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Farewell Cassini…

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As you read this, an incredible space journey is coming to an end. After spending the past 13 years looping around Saturn, exploring and studying its glittering rings and many, many moons, the Cassini space probe is preparing to end its mission by plunging into the atmosphere of Saturn, where it will burn up like a shooting star. Before then, in these final hours, as it falls towards Saturn Cassini will gather priceless data about the planet’s churning atmosphere, and take its final photos of the planet and its moons, after already taking almost half a million…

For space scientists and enthusiasts alike this is a very sad time. Cassini has been a staggeringly successful mission, and people are very loyal to it and proud of it. Launched in  October 1997 the probe then took almost seven years to fly out to Saturn, flying past – and taking photos of – Earth, Venus and Jupiter along the way. After reaching Saturn in July 2004 it then began whooping and looping around it, like a moth flying around and around a streetlight. During the following 13 years the probe did everything asked of it and much, much more. It showed us geysers shooting glittering plumes of icy spray out of cracks near the south pole of Enceladus. It found lakes on Saturn’s largest moon, the planet-sized Titan. It showed us fascinating clumps, knots and streamers of material inside Saturn’s rings. It carried the European Space Agency’s Huygens probe to Titan, which landed on that fascinating moon and sent us back a single, tantalising image of its icy surface. And more… and more… and more…

For the past 13 years Cassini has become part of our lives – and by “our” I have no hesitation in lumping together professional scientists and astronomy- and spaceflight-enthusiasts. We have gotten used to (but hopefully never taken for granted) living in a world where we could go online and, with just a couple of clicks of a mouse or taps of a touchscreen, see brand new images sent back by Cassini. Not just now and again, but literally every single day. It’s as if we’ve been riding piggyback on the probe, swooping around the Saturn system like Harry Potter on his broomstick, seeing what Cassini was seeing.  Through Cassini’s unblinking eyes we’ve watched golden sunlight glinting off Titan’s methane lakes, seen aurora fluttering and flickering around Saturn’s poles, and glimpsed Earth shining through a gap in Saturn’s rings. We have truly lived through a golden age of exploration.

And on Friday it all ends, with Cassini hurtling into Saturn’s curdled clouds, streaking through it, briefly trailing flames like the Enterprise burning up in the atmosphere of the Genesis Planet before flaring and fading away, gone forever.

There’ll be no “live footage” of this; there’s no camera crew patiently orbiting Saturn preparing to beam back heart-wrenching film of Cassini’s demise, so  we won’t be able to watch the probe perish. But thanks to NASA TV we will be able to watch the Cassini team’s reactions as they sit at their consoles, monitoring the probe’s last signals come back to Earth. We’ll be able to see their faces – no doubt some of them streaked with tears – as they witness, electronically, Cassini’s last moments before it falls silent. Then, when all their monitors and screens are blank, we’ll know its end is near, and at some point not too long after that they will know that it has gone, their beloved, beautiful silver and gold space-probe reduced to a cloud of ash that will be scattered by Saturn’s sweeping winds…

It will be a sad, sad day. Literally the end of an era.

Some people are asking “what’s all the fuss about?” They say “It’s only a machine!”. And that’s true. Cassini is just a machine, a collection of (perfectly) manufactured and assembled parts put together to do a job, and that job was to study Saturn and its moons. That job is now over and it will be disposed off in the most effective way. Why all this wailing and gnashing of teeth over a machine?

Because Cassini is more than just a machine. True, as it plunges through Saturn’s clouds it will not be aware; it won’t feel excitement or fear. It won’t feel pain as the heat of its entry into Saturn’s atmosphere turns it into a flaming torch; it won’t scream as pieces of it snap off and spiral away behind it; it won’t howl as what’s left of its body finally falls apart into a cloud of debris that will then be scorched to ash, ash that will be caught by Saturn’s winds and scattered like charred confetti. It won’t feel a thing.

But back on Earth many, many people will.

Because like all these amazing machines Cassini was made by people, not other machines. Back in the 1980s Cassini was designed by people using computers which now are on display in museums. It was then built by incredibly skilled engineers and technicians, put together piece by piece like the most complicated jigsaw puzzle or model imaginable. Then it was launched and guided safely to Saturn by yet more incredibly skilled people. And since arriving at Saturn 13 years ago it has been steered around the planet – sent skipping from shining icy moon to shining icy moon, sent soaring above, beneath and over its rings, flown around and around Titan -by yet more amazingly clever and skillful people. Every one of them worked unbelievably hard, over many, many years, to get to do those jobs and to have those responsibilities, and once they were on the mission and contributing to it they dedicated themselves to it. How many family birthdays did they miss because they were working on Cassini? How many anniversary presents did they forget to buy because their heads were full of Cassini “stuff”? How many of their children’s school plays or music recitals did they have to miss because they had to work late to solve an “issue”?

Cassini left Earth in 1997, twenty years ago. Twenty years. During that time, I wonder how many of the people working on it have had children? How many of them have got married? How many of them have seen their babies grow up and go to college, or get married and have children of their own?

When Cassini has gone it will leave a big hole behind for those of us who are “into” this kind of thing. I know I will miss going online each day and drooling over the latest images showing exquisite detail in Saturn’s rings or tiny details on the surface of one of its moons. But imagine how the men and women on the Cassini team will feel. Many of them will have spent a lot – some, perhaps all – of their professional careers working on it; when the mission is over they are going to be absolutely gutted. It will leave a gaping hole behind.

