From NASA’s Curiosity rover, taken on its 956th Martian mission day (April 15th, 2015, Earth time), the first colour image of sunset on Mars. Our sun setting on another world… To coin an old Vulcan phrase, “fascinating.” (via BoingBoing)
Forty five years ago this week the roar of the enormous Saturn V rocket filled the Florida air, a huge structure carried high on a pillar of fire, raw power and ingenuity overcoming gravity, a technology pioneered as a dreadful new weapon of war harnessed now for a voyage into the final frontier, boldly going where no one had gone before. Apollo 8 took flight for the Moon in December of 1968; Neil and Buzz Armstrong’s historic first walk on the Moon was still a year away, but this too was a tremendously historic flight and a major milestone in the long, long history of human voyages of exploration – this saw human beings, for the first time, leave the orbit of their own, small world and travel beyond, circling right around our Moon. As Christmas 1968 approached those three astronauts were the furthest from home any human being has ever been in the history of the world – as their tiny craft’s orbit took them around the dark side of the Moon even the slender thread of radio connecting them tenuously to home was broken for a brief spell. On the dark side no contact with home, just three explorers in a piece of 1960s tech, circling another planetary body.
And then on one Lunar orbit… On one glorious moment, largely by accident, as the ship was being rotated they saw something out of the small windows on their little craft. The Moon’s surface filled the viewport and there, in the distance, on the Moon’s horizon, the planet Earth rose above the Lunar vista. Earthrise. A cosmic ballet of interleaving gravity wells and orbits that have been taking place for billions of years almost like the beautiful clockwork orrery models of the solar system. But unseen, always unseen. Until December 1968 when three men saw it for the first time – in all the ages of the world a sight no-one had beheld, a view of our entire globe slowly rising above the Moon, the sky deep black, the Earth a magnificent, shining blue, an oasis of life and warmth in the cold distances of space. And they rushed to take a photo, one of the greatest images from the history of exploration, shared with the entire world, our first view of our whole world, not just a part of it seen from low orbit, but the entire Earth seen hanging in space.
On Christmas Eve, all alone and so distant in their small vessel the astronauts read out a passage from Genesis about the mythical creation of the world and, looking back at their distant home in a way no-one before them ever could, they concluded “And from the crew of Apollo 8, we close with good night, good luck, a Merry Christmas and God bless all of you – all of you on the good Earth.” I was born in 1967, a child of the space age, grew up with my little astronaut play suit and my passion for reading took in books of astronomy and space exploration as well as daring tales of science fiction; it’s been in my blood since as long as I can recall, I still get shivers at the image of a Saturn V roaring into the heavens, watching Gravity last month, taking in that spectacular opening scene of the astronauts floating above a glowing Earth I still ached to travel there myself, as I have always dreamt of since I was a very small boy.
For me the Apollo 8 mission has always summed up both the majestic awe and the terrifying dangers of manned space exploration – an environment we never evolved for, but through a mixture of invention and courage we’ve created ways for us to venture into it, to dip our toes “into the cosmic ocean” as dear old Carl put it. So dangerous, a tiny impact on that fragile vessel and it’s all over, no great protective shields like they have on the Enterprise, no transporters and emergency shuttles if anything goes wrong, no chance of coming back if your complex calculations – carried out on primitive computers that couldn’t match a cell phone from today, or on slide rules, if you please – there isn’t enough power, air or fuel, no mighty impulse and warp engines to carry you where you want, just enough thrust and fuel to match a complicated figure of eight orbit around Earth and the Moon, get it wrong and you will drift for ever through the heavens. And yet people still dared to do it. It reminds us of how magnificent our species can be when it turns from our damned destructive impulses and towards something wonderful.
To celebrate the forty fifth anniversary of that historic voyage NASA has created a new visualisation of it, taking in the original images and crew recordings mixed with the very latest research and findings from far more advanced unmanned Lunar probes.
