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Great martian meteorites!!

Heat Shield Rock 2 colour

I love meteorites. I love the idea of being able to hold a piece of another world in your hand, feel its weight, see the way it reflects light as you turn it round and round in front of your eyes. I love looking at them and thinking about how long they drifted silently through space before screaming and screeching through Earth’s atmosphere to slam into the ground, completing their millennia long journey. I love taking them along to my Outreach talks and showing them to and sharing them with people. I love giving a talk to a classroom full of kids then letting them hold one of my meteorites, and watching their eyes grow side with wonder as it hits them that they’re Actually Holding Something From Space…

And when I see meteorites sitting on the surface of Mars, fallen star stones that have come from Who Knows Where, it makes me fall in love with them all over again.

I have a small collection of meteorites, perhaps twenty, twenty five specimens, that I use in my Outreach work. Some I bought myself, some were gifts from friends (Hi Bev! Hi CAS members!), and others, quite a few others actually, were donated to me by collectors who wanted to support my Outreach work in schools. Occasionally I lend my meteorite collection to my local museum, here in Kendal, and they always prove very popular with visitors…

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I have some favourites, of course. I adore the big hefty hunk-a-chunk piece of the Canyon Diablo meteorite that was a gift to me from my friend in Australia, it goes with me every time I give a talk somewhere…

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I also love my piece of the famous Sikhote Alin meteorite that exploded in a shower of shrapnel above the Sikhote Alin mountains in Russia in 1947…

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… and I have a very soft spot for my little twisted, tortured and contorted piece of the Imilac meteorite that came down in Chile’s Atacama desert, too…

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Like all meteorite collectors, I dream, of finding my own star stone. But meteorites are hard to find. Think about it. 2/3 of Earth is covered with water, so that means 2/3 of the meteorites that fall from the sky go “plop” and are never found. Others will fall into rainforests, or onto mountain ranges or other godforsaken places. The ones that fall into or close to populated areas are hard to find because they will quickly rust away or be buried and lost in undergrowth or simply urban sprawl. But there are places where meteorites can be found, if you have the time, dedication and money to go looking. Meteorite collectors scour the sandy deserts and the snowy wastelands of our planet in search of new meteorites. The meteorites stand out because a) there are very few “native” stones in those areas, and b) they are much darker than their surroundings. So you will often find meteorite collectors scouring the Sahara desert, or the ice plains of Antarcticam, looking for new fallen star stones…

Another good place for meteorite hunting is Mars. Why? Well, there’s basically nothing much there to hide them. Yes, there are lots of rocks, but there are no forests, lakes or oceans. Most martian rocks look the same, but meteorites look very different, and really stand out on the martian surface. Also, Mars has been collecting meteorites for literally billions of years, and with to rain or weather to erode the meteorites away, the red planet is a veritable planet-sized meteorite museum…

So it’s no surprise that our two intrepid Mars rovers, Spirit and Opportunity, have found a few meteorites during their epic treks across the floor of Gusev Crater and the great wide open Meridiani Plain respectively.

Opportunity spotted the first meteorite in January 2005, as she was studying the crumpled turned-inside-out remains of her own backshell, close to the edge of Endurance Crater. Right from first glance it was pretty obvious that the basketball-sized object a few metres away from the backshell wasn’t a normal martian rock…

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Oppy drove up for a closer look… you can enjoy her view if you have a pair of 3D glasses handy and click on this image to bring up a large version…

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And when the red, green and blue Pancam images came back, rover enthusiasts like me scrambled to make our own ‘true colour’ images from them, revealing “Heat Shield meteorite” in all its glory…

 Heat Shield Rock 2 colour

Seriously, how gorgeous is that? 🙂 That’s a METEORITE, sitting on the surface of Mars. It fell from the sky universe knows how many thousands or millions of years ago… and then, in 2004, something else almost fell on it from out of the sky – a huge piece of a Mars rover heat shield!

As Harry Hill would say, “What are the chances of that happening, eh?” 🙂

Of course, Spirit wasn’t going to be left out, and in 2006 she spotted a meteorite on the side of the Columbia Hills, close to a large chunk of dark, pitted rock with a rather wicked looking blade of sharp rock sticking out from under it…

Allan Hills Rock-colour

Here’s a close-up of the Allan Hills Rock…

Allan Hills Rock-colour crop

Now it’s Oppy’s turn to don the “Meteorite Hunter” badge. After initially racing past it on her way to Endeavour Crater she’s now gone back for a closer look at a big -1m across – chunk of dark rock that stood out against the brighter Meridiani landscape. This is what she saw when she pulled up alongside “Block Island”…

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“Fascinating”, a certain Vulcan would say, raising one eyebrow. Let’s take a closer look…

Block Island

Fancy a 3D view? Of course you do…

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Now that’s impressive. It looks, I think, a lot like the Heat Shield meteorite, quite ragged and torn in places. I also think it looks a lot like a meteorite found in Antarctica, the Derrick Peak meteorite…

derrick peak

We’re going to get closer looks at Block Island over the next few days, I;m sure, but for now just think about how amazing the rovers are to be able to show us things like that. 5 years into their 90 day mission they’re still surprising us, still exciting us, still making our eyes go wide with wonder.

