Chapter Fifty-One

Joseph-Louis Lagrange was an eighteenth-century French mathematician who determined that two large orbiting bodies in space could create gravitational pockets in which a third object, smaller than the first two, could become trapped and held in place.

According to Lagrange’s mathematical formulas, five such Lagrange points were created by the gravitational pull of the sun and the earth. Another five such points existed as a result of the competing tug of gravity caused by the earth and the moon.

All of this, of course, was mere theory until American and Russian scientists, during the early years of space exploration, verified that all five of the solar and lunar Lagrange points actually existed. Some were stable. Some were not. Those with stability have proven useful over the years as places to park geosynchronous satellites where they can be held in place with little or no maintenance.

Lunar Lagrange Point Two, or L2, was one of the less stable of these points. In order to hold an object at lunar L2, regular periodic maintenance is required. Without such maintenance the object in question will either be spun off into space or crash into the moon. For this as well as other reasons, lunar L2 is generally not deemed useful as a location for parking satellites.

However, for Larry Leffort and Project Thor, L2 offered immense advantages that far outweighed its gravitational instability. L2 is located on the back side of the moon. An object placed in an elliptical halo orbit at L2 could be maintained as if in a raceway at intense velocity. It would be visible from the earth for only short periods each day at the outer edge of its elliptical flight pattern, during which time maintenance could be performed to hold it in place. During the rest of the time, an object at lunar L2 would be completely concealed from the earth by the face of the moon. Unless someone was looking for it or knew it was there, the chances of observing it were not great, especially if it was held in this pattern for only a short time.

Leffort smiled as he settled in behind the control desk in the jungle enclave north of Coba. He looked at the array of four large computer screens in front of him to check the progress made since his departure from his office at NASA’s Caltech facility in California. In less than ten days, the scientists at Coba had done a fine job. But then the software and classified information that Leffort had given them was spot-on.

Leffort had delivered to them access and complete control over two test weapons.

These Near-Earth Objects (NEOs) had been carefully selected and harvested by NASA from among the hundreds that had been identified in the last decade as possible earth impactors and therefore potential hazards. They had been further whittled down based on size, composition, and velocity. In the end they had settled on two relatively small iron-core asteroids, each one approximately twice the size of a school bus.

During the initial trial phase, tractor rocket motors had been attached to each of the asteroids and tested. The results far exceeded anything NASA could have expected. In less than a year, each of the asteroids had been nudged and guided into a pattern in the inner solar system that made it clear to NASA that maneuvering the objects with precision in space was entirely feasible.

Beyond this, the telecommand and telemetry software that would allow the asteroids to be parked at the L2 location behind the moon had been computer tested with a high level of reliability and assurance. NASA was confident this could be done.

The space agency was about to move the objects back out and dispose of them in a collision course with the sun when suddenly they lost control of both impactors.

Leffort had introduced a virus into the JPL computers that controlled the rockets and the experimental gravity tractors. The software controlling the telecommands was the key to the kingdom. Leffort notified Bruno that the scientists in Mexico, using the software Leffort had supplied to them, now had control of the system.

At first NASA didn’t know what was happening. They knew it was a software failure, but they couldn’t be sure of the cause. And while it ran a wrinkle through their experiment, the test was largely concluded. There was no real reason to pursue it. Over the next several months they would have time to find it and fix it. But there was no real urgency.

The two asteroids were moving at speeds incomprehensible to the average person, in excess of forty thousand miles per hour. This was more than twenty times the speed of the fastest rifle bullet on Earth and more than twice as fast as the manned missions to the moon.

Trying to relocate the two missing asteroids in the vastness of space using the narrow focal range of their telescopes was like trying to find a speeding needle scanning the sky through a drinking straw. NASA knew there was no chance of an accidental impact with Earth based on the last telemetry readings before they lost contact. Both asteroids were on a harmless trajectory out into space beyond the solar system, because that is where they were last seen.

But in fact, control had been taken by the telecommand and telemetry station that was now up and running in the jungles of the Yucatan.

Construction of this facility had been financed by Middle Eastern powers that were now awash in oil money. It had taken place during a period when the Mexican government was distracted and under a virtual state of siege by the drug cartels. Mexico was ripe for the plucking, and adversaries of the United States, the Great Satan, were well aware of this.

