Day 17 of the A-to-Z Challenge. Q is for Quaoar, an object in the outer solar system. Discovered in 2002 and named after a deity from Tongva mythology, Quaoar arrived on the astronomical scene during a period of turmoil. You see, it was not alone…


In 1992 (right around the time I was in grade school, possibly learning the mnemonic “My Very Educated Mother Just Showed Us Nine Planets”), astronomers discovered an object that received the provisional name 1992 QB1. This object turned out to be the first Trans-Neptunian object discovered since Pluto (and its moon Charon).

This prompted a renewed effort to locate similar objects, which came to be known as cubewanos (QB1-ohs). It turns out, there are a lot of similar objects in the outer solar system. In 2000, astronomers discovered the object that was eventually named Varuna. Less than two years later, Quaoar was discovered, and it was pretty big. Bigger than QB1.

Many other Trans-Neptunian Objects were found during the first few years of the 21st century. Some of them rival Pluto in size — and the discoverers naturally wanted their discoveries classified as planets. “I discovered a planet” is an impressive quote: it fits on a business card or a t-shirt, and it’s a real hit as a pick-up line.

Were Quaoar, Ixion, Sedna, Haumea, Makemake, and the other objects on the growing list of Trans-Neptunian Objects really planets? No one could say, because the International Astronomical Union had never officially defined the word planet.

Then in 2005, the same group that discovered Quaoar discovered another object — and it was as big as Pluto, or bigger. Obviously, if Pluto is a planet, then the new object must also be a planet, right? (This object received the rather fitting name of Eris — the goddess of discord, who causes arguments.)

A similar crisis had arisen two centuries earlier: astronomers discovered Ceres, and decided it was a planet… then discovered Pallas, Juno, Vesta, etc. The solution then was to create a new classification: these objects would be known as minor planets, though most people just call them asteroids.

In 2006, the IAU decided to resolve the issue with a similar cop-out solution, creating a definition for planet that deliberately excluded these new objects — along with Pluto — but then creating a new classification of dwarf planet. Pluto and Eris (along with Ceres) were specifically called out as dwarf planets.

(As a consolation to Pluto, the IAU also created the classification of plutoid, which at the time they vaguely defined as anything kinda like Pluto.)

After the IAU vote, our solar system was one planet lighter, and astronomers were free to continue discovering inconveniently large objects without fretting over whether they were planets.

But really, Quaoar doesn’t care about the arguments, the disputes over definitions, or the glory of planethood. Quaoar doesn’t care whether we call it a planet, dwarf planet, Trans-Neptunian Object, cubewano, or late for dinner. Quaoar just is.

And 1992 QB1? It’s still just called QB1.


Pensées in Pollux b Penitentiary

For Flash! Friday vol. 3-19, the prompt is a setting of a kitchen, along with the following public domain photo. For the A-to-Z Challenge, P is for Pollux, the brightest star in the constellation Gemini, and named after one of the Gemini twins of Greek mythology. (Despite being the brightest star in Gemini, it has the Bayer designation of Beta Geminorum.)

Kinny didn’t look like no murderer. In fairness, not I nor nobody in the cell block knew if he was, not even Kinny. When the government mindwipes you, you don’t remember nothing. Not your name, not poor momma’s crying face. Still, it costs a fortune to haul prisoners 10 parsecs from Earth to Pollux lockup, so Kinny wasn’t no jaywalker.

KINN-9893 took my cellmate’s bunk. Jaxa was a funny guy and lousy poker player: a perfect cellmate. But after ten years they called JAXA-3514’s number: his sentence was up. In came this scrawny beanpole in grandma glasses.

“You ain’t gonna last one night guarding the stockade,” I warned him. (The prison walls didn’t keep us in: they held the savage Pollux predators out.) “If you got any brains, make yourself useful somewhere.” And he did: turns out he was a magician in the kitchen. Our processed soy and garden herbs never tasted better.

That first evening I lingered outside the kitchen after dinner, drunk on WELS-7332’s bathtub whiskey. The aroma of tomatoes and rosemary lingered in the air. For the first time, an image broke through my mindwipe. A woman in a black dress. An Italian restaurant. “Were you my lover,” I wondered, “or my victim?”

