You are here….

Taken by NASA’s Cassini probe earlier this month, the planet Earth is a bright pinpoint of distant light, viewed through the magnificent rings of mighty Saturn. Stunning.

This reminds me very much of one of my favourite photographs from space exploration, the famous “pale blue dot” image taken almost three decades ago by the Voyager craft, when the late and much-missed Carl Sagan argued for the probes, now passed the outer worlds, to be turned around and take a perspective of our world and our solar system, a “family portrait” as Carl put it, giving us a view that no human had ever seen before in all the ages of the world. In that image our world was even smaller, not even a full pixel. It gave a vastly different perspective on human affairs – those who consider themselves so important because they are rich, powerful, connected, from this distance – a small one in astronomical terms, vast in human terms – they mean less than nothing. Perhaps world leaders should all take a moment to look at such images and think about them for a moment… (via BoingBoing)

Travelling at the speed of light…

This gorgeous video shows you the journey of a photon from the sun (well, the surface of the sun, I imagine – the journey from core to surface of the sun takes far, far, far longer), out into the solar system and all the way past the inner, rocky worlds until it reaches mighty Jupiter, king of the planets, all taken in real time. The speed of light is fast – the fastest thing we know of (so far, not counting possible existence of supralight particles). So fast, as one writer observed, that most civilisations take millennia to realise light even travels at all. But when you move out into the vast distances of space even the speed of light seems tardy by comparison. It’s some eight minutes and twenty seconds just to reach us on Earth, and we’re only the third rock from the sun. “Riding Light” takes us out beyond the terrestrial worlds – Mercury, Venus, Mars, Earth – then on, avoiding the tumbling asteroid belt, until it reaches magnificent Jupiter, some forty five minutes later:

Riding Light from Alphonse Swinehart on Vimeo.

Earthrise, 45 years on….

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.

The World Outside My Window

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…

The World Outside My Window – Time-Lapses of Earth from the ISS from David Peterson on Vimeo.

You Are Here…

An infinitesimal dot in a vast space, containing, as the great Carl Sagan once said of another famous image from our exploration of space, the Pale Blue Dot image, every single person you ever knew, your mother, father, brother, your grandfather, his father back to the earliest proto human, every cat, dog, fish, bird, every beggar and king, every famous musician, every humble artisan, all lived on that dot. That’s home. Now Cassini sends us this spectacular image from Saturn, the crown jewel of the solar system, the Earth, a bright, blue dot (arrowed in the pic) glowing in the vast distance, millions of miles away while the magnificent rings of Saturn wheel above.

the earth from Saturn Cassini

Every person, everything we’ve ever done is on that dot, from the first single celled creatures through the great dinosaurs to us, all contained inside that glowing dot. And yet look at this picture, look at how far we can reach, further than anyone in thousands of years of human history – look at how far we can reach when we put out efforts and those big brains evolution gave us to some wonderful effort instead of squabbling and fighting among ourselves on that same small dot. When we’re not doing that, this is the kind of thing we can accomplish, and it is magnificent. A little reminder as we see endless bad news of wars, disasters, economic ruin and more every night on the news that actually we are remarkable, our species built this clever probe, worked out a complex flight path around celestial bodies at huge speed, swinging around gravity wells and did so with such precision it can send us back images of our own world as seen from the rings of Saturn and we can share it at almost the speed of light through fiber optic networks of computers across that little globe, instantly.

The Earth is the shore of the cosmic ocean. Recently we’ve waded a little way out, and the water seems inviting...” Carl Sagan.


JPL and the ESA have announced that the Cassini probe has found a small, previously unknown moon around the giant world Saturn the sixtieth so far discovered around the ringed world. It may be a tiny lump of rock and ice but I love the fact that almost 50 years after Gagarin’s first space flight our own solar system is still surprising us. Makes me wonder what we will discover when we finally get further out (and why haven’t we pushed further, we let ourselves get so small after the Apollo missions…)

Elsewhere on the ESA site there’s a function to listen to the Huygens probe which descended into the large moon Titan from Cassini. The sound files aren’t especially interesting as such, in fact is is just a rather dull sequence of white noise, but the fact the first one is a recording of sounds heard on an alien world is. Sounds from a world no human has walked on, beamed across millions of miles to be heard for the first time in human history. Now that is impressive.

“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.