“Front Row Seats”

By Chris Airiau

Once the Atmospheric Exoplanetary-Observation Narrowband telescope was announced, Lyn Coldfield began writing observation code as her undergrad project. She knew the work was purely academic, speculative, and she’d have to change—well, probably everything.

Lyn amended as she studied, transmuted her hopeful gesture into a thesis in grad school. She developed research papers and a dissertation on the subject to become Dr. Lyn Coldfield, the name under which she wrote more publications during her post-doc. She saw her work come to fruition by joining the AEON team.

Dr. Coldfield managed the research target lists. Many exoplanets first discovered by the previous generation of exoplanet-detecting telescopes remained important candidates: all within ±2.0 planetary masses, in the habitable zone, and orbiting stars in stable systems.

But primary targets changed. Dr. Coldfield collaborated with astrophysicists worldwide to develop new star chart models based the Celestial catalogue—an ongoing project of a fellow space agency. Operating the dynamic galactic map could swing time back and forth to see how stars moved through the galaxy. And with these models, it was possible to figure out which of the candidate exoplanets sat within the Observational Transit Zone, and could potentially see their planet.

Lyn held little faith in discovering life so close, but she and her colleagues convinced the AEON team to bump the OTZ candidates within 30 parsecs to the top of the list.

The first dumps of data were too controversial to believe, let alone release to the public. So they performed calibration tests, updated the AEON’s systems, and waited and listened. And got the same results.

AEON detected signatures of life in the atmosphere of IMP 10084d, an exoplanet square in the habitable zone, with a planetary mass differential of ±0.9, and only 11.617 parsecs away. The sisterworld had life.

Someone slipped, and LAST—the Lunar Aperture Spherical Telescope tuned to IMP 10084d. They heard something. Artificial radio noise, analogous to a broadcast.

Lyn blew her lid. And so did the whole planet.

The first signal they could piece together—billions of times fainter than its source—coalesced as an audiovisual medium. LAST invited Lyn and the AEON team to the screening:

Some sort of writing appeared on a… computer screen? And then, a photo of a woman. Recognizably a woman, two eyes and a nose and white teeth. Though an alien skin tone, a sort of light, pinkish beige, and even stranger yellow hair of the sort rarely even seen on rebellious youth. But a person?

The images passed quickly from an aerial accident, to the woman lying in a room resembling a surgical suite. The video switched to a primitive vector graph of a woman’s body, and digital depictions of mechanical components within her skull, arm and legs. This was followed by footage of the woman using this technology. She appeared as if no accident had ever occurred.

The joint AEON/LAST team estimated the video was broadcast for dissemination to IMP 10084d’s population approximately 38 orbits prior to their collection of the transmission.

How could life mirror their own so closely? Why was this civilization broadcasting biomechanical technology—exceeding their own—to the public? Were they celebrating science? Was it propaganda? Entertainment?

Another three IMP-d orbits spent collecting and distributing data yielded the first key to cracking one of the languages: a recurring program called Sesame Street.

IMP-d was called Earth—in their language Lyn’s world was called Ball. Earth had a fossil record much much older than theirs. They had a scientific field called evolution that was nonexistent on Ball—there was no precedent for the theory to build from. Through all the medical and biological information they could glean, the people of Ball were humans just as on Earth.

The only way to understand how this could have occurred was to talk to them. The OZT window would be open for another 106 Earth years. Ball broadcast. Lyn hoped the Earth would listen.

This flash piece was directly inspired by Lisa Kaltenegger & Jackie Faherty’s June 23, 2021 Nature publication “Past, Present and Future Stars That Can See Earth as a Transiting Exoplanet”. The main character is named after them: Lyn (from Jackie, Jacquelyn) Coldfield (a shoddy translation of Kaltenegger).

I’ve used a roman à clef format to replace names of real scientific equipment. AEON is a specialized version of the James Webb Space Telescope; the last generation of exoplanet-detecting telescopes—though this wasn’t their sole function—are the Kepler Space Telescope and the Hubble; the Celestial catalogue is based on ESA’s Gaia eDR3 catalog; what I call the Observational Transit Zone (OTZ) is actually the Earth Transit Zone (ETZ); IMP is HIP; LAST is a play on FAST, the Five hundred meter Aperture Spherical Telescope in China.

To the best of my knowledge, however, there is no G-type main sequence star within the Earth Transit Zone 11.617 parsecs (37.89 light years) from Sol, let alone an exoplanet with characteristics nearly identical to ours.

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This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License.

Published by ChrisAiriau

I'm a science and SF content creator, specializing in writing technical scientific concepts in clear and engaging language. Alongside many writing and editing side-projects, I taught English in French universities for eight years. At university, I worked mainly for engineering Master’s programs and science undergraduates – from economics to physics, biology to psychology. My goal is to tailor SF and science content to a diverse range of audiences, and my background provides all the necessary tools to succeed.

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