Just like meteorites… 🙂

UPDATE:

In the past couple of days some new images of Block Island have come back from Oppy. Most people now seem to be agreed that it is a meteorite, but some still seem uncertain. Either way, it really is a fascinating rock!

Here’s a new, hi-resolution colour ‘portrait’ I’ve made…

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Seen in this new 3D view, Block Island is even more intriguing…

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In close-up, some amazing structure is revealed in the “Pit” over on the right hand side there…

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Hmmm… something in that image is going to cause the tin foil hat wearing “Look! There’s a yeti on Mars!” brigade to almost wet their pants in excitement. Is that… could it be… it is! It’s the fossilied skull of a horrific alien martian, protruding from the meteorite..!

3d close up 3 crop2

Over the next few days we’re going to see a LOT more of Block Island. I wonder what the other side looks like? What the underside looks like? Surely Oppy is going to circle this fascinating object like a shark circling a bleeding swimmer. I can’t wait for the next pics to come back!

Waving goodbye to Mars..?

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Although I’m obviously hoping to hang on until my hundredth birthday in January 2065, chances are I will probably die around the year 2045. I’ll be pretty happy with that; I’ll be 80, which is – as we say here in Blighty – a “good innings” – and it will mean I’ll hopefully, if I can still see, manage to enjoy the second appearance of Halley’s Comet in my lifetime. I’m pretty sure we’ll have discovered life somewhere “Out There” by then too. Either we’ll have discovered simple forms of life beneath the rocks of Mars or under the ice of Europa or Enceladus, or we’ll have detected radio or laser or somethingelsewecan’tevenimagineyet transmissions from technological civilisations on the planets of other stars. Yeah, I’m pretty sure that news will break long before I shuffle off the stage – hopefully within the next few years, actually.

But suddenly I’m beginning to wonder if I’m going to die before witnessing the other major event I’ve always longed to see, something I’ve dreamed of witnessing, and being a part of, ever since I was a space-mad kid at St Joseph’s Junior School, hiding out of sight in a quiet corner, pouring over the library’s small collection of science books while all the others were running around screaming outside in the sunshine.

I’m honestly starting to think I might not live to see the first humans walk on Mars.

Why? Well, it all seems to be going into frakking reverse, doesn’t it? Mars rovers are being delayed left, right and centre. The space shuttle is being retired with no replacement ready to fly. Unbelievably, there’s talk of de-orbiting (that’s a fancy, NASA-speak term for ‘throwing away by letting it burn up in the atmosphere like a big shooting star’) the ISS by 2016, just as it’s starting to become a fully crewed, fully functional orbital facility. Let’s face it, we are no nearer sending people to Mars now than we were when Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin returned from the Moon – in fact, come to think of it, we’re probably farther away from mounting a crewed expedition to the red planet than we were then! We have no 21st century Saturn V, no heavy lift launcher to carry the components of a Mars expedition ship into orbit. We don’t have a lander that could set down on Mars. We don’t have public support for a manned Mars mission. And as the passionate glow of President Obama’s election support and enthusiasm for NASA cools faster than a hot coal spat out of a fire, and he ties NASA up with yet another bloody red tape review, we clearly don’t have high level political support for space exploration in general, manned or unmanned, either.

No, unless something dramatic happens – like Oppy discovers fossils in the wall of Endeavour crater, or a martian meteorite proves to contain traces of martian bacteria – if we’re going anywhere soon, it’s the Moon, and the date of that trip looks like being put back too. NASA was hoping to – cue dramatic, stirring music – Return To The Moon in 2020. I’ll be amazed if US astronauts are standing on the Moon by 2025, if not later. The Chinese might beat them, but if they do it’ll only be by a couple of years. No-one is going to raise a flag on the Moon, of any colour, design or nationality – for another decade and a half, I’m convinced.

Of course I understand going to Mars is not easy. It’s not like just going “a bit further than the Moon, for a little while longer”. It will require leaps in technology that just aren’t on the horizon right now. It will require more money – a lot more money – than is available right now, in these godawful financially precarious times. It will require a political commitment, and political vision, that just isn’t there right now. It will require an incredibly large jump in public support for and interest in manned spaceflight, that looks about as likely, right now, as Paris Hilton throwing up her hands and saying “Please! No pictures!” as she leaves a club.

