ScifiShort fiction

Long Orbit Flight : a short story but a long ride by: GF Willmetts

Ever since oumuamus, the opportunity to hitchhike on a natural object speeding through the solar system seemed a good way to do it. Conservation of fuel, even if we could match the speed, we couldn’t keep it up for more than a few minutes. Getting the momentum up would also mean as much fuel to slow down unless we resorted to natural tricks.

Stringing along with a comet was considered even more difficult. They only had a tail when approaching and leaving the sun but would be too hot to stay too close to the core. Hot not only from heat but radiation as well.

There was plenty of meteroids to choose from to get the right direction. I doubt if we’d ever be lucky to see a rogue meteoroid like oumuamus passing by any time soon again but I doubt if we could carry enough supplies, even recycling, to survive a trip outside of the solar system, let alone get back

The real problem is being able to grab hold of one going past at 230,400mph mph and expect to hold on. Getting off will be equally hard as we are going as fast as it and might not be able to break free from its path. Oh, we knew we could get off early and apply all sorts of things to slow us down without expending fuel, including aerobreaking if there was a ninth or tenth planet depending which way you count the planets but we would have to do the same on the way back and ensure we had enough fuel to land on Earth or at least get somewhere close to a refuel stop assuming we reduced velocity or face having our own permanent orbit around the sun impossible to catch.

The fastest we can go is 394,736mph unmanned. Those last numbers are important if we are to match speeds. We can go faster but for short distances only and going towards the sun. This would be a bigger spacecraft and we would need to catch the meteoroid on the outswing or we would overheat going towards the sun. With the extra mass, we would probably have a similar velocity.

We still have to conserve fuel. The bigger the fuel-load, the less space for supplies. Everything would have to be balanced out. Even so, we’re only going as far as the outskirts of the Oort Cloud as our first manned exploration. Our mass detection had pin-pointed planet nine/ten or we would never be able to calculate an orbit. Even so, all along the route, we would be alternating crews from hibernation to check we were on course. There was also a little matter of not staying hibernated for too long. As one of the other team’s crew wryly commented, at least we had no rogue computer on-board to mess things up. Checking and checking was because of the precision we would have to do to leave the meteoroid.

So there we were, taking a ride on the aptly renamed Blazetrailer. Contrary to opinion, meteroids aren’t given numbers but names. Appropriate for these big ones hurtling around the solar system. It would take at least 60 years to the Oort Cloud, the first 30 allowing us to see some of the outer planets and their moons along the way but only observe. As much as we would have liked to drop off probes and such, we barely managed to get our spacecraft ready enough to grab Blazetrailer as it passed the Earth on its way out. Hibernating for extended periods only came about because biologists had figured out how animals who could hibernate did it and activated the same genes in our bodies. Longer than 6 months and we lost too much body fat but it was sustainable and conserved enough foodstuffs to grow replacements.

All the twenty crew did these alternating extending shifts with each other, so we didn’t have any closer bonds than we needed with each other. In ship-time, we were probably awake for no more than 8 years each if we totted up the score.

The important drop-off from Blazetrailer for planet ten was to decelerate than accelerate. There was some sound logic in doing that. If we went faster, then at some point when we decelerated, we could still crash into Blazetrailer. Better to co-ordinate in a different direction towards where planet ten was going to be when we arrived and reduce velocity a little with course corrections. That really was what we did a lot of the work time. The rest was studying the stars, examine some of Blazetrailer’s fragments we brought on-board to keep us busy and various fitness regimes to keep us fit and try to keep enough calcium on our bones.

It was going to take us another 8 years to do this and aerobreak around planet ten before dropping down to have a look at this mysterious planet so far out from the sun. It can take a long time to do anything in space. Then, like a rush-hour, everything rushes at once.

Aerobreaking works by digging into a planet’s atmosphere counter-clockwise and let planetary mass absorb our velocity. We’re all making quick maths at this because this is the first time we’re established there is a planet this far out. We know something about its mass and that its big but not big enough to be a singularity. We had to work on its rotation and get the right way around at speed. We’ve been calculating this for ages with the fastest computers. We need to get to the equator. As a last resort, from pole to pole, just in case it has the same tilt as Neptune. Just as long as it has biggest length to draw off our speed.

Well, that went well. We bounced off its atmosphere and back into speed. Just enough to be picked up in the wake of another meteoroid, Except it was the same meteoroid. Old Blazetrailer. We had enough velocity to work our way up to it and secured ourselves.

We didn’t have any choice, We could hardly go back. Back to the maths, would Blazetrailer come close enough on its return orbit? It wasn’t tight enough. We’d briefly touch on the Kuiper Belt and then a wider arc back to the sun. We would have to do a lot of calculating to get to Earth. This was our worse fear, being stuck in an orbit that we couldn’t be rescued from. Supplies wouldn’t last and many of us had already thought we’d vent the spaceship than endure that.

At least we could use it to aerobrake without being thrown off like planet ten. If we were close enough. The problem was would it be going in or coming out again. We had enough supplies to get back but probably not to go out to planet ten again.

Yes, long before this trip we knew Blazetrailer’s orbital path, just not on a day to day basis being on top of it. That’s why we were continually navigating by the stars.

The distance made it difficult to have a continual conversation with Earth. The Doppler effect made our speech like a rundown record or fast like a chipmunk. Both had to be compensated for both ends. It didn’t really let us have a sensible conversation. The sensible approach was to do what we had tried with planet nine/ten. Break off early and try for another aerobraking between the Earth and the Moon until we slowed down sufficiently to be picked up.

For us, we had to take the alternative months in hibernation to conserve supplies and spent the flight back working on ways to get home safely.

Do you think they’ll believe us when we say this was a test run?


© GF Willmetts 2024

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Geoff Willmetts has been editor at SFCrowsnest for some 21 plus years now, showing a versatility and knowledge in not only Science Fiction, but also the sciences and arts, all of which has been displayed here through editorials, reviews, articles and stories. With the latter, he has been running a short story series under the title of ‘Psi-Kicks’ If you want to contribute to SFCrowsnest, read the guidelines and show him what you can do. If it isn’t usable, he spends as much time telling you what the problems is as he would with material he accepts. This is largely how he got called an Uncle, as in Dutch Uncle. He’s not actually Dutch but hails from the west country in the UK.

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