Did we just rendezvous with Rama?

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).

Orbit of A/2017 U1 – clearly an interloper from interstellar space. NASA/JPL, public domain.

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.

My copy of the 1974 Pan edition of Rendezvous with Rama. Get a load of the wear and tear…

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


12 thoughts on “Did we just rendezvous with Rama?

  1. One might suspect that Clarke would figure that, to be unambiguous, an interstellar object should come from a direction outside of the plane of the ecliptic.That’s relatively easy.

    The level of coincidence required for this object to enter a gravity-assist trajectory using the Sun is likewise interesting. There couldn’t be but so many trajectories that would lead the object into a useful assist. Useful, of course, in terms of leaving the Solar System at a higher speed than that with which it entered. I don’t think this is any sign of intelligent control. It’s a big Universe. Nonetheless, one suspects the level of coincidence to be high. And one might ask, in this connection, what lies along the trajectory by which A/2017U1 will leave the Solar System? Anything which we might perceive as interesting and valuable?

    I don’t recall the speed with which the object travels, but isn’t it approximately 15.8 miles per second? Not terribly high on a cosmic scale. For an object traveling at that speed, to traverse one light year would require 11,791 years.

    On a cosmic scale that’s not a long time. But at that speed, to get from here to Proxima Centauri would take about 50,000 years.That figure is merely for perspective.

    But regardless of any of that…to know anything at all about this object should be a major priority for science. This is the first such object we know of to visit our solar system. As you point out, something not made in our vicinity. Who knows what treasures of knowledge it might reveal?

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    1. There will be some fascinating science out of this – I should do a follow up post. Yeah, the schtik with Rama was that it had been on its way – and had cooled to interstellar temperatures – an awfully long time. Velocity was interplanetary. The book is well worth reading if you haven’t already. To me it was also quintessentially English, culturally (in the same way that Heinlein captures a quintessential American feel). In both cases underscoring the genius of the writers. Clarke hid the hard science behind the story but it was all there. He must have done a good deal of maths to back it – the spin rate of Rama vs the induced gravity inside vs radius checked out when I ran the figures…


    2. Further to this, data seems to indicate no net increase in speed for the object from its solar pass – it was boosted from 26 to 87.7 km/s at perehelion but will lose it on the outward leg. And it came within 0.16 AU of Earth. It seems to have come from the direction of Vega, a new-ish system with a debris disk. (Alien commander: ‘Dang, missed the rendezvous by a whisker and no fuel left…so much for 40,800 years in space…’) I suppose I shouldn’t be surprised, but it already has his own Wikipedia page! https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/A/2017_U1

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    1. Maybe one inspires the other, and vice versa? It was J B S Haldane who once suggested that the universe is not only stranger than we imagine – it is stranger than we can imagine. I find that idea quite inspiring as a writer – not just for non-fiction (which I write a lot) but also fiction (which I write a bit).

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