No. We’re not going to Mars for a long, long time.

Which really saddens me – no, it doesn’t, I’ll be honest: it really, royally, absolutely hacks me off. It makes me want to punch my fist through the computer screen in front of me here, then go over to the window over there, push it up and howl “Nooooooooooooooooooooooooo!!!!!” out of it.

We should be on Mars now!! Why the hell aren’t we? Oh, that’s right, because we lost our bottle after going to the Moon.

We should be going online today and watching astronauts standing on the edge of the Valles Marineris, controlling a balloon that’s exploring the canyon beneath them! Why aren’t we? Ah, yes, now I remember – because we’d rather spend our money on pet food, cosmetics, pizza and video games.

We should be celebrating the birth of the first child on Mars this weekend, going “Aaaahhhh!” and “Awwwww!” as her picture is shown on every TV news program and on every news, science and space site in cyberspace! Why won’t we? Sorry, I clean forgot – because the public still aren’t convinced that the exploration of space is a worthwhile endeavour, and they see it as a luxury, not a part of our everyday lives, and an insurance policy for the future.

So, here I sit, on this cold, windy day in the Lake District, listening to the rain lashing against my window, looking through it at the steel-grey sky above the slate roofs opposite me, and I’m thinking that I possibly won’t live to see the first man or woman set foot on Mars.

I think my best hope is for a manned mission to take place around 2030, by which time I’ll be 65. That’s okay, I could live with that. I’d – hopefully – still be fairly fit, and independant, and able to enjoy the build up to and culmination of the great event at home, watching the Ares #1 launch and landing in comfort, surrounded by friends and family, all gathered in front of the big holographic widesecreen surround sound VR-immersing TV. I’ll have a “Mars Landing” party, invite all my old astronomy friends, and we’ll sit and reminisce about the “good old days” when we sat at our computers, struggling with our primitive, snail-slow 8Mb broadband connections, watching NASA TV, following shuttle launches, planetary encounters and press conferences. We’ll laugh at how we all held our breath as the twin Mars rovers “Spirit” and “Opportunity” landed, and remember fondly how we followed their epic treks across the floor of Gusev Crater and across the great, wide open plain of Meridiani, respectively. We’ll go strangely silent when we think back to the day when we lost the first rover, and go misty-eyed and frog-throated when we recall the day the second rover died too, ending the great MER Adventure. But we’ll cheer up as we watch that first man, or woman, edging slowly down the ladder, or ramp, or whatever they mount on the outside of the MEM, and then cheer – and in all likelyhood burst into tears – when the first bootprint is made in the martian dust, finally, finally, after all the years of waiting and hoping and dreaming…

But that’s only going to happen if we – and by “we” I mean NASA, ESA, other agencies, private businesses, space enthusiasts and outreachers – all get our act together, if we all pull our collective fingers out and work together to send people to Mars. If we don’t start planning – and I mean seriously planning, not just knocking up reports, fancy Powerpoints and CGI videos – then even that date will slip and 2030 will effortlessly become 2040.

20 frakking 40…

In 2040 I’ll be 75. Oooh, now that’s pushing it. With medical advances etc I should still be around then, Universe Willing, but where will I be? Still in my own home, or being looked after somewhere else?

What kind of state will I be in, mentally and physically?

When I’m not waxing lyrical about Mars, the Moon and the universe, I work in a care home for the elderly, that’s my day job. It’s every bit as challenging, rewarding, upsetting, frustrating, depressing and frightening as you can imagine, but trust me, you have no idea – No Idea – what kind of things I have to do , or what sights I see, during even an average, uneventful day. So I have a dread, a horror, an absolute terror of being somewhere like that when the first manned expedition to Mars sets off. Not because it’s a bad place, not in any way, and certainly not because the people there aren’t looked after well, but because I just can’t stand the idea of not being able to enjoy the lift off, landing and return of Ares #1 – or whatever it’s called – in the way I want to.

I can see it now, clear as day… it’s July 29th, 2040, and I’m sitting in a communal living room or lounge with my fellow residents, and there are just a few minutes to go until the Ares #1 lander touches down on Mars. But no-one else cares. Some are over there playing cards, or something else; others are reading their E-books; others are chattering and nattering away, loudly. The big 3D holo-v is on, over there in the corner, and it should, obviously, be showing the Mars mission live coverage… but it’s showing a soap opera or something equally banal, which is being watched intently by a cluster of hardcore fans, and I know there’s no point even trying to ask them to change channel because the last time someone did that it triggered an argument that split the lounge in two in a horrific ,walking frame-rattling civil war… So, all I can do is watch the clock as time passes by… tick… tick… they must be on the surface by now… tick… tick…

