• Blog Stats

    • 1,265,558 hits
  • Advertisements

Falcon Heavy – The Day After

Image54b

Well, he did it. Elon Musk launched his huge Falcon Heavy rocket yesterday evening – after multiple delays due to problems with wind (stop sniggering in the back there, I meant wind in the upper atmosphere, not his own, for pity’s sake…!).  Looking back on it this morning it all seems  bit bizarre, and I imagine lots of people are asking themselves this morning “Did I really see that? Did that really happen?” Well, yes, you did, and yes, it did.

Oh, and yes, you really did see a red sports car floating in space, with the Earth shining blue and white behind it. We’ll come back to that…

Falcon Heavy was scheduled to launch at 6.30pm UK time, and following the build-up to the launch through the day on social media, and watching the TV news, felt a bit like the build-up before a big sports event, or even a Royal Wedding, as people arrived at the Cape, set up cameras, got themselves into their viewing positions etc. It was great fun following people on Facebook and Twitter who had gone to watch the launch in Florida, it really felt like I was there with them – when in reality I was sat on my sofa, with different websites open on my laptop and phone while my cat tried to get my attention and I tried also to get some writing done, Talk about multi-tasking…

By 6pm it was obvious that things weren’t going according to plan. The winds in the upper atmosphere were messing about, too strong to permit a launch on time, so the launch was put back to 7pm… then half past seven… then quarter past eight… and by then I was, like many people, really starting to think that a scrub was very likely and they’d have to try again the next day. But then the winds died down, and around a hundred people all Tweeted and posted on Facebook at the same time that Space X had given a GO for launch at 8.45…

Oh boy… they were really going to do it..!

Of course a last minute scrub was still very possible. They happen all the time. A valve gets stuck, a gauge shows a pressure reading that’s too high or too low, and that’s it, a hand slams down on the big red Abort button (not really, but that’s what it feels like) and that’s it, game over, at least for that attempt. But last night the time ticked by, and it all felt… well, destined to come together.

Image50

When the Space X live broadcast started around 8.30 then things got very real very quickly. The video feed showed the Falcon Heavy on the launch pad, looking absolutely beautiful against the perfect blue sky, shining in the Florida sunlight, with steam and gases belching off it. The video feed showed a huge crowd gathered at the Space X HQ, and as every minor or major milestone in the countdown passed it was greeted with whoops and cheers. Eventually there was just a couple of minutes to go, so, as they do, the Space X commentaters stopped yabbering on and we just saw the rocket on the pad, waiting to fly…

Image53b

And then up it went, leaping into the sky, a pillar of golden fire trailing behind it. It thundered off the pad, leaving behind great billowing orange, brown and white clouds, and yes, I’ll admit it, I shouted “YES!” and punched the air in celebration. It was a magnificent sight,  one of the most amazing, most moving things I’ve seen in all these years of being “into space”. When that beast of a rocket leapt off the pad it felt like the early Shuttle days, it was that emotional, witnessing such raw power being harnessed and used in that way…

Image55b

And then, ridiculously, everything just got better and better. The boosters separated as planned, then pirouetted back towards the space centre as planned , performing a beautiful aerial ballet before landing simultaneously – SIMULTANEOUSLY!!!!

Image56

Image57b

When the smoke cleared and I saw both boosters standing there on their landing pads, upright, it was like something from a science fiction film…

Image58b

Then the cameras cut away to a view of the barge the “core” (middle) stage was due to land on out at sea, and that seemed to be going well, but then the screen filled with brown smoke, hiding everything, and then the video feed cut off altogether. At the time no-one knew what had happened, they thought maybe the booster had landed but in doing so had maybe broken or dislodged the cameras, or the communications dish sending back the pictures. We now know that the core stage missed the barge and hit the water nearby at over 300mph, blowing up and showering the barge with debris, but that’s not a failure in any way; landing on the barge was always going to be a bonus.

But I’m getting ahead of myself. All this happened after what was one of the most memorable moments in spaceflight I’ve ever experienced. Soon after the boosters peeled away, as they started their descent back to Earth, music started playing over the broadcast… “Life on Mars” by David Bowie, and as the sing began it was almost drowned out by the noise of the cheering, screaming and chanting Space X crowd – then we saw why…

Screenshot_20180207-160310

There it was… an insane sight… our first view of Elon Musk’s Tesla, with “Starman” in the driving seat and the achingly-beautiful blue, cloud-dappled Earth far, far below it… 

Image13

I swear that if you listened really, really carefully you could actually hear the sounds of jaws hitting the floor all around the world.

This had divided people before the launch. The whole “put a car in space” thing left as many people thinking it was a stupid, vain thing to do as thought it was a fun, cool thing to do. I was (and still am) firmly in the latter camp, and I was grinning like an absolute idiot at that point, as the car, with its Stig-like mannequin driver, appeared on my screen. As I laughed and laughed, poor Jess was looking at me like I was insane… But at that moment it felt like things had changed. Forget all the waxing lyrical about “destiny” and “opening up the frontier”. History will decide that. What mattered at that moment was that the test flight had worked, brilliantly, and that alone will give the Space X team confidence to push onwards with their even more ambitious plans.

Was it the start of a new age? Not sure about that. But maybe, perhaps, it was our first glimpse of the end of this one…

But the show wasn’t over, because suddenly people on Twitter started to report that Space X was streaming live video from the Tesla. I clicked on the link to the YouTube channel – and there it was, live, real-time video of the car, ruby red against the blackness of space, with the blue and white Earth drifting past behind it… Unbelievable…

Image26b

I watched that video feed for the next four hours, just savouring the view. And the view changed. As the car orbited the Earth our planet not only drifted in and out of view, but its size and phase changed too. I took screengrab after sceengrab, hypnotised and delighted by the views, stunned by the sight of the Earth shining through the car’s windscreen or looming above it. Here are some of them…

Image18b

Image16b

Image25b

Image32b

Image12b

And I wasn’t alone. At one point a quarter of a million people were watching that video feed. A quarter of a million.

Of course, not everyone was as enthusiastic. Ok, I get it, I really do. Putting the Tesla on the rocket was an ego trip for Musk, totally, and I can see why that might rub some people up the wrong way. But some people on social media were being so miserable about it, so snarky and dismissive about it that it almost spoiled the moment. This happens a lot with space missions and “events” I have found. There seems to be a group of people who feel they have to talk down the things that people outside the “space community” find cool, interesting or exciting, especially if they’re not involved in them. I don’t think they mean to; I think they have genuine concerns about how some things are done, or how they’re perceived, but they come across as grumpy and a bit selfish. And this happened last night, with people slagging off the Tesla. It didn’t matter that it was simply a beautiful sight, and that a quarter of a million people were watching it instead of watching some stupid talent contest on TV, or the latest Kardashian reality show; it wasn’t doing any science, so it was worthless.

Well, sorry, but I personally think that’s rubbish. Yes, putting a car on a rocket and firing it off into space is, on the face of it, a ridiculous thing to do, a really silly thing to do, but as PR it worked brilliantly, and Twitter and Facebook almost choked with the number of people watching and posting pictures. That has to be a good thing, surely? All those people, seeing their home planet on their computer screens, their tablets or their phones? All those people seeing for themselves how beautiful our planet is, and how lonely and fragile it looks against the blackness of space? How can that be a bad thing?

Image28b

And yes, before anyone says anything I know that you can enjoy live views of the Earth from space any time you want by logging on to the feed from the space station. I do that all the time. But last night many people will have seen Earth from space for the FIRST time, so that’s got to be a good thing.

Although it is a fantastic thing to belong to, the space community can be very closed and cliquey sometimes, and last night was one of those times. I wish just once, just *once*, everyone who is “into” this stuff, either as an enthusiastic amateur or a professional who works in the field of space exploration, would put their hands up and say “Ok, I don’t agree with it myself, but yeah, ok, you got me, that’s amazing…”and share in the moment.  I wish the “cool kids” would come out of the kitchen, grab a drink and join in the party, dance with the rest of us out here in the living room where the carpet is rolled up and people are having fun.

Having said that, last night some people went way too far the other way, proclaiming Elon Musk as the new messiah and attacking anyone who dared to criticise him or what he had done. That is totally unacceptable. Everyone should just respect the view of others, debate with them, but stay friendly. There are some truly pompous a***holes out there who take a perverse delight in attacking others.

But back to what last night meant. This launch, and the Tesla payload, got so many people all around the world excited about space again that this morning Twitter is still groaning under the weight of Tweets celebrating the launch, from people who were moved and inspired by it in a way they haven’t been before, or at least since the Shuttle days. Today people are talking enthusiastically about how it’s now not science fiction to think of sending people to the Moon, or Mars, because now there’s a bloody big rocket we can use to make cool stuff like that happen. How can that be a bad thing? Last night, literally, the world was watching, united on Facebook, Twitter, YouTube… it was wonderful to be a part of it.