So, you see, Cassini isn’t “Just a machine”. It’s the tip of a huge, huge iceberg of human experiences. It has been a very important part of many people’s lives.

As a voyage of exploration and discovery, Cassini’s mission will be viewed in years – in centuries – to come as being every bit as important and historic as those of the great explorers of the past, who crossed storm-tossed oceans, scaled towering mountains and hacked through jungles in pursuit of knowledge. Cassini’s ocean was space; its towering mountain was the Sun’s gravity; its jungle was Time. We are all lucky, and privileged, to have been alive at the time in mankind’s history when Cassini was studying Saturn.

So when you see those scientists looking ready to burst into tears – or actually bursting into tears – on Friday, don’t think “Oh come on, it’s just a machine!” Cassini is a machine of metal, glass and wire, yes, but it’s a machine built with love, held together by insatiable curiosity and flown on invisible wings of dreams. To every one of those people sitting behind a desk on Friday, staring at a monitor, Cassini will mean something different, but important. Professional to the end they will look calm, cool, collected, but as Cassini falls silent they will feel its loss very personally, and sincerely. I wish I could be there to stand behind them and just squeeze their shoulder.

A great adventure is about to end, and it will be a long time until another mission shows us such amazing sights or tells us so much about one of our sister worlds as Cassini has done. So on Friday, watch the NASA TV coverage if you can, and bid Cassini a fond farewell. She has been a proud ship, and has served us well. By Friday night her voyage will be at an end, but she will live on through her images and her scientific results.

And every time we look at Saturn from now on, either with just our naked eyes or through the eyepiece of a telescope, we’ll know that Cassini is still out there, flying through the planet’s butterscotch-hued clouds, riding the planet’s winds.

Godspeed Cassini.

And thank you.

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We MIGHT see the aurora from the UK tonight…maybe…perhaps…possibly…

There’s a chance – just a chance – that people in the UK might, MIGHT see the “Northern lights” in the sky tonight. Lots of people and websites are making very dramatic predictions, raising expectations, really hyping this up, but that’s stupid. We might see nothing at all! I’ve been writing about this over on Facebook, and so I don’t have to write it all out again I’m just going to copy in my posts here. So, no predictions, and absolutely no guarantees… but do keep an eye on the sky tonight after dark. Just in case. 🙂


 

  • SATURDAY POST

Lots of Facebook pages and websites are screaming out that there is going to be a huge display of the northern lights on Sunday night. Is there?

Well now, not wanting to build anyone’s hopes up unrealistically, and absolutely, definitely NOT saying something WILL happen (please read that last bit back again, it’s important!) but yes, there’s a reasonable chance that people in parts of the UK *might* be able to see the northern lights on Sunday night. There has been a big eruption on the Sun which has hurled a huge amount of solar material right at us, and if everything goes well – and there are no guarantees that it will! – then the aurora borealis *might* be given a big enough kick on Sunday night and into Monday morning to bring it far enough south to make auroral activity visible from the UK.

It’s important to be honest and realistic about this though. Apart from the basic fact that we’re not sure anything will happen, it’s the middle of summer, so the sky will not get truly dark, meaning any aurora that is triggered will be somewhat subdued compared to how it would look in a really dark sky. So, with that in mind what should you be doing?

Well, first of all be prepared to see absolutely nothing and don’t get your hopes up too much. Like comets and NLC, the aurora likes nothing better than to promise us a good display then do nothing. The best thing you can do is be somewhere which will offer you a good view *if* something happens. And that place will be somewhere away from streetlights, with a clear view to the north, with no mountains, hills or tall buildings in the way. If you can jump into a car and get out into the countryside and find such a place, perfect. If you can’t, just do your best. If you’re stuck at home still take a look from your garden. You might be lucky!

Be in place after dark on Sunday night – then all you can do is wait and see what happens. But again, it’s important to have realistic expectations. When shown on TV and in films the northern lights are usually a) speeded up and b) enhanced to make them appear brighter and more colourful than they actually appear to the naked eye. Magazines, books and websites love using photos showing a sky full of vivid green curtains, tall cherry-red search-beams and golden arcs whenever they need to illustrate a story about the aurora, and a major auroral storm can look like that – but most don’t. During most displays you might, if you’re lucky, see reds and greens but much more subdued than those photos – which are also usually long exposures taken with very sophisticated cameras and then processed to enhance them – show.

So on Sunday night if you can get to a good observing location be on the look out for pale green, almost grey beams, curtains and arcs in the northern sky, with maybe a hint of pink here and there. If a big display kicks off the colours might get brighter and more obvious, just cross your fingers. As for movement, yes, there could be movement, and in a a major display you can see why the aurora is also known as “The Merrie Dancers” in Scotland, because they can leap and sway and swish about. But more likely you’ll just see features slowly fading in and out of view, brightening and fading away again, and might see activity rippling from side to side as you watch. Of course, if a major display does kick off then the sky could go nuts, then all you can do is stare up at it in wonder and enjoy it. But, again, without wanting to sound like a stuck cd, please be aware that this is not guaranteed for Sunday night, if anything happens at all.

