upper atmosphere. Our own upper atmosphere is only about 258 kelvins. However, the amount of water vapor present indicates a temperature near the surface well above freezing."

After a pause Professor Thompson continued:

"The moon has moved perceptibly since we observed it. Using the Chinese data we were able to calculate a preliminary orbit. From this we could derive the mass of the planet-moon system. It is somewhat greater than our own.

"Meanwhile, the planet itself has grown brighter. The Chinese also say that they think there is another satellite orbiting much closer to the planet than the moon.

"That sums up what we know and what we don't know."

"The signals have continued," said Dr. Calvert, the astrophysicist. "Both the laser and radio signals would need great power to reach us with the intensity we are recording. The infrared energy radiated by the planet is enormous. All this indicates that the presumed inhabitants must be able to tap into prodigious sources of energy."

"But the planet is cold." said Jenkins, the PR director.

"Yes, but it's big enough to radiate at least 500 grams of energy each second. Our own planet radiates more."

"If it's so big why hasn't it been seen before?" Jenkins asked. Haven't we been looking all over the sky? What about the intensive surveys of certain areas we keep hearing about? Could they have been concealing themselves somehow?"

"Unlikely." Professor Thompson replied, "But that just adds to what we don't know."

The Chancellor entered the discussion, saying: "Everybody's talking as if this planet - if it's that - is really inhabited. Does anyone have an idea what they might be like?"

"I think we all have an inkling," said Kathy. "They are oxygen-breathers and probably their body fluids are water-based. Their technology is obviously very advanced. It's not likely that they themselves are electromechanical or some other non-organic system."

"All right," Chancellor Roberts said, That brings us to the point of this meeting. I would like to appoint Dr. Katherine Larsen our official investigator and representative in the matter of these extraterrestrial beings and their habitation. Dr. Larsen, you will hand over your teaching duties to your teaching assistants, but you will continue to supervise them. Your researches on Titan will have to take a back seat. You have good connections for this project. President Schaefer of Best Friend Robots has called me and offered your husband's services and anything else they can provide. Any objections?"

Kathy sighed and shook her head. The others nodded, except for professor Newell, the head of the biology department. He looked doubtful for a moment but then said, "Well, I guess it's OK. After all, Dr. Larsen is our only tenured professor of astrobiology."

"Very well," Chancellor Roberts said. "I've arranged with Mr. Bertelsen, who handles our Internet presence, for a subdomain and website for the project."

"What would you like the subdomain name to be, Dr. Larsen," asked Bertelsen.

"How about Midgard. In Norse mythology that's where human beings live, in other word, the earth. It looks like we're dealing with a very mysterious second Earth in this case."

Chuckles around the table. Bertelsen said, "All right, your subdomain will be midgard.wisc.edu. I'll set up a basic website and show you the software you will need to maintain it. How about if I give you the e-mail address juno@midgard.wisc.edu? You keep talking about these quaint mythologies."

Kathy blushed.

Professor Thompson said, "Yes, Kathy, you're the head goddess in this project."

Chancellor Roberts dismissed the meeting.