So, what next? Don’t know. Don’t care. Last night we watched magic happen, and in these dark, troubled times, with the threat of nuclear war more real than it has been for years, with a lying childish idiot in the White House, and with the world seemingly going to hell in a hand basket we needed to see that rocket thundering into the sky. We really needed that.

And right now there’s a shiny red sports car on its way into deep space. Yes it’s stupid, and silly, but not everything to do with “space” has to be noble or worthy.

Sometimes, in space as it is down here on Earth, it’s ok to do something a bit daft that makes people smile. 🙂

 

Advertisements

It’s Falcon Heavy launch day…

spacex-falcon-heavy-1511968700

Big day in the “space world” today… At half past six this evening UK time a rocket will blast off from the Kennedy Space Centre. Nothing new about that; rockets are launched from there all the time. But this rocket is different – it is the first flight of the Space X “Falcon Heavy” rocket, and it is a monster of a rocket, very impressive-looking indeed. For those who don’t know it is essentially three Falcon rockets strapped together to make a single big rocket, which again isn’t new, as other rockets use the same arrangement. But instead of just falling back down into the ocean and becoming scrap, these rockets will ALL come back down again in a controlled manner, and land, so they can be reused on future flights. The two side boosters will land on landing pads back at the space centre – simultaneously, which will be very cool to watch, then, a while later, the central, third rocket will land on a barge out at sea…

That’s the plan, anyway…

I know this all sounds very “Thunderbirds” and there’s lots that can go wrong, but Space X has landed lots of rockets like this already so there’s a good chance it will work. It’s not guaranteed, and the whole thing might end in a huge explosion. But that’s what test flights are for. Whatever happens, it’s going to be spectacular…

Assuming it makes it into space, a booster stage will fire and the rocket’s payload will be sent on its way – and the payload is a shiny red Tesla sports car with an astronaut dummy sitting in the driver’s seat… And that car will be sent on a flight out into space, to the orbit of Mars. Not TO Mars, it won’t land on or even go into orbit around Mars, but it will go into “that part” of space if you like.

SpaceX Starman

A car? In space? Why???? We’ll come back to that…  🙂

There’s a huge amount of hype about this flight. Space X fans are famously evangelical about the company and about its founder, Elon Musk, and many of them are saying it will “open up the space frontier”, it will “revolutionise spaceflight”, it will “open up space for everyone”. It won’t do any of those things, I don’t think. It’s a stepping stone to greater things, yes, but on its own “FH” will not rip through the frontier and lead us all to a new golden age of space colonisation. It will take Elon Musk’s *next* rocket – the “BFR” or “Big Falcon Rocket” – to set us along that road.. maybe…

The significance of today is that it is something daring and something new, and is being done by a private company instead of NASA or a huge space agency. (NASA is supporting it, of course, but they’re not in charge). Elon Musk, Space X founder, is a real cult figure now. Some see him as the messiah, the saviour of mankind, a real life Tony Stark who strode arrogantly onto the space stage, shook everything up and is now setting the agenda for space exploration. Others can’t stand him. They think he’s egotistical, a fantasist, a rich boy snake oil salesman with more money than sense. They see his decision to put one of his Tesla cars on the rocket and send it into space as yet more proof of his huge ego. I imagine some of them would even be happy to see FH blow up when it launches tonight, just to put him in his place.

Whatever you think of Elon Musk – and, full disclosure here, I’m a big fan, whilst recognising he’s not perfect – the fact is he has put his money where his mouth is, and has built rockets that work the way he wanted them to, i.e. the way others have talked about doing for many years, but never managed to. He hasn’t just talked about doing it, he’s *done* it. Ok, so his plans for colonising Mars are over the top and unrealistic, real SF stuff, but I like it that he’s even wanting to do it, and isn’t scared of trying, and I’m still pretty sure that the first man or woman to set foot on Mars will have a Space X logo on their spacesuit instead of a NASA, ESA or Russian one. Elon is pushing at the frontier, moving the technology forwards, challenging those who sit on their hands and say “It can’t be done… it would cost too much… it’s too risky…” He’s *not* Tony Stark, that’s a silly comparison. And he’s certainly not a messiah or our species’ saviour, we need to calm down a bit there. But he is an important figure, and he has done what he set out to do, and today’s launch, if it comes off, will be another tick on his ambitious “Things To Do” checklist.

As for the car… well, this is a test flight of the rocket, and they had to put *something* in its nose to see how well it can carry a payload. It would have been risky – no, foolish – to put a proper multi-million dollar satellite in there, or a space-probe or something like that – because there’s a pretty good chance the whole thing is going to go BOOM! when it rises off the pad, so what a stupid waste that would have been. So Elon has put one of his old cars in there, with a Stig-like dummy in the driver’s seat instead. Some people are saying that’s ridiculous, just another sign of his ego, but hey, you know what? It’s his money, his car, his rocket, so I reckon he’s allowed to do whatever the hell he wants! Yes, it’s a ridiculously flamboyant, cheesy, thing to do, but it’s very cool, and because it’s covered in cameras, if the car reaches space then we’ll have amazing views of it with Earth in the background before it’s sent on its way to deep space.

So, for “spacey types” today is a very important day, We need FH – or rockets like it – to work so we can put bigger payloads into space than we can now, and we need bigger payloads if we’re going to build bases on the Moon and send people to Mars, which are our ultimate goals. For non spacey-types, today’s launch will be something interesting to watch live online or on the TV news later in the evening. Whatever happens the launch will be spectacular – we’ll either see a big, big rocket thundering into the sky, and its various parts landing again like something from a science fiction film, or we’ll see a whopping great explosion in the blue Florida sky. And that’s kind of okay too, It would be a disappointment, but it’s a test flight, and if things do go wrong Space X will learn from them, try again, and hopefully get it right the next time.

Anyway, just giving everyone a heads-up about what’s going on. You can watch the launch live online, on various websites, maybe NASA TV too, or catch up with it on the news later this evening. It might actually be covered live on the TV news, especially because there’s a chance of it blowing up, and there’s nothing the TV news shows like more than a big, expensive rocket blowing up so they can talk about how much it cost. Space enthusiasts like me will be watching with our hearts in our mouths and our fingers crossed, ready to either celebrate with whoops and cheers and breathless tweets and Facebook posts or console each other.

Now if you’ll excuse me I have to go and start biting my nails… 😉

More thoughts on the “Humanity Star”

opticalFlares_1517133862

 

Since the clandestine launch and deployment of the Rocket Lab “Humanity Star” there has been a lot of discussion and debate about it online. If you put “Humanity Star” into Google and do a general search you will find many articles reporting on the project, most – but not all – describing how astronomers are “up in arms”, “outraged” or “disgusted”. Some might be those things, but I’m not one of them. I’m not engaged in some wild-eyed furious vendetta here. I have very serious concerns, yes, which some people share and others don’t. That’s fine. That’s how mature discussion and debate works. I’m not trying to push my concerns or objections down  anyone else’s throat. But I’m not going to hide those concerns or objections either. As an active amateur astronomer and Outreacher I feel I have a duty to speak out if I think something happening in the world of astronomy is wrong – and I genuinely feel this is wrong.

Reading all the articles, forum posts and comments online it is pretty clear to me that a person’s reaction to and enthusiasm for the Humanity Star “space disco ball” is largely influenced by how long and how often that person actually looks at the night sky already. Most casual sky observers and interested newcomers – people who don’t do amateur astronomy as a serious hobby but are curious enough that they will take the time to go out and look at an eye-catching meeting of planets in the night sky, or will watch the space station if they’re told when and where to look for it – are thinking “That sounds cool! I’ll go look for that! Great idea!” and I’m sure that if/when the HS is predicted to cross their sky they will go out and look for it. Which would be…

Screenshot_20171226-102043_20171226102346273

However, more experienced observers – people who like to spend hours at a time under the stars, enjoying the peace and quiet; people with knowledge of what’s “up there” – are the ones annoyed by the HS’s perceived contribution (however small) to light pollution and the way it will intrude on the peaceful environment of the night sky. Many serious amateur astronomers (but, again, not all; some are really not bothered by the HS at all and are wondering what all the fuss is about) see it as a genuine threat to the night sky, because it might encourage others to do the same in the future.

As I said on my previous blog post, I can see both sides, but the fact that Rocket Lab felt the need to essentially smuggle their Humanity Star into orbit suggests to me VERY strongly that they knew in advance that people would raise concerns, so they delivered a fait accompli. Bit cynical, that, but hey, it generated lots of publicity, so job done there…

Some commentators support Rocket Lab’s line that HS will “inspire” people and get people to look up at the sky. Some amateur astronomers agree, and say that anything which gets people to look up at the sky, even for a short time, has to be a good thing. I get that… kind of…and maybe some people will raise their eyes to the sky for the first time and ponder their place in creation. But the problem is lots of initial over-enthusiastic press reports claimed that HS will be “the brightest star in the sky”, and to be fair to Rocket Lab they don’t make that claim anywhere on their website. They say “bright”… repeatedly… but don’t claim it will outshine everything else. But some reporters have, as is the way nowadays, just lazily cut and pasted other reporters’ copy so misinformation has spread.