If you want to take photographs, just have a go with whatever camera you’ve got, it can’t hurt! But best to try with a digital SLR camera on a sturdy tripod, using a wide angle lens, time exposures of several seconds and ISO settings of 400 or 800 or so. Expose for too long or with too high an ISO setting and all you’ll get is a greenish smear. Expose for too short a time and with too low an ISO setting and you’ll probably not pick anything up at all. Just experiment, try different settings until you get something that works – but don’t waste time faffing about with a camera if a display happens, leave it alone and just watch the show! (By the way, even if you can’t see anything visually, try taking a few photos anyway – your camera might pick up something too faint for your eyes to see…)

So, bottom line… this is just a heads up that people in parts of the UK *might* be able to see the northern lights on Sunday night, but there are no guarantees. But if you don’t look it’s guaranteed you’ll see nothing! You should be thinking about being somewhere with a clear unobstructed view to the north after dark on Sunday night, but prepared to see absolutely nothing. Prospects might improve or worsen as today and tomorrow pass, so keep monitoring Facebook’s aurora-watching groups (we’ll try to post updates on here tomorrow evening but can’t guarantee it!) and, if you’re a Twitter user, there are lots of aurora-hunters on Twitter you can follow for updates too. And if you have an aurora alert app on your phone, make sure it’s turned on tomorrow night. Lastly, be aware that you are totally at the mercy of the weather, and where you live will dictate what you see: if you live in the north of Scotland the aurora will have to be very bright for it to cut through your bright night sky, but people further south might, ironically, have better luck.

That’s it really. All we can do is cross our fingers and hope for the best! If you do see something be sure to let us know and send in any photos you manage to take.

Good luck!

 

  • UPDATE SUNDAY MORNING

Fingers crossed for some UK auroral activity tonight. Great weather forecast for Cumbria (some mistake surely????), and the stats are looking good, so now it’s just a case of impatiently waiting for darkness to come and getting out there to see if anything is going on. Absolutely no guarantee we’ll see anything, of course, but it’s worth a look.

Many people will go out tonight expecting – if not demanding, after all the hype – what I call a “Joanna Lumley Class” display, with a sky ablaze with green curtains, flapping and swooshing like a ship’s sails in a storm, with cherry red beams shooting up into the sky like WW2 searchlights. They’re (probably) in for a big disappointment. It’s mid-July, it never gets truly dark this time of year, so if we get some pale grey-green beams and a green “rainbow” arc I’ll be happy. Anything better than that will be a bonus, we’ll get what we’re given.

If you are planning on heading out, make sure in advance your camera batteries are charged, you have lots of room on your memory card, and your lenses are all clean; you don’t want to run out of power, or storage space, or find your photos spotted with dust circles when you look at them tomorrow. And be prepared for a long night – don’t expect the sky to “kick off” according to *your* timetable re sleep and work etc, any activity might be delayed into the early hours or until it’s daylight here in the UK again. But don’t over-think it. Just get out there, if you can, and see if anything is going on.

** And again, there’s no guarantee we’ll see anything, all I’m saying is it’s worth a look, ok? ** Good luck, all!

 

*   UPDATE SUNDAY AFTERNOON

Well, the first wave of solar material hit us earlier today (earlier than expected) and it triggered very dramatic aurora above Canada. All we can do now is cross our fingers and hope that there’s something to see later this evening, when it gets what we laughingly call “dark” at this time of the year. Remember, no-one is predicting we definitely will see the northern lights. All we’re doing is giving people a heads-up that it’s worth looking for them, just in case everything works out.

Good luck!

JUNO images the Great Red Spot…

If you felt a disturbance in the Force on Wednesday night it’s because the first images JUNO took of Jupiter’s Great Red Spot were released at teatime on that day, a couple of days earlier than expected, and both the astronomy media and the world’s “image processors” went into a feeding frenzy. (I couldn’t because I was stuck at work, but I was able to sneak a look at the images on my phone during my break). The original images are very pretty but quite muted and low contrast, so since they have been released the processors have been working hard to bring out detail, boost contrast and enhance the features around and within the Spot, using a variety of image processing techniques. Some of the results are eye-wateringly dramatic, psychedelic explosions of vivid colour. Others less so. None are “right”, none are “wrong”, they’re all just someone’s personal take on what the images inspired in them.

But the main thing is that NASA, and the JUNO team, actively encouraged members of the public to take their images and basically mess about with them, and have fun with them! I love it when people take the time to work on images like this, it means they’re engaging with a mission, investing a little bit of themselves in it, and “spreading the word” about it too. This is what I do with my Mars rover images, and it’s brilliant to see so many people having fun with the JUNO images. It proves, I think, that space exploration can be inspiring to everyone, not just tech types and science experts. And the joy that has greeted the release of these images is even more welcome because JUNO was almost sent to Jupiter *without* a camera, because its main reason for going there was to take measurements and do observations which showed their results as squiggly lines on graphs and charts – fascinating and exciting to the people involved in that, and as worthy as any image, but not very inspiring for the public. Like it or not, “pretty pictures” from space are what people see and enjoy, and the equation is quite simple: pretty pictures + public support = political funding.

So, a little late to the party, I know, and with most of the buffet already eaten, here are my processed versions of the images. Others’ are much, much better; I don’t care. I had fun making these. They’re not meant to be scientifically accurate or “useful”. They’re just shamelessly pretty pictures. And sometimes that’s enough.

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Some people get very sniffy about this kind of thing. They moan and twine that the colours “aren’t real” or “accurate”, as if to say that amateurs shouldn’t bother – or be allowed – to take the images probes sent back and work with them. I wish they wouldn’t be like that. Most aren’t, it has to be said; the VAST majority of people involved on these missions are very encouraging and supportive of the efforts of amateur image processors like myself. But a few are not so keen, and seem to enjoy being critical and a little bit mean. And that’s a shame.

