Object 100

Trip of a Lifetime

2079, Cassini Array, Saturn

From The New Yorker, September 17, 2079

TALK OF THE TOWN: Going Up - The Trip of a Lifetime

83,432,374 extrasolar planets have been discovered in more than 22 million systems. Most of them are unremarkable. 0.3 percent — 2,800,992 planets — lie within the habitable zone of their stars, neither too hot nor too cold to sustain life. Of these, 71,349 are classified as 'highly habitable', with stable orbits, moderate seasons, and suitable mass.

The study of these planets has consumed a great deal of attention.

Several methods exist to determine whether conventional life is present on a planet. One is to look for short-lived biomarkers in the atmosphere such as oxygen, ozone, methane, and nitrous oxide. Water is also desirable, although it is not a guarantee of life. Because the light spectrum of a planet betrays the presence of biomarkers, they are quite easy to detect.

589 planets have at least two biomarkers.

Other strong signs of life include: oceans; continents; and seasonal changes in biomarker intensity and changes on the planet surface. The most direct way to find these is by taking a picture of the planet. This requires a rather large instrument, comprising at least a hundred networked telescopes spread over a thousand kilometres. In 2075, there were 95 such instruments in use.

Fifty-two of the most promising extrasolar planets have been imaged to a high resolution, and 24 show clear evidence of phytoplankton-like organisms in the oceans. A further nine have plant-like organisms spread across their continents, waxing and waning with the seasons.

The first discovery of alien life was widely celebrated by humanity — that is, when ancient organisms were found in our own solar system on Mars in 2028. Further celebrations occurred 20 years later when extant life was discovered on Europa. By the time extrasolar alien life was first imaged in 2055, celebrations were considerably smaller, the wonder and excitement having been eroded by the slow drip of discoveries. By then, everyone had simply assumed that life was out there, everywhere.

The planet with the most advanced ecosystem, Guo-19B, is a mere 328 light years away, making it close enough to be imaged in real-time by the Newton array-of-arrays. At our current level of technology there are hard limits on image resolution, but experts believe that the planet is home to intelligent life, at least judging by the settlement-like shapes on its land masses.

And that's where we are now.

"There was some talk of sending a crewed ship to Guo-19B," says Bernard Kwok Keung, a researcher from the Tsinghua Chorus. A few weeks ago, Kwok Keung was visiting the Cassini Array to discuss that summer's observations from the Newton, and during a break in the conference, he looked out the window at the visiting biomes and began calculating. "It doesn't take an Amp to work out there's just no way we can push a biome — even a tiny one — to the kinds of relativistic speeds that would let humans get there in a reasonable amount of time," he said. He turned to look at the AI substrates in orbit around Titan, and frowned. "Those guys, on the other hand, well... they have some real advantages when it comes to travel."

Kwok Keung had the look of someone who had finally accepted some long-expected bad news. Guo-19B, conference-goers agreed, was due to enter a rapid phase of civilisational expansion in the next few millennia. "The pattern of settlements, the distribution of resources on the planet, the lack of any obvious killer asteroids, it's the perfect combination for growth," he said. "I'd love to meet them and talk to them, but it’s not a trip that any humans are capable of taking."

Three weeks later, Kwok Keung was back at the Cassini Array to advise on the newly announced Armstrong Expedition. Nanoscale fabricators were swarming over an improbably small and complex ‘lighthugger', constructed along the same lines as the Zheng He and the Ericson, two starships sent out last year. An antimatter fuel source had already been delivered from the inner system, along with a new posthuman-designed saddlepoint propulsion unit. Soon, a thick layer of ice would be sprayed on to protect its precious AI cargo from the rigours of relativistic impacts.

It would be another three months before the lighthugger would set off, but it was already attracting a crowd of curious onlookers, both digital and physical. One group was pressing for their religious texts to be inscribed on the ice covering; a delegation from Brooklyn were hard at work composing a special symphony to be played on the ship's arrival. Yes, there was something different about this expedition, a genuine first contact, another step towards something greater. Except for this step, humanity wouldn't be present.

"My grandpa was a civil servant back in the 1990s. He was into his science, and when I was a kid, he'd tell me about about this idea of a ‘great filter’," said Kwok Keung, inspecting telemetry data from the lighthugger. "How odd it was, that we could find no signs of intelligent life in the universe, that something must be stopping it from spreading. It was a real mystery."

Kwok Keung straightened up, satisfied. "But here and now, it’s plain that anyone smart enough to spread replicators across the galaxy and keep them there for a million or billion years — or even just to broadcast a signal for that long — well, they'd understand the total futility of the effort. Life’s too short to waste time on that kind of nonsense, and all the AIs I know would get bored too quickly. But they seem interested enough in this expedition, which is good news for everyone."

On Earth, on Mars, on Titan, on Europa, on 10,000 biomes across the system, humans continued talking, living, creating, loving, crying. Some of them knew about the Armstrong Expedition, and perhaps a few felt a twinge of envy or loss that it would go to a place they never could. But even though we cannot, our children can. Perhaps that’s something we can be proud of.


One of the many songs sent along with the ship:

You see their light far from our eyes
A distant ship to send for us
We can't endure, we place out trust

Who can say what will be next?
Our spirits tried, put to the test and
From their hearts they say they love us
But from out worlds you'll see no other
But in out worlds we'll see no other

When it's one more step we just can't take
She sees our eyes and shakes her head
Our journey end before it starts

Who can say what will be next?
Unknowable obscurity and
From their hearts they say they love us
But from our worlds you'll see no other
But in out worlds we'll see no other