In fact, having done a lot of research into this using astronomical event prediction websites and apps it seems that HS is not going to be the spectacular sight the press claimed, and many people are now expecting. And the problem here is that most people checking out the website’s tracking page, and looking for HS on their phone apps, will not understand how the astronomical magnitude scale works. They won’t know how bright something that is “magnitude 2.2” or even “0” is. But they WILL remember reading online that HS will be “the brightest object in the sky” so they will go out at the time predicted and expect to see a brilliant flickering light crossing their sky looking like one of the UFOs from “Close Encounters”. They definitely won’t see that. In fact, many people will find it hard to see when it passes over their part of the world because it won’t even be anywhere near as bright as the brightest stars, and if their observing location suffers from light pollution they might not see it at all.

So I think more people are going to be disappointed by the HS than inspired by it. And if that disappointment turns to disillusionment then they could actually be put off looking at things in the night sky rather than inspired to look for them; Rocket Lab’s “space disco ball” could have exactly the opposite effect to the one they claim they want it to have.

Friends of mine in “the space community” – proper space people who know more about orbital dynamics, statistics and things like that than I ever will (thanks, DE!) – have all assured me that the impact of HS on the night will be next to nothing, and I believe them. They’re the experts. My main concern is not about the light pollution HS will cause, though I still believe it will cause some. My main concern is the precedent the launch and deployment of HS sets for the future. I have no doubt it will inspire others to do the same.

And that’s just human nature, especially the nature of wealthy humans involved in big business. I don’t think it’s too much a stretch of the imagination to believe that having seen the huge media interest in HS, other companies are now wondering if they would enjoy similar interest if they launched an HS of their own. But there’d be no point in launching a satellite the same size and brightness as HS would there? No. It would have to be bigger, and brighter, or there’s no point in doing it.

So could the launch of HS lead to a kind of “arms race” in the utilisation of the night sky as an advertising space? That might be a little too far-fetched! But I’m genuinely concerned that as more and more companies start to launch small rockets and small payloads into space (which is a good thing!) the temptation to use the sky as a billboard will become stronger and stronger. I hope I’m wrong, but I fear I’m not.

Many people I know have made the point that we – amateur astronomers and sky-watchers – enjoy watching the space station and “iridium flares” in the night sky, sometimes even travelling away from home just to see them, so why should HS be the cause of such wailing and gnashing of teeth? Again, my main concern is not that HS will increase light pollution, though it will slightly, simply by its nature. I enjoy watching iridium flares and the ISS too, but the big difference is that the space station and iridium satellites are up there for scientific/practical purposes and we see them sometimes as they’re ‘working’. This satellite was put up there purely to be a light in the sky to catch people’s attention and be looked at, that is its sole reason for being there.

So, stripping this back to basics. HS is small, and not going to be up there that long. It will cross the sky in just a couple of minutes when visible, and won’t be dazzlingly bright, so by itself HS might not be a problem, it won’t stop us from looking at and enjoying the night sky. But it’s setting a dangerous precedent, and now it’s up there, and everyone is talking about it,  other companies will now feel able to launch their own satellites to advertise their capabilities and promote themselves, each one feeling the pressure to have *their* satellite bigger and better than the previous one.

As for all the flowery talk about HS “inspiring” people, “bringing them together” and “uniting the world”, don’t fall for all that new age, harp-plucking, fairy-folk, Kum-by-a gumpf. HS is going to be too faint to catch many people’s attention; it is up there purely to attract attention *to the company*.

But won’t all this go away once HS falls back to Earth in about 9 months time? No. Because Rocket Lab is already thinking of doing it again – their own website says so:

Image1bb

Will those “future iterations” of HS be exactly the same as the first one? No, of course they won’t. Will they be smaller? Fainter in the sky? Of course not – what would be the point of that? They will have to be bigger, brighter, more obvious. So don’t dismiss people like me when we raise concerns about HS leading to more satellites like it – its own creators have already said openly they want to build more.

And apart from that, doesn’t it strike you as fundamentally wrong that a small group of people – maybe just one person – decided that the night sky, which belongs to everyone, was theirs to do with as they wish? Doesn’t it make you feel uncomfortable that that small group of people – or that one person – took it upon themselves to add something to the night sky, just because they could?

I don’t know about you, but I’m not happy at the prospect of our night sky becoming the personal advertising space of a small elite group of rich people. The night sky belongs to everyone on Earth; it’s not the private playground of a few loaded entrepeneurs.

Some people have said “Oh it’s just a few geeky astronomers making a fuss!” or “what will one extra star matter?” Ok. Think of it this way. How would music lovers react if someone decided that it was ok for someone to start buzzing away with a kazoo during performances by orchestras? Just for a couple of minutes. Surely that would be ok? How would ballet audiences react if someone decided that every performance of Swan Lake was going to feature a surprise appearance by a man dressed as a clown, who would dash out from the wings and run across the stage, honking a horn? Just for a minute or so. Surely that would be ok? How would visitors to art galleries react if, every time they went to view their favourite paintings or sculptures, the respectful peace and quiet was shattered by someone playing a Honey G song over the PR system? Just for a minute or two. Surely that would be fine?

What have those nightmarish (and ok, maybe just a little bit ridiculous) visions got to do with HS? Just imagine a future where it was impossible to enjoy a peaceful night under the night sky because every few minutes another HS would appear, distracting you with its flashing, before fading away again. We would lose the tranquillity and peace we enjoy now. The beautiful stars of the Plough, Orion and other constellations would become just a backdrop for “look at me!” satellites. The night sky would have become just a wall for “artists” to tag with their graffiti…

HSs

 

And if everything I’ve said so far still doesn’t worry you, if you’re still not convinced this is a big deal, think of it this way. Light pollution is a huge problem now because for a long time it just wasn’t taken seriously. I remember back in the early 80s when the first concerns were raised by a few astronomers who saw which way the wind was blowing. We convinced ourselves it wasn’t that bad, that we could live with it. Now look where we are. While modern LED streetlights are quite good at reducing light pollution, and have made a big difference in some places, the cheap security lights you find stacked to the ceiling in Home Bargains and Aldi etc – the blindingly-bright £4.99 searchlights people mount above their garage doors, pointing straight out, that come on when a midge flies past are ruining the night sky for many town and city dwellers. A recent survey showed that despite old sodium streetlights being replaces with modern LEDs, light pollution is growing year after year and shows no sign of reducing. That’s not news of course to us amateur astronomers who now need special filters on our cameras and have to flee to special dark sky reserves to see the sky properly. But they’re not solutions – not everyone can afford to spend hundreds of pounds on filters, or can take a weekend off to travel to a star-camp like Kielder, can they?

If we’d taken a stand against light pollution earlier on, before it got out of hand, if we’d educated people properly, perhaps we could have prevented it becoming as bad as it is now. Well, this is our opportunity to get in early and prevent the night sky itself from becoming polluted – deliberately or otherwise – by companies and individuals.

If anyone who is serious about astronomy, or who just loves being under a peaceful night sky, is OK with that, well, we might as well just give up now and all take up stamp collecting.

Because we won’t deserve a dark sky.

The “Humanity Star”

DUYL9nHUQAAalzx

Yesterday Rocket Lab, a small, private New Zealand-based company that recently launched a rocket into space and deployed several small satellites into orbit, revealed that one of those “satellites” was a project called “The Humanity Star“, a 1m across ball covered in highly-reflective triangles of material. The purpose of this “space disco ball” – which the company says will look like a “shooting star” in the sky, flashing as it goes, and was inspired by the flares produced by Iridium satellites – is to get people looking up at the night sky, to inspire them, to make them contemplate their place in the universe, and it has created a lot of interest online. Some are for it, most very much against it.

Me? I have very mixed feelings about this.

As someone heavily involved in astronomy outreach and education I spend a lot of what I laughingly call my “free time” encouraging people to get up off their sofas, go outside and look up at the beauty to be seen in the night sky. And at first glance this “star” would appear to help with that, just as the bright “flares” from Iridium satellites do. Like many people I have enjoyed looking out for bright Iridium flares over recent years, and have pointed them out at stargazing events to others too. They can be both fascinating and beautiful, especially the really bright ones, and are a valuable and useful Outreach tool. So, isn’t this “Humanity Star” going to be just like having another Iridium satellite up there?

If you believe the Humanity Star’s website then yes, that’s the case. It was inspired by the flares produced by Iridium satellites. Indeed, the website goes even further, declaring that the purpose of this new “star” is to “inspire” people and get them to contemplate their place in the universe etc, etc. All very commendable.