Missed it, missed the whole damn thing…

“Depressed” doesn’t even come close. 😦

This melancholy has never been a problem for me before. I’ve always been very optimisic about the manned exploration of Mars. I have always seen it as basically just a natural progress, a natural evolution from the unmanned Mars exploration program. I’ve grown up thinking that after we’d built a decent space station, and messed about on the Moon again for a while, we’d simply pack the wagons, crack the whip by the horse’s ear and, with a loud “Yee-hah!”, head for Mars…

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After all, Mars is the next logical place to go, right? But in the past year or so I’ve detected a very subtle but very real change of momentum within that plan. It’s become all about getting back to the Moon.  Mars is now very much an aspiration rather than a goal. Lots of people insist they Want to go to Mars, but none of them are keen to talk figures, either re. dates or finances.

There are three main reasons why we’re not seeing NASA – or anyone else – pushing for a manned mission to Mars right now. mission to Mars. Firstly, there’s just not the money available, and anyone who thinks otherwise is just deluding themselves. The global economy is lying in intensive care, machines and monitors bleeping all around it, after being wounded in a drive-by shooting carried out by the world’s banking and financial institutions. The multiple tens of billions of dollars needed to plan and stage a manned mission to Mars is just not there.

Secondly, there’s no public demand – or, if we’re honest, even widespread support – for a manned mission to Mars. They see the breathtaking images sent back by Spirit and Oppy, MRO and Mars Express and think “Hey, why bother sending people when machines can do THAT?”

But the biggest reason, I think, is that the time required to plan and mount a manned mission to Mars makes it less appealing to politicians than having their picture taken shaking Osaba Bin Laden’s hand whilst kicking a blind puppy. If NASA’s new Administrator, Charles Bolden, went to the White House today and told President Obama that they had figured out a way to get people to Mars within ten years – which would be a hell of an achievement – a little devil sitting on his shoulder would whisper into his ear “Don’t listen to this guy, O! Even if he’s not BSing you, you won’t even BE Prez when the spaceship lands on Mars, it’ll be the next guy, or even the guy after him! You’d just be remembered as the schuck who said yes and handed them a huge fat check to set them off. Why bother when it’ll be someone else talking to the astronauts on the phone after they’ve landed on Mars, not you...”

obama devil

Oh, don’t mind me, I’m just feeling fed up. But am I alone? Is anyone else out there thinking and feeling the same way? It can’t be just me. My generation has grown up believing, trusting, that we were going to see people walking on Mars in my lifetime. Everyone’s told us that. The presenters on TOMORROW’S WORLD told us that. Science and astronomy books told us that. And look! The “Mars mission” card in the Brooke Bond Tea “Race To Space” card collection (click on image to bring up a full size version and wallow in nostalgia) even set a date for the first manned Mars landing: August 9th, 1982..!

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Oh well, I guess we’ll just have to wait and see. Maybe the big review being undertaken of NASA’s manned spaceflight plans will help refocus hearts and minds on Mars. I hope so. I really, really want to be on this side of the grass when that first bootprint is made in the martian dust.

Celebrating a new view of Tranquility Base

Oh come on, you can’t be surprised. The gorgeous pic LRO took of the Apollo 11 landing site recently inspired a new astropoem, which you can find below (click on the image to bring up a larger one you can actually, you know, read) or go direct to the full resolution version here

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ExoMars postponed. Again.

If robots can become celebrities, then NASA’s twin Mars Exploration Rovers, “Spirit” and “Opportunity”, are A Listers, at least in the scientific world. Beloved by professional planetary scientists and armchair astronauts alike, Spirit and ‘Oppy’  (I wonder if Spirit gets jealous her name can’t be abbreviated to a nickname? Doesn’t seem fair somehow…) have been exploring the Red Planet for well over 5 years now, and although each rover has almost died more than once, for various reasons, they’re still there, still roving, still photographing, still showing us Mars in ways we’ve never seen before. They could die any day, of course, but seem rather reluctant to do that.

Meanwhile, the European Space Agency’s own ambitious Mars rover project – “ExoMars” – has just been delayed again.

Unlike the MERs – which are multi-tasking robots, happy to study the martian weather one day and the planet’s geology the next – ExoMars was designed from the start with one purpose and one purpose only: to look for signs of life on Mars, past or present. Like a MER it has a full suite of cameras and instruments. Like a MER it has a robot arm. But, unlike a MER, ExoMars has a drill. Not just a teeny tiny drill either; we’re talking Bruce Willis in Armageddon drill!

Ok, maybe not quite that big, but it’s definitely a dtrill to be reckoned with, capable of drilling down to a depth of 2m, where – sheltered from the sterilising rays of the Sun – conditions might be more hospitable for primitive martian lifeforms. That alone makes ExoMars a mission to be excited about.

