"Take a gander at that," announced Pandora, pointing toward the vehicle the size of a motor coach. "A brand new Space Peregrine. My mother told me that only certain people are allowed to use spacecraft. She works for NASA, so she's allowed to use one."
"Wow, I read about it, but this is the first one I've seen!" declared Phoebe.
"It's a lot boxier than I imagined," added Helene.
"Aerodynamics are not important in space," chided Phoebe. "But it's actually a lot sleeker than you think. The shape of the rear is a boat-tail to reduce drag when going through the atmosphere. And the front is deceptively tapered."
"But what if we meet some cute guys while tooling around in space?" pondered Helene. "And there's no windows in the rear! How do we back-up?"
"Back-up? You did not pay attention in physics class. Things just keep moving in space until thrust equal to the vehicle's energy is applied in the reverse direction," explained Phoebe.
"My busy social schedule allows no time for science," said Helene. "And speaking of thrusting, let me tell you about my date with Jerry last night. He really appreciated the shape of my rear."
"Later, Helene," interrupted Pandora. "We need to get going because my mother only went to Germany for the day. She'll be back later tonight."
"There are only a few places in orbit where spacecraft can go through because of the rubbish left from the Chinese anti-satellite tests," reminded Phoebe.
"I had Chinese last night with Jerry," started Helene. "Before the thrusting began, I mean."
"I'm sure you can figure out how to fly through the orbital cloud of debris caused by, what was it called?" queried Pandora while ignoring Helene.
"Kessler syndrome," answered Phoebe.
"But Casper is a friendly ghost," pleaded Helene.
"Get in, you two," commanded Pandora as she opened the door to the space cruiser.
"Don Kessler of NASA theorized that a collision between two large objects in orbit would cause a chain reaction of other objects in orbit, eventually resulting in orbital space being filled with space junk. It would be almost impossible to put any satellite into orbit at that point," explained Phoebe as she sat in the co-pilot's seat and investigated the glass cockpit of the vehicle. "Space has been getting filled with junk ever since Sputnik, with quite a few boosters exploding in orbit, but there were three events which created enormous amounts of debris. The first was in 2007 when the Chinese intentionally destroyed a weather satellite in low earth orbit. The second was in 2009 when Russian Kosmos and U.S. Iridium communications satellites collided. But the third was the worst of all, in 2018, when China executed a MIRV anti-satellite test."
"Who is Merv?" interrupted Helene. "Is he cute?"
"Helene, sit down and put your straps on," ordered Pandora. All three teenagers fastened their multi-point restraints.
Pandora entered the coordinates of their destination and the spacecraft started to rise.
"MIRV is multiple warheads on one missile. I really should not use that term because it is used in the context of attacks against ground targets, with the missiles launching, leaving the atmosphere, and then re-entering, but this was a missile carrying multiple warheads to attack multiple satellites. Relations had become frosty between China and the U.S. and China wanted to show us just what it could do," answered Phoebe.
Phoebe entered some data and punched some buttons on the instrument panel, with the vehicle tilting back, pointing its front end skyward, and accelerating. "We are connecting to the Space Fence now, which will allow us to travel through an area devoid of space junk," continued Phoebe.
"Space Fence? Does it ever need painting?" asked Helene.
"The Space Fence is the Air Force's system for keeping track of all objects near Earth. It's actually in its third generation," continued Phoebe.
"Helene, the Space Fence is painted by the team of Buck Rogers and Huck Finn," joked Pandora.
"I have not dated those guys yet," sheepishly admitted Helene.
"Space Fence 1.0, the Air Force Space Surveillance System, originally recorded the location of all objects from the ground, but that only allowed for detection of basketball-sized objects. That wasn't good enough. Space Fence 2.0 allowed for the tracking of objects as small as a softball -- the twelve-inch kind, not the sixteen-inch kind. But that wasn't good enough because after the Chinese MIRV disaster in 2018, there were many objects smaller than a softball which could still destroy a spacecraft. Space Fence 3.0 tracks every particle down to one millimeter," continued Phoebe.
"That's not done from the ground, right?" asked Pandora.
"No, ground-based radars could never provide the resolution needed to detect one millimeter objects, not through the atmosphere. The radar station needs to be in space," answered Phoebe.
