Book 2 - Alien? Cousins

Chapter 2 - Stimson’s Aero - conference room


Twenty-four-year-old Myron Kenichi Watson had started his doctoral coursework in thermal imaging technology at Stanford University earlier that fall. He had used his regular summer job as a fire lookout atop Schonchin Butte, a volcanic cinder cone in Lava Beds National Monument in northern California, to field-test his current version of computer-controlled thermal-anomaly cameras to augment his vision in watching for the early signs of forest or brushland wildfires. During the past summer he had upgraded his cameras and their optical systems, and the program he had written for their control computer, to recognize and disregard the characteristic thermal signature of the sun as reflected from objects in the cameras’ field of view. When linked with additional, identical cameras atop Hippo and Caldwell Buttes, his system had pinpointed the location of several small lightning-caused fires to within five feet, sometimes detecting and identifying them well before they became visible to his excellent eyesight, even while he looked through powerful binoculars directly at the spot his fire-detection system indicated.

This evening, he had been giving a talk on automated wildfire detection systems to local firefighters in the conference room in the loft above Stimson’s Aero, a small light-aircraft maintenance company housed in one of the service buildings at the edge of San Carlos Airport on the San Francisco Peninsula. He had set up two of his cameras atop the building in fixed positions looking east-southeast, slightly off to the left of the airport’s normal approach path – except that this evening’s light, fickle winds were coming from all directions, but mostly from the south-east, just to the right of the direction in which the cameras were pointed, so the occasional light plane leaving the airport was moving away from them, flying into the wind and exposing its hot exhaust to the cameras’ view.

Myron’s control computer had been plotting in real time the position and course of all the light airplanes leaving the airport, indicating their engine-exhaust temperatures as trace colors. Now after the conclusion of the formal discussion, only five people remained in the room: Myron; his 26-year-old sister Alice and her self-declared but not actual boyfriend Erik Hessler; a California Department of Forestry fire-line boss named Al Beatty; and Ron Cornelius, an elderly representative of the Hiller Aviation Museum across the airport. All had gathered around Myron’s computer for a vigorous if impromptu discussion. They were watching the plot monitor, which at the moment was displaying a partial map of the area near the airport, on which the computer was now tracing the path taken by someone about a quarter-mile away, outside the airport perimeter fence, who was smoking a cigarette and walking a dog along a well-worn walking trail.

“Myron,” said Al, “I was stationed near Lexington Reservoir a few years back before we went to automated lookout stations, and we had a fire pop off one night after I had turned in, likely a hiker’s cigarette that must have smoldered for maybe half a day or longer. This system could have given us at least six or seven hours’ jump on it if we’d had it then. Just out of curiosity, how much range does this thing have as you’ve got it set up here, and how close can you pinpoint a small fire?”

“Mr. Beatty, depending on the optics – that is, the lenses used – to all intents and purposes the camera range is limited only by its sensitivity and the size and overall energy output of a heat source, for example a fire or even that cigarette, compared to background heat. Small, relatively cool sources like that cigarette can’t be seen from very far away with these cameras, but they could spot a burning tree from well over 50 miles. These cameras are similar to those used by some amateur astronomers for infrared, or IR, star photography, but for locating a fire with any real accuracy you have to get two or more of them far enough apart to get good triangulation. When I had these cameras set up last summer, most of the range to fires was less than ten miles, and the cameras were up to about five miles apart, so I could often get really good triangulation and spot a fire within a few feet if it was anywhere within the direct line of sight of at least two cameras. They were on motor-driven turrets so I could aim them around and read their azimuth angle – where they were pointed on the compass, and altitude – that’s their angle up or down relative to horizontal, to one minute of angle, which is 1/60th of a degree. At ten miles, that comes out to just under sixteen feet of angular resolution for a pin-point heat source. The computer had a pretty good 3-D map in memory, so it could practically tell you behind which big rock to look for a fire. If we had a lightning strike and these cameras spotted a little smoldering fire up in a snag – sorry, that’s a dead tree – well if you were carrying a good handheld GPS receiver like one of the new Magellan or Garmin units, theoretically I should be able to practically walk you right up to that tree so you could reach out and shake hands with it, but I’m getting carried away with details, sorry.

“Here tonight, I only put up two cameras, they’re fixed to look in only one direction and are tilted up so the ground is almost at the bottom of their field of view, and at 250 feet of separation they’re too close together to get really good triangulation more than a few miles away. I have fairly wide-angle lenses on them, too, so right now I’ve got this software set up to discard anything farther away than two and a half miles as determined by the computer through offset triangulation. Now, if I set the “max range” option to “none,” like this, and then set the radius shown on the plot monitor to – oh, give me a distance, please?”

“50 miles.”

