Moonscope 1 and the Ant People
It’s the most powerful telescope ever built, one that will let us see millions perhaps billions more worlds, and one of those worlds could be the next stop for the human race.
The commissioning of Moonscope 1 in the late 2050s got a lot of attention from the press. HoloTV sites that followed it focused on the first moon-based telescope’s features, noting that with the buildings housing its AI system it covers more than two square miles of moonscape.
My name is Barbara Tiller and I’m Moonscope 1’s general manager and chief astrophysicist. But it was astronomer Jerry Harwood who first noticed the patterns back in April 2058.
He and IT specialist and tech handyman Barry Gutman are my colleagues on the moon.
The Moonscope Global Council chose to build the telescope here because the moon has infinitesimal atmosphere compared to Earth, about the same as what International Space Station 1 had. Unlike Earth telescopes, there is virtually no light pollution because Moonscope 1 is on the dark side of the moon, facing away from the sun, for two weeks every month.
About four months into the ramp-up of the telescope we began observing bewildering light patterns from a nearby star system.
Jerry kept seeing flashes of light he thought were coming from the TRAPPIST-1 system. “They stop and start at irregular intervals, making me think there could be a glitch in Moonscope’s system,” he said.
“We have a lot of work to do to get this device and the computers fine-tuned. Let’s focus on that for now,” I told him. He was curious about the intermittent flashes but agreed to put it off for now.
TRAPPIST-1 is an ultra-cool dwarf star with seven stable planets. It was discovered in 2015 by the Transiting Planets and Planetesimals Small Telescope in Chile. They call it TRAPPIST for short.
It’s only about 12 parsecs away, the equivalent of 39 light years from Earth. That’s a relatively short distance when you consider our Milky Way is 100,000 light years across. The TRAPPIST-1 system is a good place to explore for a planet suitable for humans or for life already there.
As Jerry and I booted and sync’d the systems, I had Barry check Moonscope 1 out thoroughly. “It’s working fine,” he said. “The problem isn’t with my telescope.”
Later, Jerry confided to me, “You know Barbara, ever since I found the flashes I’ve secretly been hoping there’s a pattern here indicating more than a random episode.”
We didn’t talk about it the next few weeks. We were busy making preparations for deep space telescope exploration. We were functioning at nearly one hundred percent capability when we turned again to the question of the strange light patterns.
“Azimuth to thirty point zero one degrees,” Jerry said dully to the computer as I entered the room. A slight mechanical whirring from a quarter mile away hung in the air for a few seconds and Moonscope’s giant electronic motor stopped after it made the precise adjustment.
“How’s it going, Jerry?” I asked as I approached.
Without looking up he said, “It’s slow and steady. Right now I’m getting adequate data for analysis to determine whether there’s water on 1D.” That was the name given to the third planet from TRAPPIST-1, the name of the star it orbits. “So far it looks barren.”
Jerry waved his hand, enlarging the holoimage of the planet. He gestured below the image and a chart came up with mass and composition data. He studied the data for a minute and then said in a monotone, “Azimuth thirty point zero two degrees.
“All the characteristics I’ve found so far make me think we could be on a wild goose chase. Just like with 1B and 1C, there doesn’t seem to be any way this planet could support life,” he said loudly, venting his frustration. “TRAPPIST-1 is just a tenth the size of our Sun and cooler, so chances of finding a habitable planet are slim and getting slimmer.”
“Keep at it, Jerry. That’s the last of the three planets in the habitable zone.”
“Yes, thank God. This is more boring than when I was studying chemical compounds for my doctorate.”
I went back to my quarters to rest. I’d been crunching numbers all morning and I was tired too. Usually we each ate dinner in our underground homes, resting comfortably in the living room or dining room. That evening we all happened to be at the communal dinner table eating and chatting when Edison Six came on the intercom. “Please come to the main telescope room as soon as you’ve finished eating. There has been an interesting development.”
We looked at each other a few seconds, then got up as a group and ran toward the telescope room.
The computer interface for the AmaznBigBlue Edison VI AI computer, which we just call Edison Six for short, minimizes important news at times. An “interesting development” might be worth letting dinner get cold.
When we got to the main Moonscope console, Edison Six said it had found a pattern in the light pulses. The odds of contact with an extraterrestrial life form had just ticked up a notch.
We refocused at full power on TRAPPIST-1 and I called the Moonscope council to assign us additional Earth-based computer networking capacity to help us crunch the numbers.
It quickly became clear that the pulses of light appeared to be organized, not random. Someone or something was regularly sending them out in complex patterns. That didn’t mean they were being sent by an intelligent life form. An unknown light source could be emitting them, such as a bit of decaying dark matter emitting light pulses at regular intervals. I figured it was time to let the council know. I called back.