However, if you look past the flowery New Age language, and dig a little deeper, the “Humanity Star” isn’t perhaps quite as innocent or inspiring a venture as the website or publicity suggests.

For a start, there’s the issue of light pollution. We – astronomers, sky-watchers, the public in general – now find it very hard to enjoy being out under a truly dark sky because of light pollution from streetlights, advertising signs, pub and hotel signs, factories and offices etc. For a long time there has been concern about light pollution spreading up into the actual sky itself, as companies have wanted to place illuminated signs in orbit advertising themselves or their products. There have been a few proposals over the years, but none of them ever got very far. Now we have this “Humanity Star”, a man-made object with no scientific purpose, which will be visible in the night sky as a “bright light”. Many are concerned that this is not just a source of light pollution in its own right, but that it launch sets a dangerous precedent, which will lead to other companies placing bigger, brighter objects in the sky in the future.

I share these concerns, which might seem a little hypocritical seeing as I’ve been a fan of Iridium flares. However, the difference is those flares are an unintentional bonus – the satellites are up there to do a job, and it just happens that if you’re beneath one when the sunlight hits its arrays you will see it flaring brightly in the sky. This “Humanity Star” was put up there purely to create an artificial light in the sky, and that means it is light pollution, of a sort.

A lot depends on how bright this new “star” is going to be, and the website descriptions are really not much help here. They just say it will be “bright”, and also say this…

Image2b

However, the things they say on the website are VERY misleading, bordering on hype. The website says this about the “Humanity Star”…

Image1b

Now, any novice sky-watcher knows that shooting stars are gone in the blink of an eye, whereas satellites take a couple of minutes to cross the sky. So this throwaway sentence suggests that the website was either written by some well-meaning PR person with very little knowledge of astronomy and the night sky, or the descriptions are deliberately over the top.

As much as I support these “New Space” companies cutting the costs of rocket launches, and “opening up” space to more people, I have come to the conclusion that for all the New Age wiffy-waffy words about inspiration, etc, the main purpose of this “star” is just to promote the Rocket Lab company behind the rocket that launched it. It is an orbital advert – the first in history to actually work. If the company was open about that it would be a clever achievement in its own right. But I don’t think it’s a good idea to dress it up as something to inspire people.

But again, the impact of this new “star” on the night sky, and on the people who enjoy looking at it, will depend greatly on how bright it will be, and how much it will flash as it crosses the sky. The website suggests it will be a bright object that will look like a “flashing shooting star” in the sky. True?

Using the Heavens Above website I’ve looked at when I will be able to see the Humanity Star, and how long it will take to cross the sky. The results – for my location, at least – suggest that it will absolutely, definitely NOT be a bright object in the sky, and it will look NOTHING like a shooting star, because it will, as is the case with other satellites and the space station, take minutes to cross the sky.

Note: I only found this out by checking things for myself; the company has refused to answer my Twitter enquiries.

Using Heavens Above I checked when the “Humanity Star” will be visible from Kendal, Cumbria, where I live, and it turns out I won’t be able to see it until the start of March, and from then it will be visible in either the morning or evening sky until the end of May. Looking at the month of March, the “star” will be visible on 60 different occasions, each “pass” across my sky a little different to the others. Some will be high, some will be low. Some will be brighter than others –

BUT HOW BRIGHT WILL IT BE???

Looking at March, only 15 of those 60 passes will be bright enough to be visible with the naked eye. and none of them will be as bright as the space station, a bright planet or a bright star. In fact, if the Heavens Above predictions are correct then the “Humanity Star” will only just reach 4th magnitude for me during March, which is nowhere near as bright as any of the stars in the Big Dipper, a star pattern most people can recognise in the sky and are familiar with. The other passes will only be visible through binoculars or a small telescope.

Of course, this initial prediction might turn out to be wrong. I have no idea of what info the Heavens Above website is using, they might not be taking into account the highly reflective surfaces of the “star”. It might well be that the star will be a lot brighter than this initial check suggests. ( It will definitely be brighter from other locations; I know that because people I know have done the same as me and checked observing details from where they live, and are getting magnitudes as bright as +2, about as bright as Polaris, the Pole Star). If I’m wrong about any of this I’ll happily re-write this with the correct figures. But at the moment it looks like the “Humanity Star” will be quite hard for the non-astronomer to spot in the sky, and a lot less impressive and inspiring than the company is making out.

IMPORTANT NOTE: I’m NOT trying to be a killjoy about this, I’m really not. I think Rocket Lab has done an amazing job with its rocket, and the more companies putting payloads into space, and reducing the cost of access to space, the better. And I’m all for projects that get people looking up at the night sky, so if everything the company behind this “Humanity Star” says is true then yes, it might do that, for some people. But I think the website is at best inaccurate and at worst badly misleading. Deliberately misleading? Hmmm. I wouldn’t go that far. But they definitely need to be a bit more honest about what their “star” will actually look like.

This kind of thing is going to happen again and again as the “New Space” revolution gathers pace. Elon Musk is sending one of his cars into space when the first Falcon Heavy rocket launches next month, and while some people think that’s a cool thing to do others think it’s a rich playboy being stupid and immature, and a complete waste of resources and money. Now we have another company launching a “space disco glitter ball”. Cool or crazy? You decide. At the end of the day these are privately-funded missions and the entrepeneurs behind them can do what the hell they want with their – and their Shareholders’ – money.

So, where are we at the end of this discussion? Best case scenario: this is a lot of fuss over nothing. It will just be a faint “star” in the sky for a few months, a curiosity, nothing more, nothing less, and then it will be gone, hopefully after inspiring people to look up at the night sky. I hope so. Worst case scenario: this project might lead to professional PR and advertising people casting a beady eye at the sky and wondering how they can use the night sky to promote their own or their clients’ products. I’m sure the people behind it mean well, but this “Humanity Star”, launched and deployed in secret, to my knowledge without consultation with any astronomical bodies or experts, will set a precedent for others to follow.

I guess I see it this way. The night sky is already full of wonderful sights – glittering star clusters, misty nebulae, gracefully-curled galaxies – which can inspire people around the world if they are shown them. I don’t personally believe people will find a faint star, blinking as it drifts across that sky, anywhere near as inspiring as anything that’s already up there. But I’ll be happy to be proved wrong.

And as for the light pollution issue… we’ve enough light pollution already. There’s absolutely no need for anyone to add to it, whether it’s by pointing another floodlight at a pub sign or flinging a flashing disco ball up into space. Any light pollution is wrong. And this new “star” will add to light pollution.

But worst of all, the “Humanity Star” is taking us a step closer to turning the night sky into something to be used and exploited by a few instead of a natural wonder to be enjoyed and treasured by all.  Please, please, let’s not turn the night sky into an advertising billboard.

 

Review: Star Wars – The Last Jedi

8012_5776

It’s now a week since I watched the midnight screening of “Star Wars: The Last Jedi” at the Brewery Arts Centre here in Kendal, and I thought it was time I put down my thoughts about it. Well, everyone else is! So, here’s my review – but a warning: this is full to bursting with spoilers, so it’s a review for people who’ve seen it and are interested, for whatever reason, in a fellow Star Wars fan’s view. If you haven’t seen the film yet then for pity’s sake don’t read any further because it will RUIN it for you. Any spoilers you read but didn’t want to read after this point are totally your own fault.

Ok… so… cards on the table, I am a HUGE Star Wars fan, have been since 1976 when the release of “Star Wars” was still a year away. I remember reading about it in the papers, seeing the pictures, etc. I even had a Star Wars scrap book full of cut out images of Chewbacca, stormtroopers and the rest of the cast. I made model TIE fighters out of straws and cotton reels, and pretended the ring pull from Coke cans was a teeny tiny Millenium Falcon. I carried a piece of wood around in my pocket which, in my head, WAS a lightsabre.

Yes, I was that geeky Star Wars kid.

And as the years passed, and as each new “original trilogy” film came along, I went to see it, and loved them. Then the godawful “prequels” came along and almost ruined the whole thing. I came out of the cinema after watching “The Phantom Menace” literally wanting to punch a wall, it was so crap. Thankfully the epic last half hour of the final prequel pulled things back from the brink, and I still watch the “birth of Vader” with a big grin on my face. But the original classic trilogy… they remain things of beauty, and art, and romance to this day, and I know I will always love them.

Then along came “The Force Awakens”… I know it has its critics, but I watched that film feeling like a kid back in 1977 again. I bounced out of the Brewery Arts Centre like a labrador puppy let loose on a beach. I LOVED it. There was a real joy about that film, and J nailed the characters, and gave us some truly memorable visuals too – the Falcon soaring up into the sky, Rey living in the remains of the AT-AT, the Star destroyer wreckage lying in the desert, and many more. At the end I was grinning and so was everyone around me. Star Wars was back!