“And from the crew of Apollo 8, we close with good night, good luck, a Merry Christmas and God bless all of you – all of you on the good Earth.“
This is simply stunning, brief though it is, a timelapse of footage shot of our world rotating below the International Space Station (ISS), all shot in beautifully crisp HD, creating some wonderfully sharp, clear images of our planet from several dozens miles above the atmosphere. Best viewing experience is to select the fullscreen option and just glory in it for a few brief moments…
Overview is a stunning short film from the Planetary Collective, celebrating the fortieth anniversary of the famous “Blue Marble” photograph (taken by Apollo 17, see above) by talking with astronauts about the ‘overview effect’ – the change in perspective many of them experience when they get to do something that all the thousands of years of humans before the 1960s could never do: see the world from space. I’ve been a space geek since I was a very young boy, happy with a NASA costume and toy helmet, box for a ‘spaceship’ and imagination, and I’ve heard a number of astronauts and cosmonauts talk about this experience, about how viewing the world from above the clouds changes their perspective forever on how astonishing our world is, how remarkably beautiful yet fragile, how everything and everyone is interconnected… The imagery is beautiful…
With the shuttle programme – and NASA’s ability, for the moment, to send manned missions into space – now grounded and the surviving spacecraft being sent to various museums around America today there was a very special moment as a modified 747 carried a very special shuttle flying low over New York City for everyone to watch. The spacecraft was the Enterprise. The ending of the shuttle programme is much like the ending of Concorde for many of us – when we were kids they were the future, now they are history and that would be fine, it would be natural, if they were retired to make way for the next generation of craft to replace them, but they’re not. We’ve stepped backwards, it feels, become smaller. But for a final hurrah this was a remarkable one, the Enterprise, her very name resonates for many of us, flying over New York, captured here with Lady Liberty and the Empire State in the frame by Bill Ingalls:
What a remarkable shot, a couple of the great world landmarks with a piece of flying space exploration history. Enterprise was named after NASA called for a public vote to name the first spaceship; the geek community, of course, got together and made sure to vote en masse that she would be called the Enterprise, because she was the first of a series that would boldly go… Enterprise herself never brushed against the hard vacuum of space though, she started her career at NASA riding piggyback just like she was today – she was designed to test aerodynamics, a bit of a new area for spacecraft design at the time because most were odd shaped objects on the end of a rocket but the shuttle, she was meant to fly back down from orbit through the atmosphere like a conventional plane, hence the tests. As a boy I followed the emerging shuttle programme and remember well watching news reports of the Enterprise’s flights paving the way for the first full shuttle launch.
As a wee boy raised on repeats of the classic Star Trek it made me happy to see a real spacecraft being named Enterprise and, Americans being rather good at marking big occasions, when she was first revealed to the public Trek creator Gene Rodenberry and many of the original cast were there to wish her good skies, way back in 1976 (pic below and following borrowed from Space.com):
And here three and a half decades or so on is one of those illustrious crewmembers of the fictional USS Enterprise giving the Vulcan salute – live long and prosper – to his old friend, the shuttle Enterprise, as she heads for the Intrepid Sea, Air and Space Musuem in New York. Rather fitting she will be near the USS Intrepid, which any old Star Trek hand knows was the name of one of the other Constitution class starships in the original Trek, the same class of vessel as Jim Kirk’s Enterprise (Intrepid being crewed entirely by Vulcans, if my memory serves):
As I said, like with Concorde, it feels wrong to know that the shuttle are gone, that something that promised the exciting future of space exploration to a young boy is now a historical artefact in a museum and that we didn’t mothball them to make way for a new generation of faster, bigger, more efficient spacecraft. Still, one of these days there will be another Enterprise, I am sure. Larger, with a greater range, this Enterprise A, B or C ships will boldly go further… As Captain Jean-Luc Picard himself once noted when asked if they would ever build another Enterprise “plenty more letters in the alphabet”.