For thirty million dollars, the Mexican government was happy to lease two thousand acres of useless jungle to a telecommunications research lab financed by petro dollars from abroad. The promise of future jobs and potential revenue left the Mexican government to pay little attention given the other crisis they were now facing. The few Mexican officials who sought entry to the burgeoning facility in the jungle were either paid off or disappeared. Despite U.S. concerns, not all of the problems confronting them from Mexico were on their immediate southern border.

The earth survived in a veritable shooting gallery of rocks streaming through space at tens of thousands of miles per hour. Some of these objects were the size of large cities. A few were the size of states. Conservative estimates placed the number of possible extinction-level objects in near-Earth orbit at more than one thousand, of which to date scientists had located and identified only a small percentage.

The potential for destruction was catastrophic. Major collisions with large asteroids were known to have caused extinction-level events in the planet’s history. It was, in fact, an irony to Leffort that the antenna array erected in the Yucatan jungle and the building from which he was now working sat less than a hundred miles from the center of one of the largest asteroid strikes in global history.

Sixty-five million years ago, the Chicxulub asteroid, estimated to be six miles in diameter, slammed into the western Caribbean just a few miles off the Yucatan coast. It created a crater one hundred and ten miles in diameter, believed to be the largest impact structure on the face of the earth. The heat generated by the collision vaporized entire forests. It ejected mountains of material into space. Much of this would have ignited into incandescence upon reentry into the atmosphere, superheating the air and setting off monumental wildfires around the globe.

The Chicxulub impactor was believed to have buried itself in the earth’s crust in less than a second, creating seismic sea waves thousands of feet high. It is also believed that it was the effects of this asteroid striking the earth that spelled extinction for the dinosaurs.

It was only natural that nations would deploy their science to find ways of warding off such future threats to man’s survival. Soon a proliferation of acronyms abounded-NEAR, NEAT, NEOSSat, and NEOwise and the Torino Scale-all created for measuring the size and potential for impact of each threat.

From there it was but a question of time before some enterprising soul saw the potential for arresting the threat only to transform it into history’s ultimate weapon. Harness an asteroid of the right size and composition, temper its velocity and guide it with precision, and your enemy could be wiped from the face of the earth as if swatted by the hand of God.

Leffort mused at the constantly changing state of the world and the narrow-minded vision of its “leaders” with their rigid timeworn concepts of geopolitics.

Decades earlier the United States had studied and dismissed the use of NEOs as potential weapons of mass destruction. The studies concluded that the kinetic energy stored in these missiles of nature far surpassed the destructive power of anything man-made, including the most devastating nuclear warheads. Yet they waddled in their own ignorance. They dismissed NEOs on grounds that they couldn’t be fashioned to fit the prevailing stratagem of the moment, the Cold War concept of MAD-Mutually Assured Destruction.

The defense experts operated on the assumption that the time needed to harness and hurl meteors and asteroids at selected targets on the surface of the earth, while scientifically possible, would cost too much and take too long to be a feasible and effective deterrent to those adversaries that already possessed nuclear arms.

They put the studies on the shelf to collect dust and waited. Since then the world had been turned upside down by the concept of asymmetrical warfare.

Acts of insurgency now used methods of attack and civilian terror no longer confined to conventional battlefields. The dread of nuclear-tipped missiles over Manhattan was replaced by the threat of dirty bombs or nuclear devices smuggled in the hold of a ship or on the back of a truck. The use of subnationals as proxies of terror to mask acts of war by sponsoring states became the norm. Rules of restraint based on deterrence, the old fear of massive retaliation, had gone the way of the goony bird.

In such a world, the veiled promise of nature’s own instruments of destruction could not go unnoticed for long. DARPA and the Defense Department dredged up the old studies and dusted them off. Suddenly they realized the risk. The science of steering objects in space was a known technology mastered by a growing number of states. Streaking fire across the sky, an iron asteroid sufficiently large to survive Earth’s atmosphere, whether by cataclysmic impact with Earth or by atmospheric burst, would deliver more death and destruction in a moment of time than any preemptive nuclear strike. And in the sign of the times, all of this could be carried out under cover of an unfathomable act of nature.