And then came “Rogue One”… and it broke my heart like a dropped vase. Not because it was bad, but because it was so, so good. I was hypnotised through the whole thing, and at the end when Jyn and Cassian died, yes, I blubbed like a baby. I left the Brewery genuinely in a state of shock, and when I got home and stumbled through the door, lost for words, Stella actually asked me what was wrong, what had happened on the way home… I was just in bits, the whole film had been magical from start to finish. For me, “Rogue One” is THE best film of the whole franchise – yes, even better than “Empire”. That might be heresy to some of you reading this, but it’s just a personal opinion, chill out!

So, of course, I was looking forward to seeing “The Last Jedi”, like a kid looking forward to Christmas, especially after reading all the glowing reviews, one after another gushing about how “dark” and “different” and “edgy” it was, and how it was “the best film since Empire”. I took my seat at the Brewery at just before midnight on premiere night, and when the film FINALLY started at just before half past midnight I settled back and waited to be blown away…

So, was I?

Well…. at the time I thought I was. As the closing credits rolled I told myself I was. But even as I walked home, trying not to slip on the frosty pavements at silly o’clock in the morning, in the back of my mind a disappointed voice was whispering “Hmmm… It was okay… but it wasn’t that good really, was it?”

And a week later I have to agree. Yes, I enjoyed it. It’s ok. But it’s not as good as Empire. And it’s definitely not as good as Rogue One. IN MY OPINION, of course. Others love it to death, and are besotted with it like I am with Rogue, but speaking personally I was left a little “meh” by the whole thing.

Well, not the whole thing – parts of it. Parts of the story, I mean. Yeah, I should explain.

Being positive first – the film looks absolutely jaw-droppingly GORGEOUS. The effects are faultless, the design is beautiful, the whole thing looks like a beautiful painting from start to finish. The action sequences are thrilling and exciting too, with some of the best space battles seen in any Star Wars film and possibly THE best lightsabre fight in the whole franchise (when Rey and Kylo are fighting side by side and back to back… just brilliant!).

And there are many, many scenes in the film which contain true Star Wars classic moments every bit as magical as those in other films in the series. When Yoda appears… when Luke sees Artoo… when Luke returns to the Falcon’s bridge… all touching and moving little snapshots of Star Wars greatness.

There are great performances in the film too. Adam Driver steals the whole thing, I think, as Kylo Ren. Without that (Snoke quote) “ridiculous” mask on he is free to actually act, and he puts in a superb performance all the way through, really grabbing the role by the throat now. Daisy Ridley gives troubled, lost Rey new depths this time, and of course Carrie Fisher lights up the screen every time she appears. Mark Hamill brings Luke Skywalker back to life brilliantly, and when he dies at the end I had a lump in my throat the size of a small moon…

And it’s funny! It’s a very funny film! Sometimes it almost lapses into slapstick, but that’s ok. The rest of the time it’s very witty and self-deprecating, with some great quips and one liners here and there. Cute animals too…

Star_Wars_Porg_Gift_Ideas.0

“Hang on!” I can hear you thinking. “It sounds like you LOVED it! What was wrong with it?”

Ok… deep breath… here goes… bearing in mind, always, that this is just one frustrated fan’s personal opinion…

Huge chunks of the story are dumb. I mean, just double Picard face-palm dumb. The whole premise of the remains of the Rebel Fleet being chased *in a straight line*, by the First Order starships, like the Colonial fleet being pursued by the Cylons in “Galactica”, is ridiculous and lazy. Why didn’t Hux or Ren just order a star destroyer to jump AHEAD of the Rebel fleet and cut them off?

And all that stuff on the “casino planet”… come on, what a load of rubbish, and what a total waste of time. It was like a whole load of scenes deleted from “Phantom Menace” had been pasted into “Jedi”. I half-expected to see Jar Jar Binks flapping and jive-talking his way across the screen. (“Mista Poe! Sosa good to see you! Mesa playing cards over here, with Mista Bond…”)

This part of the film also introduced us to one of the greatest wastes of space ever to appear in the whole franchise – Benicio del Toro’s character, “DJ”, who was obviously supposed to be some kind of wide boy scoundrel in the Han Solo mode  but just came across as a drunken bum.

star-wars-the-last-jedi-benicio-del-toro-social

del Toro mumbled and grumbled and slurred his way through his scenes, like he always does, and I thought every moment he was on screen was a moment wasted, to be honest. I hope we don’t see him again. But I fear we will.

In fact, the supporting characters were not treated well in the film at all, I thought.

Finn – no “journey” or development at all this time. Just there to shout “yeah!” and look sorrowful now and again. Funny entrance though.

Phasma – what a waste, if she actually is dead. One of the most intriguing characters seen in the franchise for years, gone, just like that. I hope she cheats death and comes back in the next one, because if she doesn’t I’ll be well hacked off I can tell you.

Poe – again wasted. They stripped his cheeky charm away from him and just made him angry and frustrated. I missed the wicked-glint-in-the-eye Poe we all loved in “Force Awakens”.

Leia… started off well, full of angst and disappointment, and frustration and fear, and of course Carrie Fisher brought the role to life again, and at the end of the film she is still heroic, still noble, still The Leader we would all follow into the fire… but that part halfway through when, after being blown out into the void, she comes gliding in from space, floating in through the side of the starship like bloody Tinkerbell was SO stupid I almost shouted “Oh come on!!!” at the screen. I know Star Wars is a space fairy tale, and it’s wrong to take it too seriously, but that was just… stupid… not moving at all. It was clumsy and, again, lazy, like that moment in one of the prequels when, suddenly, R2D2 remembered he could fly, and took off into the air to jet around like Mark Whatney doing Iron Man in his punctured spacesuit at the end of “The Martian”.

Was that just me? Did everyone else “get” that Leia scene? Maybe it was just me…

Elsewhere the film is genuinely stunning. The Rey/Ren storyline is engrossing and intriguing, and I honestly couldn’t tear my eyes away from the screen when those two characters were on it. The return of Luke Skywalker is every bit as epic as it deserved and needed to be. The hardware is great to look at, and the battles are impressive. And, as I said, the film is absolutely beautiful to look at, with many scenes that turn the screen into a canvas that is painted with so many lovely colours and scenes that it makes you want to watch it again just for those moments.

The-Last-Jedi-Crystal-Fox-Featured-10312017

It was a great shame, I thought, that the “crystal foxes” weren’t use more, they are my favourite animals for a long time. Yes, the Porgs are cute, of course, great comedy creations… but foxes, made out of crystals… that’s genius, right there, and shows just how innovative and “outside the box” the Star Wars universe can be.

I get that the film is supposed to be darker, more introspective, and that it leaves the Rebellion and the rebels in a really desperate situation which will take a lot of coming back from, and on that level it succeeds. “What the hell are they going to do NOW?” you think as the film ends, and it sets up the next one very effectively…

…but big chunks of the story let it down. They could easily have cut out the whole of the “casino planet” section (Oh look, another bar full of bizarre aliens… another alien musical group… yawn….) and the film would not have suffered one bit, not one bit, from losing that half hour. True, it would have meant rewriting the whole “code breaker” subplot line but I’d have been okay with that, because it was stupid anyway, and the del Toro Han Solo-wannabe character at its centre was a mumbling, shuffling tramp. I know the character was an attempt to “blur the lines” between the good guys and the bad guys, by showing that both sides buy weapons, and with a different actor in the role it might have worked better, but for me it just didn’t come off, and was one of the film’s most criminal wastes of time and effort.

Will I go see it again? Yes, of course I will! And I’ll buy the DVD, ad no doubt I’ll find more things in it that I like. And if anyone reading this loved it, I’m honestly happy for you! I wanted to love it myself, I really did, but in the end it disappointed me in quite a few ways. But that’s ok; no Star Wars film is ever, EVER going to please ALL the fans. Star Wars is different things to different people. I just thought, for all the good bits – and there are lots of them – it was a film of wasted potential and opportunities.

But it sets up the next one big time…!

 

 

 

Christmas Gift Ideas

Back in 2010 I wrote a post for this blog which was my most popular – well, most controversial! – ever. Called “Two things NOT to buy for Christmas” it explained to readers why I thought they shouldn’t buy either a star or a telescope as a Christmas gift for someone. The advice about not buying a telescope led to many people posting comments telling me I was being too negative, and that I was wrong to try and put people off astronomy. I still don’t agree I was doing that at all, because back then there honestly just weren’t many good “absolute beginners” telescopes available, and I was trying to point out the perils of buying someone a telescope that would be too advanced or them.

However, I thought it was time to update the post because things have changed…

No, I haven’t changed my mind about the whole “star naming” thing. I still think that is a cruel rip-off. But my advice about not buying a telescope is now badly out of date, because since I wrote that original post several respected and reliable telescope manufacturers have produced very good beginners telescopes suitable for adults or children wanting to “get into” stargazing.  I also thought it would be useful to actually suggest some ideas for smaller, less expensive gifts too, instead of just being all negative and Grinchy!

