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THE SERVICE by Thomas N. Hackney

photo credit: J. Cavanaugh Simpson

The Milky Way galaxy is estimated to contain 100-400 billion stars, the oldest of which are nearly as old as the universe itself. Half of the stars in our galaxy average 6.3 billion, with our sun checking in at 4.8 billion years old. An estimated 10 trillion galaxies populate the universe. Assuming an average of 100 billion stars per galaxy, it can be roughly estimated that the universe contains around 100 octillion or 100,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000 stars.

Because the elements needed for life as we know it – carbon, oxygen, hydrogen, and nitrogen – are found in varying degrees of abundance in space, it seems safe to assume that biological life should be fairly common in the universe. Scientists who study these things have reason to believe there could be ten-thousand alien civilizations in the Milky Way galaxy alone. So, 10,000 X 10 trillion (galaxies) would yield 100 quadrillion civilizations, which is quite a few.

Human beings (homo sapiens) have not loafed during their 100,000-year tenure on Earth. Over the last 500 years, humans have harnessed science, invented the gun, discovered America, gone to the moon (in person), visited Mars and the outer planets (remotely), realized electricity, nuclear fission and the microchip.  No doubt about it, it’s been quite a run.  But imagine what another intelligent civilization might have discovered if it had three million times longer to figure things out. As noted, the average age of half the stars in our galaxy is 1.5 billion years older than our Sun.  Since the Milky Way galaxy is upwards of 100,000 light-years in diameter, this means an extrasolar intelligence –  let’s say, 2,000 light-years away from Earth – that began exploring the Milky Way 1.5 billion years ago would extend its sphere of exploration at the rate of only one light-year every 750,000 years to bump into our solar system. The logical questions become: 1) where the heck are they? and 2) what might they be up to?

Having harnessed worm holes and black holes to travel through space, having discovered almost any number of inhabited and uninhabited worlds, along with anything else that happens to be out there, what would keep their interest? Our beautiful planet certainly must have seemed a good one to have a closer look at. Whether the initial discovery was made close by or from a great distance makes little difference, because once identified, it would have required no great leap to conclude that life probably exists here. Depending on how long ago this might have happened, a more detailed inspection would have revealed the presence of either intelligent or proto-intelligent life.

Sentient life is a precious and fragile thing. Upon discovering a primitive but intelligent species, it should be expected that many travelers would feel compelled to takes steps to protect that species from extinction. What a terrible shame and tragedy it would be if a promising and conscious lifeform should finally emerge from the muck only to meet an ignoble and early end by something so blunderingly stupid as a two-and-a-half-mile wide asteroid. Shielding intelligent beings from life-snuffing meteor impacts should not be very difficult. It would simply entail keeping an eye on the subject world’s orbital space so that any impending extinction-level objects could be deflected. Once activated, the shield would operate automatically and indefinitely, thus ensuring the inhabitants’ long-term survival. A few small asteroids might be allowed to impact in remote, unpopulated areas to gently warn the sentient world about the great cosmic danger facing them, thus countering any false sense of security created over millennia via this unknown external god-like shield, freeing up the evolving species to develop their own methods.

Take the two most recent major meteor events that occurred in Siberia, the first in Tunguska in 1908, the second in another section of Siberia in early 2013. The Tunguska bolide flattened 770 square miles of uninhabited forest and turned the evening sky red, as reported in Europe for close to a year. A more recent explosion took place about eighteen miles above the Russian city of Chelyabinsk on February 15, 2013. This bolide was approximately 60 feet in diameter, yet scientists said its momentum packed the force of some twenty-five Hiroshima bombs. It should not surprise anyone that it injured at least two thousand people (1,500 of them applied for medical assistance) on that early morning – after blowing out many of the city’s windows. More than fifty were hospitalized with face lacerations, including thirteen children. There were no deaths, however.  None.

Interestingly, the Chelyabinsk asteroid was joined about sixteen hours later by a second asteroid approximately 100 feet in diameter, called 2012 DA-14 (aka “367943 Duende”). (Say, there’s a coincidence for you – two asteroids in one day!)  As the name denotes, 2012 DA-14 was discovered by astronomers the previous year in February. Scientists had tracked and calculated Duende’s orbit and flight so accurately they knew exactly when its minimum-distance-to Earth of 27,700 miles would occur. DA14 was expected. Chelyabinsk was not.

The most energetic known meteor impacts in our solar system were those of July 1994, when twenty-one comets smashed into the dark side of Jupiter. Known as comet Shoemaker-Levy 9, the “fragments” were designated ‘A’ through ‘W’ (‘I’ and ‘O’ were not used). According to official estimates their diameters ranged from about 100 meters to two kilometers. The energies involved were staggering. Fragment “G” alone was believed to release the energy equivalent to 600 times the Earth’s entire nuclear arsenal, or six million megatons of TNT.  It’s impact on July 18 created a dark spot on Jupiter 7,000 miles across. Two impacts occurring twelve hours apart on July 19 created explosions of similar size.