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I also wrote a new “astropoem” about this event, which you can read here… click on it to enlarge it…

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Another aurora missed…

I love astronomy, I really do, It’s given me so many wonderful times, sights and experiences over the years and continues to do so. But sometimes… (shakes head and grits teeth, snarling)… sometimes I hate it.
No, that’s not true. I don’t hate astronomy, or being an astronomer; I hate how, as a hobby, it can disappoint and frustrate and make me want to sink to my knees and shout out in despair like Charlton Heston at the end of Planet Of the Apes. And all because of the weather. I know there’s nothing we can do about it… yes, I do know it’s a good thing our beautiful blue and green planet has this lovely thick atmosphere to keep us alive… but it does seem to know, like a vengeful demon or spirit of some kind, when we need it to co-operate and be clear for us so we can see something rare, exciting and beautiful, and then decides to pile clouds over where my part of the world in a display of pure spite. That’s what I hate. We look forward to events like planetary conjunctions, meteor showers, eclipses etc for months, often years, sometimes even decades (when I first read about Halley’s Comet at school in 1971 it’s reappearance in the sky was still a decade and a half away!), only to miss them because of cloud. And that happened again last night.
A huge aurora kicked off last night, active enough to be seen from as far south in the UK as Norfolk, and even on the continent, as far south as the Netherlands. If it had been clear here in Cumbria we would have had a spectacular show – beams, arcs, rippling curtains, the works. But, as is so often the case, after days and days of clear night skies last night, of all nights, the clouds rolled back in, a tsunami of mist and crud and crap that smothered the Cumbrian sky, and then just sat on us all night, refusing to budge, hiding the show from view. It wasn’t just us; most of the UK was clouded out to be fair. But it does seem that Cumbria has offended the weather gods in some way and they punish us, regularly, by stealing celestial events from us.
The display is still going on. Across in the US, and Canada, skywatchers are seeing an amazing show. But of course now it’s daytime here, and there are wide areas of achingly-blue sky above me, not auroral beams and curtains. By the time it gets dark tonight there might still be some activity, but the forecast is for yet more cloud. So, to use a technical term, we’re stuffed.
It’s not a big deal in the scheme of things, I know. And using words like “devastated” and “heartbroken” would be silly. Parents in Manchester have felt and are feeling real devastation and heartbreak right now. But it is bloody annoying!!!! And to make matters worse, these days if you miss an event “up there” salt is poured into your wounds for days afterwards, as people who saw it post breathless observing reports on Twitter and share their gorgeous pictures on Facebook. In Ye Olden Days, before the internet shrank the world, if you missed an aurora or a meteor shower it was annoying, but soon forgotten because all the other astronomy people in your life were all local and they had missed it too, so there wasn’t much to talk about. We just shrugged and sighed “oh well” and that was that. We might have read a few months later in a monthly astronomy magazine that it – whatever “it” was – had been a spectacle, but there was no self-torture involved. Now? Ha! NOW we can (and do!) torment ourselves for days, weeks even, looking at Twitter and Facebook posts describing and showing exactly what we missed!
Oh well.. as frustrating as it is it’s not the end of the world. And I have seen other aurorae. It’s just … so… unfair… that after days of clear skies and good weather, the one night, the ONE NIGHT we needed it clear the sky stuck two fingers up at us and ruined what would have been an amazing night.
If you were lucky enough to see it I’m pleased for you – no, really, I am… behind this angry sneer there’s a smile, honest – and I hope you had a great night. I’ll look forward to seeing your photos too.
As for *you*, Cumbrian weather…
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So, what have they ACTUALLY found around that star..?

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…and so last night, 6pm UK time, the Big News was finally revealed to the world (or at least to those people who hadn’t already figured it out for themselves, or heard or read about it, because, as usually happens, the Big Secret leaked out long before the press conference): international (not just from NASA or the US) teams of astronomers, using telescopes in space and on the ground, had detected a total of seven planets orbiting a star far, far out in space…

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– and as if that wasn’t cool enough (and it would have been pretty cool to have found a whole alien SOLAR SYSTEM!!!), all the planets are roughly the same size as Earth, and the icing on the cake was that several of them orbit within the star’s “habitable zone”, meaning they might, MIGHT have water  on their surfaces and if that’s true then they might, MIGHT have conditions suitable for life to exist on them too –

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– cue the internet going into meltdown, as wild speculation about their alien inhabitants began, fuelled by the gorgeous “space art” artwork released by the science teams showing artists’ impressions of the planets, showing spectacularly beautiful alien landscapes, complete with wave-lapped oceans and sci-fi skies crowded with more planets than the opening titles of Blake’s 7…

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Today the popular media picked up this story by the neck, shook it until it could hardly breathe and then went on a feeding frenzy of speculation and hype. The worlds were “like Earth!” and “might have life!” The star was “so close that we might visit it in future”. Etc , etc.

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Let’s just calm down, and take a look at what’s actually been found, and how significant all this really us.

Firstly  – where are these new planets?

Well, they are in orbit around a star which is now being referred to as “TRAPPIST 1” after the telescopes that detected the worlds. If you think that’s a poor name for such an important star, then consider this: it’s full official name is “2 MASS J230629280502285”. Yeah, suddenly “TRAPPIST 1” doesn’t seem so bad, does it?

