Stars dancing around each other, born in cosmic cradles, dying in apocalyptic blasts. Vast, greedy black holes devouring matter. Beautiful swirls of glowing gas and powerful jets approaching the speed of light. Matter and energy in continuous transformation...
His contemplation of the night vault was interrupted by the squeaking of the enormous dome behind him, as it adjusted its position to follow the movement of the telescope inside. It was tracking Messier 13, a star cluster in the constellation of Hercules, now high in the sky.
While waiting for the data acquisition to be completed he was lying on the lawn in front of the observatory, hands clasped behind his head, admiring the wonders of the revolving heavens.
Since he was a child, his musings on the starred sky had gone well beyond simple delight, beyond the glittering appearance that most people seemed to enjoy.
He would still be a shepherd in that secluded village in Siberia if it was not for her. “You are gifted,” his teacher used to say, beaming, “there’s a bright scientist inside you. We just have to nourish him.” She fed his unquenchable thirst for knowledge with books that his companions would not even glance at. Despite all the difficulties associated with his humble origins, he managed to persevere in his studies, excelling at university, thriving and becoming an internationally recognised scientist.
But humiliation can change a man.
Many would have overcome it, but for him, that single event had become a permanent stain.
He squeezed his eyes shut. Wipe it away, erase it! No – it had sunk too deep. Opening his eyes again, as the night sky glowed above him, he sought comfort from his old shimmering friends.
Looking at the myriad of stars was like going back in time. Stars and galaxies appear to us as they were thousands, millions or even billions of years ago. No matter how fast light can travel, it still takes timespans, inconceivable to the human mind, to reach us from any part of the universe.
Going back in time.
Thirty years would have been enough. He would behave differently. He would not make the same mistake.
The dome squeaked again, like a child whining for attention. It was probably right, the scientific camera’s exposure should be nearly finished by now, he should start heading back to the telescope and its control room.
Grunting, he got up, joints clicking, and started walking towards the control room located next to the 54-metre-high dome. The large slit of the dome was wide open in front of him, revealing the majestic BTA-6 telescope of the Russian Special Astrophysical Observatory. From his position, he could see the telescope’s huge monolithic concave mirror, whose six-metre diameter had made it the largest telescope in the world until 1990. Since then it had been superseded by many other telescopes worldwide, yet he still looked at it with glinting eyes.
He entered the control room, stuffed with screens and electronic panels. The telescope operator was dozing on his reclined chair, feet on the main console, with its four large monitors and three keyboards. He was a graduate student, making some money by working as a telescope operator a few nights per month. Trainers, loose clothing, and black dishevelled hair poking out of the hood into which he had sunk.
“Nikolai, be careful, please! One day you’re going to accidentally hit some key while sleeping with your feet on the console.”
Nikolai awakened, and jumped out of his chair. “I’m sorry, Professor Kasparov.”
“No, you must excuse me,” Vladimir Kasparov said, shaking his head. “The fact is... you know how much I care about this telescope.”
“I know, Professor. It won’t happen again,” responded Nikolai, straightening up in his chair and placing his hands on the keyboard in front of him, without actually typing anything.
“That’s fine,” said the Professor. He grabbed his logbook and said, “It’s now time to move to the next target, the stellar globular cluster Messier 12, and start another exposure.”
Kasparov bent awkwardly over his desk, too tall and skinny to reach it properly. He was part of the telescope staff and also an extensive user of the telescope, mostly for research into stellar globular clusters – large and dense agglomerates of hundreds of thousands of stars, which look like sparkling puffs in the sky. In front of him was the latest issue of the Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society. Although Kasparov had relegated himself to the outskirts of scientific research, he kept up to date with the most recent publications.
He ran his hands through his white hair and started reading from where he had stopped just before leaving the control room – an article entitled ‘Monitoring of a sample of 30 nearby stars: detection of seven new exoplanets’ by Laura Bellini and Julia Russell, from the University of Cambridge. Kasparov quickly skimmed through the article. Exoplanets, aka planets orbiting other stars. Hundreds of new exoplanets were discovered every year.
