Excerpt from The Orion Plan
June 20, 2016
12:09 a.m. Pacific Daylight Time
Sarah didn’t see the asteroid until it was too late. By the time she glimpsed it on her laptop’s screen, the rock was just an hour away from impact.
She wouldn’t have seen it at all if her neighbor’s dog hadn’t woken her. The stupid mutt had started barking at midnight for no reason. Unable to fall back to sleep, Sarah had turned on her MacBook and downloaded the latest images from the Sky Survey observatory. The telescope was five hundred miles away, in southern Arizona, but all the members of the Sky Survey team had 24-hour access to its observations. Although Sarah loved her work, this particular task -- looking for slight changes in the pixilated images of the constellations -- was tedious and tiring. After just ten minutes of squinting at her laptop she was usually ready to return to bed.
But not tonight. Instead, she stared in bewilderment at a sequence of images of the Scorpius constellation. In the first picture, captured by the telescope at 9:24 pm Pacific Daylight Time, a faint dot appeared next to Antares, the star at the center of the scorpion’s body. The next five images showed the dot drifting eastward and growing steadily brighter. In the last picture, taken just before midnight, the object glared like a spotlight above the scorpion’s tail.
Sarah’s pulse quickened as she estimated the object’s size. Thirty-five meters wide. That’s bigger than a house, bigger than a ten-story building. She didn’t get seriously alarmed, though, until she calculated its speed. Thirty-seven kilometers per second. Which is equal to 83,000 miles per hour.
She double-checked her calculations but the results were the same. Jesus Goddamn Christ.
Her fingers trembled on the keyboard, but she managed to send an alert to NASA headquarters and the Air Force’s Space Command. Then she threw on a T-shirt, jeans and sneakers and bolted out of her house.
Five minutes later she steered her Prius onto the Ventura Freeway. But she didn’t follow the path of her usual commute. Rather than head east toward Pasadena -- home of Caltech and NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory -- she floored the gas pedal and sped west toward Vandenberg Air Force Base.
The entrance to the base was off Route 1, a few miles from the Pacific beaches. Sarah waited, fuming with impatience, while the MP in the gatehouse inspected her security pass.
She had access to Vandenberg because her job overlapped with the military’s. The Air Force was in charge of monitoring the region of space closest to Earth. They tracked all the satellites orbiting the planet and kept a lookout for nuclear missiles aimed at America. Sarah’s team at NASA, in contrast, searched for threats from deep space, more than 5,000 miles above Earth’s surface. The rogue asteroid she’d spotted would soon cross that invisible boundary and plunge into the region monitored by Space Command’s radar stations.
As soon as the MP gave her the go-ahead, Sarah raced down Vandenberg’s empty streets. She peered through her windshield at the clear starry sky and the low dark hills overlooking the Pacific. Scattered among the hills, she knew, were half a dozen underground silos, each holding a three-stage rocket. Those rockets were designed to intercept nuclear missiles in mid-flight and blast them out of the sky before they could reach the homeland. But asteroids were much larger and faster than missiles. The Air Force had no defense against them.
She parked her Prius in front of the Space Operations Center and rushed inside. To her surprise, the control room was quiet. There were more than a dozen desks in the room, each with its own computer terminal and radar screen, but only three of the stations were occupied. A trio of radar specialists sat behind their terminals, muttering into the mouthpieces of their headsets and typing on their keyboards. On the wall in front of them, a jumbo screen displayed an image of the Earth -- specifically, the Western hemisphere -- and the current positions of the four thousand satellites circling the planet. Communications satellites were shown as blue squares, weather satellites as green diamonds, GPS as yellow triangles. But there was no marker for the asteroid.
“Hello?” Sarah raised her voice to get the attention of the specialists. “HELLO?”
All three airmen turned their heads in unison and looked over their shoulders at her. They were pale, gawky boys in their early twenties, dressed in olive-green fatigues. The one in the middle seemed a bit older than the others and wore ugly black glasses. He rose from his chair. “Yes, ma’am? Can I help you?”
“I’m the one who sent the alert. About the near-Earth object.” She was so anxious she had trouble getting the words out. “You saw the alert, right?”
Ugly Glasses just smiled. He gave her a once-over, glancing at her ragged jeans, her Grateful Dead T-shirt, her bedraggled black hair. “Could you please tell me your name, ma’am? Then maybe we can figure this out.”
His smile broadened. He was flirting with her. Sarah wanted to scream. “Figure it out? Don’t you know what’s going on?”
“No, ma’am, you’ll have to—”
“There’s a rock bigger than an apartment building coming toward us! At eighty thousand miles per hour!”
The boy’s smile vanished. It seemed like she’d gotten through to him. But then she noticed he wasn’t looking at her anymore; he was staring with sudden fear at someone behind her. The kid snapped to attention and shouted, “Good evening, sir!”
