Exo: A Novel

Exo: A Novel

Exo A Novel 20

  I gave myself some velocity down the length of the tether, catching up with the “flowerpot.” It was spinning on its axis, unwinding the tether and gyro-stabilizing the spool/terminator. When I looked down the length of the tether I could see it was developing a gentle curve as the spool responded to the local gravity gradient, bending slowly toward Earth.

  “AggieSat Lab deployed the tether and I needed to get some video. It’s looking good. So, any thoughts on an air force remediation target before I go to my next rendezvous?”

  I heard him lick his lips. “If you’re serious, there’s a chunk of debris from the 2007 Chinese antisatellite test that has caused ISS evasion maneuvers several times in the past few years and will again in a few months.”

  I looked at the Delta-K booster. “Doesn’t have a bunch of hypergolic fuel on it, does it?”

  “Onboard fuel was nitrogen gas but even that probably didn’t survive the impact. It hit head on at over eight kps. More debris than even the Iridium-Kosmos collision.”

  “I know. How big is the piece you want me to get?”

  “It’s a compact mass about fifty centimeters across.”

  “Half a meter? What kind of closing velocities—for the ISS that is?”

  “Well, depending on the crossing angle—nine to eleven kps.”

  “Whoa.” That was booking. I’d read that the impact of a ten centimeter object at ten kilometers per second was the equivalent of twenty-two sticks of dynamite. This would be more like a bunker buster. “What is it?”

  “Could be any of a number of things. NiCad batteries. The reaction wheels. The nitrogen tank. One of the two onboard radiometers.”

  Half a meter was about the size of Tinkerbell and that had been a pain to locate. “How bright is it—high albedo?”

  I heard him ask somebody off to the side. The answer didn’t come back very quickly and he said, “One second. Looking it up.”

  I took some more video of the tether deploying. The curve was even more pronounced, now.

  General Sterling came back. “Not as bright as some, but we’ve tracked it optically. Shows up fine on radar.”

  I don’t have radar. I’d really have to look into that.

  I wondered if doing this would buy more cooperation from them. “I might need some active tracking input to locate that. Are you still in Leesburg?”

  “No. I’m back in my office in Colorado.”

  “Ah. So, e-mail a phone number where we can call you, okay? Info at apexorbital dot com. I’ve got this thing to do, but I should be able to call you back in ten or twenty minutes.”

  “What kind of thing?”

  “Inspection video, remember? You were there when I made the offer.”

  “The Iridium bird? Which one?”

  I disconnected.

  * * *

  Dad was a bit upset. “I’ve been calling forever!”

  “Sorry. It’s that air force general. You told me to be polite, remember?”

  “Politely hang up, next time! Thought you were dead.”

  “Sorry. I need the setup for Iridium four.”

  Iridium birds four through eight all launched aboard the same rocket, a Delta II from Vandenberg in May of 1997. These were the first Iridium satellites in orbit. One through three were prototype test units that never launched.

  Dad read off the coordinates, bearing, altitude, and the speed, then added, “Northern Russia, headed for Mongolia, China, and Thailand. Mark in twenty seconds.”

  The Iridium sats are triangular prisms a meter on a side and over four meters long. They orbit perpendicular to the earth’s surface, a double set of solar panel wings on the end away, and four microwave horn-gateway antennae for ground stations pointing down from the other end. Just above the gateway antennae, another set of flat-plate slotted array antennae point sideways, cross linking with the other satellites. Then, above that, three flat-panel antennae, each about the size and shape of a standard door, lean out from the sides of the prism and communicate with subscriber handsets over seven hundred kilometers below.

  Well, not all of the handsets were that far away.

  After my jump, I was still thirty kilometers distant, but my target was easy to see. Those big, flat, door-shaped antennae catch sunlight like nobody’s business.

  My seventy-eight-hundred-kilometer jump from the Delta booster had dropped the call, of course. I waited a few minutes, seeing if Dad could connect. When the phone didn’t ring, I closed in on the satellite in a series of jumps. The phone rang while I was still a kilometer away.