This was the first time humans had ever seen a natural object (much less twenty-one of them) impact another natural object in space, yet the curious thing to note: throughout human history comets have been seen as portends of future disaster, messages from the gods, and so on.  Comets augur things, and what else would “21” comets be auguring in 1994 if not the 21st century?  Hello.

Shoemaker-Levy 9 changed scientists’ view about the cosmic environment overnight.

Dr. Eugene Shoemaker was spot on with his theory concerning a higher-than-believed frequency of major impacts. The great comet crash of 1994 led directly to various projects to search for, and track, earth-crossing asteroids whose path around the Sun cross Earth’s orbit.  Now we appear ready to begin protecting ourselves from rocks in space, and just to be sure we should more closely inspect the main default message, transcribed from the book whose title is The Facts of Life – bio-galactic life, that is. It must surely grab the collective attention that anonymous “signs from beyond” all exhibit, if not proclaim, one thing. They seek to communicate information. By slipping around the back and through the door labeled Maintenance, we find that we can not only search for intelligent life but actually find intelligent life, if we watch and listen very closely (the front door being guarded by oversized gentlemen in NASA lab coats conducting “targeted searches”). No radio-waves here. Instead, inter-world contact would seem more semiotic. Chelyabinsk, for its part, gave rather visceral notice of certain things to come, things not necessarily glibly resolved nor predicted.

All part of the service.

Peekskill

A particularly uncanny meteor event: Peekskill, New York. 7:49 p.m. October 9, 1992.

A 4-by-5-by-11-inch meteor hit Michelle Knapp’s parked Chevrolet that evening. The vehicle’s tail-lights measured about 5-by-22-inches across. Now, this is not supposed to happen. There was something very plain and strangely true about the fact that nothing less than consummate skill could have found that long and narrow target so precisely, nor missed all the chrome that formed its two long borders. One can hardly fail to notice that except for the small nick near the middle of the five-foot-long accent (above the number “9”), which caused it to over-score the numbers “933” on the car’s license plate, nothing made of chrome was damaged by the meteor. The visual effect of this translated: “Right, Ames!”  It was a clear, if visually propounded, response to NASA’s main hypothesis: “extraterrestrials exist.”

The 27.3-pound meteorite was the first ever both filmed in flight and recovered.  More than fourteen brief videos up to 21 seconds in duration were made of the bogey as it ate up the miles from southern West Virginia (above where it entered Earth’s atmosphere) to northern-most Ohio, in about 40 seconds. Using triangulation analysis, a team of scientists published a map showing the fireball’s exact atmospheric flight path. The fireball began its “700 km” run about seventy-five miles due west of the National Radio Astronomy Observatory in Green Bank, West Virginia. The NRAO, along with the Arecibo Observatory in Puerto Rico and the Goldstone Observatory in California comprised the three radio-astronomical facilities utilized by the U.S. government for a major alien hunting (S.E.T.I.) project about to get underway.  Aha!

In the early 1990s, the Ames Research Center was about to commence the first congressionally funded search for extraterrestrials, called The High Resolution Microwave Survey. Costing taxpayers 100 million dollars, commencement day for the ten-year radio-astronomy project occurred on the 500th anniversary of Columbus’s discovery of America, October 12, 1992. More radio-waves were collected and analyzed for intelligent content in the first few minutes of operation than had been accomplished in all the previous fifty privately funded SETI projects since 1960 combined.

Yet the signals were already evident. Consider the Peekskill license plate. As any car owner knows, license plates are good for interesting wordplay, and what better reason could there be to select a particular car in Peekskill if not to draw attention to what effectively could be written there?  From photographs we learn that the license plate read: 4GF – 933. We can quickly surmise that the letters “G” and “F” refer to the types of stars that Ames researchers were looking for at the time – spectral-type G and F stars, these likely being the only stars capable of supporting planetary life. So four GFs appear to inform us about four sun-like stars, presumably within reasonable distance of Earth, and at least four earth-like planets that come along with them. Four habitable new earths! Was this the good news, or did this refer instead to four already inhabited worlds, such as might be duly represented by these events?  Barring follow-up communication, there’s no way to know for sure.

What about the numbers 933? Well, the most obvious thing is that 3 x 3 = 9.  It is a fact that October 9 (date of the Peekskill event) occurred three (3) days before the Big Five-0-0 (Columbus Day) and three (3) days before Ames began targeting advanced extrasolar civilizations. If we do the substitutions, we can see that SETI X Quintennial = (yields) the Peekskill event, which makes perfect sense. The numbers 933 could also be a date – i.e. 3/93 or March 1993. Falling rocks from the sky have for centuries been known to augur things soon to happen, and 3/93 was less than six months away!  Did something important or awesome happen in March 1993?  It would need to be big because cosmic portends don’t fool around. Sure it did. Shoemaker-Levy 9 (SL9) on March 24, 1993. This “string of pearls” led to the most powerful event ever seen by man. Peekskill augured SL9 because that’s what rocks from the sky do.

