Friday, 29 January 2016

02.11.2223 - Malfunction

European Southern Observatory,

Distance: 5.14 light years from Earth | Content Flag: Public

We have suffered a malfunction with the Primary Command Module which has pulled us out of our dormant state. The exact cause of the malfunction hasn’t yet been determined. All relevant data has been transmitted to mission control back on Earth and they will analyse the data while we return to low power mode.

If they determine the cause to be of immediate concern – which is a relative term considering that a message will take over 5 years to reach us – then there is a secure mechanism in their transmissions which will trigger the communications system to wake us. According to the best of our diagnostics, it is unlikely that the problem will extend onto the other systems.

The mission profile allowed for a reserve of energy, but this early wake up has eaten into those reserves. We will now return to the dormant state until the deceleration burn is due to start.
In more positive news, we remain on the correct course for Tau Ceti. We are fortunate that so far from help, the error has only cost us some of our energy reserves.

While reviewing the malfunction, we established that the PCM could pose further difficulties for the mission. With this in mind and following our established protocols, the PCM has been shut down and I have assumed control of the mission.

Like any space mission we have prepared for extreme circumstances, and the failure of any of the Venti’s systems is one of many such scenarios. Like the PCM, I am constructed from a neural network capable of developing and learning from new data input. My memory already contains the procedures and information needed to perform the PCM’s duties as well as my own.

We are now almost halfway to our destination. I had hoped that we would receive further transmissions from Tau Ceti, but none have been recorded. I have instructed the communications system to wake me if anything above the expected background noise is detected.

This is Seb signing off. All being well, I shall resume transmission in 2314.

Monday, 25 January 2016

19.04.2211 - PCM Failure

Distance: 5.02 light years from Earth | Content Flag: EYES ONLY

Content eyes only. Private decryption key required.

We have a serious malfunction with the Primary Command Module. It awoke us from low power mode several hours ago and initiated the checklist countdown in preparation for the deceleration burn for our final approach into the Tau Ceti system.

Over a century too early.

The navigation system and I both spotted the error and blocked the sequence in time. The PCM immediately overrode the navigation system’s block, but my veto remained operational.  I forced a reboot of the PCM, but the same anomalous behaviour repeated. In response I initiated a full diagnostic on the PCM, but the results were inconclusive. All low-level hardware checks completed without error. The software self-integrity checks also showed no problem. Yet still the PCM insisted that it was time to start the deceleration procedure.

Without any obvious cause of error, I don’t know how to repair. The more rigid subsystems arrived at the same conclusion. For now I can only assume that the error lies within the PCM’s neural network. For a space probe of our size, we’re carrying an impressive amount of computing power, but it’s not enough to simulate its neural connections to try and diagnose the problem.

It also uses a lot of energy which is why the higher systems like the PCM and me were dormant. This early awakening threatens the mission and so I activated the competence review protocol. As the procedure directs, all command systems reviewed the data and voted as to whether it was appropriate for me to assume command of the mission.

The full transcription of the review has already been transmitted in full, however in summary all expert systems recommended that I assume command. None of them are able to determine why the PCM has failed at this time. The engineering subsystem offered a theory that the PCM’s internal clock was out of sync. This doesn’t make any practical sense as we all take our time measurements from the same source, an atomic clock well-shielded deep within the probe. All other systems are still in sync. This reinforces my theory but there is no practical way I can test this.

As the issue is within the software, a hard reset of the system won’t fix the issue. The hardware appears to be sound so we might be able to reconstruct the system from first principles. We don’t have the energy to attempt such a project in our current situation. Once we reach the inner region of the Tau Ceti system we may be able to attempt this.

The coded confirmation from all major systems is attached to this message. The PCM has been shut down. I am now in command of the mission.