The other two airmen jumped to their feet and saluted. Sarah turned around and saw a tall, trim officer in an Air Force uniform bristling with combat ribbons. He had a coal-black crew cut and a square, chiseled face. He was sort of handsome in a military way, but Sarah didn’t recognize him until she read the name on his uniform: HANSON. Then she remembered seeing his picture in a news item on NASA’s website a couple of months ago. He was General Brent Hanson, the new head of Space Command. There had been a big ceremony at Vandenberg when he was promoted. Thank God, she thought. There’s an adult in the room.
The general ignored the airmen and walked over to Sarah. “You must be Dr. Pooley. Luckily, I was still on duty when your alert came in.”
For the first time since she spotted the asteroid Sarah felt a measure of relief. At least she wasn’t alone in her alarm anymore. “Are your radars tracking the object?”
He nodded. “Our station in Hawaii has the best fix.”
The airmen stood aside as Hanson approached one of the terminals and typed a command on the keyboard. Sarah remembered something else from the news item about Hanson: He was an MIT grad, a guy with technical smarts. He was also young for an Air Force general, only in his mid-forties, the same age as Sarah. After tapping a few more keys, he pointed at the jumbo screen. “The object’s present altitude is thirty-eight hundred miles. Its speed is twenty-three miles per second, descending at an angle of forty degrees above the horizon.”
A straight red line appeared on the screen, slicing through the swarm of satellites. The asteroid -- marked by a blinking red dot at the end of the line -- was currently above the Pacific Ocean, but it was streaking eastward as it descended. The object’s speed was very close to what Sarah had calculated. “What’s the estimated impact point?”
Hanson bent over the keyboard and typed something else. The line on the screen extended from the blinking red dot to the Earth’s surface, showing the expected path of the asteroid. “It’s going to fly over the continental U.S. and approach the East Coast, heading for central New Jersey.” He turned around to face her. “But there’s no need to worry. It won’t hit the ground.”
The general’s voice was crisp and confident, full of reassurance. But Sarah wasn’t convinced. “What makes you so sure?”
“As soon as we spotted it on the radar I contacted the experts on my staff.” He pointed at the screen again. “They predict the object will burn up in the atmosphere, at an altitude of twenty miles. It’ll make a brilliant fireball, visible from everywhere in New Jersey, but it’ll be too far above the ground to do any damage.”
Sarah had no idea who Hanson’s experts were, but they were clearly using the wrong formula. “I’m sorry, but you’re way off. Given the brightness of the asteroid in our telescope images, it has to be at least a hundred feet across. It’s going to—”
“Whoa, hold on a second.” Hanson grinned. He seemed amused by her concern. “I think you have the wrong—”
“No, you hold on.” She wasn’t going to let this guy patronize her. “That rock is big enough to punch through most of the atmosphere. It’s going to fall to an altitude of ten thousand feet before the atmospheric turbulence breaks it up. Then it’ll explode with the energy of a three-megaton nuke and flatten all the trees and buildings for miles around. And that’s going to happen in the next three minutes.”
She was almost shouting by the time she finished, and her last words echoed across the control room. The three airmen stared at her, wide-eyed. The one with the glasses seemed so distressed that Sarah wondered if he had relatives in New Jersey. General Hanson, though, was unperturbed. If anything, he seemed even more amused. “Yes, Dr. Pooley, if the asteroid were more than a hundred feet wide it would devastate the area. But it’s not that big. According to our radar readings, the maximum diameter of the object is ten feet.”
Sarah shook her head. “That’s absurd. I wouldn’t have seen it in the Sky Survey if it were that small. It wouldn’t have reflected enough sunlight to appear in the telescope images.”
“Are you sure about that? Maybe the object is more reflective than you assumed.”
“Or maybe your radars are malfunctioning. Or you misinterpreted their signals.”
He stepped toward her, still grinning, cocky as hell. He stopped in front of her and leaned forward, as if he were about to tell her a secret. “Those radars at our Hawaii station? They’re the best in the world. They’re designed to tell the difference between a nuclear warhead and a decoy from four thousand miles away. I have a lot of confidence in them.”
Sarah scowled. She hated cocky men. “So you’re saying your system’s infallible? There’s no chance at all you made a mistake?”
Hanson stopped smiling. He took a deep breath and looked Sarah in the eye. He seemed to be changing his strategy, trying for a less combative approach. “You’re right, nothing’s perfect. Maybe the radar is malfunctioning and maybe a killer asteroid is really coming toward us. But it’s a moot point. We can’t stop the rock anyway.”
“You could issue a warning to the local authorities, couldn’t you? You—
“No, that wouldn’t do any good. There’s not enough time to evacuate the impact zone.” Hanson shrugged. He seemed tired of arguing with her. He turned away from her and faced the three airmen. “Gentlemen, let’s do our best to track this object. Just in case I’m wrong.”
The airmen swiftly returned to their terminals. They stared at their radar screens and typed new commands on their keyboards. The commands changed the display on the jumbo screen: the image of the Western hemisphere was replaced by an enlarged view of North America. Sarah stood beside Hanson and focused on the screen, gazing over the heads of the airmen.