“That’s a bit far, but now if I set the maximum radius to 50 miles, like this, the computer re-starts the program, overrides the “no maximum” range and assumes the 50-mile radius used for the plot monitor is the maximum range we’re interested in, and scales the USGS contour map in memory that I’m using as a reference to meet that range. I’m not happy with that override/restart function; just like with a radar unit you might want to look at a large area for awhile, then switch to closer in, then switch back to the larger area without losing the history of whatever you might have been looking at. Right now, this program will lose all prior data when resetting the current maximum radius for the plot monitor, but that’s only a relatively simple code change and I just haven’t gotten around to it yet. Anyway, here we’re now building a track file on every heat source these cameras can see, out to the 50-mile extreme range limit we just set. See these circled blips all over the screen at longer ranges?”

“Yeah, how come they’re like that? But first, why did you say you aren’t happy with your program?”

“Well, this program was originally designed to locate fires on the ground within ten miles, and those don’t move around very fast, especially when seen from a distance. I didn’t then think of looking at distant targets with a lot of angular velocity; hot stuff that moves around fast or a lot, like maybe an airplane exhaust, isn’t usually of much interest to the fire spotter. Watching the guy out there with the cigarette, and the heat signatures from those planes that are the circled heat sources gives me some more ideas, though – sometime I’ll have to think about them. However, your other question – to get any particular accuracy at this maximum range I’d really need these cameras to be maybe a half-mile or more apart instead of only 250 feet, which is only about three and a quarter minutes of angle at 50 miles, so these yellow circles indicate a very rough estimation of range, pretty much limited by the pixel angular resolution of the infra-red image pickups in these cameras. They’re pretty good CCD’s; they have pixel spacing of 14 microns, but using the wide-angle lenses that are on those cameras just now, I can’t get tight enough angular resolution to spot the range to some of those planes closer than to within several miles, depending on how far away they are, and how far off-center they are in the cameras’ field of view. It’s just an exercise in math, and the computer has all this information, so with these circles it’s just reminding us it isn’t sure exactly where those planes are; it’s just giving us a rough approximation – that’s why they seem to jump around a lot.”

“Interesting, it’s showing different colors for those planes just as it did earlier with the little ones taking off from here.”

“Yeah, that’s called ‘false color,’ and shows differences in temperatures. I use dark blue for coolest, through yellow and then bright red for the hottest, kind of opposite from reality, but that’s just for my own convenience; I could use any color scheme. Here the heat’s largely a function of engine type – newer jet aircraft have what’re called ‘high-bypass’ engines: most of the thrust is actually developed by a big fan in the front of the engine; all the engine really does is just spin the fan. Most of the air from the fan is blown around the engine, not through it, and mixes with the actual engine exhaust just behind the engine, and that produces what looks like a cooler overall exhaust. If I could set up a camera fairly close to a running jet engine like one on a 747, we could look at the exhaust plume and see the hot spots and how they mix out, but I wasn’t intending to try that tonight. Hello, look, this is different! Yow, it’s hot! What is it?”

A bright red dot appeared near the top of the monitor screens showing the raw video from the two cameras, moving down rapidly; on the plot monitor a circled blip glowed virulent red. At a flicker of light from the windows, all eyes turned to watch a small, bright light arrow downwards in the distance. Suddenly it gave off a bright yellowish flash in what looked like an explosion, small points of light scattering and continuing downwards, but more slowly, and most dimming out before they reached the hills across the Bay. One of the sparks continued downward much as before, disappearing into those hills.

“Oh, that was a good one! I’ve only seen a few meteors that bright; when they break up like that I always wonder if I could find any of the small stuff.” said Alice. “It looks as if maybe some of the pieces made it to the ground.”

“I’m not so sure that was just a meteor, Sis,” said Myron in a grim voice. “I think maybe we got a problem here; look at the plot monitor.”

The plot monitor showed a short bright-red line, indicating the meteor had been moving almost vertically, but also a dim blue track through that line, coming from the extreme top edge of the screen just left of center, and pointed roughly toward the lower-left corner. These two lines crossed; where they met a red blob was still fading from the screen, and the dim line became slightly greenish, lengthening generally along its former course. On the monitors showing the output from the cameras, a dim blue-green heat source was visible, drifting slowly left but remaining fairly steady in its elevation angle.

“Anybody got a set of night binoculars?” asked Myron. “I think maybe we just saw a midair collision, God I hope I’m wrong! Sis, you’ve got the head for numbers, how high is this thing?”

“I’ve got some 10 by 50s out in the truck, I’ll get ’em,” said Al, already heading down the stairs for the door to the parking lot.

Alice came around the table to stand behind Myron’s chair, looking at the monitors. “Range is about, oh, call it 35 miles; elevation angle is around 60 degrees, almost at the top of your cameras’ field of view – that puts that explosion up somewhere around, oh, about 250,000 feet. What flies that high?”

