The nexus odyssey, p.1
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       The Nexus Odyssey, p.1

          
The Nexus Odyssey
The Nexus Odyssey

  Hylton Smith

  Copyright 2009 by Hylton Smith

  No part of this book may be reproduced or transmitted in any form or by any means, graphic, electronic, or mechanical, including photocopying, recording, taping or by any information storage or retrieval system, without the permission in writing from the publisher,

  Promethean

 

  This is a work of fiction. Names, characters and incidents are products of the author's imagination. Any resemblance to persons living or dead is entirely coincidental.

  The views expressed in this work are solely those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the publisher, and the publisher hereby disclaims any responsibility for them.

  Acknowledgement

  Sincere thanks to Rhys J. Smith and Anne Flint for their patience, support and suggestions.

  Chapter 1

  Now that the hype was finally over the real mission could at last get underway. Leaving the space elevator and boarding the most sophisticated exploration vessel humanity could engineer seemed to have been overshadowed by the never-ending broadcasts. The hopes of the species rested in their hands.

  The year was 2033, and the project had been planned for 20 years. The projections had indicated meltdown of the increasingly tenuous balance of world food supply, energy and raw material requirement, climate change and population growth. Programmes designed to offset the tipping point were not enough to achieve the trend reversal in time. These counter-effects such as research on food synthesis, alternate fuels, recycling, coupled with more viral pandemics, were themselves affected in different ways by the advent of nanotechnology. This branch of science offered lower energy food production and manufactured goods and at the same time extended life expectation with artificial organs. The mathematical modelling suggested an additional dimension had to be explored with immediate effect. The most surprising element in this undertaking was the relatively short time it took for the global acceptance of such a venture. When everyone is threatened by a common enemy, unification becomes the new currency.

  Colonisation of another planetary body had always been contemplated; now it was prioritised to happen. The Confederation of Nations, charged with the design and implementation of this emergency escape route, named the project ‘Salvation’. The brief was not simply to oversee successful habitat capability. The chosen destination had to cover terraforming prospects, new materials research, and the scope of population migration. This in itself shaped the makeup of the crew to a degree and underpinned the importance of a similarly qualified response team at project headquarters in Beijing.

  The relative contribution of nations had changed markedly since the first decade of the 21st century. The new superpowers of China and India were leading the way in terms of economic and technological input. Russia and the USA made up the big four.

  The Commander of the Copernicus - Stenninger Magnusson - had masters in physics and psychology, complimented by special operations experience in polar missions. In his native Sweden the 38 year-old was relatively unknown until the last three years. He was relieved to be leaving Earth Orbit at last, and his feelings were shared by the rest of the crew. Once underway, the final briefing from Beijing would be conducted, and they would truly begin to function as a tight knit team – all those years of secret preparation would click into gear.

  With coordinates locked in and target velocity achieved, Communications Officer Javier Veltrano informed Magnusson that Beijing had come through on the main VDU with predictable punctuality. Beijing Controller Roberto Xiang confirmed all parameters were correct and as this had been rehearsed many times there was no need to dwell further on detail. He suggested second contact in two Earth hours. Xiang was born in Florence. His father, having spent his early career in the Chinese Embassy in Rome, moved to Tuscany when he married Lisa Maria Galdoni. Xiang had been educated in Zurich and specialised in Astrometrics, Propulsion Technology and Probability Theory. He was rigidly focussed on scheduling and conformance of data assembly, yet somewhat pragmatic about conclusions drawn from apparently aberrant information derived from such data. These qualities were considered to be influential in his appointment to head up Beijing Mission Control.