"Isn't Space Fence a stupid name for something that detects junk? Shouldn't it be space junk detector or something like that?" asked Helene.
"A+ for you, Helene. Yes, the name is not appropriate," answered Phoebe.
"Another possibility is that it refers to a pawn shop that often deals with stolen items. Just imagine you're on Mars and your spacecraft breaks down. You need money to fix it so you pawn your jewelry," joked Pandora.
"Sell my jewelry?" incredulously wondered Helene.
"But orbital space was clogged with junk, so how did they get a satellite past all of that?" asked Pandora.
"Yeah, that's a long story in itself. They used Space Fence 2.0 to calculate the most open window and launched into it. But they guessed wrong and that satellite was utterly destroyed by particles smaller than a softball. The world had just about given up when the CEO of SpaceMeh, Dr. Edward Morbius, volunteered one of his company's rockets for the second launch," explained Phoebe.
"Doctor who?" asked Helene.
"He gambled millions of dollars that this second satellite wouldn't suffer the same fate. That satellite made it into orbit. Then with that bootstrap, we were able to place a few more satellites into orbit," continued Phoebe, ignoring Helene. "We're on autopilot to make it through the space junk. No human pilot could react as fast as is needed to dodge the orbital trash."
"Is there any cool junk? Can we stop and take souvenirs?" asked Helene.
"Helene, darling, the space shuttle flew at 17,500 miles per hour and space junk flies at similar speeds. Objects would be flying past us so fast that we would never be able to distinguish between them, except for large pieces which would appear just before they smashed into us," answered Pandora.
"Well, I'm just glad we don't have to wear space diapers. That would be so gross!" exclaimed Helene. "Not to mention making for an unflattering figure!"
"Look over there! We're so lucky to see it! There's a space cleaner, collecting space junk. Those autonomous robot vehicles have been working like that for years and they'll continue to do so for a long time," declared Phoebe. "They've got nuclear engines, just like the Space Fence satellites, so they have essentially unlimited fuel to move out of the path of faster debris. They collect a pile of trash, cobble it together, and place a small thruster on it to cause it to reenter and burn up."
"Okay, we're through the space junk. Now we can move into an assigned Alcofrisbas lane and start moving fast," said Phoebe. "See how the autopilot is causing us to pitch over, aiming us to the lane entrance?"
"That's another part I don't understand. How are there lanes in space?" queried Pandora. "And who is Alcofrisbas?"
"Holy cow, we're accelerating so fast my hair's on fire!" joked Helene.
"With all the hair spray you use, it's a wonder you don't spontaneously combust," retorted Pandora.
"Woo-hoo, look at the lights racing past!" exclaimed Helene.
"Remember those old Star Trek shows? The part about warp drive was a crock. Traveling faster than light is impossible. But even worse is what would happen if we would just travel at the speed of light without looking ahead somehow. Eventually we'd run into an obstacle, perhaps even a comet, at which point we and our spacecraft would be smashed to pieces," explained Phoebe.
"Okay, here's the problem in a nutshell. You're traveling at the speed of light. You have radar to detect objects ahead of you. Radar, like all radio waves, travels at the speed of light. Given that the speed of light is the maximum speed anything can travel, your radar does not even travel ahead of you, preventing it from detecting anything," continued Phoebe.
"But even if radio waves did travel ahead at its usual pace compared to the spacecraft, giving it a speed of twice the speed of light, radar waves would return to you at exactly the same time you hit the object in your way," said Phoebe.
"So, the postman always rings twice, but the cheating wife makes it to the door exactly when the bell rings for the second time?" pondered Helene.
Pandora looked at Helene. "What?"
"So the U.S., Canada, Europe, South Korea, Japan, and Australia decided on a scheme to create secure lanes in space. I don't know the exact specifics so don't hammer me on them -- my memory is good, but I don't have total recall -- but there are autonomous nuclear-powered vehicles called lane observers which travel up and down the lanes, looking for objects of any kind which have a trajectory leading them through the lane. These vehicles look all around the lane, not just down it, and estimate when an object would enter the lane," explained Phoebe.
"I expect John will be hammering me tonight," mused Helene. "A close encounter of the lewd kind."