TRAPPIST 1 lies in the constellation of Aquarius, one of the zodiacal constellations, but it’s hard to see at the moment because the Sun’s in the way…

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Actually, even if the Sun wasn’t in the way you’d need a telescope the size of a small cannon to see TRAPPIST 1 because it shines – if that’s the right word – at a lowly magnitude 18.8. That’s ridiculously faint. In contrast, Pluto is a blazing beacon with a magnitude of 13.5 at its brightest…

TRAPPIST 1 is so faint for a number of reasons, but mainly because it’s a very small, very feeble star that is a long way from us. I know a lot of the popular media have been saying it’s “only 39 light years away”, and 39 sounds like a small number when you compare it to star clusters which are thousands of light years away and galaxies which are tens of millions of light years away, but 39 light years is hardly next door in cosmic terms. That still makes it over 226 TRILLION miles away. To put it another way, that’s so far away that the fastest spacecraft ever built – the New Horizons probe which travelled to Pluto – would take 800 THOUSAND years to reach it, and Tim Peake, travelling in the  Soyuz capsule which carried him up to the International Space Station, would have to travel for 1.5 MILLION years before reaching it…

So, it’s close in astronomical terms, but realistically it might as well be in another galaxy entirely, it’s so far away.

But TRAPPIST 1 isn’t just far away, it’s small too. If you think of the Sun as a basketball, then TRAPPIST 1 would be a golf ball beside it. It’s a red dwarf star – but not just your typical run-of-the-mill red dwarf; it’s what’s known as an “ultra-cool dwarf star”, with a surface temperature just over 2000 degrees K, making it much cooler than our own Sun. So, to sumarise, this now-famous star is not just far away, small, and cool.

But in a way that’s a good thing – no, it’s a GREAT thing, because there are HUGE numbers of stars just like it, small cool stars, “out there” in our galaxy and beyond, and although we have always thought them unlikely to have any planets, the fact that we’ve now discovered a whole solar system around one of them suggests that others might… will… have, too. So, with the discovery of a family of worlds around TRAPPIST 1 astronomers suddenly find themselves looking up at a whole new sky – a sky where even the feeble, fluttering candle flame stars we thought would be barren have families of planets waiting to be found and studied. And that alone makes this discovery history-making.

But of course the planets are the stars of the show – if you see what I mean – and we now know that 7 worlds whirl around TRAPPIST 1. And not just any worlds – worlds roughly the same size as our own. Or, to give them their proper classification: “Earth-sized planets”.

Now, this is a good time to make a very, VERY important point. The hunters of exo-planets are very – some say far too – fond of flinging around the term “Earth-like” when describing planets found around other stars that share some but not all characteristics with Earth, but for all the reasons given in my previous blog post they really need to stop doing that. Thankfully the term “Earth-like” was hardly used at all during yesterday’s press event, but in the all-you-can-eat-media-hype-buffet that followed, some of the planets found around TRAPPIST 1 were incorrectly described as “Earth like” by reporters who had picked up on the use of the words “water” and “habitable”, and, adding 2 and 2 to get 50, told their readers, viewers and listeners that astronomers had found planets “like Earth” around TRAPPIST 1. So, let’s get this perfectly straight.

  • Astronomers have found 7 planets in orbit around the star TRAPPIST 1.
  • All these planets seem to be roughly the same size as Earth. That makes them “Earth-sized”.
  • Three of the planets are in the star’s “Habitable Zone” – the area around the star where temperatures are mild enough to allow water to exist on the surface of a planet or body orbiting it at that distance. This does not mean they definitely HAVE water, just that it’s scientifically possible.
  • The people describing these worlds as “Earth-like” are wrong. Just because a planet roughly the same size as Earth is found in a star’s habitable zone, it doesn’t qualify as “Earth-like” and should not be described as such by anyone. By this very broad definition both Venus and Mars are “Earth-like” but as everyone knows Mars is a frozen desert world and Venus is an acidic hell hole, so just because as planet is the right size and in the right place it doesn’t qualify as “Earth-like”.
  • Yes, the three planets found in the star’s habitable zone are among the most promising candidates for having life that we’ve found to date, but again, there is absolutely no proof of this, it’s just scientifically possible, that’s all.
  • …and even if they do have life, that doesn’t mean they’re inhabited by living, thinking, spaceship-building, radio telescope-operating alien beings. “Life” could just be very primitive – grey lichen flakes coating the sides of rocks, extraterrestrial snotty slime dripping and dribbling down subterranean cave walls, or even just microscopic bacteria beneath or even inside the stones. That would disappoint the SF crowd, with their long-cherished dreams of shaking tentacles or at lease becoming pen pals with ETs from another star, but in purely scientific terms it would be unbelievably pant-wettingly exciting. The discovery of ANY life, however simple, ANYWHERE out there, would transform our view of the universe and our place in it.
  • We might have more of a clue about this in the years ahead. The Hubble Space Telescope will now study this star system and no doubt learn even more about it than we know now. And when – if – the James Webb Space Telescope launches it will be use to sniff the atmosphere of these worlds, if they have them, and might catch an electronic whiff of gases suggesting the presence of life on their surfaces. Imagine that..

So, what next?