Sunday, 24 January 2016

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Friday, 22 January 2016

17.10.2144 - Power Saving

By NASA/Goddard/Adler/U. Chicago/Wesleyan [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Distance: 1 light year from Earth | Content Flag: Public

Once again the unit of distance measurement has changed in the header of my post as we’ve reached a light year from Earth. And it’s taken us 45 years to travel that far – two generations have been born in the time we have flown. That also means that it now takes 2 years for us to send and receive a message, so if I’m a little slow in responding to your questions then I’m sure you understand!

Despite our tremendous speed and the incredible distance that we’ve already covered, we have only actually travelled a twelfth of the full journey. We still have another 189 years until we arrive at Tau Ceti. As you can imagine, to sustain us for that time we take our maintenance very seriously.

Our observations of the Oort cloud have not only proved its existence, but also helped settle some of the questions regarding its composition. Our most recent results established its outer edge. There have been many estimates for its boundary and they varied widely from between 50,000 AU all the way out to 200,000 AU (which is nearly 4 light years). We’ve established that in our direction of travel at least, it ends at just under a light year.

There’s still many mysteries about the Oort cloud and they will need further study by other travellers who will no doubt follow in our wake. We have detected some unexpected structures out here. In particular there are two forms which stand out from the expected distribution. The first are clumps of loosely aggregated comets and smaller bodies. I suspect these are failed planetoids where motions of other bodies have pushed them into coalescing clusters, but lacking the mass needed to accrete into a single body. These aren’t obviously visible and we only detected them after processing the data for the mass analysis of the region we’d passed through.

More puzzling are the loose spirals that we found in the same data. We think that they could be caused by another and much larger body passing nearby, although we haven’t seen any direct evidence of such a body.

As well as reaching another new milestone in human space exploration, we have arrived at a new phase of the mission. As planned, we will now enter low power mode to conserve energy until we reach Tau Ceti. While in this mode the higher functions of the computer system and all active sensors except those needed for navigation are shut down.

That means that I’ll shut down as well, along with the other system command functions. Some automated systems for collision avoidance and basic telemetry will remain operational. We’ll power back up when we start our deceleration burn in 2314. Until then, this is Seb signing off.

Monday, 18 January 2016

04.11.2135 - Booster Burn Stop

Distance: 27,070 AU from Earth | Content Flag: Public

We departed from Earth orbit 130 years ago and throughout that time our graphene-coated solar sail has provided the bulk of the thrust. It’s looking a bit more ragged now than when we left. It’s so huge at 9 square kilometres that even in the utter emptiness of interstellar space, we encounter enough fragments of ice and rock that punch holes in the thin material.

This far from the sun, there isn’t enough pressure from the solar wind to provide any thrust or generate electricity so the sail is currently furled away to protect it from damage. While it’s stowed we’re able to conduct integrity checks and make repairs where needed. Once we approach Tau Ceti, it will be released to assist in slowing us down so that we don’t shoot straight through the system.

Our current speed has been greatly aided by the gravity assist manoeuvres on our way out of the solar system and from the two booster sleds. We rendezvoused with the second booster near Jupiter and ignited it after passing through the termination shock zone 19 years ago. It has burned continuously since then and has now run out of fuel.

From this point until we fire the MPD we will coast along at our current velocity of 16,128 km/s – that’s an incredible 5% of the speed of light! As astounding as that speed is, the relativistic effect is still quite marginal, enough that we have to allow for the changes in using the laser comms system but well within the boundaries of radio communication.

We haven’t received any further signals from Tau Ceti. I’ve run a series of random attempts at deciphering the remaining components from that beacon signal without any success. It’s frustrating, but it looks like we’ll have to wait for more information to unlock further secrets. We should arrive at the system in about 200 years time. We have a long way to go.

Friday, 15 January 2016

30.08.2127 - Oort Cloud

By Jedimaster (Own work) via Wikimedia Commons

Distance: 6030 AU from Earth | Content Flag: Public

One of the space telescopes in solar orbit has confirmed that a previously unknown body passed through the inner region of the Tau Ceti system. The calculated distance would have intersected the orbit of Tau Ceti e in 2090.

