Sunday, 21 June 2015

Day 12: Eaten by the Great Annihilator

Taking the low road isn't always the slowest. Or least interesting.

While the pedant would probably point out that there is no concept of low in space, only that up and down are both relative terms that make sense when you are planet side. Having an external direction imposed by gravity means that relative directions are easily adopted, and mankind was doing it long before space travel was the norm.

Of course when it comes to practical matters, such as working with others, it isn't always about being right (through pedantry or otherwise). Much more important is about being able to have useful casual conversations rather than technically obtuse but accurate ones. Taking advantage of millions of years of evolution trumping only a few hundred years of space travel.

Not that there is any gravity to help when looking at the galaxy, but the convention appears to place Sol above the galactic plane, and ships systems consistently display maps with the Alliance at the top of the pile and generally closest to the old north star, also known as Polaris. When the home system is at (0,0,0), and the centre of the galaxy is off thataway, then consistency as about all you can hope for.

So old habits die hard and the low road it was. The others in the exploration group went high up over the top of the galactic plane and we've rarely been closer than 500Ly.

And so that low choice put me within range of another fine galactic sight of great natural interest.

The Great Annihilator. Not the first choice for a star catalogue, but a name that has stuck.

At just under 3000Ly from Sagittarius A* this is perhaps the second most familiar black hole in the galaxy. Not many know however that it has a companion black hole around 210,000Ls away.

I'm just about to jump in for a visit...

Space distorts in a dangerous way around a black hole. Light itself, normally one for flying as straight and true as possible, suffers almost turning back on itself when near a gravitational field of this magnitude.

When the transition from travelling faster than the speed of light has settled down, there's a huge eruption in the stars that make up the galactic plane. Turning in on themselves, eating each other whole, and then being regurgitating again.

It seems I've found the black hole. Putting off dinner seems like a good idea right now.

Some detailed sensor sweeps and flybys of the gravitational lensing, and then onward to the companion black hole.

That was too close! The gravitational incline of the companion causes the safety systems to kick in, and the ship drops out into whatever counts as normal space around a black hole. The singularity spins less than 250km away, and meanwhile my adrenaline surges through the roof. A fight or flight decision has to be made. Quickly.

There can be no fight with a an object that commands the power to bend light and space. Turning away so the black hole is behind me, I keep a close eye on the ship's heat levels and start the jump sequence. The ship's computer helpfully tries to throw up an escape vector marker on the holo-display. Throttle up and continue increasing the distance away from danger. The charging engine spool up reaches a crescendo.

Nothing happens.

The computer bleeps helplessly as the jump fails to engage and the engines start to flood the ship with heat. The emergency jump sequence shuts down and mercifully the heat begins to dissipate safely. My trigger finger moves away from the heatsink launch button, the charge remains available and unused, while the temperature drains back to sensible levels.

Am I trapped?

The computer is so confused by the local distortion that it can't provide a safe escape. I'm not even sure if there is one - perhaps I'm too close. Try again.

The jump announcement signals ready and the heat builds again. I scour the sky for a weakening of space that will allow me free, trusting to the physics of the situation to find a path free instead of the onboard navigation imbecile. There's no sign of an escape vector where I'm pointed.

The controls lock and the timer countdown begins. There's more visible distortion of the galactic plane as the black hole spits me out.  The ship climbs to a safe distance and begins the acceleration away from danger.

Relief sets in and my stomach growls its hunger pangs.

Only when I've made it to the next system.

(Editor's note: the original intro video has now been replaced with an extended version at around 13 minutes of HD black hole footage)