“Tony, we’ve identified the source of those light pulses I was telling you about. It’s just like we thought, they’re coming from planet 1D in TRAPPIST-1.” Anthony Machado is head of the Moonscope Council and my boss.
“Are you saying there’s a chance we could make contact with a near-Earth life form?
“Well I don’t know that I’d call it near-Earth, but yes. We still have to run the numbers to determine whether the pattern is a message that we can understand, which would indicate it was created by intelligent beings.”
“Damn, this is exciting Barbara! I need to let the council know so we can start thinking about what our response will be if it’s a coded message.”
“I don’t know that’s such a good idea, Tony. We’ve just...”
“I know, I know, it’s still up in the air. But we have to start discussing it. We may be on the verge of contact with
another species, another civilization. Think how enormously important that is!”
He hung up before I could answer. I let the crew know that our possible find was about to go global, thanks to Tony.
“Jeez, he could’ve waited at least until we know more about what we’re dealing with here!” Barry complained.
“Agreed, but we don’t have the power to stop him so let’s get back to work. The more data we feed Edison Six, the more certain we’ll be that it’s a pattern. Or not.”
“Scientists on the moon have found what could turn out to be the most exciting discovery in the history of mankind,” the holoTV announcer said in a dramatic voice. A day after my talk with Tony it was all over the news. We hadn’t a clue yet what the source of the pulses was and already the media was building it up into the biggest thing ever.
I watched a panel of talking heads discuss the finding and debate whether we should make contact with the species, all of them assuming there was one.
“Are you kidding me?! Of course we should contact them,” one of the panelists said. “Look, if they’re sending out signals, they are at least as intelligent as we are, perhaps even smarter. We could learn from them.”
“No, listen. Look at the examples in history. In the past when an advanced civilization like the Romans made contact with a less advanced one, they conquered and subjected it. When the Europeans came to the Americas they decimated the native tribes as they colonized it. The same could happen to us!”
When Edison Six confirmed that the signals were not a random pattern, we were overjoyed here at Moonscope 1. But we kept it to ourselves. We’d learned better than to share everything with The council before we knew what the signals meant.
Edison Six said there was a definite pattern but it had just done a quick search of all of Earth’s libraries and it was like nothing anyone had ever encountered. Six said it could decode it, but it could take as long as fifteen minutes to do so.
We huddled together in the lunch room again. But this time we were all too excited to eat.
“Barbara, what do you think we should do if we receive confirmation that the pattern indicates intelligent life?” Jerry said.
“I think the first thing is to take a look at that message and see if it makes any sense. If it’s gibberish then we’re back at square one. It could be anything; a command to take some action, a distress signal. There are so many unknowns that we
can’t consider what to do next until we have that message in hand.”
Edison Six, as usual, had been conservative in its estimate. It had the message deciphered in thirteen minutes and called us to the telescope room again.
“What does it say,” I barked as I walked through the door.
“You may not like what I found,” Six said. “I’ve decoded the message, but its meaning is unclear to me. I think it may be a riddle. It says simply, ‘I stand beside my friend and my friend stands beside me and yet we see each other not. But when dawn comes and darkness fades, the friends are reunited.’ ”
“We’ve made contact with a planet of poets!” Barry said.
General Rungg Gruntuh of the Colonies United Forces planetary exploration group studied the report again. There could be no doubt there was a response to the message sent out from the Lothtar communications center. He would have to notify the queen.
The response had come from the OKT-8 system, so named because it has eight planets, although some scientists choose to call a small orbiting body at the edge of the star system a dwarf planet.
Gruntuh wiggled his antennae, sending a coded message to Captain Bargg Torgrahh, his next in command. Torgrahh in turn wiggled her antennae to send the message to a long distance transmitting soldier called a runner who quickly sent the message to the center of the colony. Within seconds the queen had been notified that contact with another sentient life form had apparently been made.
While he awaited her response Gruntuh stared out the large picture window at the city. His gaze wandered up one of the distant dull red walls that lay in every direction fifty miles away. Actually it was a single wall that wound in a several hundred mile circle around the perimeter of the city. He could see skyships rising from the CUF base ten miles away and watched as they ascended toward the opening of the underground pyramid onto the planet’s surface.
There, strong seekers would forage for food, hunting down two-hump katygrels and cutting down sucrose laden plants and trees to bring back to the city. Sometimes a seeker carried a katygrel that weighed as much as twenty times its body weight back to the skyship. The seekers ran in straight lines because they could only transmit short distances and needed to stay close to one another as they scurried around. They would return to the city before dark. If they stayed on the surface at night they could be killed by large predators that roam the surface of Lothtar, many of them long-tongued fendrels.
“This is pretty crazy business, coming into contact with aliens, eh Bargg?” Gruntuh said.
“They could be friendly, hostile or predatory. We took a big chance sending the light pulses from the surface."