O’Neill Cylinder

For day fifteen of the A-to-Z challenge, I thought I would take a brief break from fiction and take a look at a type of space station. O is for O’Neill Cylinder, which some may know it as “Island Three,” where Island One and Island Two are the comparatively much smaller Stanford Torus and Bernal Sphere.

Interior of an O’Neill Cylinder. Public domain photo from Wikimedia.

Proposed by physicist Gerard O’Neill, the design was for two side-by-side counter-rotating cylinders, each five miles in diameter and twenty miles in length, connected by a support structure.

Each cylinder would consist of six alternating strips of “sky” (transparent windows and mirrors to allow sunlight into the cylinder) and “land,” providing a habitable surface area of over 100,000 acres. Maneuvering would be handled without thrusters, by taking advantage of the angular momentum of the cylinders.

Variants of the O’Neill Cylinder have been seen fairly often in science fiction.

Babylon 5
“Humans and aliens wrapped in two million, five hundred thousand tons of spinning metal… all alone in the night.” – From the Babylon 5 season 1 opening monologue

“The mass of Rama was at least ten trillion tons; to any spaceman, that was not only awe-inspiring but also a terrifying thought.” – Rendezvous with Rama, Arthur C. Clarke

Brian Versteed provides the Kalpana One space settlement concept. While it’s closer in size and design to a Stanford Torus, there’s some rather nice artwork of the concept.

Orion’s Arm has a page with concept art for a McKendree Cylinder. An enormously scaled-up version of an O’Neill Cylinder, a McKendree Cylinder can have as much land area as a small continent.

No Food in the Doctor’s Office, Please

Day 14 of the A-to-Z challenge. N is for nuclear winter, a theoretical drop in temperature following a nuclear war, caused by soot released into the atmosphere by firestorms. Or possibly for nitrous oxide, an anesthetic, engine combustion enhancer, and rocket fuel.

The place used to be an urgent care facility. Now shards of glass littered the moldy carpet. She walked past the vacant reception desk, then kicked open the door to the first exam room. Some previous looter had already broken the door lever.

Cabinet doors stood open, empty drawers lay strewn across the floor. No bandages or stitches remained to do anything about her wounded knee, now gushing blood down her leg and onto the tiled floor. She found nothing to mend the gunshot wound, but did locate a tank of nitrous oxide leaned against the far corner of the room. Her hand was slippery with blood, but she opened the valve and inhaled the gas as it dispersed, sighing as its numbing effect took hold.

Boots crunched on broken glass: someone had entered the building. She sat in the corner as nitrous continued to hiss out of the tank, not worried about the approaching stranger. A silhouette appeared in the doorway, carrying a 20-gauge shotgun.

“You took something of mine,” he said bluntly. “I want it back.”

She giggled. “You caught me. Fine…” Unzipping her winter coat, she reached into the hidden pocket and retrieved a Twinkie. “I’m on a diet, anyway.” She tossed the wrapped snack food across the floor.

The man stepped hesitantly into the room to retrieve it, keeping her covered with the barrel of his firearm. “Shooting you was nothing personal. These are desperate times.”

Now she cracked up. “I know! But you caught her! And you got your little Twinkie back.” Then she broke down into laughter.

The man stared at her, shaking his head. Then he bent down, retrieved the confection, turned around, and departed.

Alone again, the woman continued to sit on the floor, gripping her injured knee. The anesthetic gas had relieved her pain, and her fear. Outside, starving people scrounged through the cold ruins of the city for food and shelter, as a rain of hot radioactive ash continued to fall upon them. Outside, she had been hungry, aching, terrified that she might not see tomorrow.

But inside, she was so happy she was practically floating. No longer terrified, she knew that she would never see tomorrow. Inside, everything was wonderful.

Making Out in the Main Belt

Halfway through the A-to-Z challenge! M is for mothership, a large ship that carries smaller ships. Flying saucers and bug-eyed monsters are not necessarily involved, though they certainly make things more fun.

