The Cloud (Part I)
Paranal Observatory, European Southern Observatory
Cerro Paranal, Chile
October 22, 2016
The European Southern Observatory’s Very Large Telescope Array was focused deep in the blackness of intergalactic space examining galaxies that dated to within a few billion years of the Big Bang when Director Addler's phone began to ring.
The first call came from Dr. Willoby at the Australian National Astronomical Observatory. Old Jack had found something strange and he wanted confirmation but Addler begged off. The VLTA time had been booked for months. If he bumped anyone his observation schedule would be a nightmare.
The second call came twenty minutes later from Dr. Kim at the Keck Observatory on Mauna Kea in the Hawaiian Islands. Time on the Keck was every bit as precious as time on the VLTA but Kim had scrubbed observations. Something weird is moving through the Southern Cross and the US Air Force and NASA were burning up his phone lines.
Two more calls came in in short order urging Addler to look at a target of opportunity: the Gemini Science Center and JPL from Pasadena. The eyes of the scientific world were focusing on a constellation in the Southern Hemisphere and Addler would be damned if the VLTA would miss the party.
He was just dialing in to the coordinates supplied by Jack Willoby at the Australian National Observatory when a Puma helicopter landed a contingent of Royal Marines and a Royal Navy Captain. The heavily armed Marines surrounded the site and the Captain entered the control room as the object began to resolve on screens.
It looked like an opaque green smudge on the monitor; a simple gas cloud like the thousands of nebulae that the observatory had photographed and studied.
The Captain handed Addler a legal sized envelope with a NATO seal and said, “Find out all you can about this thing Doctor Addler. It is making people in high places a spot barmy.”
As they were watching the screens the object moved out of the field of view. Addler thought damn, that thing is really moving.
He spoke to the scopes operator, his long-time associate Tommy Crenshaw and said, “Adjust the slewing so we can track the bugger.”
Crenshaw said, “Sir, we’ve got a line-spectra of the object.”
Addler walked over to the console, “Let’s see it Tommy.”
The line spectra resolved on one of the big monitors but looked like nothing that he had ever seen before. “What are we looking at Tom”
The operator said, “Wait a minute. It’s blue-shifted by quite a wide margin. Let me apply a software filter and…”
The line spectra resolved again but this time it looked more familiar. Crenshaw said, “The object isn’t radiating visible light. What we are seeing is reflected sunlight. The peaks on the spectra we’re seeing are hydrogen, nitrogen, carbon and oxygen. The other stuff has to be molecular. It’ll take a while to sort it out.”
Suddenly Andy Peterson, a quiet but steady young physicist exclaimed, “Director!”
Addler said, “What have you got Andy?”
“Two items Dr. Addler. I have the objects proper motion mapped. In about twenty minutes we’re going to have an occulation of the object in front of Alpha Crucis. When that happens we’ll get a much better probe of what that cloud is made of.”
“Good job Andy”, Addler exclaimed. “Okay everybody. Get ready. I want a full spectrum analysis of the occulation event. IR, UV, optical- the works.”
“What’s the second item Andy?”
Peterson said, “I’ve run the calculation six times and there is no doubt. With the blue-shift in the spectra and the objects apparent motion- it’s speed is about .75 C.”
There was a moment of stunned silence in the control room until the Captain asked the obvious question: “What moves at three quarters of the speed of light?”
Addler replied, “Nothing that we know of.”
As the team started to set up the equipment to observe the stellar occulation, the Captian asked, “Excuse me Dr. Addler. What will this tell us?”
Addler replied, “The object is going to move between us and a bright binary star called Alpha Crucis. It’s the brightest star in the Southern Cross and its spectra is well understood. A. Crucis is actually a pair of B class super-giants. They are hotter than most and have broad emission lines in their spectra. When that star light passes through the object, the material will produce absorption lines on top of A. Crusis’s spectra and we’ll have a much better idea of what it is made of.”
The control room got extremely busy as the team prepared for the occulation event. Addler picked up the phone and dialed up their sister facility ALMA, the Atacama Large Millimeter/sub-millimeter Array, an array of high resolution radio telescope and asked them to drop what they were doing and home in on the mystery object.
ALMA called back as soon as they were dialed in. The object was emitting decametric radio noise indicating lightning. From 4 to 3.95 MHZ, the characteristic spikes and pops of lightning resulting from some kind of high-energy synchrotron process were loud and distinct.
Addler set the phone back on the receiver. He sat down in his chair and noticed that his hands were shaking.
Crenshaw announced that the occulation was beginning.
For fifteen minutes the starlight of Alpha Crucis passed through the cloud and was collected by the VLTA’s various sensors. He watched as the computer decomposed the spectra into its components: OH, H2O, CN, CH4, complex hydrocarbons.
Adler sat staring at the display in front of him.
The Captain asked, “What does it mean Doctor?”
Addler said, “It’s… organic.”