  Magnusson asked First Officer Indira Banjani to get the crew together in thirty minutes. He would take the helm in her absence. This gave him a chance to consider - for the thousandth time - the problems involved in decelerating a heavy vessel (with seven crew members), in a low density atmosphere. There was a window of ninety seconds to slow from Mach 5 to Mach 1. This was to be achieved by a Supersonic Decelerator or Hypercone. This device although tested in small scale vacuum tunnel mock-ups and predictive computer modelling, was untried in the actual scenario because of time and resource constraints. The huge doughnut skin girdled the vessel and would inflate very quickly with gas rockets to create a conical shape. This inflation was to occur about 10K above the surface while travelling at Mach 4-5, then, after peak heating of the Silicon-Vectran material, the hypercone would act as an aerodynamic anchor to slow the vehicle to Mach 1. The section weight limit was 40-60 tons. From Mach 1, subsonic parachutes and thrusters would land the vehicle.

  This weight restriction had imposed a design feature of Main Spacecraft - Descent/Ascent module - Habitat and Lander. The Lander would have to comprise Rover and power source facilities. The science lab would be part of the descent module as this carried the crew and sensitive equipment, and consequently had the most sophisticated hypercone. Each section had to come in at less than 60 tons. Why was this required? Simply because Mars had too little atmosphere to slow a vehicle heavy enough to carry everything needed for such a complex, one-chance-only mission.

  The discussions on launch were governed by time needed for proving technologies versus optimum orbital proximity of Earth and Mars. This inevitably pitted the politicians against the scientists. The conflicting parameters were stark. Between 2018 and 2020, the two planets were closest. The next time such alignment occurred was 2033-2035.The earlier window had been too soon for the Carbon Nanotube technology to be developed for the space elevator when the project was initiated in 2013.The Copernicus mission also needed to have a backup, arriving one year after the first landing to relieve the initial crew and bring new facilities to progress the colonisation technology. The trips would each take 10 months. The space elevator was a critical part of the plan, as ground assembly of rockets was expensive, and still prone to explosive failure. The progressive colonisation requirement demanded the reliable launch capability that Earth orbit assembly offered as well as having favourable cost per launch ratio in the long term.

  The Copernicus launch was to be March 2033 and the Darwin March 2034. This gave a mere two months between Copernicus’ arrival on Mars and Darwin’s launch, for any required changes of cargo facilities for the latter. This whole schedule of course was far too short, in the view of the scientists, for stepwise missions to verify the complex interdependent design systems to deliver, land and establish habitat in the new world. These same scientists knew they would have to compromise if the follow up missions beyond 2035 were to stand any chance of expanding the colonisation.

  Chapter 2

  The choice of Mars was not really much of a debate. When answers to questions added up to: too hot, too cold, too toxic, too far, there was no real alternative. From what was known of the cosmic history and recent geological surveys of the planet, the chosen landing region introduced another risk to the mission. Mars was roughly divided into Northern Lowlands and Southern Highlands. The safer bet would be Nilli Fossae in the Northern plains, with its lava flows and sedimentary deposits. However, Valles Marineris, a canyon system some 1860 miles long and 5 miles deep, was, although more risky, equally intriguing because of the evidence of hydrated minerals. The brightly coloured West Candor Chasm sparkled with red, pink, green and turquoise ‘come and get me’ hues. The canyon depth could also save a lot of drilling – hopefully.

  This hope was based on the knowledge that the surface temperature range averaged around minus forty-six degrees Celsius, with a minimum of minus eighty-seven and a maximum of minus five. If the lower reaches of the chasm could be accessed by MH (Mars Hover) Mole then the temperature maximum down there could be higher; if the colours observed were salts which lowered the freezing point of any briny deposits, it really would be pay dirt.

  MH Mole was a lightweight drillbot ascending and descending by remote control gas balloon and tiny thrusters, enabling small samples to be taken while hovering. The laser cutting was precise enough to gather tiny pieces of whatever was down there. Discovery of any form of water – liquid, frozen or leveraged, from hydrated salts was a priority.