He was about to move to the next article when a page caught his attention. The page reported a table listing the stars that had been observed, along with the main results for each of them. The name of one of them took his breath away.
A star in the constellation of Ophiuchus, the ‘serpent bearer’ in Greek mythology. Coincidentally, his next target, Messier 12, where the BTA-6 telescope was now pointed to, was also in this constellation.
He kept staring at the table. Still. Heart pounding fast.
Then, with a gleam in his eyes, he pulled the keyboard towards him. He copied the email addresses of both the authors of the article and started typing a message.
He had just hit ‘send’, when Nikolai tried to catch his attention. “Professor Kasparov, we seem to have a problem.”
Kasparov was motionless, staring at the screen of his computer. ‘Message sent’. His finger was trembling on the mouse.
“Professor?” insisted Nikolai.
Kasparov slowly moved his gaze towards him.
“The first images of the new target are completely blank,” explained Nikolai.
Kasparov raised an eyebrow. He stood up and went to take a look at the screen displaying the images delivered by the scientific camera – totally black.
“Must be the shutter of the camera, stuck again, or a loose wire,” he said. “Although...” he paused a few seconds, his forehead furrowed. “I’ll go and take a look. I can probably fix it quickly.”
“But Professor,” complained Nikolai, “you know the safety regul–”
“Oh please!” interrupted Kasparov. “No need to remind me about the regulations, those are for inexperienced people. I’ve done this many times. Don’t worry.”
“Ye— Yes, I know that you are very familiar with this telescope... probably more than anyone else...”
“And you also know that asking for assistance would mean waiting hours for the technicians to come. We would hardly get any observations for the rest of the night.” Kasparov’s face flushed. “Observing time on these large telescopes is precious. I don’t really want to waste half a night, especially such a clear one!”
Nikolai pursed his lips.
“Please park the telescope in the horizontal position,” requested Kasparov.
“Fine, I will override the automatic control system,” replied Nikolai.
Kasparov grimaced, as he did every time he was reminded of the new telescope control system. The BTA-6 telescope’s Technical Committee had recently approved an upgrade to the telescope software control system, prompted by an apparently ‘very convenient’ offer by an American company. Kasparov thought this had been a waste of money. He deemed the previous system just fine. Funding for science was under strain everywhere across the globe and Russia was no exception. As if that was not enough, in recent years the Russian government had diverted most astronomy resources to the space sector, claiming that the future of astronomical exploration was through telescopes in orbit. This had resulted in further draining of funds from ground-based telescopes, such as the BTA-6. In such a grim climate it was really inappropriate to spend money on fancy but unnecessary control systems. Kasparov made no secret of his reservations.
He left the control room, closing the door behind him, passed through a few narrow corridors and entered the huge expanse inside the dome. The interior of the vast dome always gave him the impression of entering a cathedral. A cathedral erected to serve science and human knowledge.
The telescope, dimly lit only by the glow of the Milky Way’s billions of stars filtered through the dome’s slit, was in a nearly vertical position. It was still pointing to Messier 12, now close to the zenith, the highest point in the sky.
The huge, concave mirror of the telescope was facing up. Fanning out from its perimeter, eight massive steel tubes supported a large metal ring 26 metres above the mirror. Inside this ring, four smaller tubes held the large scientific camera at its centre. The camera collected the light focused by the large mirror and sent the resulting images to the computer in the control room. Externally the camera looked like a black cylinder, more than two metres long, with a large lens on the side facing the mirror, and electrical wires sprouting out of its sides.
The whole telescope structure was moving rigidly while slowly tracking the movement of Messier 12 in the sky. The low humming of the gears and motors was echoing inside the dome.
The telescope stopped its movement and remained still for a few seconds. Nikolai had finally halted the tracking and given the command, Kasparov thought.
The telescope started to lean, faster and faster. The sounds of the gears and the accelerating motors became louder and high-pitched. The telescope kept tilting until it reached a nearly horizontal position, as if observing something on the nearby mountains.
Everything was now still and silent.
