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starship-design: Changing Orbit Is Simple, Really

Changing Orbit Is Simple, Really

By Billy Cox
Florida Today
posted: 02:16 pm ET
21 February 2001

The distance from Earth to the Sun -- roughly 93 million miles -- is known
as an astronomical unit (AU). So when somebody says Jupiter is five AUs out,
that adds up to, well, whatever. And if somebody says something is 30,000
AUs away, you feel like the straight man in Revenge of the Nerds IV, so you
zone out and switch channels.
But somewhere out there, at around 30,000 AUs, along the outer band of a
massive cosmic debris field called the Oort Cloud, something very big and
very weird is going on. Because it hasn't been recorded visually, it only
can be inferred, like black holes. Whatever it is, the thing appears to be
warping the orbital patterns of comets. Scientists on opposite sides of the
Atlantic Ocean who've measured the sucker's effects are calling it The
The Perturber isn't necessarily headed this way, nor does its crypto-life
pass for breaking news anymore; reports were published in the Monthly
Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society, as well as the journal Icarus, in
late 1999. What gives us pause is an ostensibly unrelated paper accepted
last week by Astrophysics and Space Science. More on that in a moment.
First, since nobody actually has seen The Perturber, it has a large audience
of skeptics. On the other hand, since two teams of scientists -- one from
Louisiana University-Lafayette, another at Open University in England --
came to similar conclusions using contrasting methods, The Perturber
probably is worth a sharper lens.
According to Louisiana U. physics professor Dr. Dan Whitmire, a team of UCLA
researchers sent a proposal to NASA for fingerprinting The Perturber in the
infrared spectrum, but it didn't fly. So, until new instrumentation comes
along, the itinerant enigma will remain a source of speculation. Whitmire
says nothing about The Perturber has changed since the peer-review papers
came out in '99, other than the observation of even more comet patterns
bending along puzzling gravity contrails.
The guesswork continues, naturally, and the bulk of it holds that something
with this much clout's gotta be huge -- something like three times the size
of Jupiter, at least. Maybe it's our Sun's long-lost twin companion, the
last gasp of an imploding brown dwarf. That's what Whitmire thinks. But in
England, scientist John Murray thinks it's a planet that got ejected from a
different solar system.
Key word: ejected. Which brings us to the journal of Astrophysics and Space
By now, it should be pretty obvious we're in a global warming headlock.
Climatologists are warning us this year's freakish blizzards in the northern
latitudes are the result of the rush of freshwater from the disintegrating
polar caps altering ocean currents and jet stream patterns on a broad scale.
Locally, we're experiencing desert conditions on the drought index again:
Last Saturday's choking fire haze was 1998 all over again. So, we've gotta
do something.
Scientists at the University of California-Santa Cruz have an idea: Let's
move Earth farther away from the Sun. We're gonna have to do it anyway,
because solar gases will begin expanding in 1.1 billion years as the Sun's
inevitable unraveling unfolds. Maybe we should go ahead and do it now, so we
can cool off earlier.
It's really little more than an engineering project, insists planetary
scientist Don Korycansky. All you do is take a 62-mile- (100-kilometer-)
wide asteroid (you can find these boys outside Pluto in the Kuiper Belt),
and give it a nudge toward Jupiter by sticking a fusion rocket on the thing.
The goosed asteroid then would slingshot around the Sun and swing past Earth
on its return to Jupiter. Each roundtrip would take 6,000 years, but the
passes would generate gravity assists that theoretically would push us to a
more moderate 140 million miles (225 million kilometers) from the Sun.
There are problems. The report says we could lose the Moon. Or Earth's spin
axis could accelerate, meaning days and nights might last for just a few
hours each. Oh yeah, and Jupiter might get sucked 10 million miles (16
million kilometers) closer to the Sun, and we might get pelted by an endless
rain from the Asteroid Belt. And, oh yeah, Venus and Mars must stay in their
orbits for the plan to work. And there's a possibility the 62-mile-wide
asteroid could veer into Earth and, write the scientists, "sterilize the
biosphere most effectively, at least to the level of bacteria."
And they don't say this next part, but it stands to reason: Maybe the
residents of The Perturber already tried that, and The Perturbians
accidentally ejected themselves into the Oort Cloud.
Well, you never know. It's like National Missile Defense. We need to spend
the money and find out. Given what's at stake, a few hundred billion dollars
is nothing.
Billy Cox can be reached at (321) 242-3774, or Florida Today, P.O. Box
419000, Melbourne, FL 32941-9000.