  When the crew had assembled, the only pressing objective was to implement artificial gravity, which in itself would enable many other functions to be accessed. Individual checklists were distributed to cover personal quarters and workstations to ensure that the switchover was trouble free. The entire ship was set to rotate at 4.5 revolutions per minute to create the requisite centrifugal force to make the journey more comfortable and facilitate the operational and exercise regimes prescribed.

  First Officer Banjani distributed the lists and asked for the input to be keyed into the operational data system within 20 minutes. Banjani was a graduate in Mathematics from New Delhi, and subsequently took a PhD in Spatial Mechanics in Tokyo. She was to spend her 30th birthday on Mars if all went well. However all had not gone well when her fiancée was informed about the mission. The relationship was put under strain and she felt she had to be honest with Mission Control, subjecting herself to strenuous psychological scrutiny all over again, before final clearance.

  Pascal Dupree distributed the bio-monitoring devices to be worn by every crew member for the duration of the voyage. They were to be activated after gravity was online. Dupree, although born and educated in France had attained his formidable reputation amongst the Medical elite for his work in China. He had developed techniques in microsurgery which took full advantage of nanotechnology, pioneering recovery from organ failure, which was not thought to be possible. His wider knowledge in viral propagation and genetics made him a stand out choice for the mission in terms of expertise. At 44 he was considered to be at the edge of the inclusive criteria, but was better qualified than most of the selection board to comment on his own medical profile.

  Artificial gravity came online without a hitch and medical data began to feed into the Dupree database. A priority rota was established to use the sanitary facilities, which injected a timely dose of humour into the team psyche before communication was renewed with Beijing. When Xiang’s image appeared he was already clutching a considerable wad of printouts. He quickly assured Magnusson that all was well and they needed to collaborate on exact burn requirement to achieve the acceleration/deceleration curve to Mars Orbit insertion point.

  The propulsion system was one of the few technologies which had been ‘adequately’ proven prior to launch. Variable Specific Impulse Magnetoplasm Rockets had been tested in unmanned missions out into the solar system and had proved efficient, accurate and reliable. These plasma based propulsion units employed an electric power source to ionise the fuel to plasma. Electric fields then heated and accelerated the plasma while magnetic fields controlled the direction of plasma as it was ejected from the ‘engine’. The main fuel employed was hydrogen, supported with helium and deuterium. Hydrogen is available in plentiful quantities throughout the cosmos. The initial electricity was provided by small nuclear power units.

  Xiang casually asked if all astronauts were showing biomed readings within normal tolerance limits compared to their personal histories. Commander Magnusson affirmed they were, except for adrenaline levels, which were proportionately high in view of the excitement generated by the mission truly being underway. “Even mundane tasks like aerobic and muscle exercise sessions are anticipated with enthusiasm. Anyway, I believe we have the velocity curve data you asked for. Here is Carvalho.”

  Daniel Carvalho could hardly remember growing up; it seemed as if he was always involved in Space Technology. His father had been with the European Agency and fired Carvalho’s imagination so much it was no surprise that the son followed the father. He had majored in Propulsion Theory and Mechanics in Boston. When his mother rang one day to deliver the fateful news that Fernando had been one of many victims of an air disaster - a company plane which crashed in the Alps, he was temporarily dislodged from his academic pursuit. Eventually he determined to take American citizenship to resume astronaut training and achieve what his father had always wanted – to be part of a manned mission to another world. Carvalho had lived for this time to the exclusion of everything else, and he was still only 27. “All parameters concur with Mission Control Commander Xiang, synchronisation complete.”

  “Excellent, please ask Dr. Balinsky to upload biomed stats immediately. Xiang out.”

  “Natalia, sorry, excuse me Dr. Balinsky,” he joked, “the ice man wants your upload – don’t we all.”