Also not to be missed: the owner of the 1980 Chevrolet Malibu, one Michelle Knapp, turned 18 on October 12, 1992. As first beneficiary, Miss Knapp reportedly sold her 27.3-pound “H6 Chondrite” to a collector for $50,000, and her soundly beat-up 1980 Chevy Malibu for another $25,000. Michelle celebrated her “coming of age” the same day the western hemisphere (America) celebrated its 500th birthday, the same day NASA-Ames began targeting” extraterrestrials. This would be where the extraterrestrials in question got to ask a rhetorical question: “All grown up are we?”

Could all of this have been just “one of those things?” Of course not! No, this was more like The. Real. Thing. And we’ll never be alone again. One inescapable inference to draw is that controlling the trajectory of meteors, comets and asteroids just happens to be an extraterrestrial specialty.

As can be seen from remarks received by your author from Dr. Seth Shostak at the SETI Institute, controlling for SETI scientists might be another of ET’s strengths: “The idea that meteors are signals from extraterrestrials [in addition to being dumb –  why wouldn’t they actually send data?] is something that both insults the hundreds of academics who study these things and would be regarded as fantasy if you told them. It’s like saying that cumulus clouds are a message from ET.”  In other words, it’s radio-waves or nothing.

That prevailing scientific attitude, summed up well by Dr. Shostak, is probably exactly what the designers intended.  As for why ET should communicate this way, we’ve already covered likely reasons for this. Providing scientifically conclusive proof of their co-existence (and protection) would have violated a so-called Prime Directive (a la Star Trekphilosophy) causing many more problems than it solved, and resulting in massive interference with a species’ natural evolution.

If, on the other hand, the designer’s main intention was to wake astronomers up to “the basics” of space reality, then things seem to be going well, or as well as can be expected. NASA has already visited an asteroid in space. The “Near Earth Asteroid Rendezvous” (aka NEAR Shoemaker) launched in 1996 and touched down on Eros, nearly twenty miles in length, in February 2001. NASA’s latest asteroid mission improves on NEAR-Shoemaker by being the first to bring a sample of the 500-meter wide asteroid, Bennu, back to Earth. The Origins, Spectral Interpretation, Resource Identification, Security-Regolith Explorer (OSIRIS-Rex) launched into space from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida in the summer of 2016.

Considering how unglamorous it was in 1993 to study asteroids compared to, say, quasars, black holes, or the universe at large, it was quite good of extraterrestrials to point out our primary research deficiency. This shows they care about us and are even rooting for us, as asteroids are our most likely nemesis (cue dinosaur extinction event). It’s not exactly your Hollywood version of aliens interjecting themselves into our world, but it’s nice to know.

There’s one last link to consider: The Peekskill event occurred the very night on which the draconid meteor shower was at its apex that year. Consequently, everyone in the press and many scientists assumed that the fireball was a draconid. What else would it be that particular night? But the Peekskill fireball could not have been a draconid for the simple reason that it arrived from the south, not the north as draconids do. The fireball was what astronomers call a “sporadic,” which is not associated with meteor streams and showers.  Dr. Martin Prinz, former curator of meteorites at the American Museum of Natural History in New York apprised your author of this in a telephone interview. If it was another “signal,” we should have learned how to spot these by now; i.e. just find an outrageous improbability and go with it.

In fact, Draco was a 6th century B.C. Athenian archon whose punishments, for any small crime, were so cruel and lethal that we have adopted the term draconian.  It seems the designers wish us to know that they are not draconian in nature (hallelujah!). Now, that’s also polite. NASA could probably learn a thing or two from them about that.

The other reason to downplay (but not write off) the inherently admonitory nature of these meteor events is contained within another act that occurred in West Virginia not far from where the fireball entered Earth’s atmosphere.  It had nothing to do with meteors but everything to do with impacting projectiles – bullets, in this case. These included a .32 caliber, a .45, and a 757 Magnum hollow point. A Princeton man – that’s Princeton, West Virginia – while drinking beer and cleaning these guns, shot his own right foot. Three times. The first two shots from the .32 and .45 were “not too bad,” according to the man as quoted by the press. Yet that third one must have really hurt. Only then did he call an ambulance.

In everyday conversation, we are not primarily attuned to the sentences we utter to one another, but to what linguists call “speech acts,” utterances used to perform requests, warnings, invitations, promises, apologies, predictions, and the like. The translation should be obvious.

So, the first ounce of human flesh was taken in Princeton on Wednesday, October 7, as the meteor approached Peekskill. Friday October 9 was three days before NASA-Ames commenced the Targeted Search on Monday, October 12. Some will say it’s a stretch to attribute the Princeton man’s stupid actions to unseen alien influence. Others could say they’re damn serious about what they’re telling us.

In the end, it’s natural to question and doubt extraterrestrial involvement with any of this. How in the world could anyone do any of this, right? The simple answer is skill, millions and millions of years of it. So we’ll just go ahead and note the thickening plot by acknowledging the town in which the shootings took place – Princeton. Ah, yes, we know what that means, don’t we, Dr. Einstein?  We wouldn’t want to “shoot our own foot” with any nuclear weapons, would we? No, we wouldn’t, for how intelligent would that be?

—-

Editor’s note: Elements of this essay have appeared previously in other venues, including Adelaide magazine, Summer 2017. 

One comment on “THE SERVICE by Thomas N. Hackney

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