Through the porthole, the stars spun in slow, lazy circles. Jako tried to ignore them, and the queasy sensation of microgravity. Instead he focused his attention on his wristpad display, frantically manipulating figures in a spreadsheet.

“How can you do homework at a time like this?” This tied the record for longest sentence Liarna had spoken to him in their high school career. Jako chuckled; all it took for a girl to talk to him was to be trapped in a cramped sardine can in the middle of the Main Belt. He wondered what it would take for him to get a date for senior prom.

“It’s not funny, Jako! Someone’s going to come looking for us, right?” Their escape capsule was speeding away from the mothership, in orbit of minor planet 535 Montague, at a velocity of thousands of meters per second. It would take days for a search and rescue team to find them.

“Someone will come looking for us. It’ll just take longer for them to find us than to catch your delinquent boyfriend.”

“What’s so bad about Dynnon?”

Jako stopped swiping at his wrist display and looked her squarely in her gray eyes. “He and his jock friends stuffed me into an escape capsule and launched it?”

“I’m sorry,” she said. “I tried to stop them.”

“I know. Thanks.” Jako returned to his calculations.

“It’s so hot in here. Worst field trip ever.” She unbuttoned her top button, then noticed his focus on his wristpad. “Seriously?! How can you be doing homework?”

“Titan was the worst field trip ever.” Which teacher had thought that taking a class of giggling high school freshmen to a moon with a methane atmosphere was a good idea? “And this is not homework,” Jako explained. “I’m calculating how long the air will last us in here.”

Liarna’s face paled. “Are we going to die?”

“Someday. But life expectancy for a girl your age is a hundred and forty-eight. Life support in this escape pod should easily last two weeks. We’ll be picked up long before then.”

Liarna tugged at her collar. “Then why is it so hot?”

With his fist, Jako bumped a large green pushbutton on a nearby control panel. The iris-style hatch above them opened, and air rushed outward. Liarna gasped, but quickly regained her composure and peered up through the hatch.

“Inflatable habitat,” explained Jako. “It provides a little more breathing room.”

Liarna tentatively stood up, gripping the handholds to position herself in zero-g. With a gentle push, she floated through the hatch, into the inflated space. The walls were transparent plastic, but only the two dozen brightest stars were easily visible through its slightly reflective surface. “Wow,” she said. “Great view. You should come up here.”

With a shrug, Jako turned off his wrist display and floated off to join her. She pointed out a bright blue star. “Isn’t that Earth?”

Jako blinked. “Yes. How’d you know?”

“I do have interests other than my delinquent boyfriend,” she said, rolling her eyes at him. “You’re too quick to stereotype people. I’m not a ditzy blonde, and Dynnon isn’t a meathead jock. Did you know he’s into romance poetry?” She tapped her own wristpad, then showed Jako a file from her private folder.

Jako stared at the display in disbelief. “Until this moment, I never would’ve believed Dynnon could write a sonnet.”

“Would you believe he’s not even my boyfriend? He’s dating his teammate Mato.” She paused uncomfortably, as though she had spilled a secret. “Don’t tell anyone. His parents are really old-fashioned. They would never understand him dating an android.”

He nodded, holding a finger to his lips. “Your secret is safe with me.”

The two of them floated in the center of the ellipsoidal inflated habitat, adrift in a sea of stars. “We’re pretty far from Montague by now. It might be days before they find us.”

“Two or three days, maybe,” Jako shrugged. “The mothership can detect us easily; it just takes a long time to catch us at this velocity.”

Liarna rested her head on his shoulder. Jako’s heart skipped a beat as she leaned into his ear and whispered, “Would you like to help me with my physics homework?”

Landing on your Feet

Day twelve of the A-to-Z challenge. L is for Little Green Men, a common depiction of Martians and other extraterrestrials in early Twentieth century science fiction, both straight and satirical.

I had a good life going, until the morning I woke up to find that I was a little green man. My kids thought it was funny, but my wife freaked out when I came down for breakfast. She was just tired, I know. It’s hard to get any sleep when a flying saucer shines a spotlight through your window at 3 o’clock in the morning.

