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Visit to JPL (part 2)

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After the thrill of gazing down at the Mars Science Laboratory under test in the High Bay, we were led into what I will always think of as “The MER Centre”, but is obviously called something else entirely which I can’t remember for the life of me. After entering an elevator and getting out in a rather anonymous-looking white corridor with doors down each side, we were greeted enthusiastically by Mars rover driver – and space mega-enthusiast, Outreach educator and astro-poetry fan – Scott Maxwell, who was going to show us around some of the rooms, offices and facilities involved in the operation of the two Mars Exploration Rovers. ( Meeting up with Scott again was a treat in itself for me; I’d met him earlier in the year when he, along with fellow JPLers Sharon Laubach and Andy Mishkin, was vacationing in the UK. They asked to meet up with me in Kendal, just for a chat and a bit of a get-together, having followed my MER-related writings on the unmannedspaceflight.com forum. Scott amazed me by reciting one of my MER poems in the street when we met, then presenting me with some greatly cherished MER goodies, and we’ve kept in touch since. )

Soon Stella and I were walking along the corridors and taking in the view. It seemed that there was a loooong MER panorama displayed on every wall, printed out in the very highest quality, and it was hard not to just stand in front of each one and stare and stare and stare at it. They were all, of course, images I’ve seen on my own PC screen, countless times, but my screen is, what, 15″ across? and these pictures were maybe SIX FEET LONG! The detail was just stunning, and it was very easy to imagine I was actually looking through the window of a Mars base hab module at a real landscape beyond, the detail was so sharp. In fact, after looking at half a dozen of these I began to feel like I WAS in a Mars hab module; turning every corner presented us with a new landscape to drool over and gaze at – a new screengrab from my dreams and imagination…

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Scott was joined soon after by Sharon Laubach, one of the MER mission managers, and the two of them gave us a fantastic tour of the facility there. It was like being shown the bedroom of the most space mad kid ever: there were awards on every shelf, souvenirs and mementoes everywhere, Mars posters and pictures pinned, tacked and stuck onto every wall –

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Then, suddenly, on one of the walls I saw something truly amazing – one of my poems, printed out for everyone to see! It will sound ridiculously cheesy, I know, but honestly it almost brought a tear to my eye, because seeing that poem on that wall was proof to me that people Out There, on t’internet, actually read my stuff. It meant that my work is read, and enjoyed, at JPL. Which I knew already, because I’d been told, and it was, after all, the reason I was there in the first place, I guess, but but it was proof. It meant that someone at JPL – a very busy someone, with a hugely responsible job to do – had gone to my blog (in their free time, I’m sure!), or unmannedspaceflight.com, read that poem and liked it enough to save it, print it out and put it up on that wall for others to see. That’s both very flattering and very humbling for me, as a writer; we work away at our keyboards, tap-tapping for hours and hours, and at the end of it all have no idea who – if anyone – is actually reading what we’ve written. But looking at that poem on that wall – cliche alert, cliche alert! – made it all worthwhile… 🙂

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Then, to make things even better, I saw ANOTHER of my poems up on ANOTHER wall, which Scott and Sharon posed by for me. Thanks guys! 🙂

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Down another corridor, round another corner, past more panoramas and awards and posters, and we were joined by another JPLer, Andy Mishkin. Andy is a very accomplished JPL engineer, and wrote a very successful book about the Sojourner rover that was carried to Mars by the Pathfinder probe in 1997. In contrast to Scott – who is (I don’t think he’ll mind me saying), a very lively, exuberant, always smiling, great galloping puppy of a Mars geek – Andy is very quiet and calm,  reserved I suppose you could say, but he is just as passionate about Mars as everyone else we met there, and meeting him again was a real pleasure. Andy joined us for a group photo (taken by an obliging in-the-right-place-at-the-wrong-time passer by)…

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…before we all continued on to an office next to the main MER operations room. That was out of bounds for us, which was fair enough, as we were seeing so many fascinating places anyway, but we still had a peek at it through the window, and were fascinated to see just how calm and quiet it was in there. No manic running about, no ARMAGEDDON- or DEEP IMPACT-like craziness, just men and women sitting at flickering monitors, heads down, working away quietly, keeping what are, in my opinion, NASA’s two most valuable assets alive and kicking on Mars, monitoring their power levels, generally just watching over them like guardian angels. There were decorations in there too – posters, pictures, etc – but it was a much more workmanlike area, and it was easy to see that that was a Serious Place, where Serious Work was being done.