Firstly, astronomers – amateur and professional – have to dampen down the media frenzy about “7 new Earths” being discovered orbiting the star. That’s simply not true. Just this morning I’ve heard utter rubbish on the TV about how “scientists” have found “7 Earths” orbiting “a nearby star“, which “have the potential for huge oceans” and “might have alien life”. We need to – kindly, not arrogantly – stomp on such inaccuracy, as enthusiastic as it is!

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Secondly – names! We need proper names for these planets and for the TRAPPIST-1 star itself. This is undeniably a very, very important solar system now, one which will be studied by future generations of astronomers and telescopes; we need to be able to talk about it *specifically* and for the public to be able to identify with the star and its planetary system. There needs to be a concerted effort now to name the star and its planets to give them a proper identity. How? Another public naming competition? Perhaps. The IAU? Maybe. The scientists themselves? Possibly. But they do need names. Not even names that will be permanent, but at the very least *working* names, just so we can talk about them properly.

Fascinating times we live in, and even more fascinating times ahead of us, that’s for sure. 🙂

NASA Press Conference Tomorrow – More Exo-planets?

There’s lots of breathless speculation online today about what NASA is going to announce at their big news conference tomorrow. The usual suspect quacks and hacks are giddily predicting NASA is finally going to announce they’ve found alien life “out there”, but that’s not going to happen; when (and I do mean when; I am absolutely convinced it will happen one day, there’s no “if” about it) they do that the news will leak out on Twitter long before the press conference, because there’s no way such a huge thing will be kept secret by the people involved, or by the journalists given a sneak peek at the press release. Someone, somewhere, will blab, that’s just human nature. So, all you tin foil hat-wearing fruit loops jumping up and down in joyous anticipation of NASA finally “coming clean” tomorrow – calm down, and go back to your X Files dvds.

Tomorrow will be about science, not science fiction.

Back in reality, what do we know so far about tomorrow? Well, all we know is that it relates to something “beyond the solar system”, which on the face of it could mean anything, but come on you lazy lot, a quick look at the NASA press release itself tells us it’s exo-planet related (an exo-planet being a planet in orbit around another star).

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So, logically, the announcement will relate to the discovery of a rocky planet, or more than one, in orbit around a nearby star. Which would be great news, but hardly worthy of a big NASA TV event. That means someone, somewhere, has found something along those lines which is a bit special, a bit unusual. So it looks like someone, somewhere, might have found one or more planets the same size as Earth orbiting another star..?

But as exciting as that would be part of me is already groaning at the prospect of hearing these new exo-planets being described as “Earth-like”.

You see, when astronomers and exo-planet hunters describe a planet as “Earth-like” they mean that it is Earth-sized, or roughly Earth-sized, made of rock, and that’s it’s in its star’s “Goldilocks Zone” – i.e. at a distance from the star which means it isn’t too hot and isn’t too cold but is just right – just right for liquid water to exist on its surface.. maybe.. possibly…perhaps.. – but few exo-planets are.

The problem is, when other people, like non-astronomers and the media, hear a world described as “Earth-like” they naturally assume it means the planet is, you know, actually “like Earth”, as in physically and visually like it – a world the same size as our own, a beautiful blue and white planet with surging oceans kissing warm sandy beaches, billowing clouds blown by soft summer winds, and life, life everywhere – in the sky, under the water, and in the fields. After all, that’s what Earth is like, so when they hear another world described as “Earth-like” people think it’s Just Like Earth, in many ways, if not every way. They think it has its own seasons of sunshine and snow, rivers gurgling and tumbling down its mountains, and kittens sleeping by crackling fires. That’s what people – and I know this for a fact, because I meet and talk to a lot of them in the course of my Outreach work – think a planet is like when they hear it described as “Earth-like”; not just a rocky-ish planet orbiting a star at roughly the Earth-equivalent distance from it.

Personally, this really winds me up, and I know it winds others up too. I think the exo-planet community really, REALLY should stop referring to planets as being “Earth-like” when they’re really not, when they’re actually just “Earth-sized” or just potentially in a star’s habitable zone.

Why? Two reasons. Firstly, I think at best it’s lazy science communication, and at worst misleading, even deceptive hype. It gives people completely the wrong idea, raises false hopes and expectations, and generally causes avoidable confusion and misunderstanding. And god knows there’s enough of that in astronomy already. Water has been “discovered” on Mars so many times now people think it has swimming pools and bloody mermaids…

But more importantly I think the reckless use of the term “Earth-like” dilutes the impact of the forthcoming (when? No idea? But it will happen eventually) CONFIRMED discovery – and even imaging – of the first truly “Earth-like” planet: a world that is the same size as Earth (or a bit bigger or smaller), at the right distance from its star for terrestrial conditions to exist on its surface, and with the tell-tale chemical signatures of life detected on its surface. THAT would be a truly Earth-like planet, and its discovery will be one of the greatest and most significant achievements in science. We’re a long, long way from making a discovery like that – but it will come, one day. And when it does, how many people will just raise an eyebrow and say “Really? I thought we’d found lots of planets like Earth?” because dozens of other planets have been described as “Earth-like” already?

