Robin de Voh
writer, developer, nerd

Nanoprep 2016 Day 14: Pilgrim

By Robin de Voh on 2016-10-24

"On an old questions and answer website, somebody once asked the question 'If I volunteered to fly a probe into a black hole, would NASA let me?'.

Obviously the answer was always going to be no. Not just because at the time, flying to a black hole, not even into, was technologically unfeasible, but mostly because what was known about black holes was that such a journey would be fatal. It would destroy the probe and everything in it, and most scientific readings would be either impossible to send back or nobody knew what to even look for.

But what if you own a commercial space transport company? What if your biggest dream has always been to find out what's behind the event horizon of a black hole?

Well, then, you build a fast spaceship full of scientific equipment and call shotgun on that thing.

Black holes are fascinating, they really are. So massive that they bend spacetime in such a way that even light cannot escape it. But where the traditional knowledge was that nothing could ever escape a black hole, particles were eventually seen coming from them. Jets of x-rays have been measured being ejected from some supermassive black holes.

So my lifelong fascination was given new relevance. If I'm going to die, I'm more than okay with it being due to a fantastic adventure.

The ship itself, dubbed 'Pilgrim' by yours truly, would use an experimental type of engine, first of its kind, though theorized for more than half a century. Pilgrim is shaped like a water droplet. In front of it is a large, sturdy sail, attached to the ship by long cables. The ship would intermittently release a nuclear detonation, causing the sail to catch the plasma released and the entire thing to be hurtled forward. The sudden acceleration was offset by a winching mechanism, which made sure the Pilgrim itself would experience a smooth ride.

About a year ago, a black hole was discovered eerily close to Earth, about one light year away. Pilgrim is estimated to be able to reach a speed of 6% of the speed of light, so one light year would take approximately 17 years, including the initial acceleration phase.

Let's call it 20.

I'm 41. 61's a good age to go. Especially like this.

Tomorrow we launch. It's funny, the Russians are helping us launch with their Soyuz technology. Many, many decades old but the most reliable and affordable launch platform humanity's come up with so far. Using last-century technology to launch what is unarguably the most modern spaceship ever created.

At the least this will catapult human space travel into the next age.

It's about time."

That is the note Nathan Pyke left before the launch.

We lost contact with him earlier today. He had grown more and more paranoid and irritable over the years, but we hadn't expected this at all. Psychology concerning space travel and isolation have come far since Nathan left, but his is a case study the psychologists will spend years to unravel.

It's been 13 years. He was just over halfway there, Pilgrim performing even better than expected.

He wasn't wrong when he said his adventure would bring the next step in space travel, as we've built more efficient versions of Pilgrim since, have been able to replace the Soyuz system with multiple launch platforms -- all suited to a different specific need -- and have by now landed people on Mars.

But with the scientific discoveries we've made since, it became inevitable that our telescopes, sensors and scientific insights would also improve.

When we found out the black hole we had spotted, the one Nathan was traveling towards, had been a false positive, he did not respond well. We'd brought in a psychologist specialized in isolation to soften the blow as much as possible, but it had not helped much.

He cut off communication for a week before calling back in.

He asked us to share the above letter with the world, and we agreed to do so. After passing along messages to be shared with his family and closest friends, he said goodbye and a blast could be heard.

It will take time for us to find evidence of what happened -- if we can do so at all -- but our understanding at this time is that Nathan Pyke has died by destroying the Pilgrim.

While the Pilgrim did not have a self-destruct system in place, our scientific team has found multiple ways in which the nuclear power source could be detonated.

Our thoughts are, of course, with his family and friends.

This concludes this briefing.