Diamonds in the Sky

How I Saved the World

by Valentin D. Ivanov

Saving the world is expensive and time-consuming. To say nothing of the sweat and toil. The troubles began with the doctors who drained a few liters of your blood every day, not to mention the other types of body fluids. God forbid you showed the faintest sign of weakness or illness. Sneezing in front of the wrong people would reduce your chances to fly by orders of magnitude.

Then, you had to undergo the weightlessness training — just a fancy name for the vomit comet flights. They put you on a jet transport, and mind you, this was a Russian banger long past its retirement age. I wouldn’t be surprised if Gagarin himself trained on the same aircraft. This thing chattered more than my wife and her sister over the phone on a Sunday afternoon. Oh, just forget it. So, one morning they loaded you and the other wannabe supermen, and took off. It was scary, I know. The worst came after the plane started diving to the ground. Even then the pilots had to squeeze every last horse power from the engines because the air resistance slowed the bird down. Your free fall exercise was nothing but free.

All the trainees rolled to the front end after every dive when the pilots leveled the machine — thanks God the bowels of the cargo bay were covered with thick layers of rubber and plastic. You could swear that the wings were falling off. We all could. This was when the real fear hit. Each session lasted for an hour, and there were way too many of them. After the first climb I asked myself why I was doing this. Three flights later I was having fun, actually.

You are about to save the world, remember? And on your own nickel too, so I hope you enjoyed the weightlessness training, because the afternoons after the flights were much worse. And I mean, much worse. The Russians locked you up in a classroom to study the matchast, or the material part, as they call the equipment. You listened to tedious lectures about the ship systems, sitting at a wooden desk covered with carvings: names, dates and cartoons worthy of a certain well-known gentleman’s magazine. Who said Russian art was dead?

Professor Kuznetsov, that was the name of the torturer, walked among the desks. He was fat, short and bald. It was hard to decide which of the three had made him hate the world and you in particular. The professor carried a long stick to poke the students who couldn’t answer the questions he shouted at them as if they were criminals. Or stupid, which in his opinion was infinitely worse.

“You pity supermen!” Kuznetsov liked to yell. Apparently, the concept of gender equality had bypassed him because he just ignored the last two remaining women in the class. The other six had left after the first week of his schooling. “You think you know everything!” His accent thickened. “You know nothing! You kill your comrades in space because you no reading manual.”

At least you knew which era this dinosaur came from — the era of the comrades.

Just like the guys who had created the hardware we would be using. True, only part of it (albeit the largest) originated in the Soviet times. For example, the paint sprayers were new, but the zero-g lavatory looked like it had been put together by the grandfather of Dr. Kuznetsov. And the spacesuits… They were knock-offs from the Soviet Moon Program that had failed around the time my father was born.

It was small wonder the passing of the matchast qualification exams felt like a successful revolution. I don’t know much about your class, but in mine nobody dropped out. Perhaps it had to do with the Russian general who came on a tour of inspection in the middle of that horrible month. He looked genuinely surprised to hear we had complaints. The Russians never whine, they go straight to a full-scale revolution, if they are unhappy. Before leaving, he wished us luck and mentioned that we might be forced to retake the class if our grades were lower than eighty percent. I am sure this remark accounted for our success more than the efforts of Dr. Kuznetsov. To our surprise, the old prof made it a point to shake hands with each and every one of his former students after the exam. We let him; we were feeling generous that day.

We might have actually considered sitting in that class for another term should we have known more about the survival training. It must have been based on requirements undoubtedly predating the Gagarin flight. What do you mean? No, I didn’t know for sure, it was just a gut feeling.

They airdropped us — same as you, I guess — in Northern Canada, which was a better option than Siberia, only logistics-wise. In terms of cold, it was the same. Then, they airdropped us in Saudi Arabia, because this was the only desert country that kept a semi-resemblance to a government after the Big Bad News. Finally, they airdropped us in the Black Sea off the Crimean coast. Unlike the American astronauts who trained off the Hawaiian coast, we didn’t have to face any sharks. A week at each of these wonderful places bleaches your skin, strengthens your spirit and makes you hate extreme tourism until the end of your days, which may be quite close anyway. Right?