So, here we are then, some personal thoughts on things you can – and definitely should not – buy as gifts this Christmas for your friend or relative who is into this amazing spacey stuff. I hope some of you find it useful!

————————————————————————————————————————————–

So, Christmas Day is now less that TWO WEEKS AWAY!!!!! So, that means three things. Firstly, you can’t move in the shops without tripping over Christmas displays (and again, well done that charity shop in Morecambe which began selling  Christmas cards in JULY, you nutters…). Secondly, it’s now impossible to turn on the TV without seeing a Christmassy ad for John Lewis, Sainsburys or Argos. And, lastly, I’m getting frantic emails and phone calls from people wanting last minute advice on “spacey” presents to buy their loved ones for Christmas. That often means telling them things they are not expecting, or wanting, to hear, because if they buy them they’re wasting their money, for various reasons. But there are other things they most definitely can buy. So let’s look at some gift ideas…

First of all, do not, Do Not, DO NOT “buy” your son/daughter/wife/husband/mother/father a star, or pay to have a star “named” after them.

Why?

Because all you’ll be paying for is a piece of paper.

ec062069

There are now LOTS of companies that offer to give a star in the sky the name of your choosing – for a price, of course. Google “Name a star” or “star naming” and you’ll find that there are a gazillion of them online, and you can even buy “gift packs” from Argos, Boots and other shops. If you don’t know how they work, for your money you get to name the star, a certificate, a chart showing the location of your star and – well, that’s it basically. The impression they give, these companies, is that you then exclusively “own” the star, and that it will be known by that name forever.

This is not correct.

Why?

If you “buy a star”, the only place, the only place the star will bear your chosen name is in that company’s register, on its database. No astronomers will ever refer to it by that name. No astronomy magazine’s or book’s star charts will ever give it that name. No observatory anywhere in the world will ever recognise or use that name.

I should make it absolutely clear here that it’s not illegal, or a “con” in the legal sense of the word. The companies themselves actually admit that it’s not “official”. If you take a look at the FAQ on the website of one of the most popular star naming companies you’ll see they’re quite open about it: ( http://www.starregistry.com/faq.cfm ) But the general marketing of the product does give the impression that for your £15 or £20 or whatever you’re paying, you are naming a star in the sky and that star will bear that name for ever, and future generations will call it by that name, thus immortalising your son/daughter/dog/goldfish. That’s just not true.

How popular is this? Well, every year many people unwittingly fall for it, because a) most people are very ignorant about the night sky and the world of astronomy, b) the packages are very glossy and the advertising blurb very convincing, and c) on the face of it it seems like a great idea, a lovely gesture, to name a star after a loved one. I mean, what could be more romantic or sentimental, than to name a twinkling star after your wife, husband, mother, father, sweetheart or newborn child?

Well, the problem – apart from the fact that these companies don’t actually have any right to name stars!! – is that most of the stars up for naming are all too faint to be seen with the naked eye, so would need a telescope to see them, and they can be in the opposite celestial hemisphere to the purchaser’s home. So, if you “buy” a star you could very well end up with a star that you’d have to travel to the other side of the world to see, and would need a telescope to see it with once you got there…

Again, it has to be said that many of the companies actually admit all this. But the people to whom these star names are “sold” aren’t going to be looking at or for small print or FAQs; they’re looking, often, for a way to cherish and preserve the memory of a loved one, dead or alive, and, like most consumers, believe what they’re told in the big bold colourful lettering, not in the small print. And that is why I don’t like this.

People have told me “It’s just a bit of fun, stop taking it so seriously!” and okay, yes, maybe that’s true, and if you hand over your money totally, 100% aware that your gift is not a physical thing, if you’re making a gesture, if you know that it’s basically “a nice thought” and nothing more then that’s fine, it is a lovely idea. But the problem comes when people DON’T buy these products for the right reasons, when they buy them genuinely believing they are paying to have a star named after a loved one, and that it will be known by – and called – that name in the years and centuries to come. I’m afraid that’s utter, utter rubbish.

And if you are sitting there reading this with a sneer on your face, or rolling your eyes, thinking “Oh lighten up, it’s just a bit of fun! Stop being such a grump!” well, you haven’t seen the look on a person’s face when they’ve learned that the star they thought they’d named after a deceased loved one or a beloved fiance or wife isn’t actually called that after all. I’m often asked by people at observing events if I could show them “their star”, or the star they bought for someone, and I have to tell them – kindly, gently, I’m not a monster! – that I can’t because they didn’t actually buy anything. I could lie to them, but that would be unfair, and cruel, I think. They deserve to know the truth, and the truth is they’ve been taken advantage of by people who are out to make money out of their grief or their love, and that’s wrong, I think.

In theory, “star naming” is harmless, and yes, in some cases it might lead to some people following up their purchase and getting more seriously into real astronomy, but these are the exceptions. I think the whole star naming thing is wrong, I just do. I feel very strongly about, I don’t mind admitting. I refuse to give any kind of support to this practice, and will do anything and everything I can suggest the people I come into contact with – at my astronomical society’s star parties, at the Outreach talks I give, and at other events – shouldn’t buy a star.

And again, if you’re reading this thinking “Oh stop over-reacting!” then the way out is at the top of the screen on the right there, that red box with an “X” in it. This is my blog, and this is how I feel.

Someone once suggested to me that I should actually try and show people the star they have “bought”, in the hope of opening their eyes to the real beauty of the heavens. Hmmm. Let me think…  Should I take the star chart off them, swing my humble 4.5″ reflector around to find their star (if it’s even in the northern hemisphere), centre it and then turn to the star buyers and say: “Look into this eyepiece… see that star? That’s the one you paid £20 for but DON’T own and ISN’T named after your mother… cool huh?”

I don’t think so. Wound… salt… you know? (and by the way I wouldn’t ever dream of saying those words to them anyway, that would be cruel, and they’ve been hurt enough already. I always let people down slowly and gently.)

So, no. I don’t – and won’t – show people “their star”, for two reasons. Firstly, I’d be collaborating with the star-naming companies, giving them tacit support for their ‘product’. By focussing my ‘scope on that star I’d be saying, effectively, “Here you go, this is the star you bought…”. Secondly, I don’t need to show those people “their” star to get them interested in real astronomy. If they’ve hung around after being told – kindly, and gently, but truthfully – that they’be been conned, I’ll show them Saturn’s rings shining like glowing hoops around the planet and tell them that they used to be a moon before it was shattered in a cataclysmic collision… I’ll show them the lavendar and grey whirls and whorls of the Orion Nebula and tell them there are stars being born in there… I’ll show them the breath-on-glass fog of M31 and tell them that they’re looking at a haze of stars 2 million light years away… I’ll show them the salt and pepper stars of M15 and tell them that if they lived on a world whipping around one of those suns their night sky would be ablaze with beacons of light… and I’ll tell them to look up, at the sky above them, and tell them that each of the stars twinkling there is a sun, a distant sun, and that if there are aliens “out there” then our sun is just a star twinkling in their sky after their own sun has set.

Don’t get me wrong, I would never ridicule or make the victims of star-naming scams feel bad. I don’t jump up and down, pointing at them and laughing “haha! suckers!!” in the middle of a busy star party when they tell me what’s happened. I go to great lengths to explain to them that although what they did was a wonderful, loving gesture, it wasn’t what they were thinking, or indeed paid for. They’re victims of clever salespeople, that’s all.

Let’s look at this from a different angle. If someone came up to you in the street this afternoon and offered to sell you a brick in the Great Wall of China, or a rivet in the Golden Gate Bridge, or one of the eyes, nostrils or ears of one of the faces carved into Mount Rushmore, would you be tempted? No. You’d tell them to take a hike – or use a rather more to-the-point bit of Anglo-Saxon language! Now, would you be tempted to buy one of those things for a friend or relation or loved one, thinking they might then develop an interest in Oriental history, civil engineering or sculpting? No, of course you wouldn’t! The whole star naming thing is no different. It’s a rip-off, aimed at people with good hearts, often aching hearts, who don’t know better, and are easy prey.

When I tell people the truth about star naming, sure, some are angry at me for “lying”, or shattering their illusion. Some tell me I don’t know what I’m talking about because, after all, they have a Certificate to prove the star is theirs. But most of them are very grateful that I’ve been honest with them, because it means they won’t go on to recommend the idea to others. So although I don’t ridicule them, I won’t lie to them through silence, because if I didn’t say something then they could tell one of their friends about their “gift” and ker-ching, that’s another $50 or £25 in the bank account of a businessman somewhere.