  “Why don’t you get back to your toy rockets and tidy your quarters or there will be no late movie for you tonight.” She brushed past the crestfallen engineer and proceeded to her station. Born in the Ukraine, she had migrated to Moscow to live with her grandparents when she was 9. Her mother had suffered a comatose existence before her father agreed to terminate life support. The car accident had left her father with a crushed pelvis and future wheelchair prospects. He had overcome this prognosis but never recovered from his decision to end his wife’s silent struggle. When the authorities later revealed that the search for the hit and run driver was to be closed he deteriorated mentally and asked Natalia’s grandparents to help out by looking after her until he could get himself together. He died from an overdose of antidepressants and vodka. It was considered to be an accident rather than suicide; the difference eluded Natalia for many years. She married young and divorced after only 2 years. She was drawn to technically understand how the conclusion of the coroner was so specific with respect to her father’s final cocktail. She specialised in Supplemental Balance in St. Petersburg. Having gained the expertise to challenge the coroner’s finding she also realised the futility of such action. As a result of the emotional vacuum she re-targeted her energy when a government publication featured an article on dietary research for extended space travel. She beat off stiff international competition to get the nod for Copernicus.

  Chapter 3

  Although Natalia Balinsky had no formal qualifications in mathematics she had a natural ability to recognise number patterns in different ways. A photographic memory of rows and columns was one such talent. As she uploaded the biomed data requested by Xiang, she was disturbed that some of it did not look right. On checking her workstation data with the backup memory chips she kept in her locker, there were subtle differences between the two. Of the seven crew members, five had values marginally closer to the tolerance limits and further from the norm. The other two displayed the reverse. At first she questioned whether she had inadvertently skipped a backup session. She decided to let it pass but make a similar comparison the next time she recorded values.

  Alex Redgrave was suffering from the feeling that everyone else was busy with their schedules whereas his would only really start when they arrived in 10 months. Knowing he would have to confront this, Mission Control had decided to leave some of the referencing work which could have been completed prior to the mission, to be executed during the flight. This was to give him meaningful work and have the correlation checks with Beijing as up to date as possible. Alex graduated in Chemistry and Geology in London and his post graduate PhD work had included projects in some historic sites such as Tunguska, Santorini, Krakatoa and the Gulf of Mexico. His remit was to collect samples of the Martian geological makeup and time-correlate the results as well as provide elemental analysis to fill in the planet’s periodic table.

  Redgrave, although British born, had spent all of his post grad years working with people from all kinds of backgrounds and disciplines. This had been a factor in his selection. He had demonstrated his ability to bond with team members. The lab equipment on board was impressive but limited by space, weight and support supplies – so the interface back in Beijing was absolutely the best available in both personnel and technology.

  Commander Magnusson informed Veltrano that the preliminary rota for personal messaging to family should be distributed, and to inform the crew that this was to be viewed as a flexible situation to allow for changes in circumstances and emergencies.

  A week into the journey, Natalia had detected further alterations to the Biomed data. Again there were five showing poor trend and two showing improvement. Only one of the two was the same as the first amendments. Extrapolating the trends would bring the entire crew into a tighter cluster than the actual results. She decided she had to bring this to the attention of Magnusson, and they both agreed to keep Beijing out of the loop until they had figured out who was involved, and why. They also concurred on uploading the correct readings while storing the false ones.

  In the formation of the solar system it was believed that Earth and Mars condensed out of the solar nebula some 4.6 billion years ago. Other ‘data’ produced theories about the chronology since then. There was the probability of water 3.8 billion years ago, and maybe primitive life below the surface. Present studies suggested that the lack of a global magnetic field, and the circulation of molten metal in the core, is too sluggish to generate a dynamo. This was possibly present in the first few million years of Mars. Why did it turn off?

  One possible explanation is that the planet lost its atmosphere around 4 billion years ago, and solar winds interacted directly with the ionosphere. The current atmospheric pressure is about 1% of that on Earth. A consequence is that any organic material near the surface would rapidly decompose and the surface ‘soil’ would continually be oxidised. This would not support life as we know it. Studying the epochs of the planet led to the following delineation:-

 
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