Erik had been at the meeting just because Alice was there. His declared hobby interest was airframe design theory, which wasn’t surprising because he worked at the NASA-Ames Research Center at Moffett Field. He never talked about his work. Now he spoke, “There’s supposed to be some new military research stuff that’s said to fly that high, but look at how slow that thing is; it must be doing only around 250 miles an hour or so. Unless it’s some sort of super ultralight, there just isn’t enough air up that high to support much of anything so slow. You sure this isn’t just another bug in your little system, Myron?”

“No, Erik, my bugs don’t draw phantom traces like this.” The spot at the leading end of the trace on the plot monitor suddenly changed brightness and color several times. “They don’t show heat excursions like that, either. We just saw some high-temperature flares here; whatever that thing is must be in trouble and it’s getting hotter. Look, it’s now coming down fast, looks as if it’s falling – no, that can’t be right ’cause it’s coming down ’way too fast. Power dive, maybe; that’s gotta be one rough ride!”

Al came back in through the shop’s rear door. “Where is that thing now, Myron? I can’t see any lights where I thought I should; maybe I’m looking in the wrong place. Oh, yeah, I also brought in my pocket scanner; let’s see if the tower here has any radio traffic. Ought to be somebody who’s seen that flare; folks tend to talk a lot when something like that shows up.” He looked at the people staring at the monitors and stopped in his tracks – their faces had all gone ashen.

Alice said, “I can’t imagine this – Erik, that thing is showing as coming down at – what – maybe half a million feet per minute. That’s what, five or six thousand miles an hour.”

“Hold it, Sis. We just got another heat flare, that thing just slowed its dive to something like – um – maybe 20,000 feet a minute. Erik, you gotta come clean, man, what flies like this?”

Erik was starting to answer when Al’s scanner found the tower frequencies. The voice from the small speaker said, “Fffft! thousand and descending, ground speed now two-six-five knots. We may still have medical personnel on board; I will inform you what we may need when I find out.”

“Fffft! urvey ’21, San Carlos. I don’t recognize your flight profile sir, please state your aircraft type and flight origin.”

“Fffft! an Carlos, we’re an orbital survey vehicle, ma’am, but we have adequate maneuvering ability.”

“Fffft! oger Survey ’21. How much runway do you need, sir?”

“Fffft! an Carlos, we don’t, we land vertically like a helicopter, we need about a 400-foot diameter clear surface, ordinary dirt will do if it’s fairly level. We won’t be ground maneuverable immediately; can you please spot us somewhere out of the way? We suggest the empty lot beside the far end of the ramp near the east corner of your facility – we have your airport in sight now and that area is clear.”

“Fffft! urvey ’21, San Carlos. You are cleared for a straight-in approach and emergency landing at your discretion. Please be advised that site is unimproved and might not be completely free of debris.”

“Fffft! an Carlos, Survey ’21. Thank you, it looks good enough to us as-is.”

“Oh, shit!” said Eric. He grabbed his coat and ran down the stairs and out of the shop through the parking lot doorway.

Alice looked up. “Well, that was rude,” she said. “Myron, do you have a blank cassette for your VCR?”

“Yeah, Sis, four or five of ’em, they’re in that box by your foot – I wanna get this on tape, too, in case I run outta room on this hard drive. The camcorder has a blank tape in it, the batteries were charged before we left the house. Maybe we can get tape of this latest Sovietski bird – wonder where they learned to speak English so well. What’s bugging Erik, anyhow?” Outside, the distinctive sound of Erik’s expensive sports car could be heard as it started up, accelerating hard as it left.

Opening the box Myron had indicated, Alice reached in and picked up a VHS cassette in its box. “He gets nervous around anything even vaguely resembling a chopper, won’t tell me why. This one?” she asked.

“Yeah, that whole bunch is blank. Hey, grab your phone and call Dad while I load that tape – thanks.” Alice handed him a cassette, picking up her phone while he turned to load the VCR connected to his computer. “Al, you see anything yet?”

“I just picked up a red strobe-light in about the direction where that heat source should be,” said Al. “Don’t see any steady lights, just the one red strobe – well, maybe two, looks almost like one over the other; they pulse together about once a second, that’s faster than usual. Real bright, too, and look stationary.”

Myron glanced at his monitors. “Right now that thing’s coming straight at us like it’s on rails; unless it changes course you won’t see it move, just get bigger and brighter.” He typed for a few moments on his keyboard, then started the VCR. “Well, now we’ll get time marks on this tape. Gotta make sure the camcorder says the same time – okay, 11:08, close enough, this computer gets its time reference off the GPS system, hopefully nobody will give us any grief if they’re off by a few seconds.

“Oh damn, I forgot! Let’s see if I have a mike in here –” Myron jumped out of his chair and rummaged in the box from which his sister had just gotten the tape cassette. “All right! – at least we won’t lose any more of the audio on this thing.” He plugged the microphone into his VCR, setting it on the table next to Al’s scanner. “OK, Boris, get talkative.”