Tuesday, March 17, 2015

#134 New Neighbors

By the time the second volcano erupted on Mars, everyone in the world knew about it.

Astronomy usually isn’t a hot topic in the news, but this was big, really big. People were pulling out their backyard telescopes from Australia to Africa to Alaska and squinting at the pale gray smear of active volcanic smoke across the orange canvas of Mars’ desolate surface. Rovers were converging on the spot, speeding across the terrain as fast as their solar panels could soak up sunlight. Orbiting probes were snapping pictures on every fly-by. Instead of peering into deep space, Hubble was now focused full time on photographing Mars. Scientific theories were being overturned left and right.

And then the third volcano erupted, and everything changed.

With a first and second volcano already spouting gasses into the near vacuum of Mars’ atmosphere, you might not think a third one would be a tremendous surprise. It wasn’t so much a third volcano that shocked us. It was the position of it.

The three volcanoes made a perfect isoscolese triangle. The first one at the top, the other two at either ends of the wide base. It wasn’t any old isoscolese triangle either. It was the one you get if you slice off the top triangle of a regular hexagon.

So maybe it shouldn’t have surprised us when a fourth volcano erupted, now forming a perfect equilateral triangle with the second and third, with the first one exactly in the center.

But it did. Up until then it might have been a wild coincidence. Human brains are wired to find patterns in things, and maybe this simple mathematical geometry was some kind of an accident.

Once that fourth volcano showed up, there was no more denying it.

On the surface of Mars the volcanoes were hundreds of miles apart, yet perfectly spaced to as accurate a measurement as we could make. There was no natural phenomenon we knew of that could cause such a thing.

I remember the first time I saw the fourth volcano, on my phone, the image forwarded by a friend, and realized with perfect certainty that we weren’t alone in the universe.

Heck, we weren’t even alone in the solar system anymore.

I had to get up there and see what was going on.

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