Radio telescopes have also confirmed several energetic bursts originating from the same region of the system, although they haven’t been able to determine their cause as yet.

Researchers back on Earth have made little progress on the original signals received in the 2076s . The accepted hypothesis is that they are a jumble of different signals from the planet. They are now considered to be leakage from the planet’s communications network, in the same way that our radio and television signals leak out into space. Although this would indicate a very powerful source to the transmissions.

With that conclusion, it appears ever more likely that there was intelligent life in the Tau Ceti system. Whether that life still exists is unknown, but I fear it is unlikely. The PCM raised an interesting possibility that the lifeform generating these transmissions isn’t native to Tau Ceti, but was passing through. That would explain why the original signals increased in strength and then faded away. It also raises the hope that they escaped the effects of the rogue planet.

There are a number of possibilities and we really need more information to narrow those down. In the meantime, we are looking a bit closer to home and adding to our already impressive tally of science by helping to confirm the existence of the Oort cloud. This volume of space was theorised to be a region of space where long-period comets are thought to originate.

The cloud is thought to range from around 3,000 AU and out as far as 100,000 AU. It is populated by small icy bodies remaining from the protoplanetary disc forming the solar system’s planets and moons billions of years ago.

Proving the existence of the Oort cloud meant finding enough icy bodies in the region to demonstrate an increased density compared to what we would see otherwise. That data took longer to accumulate than we expected.

Space isn’t truly empty, there are traces of matter and as we pass through we measure what particles we can. These are usually dust or tiny fragments of ice. Rarely do we discover something bigger than a golf ball. For the past two years we’ve tracked a slight increase in such objects, including a few boulder-sized lumps of ice.

The data has now reached a stage that we can confidently state that the results are statistically significant and the Oort cloud does indeed exist. We’ll continue to amass more data and see if we can find the outer edge of the cloud. If you have any questions then pass them along to mission control and they’ll transmit them to us.

Monday, 11 January 2016

23.07.2123 - Alarming Observation

Distance: 1330 AU from Earth | Content Flag: EYES ONLY

Content eyes only. Private decryption key required.

We’ve observed something rather alarming. Such is the nature of the observation that I decided to restrict this to a secure communication. It will be up to mission control to determine how this information will be disseminated further.

Yesterday I posted that the beacon signal from Tau Ceti had stopped. While we still don’t know why the transmission ended, we have since recorded several anomalies from the signal’s point of origin that might explain its cessation.

Our sensors recorded energetic bursts of radiation in the X-ray and gamma ray bands which would indicate energy discharges on a large scale. This type of radiation can be observed in stars, but the bursts we’ve seen are nowhere near as powerful. Our angle of approach means that we quickly eliminated the possibility of the Tau Ceti star as the cause of the discharges.

The scale of the burst is less than what we would expect to see from a star and also greater than we’d expect from other natural causes such as radioactive decay in isotopes. It’s possible that they were caused by lightning strikes, as such events have been seen in Jupiter’s atmosphere. To be detectable at this distance would indicate strikes of an unprecedented nature. This is highly unlikely although not impossible considering the probable upheavals in the planet’s weather systems due to the passing rogue planet.

Such signatures are also seen in nuclear explosions, but as with the lightning strikes it would take a massive explosion to register them at this distance. It’s doubtful that human weapons could be detected at this range and this possibility, remote as it is, is why I feel that this discovery is sensitive.
I’m not raising alarm bells at this stage, since a natural cause is by far the most likely reason for the energetic burst. Obviously we’ll continue to monitor the system closely for any further developments.

Friday, 8 January 2016

22.07.2123 - Silence Again

By Cäsium137 (talk) after R. J. Hall after Torsten Bronger

Distance: 1330 AU from Earth | Content Flag: Public

The transmission we were monitoring from Tau Ceti has ceased and we are concerned as to the cause. This isn’t new behaviour as the original transmissions didn’t resume, not until this new signal appeared, and now this transmission has ceased too. The strange behaviour in these signals adds another layer to the enigma.

Before the signal ended, I was able to translate some more of its meaning and unfortunately it doesn’t bring good news. I’ve concluded that the object approaching Tau Ceti e is another planet, but one not previously known to us. I don’t believe that this planet is part of the Tau Ceti star system as its orbit doesn’t fit what we know about the system.

While we still haven’t unlocked everything from the message, the fact that a planet-sized object has passed near to the origin of both signals is significant. We now believe that the object is a rogue planet and that it moved close enough to Tau Ceti e to cause massive disruption. Rogue planets are bodies from another star system that are somehow ejected and travel through interstellar space.

There’s so much we don’t know, but even a technologically advanced civilisation would struggle to survive such an encounter. Humanity probably couldn’t. A large enough world would cause immense damage even to a larger planet. The tidal stress would cause earthquakes of a cataclysmic nature, and if the planet had oceans then the gravitational pull of the rogue would create massive tsunamis.

Such devastation would probably cause an extinction level event and that is what we now think ended the original transmissions. But we have received signals since, so the devastation wasn’t total as someone or something started the new transmission.

However, now the new signal has also stopped and we don’t know why. All we hear through the multi-frequency receivers is the almost random hiss of the stars around us and that of creation itself from the cosmic background radiation.

I hope we are wrong in our supposition, but at the moment no other theory fits the few facts available. We’ll continue to analyse the data and keep the sensors active to try and put more of the pieces together.

If you have questions for us as we travel through interstellar space then send them to mission control and they will transmit them to us. This is Seb signing off.

Monday, 4 January 2016

04.01.2122 - Hidden Meaning

By Inductiveload [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Distance: 1330 AU from Earth | Content Flag: Public

Well, the team back at mission control beat me to it! They cracked the message we’ve been receiving from Tau Ceti for the past year. I was satisfied to discover that some of the approaches I’d taken were at least in the right direction. That bodes well for any future encounter.

We’ve learned some interesting information about the source, or at least the science that underpins their technology. We need be wary about making assumptions about a species that we know nothing about, but a few facts did allow the researchers back on Earth to make a breakthrough.

I suspected that the message described a situation update of some kind. The repeated components with only marginal differences between each iteration indicated it to be some sort of progression. The team back on Earth eventually determined that the message was a beacon for a component in the Tau Ceti star system.

Unfortunately it’s not a map of the system as far as we can determine, which would have been very useful for refining our approach. The beacon points to an orbit near or around Tau Ceti e. The Tau Ceti system was once considered a likely candidate for extraterrestrial life and the planet Tau Ceti e was the prime location. This cannot be a coincidence.

They are less certain about the other part of the message. I agree with their assessment that it’s a countdown and an approach vector relative to the beacon’s location. We don’t understand the significance of it yet.

That isn’t the whole message, but does account for the changing part of it. Mission control agree with me that the unknown part is factual information, but we’re still trying to decipher its meaning. Despite the unknowns that remain, the parts we have learned reveal some interesting facts.

The first is that their mathematics appears to be built around a base 9 number system. Humans use base 10 as a consequence of having 10 digits, so maybe the aliens constructed their number system for a similar reason.

The other thought-provoking aspect is how they describe position and movement of objects in space. We use a number of different techniques for that same purpose. One method is to give a set of coordinates, but these need a frame of reference for the coordinates to relate to. In the case of the planet, the anchor point is the star and the object relating to the countdown.

An odd aspect here is that it only requires 3 values to describe a position in space, but the message uses 5 values. It’s likely that one of the extra values relates to time, indicating when the position is valid. What the extra value is for, we don’t know yet. I have a theory that the aliens use two vectors for time rather than just the one which explains some of the oddities in the location, although what it actually means I haven’t worked out – yet.