The blinking red dot was now less than fifteen hundred miles above the continent. In sixty seconds the asteroid would plow into the atmosphere, and then they’d see who was right. Sarah felt a mix of horror and guilt as she stared at the screen. For the past decade she’d devoted herself to identifying all the asteroids that posed a threat to Earth. Her Sky Survey team had detected thousands of near-Earth objects and carefully studied their orbits. But it was very difficult to detect the mid-size asteroids, the ones between a hundred and five hundred feet wide. They were too small to be spotted by telescopes and yet large enough to blast through Earth’s atmosphere. Sarah had struggled with the problem for years, trying to devise new instruments and techniques for observing and tracking these rocks. But now it was too late. All she could do was watch the thing plunge toward the ground.
After half a minute Sarah couldn’t do that either. She turned away from the screen and looked at the floor instead. It seemed obscene that they were the only people on the planet who knew this was happening. She glanced at Hanson, who rocked back and forth on his heels as he watched the screen. He looked so calm, so unafraid. She couldn’t understand it.
After another half-minute the airman with the ugly glasses looked over his shoulder at the general. “The object has entered the atmosphere, sir,” he reported. “Air resistance is decreasing its velocity.”
The view on the screen enlarged again, and now the blinking red dot was less than a hundred miles above New Jersey. The radar signals grew fuzzy, thrown off by the violent turbulence of the object’s passage through the atmosphere. Sarah pictured it in her mind’s eye: the shock wave forming just below the rock, the phenomenal heat melting the surface of its lower half, the pressure building against the object as it plummeted toward the Earth. Despite her distaste for Hanson, she hoped to hell he was right. She said a silent prayer as she gazed at the blinking dot on the screen: Disintegrate, you bastard. Explode into a million pieces before you get too close to the ground.
Then the dot disappeared. The jumbo screen showed the red line ending in midair above the Jersey coast. The airmen leaned close to their radar screens, studying the final signals.
General Hanson stepped forward. “What was its last position?” he asked his men. His voice was professional, emotionless. “At what altitude did you lose contact?”
Ugly Glasses tapped his keyboard. “I’m still checking, sir.”
“What’s the problem?”
“The signals are a little confusing. I just need a minute.”
Hanson nodded. “All right. Carry on.” He took a step backward, returning to his place beside Sarah.
The waiting was unbearable. Sarah clenched her hands so tightly her fingernails dug into her palms. The general, meanwhile, folded his arms across his chest. Then he turned to Sarah and smiled at her again. “Before I forget, I want to tell you how much I admire your work.”
His comment threw her. Now, of all times, he wanted to engage in small talk? “What?”
“I’ve read the reports about your Sky Survey project. How you’re cataloguing all the potentially hazardous asteroids. It’s good work, important work.”
Sarah stared at him, dumbfounded. “Well, that’s strange. Just a minute ago you said I didn’t know what I was doing.”
“No, I didn’t say that. Not at all.” He shook his head. “You’ve been extremely helpful tonight. In fact, I’m wondering if you and I can establish a stronger connection between NASA and Space Command. We should work together on contingency plans for asteroid threats. We’d all benefit from closer cooperation, don’t you think?”
She couldn’t tell how serious he was. Hanson was obviously smart, but he didn’t seem so trustworthy. There was a good chance he was just flirting with her, just like the airmen. “Sure, that’s a good idea,” she said. “But maybe we should find out what happened to this asteroid first?”
“Yes, absolutely. First things first.”
Hanson stepped forward again and gripped Ugly Glasses by the shoulder. “Okay, time’s up. What do you have?”
The airman looked up from his radar screen. He seemed puzzled. “Sir, our last radar contact with the object was at an altitude of twenty-one miles over the town of South Amboy, New Jersey. There were no further contacts along its track, so it must’ve exploded at that altitude.”
“Ah, twenty-one miles.” Hanson let go of the boy’s shoulder and looked at Sarah. He didn’t grin, but he wasn’t exactly hiding his satisfaction either. “I’ll have to congratulate my staff for predicting it so well.” He turned back to the airman. “And did the radar detect any fragments from the explosion?”
“Yes, sir. And that’s what made it so confusing.” The boy grimaced. His glasses had slid halfway down the bridge of his nose. “Most of the fragments were tiny, just specks of dust, but one piece was pretty big.”
Hanson frowned. “Define ‘pretty big.’ ”
“At least a foot wide, sir. But the weird thing is its trajectory after the explosion. The blast kicked it almost horizontally to the northeast. It traveled more than thirty miles in that direction before hitting the ground.”
Sarah’s throat tightened. Even a foot-wide chunk could cause major damage if it struck the ground at high speed. She stepped toward the airman. “Can you show the radar track for that fragment?”
The boy looked frightened now. “I…I can draw a partial trajectory. Our radars couldn’t track it after it dropped below two thousand feet, but—”
“Just show it.”
A moment later the airman drew a new path on the jumbo screen. This red line ran thirty-three miles northeast from South Amboy. It terminated at the northern tip of Manhattan.