They woke you up at five in the morning on the launch day. You ate your breakfast of choice. Nine out of ten Americans who take the Russian flights to The Hammer have bacon and eggs. I don’t know about the others, perhaps it made them feel more like Glenn or Armstrong, but I ordered it because it was low on residue. Which probably was the reason why the Apollo astronauts had been fed bacon and eggs in the first place.

Then you found yourself on the same old bus that used to take the Soviet cosmonauts to the launch pad. You took the lift up. The engineers smiled, the doctors patted you on the shoulder and your personal chauffeur — also known as the Soyuz pilot — shook hands with you and sent you to hell. It was not an offense but an idiomatic Russian good luck wish. According to tradition, he had pissed on the first stage of the launcher just a few moments before, and you wondered if he had had time to wash his hands. Then, they put you and your crew-mates in the capsule, another relic from the glorious past of the Soviet Space Program.

Three quarters of the launch attempts are scrubbed nowadays. Far more than in the old times but since the Big Bad News came, the Russians had to quadruple their rocket production, and quality control hasn’t been what it used to be. I hope you didn’t have to go through it more than once. I was among the lucky twenty-five percent. Six minutes later, we were in orbit. It took twice as much to convince myself that all my bones were still in their place. I feel I should be grateful to the space suit for that, because the vibrations during the launch were teeth-shattering.

The Earth is wonderful to look at from space! I have trouble finding words to describe it. It is like a beautiful woman, pregnant with life. It is like a blue eye looking at you. It is like a magic orb. I know, it is getting worse, so I will stop here. Parting with half of my money to see the world from above was worth it, and the mission had just begun. It was some consolation that I had made my fortune, or at least the biggest part of it, preparing missions like this one. And if we fail to save the world, it wouldn’t matter how much money one has got, right?

You spent in low Earth orbit about two hours. A lengthy check-list kept you busy, while all you wanted to do was to sit by the window and look at the Earth. The docking with the space tug module provided some additional excitement, but it was automated and the days when unmanned transports used to ram the stations were long gone. This was also the last chance to bail out in case of technical trouble. There was no abort option once you were on your way to The Hammer. We were flying a high-risk, high-gain mission. And an expensive one, too.

“Look,” the pilot pointed at the window facing away from the Earth. “See bright star?”

“Yes,” nodded the three of us, all supermen of the purest breed.

“That the International Space Station. See?”

I wish they had higher requirements for the linguistic skills of the pilots. What if an emergency happened and we misunderstood each other because of his poor English?

The ISS was flying outside, distracting me from my concerns. This is where NASA sends the astronauts from, to the American operation on The Hammer. They launch from the Cape in an Orion, dock with the station and board the LRTV, the Long Range Transfer Vehicle, the Agency’s pride and joy. They have individual rooms in there, even if little larger than a big suitcase. In contrast, the Russians fly their construction crews, a.k.a. space tourists, on a direct trajectory to The Hammer. We embarked on it a few minutes after seeing the ISS.

The following two weeks were the most boring time you ever had in your life. The ship was moving at an astonishing speed, nearly fifteen kilometers per second with respect to the Earth. But the distances were so huge, you could never notice it, right? Well, no. You could see the disk of the Earth growing smaller during the first few days, if you were careful to look at it only once every few hours. Later the variations became too small to notice with a naked eye. With a rare orbital configuration, your mission could fly by the Moon, and you could see her getting bigger and then disappearing in the distance. No such luck? No, me neither. I have been told that the controllers try to avoid those launch windows, because the lunar mascons can affect the trajectories in unpredictable ways, and nobody wants an extra course correction.

The odds you will feel miserable during the first few days in space are one to four. Vomiting, headache, loss of orientation and coordination, all come in the package. Never mind how rigorous the selection is and how much the candidates train; weightlessness has the final say. Of course, I didn’t.