When ExoMars was “born”, it was christened by some as “the Top Gear” rover, because, with ist sleek, sexy, polished design it looked like something those three overgrown schoolboys from the BBC’s flagship petrol head program would dream up…

exomars_rover

That’s the drill over on its left side, see? That thing that looks like a rocket launcher or a bazooka! Just look at that shiny hull, the trimmed wheels, the Porscheness of it all…

But that ExoMars was just too beautiful to survive, and as the mission’s budget began to climb higher and faster than an Ariane 5 rocket, and the science demands of the mission became clearer, the rover’s design changed. Dramatically. When the revised design was unveiled it wasn’t so much Top Gear as Open University…

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Not so sexy, I know, but definitely more practical. And the drill’s still there, although it’s now worn “off the shoulder”, so to speak.

ExoMars was originally scheduled to lift off for Mars in 2011, but its launch was postponed until 2013. That was a great disappointment, but not entirely unexpected; budgets were being squeezed, and the rover clearly wasn’t going to be ready in time. Then, in October 2008, the mission’s launch was delayed again, from 2013 to 2016, and across the space community alarm bells started to ring. ExoMars seemed like it was turning into the Greatest Mission That Would Never Reach Mars. But ESA insisted the rover was a good program, and would return great science.

Yesterday came news of another delay in launching ExoMars, the third. The rover will now not travel to Mars until 2018.

Now the alarm bells really are ringing.

ESA are putting a very positive spin on this delay, insisting that it will mean ExoMars will be able to do much better science and be much more productive on the red planet as a result of it. ESA says that the “launch window” of 2018 is much more useful than the one of 2016, because Earth and Mars will be positioned more favourably, meaning that a much heavier ( = more complicated) payload (= spacecraft) can be sent to Mars then.

The plan is now clearly to involve NASA in ExoMars, not least by having them launch it on one of their rockets. ESA and NASA recently agreed to join in the exploration of Mars, to co-ordinate their programs to maximise science. So, under this new arrangement, ExoMars will fly to Mars in 2018, two years after a ESA/NASA arrives at Mars to study and pin down the exact locations of the mysterious “methane plumes” found there. Then, guided by the orbiter’s results,  ExoMars, and possibly a smaller, MER-class rover too, would land on Mars close to the source of one of the methane deposits and study it in great detail, obviously with a view to seeing if there is life there.

ExoMars was originally going to land on Mars using the same airbag technology as Spirit and Oppy, but it now seems it will be delivered to the martian surface using the same “Skycrane” technology that has been developed for NASA’s Mars Science Laboratory, which itself has suffered launch delays.

So, is this good news, as ESA is suggesting, or is it a sign that ExoMars is in real trouble?

Hey, don’t ask me, I’m no expert. But I will be honest, I just have a bad, bad, bad feeling about this whole mission. I hate saying this, but it just seems, I don’t know, too big for ESA, for us, you know? Without any experience of building or operating even a small Sojourner-class rover, it feels like we’re trying to run – a marathon… across the Sahara… blindfolded – before we can walk. It’s a hugely expensive program, ExoMars, and its cost seems determined to keep climbing towards “Aww, forget it, that’s too much!”; it failed for financial reasons, before even reaching Mars, it would both cripple our planetary science budget and make us look like bloody idiots too.

Then there’s the way the mission’s science would be handled, too. Is ESA ready for something that big, that important? Despite having made some strides forward when it comes to sharing information from its missions with the people who pay for those missions – the European taxpayer – ESA still doesn’t quite seem to “get” the importance of making sure the public feel involved with the missions they pay for through their taxes. Every space enthusiast knows the basic, fundamental, slap-across-the-face obvious difference between NASA and ESA: NASA lets people see as much as they can as soon as they can, with the “raw” images from missions like CASSINI and the MER rovers flashing up on websites daily and with almost dizzying speed. ESA, however, seems to be deternined to horde its data and only release pictures a few at a time, giving them up to us reluctantly, like treats tossed from the top table at a banquet. It’s frustrating, disrespectful, and wrong, and it leaves many Europeans feeling excluded from ESA’s missions. Actually, many Europeans are unaware Europe actually has a space agency, they hear so little about it. Which is pretty bloody stupid.

I have no doubt ESA will get a grip on this… one day. All – hmmm, ok, most – of the people I’ve dealt with at ESA are dedicated and hard working, and want people like me, the great unwashed European taxpayer, to feel excited by and a part of their work, even if they’re not sure how to help make that happen. But I can’t help wondering how they’d handle a real rover mission to Mars. Would they follow the “MER model” and embrace the concept of daily image releases? Would they put up raw images as soon as they came in? Would they actively encourage space exploration enthusiasts to take those raw images, work with them, and turn them into new, original products? I’m not sure, I’m just not sure. But I am sure that if they didn’t follow the MER path then ExoMars would be a PR disaster, seen by the  European public as nothing more than an expensive toy for overpaid, cold, arrogant and detached from reality boffins. And that’s exactly what I fear might happen.