The boss fired me on the spot. I tried to argue, but the only sounds that came from my mouth were crazy bleep-bloop noises. My skin-tight silver jumpsuit wasn’t up to the company dress code, either. And I was an hour late — but have you ever tried driving a minivan when you’re three feet tall with three spindly sucker-tipped fingers on each hand? My sunglasses wouldn’t even fit on my freakish watermelon head.

Until I became one, I never appreciated how hard things are for little green men. Did you know that their jumpsuits are dry clean only? The laundromat destroyed my only set, and not even the clothes on the children’s rack at Walmart fit my misshapen torso. Plus, you wouldn’t believe how many jerks walk up and ask me to say “they’re always after me lucky charms!”

So there I was, a middle-aged man, suddenly out on the street with no house, no wife, no job. Nothing but the scaly green ectoderm on my back, and a rod-shaped probe thingy. I still don’t know how it works, but it makes a halfway decent backscratcher.

Since I mutated into a little green man, life has been rough, but it’s not all bad. I recently found a job at the carnival: terrible pay, but all-you-can-eat corn dogs. I’m saving up a little money for a vacation to Zeta Reticuli this summer. I even have my eye on this girl… right now she doesn’t know I exist, but one day I know I’ll sweep her off her feet.

Life can really throw you for a loop sometimes. If my experience has taught me anything, it’s that you just have to roll with it, and land on your feet. Even if they’re hideous green crow-feet with talons.

Killing Blow

The A-to-Z challenge continues… K is for Kepler’s Laws of Planetary Motion. These laws describe how planets orbit the Sun. Using astronomical observations made by Tycho Brahe, Johannes Kepler derived these laws as a refinement of the Copernican heliocentric model of the solar system. Isaac Newton later demonstrated that they follow from the laws of gravitation. (Overall, a good historical example of how science progresses by observation, modeling, and building on previous work.) This is a follow-on story to an earlier A-to-Z entry, Countdown to the Comet.

The room echoed with the clunk of the closing door. As four well-dressed gentlemen entered the room, he was surprised to see a lone familiar face. Before he could speak, the bald man at the head of the line held up a hand. “Good morning, sir,” greeted the man in the Queen’s own English. “Thank you for joining us. For the sake of security, I must ask that you not use any of our names.”

“What should I call you?”

“You may address me by the code name Balric. This is General Whiskey, representing Her Majesty’s armed services. Dr. Mike is our head scientist. And I believe you already know Machiavelli.”

“I understand,” he replied, suddenly acutely aware of the acquired Texan drawl that muddled the New England accent of his youth. “You asked me to come?”

“Indeed,” said Machiavelli curtly, in his heavy Germanic accent.

“Let us be blunt,” said Balric. “For reasons that need not be enumerated, Her Majesty the Queen has decided that the American regime is too unstable and, frankly, too inept to be entrusted with our undertaking.”

“Well, sir, I understood as much three years ago, when you asked me not to brief President Carter on Comet Spencer Jones.”

“Unfortunately, the geopolitical situation continues to destabilize,” explained Machiavelli, his old benefactor from the State Department. “The Queen believes it would be best to remove the peanut farmer in favor of someone in the know.”

“I take it that means you’ll support my Presidential bid?”

“We believe that you should focus your efforts on the Iowa caucus,” advised Machiavelli.

“Sorry to interrupt the rousing discussion of American politics.” Dr. Mike was a bespectacled man with greying hair and a white lab coat. “However, there are other pressing matters.”

General Whiskey agreed with a sigh. “Our science team is threatening a coup if we fail to consider their proposal.”

“Comet Spencer Jones is 100% pure antimatter,” reminded Dr. Mike. “Since we already are planning to alter its orbit, it would take minimal additional planning to capture it into High Earth Orbit.”

“Minimal additional planning,” scoffed General Whiskey. “If your calculations are wrong, that comet could hit Earth instead of the Moon.”

“Kepler’s Laws are quite well understood,” Dr. Mike insisted. “After all, we predicted the lunar collision forty years ago, making calculations by hand. Now we have massive computers that can verify these calculations even more quickly and reliably than any person.”