  “Apex One.”

  “Capcom. You okay?”

  “Just fine. Did it go to voice mail?”

  “Yeah,” he said. “You take another call?”

  “No. Being this high, and away from the bird, I think I was outside the broadcast cone. I’m still probably outside the cone, but I’m only a klick away, so we’re probably getting side lobe leakage.”

  “Right. Get your vids. I’ll be happier when you’re down.”

  “About that. There should be an e-mail in the Apex Orbital account. Can you pull it up while I get the inspection video?”

  I was done with the overall survey in two minutes. “Capcom, there’s some wear and tear, here. Please connect me to Mark Mendez at Iridium.”


  Mark Mendez answered. “Mendez”

  “Hey, Apex One calling.”

  Sharp intake of breath. “What’s with this number? That’s not the handset.”

  “Calling through my ground crew, Mr. Mendez. I am using the handset.”

  “Boy howdy, are you ever. You’re on number four but there’s no Doppler shift! HOW CLOSE ARE YOU?”

  “Wow. You totes need to chill. Why do you think I’m calling you?”

  “Can you see it?”

  “Dude, I’m three meters away. Listen, you have a few micrometeorite impacts on your solar panels and several on those big flat antennae—what do you call them?”

  “The L-band phased arrays? We call them MMAs. Main Mission Antennas. You know, most people say antennas, not ‘antennae.’ Not that it’s wrong.”

  “Sue me. Reason I called is you have this tear in one of those flat cross-link antennae—antennas. Something punched through it pretty good.”

  “I’ll bet. Happened back in 2004. Rotated the unit and perturbed the orbit. It was offline for six hours while we moved it back and reoriented it. Amazingly, that antenna still works, but its signal strength is a third the others. That bird is scheduled for replacement with an Iridium NEXT unit in two years.”

  “Okay. I’m going to spend some extra footage on the impact. Anything particular you want me to look at?”

  “Um, the analysis team always wondered why there wasn’t more damage further inboard. Any sign of impacts behind the antenna?”

  “No, because it’s ripped outward. From the angle I’d say that whatever hit it travelled diagonally across the face of the MMA above and just caught the edge of the aluminum plate. It didn’t hit anything else.”

  “Ah. One second.” I heard him talking with somebody else, quick sentences back and forth, but couldn’t make out the words. When he came back, he said, “One of the downlink horns is mounted right below the torn antenna. Any sign of damage there?”

  “I’ll look.”

  “Wait! What do you mean, you’ll look? You aren’t using propellant near the antennas are you? Are you in danger of colliding with it?”

  “I’m—” How to say this without giving away too much? “—EVA. Our spacecraft—” my nonexistent spacecraft “—is nowhere near the satellite. I can assure you there is no propellant hitting your bird.”

  I unclipped the camera and jumped closer, but I avoided floating directly in front of the microwave antenna. “Did you hear from your management about my request?”

  “They’re still waiting for the air force to get back on that.”

  “What does the air force have to do with it?”

is still our biggest customer, you know? And you weren’t very cooperative that last call.”


  “At least they haven’t told us to shut down your account.”

  “Hmph. See you.” I disconnected.

  I spent another thirty seconds filming the impact site from different angles, making sure I got the underside of the downlink horn Mendez had asked about. Last, I held out the camera to take another selfie, then moved well away from the microwave horns, but perpendicular to one of the MMAs.

  Dad reconnected. “So, I’ve got an e-mail from Sterling. It says, ‘My direct number.’ What’s that about?”

  “A favor. I asked if there was anything the air force needed to have pulled from orbit. There’s a piece of debris that periodically passes close to the ISS.”

  “You want to do a favor for the air force? What are they going to do for us?”

  “Da—Capcom, it’s the International Space Station!”

  Shit. Needed to be careful. Nearly said “Dad.”

  “Please connect us.”

  “What? From this phone?”