But let’s look on the bright side. A lot can happen in nine years, that’s more than enough time for ESA to get its act together and ensure an ExoMars rover became every bit as inspiring and exciting to the public as Spirit or Oppy. So, if NASA and ESA get their heads together and make this program work, and if ESA embraces outreach and “citizen science”, and if the program’s budget can be reined in, and if everything else goes according to plan, ExoMars could be a program to be proud of.

But I can’t help feeling very pessimistic about ExoMars. Money is going to be increasingly tight in the years to come. Politicians are going to be looking for ways of cutting costs. The public aren’t even aware that Europe has plans for a Mars rover. The signs aren’t good, and there are dark storm clouds on the horizon, no matter which way ExoMars looks.

Don’t get me wrong, I desperately want the program to succeed. I want to be sitting at a computer (or whatever gadget we have by then!) in 2018, watching pictures coming back live from Mars, listening to a joint ESA/NASA press conference announcing the discovery of life on Mars. It’s just, I don’t know, I have this gut feeling that the rover is never going to make it to Barsoom. In the week when we celebrated the landing of an Eagle on the Moon, 40 years ago, another type of bird is circling ExoMars, and getting very, very hungry…

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I may be wrong. I really, really hope I’m wrong. We’ll just have to wait and see. And keep our fingers crossed.

Timing is everything…

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As the great man said… “I love it when a plan comes together…!”

As you’ve probably heard, earlier this month Something hit Jupiter. We don’t know what… yet… but it was probably either an asteroid or a comet. Not a huge one, nothing on a scale with the “Dinosaur Killer” that wiped out T Rex and all his mates 65 million years ago (note: other theories are available); we’re talking something “as wide as several football fields” according to NASA. But still, that’s a decent-sized chunk of rock and/or ice, and it was big enough, and massive enough, to leave an Earth-sized dark scar in Jupiter’s cloudtops when it slammed into the huge planet on July 19th, which was spotted, and photographed, by the respected and accomplished Australian ‘amateur’ (amateur?! Have you seen his equipment? And the amazing images he takes?!?) planetary observer Anthony Wesley. When he trained his ‘scope on Jupiter, Anthony noticed that the gas giant planet’s south pole was sporting a wasn’t-there-before dark feature, and he took this now famous image…

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Within a matter of hours that image was flashing around the world, spreading like a virus across Twitter, Facebook and countless astronomy bulletin boards and forums. Soon The Press hasd picked up on it too, and began breathless reporting of the story. I understand one reporter managed to turn “the object left an Earth-sized scar on Jupiter’s clouds” into “an Earth-sized object has struck Jupiter!” Aww, bless.

Anyway, for the next few days everyone who owned a telescope scrabbled to see and photograph the mysterious new feature. While most seemed happy to accept that it was an impact scar, some cautioned against making such a hasty assumption, suggesting it might just be a strange – but perfectly natural – cloud of some sort. But when images taken by professional telescopes, at different wavelengths, started to come in, they had to accept that yes, it was an impact scar. Something Had Hit Jupiter.

Again.

Again? Well, yes. Fifteen years ago this month – almost to the day of Anthony’s impact event (cue X-Files theme) Jupiter was given the kicking of its life when, one after another, no fewer than 21 pieces of comet slammed into it.

This was one of the most memorable astronomical events of the past fifty years, no doubt about it. It all started when this was seen on a photograph…

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That used to be a comet, called Shoemaker-Levy 9, and it looked that way because it got too close to Jupiter for comfort. The comet was literally ripped apart by its encounter, into the famous “String of Pearls” seen in that image, and that left astronomers pretty excited. They became even more excited when they calculated that, unbelievably, the remains of the comet would actually slam into Jupiter, one after another! Their calculations showed that, unfortunately, the impacts would occur out of sight, on the far side of Jupiter at that time, but still, it was an amazing and exciting discovery, and on the Big Day, after the predicted time of impact, around the world literally tens of thousands of observers held their breath as they waited for the impact areas to rotate into view so they could see what damage had been caused…

This is what the Hubble Space Telescope saw when it joined in the Jupiter Watch…

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It was better than anyone had dared to hope. Each impact had left its own scar, some much bigger than the one observed by Anthony, and those scars were clearly visible even in small telescopes. While the impact features persisted planetary observers drank in the view as often and for as long as they could, knowing that nothing like that would ever happen again in their lifetimes…

Ah. Wrong.