I thought that was It for that room, but no, another treat and surprise was in store. Andy presented me with a gift- a signed copy of his book! Ironically, I had actually ordered a copy of Andy’s book from Amazon the day before flying to the US, because I was really wanting to read it, so the timing was unbelievable. But obviously a copy given by the author was a tremendous gift, so I thanked Andy and asked him to sign it for me. He told me – as I should have guessed – that he already had, so I flipped through to the inscription…

And this was the moment – well, the first moment – I actually wondered if I was really back home in my bed, asleep, dreaming the whole thing, moments before my alarm clock went off and told me it was time to get up and go to work. I have to confess a lump the size of a large meteorite formed in my throat as I ready Andy’s words:

“Your words of verse inspire people from around the world with the exploits of our rovers and mankind’s destiny in space! – Andy”

Wow… if I start trying to explain here how much that meant to me it would sound very sickly very soon, so I’ll just have to trust that people reading this blog will realise how much that dedication means, and leave it at that.

Down another corridor, past/through/into more offices and control rooms, the adventure continued… at one memorable point Scott handed us a model of a MER wheel, which was very enlightening: for the first time I appreciated the size and strength of the things, as I hefted that wheel in my hands. For some reason, never truly explained, it is very emotional for a huge fan of something inanimate – a plane, a train, a Mars rover – to touch or actually hold it or a piece of it, and it was no different for me when I held that MER wheel. I was suddenly transported to Mars, and could see in my mind twelve wheels just like it rolling slowly, so slowly across the dust-covered, rock-strewn surface surface, cracking the smallest stones, driving over the larger ones…

Stella found a different inspiration whilst holding the wheel, which actually illustrates brilliantly how big it is..!

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🙂

Up another corridor, round another corner… I was starting to feel like a Dr Who assistant!… then I was told to “just go on ahead” for a moment, everyone else would follow me. Trusting, gullible idiot that I am, of course I did as I was told, and just kept walking, not wondering at all why people had been calling people-with-no-names on mobiles earlier, keeping them informed of our progress and route…

Then a familiar figure walked out of a door into the corridor, beaming a huge smile I recognised in a stalled heartbeat. I’d seen that smile, and that face, on TV, dvds, YouTube clips and on the pages of books and magazines and newspapers countless hundreds if not thousands of times. Suddenly I felt like a teenage girl who’d just bumped into her fave boy band member, or a film buff stumbling across their movie idol without warning…

There are maybe only a handful of people in the world who can really imagine how I felt as Steve Squyres walked towards me.

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To many people reading this, I realise, Steve Squyres – known simply as “SS” in the MER- and Mars enthusiast community – is Just A Scientiest, or “That guy from the Mars rovers”. To me, and many, many people like me, he’s a hero and, yes, an idol. This is the man who transformed our lives by getting two rovers designed, built and sent to Mars. He is responsible for the two machines that have embedded themselves in our lives like welcome parasites. Every day we go online to see the latest pictures they’ve taken, check how far they’ve driven, review the science they’ve done – and, to be honest, see if they’re still alive. Every day we marvel at what they’ve achieved, and wonder what more they will achieve. Every day we think back to those amazing landings of theirs, in the January of 2004, and feel lumps in our throats as memories come flooding and bouncing back. SS gave us, and the whole world, a new Mars, a modern Mars; a Mars of outcrop-decorated hills; dust-filled craters and crumbling cliffs; a Mars where dust devils whirl and waltz across wide open, Big Country Barsoomian plains; a Mars where tiny beads of heamatite lie scattered across the dusty ground like berries, or seeds. A beautiful Mars, a noble Mars. An Ansell Adams Mars.