So, as we await tomorrow’s news, please, everyone, familiarise yourselves with what the scientists will mean when they talk about “Earth-like planets”. They don’t mean “other Earths”, other lush, blue and green worlds dripping with water and covered with life. They mean rocky worlds, roughly the same size as Earth, which may or may not be in an orbit around their star which makes them suitable for water to exist on their surface, which might, in turn, make them possible habitats for life. Finding worlds like that will give us great candidates for follow-up science, with instruments that can look for certain gases in their atmospheres or the signature of water, but it won’t mean we’ve found Earth #2, or #3, or #4 (or #7… 😉  ) out there, and that we could just hop over to it in a super space ship and live there, ok?

c3b

Book review: “Incredible Stories From Space” – Nancy Atkinson

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Space enthusiasts and readers of popular science books know full well that behind every space mission – success or failure – there are human stories every bit as compelling and exciting as the tales of the engineering and technology needed for those missions.  We know that every photo returned from the rocky surface of Mars, above the swirling clouds of Jupiter or beneath the Sun was only taken after months if not years of hard work and dedication by amazing people.  But I think it’s fair to say that many of the general public don’t.  I know from conversations with people after my outreach talks that many of them see the images space probes return and think they’re all taken automatically after getting to their destination. And they still think – perhaps because it’s how Hollywood still insists on portraying them – that space scientists are either a wild-haired, goggle-eyed boffins who run like lunatics around lab benches covered in smoking jars and jugs of bubbling chemicals, their arms flailing like ET,  or b) cold, unemotional  robots who stare at screens all day like computer hackers with their hearts removed, worshipping or looking for beauty in their strange graphs, diagrams and charts…

Nancy Atkinson (no, no relation!) knows they’re neither of those things, so she wrote a book about the real people behind the missions that fascinate and inspire us so much. Her book doesn’t bombard us with facts, figures and statistics. It sits us down by a virtual fireside on a stormy night, hands us a glass of wine, and shares with us “Incredible Stories From Space”.

Nancy writes with a real passion and love for the subject. She clearly loves and lives this stuff. Basically, she “gets it”, unlike some more established writers who simply repeat, regurgitate and repackage NASA’s press releases. She writes very visually, so visually that reading this book is like watching a really good TV documentary, one that tells real stories with clever and fitting language, and doesn’t need to rely on stupid trendy juddery camera angles and in-your-face CGI to tell those stories.

The book starts, fittingly, with a detailed look at the New Horizons mission to Pluto. I say “fittingly” because NH was, arguably, the most high profile and successful space mission of the last couple of decades. Space enthusiasts know how, after a difficult birth and very troubled childhood, NH revealed Pluto to be a fantastic and fascinating world in its own right, and even though I thought I knew the mission back to front and inside out I learned a lot of new information here. But best of all, it brought the men and women behind the mission – the ones we saw waving tiny Stars and Stripes  and grinning like Cheshire cats at the press conferences – to life.

The next section, on the Mars Science Laboratory Curiosity, is another great fly-on-the-wall account of one of the most important space missions of our generation and, again, I learned a lot from it. MSL is a fascinating, history-making mission, which is doing spectacular science on the red planet and will help NASA prepare to land a crew on the surface one day. One thing I learned from this section, or rather had confirmed, because it’s something I’ve thought for a while now,  is that the MSL team hasn’t really bonded with their robotic ambassador; they haven’t anthropomorphized it like other teams – most notably the Mars Exploration Rover teams – have done with their hardware. Curiosity really is just a machine to them, a collection of tools dropped on Mars to do science. They don’t love Curiosity like Opportunity’s team clearly do. And that’s a shame, I think. They’re missing out on a lot. But that’s just me, I know others really can’t stand the way some probes and rovers are given personalities. Each to their own.  But I do think that the MSL are a quite serious lot compared to the MER team, and seem to have less passion for outreach and communicating their goals and results to the public, and I got that impression from this section too, although I readily admit that might just be my interpretation.

The section of the book on the Hubble Space Telescope is very enjoyable to read, a very pleasant review of the Hubble’s incredible impact on astronomy and its great value as an outreach tool. We take Hubble for granted now… “Oh look, another gorgeous Hubble image…” but its story, when you remind yourself, is pretty amazing, and will surely make a great film one day.

I was very pleased to see Nancy had devoted a large section of her book to the Kepler mission. One of my great passions is SETI, the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence, and although Kepler isn’t looking directly for alien life “out there” its surveys of the stars are turning up worlds where life might be possible, so in my head it’s a SETI mission, ok? Kepler isn’t really a “public” mission like MER or MSL in that it doesn’t produce pretty pictures;  its products are those aforementioned charts, graphs and squiggly lines, but Nancy shows how the people behind those are every bit as passionate and driven as the ones who take the front page-hogging portraits of martian mountains and Enceladean geysers. And this chapter gives a lot of insight into the fascinating science being conducted by the Kepler mission. I don’t think people have grasped yet the true significance of Kepler. We’ve started to take for granted its detections of planets whirling around alien stars, forgotten that what it is now doing regularly was, just a few years ago, science fiction. The fact is, Kepler is very possibly finding humanity’s far future homes.  One day flags will flutter, cities will be built and children will laugh and play on worlds discovered by Kepler, and the men and women working on the mission will be seen as every bit as heroic as the fictional starship captains who whooshed casually from star to star in their shiny, twin-nacelled Federation ships way back in the 21st century, so I appreciated Nancy’s book pulling back the curtain that separates me from them.