The guest spoke. “I’m afraid I don’t understand why we’d want to capture this thing?”

“If it could be captured into Earth orbit,” explained Dr. Mike, “harnessed, it could provide a virtually limitless source of energy. Quite tempting given the current oil situation. Some of our scientists predict the arrival of what they call ‘peak oil’ by the end of the Twentieth Century.”

“Perhaps your team should recall the words of Oppenheimer at the test of the first atomic bomb,” Baldric lashed out. “That comet could be turned into a weapon of unimaginable destructive power.”

Dr. Mike and the General both began to respond, but Machiavelli interrupted. “Gentlemen, this argument is not productive. I am sure we can work this out over the next few years.”

The visitor sighed and closed his eyes. Someday soon, he knew he would become President of the United States, but that electoral victory would bring him no joy. In the Oval Office he would bear the burden of an apocalyptic secret, and be forced to make covert decisions that would alter the fate of humanity forever.

Jansky Noise

This story serves double-duty. For Flash! Friday vol. 3-18, the prompt is to include a spy, along with the shown CC2.0 photo by Foto Michel. For day ten of the A-to-Z challenge, J is for Jupiter brain, a megastructure the size of Jupiter, designed for tremendous computational capabilities.

I was nervous about my first visit to the oracle, but I had a mission. With only a few coins, I entered the noisy bazaar.

“Spare some change?” The panhandler shook his cup at me, so I tossed him some platinum. “Jupiter happily helps he who helps the needy. You seek wisdom?”

“How can I decrypt the Zoephage communications?” The Geminga Confederation had not known war in over two centuries when the Zoephages turned three border worlds into grey goo. Now it fell upon the Spy Corps to discover some weakness in our nanoscale enemy. A trillion human lives, from Earth to Antares, depended on us.

“Their communications are encrypted by one-time pad.” My heart sank. OTP encryption was uncrackable without the random shared key. As I turned to leave, I gave him my remaining coins.

“Thank you kindly for sharing with a random stranger,” said the hooded Oracle of Jupiter.

Suddenly I realized: the swarms of Zoephages needed to share a random key across a dozen parsecs. The most accessible source of randomness was Cosmic Microwave Background fluctuations. And the Spy Corps kept detailed recordings of the CMB. Smiling, I rushed to purchase my ticket back to headquarters. Random does not mean secret.

Industrial Accident

A story for the A-to-Z Challenge. I is for inertial dampers. Don’t leave homeworld without them. (And don’t confuse them with inertial dampeners, because then you’ll be all wet.)

CC9-A opened his optics to full aperture to examine the dark interior of the spacecraft. “You’re slowing down, JR,” he taunted his colleague as metal feet clanged against metal floor. “It never used to take you more than 3500 milliseconds to find the hatch code.”

JR3-55 followed the younger robot through the airlock and into the spacecraft cabin. All the electronics had shut down, but a radium emergency light provided some faint illumination. “This spacecraft may have been launched two centuries before I was built,” he informed CC9-A. “It took awhile to look up such an archaic hatch code.”

“Two centuries? Who built this ship? Asimoid separatists? Or Turingrade warbots?”


“The progenitor species? I’ve never seen one.”

JR3-55 pointed a spindly aluminum finger at a red blotch on the interior wall of the spaceship. “There’s what’s left of one. The inertial dampers must have failed just as the vessel engaged their Einstein-drive. It spent the next few centuries cruising here on autopilot.”

CC9-A examined the rust-colored encrustation, and four others just like it. “Nuts and bolts,” the young mechanoid swore. “The g-forces must have been incredible.”

“You or I might have survived,” JR3-55 speculated. “Human bodies are extraordinarily delicate. They were probably dead before they even hit 1000g.”

“Is that all?” scoffed CC9-A. “No wonder they abandoned space travel.”

“Indeed. Well, the boss wants this ship cleaned up and repaired.”

“Right.” CC9-A rubbed a cold metal palm against the wall of the ship. “What do you think will remove these red stains?”