Each night as the Earth tucks in the Sun, a sparkly white sky arises. Millions of stars and star-like objects twinkle quietly, undisturbed and often unnoticed. Sometimes it’s hard to imagine, and even harder to remember, that the Earth is part of something bigger. Our blue planet is only a tiny part of a densely populated galaxy, full of gas giants, asteroids, comets, cosmic dust and so much more. All space bodies follow a particular trajectory as a well-rehearsed dancing ensemble, but every so often an asteroid is shaken loose from its own path.
One of those rascals left the main asteroid belt between Mars and Jupiter and started rocketing towards the Earth. The asteroid was reddish in colour and around three-quarters of the size of the Moon. Astronomers and scientists from OS Stars observatory were the first to detect the interstellar visitor and gave her the name Sorella-137. The name is of Latin origin and means ‘sister.’ It was given this name because according to NSC’s astronomers, Sorella-137 wasn’t going to crash straight into Earth’s surface. In fact, it would never reach the surface, because Earth’s gravitational pull would capture the asteroid, forcing it to orbit the planet.
Instantly, she became popular. Every person on the planet who could reason knew about her, except perhaps for those god-forsaken Amazon tribes who live completely cut off from the modern world. National newspapers, websites, and social media heavily reported on the asteroid’s arrival in just under two years.
She arrived on January 6th at 21:56pm GMT. Minutes earlier the night sky over London was as clear and calm as it could be. The moonlight lit Canary Wharf’s skyscrapers like white candles and it quietly shimmered onto the curves of the river.
The Parliament had issued a warning and ordered all citizens to stay inside and away from beaches and waterways. A shower of fine red debris slowly fell over Europe. She was coming. Eyes widened as they looked through the screens, and mobile-loaded hands raised higher as the fingers pressed the video button. There was no screaming or group panic. Not yet, at least as people were busy looking at the previously dark sky – now scattered with new-born red clouds, dancing like flames between the stars.
Maya Evans was also looking at the sky and she had one of the best views – from the Royal Observatory in Greenwich, East London. She got there hours before the asteroid approached Earth to report live on GBC News to those who were witnessing the event and those on the other side of the world who weren’t. Maya had been working as a reporter for almost nine years now, writing stories primarily in the field of science and technology. However, what had started as a one-time cover for a sick colleague turned out to be a huge shift in her career as a presenter. She was media trained, confident, had an even-tempered voice, and the camera loved her. Every so often, she’d feel the pressure of the 24/7 news cycle when she had to write something new and interesting, but ended up doing an article on sex robots or shapeshifting sportswear. Tonight, however, she wanted to come to the observatory. She was excited, but at the same time her stomach had folded into a hard cube filled with worry.
She’d been fascinated with astronomy for many years. She didn’t know what sparked it. Neither of her parents had any scientific background or interest in anything else apart from money and what food they have on their table. Yet she spent hours after school reading about red giants, dwarf planets, constellations, and distant galaxies. It was fascinating to learn how big the universe was and see photos of colourful nebulae that were still visible from Earth, but which in reality didn’t exist anymore —being destroyed more than a thousand years ago. Maya would cut out her favourite pictures from astronomy and space magazines, which she bought with the money she saved up from lunch or birthdays, and she would glue them to the wall beside her bed. At one time she had so many clippings it looked like she was a space detective, hitting the wall while working on a murder case. Maya had another passion that grew bigger by the minute. She loved to read. And as it often happens, by devoting enough time and effort, good readers turn into good writers. Maya had made a career out of it.
On a good day, she’d feel excited about moving from Bournemouth to London, working on exciting projects and following her dreams. On a bad one, she’d moan about her crazy commute to work and how miserable she felt in her job. Today, however, was the day where her two passions were brought together. Today was going to be a great day. The observatory was an old building coated in a layer of rusty bricks. At this hour, its walls were damp with the night’s frost and in certain places gently reflected the moonlight. The dome at the top of the observatory had its gates open, giving way to the Great Equatorial telescope. The dome itself was washed-away, dirty white in colour, but the warm light coming from the opening in the middle radiated in the cold air above, making it all look like a yellow flower.
From the inside, the observatory looked like any other old building in London, with the exception of being spacious. It had high ceiling and smooth, checkered brown floor. Maya was sitting on one of the low, wooden chairs, watching the team open the gate. Its metal doors were slow and looked heavy as they split apart. Maya’s eyes were locked on the gate, when a man approached and introduced himself as Dr. Brian Roberts, an astrophysicist and head of the science department at the observatory. He was a short, smoothly shaved man, wearing a light-blue shirt with a pen sticking out of its left pocket. He was polite and quite while Maya was briefing him on the questions she was going to ask him in front of the camera.
The broadcast began at exactly 9:45pm – minutes before Sorella-137’s arrival. The blue handheld microphone stood out against Maya’s black blazer, looking like a foam-made planet Earth floating in space. She could feel the cold air reaching her head, moving downwards to her hands and knees as quickly as running water.
“Good evening, ladies and gentlemen. Astronomers from the Greenwich Royal Observatory have been monitoring Sorella-137, the asteroid that set apart from the main asteroid belt and headed towards Earth two years ago. Tonight, they will be able to observe its surface closer than ever before as it approaches Earth’s exosphere. The Great Equatorial telescope behind me is one of the hundreds around the world aimed at the exact coordinates where the space rock will arrive. Dr. Brian Roberts, head of the science department at the Observatory, is here with me to shed some light on the upcoming events. Dr. Roberts, what can you tell us about the asteroid?”
“Asteroids vary in size, brightness and orbit — making them difficult to identify and track. However, NSC’s astronomers managed to spot Sorella-137 two years ago and this gave us time to study it. By analysing tiny samples of meteorites from all over the world, we’ve managed to measure the strength of its asteroidal materials and we’ve come to the conclusion that asteroids coming from the main asteroid belt are more flimsy than Earth rocks. On the other hand, the asteroid’s size makes up for the fragility of its materials, which make it less likely to break apart when approaching Earth’s exosphere. I’ve never seen anything like this before and in such close proximity with Earth. It’s an exciting time for the astronomy community.”
He smiled with no teeth.
“And how dangerous is it? What should people do in the upcoming hours and days?
“According to our calculations, the asteroid is travelling at 19 km per second, which means it’s moving very quickly, so its interaction with Earth will be rough and may result in minor damage to buildings. People need to stay put tonight and keep away from windows to avoid injury. Do not attempt to catch a glimpse of the space body or try to take a photo as this might put you in direct danger from shattered glass or debris.”
“Thank you, Dr Roberts.” Maya’s face turned to the camera, her fingers locked over the microphone. When the red light of the camera turned off, Maya turned to Dr. Roberts and thanked him for his time.
“No problem. Now that we’re finished with all the courtesy, it’s time to get back to work.” his voice sounded less dry than it had been through the whole broadcast.
“Yes, of course. Sorry, I don’t mean to take any more of your time. I just need a further quote from you for GBC’s follow-up feature on the asteroid’s arrival.
“What’s next? What are you planning to do when Sorella stabilises and starts orbiting Earth?
“We figure out a way to destroy it.”