Navigating Interstellar Space

Will Hunter is looking through his shuttle telescope at the Tau Ceti star system on a mission to rendezvous with the Confederation Flagship Hercules 001 from which he launched 30 days earlier. This old-fashioned approach, navigating by reference star positions to confirm progress along his planned trajectory, is using the modern version of the astrolabe, the astronomical computer used by ancient mariners on Earth. Meanwhile, his shuttle Automated Data Assistant (ADA 4) monitors thousands of pulsars radiating through the Near Universe keeping track of the shuttle’s position. Will was taught to use redundant navigation methods to follow a planned trajectory. The year is 2250.

Will knows the movement of a spaceship is affected by three main factors: 1) gravity from nearby massive objects that varies in strength, 2) comets and other bodies could cause collisions with his shuttle, and finally, 3) all bodies in the Milky Way move in three directions in relation to each other. Not all three of these factors are used to plot a trajectory. The strength of gravity from local bodies is not predictable in advance, and will cause a flight path to deviate from sector to sector in the Near Universe. In addition, location of comets and other collisional threats cannot be predicted in advance, so the navigation system must instead make real-time decisions to alter course during flight. However, the predictable movement of the Solar System in our galaxy can be used to plot an interstellar mission with confidence. A straight line can be plotted that would be the shortest distance, regardless of the curvature caused by gravitational bodies and collisional threats from comets. Therefore, the projected future position of the target star, and the velocity needed to get there within a certain time are the two parameters used to plot a trajectory.

Will is 15 years old and knows how to navigate. What he has trouble coping with is the loneliness although one would think he would be delighted to spend his uninterrupted spare time over 30 days playing games and sleeping in. No, his life depends on the shuttle functioning perfectly, which requires constant management of operational systems, the most important part of which is his life support system (LSS). Supplementing the LSS with biomass and chemicals daily, supplies him with water and food supply. However, the repetition of it all is becoming tedious. “And I used to complain about mum’s cooking!”

View of Tau Ceti

The image on the cover of this novel, Mission 32, above, is the star-view Will observes through the shuttle telescope. ADA 4 applies the track lines connecting stars in the system automatically for easier identification through the background of stars in the field of view.

Passing through an interstellar storm caused by radiation from a distant supernova, he experiences an unusually strong magnetic field of charged particles and winds swirling through the area, which jostles the shuttle, bouncing and shaking it, unsettling the young pilot who knows from his training he is safe, although it’s nerve-racking.

Magnetic fields crisscross interstellar space on occasion, unpredictably. Ships rarely suffer any physical damage but this storm is stronger than Will was expecting. Buckled into the pilot’s seat to ride it out, he can see faint wide flat clouds rolling, accompanied by flashes of energy. His instruments indicate a stronger magnetic impulse than is normal for these kinds of storms.

Will wanted desperately to join the Hercules 001 for Mission 32, and was one of a small number of students at The Grove School, and one of the youngest, to be chosen. He communicates only briefly and on a limited basis with the other students in their shuttles, flying in the same direction to rendezvous targets, distributed in an arc over a thousand miles. Everyone is supposed to be travelling silently, except for scheduled short messages, to avoid disclosing their positions to the aliens, the Ackanopians, who may be in the region and interested in capturing them. His only companion, ADA-4, is equipped with the artificial intelligence he relies upon to interpret the constant flow of data from the shuttle’s systems, and to recommend options. ADA 4 also schedules planned activities Will must execute, and keep him thinking straight. Long solo flights can affect the mental condition, especially in someone as young as Will on a small shuttle.