“What do you make of it, Bargg? Do you think we made a mistake reaching out to other star systems?”
“It’s not for me to say, sir. I live to obey the queen’s orders.”
Gruntuh sighed heavily. “Yeah, I know. We all do, but you must have some thoughts on it.”
Gruntuh lapsed into silence. He knew that Bargg would not share her thoughts on the matter. A colony soldier is trained not to think, only to act for the good of the colony, while at all times following the queen’s orders. Gruntuh sometimes wished he was one of the queen’s harem of husbands, living only to eat, sleep and mate with her.
The queen finally relayed her command to the CUF planetary exploration group. She commanded them to abandon the mission and cease transmissions.
Gruntuh was astounded. Here was a chance for two species of intelligent beings to communicate for the first time and she wanted to break it off. As usual, there was no explanation, just the terse command to cease all transmissions.
He delayed for a few seconds, feeling that it was somehow wrong to stop reaching out, and yet that he had no choice in the matter. He would obey of course. In all known history the colonies had survived only by each member playing his or her part, acting on instinct in a pattern as old as the planets.
He summoned his courage to send the queen another message, imploring her to reconsider, adding that he would, of course, obey her wishes. The queen immediately replied by courier:
General Gruntuh, you will immediately cease communications with the alien species. I do not generally explain my reasons to anyone, including you. I indulged you in launching this project but I did not expect we would be contacted. Because I have great respect for you, I will tell you this much. They reached out to us. Therefore, they must have superior technology. There is a chance that they mean us no harm, but I am not willing to take that chance. Let us continue to
progress along our path and, if and when the time is right, we will go out into the stars and make contact with them and
whoever else is out there. For now though, you must cease all operations immediately. Reply at once to assure me that you understand and obey. — Your Queen, Tarthana
Gruntuh felt like someone had taken a sledge hammer and smashed it into his chest. He delayed only a few seconds though.
Finally, he gave the command to cease all transmissions and a ship began ascending to the surface to shut down operations there. Gruntuh felt good again. He had done his duty to queen and colony.
“What do you mean it’s gone!” I yelled.
“It’s gone, Barbara. It has ceased to exist,” Edison Six said.
I wanted to tear my hair out. Talking to an intelligent machine is sometimes like being in an ancient Monty Python skit. It simply made no sense. How could a signal that we knew had come from a certain planet, and that we had ascertained to be a carefully constructed message, be followed by nothingness? Our responses had been friendly, warm even. When the light pulses ceased three days ago, we tried again and again. One time thinking we may have somehow offended them, we literally begged whoever or whatever it was to contact us, all to no avail. I had no choice. I called Tony over at the council.
“How could that happen?” He said. “Did you send the messages we agreed on?”
“Yes, exactly as we agreed. We welcome your message although we are unclear of its meaning. We greet you in friendship and it is our desire to work with you as partners to become close friends. Please respond to acknowledge that our greeting has been received."
“I’m wondering too how this could happen, Tony. They reached out and we responded that we would welcome communications. And now they’re gone.”
“If it was ever there in the first place,” Tony said.
“What do you mean?”
“We’re assuming that the message was created by some intelligent beings. But it could have been a random set of characters that our AI systems misinterpreted as a message.”
“I think the odds of it being random are somewhere near a trillion to one. I’d stake my career on it.”
Tony hesitated before answering. “I know you would, Barbara. But I’m not going to ask you to do that. We simply don’t know what happened. There is nothing we can do. Intergalactic travel is just in its infancy and we won’t be able to go there and see for ourselves for at least a couple of decades anyway.”
“So then we keep sending messages to them and monitoring! I know it wasn’t a fluke.”
“No, we don’t. We sent messages and if there was anyone there they’ve received them. We have other research on our agenda and I don’t want to waste time chasing what could turn out to be a dead end.”
“What do you want us to do then?”
“Continue deep space exploration. With our expanded reach we have greatly increased the odds of finding life on another planet in another solar system. Don’t turn a blind eye to them if you get more light flashes from that region, but don’t make it your primary focus. Our resources are limited you know, and we have to keep our options open.”
I thought about ignoring Tony and going full throttle to establish communications with them. But I came to realize he’s right. There’s nothing we can do if they choose not to continue communicating. We tried our best and failed. It began to seem that, as he said, it was an awful coincidence, and that’s why the message seemed so cryptic. It could have been a temporary series of electronic impulses of some sort, incredibly enough, arranged as words. We have to put that in the past and push out further than we’ve ever been into the universe.
I could hear the motor for the telescope whirr gently as it swung the giant device away from planet 1D in the TRAPPIST-1 solar system, and aimed it as far out into the cosmos as we can reach. To search for signs of intelligent life.
James DeTar is a writer living in Los Angeles.