26 04 2011


“The Remokon-90 “Dust Devil”, a quad-tracked pinnacle of autonomous microwave-grading technology, ushered about a new age in what had been previously been labour-intensive and dangerous expansion efforts by the colonists of Fram.  Fed telemetry and geological scans, the Dust Devil worked around the clock turned vast tracts of uneven lunar terrain in smooth, glass-like foundations.  The Remokon-90’s onboard computer could be accessed and remotely controlled, but due to its rugged performance and impeccable results, many of Fram’s large-scale terraforming become the realm of robotics.  Thanks to the Remokon-90, any project involving automated machinery was henceforth affectionately known as “the devil’s work”.

Chesney bounded across the surface of Amundsen in long, loping strides.

Both stars had set, but the light of half-illuminated Fram lit the surface of the moon. It was a strange, muted light, a light that evoked childhood memories in Chesney of the thick smoke of wildfires and the twilight of a sun choked by ash and soot.

To her right was Wisting Base and, beyond that, the straight shadow of a rille defined by its far horst. Rising over these was the crescent of Fram and, curving around the edge of the disc like the bow of a parenthesis, the highlighted arc of the planet’s ring.

As Chesney looked into the light cast from the ring and planet, the regolith which covered the visor of her helmet caught the light. She reached for the soft-bristled brush hooked to her belt; she could not easily brush the particles away with her glove without scratching away the visor’s protective coating.

Ahead of her was the Dust Devil, a ’bot the size of a tank, motionless and dark.

Chesney worked her way toward the Dust Devil parallel to the runway. There was little to this runway, yet – maybe a hundred meters of glazed regolith. This glossy, dark grey path stretched past Wisting Base and ended at a point beneath the Dust Devil. Chesney carefully loped around the recovery equipment for the CATOBAR system: the cylindrical shapes of friction brakes and several coiled arrestor cables. These lay assembled to the side of the runway, and some pits had been dug for the brakes and their motors; but the recovery system was not yet ready to be installed.

“What do you see, Chesney?”

Chesney winced. She looked over to Wisting Base, watched a rover move over the far rille toward the collection of pressurised cylinders, imagined her mission commander watching her on the monitors of the control room.


“I can’t see anything moving.”

Which wasn’t entirely accurate; regolith cast up by the Dust Devil was still settling on either side of the vehicle, falling in perfect, slow parabolas in the moon’s negligible gravity.

“I’ve tried remotely resetting the firmware,” the voice in Chesney’s earpiece stated. “Still getting the same error.”

As Chesney approached the Dust Devil, she saw that the grounding pitons had fired: at points along the length of the vehicle, wires had shot from the Dust Devil into the lunar surface.

“The electrostatic pitons have fired,” she reported back to control.

As the Dust Devil ploughed through the dry regolith it built up a significant tribolectric charge; insulted by the regolith and existing in a vacuum, this charge could not be easily grounded. When in standby mode the Dust Devil deployed these pitons to discharge the electrostatic build-up into the bedrock, where there was a higher proportion of conductive iron.

Nevertheless, as Chesney reached out to place gloved hand on the vehicle’s caterpillar track, there was a brief arc between her hand and the dusty track. She instinctively pulled back her hand.

It took a moment for her suit’s systems to respond, and, during this time, the mission commander’s voice was lost in a wash of static.

“I’m fine,” she said.

She ran her hand over the rear fantail, a bridge suspended between the larger rear caterpillar tracks in which were installed a series of magnetrons. Chesney pulled down a hatch that revealed a hibernating terminal; she awoke this terminal and established a wireless connection with her tablet. She immediately began to run diagnostics on the magnetrons.

“Start with the magnetrons,” the mission commander instructed. “Start with a series of diagnostics.”

Chesney rolled her eyes but held her tongue.

Three rows of magnetrons pointed downward from the Dust Devil’s fantail, and these fired microwave energy into the regolith beneath. At the right power and frequency, these microwaves sintered the regolith and fused it into a half-meter thick seam of lunar glass. This glass was like an artificial basalt, and would, once complete, provide a good foundation for Wisting’s landing strip.

The process relied upon the high level of iron in Amundsen’s otherwise silicate regolith. Deposited here by billions of years of micrometeorite impact, these nanometer-scale beads of pure iron efficiently concentrated the Dust Devil’s microwave energy and heated up the surrounding silica, sintering this loose dust into large clumps and, eventually, solid structures.

Where the Dust Devil had inexplicably halted its programmed sweep, the sintered regolith was thin and cracked easily beneath Chesney’s shifting feet.

“I’m getting nothing unusual from the magnetrons,” Chesney reported. “I’m leaving the system to run a clean-up, but the diagnostics showed nothing.” She clipped the hatch and precluded what she knew would be her commander’s next comment. “I’m heading forward to inspect the dozer and guidance systems.”

The Dust Devil had four large tracks arranged in two sets of two. Set between the forward tracks was a simple dozer blade that levelled and compressed the regolith before it was sintered by the microwaves. Above the dozer was an elevated fin that resembled the twin tailbooms of an aircraft; within this blade were the Dust Devil’s guidance systems: ground radar, forward-looking infrared cameras, electromagnetic and visual spectrum sensors, and path planning intelligence.

Here again Chesney ran a series of wireless diagnostics. She accessed the firmware’s log, and found the same error message as that relayed to the control room.

“Yes, that’s what I’ve got on this end,” the mission commander dryly noted.

“It’s like it’s gone into sleep mode.” Chesney placed her tablet delicately on the upper surface of the guidance fin. “Can you check the program logic from there? Under what criteria would the Dust Devil shut itself down?”

“Mmmhm. While I’m doing that, check the dozer blade.”

With some difficulty Chesney crouched on one knee, bracing herself against the caterpillar track so that she didn’t bounce off the regolith in the low gravity. Like a ship riding a bow wave, the angled dozer blade had ploughed deep into the regolith, and banks of dust had piled on either side. Within these piles there were a few larger, brecciated rocks, but none large enough to halt the Dust Devil.

Chesney absentmindedly picked up one of these larger rocks; saw that while it was fractured it was not a breccia at all; realised that it was striated, igneous basalt. She frowned. Intersecting the banded strata, however, Chesney noticed an imperfect but regular zig-zag; she held the rock up to Fram’s light and saw that these lines were impressed into the rock.

“Oh my God,” she whispered.

Chesney slipped the rock into a sample bag on the thigh of her suit, excitedly ran her fingers through the regolith around her. She found a number of striated basalt pieces, each with the same faint impressions. Chesney’s heart thumped. They looked like adpressions. Common plant fossils. And the shape of the fossils reminded her of the anaerobic methanogens on Fram.

“Those shutdown protocols,” she gushed excited into her mike, “do they include detecting something…biological?”




One response

24 08 2012
Epilogue « Orbital Shipyards: Alpha Centauri System

[…] heavens in many wavelengths. The surface of Amundsen was mapped and biologists further examined the fossilised remains of methanogens found on that moon. And, if only in the spirit of the age of exploration, small missions were sent […]

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