Sunday, March 20, 2050

Water Run

It may seem odd that I should have abandoned Pluto so soon after landing there, but there was an important step in the establishment of the base to be performed, and it couldn't be performed on Pluto. So, within a few hours of landing at Point South, Pluto Station reverted again to being the Cerberus, and I took off from the spot I had dubbed First Landing.

One of the features that made the Pluto mission so attractive to the Agency (ie, cheap) was that there was a vast supply of water available only 19,600 kilometers away. The main reason the settlements on the moon and Mars are still as small as they are is that both have to be supplied with all of their water from Earth. Me, all I had to do was travel to Charon, which was basically a big drop of frozen water 1217 kilometers in diameter.

There had been some discussion during the planning phase over whether I should link up with the Hades again or just go straight to Charon in the Cerberus. Simplicity ruled the day, as it so often has with the Pluto mission: docking with Hades and moving the whole ship a mere 19,600 kilometers was unnecessary when the Cerberus was perfectly capable of making the trip on its own.

Once the Cerberus acheived escape velocity from Pluto (not a difficult task), I had the computer set course for Charon. Less than twelve hours later, the Cerberus entered orbit around Charon, and I picked a landing spot. As with Pluto, the south pole seemed as good a place as any, and after examing the area with the ship's telescope, I decided the pole itself was suitable. The computer performed the necessary calculations and maneuvers, and within the hour the Cerberus had landed and been transformed into Charon Station.

Gravity on Charon is about half that on Pluto, or about a thirtieth that on Earth. The water ice, though, still had all its normal supply of inertia, so it wasn't a matter of simply tossing ice boulders around. I made use of a couple of tools that had been designed by the mission planners for this very purpose. One was a simple blowtorch that I used to cut free pieces of ice, and the other was a cart with an attached winch that I used to pick up and transport the ice. The outer hull of Charon Station had been fitted with nets, and all I had to do was winch up the ice and then drop it in the nets. All told, it took me three days to load a year's supply of water onto Charon Station. There was no need to worry about all the extra mass, since the Cerberus basically ran on water: electolysis separated oxygen from hydrogen, the oxygen became my atmosphere, and the hydrogen was fused into helium to provide power for the engine.

Once the ice was loaded and the water tanks and fuel tanks were topped up, I could relax and spend some time exploring around Charon's south pole. It's easy to imagine from Earth that Charon is just a big, smooth ball of ice, but it's not so. Charon undergoes enough temperature changes in the course of its 248-year orbit around the Sun that the ice expands and contracts, causing fissures to open up and blocks to be thrust up from below. I took a lot of pictures, and a few of them, such as the Flatiron, the Charon Arch, and the Split Tower, have become iconic symbols of Charon, just as Orthanc and the Target have become iconic symbols of Pluto.

Every year since then, I've made another voyage to Charon, to mine more water ice and do more exploring. I like it there. There's a blue tinge to the water ice that I find particularly relaxing, and it's always with a certain amount of regret that I pack up and leave for Pluto.

No comments: