The Wings of the Dawn opens with an attack on the furthest inhabited outpost in the Solar System, a place – a real place, or so I thought – called ‘Karla’. When I wrote it all I could remember about it was the name, and it was always in the back of my mind to fill in some more of the fine detail. So, earlier this week, I went on to Wikipedia, hunting for a moon or an asteroid… and didn’t find it. There is no mention of a ‘Karla’ there.
This made me, as you might imagine, question myself. I was sure I remembered something called Karla. But I also knew that whenever this was, it was mentioned to me before I went to secondary school – which is now long enough ago to make me wonder if I had mis-remembered something else.
My first idea was this: I had misheard the name Quaoar. Quaoar is a dwarf planet half the size of Pluto (its diameter is about 1100km) that orbits the sun roughly 43x further away than the Earth (in other words, it’s about 401,907,000,000 miles away). Unfortunately, this doesn’t work – Quaoar wasn’t discovered until 2002, long after I’d heard about whatever Karla was.
This got me thinking – perhaps I should stop looking for the rock itself and start considering dates. The first trans-Neptunian object (i.e. a part of the Solar System beyond the orbit of Neptune) found was Pluto, in 1930, and the second was Pluto’s largest moon, Charon, in 1978; but the third wasn’t discovered until 1992. It rejoices in the name ‘(15760) 1992 QB1‘ – romantic, I know – but its discoverers, David Jewitt and Jane Luu, nicknamed it ‘Smiley’. They did so because as they waited for the computers to crunch through vast amounts of astronomical observational data they read John le Carré novels, and decided to name their first discovery after le Carré’s foremost protagonist, George Smiley.
This was the point at which all that reading of thrillers finally stood me in good stead: Smiley’s shadowy antagonist, his Soviet opposite number, is known as ‘Karla‘. So I plugged David Jewitt’s name, along with Karla’s, into Google, and found an Independent newspaper article describing the discovery of (181708) 1993 FW… which they nicknamed ‘Karla’.
It’s an unprepossessing piece of real estate, at only 155 miles in diameter, and it’s even further from the sun that Quaoar is. Light from the sun reaches us in 8 minutes; it won’t reach Karla for nearly 6 hours. It’s cold and barren and, therefore, a suitably remote station, in my books, for the safe refuelling of military starships. But what bemuses me in all this is the fact that I remembered it at all. There’s nothing special about it; nothing to thrill or excite. It was, presumably, mentioned at the tail end of the evening news one night in April when I was 9 years old. Yet for some reason it stuck with me ever since, and now it’s in my books – and, as far as I can tell, no one else’s. To me, if to no one else, it’s no moon – it’s a space station.
I can only hope doctors Jewitt and Luu approve…
Your moment of Zen for today: