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NOT “Earth 2” – But Fascinating…

Today could be a rather exciting and important day for astronomers, professional and amateur alike, and anyone “into” space. Later today there will be a press conference by astronomers from the European Southern Observatory which will, if the rumours are true, be used to announce the discovery of a planet orbiting the star Proxima Centauri.

Why would that be a big deal? Because Proxima is the closest star to the Sun, “just” 4.3 light years away, so any planets found orbiting it will become the targets of research projects and intense study for years to come – and, without doubt, the target destinations for the first interstellar probes we make and despatch, sometime in the more distant future. And yes, looking even further ahead than that, it might seem like science fiction to even think about it, but any planet found whirling around Proxima Centauri will probably be the world the first human beings to journey to another star see through a spacecraft window – and then land on and walk on, if it has the right conditions to allow them to do that. It really could be that important.

If you’re into this kind of thing you’ll know that there is already a lot of excitement – and, it has to be said, hype – about this announcement and discovery. Again, yet again, an extra-solar planet is being labelled “Earth-like” (even before its discovery is officially announced!) just because (if the rumours, whispers and gossip prove accurate) of its size and where it is in that star’s solar system. That’s what astronomers looking for exo-planets mean by “Earth-like” when they describe a planet like that. The problem is, other people, like non-astronomers and the media, think “Earth-like” means actually “like Earth”, as in physically and visually – 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. A truly Earth-like world would have seasons of sunshine and snow, rivers gurgling and tumbling down 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.

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Personally, this really winds me up, and others too, I know. I think the exo-planet community has to stop referring to planets as “Earth-like” when they’re really not, when they’re actually just “Earth-sized” or just 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. But more importantly it will dilute the impact of the 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 or in its atmosphere. We’re a long, long way from making a discovery like that – but it will come, one day. But when it does, many people will just raise an eyebrow and say “Really? I thought we’d found lots of planets like Earth already?”

Already there has been a lot of speculation about the nature of the planet found orbiting Proxima, but we won’t know anything for certain until the big announcement later today. So what do we know?

Well, Proxima Centauri is a star in the southern celestial hemisphere, and is so far south that it is never visible from the UK. If you want to know where it is, here’s a finder chart – basically, on the next clear night, look for Mars and Saturn, shining low in the south west, then drop your gaze so you’re looking into the ground beneath them – that’s where Proxima is in the sky…

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Proxima is a red dwarf star, much smaller than our Sun (only 1/7 its diameter in fact) and is too faint to be seen with the naked eye. It’s also a “flare star”, meaning it undergoes repeated violent burst of activity, which has led to many exo-planet hunters suggesting that would result in an unsuitable environment to support life on any planet orbiting it. Basically, Proxima itself is nothing like our own Sun, so calling any planet orbiting it “Earth-like” is a bit of a stretch from the very start, I think.

Having said that…

If a planet has been detected around it, it’s possible it MIGHT be a vaguely Earth-like planet, in the sense that it is the same size as our own, or roughly the same size, and is in Proxima’s habitable zone, meaning it’s not too hot or too cold for liquid water to exist on its surface. If that’s the news then I’ll personally shout out (in my head, not literally!) YESS!!! and celebrate, because it will be exciting and have real consequences for both the future of astronomy and the future of space exploration, because we’ll finally, finally have a potential destination for future un-crewed probes and, eventually, crewed expeditions. Yes, that will definitely be a big deal.

And if that is the discovery then we need to get serious about this planet. We need to give it a name, and a good name, quickly, because that will allow us in the astronomy community, especially those of us involved in outreach and education, to start thinking of it as a real place, a real destination “out there”, and to tell people about it and make it real for them, too.

There are already lots of exo-planets with names, thanks to the much- (and, it has to be said, sometimes fairly- ) maligned IAU. You can read about them here. But very few people outside of the astronomical community know any of them – in fact, I wonder how many people IN the astronomical community know them? Some are brilliant and sound suitably planetary and epic (“Arkas”, “Musica”) while others somehow don’t seem right at all (“Lich”, “Poltergeist”) but that’s just my opinion, others may love them. All have their own stories, so I’m sure each one has its own fans.