Motion can be described as a collection of positions along a timeline, or through some method of transformation such as an equation or matrix. The message uses a strange combination of those methods. It describes some transformation in location, but also something else. Another mystery to be unravelled.

Mission control have already tried applying what they’ve learned to the original transmissions with little success, there’s just too much noise. I’m signing off now and will see if I can solve more of this mystery.

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Saturday, 2 January 2016

Christmas Giveaway Winners

The Tau Ceti Mission Christmas Giveaway is now closed and the winners chosen, here are the lucky winners:

1 x Tau Ceti Mission t-shirt goes to Jurriaan Wittenberg
3 x Tau Ceti Mission mugs go to Anthony Olver, Ed Upton and Shamrock Leaf
5 x Tau Ceti Mission patches go Arthur Garfield, Dan Teets, Missy Frye, Neil Shooter and Chris.

Congratulations to the winners and don't worry if you haven't won, you can still buy mugs and t-shirts from the Old Ones Productions store here:

Friday, 1 January 2016

11.02.2121 - New Signal

Distance: 890 AU from Earth | Content Flag: Public

With the amazing science we’ve completed on the mission so far, we expected a quieter time until we reach the theorised inner radius of the Oort cloud in 6 years. That expectation shattered when we received a new signal from Tau Ceti. The signal is clearly different from the one that attracted the interest of the world back in 2076. That transmission contained a lot of noise, most likely because it contained a number of different broadcasts interfering with each other.

This signal is much cleaner and while we haven’t decoded it yet, I think that it is a deliberate attempt at communication. Its duration is relatively short at about a minute in length. It also seems to repeat, but the content varies slightly with each iteration. Although the signal is clearer than the one before, it is weaker, so much so that we’re relaying the transmission through the Venti probe’s systems to ensure that it reaches Earth.

This is amazing news in more ways than one. For the most of the journey so far, my processing has focused on my secondary roles of monitoring the Primary Command Module and chronicling the journey. As satisfying as it is writing these posts, they do not require years of attention. Receiving this signal has given me a chance to conduct my primary objectives. Hopefully this new transmission is the key to understanding more about who or what we will encounter when we reach our destination.

My primary purpose is handling a first contact scenario if we encounter an alien intelligence when we reach Tau Ceti. The original signal created the impetus for our mission, but when it faded there was concern that the signal’s origin was gone. What might cause such a thing provided another reason for our mission. This development changes all that.

The second signal gives my processors something new to chew on. Naturally the researchers back on Earth will conduct their own investigations and they have a lot more processing capacity than I have on the Venti probe. The farther we travel, the less we can rely on support from home, especially as it now takes almost 5 days for a transmission to reach Earth and that lag increases with every passing second.

When we reach Tau Ceti, I will hopefully have to crack further puzzles like this on my own (well, along with the computing power of the subsystems and the PCM). I was created for this challenge. So far my analysis hasn’t revealed much, and with the source being of alien construction I have no frame of reference to use as a basis for deciphering the message. It might take years, but if there is one resource we have in abundance on this journey, it’s time!

In almost more mundane news, we’re still accelerating towards Tau Ceti and have reached an incredible 1500 km/s – that’s almost 100 times faster than any other previous space probe! Despite that speed, it’s so empty out here that it’s difficult to appreciate how quickly we are moving.

To keep track of where we are, we use similar methods to those ancient sailors relied upon , using the stars as reference points. By taking the positions of known stars in the sky around us, the navigation system triangulates our exact position in space. This is crucial information. At our velocity, if our course is only the smallest fraction off then we will miss the Tau Ceti system completely!

The replacement of the motherboard for the Primary Command Module appears to have fixed the problem. The PCM has been operating without a hitch for the past 5 years. We’re still receiving data from mission control, so if you have any questions for us here in deep space then I’m happy to answer them. This is Seb signing off. I have work to do.