The Cassini mission is also covered well, but reading it I found myself feeling very sad that this amazing mission will soon be over: Cassini is due to be sent into a death dive into Saturn’s clouds later this year…

It was a lovely surprise to see the Solar Dynamics Obsevatory (“SDO” ) mission covered in Nancy’s book, as SDO is unfairly overlooked or even ignored by reporters and space enthusiasts because, for some reason, the Sun – that enormous hissing, spitting, flame-belching, roaring dragon at the solar system’s heart – is not seen as being as sexy or exciting as Mars, or Jupiter, or Saturn. This chapter makes it very clear just how fascinating an object our nearest star is, and how fascinated by it the people behind the SDO mission are.  I loved the chapter title too: “Downloading the Sun 24/7”, which describes accurately and very succinctly exactly what SDO does, drinking in data like a man dying of thirst who stumbles across an oasis in the middle of the desert.  And the book highlights the SDO team’s commitment to outreach, and the amazing outreach success of Camilla, the mission’s rubber chicken mascot, which has become a space celebrity in its… her… own right. Whoever came up with the idea of making a rubber chicken the public face of a multi-gazillion dollar mission to study the Sun either needs counselling or deserves a medal, I’m still not sure which..! But it’s a great example of how getting a mission mascot right can give that mission a huge public following and a priceless connection with the public. When it doesn’t work – and I’m looking at you, whichever genius thought it was a good idea to put a cat inside the Phoenix lander and send it to Mars, a planet which every space mad kid knows has no water, no food and no balls of string to play with – it’s cringe-worthy.

Next – MRO and HiRISE, obviously a big chapter for me, as a well-known Mars fanatic. Nancy relates how MRO was under quite incredible pressure to work after the humiliating failures of the Mars Climate Orbiter and the Mars Polar Lander missions, which famously fell foul of the “Faster, Better, Cheaper” philosophy introduced by Dan Goldin when he was heading NASA.  Corners were cut, and Mars happily claimed two more scalps. If MRO had failed too, Mars might have been abandoned by NASA for a generation. Luckily it succeeded – no, not luckily. It succeeded because amazing people working ridiculously hard made sure it worked, and an orbiter reached Mars that could photograph objects on its surface just 3 feet across, as the book describes.

The MRO chapter does a great job of describing how effective and revolutionary the probe’s HiRISE camera is, and, like many other books have done, and no doubt will do for years to come, illustrates its incredible spy satellite capabilities with a beautiful colour image showing Victoria Crater, with the Mars Exploration Rover “Opportunity” visible on its crumbling edge, circled to aid identification. Unfortunately, it’s identified wrongly.  I realised as soon as I saw the picture that the black dot supposed to be Opportunity was in fact just a rock – it had to be, because Opportunity never reached that part of the crater rim. This is an unfortunate error, and really should have been caught before the book went to print, but these things happen, and no doubt it will be corrected in the reprint.

The chapter on LRO, the Lunar Reconaissance Orbiter was very interesting to read, mainly because, I’ll freely admit, LRO hasn’t captured my attention or interest as much as other missions have done. Why? It’s not that I’m not interested in the Moon, I am! I think the problem has been that LRO’s images are not promoted and celebrated as much by NASA and the LRO team itself as those taken by other missons.  Also, as the book describes, LRO rather had the rug pulled out from under it early on, when NASA backed off from its ambitious plans to send astronauts back to the Moon in the near future. LRO’s mission was to support that endeavour by, as its name suggests, carrying out a detailed reconnaissance of the lunar surface. When NASA backed off from the Moon and turned its eyes to Mars once more, LRO was left floundering slightly. Which is a shame because its cameras have taken some jaw-droppingly gorgeous photos of the Moon!  Sadly,  the only time LRO images get any real exposure seems to be when they show Apollo hardware on the surface of the Moon, which must be very frustrating for the teams.

The book closes with a useful look at missions being planned for the future, and a thoughtful essay on “Why explore space?”

Ok, to wrap this up… This really is a good book and I can definitely recommend it to anyone interested in space exploration. Its great strengths are its writer, Nancy, and the way it is packed to bursting point with interviews with and quotes and comments from real people, the men and women who actually get the probes and rovers to their destination and keep them working there. That sets it aside from many of the other space exploration books out there.

If I have one criticism – and some of you will know what’s coming! – it’s that there’s no chapter dedicated to the Mars Exploration Rover missions of Spirit and Opportunity. They’re not ignored – they are covered, very briefly, in the Curiosity chapter – but surely those record-breaking rovers deserved their own section? I know authors like Nancy struggle to fit in everything they want to, because of limited space, and maybe she wanted to cover MER as well as MSL, I don’t know, but the MERs have been so successful, have achieved so much and enjoyed such huge public support that they warranted a chapter. The people who built the rovers, landed them safely on Mars and have driven them across Mars for so far and for so long have literally a generation’s worth of ‘Incredible Stories’ to tell, and I would have loved to read about those stories in this book.  I would especially have liked to have read about the heroic efforts to free Spirit after she got stuck in that dust-filled crater beside Home Plate in the shadow of the Columbia Hills. Now there’s an Incredible Story…!

But that omission doesn’t take ANYTHING away from the book as it is. It’s a great read, and really does a good job of describing the complexities behind the missions that intrigue, inspire and excite us. If you’re already a space enthusiast it will provide you with a lot of new information. If you’re just getting into space exploration it will open your eyes to the incredibly stressful but incredibly professional and passionate jobs real people do in order to get us priceless scientific data and beautiful pictures from across the solar system.

“INCREDIBLE STORIES FROM SPACE”

By Nancy Atkinson

Page Street Publishing

ISBN 978-1-62414-317-5