I hope it’s not too late to send you this, Santa, but I’ve been a bit busy at work, and those evil, eeeeevil people who operate the Mars Reconaissance Orbiter’s HiRISE camera have kept me at my computer too, drooling over their images of craters and dust avalanches and the like. I hope this letter reaches you in time!
I think I’ve been a pretty good boy this year – I didn’t bang on the window of the High Bay at JPL and shout “Take me with you!” when I saw MSL, and I didn’t swear… well, not too loudly… when the news broke that MSL will be staying on Earth for two years more than planned – so I hope you’ll give me the things on this list. Well, some of them anyway… I’ve managed to get my list of presents down to just ten things…
1. First of all, I want both of my beloved Mars Exploration Rovers to make it safely through 2009, and celebrate the 6th anniversary of their arrival on the Red Planet in January 2010. I know, I know, the odds are against that – they’re both waaaaaaaaaaaaay past their warranty now, and every sol they stay alive on that brutally cold, dust-blasted, un-starved world is a gift – but they have a LOT more to do on Mars before they die. Oppy (my favourite… Sorry Scott!) is currently scooting south like WALL-E towards a huge crater called Endeavour, and in a year’s time will be more than half-way there and sending back some images of the crater’s great mountains. Poor Spirit is in bad shape already, I know, but if you can just grant her one more year’s life on Mars that’ll give her a chance to thoroughly investigate Von Braun and more of the intriguing terrain around Homeplate, where she’s been parked for the last 4 million years. She’s straining at the leash now, Santa, I can feel it… she’s sick of seeing the same old rocks and the same old horizon. Go on, give her a chance to go on one last trek, one last adventure, and she won’t let you down… :-)
2. Please can you arrange for there to be an enormous display of the northern lights visible from my part of the world – that’s Cumbria, the hilly bit of the UK that juts out into the sea between Scotland and Wales – ON A CLEAR NIGHT. That last bit is very important; I’ve missed the last three (yes Santa, count them, THREE!) auroral displays because of cloud and rain. You’ve no idea how frustrating it is to sit and read the breathless reports of internet bloggers watching a display while all you can see outside your window is a skyful of great dirty black cloud… So, all you have to do is arrange for a coronal mass ejection to be pointed right at Earth, and for all the various sciency bits to come together to trigger a huge auroral storm that comes down as far south as the UK on a cloud-free, starry night. With no Moon. When I’m not at work. And don’t have work the next morning. And haven’t forgotten to charge my camera batteries.
3. Could you also arrange for a very bright naked eye comet to appear in the sky – that’s MY sky, mind you, the NORTHERN sky. Not the southern sky. No offence to them, but they got the last great comet, Comet McNaught, and we northerners had to suffer weeks and weeks of seeing jaw-dropping pictures on Spaceweather.com showing the comet’s multiple tails stretching right across the southern sky. Seriously, Santa, it’s our turn this year. I want to go to Spaceweather.com and see photographs of a magnitude -10 comet with a 40 deg long tail shining above London Bridge, the Pyramids and the New York skyline… and I want to walk up the footpath to my town’s ruined, ancient castle and gaze up at a Great Comet with my own eyes, at least once…
4. I’d really appreciate it if you could arrange for the incredible horde of scientific data returned by the Phoenix probe to contain evidence that there was once life on Mars, please? I don’t expect a photo of a fossil, or anything like that. Even if it’s just a smidgen of a hint of a trace of organics, of Past Life, a line on a graph, a blip on a chart, that would be enough to keep me happy.
5. And speaking about life off Earth, I would also like one of the many current SETI projects to make the first confirmed detection of a signal from an alien civilisation. That won’t be too hard, surely? I mean, this past year we saw the first actual images of planets orbiting other stars… and we know that there are hundreds of billions of stars in our Milky Way Galaxy… so with all those planetary systems out there, many of them a lot older than our own, the chances of us picking up a message from an advanced civilisation Out There must be pretty good, right? So, Santa, next year I really want to be sitting at my computer one night… like I am now… and an email to come in breaking the news that finally, after all the years of searching, we’ve confirmed, without any doubt, that We’re Not Alone.