One day, another Enterprise, please, make it so…
(Enterprise comparison chart from Cygnus X-1 site)
Welcome to the Space Age
As Russians mark the 50th anniversary of planet Earth’s first satellite, Sputnik, taking flight IEEE Spectrum has an interview with the legendary grand old man of science fiction, Arthur C Clarke (link via Boing Boing). Clarke, of course, before becoming the hugely influential SF writer he would later become (we’re talking about a man who talked to presidents and kings as well as scientists and writers – also one of the few who was so respected he was friends with both astronauts and cosmonauts during the Cold War) wrote a speculative paper in the 1940s in which he imagined using geostationary space stations to act as relays for beaming radio signals across the entire globe, pretty much what we now have with a legion of satellites linking us up in ways we don’t even think about anymore – we use phones and watch TV largely without considering the world-changing technology which brings it to us so damned easily. All starting with a little silver ball called Sputnik going beepbeepbeepbeep around the world.
“My god, it’s full of stars…”
I looked at this astonishing image from the Hubble Space Telescope on the BBC’s site today of the red giant V838 Monocerotis, a star which exploded in 2002 and the first phrase that leapt to mind was astronaut Dave Bowman from Clarke and Kubrick’s 2001: a Space Odyssey – “my god, it’s full of stars.”
Dammit, why don’t we have those holidays in space I was promised as a kid yet?!?! I want to see these things for myself.
The BBC site had this astonishing photograph taken by the New Horizons space probe. This is Io, one of the moons of Jupiter, a world so large its collection of moons around it are like a miniature solar system (in fact it is reckoned if the gas giant Jupiter had been a bit bigger it would have reached the threshold to ignite the nuclear fires at its core and become a star, just as the sun did billions of years ago). Io is one of the Galilean satellites, one of the four larger moons first seen through an early telescope by one of my great heroes, Galileo, when he turned his new optical device on the king of planets. I’ve seen Jupiter through a large telescope at the University of Glasgow’s observatory myself, in enough resolution to see the coloured bands and even the mighty, centuries-long storm of the Great Red Spot; on either side of Jupiter’s glowing disc I saw two bright points shining like diamonds on black velvet and realised they were the moons Galileo had seen centuries before.
Io itself is a world which looks like an old-fashioned view of Hell, a surface covered in decaying yellows from sulphur, constantly reshaped by a continual series of volcanic eruptions as the enormous gravitational power of Jupiter twists the core of the little moon keeping it geologically active when most worlds that size would long have become inert, like our own moon. As well as tremendous gravitational tides the space between the moons and Jupiter is often filled with enormous amounts of high energy radiation – a beautiful but very inhospitable place; it increases my admiration for the skills of those who designed and operate these missions that these little probes can even function in such conditions. At the top of this image, almost on the terminator line separating dark from light, is an eruption from the volcano Tvashtar; this eruption is actually shooting out some 180 miles into space.
It reminds me of the triumphant Voyager missions years ago, when one woman noticed an anomaly on shots taken of Jupiter as the little probe left the system to continue its grand tour of our solar system (still the greatest voyage of discovery in human history to date). The data from those incredibly early computers was slow to process, even before taking into account the time taken to transmit that information to Earth over the vast distances. She noticed something strange and was at first unsure what she was seeing. Only slowly did she realise that one shot had, quite by accident, caught an eruption shooting right out into space from Io; a fluke shot and a chance find by that scientist to come across the first volcanic eruption humans had ever seen on another world. I’m just disappointed that all the promises of my childhood of holidays in space by the time the 2000s came around still hasn’t come to pass. When I hear idiots complaining about the money being spent on space exploration and how it could be better spent on problems on Earth (that bloody Davina McCall was the latest, showing her incredible ignorance) it infuriates me. As a percentage of budgets we spend very little on this actually; don’t demand cuts to exploration, cut the money on bloody massive weapons programmes, then we would have the budget for Earth bound problems like hunger and disease and to explore new worlds and learn more.