A Mars that we now know – KNOW- will one day be a home for the human race.

And he was feet away…

Meeting one of your heroes is always risky. If it goes well you walk away hearing birds singing and feeling ten feet tall and giddily happy. If it goes wrong, if they aren’t the person you have always imagined them to be, if they don’t live up to your expactations, your image of them can shatter like a champagne flute dropped on a tiled floor. I’ve corresponded with Steve before, several times, sent him my poems and received very kind and warm notes back in reply, so I was pretty sure he would be “ok”, but you never know, do you? I mean, it’s easy to fire off a polite, friendly-sounding email, it only takes a second and doesn’t require any personal commitment or warmth. I was quite prepared for Steve to say a quick “Hi”, maybe shake my hand, then continue on his way, no doubt late for a very important meeting somewhere. And that would have been fine, really. I’d have been more than happy with that, and would have felt I’d used up a good few years’ worth of 4 leaf clovers and lucky heather…

But as he walked towards me he was grinning from ear to ear. Then he reached out his hand to shake mine. The dream continued… the alarm clock remained silent.. I was shaking Steve Squyres’ hand…

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“Hey! The poetry dude!” he greeted me, warmly.

I’m not kidding, I was THIS close to falling to my knees and wailing, Wayne-like, “We’re not worthy! We’re not worthy!!” 🙂

That’s it, I thought, he’ll continue on his way now he’s said hello. And would I have been happy with that! But no, he stayed… he leaned back against the wall, and talked to me, about JPL, about the Mars rovers, about the trek Oppy is now making down, way down to Endeavour… and about my poetry. he told me how much he had appreciated me writing my poems, and sending them to him, too, adding that he had particularly enjoyed the poem I sent him about Oppy setting off for her new destination. He was every bit as easy going and enthusiastic as he has always appeared on TV and online, and his passion for Mars, his rovers and space exploration in general was obvious, almost shining from him as we chatted in that corridor. Then things got even better. Steve was indeed pushed for time, but he came with us to a cavernous meeting room, its walls decorated with yet more several-feet-long panoramas, where a shining, glittering full scale model of one of the MERs stands between a great wall of video screens and a “c” of huge wooden desks and very plush-looking chairs. And there we had pictures taken with him, standing beside the MER model. I’m not even going to try to put into words how that felt, I’m just not going to attempt it. Suffice it to say that when this picture was taken of me standing with Stella, next to a MER modfel, with SS just feet away, I was absolutely sure I was dreaming the whole thing, and that I would wake up on the plane to find we were half an hour out of LA and I’d dreamed the whole thing after falling asleep whilst watching a movie…

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I guess some people reading this will think “You idiot… it’s just a model of a machine, not even a real rover, and he’s just the guy who helped build it. Why are you so gooey about it?” I don’t know what to say to you, to be honest. I genuinely think “space” is one of those things – like sport, or fishing – that you either get or you don’t. It either sends sheets of flame racing through your veins when you think about it, or it doesn’t. Me, I look at a picture of Mars, taken by a MER, or MRO, and I can actually feel faint. I lose myself in its detail and beauty, follow every contour of the landscape with my eyes. Other people see the same picture and just think “Rocks”. That’s just the way it is. But this visit to JPL – and my meeting with SS, and everyone else there – was important to me, it mattered to me, because I LIVE this stuff. I’ve grown up following the missions of JPL. I’ve lived every one of them since I was about 14. Their successes and failures are the landmarks of my life. I feel a passion for space exploration that goes beyond deep. So to stand there, next to possibly the most accomplished “martian explorer” since Carl Sagan, next to a model of one of the rovers he designed and built, inside JPL itself, having been invited to go there by the JPL Director in thanks for my support for their work… well… if you really can’t imagine what that meant to me, then maybe you should click on the “x” button top right there and go read a different blog, because nothing else I am going to write here will explain it to you.

Next… Part three… the end of our tour, and a personal, fond farewell to Phoenix…

Venus Occultation tomorrow night for UK observers…

Skywatchers here in Kendal and across the South Lakes – and across the whole of the UK – are crossing fingers for clear skies tomorrow evening, because IF the sky’s clear there’ll be a very attractive scene in the western sky after sunset. A lovely thin crescent Moon will be joining Jupiter and Venus low in the sky, making a beautiful photo opportunity.
You’ve probably seen those two planets shining together in the sky after sunset recently, and thought how lovely they’ve looked, but tomorrow the scene will be even more impressive…
 
… and just to make it even MORE impressive, from the UK we’ll actually be able to see Venus going behind the Moon! This “occultation” begins at 15.42, when Venus will slide behind the left, unlit side of the Moon at about the ten o’clock position…
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Venus will reappear at around 17.10, from behind the brightly lit crescent of the Moon, at around the 4pm position…
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By then the Moon will be very low down, but it should still be a thrilling sight. If it’s clear I’ll be up at Kendal Castle observing it, and you’re welcome to join me there.
Bring a hammer tho to chip the ice off me, ok..? 😉

See the space station AND space shuttle tonight..!

 

There’s a great opportunity for people in CUmbria and across the UK to see both the ISS and shuttle Endeavour flying in formation in the evening sky tonight… the time to start looking west is around 17.55… the shuttle will be leading the ISS by about a minute or so, I think… and ISS will be wonderfully bright, mag -3.3!!
 
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UPDATE:
Woo-hoo! The fog came in 15 mins before the fly-by was due, so we headed for the hills and looked for higher ground… made it to a likely spot with just a couple of minutes to go, to find a magical scene: the fields beneath the hill shrouded in thick mist, with Venus and Jupiter glowing above them, smeared by fog… then the shuttle appeared, about as bright as Vega perhaps, arcing up the band of the Milky Way and passing by Altair, brightening rapidly as it skated towards and then dipped beneath the Square of Pegasus, dimming at exactly the same time ISS appeared through the mist on the horizon, and as that rose higher it just got brighter and brighter until it looked like an icy blue magnesium flare…

Breathtaking!  🙂

Visit to JPL (part 1)

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It’s hard to believe that a week – more, actually! – has passed since I visited JPL. Already it seems like a lifetime ago. I look at the photos on my computer, pick up the “Phoenix” lanyard I was given to fit to my Visitors Badge, and look through the signed book I was given as a gift there, and, well, it’s a cliche, but it really does seem like a dream. I went to and walked through places I’ve seen for years on TV and on movies; met people I’ve seen on TV documentaries and YouTube clips; talked with men and women I’ve respected or even, to be honest, idolised for years… I was mere feet away from the next rover to go to Mars… That’s the stuff dreams are made of, right there.

To re-cap, I was invited to JPL by the head of JPL itself, Charles Elachi. One unforgettable day over a year ago he emailed me, saying he liked my writing, and appreciated my support for JPL and NASA, and my work as an Outreach Educator, and said that if I was ever in California he would be happy to arrange for me to be given a tour of the facility. After my initial “Okay, who is this REALLY?!” reaction had worn off I thanked him for his offer and said I would certainly accept it at some point in the future. That point didn’t arrive until last week, when a combination of things finally meant we were able to combine a JPL visit with a short stay with my great friends Chris and Peggy, who live in California too, and so on Mon May 17th Stella and I found ourselves walking beneath a blazing, skin-pricklingly hot Pasadenan Sun into the reception area of JPL, handing over our Passports for checking, signing a great sheaf of forms, looping visitor badges around our necks and setting off on a once-in-a-lifetime tour of what is almost certainly “mecca” for lifelong space geeks enthusiasts like myself…

Our tour guide was none other than Veronica McGregor, head of JPL media relations and probably best known now as “the voice of Phoenix” via the mega-successful Twitter page she ran during that mission, and as she led us first into the small “museum” that JPL has I was already feeling the hairs on the back of my neck standing up just by virtue of being there. Beyond the darkened windows of the museum was the “patio” of JPL, a leafy oasis area in the centre of all the facility’s towers and blocks of Sun-bleached concrete and glass I recognised from almost every solar system themed every space-related “Horizon” or TV special I’d ever watched. Here was a wall where I’d seen Carl Sagan sitting on during an episode of COSMOS; there was a bench I’d seen Steve Squyres interviewed on in another programme; over there, beneath the trees, was a low wall I’d seen Peter Smith sitting on just months ago, enthusing about Phoenix’s imminent landing… memories everywhere, wonderful memories. And I was there, seeing, walking around, The Real Thing. Unbelievable…

Inside the ‘Museum’, lots of models of some of what I guess could be called “JPL’s Greatest Hits”. Appropriately for a self-confessed Mars Rover Hugger, the first thing I saw after walking through the door was a full scale model of one of the MERs. I’d seen a model like it before, in a museum in Newcastle, but that was a poor relation to this official one. This model was exquisitely detailed and accurate in every way, and looked ready, willing and eager to gun its engines, break through its tape crowd barrier and head off outside to roll across and around the tree-shaded gardens to study the rocks and dirt baking in the sunshine. Something about it looked wrong tho, and it took me a few moments to figure out what it was… then it hit me. It was CLEAN. I was so used to seeing images of Spirit and Oppy covered in dust, looking like someone has emptied a full vacuum bag of orange dust over them, that a clean rover, with polished, perfectly reflective solar panels on its back, looked wrong. Looking at that model how I wished I could go to Mars and brush off the dust-covered, power-starved rovers there, returning them to the same fresh-off-the-showroom-floor state… 😦

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The rest of the Museum was fascinating – a life-size model of Galileo (complete with damaged comms dish) hung from the ceiling, and other models of Viking, Pathfinder and Explorer 1 were all gazed at and appreciated, but the MER model called me back, several times, like a mermaid singing out a siren song to a passing ship, and I couldn’t stop myself from walking back to it to just, well, look at it. After almost 5 years on Mars those two rovers have – as many of you will know – become a huge part of my life, and the chance to get close to even just a realistic model of one was magical.

Little did I know then just how much closer I would get – and how much more magical things would get – later in the day…

Next stop – after a short walk across the hot flagstones – was the famous von Karman Auditorium. This was quite a moment. This was my first look inside a real “hallowed hall” I’d seen on TV – the room where the world’s media has gathered to hear updates after successful (and some not so successful) spaceprobe landings and encounters for many, many years.

It was quite dark at first, with subdued lighting, so it had the atmosphere of a church, or an empty theatre waiting to burst into life again, and I couldn’t help slowing down and walking quietly as I entered. To my left, scale models of MRO and Voyager; to my right, a model of Cassini, complete with a brightly polished golden discuss attached to it – the Huygens probe. Between them, at the front of countless rows of (rather plain and ordinarly looking!) chairs, The Stage, the stage where countless panels of bleary-eyed, sleep-deprived scientists and engineers have Faced The Press after the conclusion of their own particular dream. I stood at the back of the room remembering press conferences during the Voyager missions, the Pathfinder mission and, more recently, of course, the MER, CASSINI and Phoenix missions. How many times had I seen this place on my TV, or on my computer monitor, watching a JPL media event? I had no idea. Probably hundreds of times. Possibly even thousands. I felt like I was in a temple of some sort, at least just for a few moments…

Then another feeling washed over me – gratitude. Gratitude for JPL and NASA’s dedication to allowing people like me to follow their missions so fully and openly. I had never been in that room before, but I felt like I had, having seen it so many times before. The briefings, conferences and reports that had been held in this room had, literally, helped shape my life by feeding my fascination with space and space exploration. Quite humbling.

Just as the MER model had called out to me, so did the model of one of the Voyager probes, so I padded over to it, beside the stage at the front of the Auditorium – just as the house lights came up. Perfect timing. Up close it looked even more impressive – sleek but practical, beautiful but functional, a truly classic, timeless design. And somehow, somehow, even though I soooo wanted to, I resisted the urge to turn into Captain Kirk, to bend down, reach out and brush imaginary dirt and grime off its nameplate and whisper “Voyager..!” as I realised what the planet-gobbling “V’Ger” actually was… 😉

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Standing there it was impossible not to imagine what press conferences will be held there in years to come. In a year or so’s time, reporters will sit on those chairs and hear news of the fate of the Mars Science Laboratory after its landing; in 20Whenever they’ll assemble again to watch footage of a Mars lander gathering samples of martian rock and stowing them in a small rocket capsule for return to Earth; in perhaps a hundred years time, in that very same Auditorium, reporters and broadcasters will gaze breathlessly at a screen showing the first close-up images of the surface of an extra-solar planet, taken by Mankind’s first interstellar probe…

How I envy them.

Reluctantly I turned my back on the bright lights, hard-looing seats and dark drapes of the Auditorium and headed back out into the blinding sunshine, to walk across the way to the main blocks of buildings. Our next stop was the In Situ Lab (the indoor “Mars yard”), a small, hangar-like room where engineering models of the MER Mars rovers have been put through their paces for the past four years, driving slowly across a simulated martian landscape of brick red dust and cobblestones. We had hoped to see one of the model MERs driving in there, but alas, the room was empty, the doors flung wide open, and no-one and nothing in sight. Looking down on it was like staring at a deserted beach.

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In fact, the MER model had just been removed to make way for the model of the next rover to go to Mars, the bigger and badder Mars Science Laboratory, but that hadn’t arrived yet, so our visit was a victim of bad timing, coming exactly inbetween two missions. Disappointing, yes, but it was still interesting to look down from the gallery and see the facility for real, having seen it so many times on TV in the past.

So, back out into the bright sunshine again, and a short but heart-pumping hike up and down JPL’s San Francisco-like hills to reach our next destination, and to fulfill one of my lifelong ambitions.

If there’s a temple of space exploration for space enthusiasts like me to worship at, it is the High Bay – or to give it its full title, the “Spacecraft Assembly Facility 179” – at JPL. It is in here that the spaceprobes we have followed since our childhoods are assembled, tested and worked on. But this is a temple unlike any other. Under the relentless glare of banks of spotlights, everything gleams and shines as if made of jewels or precious metals; the air is scrubbed and purified and sterilised to within an inch of its life; the priests and acolytes don’t wear cloth robes, chains or beads, but equally-sterile white “bunny suits”, bootees and gloves; the altars are covered not in prayer books and chalices, but racks of high-tech equipment, instruments and computers.

Yes, if planet Earth has a Space Cathedral, the High Bay at JPL is it.

…and after walking up some stairs, down a corridor, and walking through an unremarkable-looking door, I was suddenly staring down into it.

Or rather, at what appeared to be a large, captured UFO, suspended inside an intricate-looking mechanism of struts, beams and gears that looked like the cradle mount for some huge telescope, at the far end of the hangar…

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I almost lost it at that moment, because as I walked slowly along the observation gallery’s carpeted floor it hit me like a slap across the face what I was actually seeing. The “ufo” was in fact the Mars Science Laboratory rover – or rather, the rover tucked away safely inside its protective backshell and heatshield.

(… cue theme from “2001 A Space Odyssey” in my head…)

Oh… my…. god…. that’s it… that’s IT… THAT’S going to Mars… 

I walked slowly over towards the window then, feeling very much like a dirt-encrusted peasant farm worker who has just walked into a cathedral, or the Great Hall at Camelot…

Look at that… it’s real, it’s actually real… and I’m actually here

I leant my forhead against the glass of the Gallery window, staring down at the tiny white figures clustered around the probe, drinking in the view, marvelling at it. The rover itself was out of view, but somehow that didn’t matter; I knew it was there, just metres away from me, and it almost felt like it was sleeping, or hibernating, inside its protective covering. The backshell and heatshield looked huge, just huge, especially with several bunny-suited figures standing beneath and around it, and it was hard to imagine how something that big could be sent to Mars…