The Russians had come up with a plan for fighting the boredom. It was simple and paid off in more than one way. On each mission they flew a package of scientific instruments. Usually, it included a small telescope, sometimes a magnetometer or gamma ray detector. Anyone could file a request to use them, for a modest fee. You would be surprised how many people, and not necessarily scientists, were willing to do that. I guess the impending end of the world made people more inclined to spend their money. This also gave the wannabe heroes like me and you a chance to do something useful while waiting to save the Earth. Considering that our two-month training didn’t qualify us to operate the spacecraft systems, and there was not much housekeeping to do on board, this was a plus.

In our case, it was an optical telescope, a little more than a good digital camera. Every eight hours, new tasks arrived. The observer on duty picked up the top one and executed it. Then the next one, and so on. We were good kids for ten days, until we first pointed the telescope to The Hammer. That was the end of our scientific program. The flight controllers didn’t make a big fuss over it. I guess the previous missions had taught them what to expect.

“The Hammer is a triaxial ellipsoid, seven hundred meters along the major axis and four hundred and fifty along the other two. In other words, about two thousand and twelve hundred feet. It weighs two hundred million tons, or four hundred and forty billion pounds which qualifies the encounter of The Hammer with the Earth as an extinction level event. Luckily for humanity, it was spotted thirty years before the impact, which had given us plenty of time.” This is how the Russian foremen will start your orientation tomorrow. You have to be sober in the morning but you can have another glass now. This one is on me.

They will hand you the brushes after the orientation. I mean, the sprayers.

Because this is the reason why you are here — to paint. Most asteroids are loose piles of rubble, and The Hammer is not an exception. If you detonate a big dumb bomb in front of it, as they usually did in the old movies, part of the rocks will evaporate, but most of them will shatter, and your one Big Bad News will become many Big Bad … err … Problems. Of course, the tiniest pieces will burn out in the atmosphere, but with anything as massive as The Hammer as high as it was, this is not enough.

Luckily, the bodies in the Solar System have a natural propulsion of their own, as long as they rotate. Don’t worry, I didn’t get it at first either. Let’s begin with temperature. The asteroid heats up by the Sun and cools down by emitting radiation into the space. The surface pointing towards the Sun is the warmest, right? But the thing turns around! And the warmest part soon moves into the shadow where it begins to cool down. The longer it stays in the shadow, the cooler it becomes. Every idiot who has ever fallen asleep on the beach knows that it gets coldest at the end of the night, just before sunrise.

The important point is… You must know it because they have told you about momentum conservation all the way back in high school. Anyway, the asteroid gets a little kick with every emitted photon, in the direction opposite to that of the photon. The surface with higher temperature emits more and gets more kicks than the one with lower temperature, so it looks as if somebody pushes the asteroid towards its coolest part.

Still with me? I pity humankind, with saviors like this… The overall force is directed either along or opposite the orbital motion, depending on the direction of the diurnal rotation. I think you’ve drunk too much… Diurnal rotation is … like the rotation of the Earth that causes day and night to alternate. Yes, the kicks can either increase or reduce the orbital velocity of the asteroid. Hm, maybe you didn’t drink enough. The asteroid can move to the outskirts of the Solar System, or fall towards the Sun … over millennia… I bet they told you this is the Yarkovsky effect.

Left to its own devices, The Hammer falls toward the Sun by about a  kilometer per year. In thirty years, this “natural propulsion” can not deflect it from hitting the Earth unless it gets help. This is why the French are building a large battery of microwave guns near The Hammer, and the Chinese, an enormous free-floating field of solar batteries to feed them with power, while we and the Russians share the painting job, making sure that The Hammer absorbs as much microwave energy as possible, heating it up well above what the Sun would have done alone. Our efforts will help this heap of rocks fall towards the Sun almost a hundred times faster. Enough to streak through the upper atmosphere, instead of hitting the American West coast. To us, the saviors of the world! Cheers!