Let me make it perfectly clear – the people who work for these companies aren’t monsters, or crooks, or bad people, I’m sure. They’re just making a living, and we all have to eat, right? And selling star names isn’t illegal. Anyone reading this blog could set up their own company to do exactly the same thing. Go ahead, try it. Each to their own. But the product is a non-product. They’re essentially selling fresh air. They are taking money for a service that doesn’t exist, for an end product that doesn’t exist, and leading people to believe they’ve Done A Good Thing. You must decide if you want to support that – or tolerate it – or not. At the end of the day, it comes down to personal choice.

So, if you were thinking about “Buying a star” for someone this Christmas, it’s entirely up to you. It’s your money, and if it’s something you want to do to make someone feel good, or if you think it will help them through a bad time, it’s entirely up to you. On the face of it, “buying” someone a star is a lovely gesture, it really is. All I’m saying here is just be aware of the actual truth of the situation, ok? My personal recommendation would be – don’t do it. Don’t fall for the slick packaging, the fancy words or the romantic imagery. Buy a huge bunch of flowers instead, or a nice photograph.

But hey, if you’re determined to make a grand romantic gesture, then send me £30 and I’ll happily name one of the grains of sand on Arnside beach anything you want. Or one of the bricks in the Great Wall of China. Or one of the blades of grass up at Kendal Castle, or one of the blocks in the Great Pyramid. Because that would be just as official as buying a star name… 🙂

buy-me

Ok, I’m done! 🙂

Now, what about telescopes?

Every year in the run-up to Christmas I get phone calls, letters and emails from people wanting advice about buying a telescope. Some of them I happily recommend telescopes to, because they tell me they are already “sky-watchers” and are wanting to take the next step in the fascinating hobby of amateur astronomy. But very often I am contacted by people who are wanting to jump in at the deep end of stargazing by buying a telescope before they have even learned the constellations, or swept across the Milky Way with binoculars. Maybe they’ve been inspired by a TV program, or a lecture they’ve attended, or maybe they’ve looked up on a gloriously clear night and noticed the beauty of the night sky for the first time. But they have suddenly decided they want to buy a telescope with no prior observing experience whatsoever, so they contact me asking for advice. And, as is the case with the whole star-naming thing, I have to lay my cards out on the table and be honest with them.

I’ll be honest – my views on this have changed. When I wrote the original post back in 2010 I recommended against buying a telescope, ANY telescope, because of a) my own personal experiences and b) what was available to buy at the time. Back then there were very few telescopes suitable for absolute beginners to buy, and my concern was that buying someone a telescope that was too advanced, too powerful and too complicated to set up and use would actually put them off astronomy for life rather than introduce them to a hobby that would enrich their life. Now, though, there are lots of good “beginners” telescopes out there, so I am happy to recommend them as gifts for your starry eyed friend or the budding astronomer in your family.

The key to buying a telescope as a Christmas gift is KEEP IT SIMPLE. The adverts online and in magazines can give the impression that bigger is better, that complicated is better, that the more twiddly and fiddly bits a telescope has the better it is. Rubbish. The best telescope you can buy someone as a present is one they will actually be able to use, and for an absolute beginner that means buying a telescope that can be set up quickly and easily and can be aimed at things in the sky quickly, simple as that. More advanced telescopes are essentially computers you look through, and they are far, far beyond the needs of an absolute beginner. All they need is a telescope that will let them see amazing things “up there” that they can’t see with their naked eye, such as the mountains and craters of the Moon, the rings of Saturn, Venus as a crescent, and some of the beautiful “deep sky” objects such as galaxies, star clusters and nebulae. And thankfully there are now plenty of beginners telescopes available that will let them do just that.

Having said that you must be careful to go too far the other way and buy a telescope that’s too simple, i.e too cheap, because it will be of such poor optical quality that it would be next to useless. Get someone (or treat yourself to!) the wrong telescope – a telescope that’s too cheap or too advanced – and you’d be wasting your money, to be brutally honest, because this is what would happen. Christmas Day would come, your loved one/friend/whoever would unwrap the telescope and – if the sky was clear that night – they’d manage, possibly after a lot of struggling, to get the telescope aimed at the Moon, and maybe a bright planet. That in itself could be disappointing because cheap telescopes usually have such poor optics that the image would be blurry and distorted, and also because cheap telescopes come with such unstable tripods that they shudder and shake too much to provide a steady view.

I know, I know, it’s a minefield! With so many telescopes available, how do you know which is the right one to buy? Easy. You need is a checklist, and here’s one for you…

A good absolute beginner’s telescope to buy someone (or yourself) as a gift needs to have the following:

  • A very steady tripod
  • Good quality lenses or mirror
  • A good quality finder-scope

Something that looks like this…

55e4b588082ae8d5245b3403_Celestron-21061-AstroMaster-70AZ-Refractor-Telescope  BEVX-skywatcher-76-telescope-web

Now, this might surprise some readers, but I would urge people VERY strongly NOT to buy a “GoTo” computerised telescope, not for a first telescope anyway. Why? Don’t they make finding things in the sky easier? Don’t you just tap a few letters or numbers into a keypad ad it does everything for you? Well, yes, but only once they have been aligned with some stars in the sky, so you have to know the names and positions of the brightest naked eye stars in the sky before you can even get such a telescope up and running. Once the telescope is aligned off you can go, roaming around the wonders of the night sky to your heart’s content, but to align it you will have to be able to point it, manually, towards two or maybe three bright stars in the sky selected from its computer database, and if you don’t know the names and locations of those stars – in other words if you don’t know your way around the sky with your naked eye – you’re (technical term) stuffed.

So what you want is a good quality “alt-azimuth” telescope, that’s one that has no motor drives, no setting circles, no fancy computer; you basically just swing the telescope tube around, and tilt it up and down, until it’s pointing at what you want to look at, and you do that by centering your target in the middle of the small “finder scope” on the top of the main telescope.

I’ll say again: there are LOTS of good beginners telescopes like this available now, far too many for me to try and list even a few, so instead I’m going to point you towards two dealers I know and trust personally, having had dealings with them before.

TRING ASTRONOMY CENTRE

GROVERS OPTICS

Both of those companies have great beginners telescopes for sale, and will be delighted to answer your questions.

Of course, for some people getting a telescope will be premature. Telescopes make tiny, faint objects in the sky appear bigger and brighter. That’s their job. However, if you don’t know where those things are in the sky in the first place, a telescope will be pretty useless. All you’ll be able to do with your new telescope is point it randomly at the sky, or swing it to and fro, hoping something interesting appears in the eyepiece. So what should you do?

Simple. Get a pair of binoculars instead! 🙂

DSC_5304

If you think about it, a pair of binocs is really just two small telescopes joined together, so they will show your son, and all of you, things in the sky you wouldn’t be able to see otherwise. But there are other reasons why binoculars are so good…

* They’re cheap – £30/£40 for a good pair.

* They can be used for non-astronomy things (unlike many “beginner” telescopes, which turn things upside down so are utterly useless for sports, bird-watching, plane-spotting, etc)

* They are easy to use – just point them at something and look! Telescopes need setting up, aligning, collimating, etc etc.

* They are light and easy to hold – telescopes are heavy, cumbersome.

* They are great fun for kids to use.

A good pair of binoculars will show you the following (after, of course, you’ve learned where to find these things in the sky by checking in magazines, books, websites, etc):

* Features on and the phases of the Moon

* Jupiter’s 4 largest moons

* Venus as a crescent

* Countless star clusters+, galaxies+ and nebulae+.

+ … and if you don’t know what any of those things are, that shows you have to learn a lot about astronomy before buying a telescope… 🙂

As for which pair of binoculars you should buy, it’s all about the numbers. The best binoculars for stargazing are models like “10×50” or “7 x 35”. The first number is the magnifying power of the binoculars, the second is the aperture of their lenses in millimetres. Browsing online or in an actual shop you’ll be faced with a bewildering variety of models. Don’t panic. When you look at what’s on offer, just look at those two numbers and do a quick sum with them: as long as the second number can be divided by the first number five times or more, that pair will be fine for stargazing. Just be careful you don’t buy a pair of binoculars that are too heavy to hold steady. You can always buy a tripod to support them, of course, but then you’re looking at adaptors and more expense. Just stick with a pair of 10x50s and you really can’t go wrong.

Lastly, you might see some gorgeous-looking binoculars on offer on market stalls or in discount shops, with very fancy-looking orange, green or yellow lenses. Don’t buy them. You want your binoculars to have good, old fashioned blue-purple lenses, which mean they have coatings to give superior views. Orange, green and yellow lenses are pretty rubbish for stargazing.

So, to summarise, my advice would be:

* If you want to buy a telescope as a Christmas gift there are now lots of great beginners telescopes available. Just be careful not to get something too complicated.

* If you’re not sure in any way about buying a telescope, consider getting a pair of binoculars instead.

* Buy a good “beginners guide to astronomy” book, or borrow one from the library. I can recommend one.