And then another slap-across-the-face realisation:

The next time I see that will be on HiRISE images, when it’s landed on Mars…

I’m not sure how long I stood there, rooted to the spot. Five minutes? ten? I have no idea. I just know I didn’t want to leave, not ever. I wanted to stay there and wait until MSL emerged from its protective coccoon and stood on the floor on its huge wheels, surveying the ground around it. I wanted to stay there until MSL was complete, Good To Go, fitted with everything it needs to go boldly to Mars and learn more about it. I wanted to stay there, in the Gallery, and wait until MSL was sealed up inside its protective coccoon again, the great doors opened, and the rover was taken out on the penultimate leg of its long, long journey to Barsoom…

But I couldn’t, so after posing for some photos for and with Stella, and with one last, lingering look I said my farewells to MSL, turned away from the glass, and, after stopping briefly to look at a detailed model of the rover standing on the rocky surface of Mars, left the Gallery.

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Part two…

ISS visible from Cumbria again…

… and it will look even brighter with the space shuttle docked to it…

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Click on the image above for a full size version…

New trailer for the new Star Trek film…!!

… is just awesome. Go take a look. Now.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lmJO3ppLBsk

Heroes‘ Sylar as Spock = GENIUS!! 🙂

Home again…

Phew! That was quite a trip! Oh, sorry, didn’t I say? We were in the US last week, and part of a day was spent at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory drooling over seeing lots of space technology. I’m going to write up a very full account of all this soon… as soon as the jet lag has worn off, that is!… but for now here are two teasers of what we saw at JPL…

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That’s nothing less than the Mars Science Laboratory – the next piece of kit going to Mars, and a rover a LOT bigger than the two MERs – all packed up and safe inside its backshell, with the cruise stage on top. I’ll write a LOT more about that later… and then there was this…

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That’s Stella and I posing – in my case, as usual, very self-consciously!  – beside a full scale model of one of the Mars rovers. Just unbelievable.

More later!

Spirit is alive..!

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… and has phoned home! 🙂 🙂

It was feared that yet another dust storm had killed the Mars rover by blocking out the Sun and depriving it of the solar power that keeps it going, but the MER team has received communications from the rover and, although she’s still at such low power levels that they’re decsribed as “critical” she’s still there, still hanging on, so it seems that yet AGAIN the MER team have beaten the odds, and beaten another attempt by Mars to kill one of their spacecraft. Great work!

My god, it’s full of…

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Although you almost certainly didn’t feel it, the universe – or at least our understanding of it, and our place in it – shifted earlier today, just a few hours ago actually, when two different teams of astronomers released to the world images they had taken of two stars. Here they are… don’t worry if they make no sense I’ll explain why they’re so important soon. For now, just look at them, ok?

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Now, I know what you’re probably thinking… “BIG DEAL!!” Well, yes, it is a big deal actually, because what you just looked at were truly – and I don’t use this term lightly here – historic images, because they actually show planets in orbit around alien stars. Yes, that’s right. Those are the first images IN HISTORY to definitely show planets circling stars beyond our own sun. There have been suspects before, but nothing definite, and until today every image that definitely “showed” a planet in orbit around another star was a graph or a chart showing either some kind of gravitational tug or pull on the star, or an apparrent dimming of its light as a planet passed between it and us, here on Earth. No. These images are the real thing, the Real Deal.

It’s no exaggeration to say that those images are nothing less than the first portraits of alien solar systems taken by mankind.