"Also, there are autonomous lane beacons at specific intervals which broadcast a go/no-go signal to warn spacecraft if the lane will soon have dangerous bodies flying through it. And the default is for spacecraft to assume no-go if there is no signal, so even if a beacon has trouble, the worst that happens is that travelers are delayed," continued Phoebe. "The observers communicate with beacons on a regular schedule, with the default being that if a beacon does not hear from an observer, the beacon will start transmitting a no-go signal. The old Internet scam of opting in by default was not repeated in space."
"So are spacecraft always listening for beacons?" asked Pandora.
"Yes, even while traveling at 80% of the speed of light, though it takes them a long distance to stop after receiving a no-go signal," answered Phoebe. "And Alcofrisbas was a French astronomer and magician."
"Isn't it problematic for space vehicles to receive radio signals when they're going 80% of the speed of light? I mean, the radio signals are only going 25% faster," inquired Pandora.
"Very true, and that's why there are many beacons, with the spacecraft using Doppler shift to determine which signal is the one to use for the section just ahead," replied Phoebe. "Spacecraft are listening to all beacons simultaneously so they will usually know of a potential collision long before they reach that section."
"Okay, here we are at the asteroid belt between Mars and Jupiter," said Phoebe as the vehicle slowed down dramatically.
"There's no lane through it?" asked Helene.
"No, the belt is too unpredictable for fast speeds. Traveling at low speeds is okay, but it was decided to force spacecraft to use their own radar when traveling through the belt," answered Phoebe.
"How far out do the lanes extend?" asked Pandora.
"They were just completed to Saturn's orbit. After that is Uranus, Neptune, and the Kuiper belt which will require another non-automatic stretch. But given the distances involved, it will be a while before the lanes are extended further," answered Phoebe. "Okay, we're out of the asteroid belt. Back to fast autopilot."
"Why are we only traveling at 80% of the speed of light?" asked Pandora as the vehicle started traveling much faster.
"Mama, let your baby girls grow up to be space cowgirls," sang Helene.
"Remember the famous astronaut Frank Poole?" asked Phoebe.
"He disappeared without a trace," replied Helene. "Too bad, he was cute for an older guy. I would have done him."
"That's the official story. Popular Space Travel magazine reported that he was the test pilot on a flight traveling at 99% of the speed of light, but when he returned he was physically a mess, looking something like the cheesy aliens on Twilight Zone reruns. Some people theorize that cargo ages differentially at the speed of light, in other words, people's insides age differently than their skin and extremities. That's why we are limited to 80%," replied Phoebe. "Saturn lies between 69 and 84 light-minutes from Earth, depending upon its position in its orbit, but our trip will require between 85 and 105 minutes, not including the time we spent getting to Earth orbit."
"You never finished your story about China and its multiple warheads," said Helene.
"Oh, yeah, China tested its anti-satellite warhead by shooting down ten targets simultaneously. The rest of the world did not know about it in advance. It said later that it aimed at ten spent boosters and dead satellites, which was bad enough because they were still in low Earth orbit. Shattering them would have created millions of new particles of space junk. All ten warheads started heading toward active satellites, actually ten KH-12 spy satellites, which were basically Hubble Space Telescopes pointing in the opposite direction. All ten satellites were smashed into so many pieces that low Earth orbit was ruined. The space station at that time was shredded, adding a great deal of debris to the junk already in orbit," explained Phoebe. "We still don't know if China understood the aftermath of its actions."
"China was banned from space, right?" asked Pandora.
"Not per se, especially considering that we had no way to stop them from launching rockets," answered Phoebe. "The U.S. stopped supplying China with any information regarding space junk. China kept trying to replace its satellites destroyed by its catastrophe, but every time it did the satellite was destroyed."
"I heard that we destroyed any Chinese satellites which made it into orbit," said Pandora.
"That's what Popular Space Travel magazine reported, that after Space Fence 3.0 was operational, we inserted killer satellites into orbit, with them being metal ball shooters. Any Chinese spacecraft entering orbit was destroyed by shooting marble-sized steel balls at it, destroying it but also adding to the space junk. Eventually China gave up," explained Phoebe.
"Helene, for years there was no GPS because the satellites were destroyed. Satellite telephones became doorstops," said Phoebe.
"No satellite phones?" said Helene with a shudder. "Oh, the horror!"