  “He already has that number, remember? Phone tap?”

  I heard Dad exhale. I bet his jaw was jutting forward the way it does when he’s feeling stressed, but he kept it together. Guess he didn’t want to argue in front of an audience. “Connecting.”

  General Sterling answered.

  “Sterling.” His voice sounded intent, so I think he recognized the number.

  “Apex One, General. Can you give me the rough coordinates for your problem debris?”

  “I can. Do you want the two-line element set?”

  “The NORAD ID will do just fine.”

  “Three zero six nine two.”


  After a second, Dad said, “Coming up from Antarctica to Australia. Altitude is four hundred seventy-two kilometers. Bearing three hundred thirty-three degrees at seven point eight two kps. Coordinates sixty seconds out are—” He read them off.

  “General, call me direct, after the break.”

  Dad began counting down and I concentrated on the numbers.

  I was in eclipse, dark, barely able to make out anything. When I flipped up my visor, I could see the lights of Tasmania off to the east. The stars were amazing, but I hoped the target wasn’t above me. I doubted I’d be able to see it against that canvas.

  The phone rang.

  “Apex One.”

  It was Sterling. “How do you do that?”

  “How are you tracking me?”

  “I’m not. I get texts from Iridium. Every time you connect to a new bird, they tell me, and where that bird is. That is, when it’s a bird that’s not contiguous with others.”

  Well, at least I knew how to operate in space without letting him know—turn that damn phone off.

  General Sterling continued. “In two minutes, though, I can get active laser tracking from Mount Stromlo near Canberra—accurate within one meter.”

  “Uh, is that safe? I mean, for me?”

  “Eye safe, you mean? Yes. Picosecond pulses.”

  I flipped in place to put my back toward the earth, anyway. Lasers? Could they target me with a weapons-grade laser?

  Someone was talking in the background, feeding General Sterling information. To me, he said, “We’ve got two objects. We’re pretty sure we know which one is the debris. You’ve got laser stealth, too? Your signature is tiny, nearly as small as the target.”

  He was getting size info—that was accurate tracking. “Our cloaking department will be pleased. Assuming I’m the second object, where is the debris?”

  Sterling said, “Thirty-one klicks northwest, and one klick higher. Speed is close. Heading is diverging slightly. You’re heading point three degrees more north than it is.”

  I jumped, first higher, then northwest.

  Someone in the same room as the general swore loud enough that I heard it.

  I heard General Sterling say, “If she can move halfway across the globe in seconds, you shouldn’t be surprised at twenty-eight klicks.” He kept feeding me info. “Two klicks away, still diverging west. Altitude close.”

  I jumped again.

  “Five hundred meters north. Less divergence.”

  I jumped again.

  “Ten meters west of you. It’s reading higher by a few meters.”

  I couldn’t see light reflecting off of it, but I was finally close enough that I could see stars winking off and back on as it passed in front of them.

  I jumped again.

  “We’re not seeing any separation,” Sterling said.

  It was a hunk of junk—like something torn out of the middle of a commercial copier, or any other large electronic appliance, except with more gold plating. It was tumbling slowly.

  I didn’t have the IR thermometer with me. I held my gloved hand to it but it didn’t feel cold or hot through the suit or the Nomex glove as the surface slid across my fingertips. It had been in shadow for a bit, and, at this altitude, it spent a decent amount of time shadowed.

  I grabbed it carefully, trying to avoid the jagged bits, and, as its rotation slowed, I began rotating.

  “I’ve got it, General.”

  “What are you—”

  I jumped.


  Davy: Guilty Thoughts

  “What is it?” Davy asked.

  He’d just returned to Cory’s lab from Cincinnati, his computer under his arm.

  Cent had removed her helmet and life-support backpack but still wore the MCP suit and her off-white Nomex coveralls. She was looking over Cory’s shoulder as he crouched on the floor examining a hunk of metal that had been ripped forcibly from other pieces of metal. Most of it was shiny silver, but there were sheets of gold-colored foil, wires, tubes, and screw heads.