But I really think there’s a case for giving this planet orbiting Proxima a suitably historic and inspiring name, just because it will play an important part in our future. If it’s real, it will be studied by telescopes and astronomical instruments more than any other exoplanet. If it’s real, it is so tantalisingly close – in astronomical terms – that it has to be the destination for our first interstellar probes, even though a journey there would take a horrendously long time? If it’s real surely, surely it will be the destination for the first crewed starship to leave Earth, whenever that is built and launched, in some faraway science fiction future?

If/when people do eventually travel to Proxima Centauri, if it has any planets or not, they will see a starry sky remarkably similar to Earth’s. Using the Sky Safari app on my phone I was able to fly to Proxima and found that it is so close to the Sun that the relative positions of the more distant stars won’t appear to shift very much, so most of the constellations we see from here on Earth will look pretty much the same from Proxima. Of course, there are a couple of noteworthy exceptions. If you were to look at Orion, either from orbit around Proxima itself or from the surface of any planets it has, you’d see the famous Hunter’s familiar hourglass shape, with the belt tight across his waist, but you’d notice a bright blue-white star very close to Betelgeuse that definitely isn’t there from Earth: Sirius…

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And if you looked towards Cassiopeia you’d see an unfamiliar golden star close to it… Our own Sun, over 4 light years away…

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Anyway, let’s see what the announcement (or a leak of its contents sometime during the day, which is very possible) brings, shall we? I’m sure the science will be fascinating, whatever it is – but I’m also sure that if they use the term “Earth-like” too much during their press conference, without a very detailed clarification of what they actually mean when they use it, while astro-aware reporters will (hopefully!) cover the story accurately, the scientifically inaccurate mainstream media will go into feeding frenzy, as journalists latch on to the term “Earth-like” and think that means the new world is actually “like Earth”, writing about it in their subsequent papers and on their websites as if it is a shining blue-and-green world, complete with blue skies, fluffy white clouds, and unicorns drinking cool water from crystal ponds, in faerie glens deep in enchanted forests.

And aliens, maybe. Don’t forget the aliens. They’ll HAVE to speculate that the new planet has aliens on it: It’s the Law. -)

 

Beautiful Mars…

The Mars Science Laboratory rover CURIOSITY is seeing some literally jaw-dropping scenery at the moment, as she trundles through a landscape littered with buttes, boulders and scree slopes. Here’s an image I’ve made by stitching together lots of single MSL images and then processing it to bring out details and structures. Please click on it to enlarge it, then just enjoy wandering around..!

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Original images Credit: NASA / JPL-Caltech

Review: STAR TREK: BEYOND

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WARNING!!!!! *** Lots of Spoilers ahead. Don’t say I didn’t warn you! ***

So… I went to see STAR TREK: BEYOND last night, at the Brewery Arts Centre here in Kendal. Having seen all the trailers… many times… I had a pretty good idea what to expect from a Star Trek film directed by the same guy behind the Fast and Furious franchise: not a brain-meltingly complicated or subtly plotted modern 2001, but a high-energy, wham-bam crowd-pleasing Star Trek for 2016. And I wasn’t wrong, or disappointed. The film was all those things and more… but I came out feeling a mixture of things: satisfied by some parts but frustrated by others; full of admiration for some parts, full of meh for others. It was a good film, but not a great one. It was a good Star Trek film, but not a great one. Out of the three “JJ” Star Trek films it was probably my least favourite, to be honest, and I’m not sure it was the fitting tribute to half a century of Star Trek the anniversary deserved. But it was an enjoyable night out.

 

The good things about it first – and there were many…

This film confirms just how well the roles were cast in the first place. Kirk, Bones and Spock are all very well established, rounded and believable, with lots of funny banter and thoughtful exchanges between them, especially Bones and Spock. Sulu has a lot more depth this time, and gets to step up to be a hero in his own right, and Chekov is… well, he’s there too, and what little he has to do is effective enough.

The opening scene is simply brilliant and hilarious, a real “twist in the tail” sequence which had everyone (I say everyone… the studio was barely half full, oddly for opening night…) laughing out-loud and was a great way of opening the film and showing just how much Kirk has matured since the end of the last film. After that there was one of my favourite parts of the film – a look at how Kirk and his crew have adapted to being in deep space and away from home for three years, how relationships have developed, how frustrated – and bored? – Kirk himself is by then… There’s a great “heart to heart” scene with Kirk and Bones that was strangely moving, too.