* Start buying a monthly BRITISH astronomy magazine (British best because all the times are in GMT or BST, not the confusing US time zones, although some US features do give UK times too)

* Start learning the naked eye sky – it will take a while, so you’ll have to be patient. 🙂

If you follow that advice, trust me, you’ll avoid a lot of trouble, disappointment and heartache. This is the advice I’ve given to many people before, and the ones who took it have thanked me. The ones who ignored it told me later they wished they’d listened.

I really hope this advice helps. I’m not trying to burst any bubbles, but the quickest way to destroy  someone’s blossoming interest in science and astronomy would be to buy them something they find they can’t use.

What about other gifts for the “spacey” person in your life? Well, how about buying them a meteorite, a REAL piece of space? A quick Google search will point you towards a meteorite retailer in your part of the world.

Books are always a good idea, too. If you scroll back down through this blog you’ll see I have reviewed some books that would make great presents, I think…

Or how about a magazine subscription?

Ok, that’s it. Wishing you all a Merry Christmas and Happy New Year, and lots of clear skies in the year ahead!

Book review: “A Galaxy Of Her Own” by Libby Jackson

1

When I heard that Libby Jackson – known to many people I think it’s fair to say as “the public face of Tim Peake’s mission to the space station”, but known to many of us in ‘the space community’ as a tireless media commentator, out-reacher and communicator – was writing a book about women who have been into or helped other people get into space, a mental countdown began, the same kind of countdown that ticks and tocks away in my head like a metronome while I wait for a new Star Wars film to be released or a new series of Doctor Who to begin.

Why?

Well, I’ve been doing outreach myself (on a much smaller scale than Libby, I don’t kid myself! Haha!) for many years now, since I was knee high to R2D2 in fact, a lot of it in junior schools, and it’s always been something of a personal mission of mine to make sure that the girls in the classes and groups I talked to were left in no doubt that they had the same chance, and the same right, to go into space as the hair-tugging, teasing boys seated around them.  I’ve made a conscious effort to show female astronauts and astronomers whenever I could, and tried my very best to make sure that none of the girls at my talks went away with any of their questions unanswered. Through the years I’ve been inspired myself by such amazing people as Eileen Collins, Helen Sharman and, of course, “Teacher In Space” Christa McAuliffe. So this was a book that had my name written all over it from the start. And yesterday – a day early, thank you Waterstone’s Kendal – I got my hands on MY copy…

Frustratingly after getting it home I only had ten minutes to flick through it before I had to go out again, to work, but this afternoon I’ve had a chance to go through it properly. Was it worth the wait? Is it the book I’ve wanted to read for so long? Is it the book that deserved – no, needed – to be written to pay proper tribute to some amazing people?

Oh yes.

“A Galaxy Of Her Own” is a sumptuous book. Now, I know that’s a quaint, old-fashioned word in 2017 but it’s honestly the only one I can think of that will do. I fact, I could easily tap out a dozen cliches here that describe it – “richly illustrated”, “a loving tribute” etc – and they would all be true. But basically this is a beautifully produced book written by a great writer, by someone with a wonderful knowledge of and love of her subject. It is so crammed full of incredible stories that I was worried they would tip out and spill onto the floor if I didn’t shut the book properly.

Every double page spread of the book is essentially a profile of a woman who has, in some way, contributed to the exploration of space. As such it is a book to dip into, a big wine glass of words to sip from, rather than try and gulp down in one sitting, although having said that, opening it up is rather like popping a can of Pringles or opening a box of Maltesers: you tell yourself “I’ll just have one” but then you have another, and another, and another…

So who is in the book? Well, where other books might have focussed just on women who have flown into space, on the astronauts and cosmonauts who have actually gone up there, “Galaxy” casts its net a lot wider, and profiles not just space farers but the people who made – and still make – it possible for others to go into space. There are profiles of engineers, scientists, computer programmers, nurses, and many others too. This was a really pleasant surprise, and makes the book much more than a volume of astronaut biographies.

There’s a real sense of history to the book too – it opens with the story of Emilie de Chatalet, a brilliant French physicist from the early 1700s who translated Newton’s writings into French, and it goes on to tell the stories of woman alive today, still working in the field of space exploration.

So, dipping into the book you can read all about the lives and careers of woman from all backgrounds and periods of history. There are the stories of the ‘famous’ people you would expect to be in there,  the usual suspects like Valentina Tereschkova, Sally Ride and Ada Lovelace. There are people you might, like me, be less familiar with, such as Jerrie Cobb (who should have been a Mercury astronaut) and Dee O’Hara (a nurse who worked with astronauts right through from the first days of Mercury to the Skylab missions). Some of the book’s profiles are of people who I had hoped would be in there but didn’t really expect to be, such as British scientist Monica Grady (SO good to see her story in a book!).

2

I was delighted to find Helen Sharman in there too, but not surprised, as I remember how Libby worked so hard to have her treated with the respect she deserves during Tim Peake’s mission to the ISS. (Many reporters were either so swept up in Tim Fever, or too lazy to do some research into past missions, that they erased from history Helen Sharman’s mission to MIR, and insisted on calling Tim “the first British astronaut”, which was rubbish, obviously, and many of us called out the offending reporters for that at the time.)

Here and there a “wild card” appeared in the book as I flicked through it, someone who I hadn’t imagined for a second would be in it, but definitely deserves to be. Nichelle Nichols – Lt Uhura from the original Star Trek series and films – is in there (illustrated quite beautifully by LCC artist Ehigie Aigiomawu), as are “The ILC Seamstresses” who sewed together the spacesuits that kept the Apollo astronauts alive in their spacecraft and in the Moon. It was an absolute pleasure, and quite humbling, to read their stories.

One of the book’s greatest strengths is its author. Libby’s writing style is snappy, confident and engaging. She writes without any fuss or unnecessary embroidery, but with the same infectious enthusiasm and joy she displays when she speaks about space exploration on the TV or on the radio. Like all the best science books, reading this one is like listening to a presentation by a really professional, really gifted public speaker. Each spread is effectively a short outreach presentation, given to the reader in the comfort and privacy of their own home, or train carriage, or classroom. Just like eating those aforementioned Maltesers, you dip your hand into the book meaning to just have one, but before you know it your mouth is full of chocolate, like that Easter egg-scoffing nun on Father Ted…

Design-wise, this book was, I’ll be honest, not what I was expecting – but I hasten to add that’s a good thing. I fully expected it to be a traditional “profiles” book, with a block or blocks of text accompanying one large, or several small, photographs of the individual concerned. After all, there are lots of books with that format, right? Not this one. This one has text, yes, but opposite that text is a piece of art, not a photograph. Each woman profiled in the book has been painted, sketched or drawn by one of the students from the London College of Communication. Clever, and this sets it aside from many other “profile” books on the shelves. However, I have to be honest and say – and I have to stress that this is just a personal thing, I’m not passing any judgement on quality or ‘worth’ – that some of the art styles appealed to me more than others. Some (the more realistic) really appealed to me, while other portraits, painted in more abstract styles, didn’t appeal to be as much, or at all. Some I thought looked distinctly…odd, disturbing, even, and I came away from those spreads with no actual idea of what that person looked or had looked like. But as I say, that’s more about me and my relationship with art than the book, and I can (and will) Google those people to see what they actually looked like, so it’s not a big deal. Other readers will, I’m sure, adore each and every one of the portraits. But there’s such a wide variety of styles in the book that flicking through it I felt a bit distracted now and again, like I was looking through an art gallery catalogue and not reading a science book.

But one of the best parts of the book, for me, appeared when the final story had been told. There, at the back of the book, was a section that is designed to be FILLED IN BY THE READER!!! Yes, this is a book that asks you to write in it, to make it your own, and that means it will be owned, and loved, and *kept* by its readers, and maybe looked at when they are grown up and have kids of their own. This section asks the reader to fill in their own details, like completing a survey, to help them become a space explorer. It’s a bit of a personal career guide, I suppose. In many other books that would have felt forced, but in this one it works. It personalises the book in a very clever and quite moving way. And when I was looking at this section I found myself imagining an astronaut on Mars around the year 2040, resting on their bunk in the Hab, relaxing after a hard day out in the rock fields… in their hands is a book which they brought with them to Mars as part of their personal allowance, a treasured, scuffed and creased book they were bought as a Christmas gift way back in 2017… and as they fall asleep, exhausted, the book falls to the floor, open at a page which they wrote on that long ago Christmas Day…

This book.

It’s a weary cliche now when a book, or a CD, or a DVD is hailed as “The perfect gift for Christmas”. But honestly, if you have a young ‘un – especially but not exclusively a girl – who is “into space”, who has a dream of going to the Moon or Mars one day, then this book really IS the perfect gift for them this Christmas. It’s in the shops now.

—————————————————————————————————————————————

“A Galaxy Of Her Own” by Libby Jackson is published by Century Books. ISBN 978-1-780-89836-0 £16.99