Science For Fiction: Space Junkers Forever, and Ever

Science For Fiction: Space Junkers Forever, and Ever

Years pass like days

Though a moment lasts forever

Within your arms


The Science

What goes up must come down, unless it’s in orbit.

That stuff might come down eventually, but not for a long time.

Out of over 7,000 satellites launched in the last 60 years, only about a third still function. The rest are just a bunch of useless junk floating around. Aside from that, multiple agencies count tens of thousands of smaller objects – debris – floating around. Over 700,000 objects about a centimeter big, and at those speeds, they have the force of a hand grenade if they hit something. So yeah, there’s a bunch of stuff flying around up there orbiting the Earth that you might not want to run into.

That’s just the beginning. All this junk could lead to what experts call – and now you can too – the Kessler syndrome: a chain reaction of collisions that exponentially increases the amount of junk. A couple big things hit each other and create a bunch of little things instead. Note: not exactly an improvement.

If you want to see a map of all the satellites and space junk out there, check out this map. It’s a lot.

Needless to say, I know when my room’s a mess, I can have a hard time finding something. Sometimes I find something I didn’t even know I had.


The Fiction

“Marcy!” Henry Henderson punched at the blinking red button over and over. “MAAAHHH-CCYYYYY!”

The sound of the vacu-flush echoed through the capsule’s main chamber, and with the sudden whoosh of a tiny airlock, glistening crystals glittered outside the reinforced window in the unfiltered light of the sun.

“Jeez, Hank, can’t I get a moment of peace? Whadda you want?” Marcy Henderson emerged from the space-john, straightening the faded fabric of her iridescent purple muumuu. She checked the small mirror magnetically held to the capsule wall, patting the gray curls of her perm.

“Marcy,” Hank said, continuing to jab at the square plastic button with his bony finger. “The frickin’ O2 sensor keeps tripping. I thought we fixed that thing.”

Marcy took a short leap to the control console, the gentle spin of the capsule softly tugging her back to the floor panels. She tapped a button directly above the one he was poking, and the next time he struck it, it immediately turned green.

“You have to purge it first,” she reminded him for the umpteenth time.

Hank shook his  head. “Y’know, when I first started junkin’, utility capsules didn’t have all this extra stuff.” He waved his hand at the control console, with its gauges, buttons, dials, and screens arrayed evenly in an arc before him.

“They’re called backup systems, dear,” Marcy reminded him again. When they got married thirty years ago, she insisted that they upgrade Hank’s bachelor-grade orbital pod for a modern salvage capsule, one with at least a basic set of redundancies considering the only thing that separated them from the radiation-soaked vacuum of space was about three inches of steel and some reinforced glass. “And they’ve saved us more than once.”

“Bah,” came Hank’s standard reply. An electronic blip appeared on the circular screen in the center of the console. “Got something,” Hank said. “Bearing one-one-six mark three.”

“What is it?” Marcy asked, flipping switches on a side panel to begin warming the gyros of the telescopic arm.

He squinted at the radar image, fine-tuning the beam to better reflect off the object. Each time it blipped, it seemed to change shape and size. The well-worn crow’s feet around his eyes deepened in concentration; he rubbed the gray stubble of his chin between his fingers.

“I don’t know,” he said finally. “Maybe it’s an oblong tumbler. That might explain these readings.” Elongated craft could sometimes tumble head-over-heels, alternately displaying a compact end or its full length, but even those had a rhythm, a periodicity. Hank couldn’t discern any kind of regular pattern; it stayed roughly the same size, but changed shape seemingly at random.

“Does it have a beacon?” Almost all satellites, even defunct ones, had some kind of identification beacon.

Hank punched a button on the upper console. A frenzied alarm sounded until he quickly pressed it again. He cursed incoherently and more carefully pushed the button next to it. A soft white noise permeated the cabin. “Nope,” he said.

Marcy stepped to the console, examining the radar screen. “Hmm,” she said thoughtfully.

Taking the second chair, she typed a few commands into the inlaid keyboard. On a square monitor, a basic circle appeared, along with hundreds of crisscrossing lines of different colors. She tapped in their own position and altitude above the earth and the image zoomed into a specific section of the orbital map.

It was blank.

She double checked the coordinates, cross-checked the map, triple checked the radar readings.

“There’s nothing there,” she said.

“Whadda you mean?” Hank asked, still trying to jigger the nonsensical radar. “There has to be. Check again.”

Marcy was used to his abruptness. He meant well, but his rough edges had never smoothed. His tough side offered them a pretty good life, though. He was one of the first junkers in space, a pioneer in orbital salvage. You had to be tough back then to make it. It was one of the things that attracted her to him in the first place. She’d tried to mellow him out long ago, but realized she was happier letting him just be himself.

“I checked the map, our location, and the radar. There’s no record of any existing satellite or debris at those coordinates.”

That got his attention. In a rare soft tone, he said, “That’s not possible.”

Every piece of orbital junk had been thoroughly mapped. It had to be. Space had become so polluted with debris that without a detailed map, every rocket launch would be a gamble. Space wasn’t so big anymore. The world governments finally realized they needed to put more effort knowing what’s already up there before sending anything else. The first junkers were even subsidized, getting huge kickbacks with every ton of trash they either salvaged or sent hurdling back to Earth to burn up in the atmosphere. The great space cleanse had begun.

Now there was enough room to send stuff up again, but junking was still a profitable business. At this point, it was all Hank and Marcy knew. They had a couple houses planetside, but hardly even bothered visiting them anymore. The blackness of space had become their home; the vista of stars, their hearth. Earth was an occasional picture in a window frame when it happened to rotate into view.

Debris maps were constantly updated. In the three decades he’d been up here, Hank had never found an unmapped article. The fact that it wasn’t categorized meant that Earth-based stations weren’t  detecting it. His radar may have been wonky; but it must be totally evading ground-based.