Another highlight: when the Enterprise arrives at “Yorktown”, a  deep space space base which looks a lot like – as Bones observes – “a goddamned snow-globe in space”. It’s huge, and I mean huge; a space base as big as a city, with its own districts, railways, parks etc. Basically a deep space colony or habitat, you get the idea. And the arrival of the Enterprise at Yorktown was one of the highlights of the whole film for me, it just looked absolutely, jaw-droppingly beautiful. Seeing the Enterprise gliding through a series of transport tunnels, like some enormous ship sailing down an enclosed river or canal, was simply gorgeous. When I get the DVD I’ll be replaying that sequence a lot, I’m sure.

One of the greatest delights in the film is the “other” main character, the alien Jaylah, who ends up fighting alongside Kirk et al. In contrast to almost-invisible Uhura, Jaylah is an honest to god, wheel-kicking, baddie-punching kick-ass heroine. She steals every scene she’s in, and dominates the screen with her charisma and physicality.

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Other highlights… the way they handle the death of Leonard Nimoy is simply exquisite, with Spock taking delivery of and opening a package of “Spock Prime’s”things. Opening a small box he finds a photo… but not just any photo, it’s a photo of the ORIGINAL series crew, which instantly links the modern JJ verse to the original series one, and as Spock looked at that photo, showing the original Enterprise crew in their bright red uniforms, I will admit I found myself filling up a bit…

Ok, things I didn’t like so much…

The story is weak. After arriving at Yorktown our heroes and heroine are called away, in true Star Trek style, to solve a mystery and save the day, but the plot is a tortuous and twisted one that really makes no sense, and it’s once the crew start facing up to the film’s baddie (Idris Elba, phoning in a sneering villain part) that the film “Beyond” could have been gets buried beneath the film the studios wanted.

There are too many twisty-turny special effects sequences that do nothing for the story but just give the audience a migraine and show how amazing CGI is nowadays, at the same time as proving that it’s easier to fill the screen with swooping spaceships and massive explosions than it is to plot out a good, deep story and give your characters meaningful dialogue. Don’t get me wrong; the space battle sequences are all stunningly shot, but there are sooooo many of them, and they go on for sooooo long, and there are sooooo many explosions in them that they just lose their impact. Comparing this to “Wrath Of Khan” with its legendary Hornblower shoot-out between the Enterprise and Khan’s hijacked “Reliant” is like comparing a choir-girl singing a beautiful solo in a cathedral to a thrash metal band playing a stadium gig.

…and the Enterprise, oh my poor, beautiful Grey Lady. The trailers gave it away from the start that the old ’01 gets mortally damaged in “Beyond” but it’s so much worse. She gets the living **** kicked out of her by the baddies’ ships, and doesn’t make it out of the film alive. Now, I could have accepted that if it had been done properly and respectfully – taking the crew out of the ship and making them fend for themselves was a great idea – but I really hated how disposable the ship was in the film. There’s no soul-searching by its Kirk like there was by the original Kirk in “Search For Spock”, no swirling, orchestral send-off, no lingering, loving shots of the great ship dying; just a long, long, wow-look-at-THAT! BANG! BANG! BANG! series of increasingly savage ass-kickings that wrecks her. At one point it’s obvious that the ship is doomed, and that was when the music should have rushed in, grabbed our heartstrings and plucked them like Katniss going crazy with her bow in a firefight… but nothing. NOTHING. Kirk just looks out the window as the saucer section falls towards its doom, and accepts it. Not good enough, sorry.

And when she’s crashed, and lying in bits, no-one who survived seems bothered! Not even Scotty! There seems to be no attachment to the ship at all… which is very practical and all, but it made the ship seem like just a machine, instead of a character in its own right, as it always was in the TV series and in the other movies. JJ did such a great job of making us (well, some of us; there are may people who hate, loathe and despise the reboot 01 with an absolute passion!) fall in love with the new ship in the first film, first with that glorious shot of her being built in the desert and then with the graceful orbital fly-around which followed) that I was really surprised he was so happy to just slash her to bits and throw those bits away in this film.

But maybe that was just me being too sensitive and Enterprise-huggy… I do have models of several different Enterprises lined up on top of my computer over there as I write this, after all…

…and all the scenes back on Yorktown at the end were pretty dumb, to be honest.

