Sunday, November 28, 2010

Conservation of Momentum

Hurtling through the imperfect vacuum of interstellar space, an aged and beaten colony ship finds itself nearing the halfway point of its immense journey. Upon the command deck an equally tired and worn captain stands vigilant. Amongst the familiar background whines and hums of her ship, the captain picks out the sound of another’s approach. A beleaguered astrophysicist grimly relays his latest findings…

“Captain, as you know the upgrades to the navigational core were completed earlier this duty cycle.” Turning to acknowledge her trusted adviser the captain asks, “And how are our new systems functioning?” Replying with a calm yet subtly strained tone, the astrophysics replies, “Better then expected, this new system has reanalyzed our course in record time. There have already been a few minor corrections in our vector.” Vaguely intrigued the captain asks “And what might those refinements be exactly?” “Only a slight course correction to make better use of some of the outer planets of our destination. With these adjustments it seems we will be able to shed most of the necessary momentum as we pass by the gas giants in the system.” Nodding in approval the captain turns her attention to her adviser’s seemingly ill fitting tone of word, “Yet despite these refinements, you sound as if there is something amiss.”

Taking a moment to find the right words, the astrophysicist replies, “You are as observant as always," He says with a sigh, "yes, there is a slight problem. According to the latest telemetry, even with the improved momentum burn calculated by the new navigational system, we will still be moving at too great a speed to safely achieve a stable orbit around our destination. We will, instead slow down just long enough to get a good look at our destination before careening past it. As you know, this vessel was designed with efficiency in mind, as such, we do not have the reserve fuel to slow us or even make an attempt at a second rendezvous.” Realizing just how dire the situation is, the captain asks, "By what margin will we miss our destination?"

Taking a long pause before responding, the astrophysicist replies “Approximately one minute, yes we will reach the point of orbital entry one minute ahead of the planet.” The signs of worry emboldened in her features the captain turns to look forward and softly begins to say, “So after all these years of journey, are we really going to lose it all to such a minute fraction of time? After so long a voyage, after so many generations inside this isolated hull, are we to find that all we lack, all that keeps us our race from salvation is a single, last minute?”

As the captains words echo through the silence that that befallen the deck, the soft murmur of a suppressed laughter. The two stern individuals turn towards the ill timed sound. The captain asks in an irate tone, “What exactly do you find so humorous in this? What comedy could you find in the dashed hopes of our collective civilization?” After a bit more stiffed laughter comes a reply “Well, I guess its true what they say, without the last minute nothing does ever gets done...”

In shocked silence the two look at each other for a moment before a wry smile begins to form on the astrophysicist. Knowing that look before from their various conversations throughout the years the captain worryingly asks “What is it, exactly, that you have thought of just now, as I know that look and I know that very few things come from it that I don’t later regret.” After a bit of a dramatic pause comes the reply “While I will need to confirm it with the navigational core, I have just realized that from our current distance to cut off that last crucial minute, all we must lose is the mass of roughly one individual.” Finding the dangerous smile to be infectious the captain replies with a mocking laugh “And I believe we already have our volunteer.”
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