If we are lucky and the eggheads are correct, thirty years down the road, The Hammer will swing by the Earth on its way to the Sun, and everybody who has worked here will proudly hang on their walls certificates that say, “Thanks for saving the World, from the grateful Earth”, or something like that. Signed by the President, of course.

Meanwhile, you will spend the next three months here at the Yarkovsky Base. You will be outside for the best part of them, in a bright orange spacesuit, painting the rocks black. Here is a piece of advice for you. Whatever you do, don’t ever call your foreman Tom Sawyer. Even behind his back. Even with the radio off. He has ways of hearing you and he gets very upset. The man just thinks that painting fences is the best job ever.

This bar is the only sane place on The Hammer, but you ain’t going to enjoy it often from now on. Oh, I must have missed to mention — we just used up your alcohol allowance for the next six weeks. Cheers!


Translation Valentin D. Ivanov and Kalin Nenov
Valentin D. Ivanov
March 11-14/April 3, 2007, La Silla
Oct 18-19, 2008, Santiago

This story is mainly about asteroids, extinction level impacts, and forgotten civil engineers.

Asteroids are a constant threat to life on Earth. Recent craters on the face of our planet testify that the danger is real. Governments gradually come to realize that. The US Congress requested from NASA in 2007 a report for the current and near-future capabilities of humanity to detect and deflect dangerous bodies larger than 200 meters in diameter. The limit was set by the effect of the impact — larger, and presumably heavier, bodies will change the climate globally and will affect life on the entire planet. While the detection requirements are almost within reach of present-day technology, deflection is another matter. The “Hollywood approach” — to drill holes into the asteroids, and to blow nuclear bombs inside, can only break them into pieces. The same amount of mass will fall on the Earth. A better solution is to set the explosions on the asteroid’s surface because the evaporated material flying away from the asteroid and the momentum conservation will give the asteroid a kick in the opposite direction. Perhaps, this is the best short-notice anti-asteroid defense we have. Given an earlier warning before the impact, we can attempt to deviate the path of an asteroid with mass drivers. These devices throw material away from the surface, and again, the conservation of momentum law moves the asteroid away. Or, we can resort to accelerating the natural Yarkovsky effect, described in the story. Unlike the other solutions, the infrastructure that we will have to build — the solar farms and the microwave guns — will remain in place, to be re-used as power plants beaming cheap energy back to us, or even for defense against other asteroids, if the orbital configuration allows it.

Ivan Osipovich Yarkovsky (1844-1902) was a Polish civil engineer who worked for a Russian railroad company for the most part of his life. He was born in the small military station of Osveya, near Vitebsck, in the family of a doctor. Over the centuries, this territory has been part of the Polish empire, the Russian Empire, and it’s now in Belorus. Science was Yarkovsky’s hobby, and he described what is now known as the “classical Yarkovsky effect” some time around 1900s. The further history of this discovery resembles a mystery novel with a particularly convoluted plot. His contribution was forgotten until 1951, when the Estonian astrophysicist Ernst Öpik, working in Northern Ireland at the time, remembered reading four decades earlier an old pamphlet by Yarkovsky, describing the orbital evolution of asteroids due to heating/cooling and rotation.

Wikipedia contains a nice article about the Yarkovsky effect, complete with illustrations:

The effect is an observational fact, being measured with radar ranging, by the JPL astronomer Steven Chesley and his team on the asteroid 6489 Golevka. A report about this study was published in the prestigious Science magazine in 2003:

A comprehensive article about the life and work of Ivan Yarkovsky, written by George Beekman, can be found in the Journal for the History of Astronomy:….37…71B

Mascon — a region of a planet or a moon that contains a positive gravitational anomaly, due to excessive distribution of mass on or under the surface. An example of a mascon is Mauna Kea. The lunar mascons are sufficient to affect the orbit of artificial lunar orbiters.

Copyright Valentin Ivanov