"Okay, this is the tricky part. We've reached the end of the lane, so we're slowing down and exiting the lane. We'll be doing a lot of manual driving now," said Phoebe as she punched a few buttons. "I'll put us directly over the rings, staying parallel to them, echoing their orbital position."
"Holy cow, look at that! Look at those rings!" declared Helene as she unfastened her restraints and moved to the front windows, followed by the other two.
"That is the most stupendous thing I have ever seen, by far," added Pandora.
"There are hundreds, no, thousands of individual rings! I always thought there was only one big ring," said Helene. "And the material in the rings is not consistently sized. Look at the lumps in the rings."
"The large particles are called moonlets. Too small to be moons, but too large to be just particles in the overall ring," answered Phoebe.
"Do you know how the rings formed?" asked Pandora.
"The current theory is that a moon became trapped at the Roche radius, with that radius being the sweet spot where a body will disintegrate due to the mother body's tidal forces exceeding the forces keeping the kid together. Looking at the many moonlets, this process must be a work in progress," answered Phoebe.
"Let me sit there, okay?" demanded Helene as she pushed the smaller Phoebe into another seat.
"I promised Jerry a photo of my snatch with Saturn's rings in the background, matching them with the rings I have in my piercings. Here, hold my phone for a minute," said Helene as she handed it to Pandora and started pulling her trousers down. "Barbarella 2.0, don't ya know?"
"Geez, Helene, keep your clothes on!" said Pandora as she struggled with Helene to prevent her from taking her pants off. "Here, hold this," she said to Phoebe as she handed her the phone.
"You should take a photo of your kitty and send it to your boyfriend Robby," retorted Helene as she fought with Pandora. "Then he could brag to his friends, 'I have a photo of Pandora's box!'"
"Watch it you two! Helene, your butt is too close to the controls! Get away from the instrument panel now!" commanded Phoebe.
"What's going on?" cried Helene as she rose to the roof as the vehicle dove down to the rings.
"Get away from the panel!" shrieked Phoebe as she shoved Helene to the side. She sat down, fastened her restraints, and began entering the data to cause the vehicle to reverse its drop.
"It's too late, isn't it?" asked Pandora as she sat down beside Phoebe and fastened her restraints.
"I think I can prevent us from colliding with any of the moonlets, but we are going to travel through the surface of the rings!" exclaimed Phoebe.
"No, no, no!" bellowed Phoebe as the vehicle first dove below the plane of the rings, then rose, only to have a moonlet appear directly in front of them.
"Can you stop our forward momentum?" desperately pleaded Pandora.
"I think so, but Newton is going to have the last laugh," she answered as the vehicle leveled out while firing its forward thrusters full-blast.
"We're not going to hit that moonlet, are we?" asked Helene, crying.
"No, just barely. Let me bring us up a little and survey the damage," replied Phoebe as she punched a few buttons.
"I can see lots of dents and gouges on the outside where the rocks hit us," said Helene.
"Oh, no! That's what you meant with your reference to Newton. Our forward thrusters not only spread the dust and particles around, they shoved that moonlet forward, accelerating it, causing it to rip through the rings like a bowling ball through pins," exclaimed Pandora.
"That might not be the worst of it. Look ahead of it, down the rings. See that other moonlet? They're going to collide at an angle like three-dimensional billiard balls," answered Phoebe. "We really messed up the rings."
"I'm getting us out of here, back to the lane!" said Pandora as she set the coordinates on the panel.
"I don't see any other spacecraft around, so maybe no one will know we did it," whimpered Helene as she grabbed her seat, sat down, and fastened her restraints.
"Except that traffic is sparse out here and registration information is probably recorded for each vehicle traveling in the lane," answered Phoebe.
"What's that noise?" asked Helene.
"It's a space siren!" answered Phoebe. "There's no air in space, so sound cannot travel through it. The siren is being played on our sound system."
"A Gort planetary trooper is right behind us!" shouted Helene as she looked at the monitors showing the video from the rear cameras.
"Return to the entrance to the Alcofrisbas lane at low speed, stop, and prepare to be teleboarded!" demanded the disembodied, electronic voice of the trooper.
"I'll probably be late for my date with John," whined Helene.
"My mother is going to kill me!" shrieked Pandora.