  It was sitting on a bathroom scale.

  Davy stepped forward to get a better look. He made out printing in Chinese.

  “We think it’s a scanning radiometer, but it’s pretty smashed up,” said Cent.

  “What’s a radiometer?”

  Cory answered. “Like a camera for detecting specific frequencies of light. There were two on Fengyun 1C used to gather atmospheric data for weather forecasting.”

  “It’s one hundred thirty pounds, eh?” Cent said, reading the scale. “What is that, fifty-five kilos?”

  Cory stared off into the distance for a second. “About sixty-one point three-ish. How fast a collision?”

  “He said somewhere between nine and eleven kps.”

  Cory stood up and scribbled on the board, muttering, “One half the mass times the square of the velocity. Split the difference, call it ten kps.” He wrote down 3,065 and then began adding zeros. He stopped at six. “Whoa. 3,065 megajoules.”

  Davy said, “Give me a clue. What are we talking? A car wreck? A train collision?”

  Cory bit his lower lip. “Kilos of TNT?”

  Davy nodded. “That’ll help.

  “About four point six megajoules per kilo. So—”

  Cent had grabbed the calculator off of the bench. “Six hundred and sixty-six point six kilos of TNT. Two thirds a kiloton.”

  Cory nodded. “To be avoided at all costs.”

  Davy gestured at the object. “What are you going to do with it?”

  Cent said, “I think we should deliver it to General Sterling.”

  Cory turned his head and stared at her. “You gave Tinkerbell back to the people who made it. Shouldn’t this go back to the Chinese?”

  Cent shook her head. “I could maybe see doing that if they hadn’t deliberately destroyed it for their antisat test. I think it might be a good thing if the air force saw we were useful, you know? If they chill, Iridium might chill. Would help if they weren’t actively against us.”

  “I tried that with the NSA. It didn’t exactly work out.”

  Cent looked at him, frowning. “Well … I don’t really need the ground communication. If they tell Iridium to cut the account
I can do my stuff without ground-to-orbit chatter.”

  Davy winced. “Okay. You win. Where is the general?”

  “He’s attached to USAF Space Command headquarters, Peterson Air Force Base, Colorado Springs. With NORAD and the 21st Space Wing,” said Cent. “I looked it up.”

  Davy nodded. “I’ll do it.”

  Cent squinted at him. “You sure? I don’t have a site, myself, but I was considering dropping in from above.”

  Davy rolled his eyes. “Oh, great. You want to show up on the radar on a ballistic heading into NORAD’s headquarters? You don’t see the problem with that?”

  Cent giggled. “Well, I guess you’re right. And I do have a bunch of video to edit.”

  Cory provided a shipping tag and some tape. Cent, whose handwriting was light-years more legible than Davy’s, wrote “Brig. Gen. Lionel Sterling, USAF Space Command, Peterson AFB. Compliments of Apex Orbital Services.”

  “Where will you leave it?” said Cent.

  Davy shook his head. “I would put it in his office, but that would just make them nervous. Better I leave it outside their security perimeter.”

  Cent blinked. “Riiiiiiight. Don’t make them nervous. We’re an asset, not the enemy.”

  Davy felt his lower jaw projecting and his eyes narrowing.

  Cent saw it. “What? What did I say?”


  Cent’s forehead furrowed. “Yeah?”

  “I was an NSA asset.” He tapped his left collarbone.

  Cent made an “o” shape with her mouth. “Right. Keep them at arm’s length? And by arm’s length we mean miles away, right?”

  Davy nodded, but he wasn’t particularly happy about it. He was seeing all sorts of scenarios. Millie would call it engaging his “hyper-paranoid” mode. But she would also say, Just because you’re paranoid doesn’t mean they aren’t out to get you. “Miles. Going forward, we’re going to need a way to screen your, uh, packages. The packages you’re going to deliver to orbit, yes?”