Fifteen years later, the exact same thing has happened. The Hubble Space Telescope – newly repaired and serviced, and raring to go – has swung around to look Jupiter at short notice, following up an initial observation made by an amateur astronomer. This is the first image it’s sent back…

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That’s the wide angle black and white view. Here’s a zoomed-in colour view…

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Wow… look at that… look at THAT! Something hit Jupiter, and hard.

But just stop for a moment to consider the wonderful, perfect timing of this. This happened 15 years after – almost to the day – Jupiter was hit by something else. It happened just a couple of months after the Hubble Space Telescope was repaired, and fitted with a brand spanking new camera that was able to take pictures of the event at such short notice. It happened the day before the 40th anniversary of the Apollo 11 Moon landing, when the world was already going a bit space nuts, and the media were desperate for anything “spacey” to write about. This was almost the perfect astronomical storm.

I haven’t been able to see the impact feature yet, the weather here in Kendal has been, frankly, appalling. That weather has meant I’ve missed not one, not two, but THREE major hand-slapped-across-mouth-gorgeous displays of noctilucent clouds, like this one, seen from Norway (pic from Spaceweather.com)…

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… as well as ALL the good passes of the ISS for this period.

Seriously, I’ve been really, really hacked off with our weather recently, it’s just been laughing at us. On Thursday evening we went camping, to Wasdale Head which is miles away from the Back of Beyond, just past the Middle of Nowhere,  and with no light pollution for miles around I was sooo hoping that the sky would clear enough to allow us to see a starry sky. Fat chance.

It wasn’t even raining when we set off from Kendal at 5.30, blue sky everywhere, but by the time we got to Wasdale Head (nr Ravenglass) it was looking a bit gloomy. The sky was very dark, and as we drove along it Wast Water was a long slab of grey lead. Tatters of torn black clouds were draped and dragging over the tops of the low fells, and it all looked very unpromising, but we thought “what the hell, we’re here now” so we set up the tent. That took about an hour (stop laughing! It’s a new tent, never used it before, so we were v pleased with an hour!) but when it was up it looked GORGEOUS! Easily the best tent in the field. 🙂
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So, once inside, we had a high class Masterchef tea (crisps, Coke, sandwiches and Crunchies) then went for a walk in the deepening gloom. The outside world looked very, very dramatic by then, as if the colour had been turned off and replaced by black and white, and it was so dark by 10pm we almost stepped on and squelched a poor frog that was hopping across the path between two black fields…
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We retreated into our sleeping bags at midnightish, with me still hoping I’d peel back the doorflap and see a sky painted blue and white and silver with a blaze of noctilucent clouds, all reflected in the still waters of Wast Water…
… and then the rain started. By 4am it was actually frightening; the wind was howling like a werewolf family reunion, and wave after wave of rain was sluicing down the valley, each one punching our tent  like Tyson landing blows on a sap opponent, and I was sure we were going to be blown over like a cheap dinghy on the ocean.
And space geek that I am, laying there, watching the fabric of the tent around me rippling and billowing like a ship’s sail in a storm, I couldn’t help wondering what it would have been like to witness the impact of that asteroid/comet/whatever on Jupiter, 360 million miles away… A fireball streaking through the Jovian atmosphere… a blinding flash as the object hit the cloudtops… a shockwave pulsing through and rippling across the tops of the clouds… a churning ball of fire and gases exploding, blossoming out of the hole left by the impact…
Now that would be a storm to see, wouldn’t it? I 
I didn’t hear any thunder from inside our tent – though to be honest the rain was so loud on the roof and sides of our poor tent we wouldn’t have heard thunder if it had been right on top of us – but the sky stayed black and thick all night, never clearing, not even for a moment, so all hopes of seeing any NLC were swept away. When we emerged again next morning, to find great puddles of muddy water dotted all over the field like WW1 shell holes,  we were just lucky we’d made it through the night. But hey, it was an adventure! 🙂
… and what has that to do with an asteroid or comet hitting Jupiter?
Well, the moral of this tale, dear reader, is that no matter what you might miss in the sky, however fed up or cheated or “Aaaaaggghhh! It’s so unfair!!!!” you feel, Out There, in space, in our own solar system or further away, there’s always Something Else going on, something that will make you think “Wow…!”, and will make you look up at the sky again on the next clear night…
…and remind you exactly why you love astronomy, and why you’re so helplessly, head over heels in love with the universe.

I HATE you, DigitAl!!

daOh brave new world…

My part of the UK “went digital” today. That means that the analogue TV signals here have been switched off, and unless you can access the digital channels via a “digi box” or have satellite TV, or own a ouija board, if you try and tune in to all the “old stations” all you get is a screenful of static accompanied by the background hiss of the Big Bang.