Marcy caught the twinkle in his eye. “Let’s go see what it is,” he said.

Hank’s wrinkled fingers eased into the small joysticks, deftly manipulating the thrusters with masterful intuition born of a lifetime of faring space. Despite the shifting image, the radar showed them getting closer.

Marcy stood and looked out one of the front windows. “I don’t see it yet,” she said, peering intently.

Hank kept his eye on the digital readouts. “Smaller ones could be hard to spot until we’re within a hundred  meters or so.” He took it slow and steady. Any inertia he built on the approach would have to be counteracted. “Now,” he said, looking out the window himself while cutting in the retrorockets.

“There!” he was the first to pick it up against the blanket of stars and glare of the sun at the periphery of the adjacent side.

“Oh…” was all Marcy could seem to say.

Hank brought their salvage capsule to within ten meters and then came to a full stop relative to the object.

A golden orb floated before them. Its surface shimmered like a drop of liquid in zero gravity. A fine lattice surrounded it like a spherical crystal birdcage, though none of the slender tendrils touched the orb itself.

Hank and Marcy stared in disbelief. Finally Marcy asked, “What is it?”

Hank couldn’t speak.

“Is it…a t-s?” Top secret satellites were strictly off-limits, but those had distinct markings and a short-range quarantine signal. This had no markings at all. It didn’t even look like a machine.

“Maaahhhcy,” Hank’s unspoken thought filled the chamber. Then he added resolutely, “Let’s bring it inside.”

Marcy started, “What?” She glanced between her husband and the orb. “Are you sure? What if it’s radioactive?” Plenty of satellites had nuclear power reactors; solar wasn’t always enough.

“Geiger’s clean,” hank nodded at the gauge.

“But what if it’s,” Marcy’s echoed with hollow disbelief, “not from here?”

Hank’s eyes not only twinkled, but a mischievous grin tugged at his cheeks. “All the more reason,” he said.

Hank manipulated the robot arm and delicately gripped the lattice encircling the orb. As he gently pulled the object toward their cargo bay, the golden sphere remained perfectly centered in its web-like cage.

Marcy placed a hand on her husband’s shoulder. She could feel the determined strength in his muscles despite his aging years. She sensed something else conducting through her arm, an electrical enthusiasm that charged her with youthful excitement. Marcy shivered with anticipation. “I’ll get the bay doors,” she said.

Once the cargo bay pressurized, Hank reached for the control panel to open  the access door. He glanced at Marcy. “Ready?” he asked.

She nodded. “Ready.”

The object sat in the center of the bay, impossibly balanced not on the spaces between them, but on the edge of a single lattice strand, so that only a single point of contact touched the metal floor. The shimmering orb, slightly smaller in diameter than Hank was tall, continued to float equidistantly from the edges of the crystalline spindles.

They both stared in wonder. Then Hank walked in a slow circle around it. When he got to the other side, he laughed.

Marcy raised her eyebrows. “What is it?”

He nodded her over. “Come look. You’ll never believe this.” She joined him and he continued. “It’s damaged. One of our own pieces of trash must’ve struck it.” Sure enough, a triangular shard of metal, unmistakably Terran, was lodged between the orb and its lattice. Hank reached for it.

“Hank,” Marcy warned.

Then he pulled it out.

They awoke at about the same time. Hank heard Marcy moan; she heard him. They both blinked their eyes open and looked at each other, sitting against adjacent walls, legs stretched onto the floor.

Hank looked at the front and back of his hands and then rubbed his eyes, saying, “What the hell was that?”

Marcy sunk her fingers into her thick curls, pressing her palms against her temples, then releasing. “I don’t know, but,” she could hardly believe what she was about to say, “I feel great!”

“Me too!” Hank said, laughing so freely and unabashedly that Marcy joined him in one of the most cathartic episodes they’ve had together since their honeymoon.

The metal shard lie on the floor. The lattice merged and spun itself continuously around the golden sphere in a network of shifting patterns like a living spider web in a fluid dance with itself. The orb, before a golden reflective surface of liquid metal, now cast a warm yellowish glow, as if thankful for the removal of the metallic splinter.

After they caught their breath, Hank pulled himself to his feet and walked over to Marcy, extending his hand. She sprung to her feet, smiling broadly.

Hank eyed her closely, incredulously.

“What is it?” she asked.

“Your hair,” he said, not concerned or frightened. He reached forward and caressed a few strands, pulling a few strands gently forward for her to see. Instead of the gray curls of her perm, lustrous long brown curls took their place.

She looked at him with the same curiosity. “Hank…” she laid a hand on his cheek. He felt the silky warmth of her palm, and his own smooth skin underneath, not the stubbly leather of his old age.

Then they both looked at the orb and understood. It wasn’t just an object, it was alive. Maybe not a life form but full of life, pulsing with intelligent energy, intent, exploration, and an invitation.

A few minutes later, they were at the controls. Hank purged the O2 sensor and activated the maneuvering thrusters. They’d have to clear the debris before commencing an initial burn of their meager rocket and then activation of their utilitarian, but capable ion drive.

The Earth disappeared behind them. The open stars lay ahead.

Marcy, already a decade younger in appearance, placed a hand on her husband’s atop the controls. He smiled warmly at her.

No longer were they of this world. The transformation transcended their humanity. Their new lives originated from a distant place, where life wasn’t a slave to time; a place many light years away and long ago categorized as one of the Goldilocks exoplanets, but without much scrutiny ever paid. To them, the Earth was now alien. Humanity’s transient ego a part of their distant memory.

They both looked ahead, focusing on a pinprick of light that now captured their hearts.

Marcy squeezed his hand.

“Time to go home,” Hank said.




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