6. The sixth thing on my list is for a supernova to appear in the sky (again, MY sky, the northern sky, although I guess it would be okay to share it with the southern hemisphere dwellers too, so you can put it in Orion if you must, as long as it’s in December or January!) Not just any supernova though, I mean a proper one, a historic one, a supernova that looks like a -9 Iridium flare and shines like a phosphorous grenade in the sky for hours and hours after sunset, flashing and flickering like Sirius on steroids, so bright it looks like a tear in the very fabric of the universe is allowing the light of a brighter, more magnificent universe beyond to come flooding through. I don’t want much… just to see “supernova shadows” cast behind me as I look up at it, and for it to be so bright that it’s almost too painful to look at through my binoculars and telescope and is talked about for generations to come…
7. Number seven on my list is for the incoming President of the United States, that wonderful, shiny Mr Obama, to give his support to NASA and not start tinkering with its budget just to save money. I know cash is tight at the moment – around the world, not just in the US – and that NASA could be an easy and tempting target for a new President eager to make his mark and show the people who elected him that he’s going to spend their money wisely, but please have a word with him before he strides to that podium on January 20th to make his acceptance speech, whisper in his ear that although the exploration of space is seen as a luxury by many, that’s just not true. It touches and enriches the everyday lives of everyday people in many ways, and if we stop investing in space we will, very simply, make our lives worse. (If I can cheekily ask for a 7b, can I ask for someone at NASA to actually get a grip of this communication problem and make it their crusade to get OUT there and let the public know this?!?! I’m sick of hearing people moaning about the cost of space when “the money could be used in better ways here on Earth” – usually the same people who don’t think twice about paying a pound for a tin of dog food, or £4 to rent the “Mama Mia” DVD for a night, or £10 for a pizza or a cinema ticket, or £20 to go and watch a play, or £500 for a season ticket to watch their football team. If they were that bothered about money going to charity, or to good causes here on Earth, they’d cancel their beloved Sky TV subscription and put the money in a collecting box instead… but they don’t, do they?!?!?!?! Sorry Santa, got a bit carried away there… )
8. Not many to go now Santa… :-) for #8, can I ask for some clever person somewhere to find a way – a safe way that won’t endanger astronauts, and an economically sound way too – to keep the fleet of beautiful, sleek, swan-like space shuttles flying a little longer, at least until those butt-ugly, snub-nosed, step-backwards Orion capsules start flying? I’m not just asking for selfish reasons – because I haven’t managed to see a shuttle launch yet, and desperately, desperately want to be there at the Cape to see a shuttle thundering into the sky before they are retired and exiled to a life on Earth – but because, well, it just seems wrong to me that those beautiful, beautiful spacecraft are going to be cast aside and replaced with those godawful ugly-looking capsules. I mean, come on Santa, if you were an astronaut, risking your life to explore space and open up the High Frontier, would you rather go into space in an Orion – crammed like sardines into a can, sent up into the sky on the top of a glorified solid rocket booster, and returning to Earth dangling and swinging on the end of a parachute before plummeting into a heaving ocean – or sitting in a beautiful snow-white space shuttle, with all its graceful lines and curves, sweeping wings and HUGE windows, flying back to Earth – that’s flying, not falling – and landing on a good solid runway? Those space shuttles are beautiful, they look how spacecraft should look. I know all the good reasons why Orion capsules are The Way To Go for the future, but… god, they’re ugly.
9. Last but one, Santa… the ninth present on my list is for Earth to get hit by an asteroid. “WHAT?!?!?!?” I hear you cry, “are you INSANE?!?!?!?!?!?” Don’t worry, I don’t want a Planet Killer, I just want a small one – a couple of dozen metres wide or so – to come down somewhere unpopulated and well away from the world’s political flashpoints (note: Santa, please avoid Iran, Pakistan and India… an asteroid strike in one of those countries might be rather dangerous. Too many itchy fingers on too many triggers, you see) and blast out a decent-sized crater for the world to gasp at afterwards. Why on Earth would I want this? Well, because it might actually make The Powers That Be WAKE UP and realise just what a huge problem this is, and how much risk we are at from space debris. You see, we’ve been flagging up this risk for years and years, and they’re just not listening. It’s a real danger. In the real world we can’t just send up Bruce Willis and Ben Afleck with a drill and a nuke and be saved at the last minute. No. I’m afraid that it’s going to take an actual real life example to make the politicians sit up and take notice. I can’t help thinking that it is actually going to take an impact to wake them out of their slumber. If a chunk of rock slams into the middle of the Gobi Desert, or the icy wastes of Greenland, blasting out a crater for the whole world to see on CNN and every other rolling news channel for days afterwards, then maybe World Leaders would realise just how much death and destruction would have been caused if the meteorite had come down in a populated area. Then they might just get their fingers out and DO SOMETHING ABOUT IT.
10. Surprise us. And fill us with wonder.
How? With what? I don’t know. I don’t want to know. Just… well… present us with something so unexpected, so new, so amazing that it makes us stop in our tracks and shake our heads in disbelief. Let there be a discovery – here on Earth, or Out There, amongs the planets, or Beyond, in the great star-strewn Black – a revelation so great, so significant that it shakes our understanding of the universe and our place in it. Let us find something so wonderful, so important that it makes us slam open the doors, rush outside, stand beneath the sky and look up and see the cosmos with new, child-like, wide, wonder-filled eyes.
Thanks Santa. Do your best, ok?
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