Kasparov scanned the whole telescope, back and forth. It was rare to see it lying down. Although more than 40 years old, it was still a stunning piece of technology. In this position, the large, curved mirror was nearly vertical. The long tubes attached to its edges were nearly horizontal and were holding the camera at a height of about ten metres above Kasparov’s head.
He approached the tall mobile scaffolding, parked on one side, which was used for maintaining the telescope and its instrumentation. He moved the scaffolding towards the telescope until its top reached the camera. He then blocked the scaffolding wheels, put on the safety harness and started climbing to the top. When he was at the height of the camera he hooked his harness to the scaffolding frame, leaned onto the camera and started checking the various wires and connectors. Everything appeared in order.
Placing one foot on one of the tubes holding the camera, he started to inspect its front side.
He froze – hearing the telescope’s motors engaging.
The telescope started to rotate horizontally. Kasparov grasped the camera to avoid the ten-metre fall. The telescope kept moving fast and hit the scaffolding. While still clinging to the camera, which was swiftly moving together with the whole telescope, he watched with horror as the scaffolding gradually leaned over, pushed by the telescope’s frame. It kept leaning... it toppled. But its fall was halted by Kasparov’s harness, still firmly hooked to it. The weight of the scaffolding was pulling Kasparov down. He would not survive the fall if his grip slipped.
“Nikolai!” he yelled.
The telescope wouldn’t stop spinning and the scaffolding, dragged by Kasparov’s harness, was clattering, rattling and hitting all kind of hardware on its way. While still gripping the camera with his left hand, he managed to free his right hand to reach a Swiss knife inside his pocket. He unfolded the blade with his teeth and swiftly cut the harness. The scaffolding crashed loudly onto the ground.
Suddenly the telescope stopped.
Nikolai, that clumsy student, must have finally realised the mess he had caused, Kasparov thought. He panted with relief. Still clinging onto the camera, he looked down at the pieces of scaffolding scattered over the ground, ten metres beneath him.
“Nikolai! You could have killed me! Come here immediately and help me!” yelled Kasparov.
The control room, as well as most of the offices in the building, were insulated very well to cope with the chilly winter nights, which also resulted in perfect soundproofing. To enable communications, the inside of the dome had an intercom that was continuously connected with the control room. So, surely, Nikolai must have heard the loud noise, the clattering of the scaffolding being dragged and its crashing onto the ground, as well as Kasparov’s cry for help.
Silence. Absolute silence.
No reply from Nikolai through the intercom.
Kasparov twisted his head in an effort to look at the dome’s entrance door, expecting Nikolai to appear at any moment now. The door remained firmly shut.
He began to sweat.
The telescope started moving again, this time higher, towards the zenith. Was Nikolai trying to kill him?
As the telescope continued towards its vertical position, Kasparov’s grip slipped. He desperately tried to find other parts of either the camera or the telescope to grab, but any new grasp would quickly become ineffective as the telescope’s frame kept tilting, moving him higher, higher and higher. It was like riding a giant wild beast.
As the telescope reached its final, vertical position he lost his grip. He fell... but managed to grab two wires that were hanging out of the camera.
He looked down. He was now 25 metres above the telescope’s large mirror. He could see the reflected image of the starry sky, and himself, dangling high in the air.
The telescope was now still.
No sound of steps approaching. No hint of a human presence beside him.
Kasparov looked at the wires that he was grasping. They were thin but apparently strong enough to hold his weight.
His hand felt a vibration coming from the point where the wires were attached to the camera. The connectors were giving away. One broke, leaving the wire limp in his now dangling hand. Kasparov quickly grasped the only available wire with both hands.
The connector attached to the remaining wire started cracking under the strain of his weight. He looked around frantically. There was no other point within reach that he could grab.
The second connector came off.
He hurtled into the mirror of his beloved telescope.
The fall only lasted a few seconds. He saw his image, reflected by the huge mirror, getting larger and larger, with the starred vault petrified behind him.
Strangely the impact was not painful. Just sudden blackness.
Lying on the mirror, and the glittering night sky reflected in it, it was as if Kasparov was floating in space, among his adored stars. His head was next to the silvery Milky Way, now crossed by a scarlet stream.