…and then there’s Scotty… Sorry, but as much as I love his other roles, and his writing, I really find Simon Pegg jarring as Scotty. I just don’t see it. And as for that mute, walnut-faced,  whatever-the-****-it-is Jar Jar Binks dwarf sidekick of his, I can’t see the point of it AT ALL, and every time it comes on screen I just want it to be gone.

…and as for Uhura… jeez, what a wasted character this time. It’s as if the writers forgot she was actually a member of the crew…

BUT I don’t want to be too negative! There is lots to enjoy in BEYOND. In places it is genuinely funny, with some laugh out-loud dialogue and exchanges, and moving too. Jaylah is a fantastic character. There is now a real spark between Bones and Spock, like in the good old days. The resurrection of the old Federation starship was a stroke of genius, particularly the way it is “jump started” by dropping it off a cliff. Loved that.🙂

Is BEYOND the film we all wanted to adore so desperately – the epic, inspiring film that paid a fitting tribute to the epic story of Kirk, his crew and his ship, and made us all come out of the cinema besotted with Star Trek all over again? No. No, it’s not. It really is, in places, “Fast and Furious IN SPACE”. But it is very entertaining, and funny, and in places surprisingly deep and emotional. It has flashes of the sheer joy of Star Trek, scenes of utter head-shaking beauty, and in several places takes us by the hand and leads us back to the original series, and crew, and lets us dive into our precious memories of journeying to the stars with them. I enjoyed it but didn’t love it. But I don’t love Star Trek any less for it. Obviously I’ll buy the DVD and watch it again, and again. It’s a Star Trek film, come on… !

Should you go and see BEYOND (if this review hasn’t ruined it for you! If it has, why did you read it?? I said there would be spoilers!!!)? Of course! It’s a Star Trek film! And after all, you might like the bits I didn’t, films are such personal things. Go, make up your own minds, I’m just offering my own personal observations here.

There will be another film, we already know that. At the end of Beyond we see a new Enterprise A being built (in rather jarring speeded-up style… ugh….) which some JJ-haters are already pouring their disgust and hatred onto, and press releases have already said that it will feature Kirk meeting his father, so we have that to look forward to. A new Star Trek TV series is in the works, and the franchise shows no signs of dying yet. Not sure there’s another 50 years in it, but it’s safe to say Star Trek is going nowhere for a while.

Which is fine by me.🙂

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Viking 1 +40

To celebrate the 40th anniversary of Viking 1 landing on Mars, here’s a mosaic I’ve made from hot-off-the-press images taken by the Curiosity rover, exploring Gusev Crater on the Red Planet…

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I was hoping/expecting we’d be watching astronauts bounding across this landscape by this anniversary, but sadly we seem as far away from that as were were back in 1976…

UPDATE: another couple of mosaics here…

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Mars rocks…

Yes. Yes, it does, and every day the rovers Opportunity and Curiosity prove it with the gorgeous images they send back. Here are some panoramas I’ve made out of the most recent ones. First, a view from Opportunity, currently wrapping up her exploration of Marathon Valley high up on the ancient rim of Endeavour Crater…

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Next, a mosaic showing the view Curiosity is currently enjoying at Gale Crater…

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And finally, here’s a hot-off-the-press mosaic showing some of the rocks around Curiosity…

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When I saw that my eyes were immediately drawn to one of the “rocks” down near the bottom of the image… Hmmm…. is that a meteorite..? It looks rather shiny in places…

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Hmmmm… that really does look like a meteorite to me… I’ll ask a few people on Twitter and Facebook and see what they think….

NLC Display – finally!

In the early hours of this morning, after shaking our fists at the sky in frustration since the start of June,  we were FINALLY treated to a vivid display of NOCTILUCENT CLOUDS (“NLC”). The display began about midnight, with just a few puffs of pale NLC very low on the NE horizon…

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…and when you see that you have a choice to make – stay out longer, or go home having just seen that – because you know it’s either going to just fade away, or drop down behind the horizon, or blossom into something impressive. I chose to stay, and was glad I did, because the display grew higher, broader and brighter, and by 01.30 was pretty impressive. By 02.00 it was a very obvious sight to the naked eye, and NLC were still glowing in the predawn sky at 03.00 when I finally called it a night (or a morning, seeing as the birds were singing…!)

Here are my best pics… click on them to enlarge them…

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NLC July 5-6 river dawn b sh

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Castle view…

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