At the top there is an image of the well-known southern star Fomalhaut, taken by the famous (and recently ill) Hubble Space Telescope. beneath it is an image taken by the Gemini telescopes. The Hubble one is essentially a “visual light” image, the Gemini one is an infra-red image, so you’re essentially looking at heat sources there. Look closely and you’ll see little dots or spots of light hugging close to the stars. These are the planets. Of course, we already knew that several hundred stars “out there” have their own planets in orbit around them, but those worlds have all been ‘detected’ – and followed – using mathematics and numbers rather than by looking directly at them and seeing their own light, or at least light reflected off them. These new planets have not just been detected, they’ve been seen, and their pictures have been taken the old fashioned way, by telescopes, and cameras, and by people looking closely at the pictures and thinking “Hang on a minute… what’s that..?”

The full story behind these images is long and complicated, and there’s absolutely no point in me trying to cut it down into bitesize chunks when you can just go to the websites of the planets’ discoverers and read there exactly what happened. So, go to these two websites to read the fascinating stories behind these amazing pictures:

http://www.nasa.gov/mission_pages/hubble/science/fomalhaut.html (Hubble image)

http://www.gemini.edu/node/11151 (Gemini image)

So, that’s the science behind the pictures. Pretty impressive. But what’s even more impressive to me about these pictures is what they represent – a shift in our perception of the universe, and our place in it. Astronomy itself changed today. Yesterday we had no photographs of any planets apart from the ones in our own solar system. Today we do, it’s as simple as that. Yesterday extra-solar planets were just data points on graphs, ticks on charts or rows of numbers on a table. Today we can look at images of alien stars and see alien worlds in orbit around them. Tonight, wherever you live, after the Sun has set you can go outside, look up into the night sky, and see a star that is the “sun” to alien planets, planets we have pictures of! That’s huge, literally huge.

So, take a look at those pictures again, but don’t just glance at them, look at them properly, stare into them. Those images mean something, they’re already historically significant images, up there with the first Viking lander images of Mars’ surface and the Hubble Deep Field. Those images will be in every single history-of-astronomy book written after today, they’re that important.

Make no mistake about it, this is a momentous day, not just for astronomy, but for science itself. We are all very lucky to be around at the time when the first images of extra-solar planets were taken. In centuries to come, when mighty, powerful starships fly from Earth to these faraway alien worlds, their crews will have those very same images with them, to look at and inspire them. When, one day, the first settlers from Earth arrive in these alien solar systems they’ll have those very same images with them, too, and they’ll carry them into orbit around the worlds themselves, and, looking down at their clouds and moons will marvel at how we, here, today, were able to take their portaits.

Look up at the sky tonight, if it’s clear where you live, and hold this thought: you live, and work, beneath a sky that’s not just full of stars, but full of planets, too… What wonderful, glorious, dizzying times we live in, when we have spacecraft exploring the polar wastes of Mars, men and women living onboard a space station and telescopes taking portraits of planets way out in the depths of space…!

But it’s going to get even better. One day – maybe twenty, maybe ten, maybe just a few – years from now, a telescope, somewhere, will take an image like this…

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… and scientists zooming in on a fuzzy point of light in the image will see this….

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… a blue planet, with its own surging cobalt oceans, billowing pillows of white cloud and continents of green, brown and gold.. an alien Earth, bathing in the light of an alien star, a Home In Waiting for Mankind…

Yesterday that image was just a Hope, with one foot in Wishful Thinking and the other in science fiction. Today, that image is closer. Much closer.

Enjoy today, and go to bed knowing that things are different now.

(Much more on this story over at Phil Plait’s BAD ASTRONOMY blog…)

Unveiled: the New ‘original Enterprise’…

If you have an interest in space exploration then the chances are that even if you’re not a science fiction fan you’ll know that there’s a new Star Trek movie coming out quite soon. This new film goes back to the very start of the story of Kirk, Spock and McCoy, and it is hoped it will kick-start the franchise again and be the first of a number of new films. SF fans and “Trekkers” everywhere who have grown up with the “Original Series” Enterprise… which is this one…

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…have been waiting to see what the movie’s effects team would come up with for the new movie’s Enterprise. Well, the wait is over… here she is, the new Old Enterprise…

 enterprise579_l2

Oooooooooooooooh! As Mal Reynolds would say… Shiny! 🙂