An asteroid was discovered last week by astronomers using the University of Hawaii’s Pan-STARRS 1 telescope. It’s moving at a tremendous clip – and is on its way out of our solar system after whipping through on a trajectory that took it inside the orbit of Mercury.
The Minor Planets Centre at Cambridge, Massachussets, has given it the official designation A/2017 U1, though doubtless it’ll be officially named. It’s thought to be about 400 metres in diameter. It’ll certainly be a lifeless chunk of rock, dust or ices – but it’s from interstellar space, and there’s a good chance that some science will come out of that. The sort of information we can get is priceless, because everything in our solar system was formed from much the same mix of isotopes – the ones present in the primordial dust cloud. Other stellar dust clouds have slightly different mixes – which we can detect via spectroscopy. This incoming meteorite gives a great opportunity to get more data on a specific body from ‘out there’, relatively close up.
The thing is, I have to wonder whether the late futurist and sci-fi author Arthur C. Clarke knew about it all along. It’s virtually the orbit of the interstellar ship from his novel Rendezvous with Rama (Victor Gollancz, 1973).
Clarke was one of the ‘big three’ sci-fi authors of the mid-twentieth century; but he was more than that. He was also a futurist, looking into the way societies shift in the face of technology – and his predictions have been unerringly correct, notably to do with social impact of personal computers linked together globally. Yah. Clarke predicted today’s internet – and its social outcome – 40-odd years before it happened.
Back in 1972, Clarke also penned one of the all-time classic ‘alien encounter’ novels, Rendezvous with Rama.
In the novel, astronomers discover an object plunging from the interstellar depths towards near-solar space on a one-way pass around the Sun – a spinning cylinder, many kilometres long. There is just time to route a spaceship to rendezvous with it. They call the alien ship Rama.
The whole story was super-hard sci-fi, of course; a tour-de-force by Clarke to demonstrate the mechanisms of interplanetary orbits and the way Newtonian physics apply in large-scale spinning habitats, how to take advantage of light-speed radio delays, and a lot of other cool stuff – even down to terminal velocity inside the habitat. Not to mention the Coriolis effect. I read the book as a kid, and it was here that I was first introduced to that idea.
I won’t offer spoilers, but along the way Clarke managed to present yet another possible social future and to riff on the way eccentric English scientists think. He also added a wonderful twist at the end.
Gentry Lee, with input from Clarke, later wrote several sequels – but they were very different from the original and I didn’t enjoy them.
The thing is that the story seems awfully prescient. A/2017 U1 has hurtled in on the sort of trajectory Clarke envisaged for Rama. In Rama’s case, it was intentionally done to maximise the ‘slingshot’ effect – getting a free speed boost from the Sun’s gravity well.
In the case of A/2017 U1 it’s coincidental, but still… you have to wonder.
My pick for its eventual name, if it’s given one, will be Rama – and I bet I’m not the only one to think of it.
And if an alien habitat came rolling into our solar system for real – what would we do?
Copyright © Matthew Wright 2017