This is obviously a major upheaval. I know a lot of old people who just haven’t grasped this TV revolution, and after burying their grey heads in the sand for the past few months they will be spending much of today frantically pressing buttons on their TV remotes and wondering where “Diagnosis Murder” and “Emmerdale” went while they weren’t looking. (I also know a lot of lazy younger people who just haven’t been bothered to get their TVs sorted out, but that’s their problem.) Me? I bought myself a smart digi receiver that’s part of a unit incorporating a hard disc drive recorder and a DVD recorder, too. Sorted.

What this mchange means, basically, is more channels, more choice, so that has to be a good thing, right? Where I live I’ve been restricted to just four – yes, I said four, stop laughing – channels for as long as I can remember, because I haven’t had Sky or cable or anything like that. Hasn’t been a big deal – I’m more of a radio person anyway, and would rather have 5Live playing in the background while I write than the TV or a music CD – but I’ve been looking forward to “going digital” because, scanning the Freeview-friendly channels in the TV guides I saw that they show quite a few of the sci fi shows that were favourites of mine when I was younger. ITV 4 in particular seems to be in love with two of my all time faves, “UFO” and” Space: 1999″. I’ve been so excited about the prospect of catching up with them again!

Well, this morning I woke up and my little corner of the world had “gone digital” while I was asleep. There it was! ITV4! Tuned in… what was first… UFO!

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Brilliant! God, I loved this show! I couldn’t wait to see it again… Except Stella wanted to watch the last ever episode of FRIENDS… again… so I had to wait until that was finished before putting UFO on…

Wow… it looked so dated! Those beige and biscuit-hued dresses and suits from Sylvia Anderson’s “21st Century Fashions” range look AWFUL now, like things you’d find in Kate Moss’s bin. I literally shuddered.

But then the action shifted to the Moon, and as the spaceships started doing their thing, I was won over. The tech in UFO still looks fantastic. The UFOs are very shiny and twinkly, and the Interceptor is still one of my favourite TV spaceships, even though its lone missile is not only very impractical and ineffecient from a UFO-killing perspective, it also looks rather, well, silly now, too…

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The three most memorable elements of UFO were all in this morning’s episode. Firstly, Ed Straker, the grouchy, steely-eyed boss of SHADO, was there, barking orders at every clipboard-carrying, cigarette-smoking minion and underling who was unfortunate enough to cross his path…

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Secondly, Moonbase was fully staffed with the lycra-clad, purple-haired mission control babes I remembered so well, all purring into their space-age microphones in crisp, BBC English…

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And finally, there she was, hanging around at the back of SHADO HQ, carrying a clipboard from here to there every now and again, looking intently into a screen, looking up again, waving at someone, then tossing her mane of black hair over her shoulder in shampoo advert slow motion…

Ayshea… the first TV character I had a crush on…

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Yes, long before Rose Tyler and Dr Martha Jones stole my heart as they travelled through time and space with a certain Galifreyan, long before Colonel Wilma Deering made my juvenile jaw drop by striding across Earth’s post-apocalyptic landscape in 4″ heels and a sprayed on snow white jumpsuit, there was Lt. Ayshea. She was played by an actress and singer called Ayshea Brough, too. Not a lot of people know that.

So, the memories all came flooding back. Mostly good, some not so. Thankfully we weren’t treated to the sight of the submarine crew in their very dodgy string vests in this morning’s episode…

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Then it was time for SPACE: 1999!

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For those of you who don’t know much or anything about the series, it was essentially STAR TREK: VOYAGER a quarter of a century before Capt Janeway guided her band of misfits and Ensigns across the galaxy. Very simple premise: nuclear waste on the Moon explodes, the explosion is so violent it sends the Moon hurtling out of Earth’s orbit, and becomes a pseudo-spaceship, with its “crew” encountering new aliens, planets and dangers every week as they draw further and further away from home, and look for a new one.

I remember being glued to SPACE:1999 when I was younger, I used to worship the show! The Moonbase – Moonbase Alpha – looked real, and convincing. The characters were reasonably convincing, and the stories were exciting too… but what really kept me watching was the tech, specifically the now-legendary “Eagle Tramsporter”, one of the most practical-looking, most realistic spaceships ever seen on a screen, big or small…

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The Eagle is a classic design, and has legions of loyal fans all around the world. Many space enthusiasts consider itto be the greatest ship that never flew, and have even gone so far as to mock-up what it would have looked like if it had been built by NASA…

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And they were there this morning, flying about very convincingly… but the rest of the show…

OMG! It was RUBBISH!! Cheesy beyond belief, with appalling scripts, even more appalling acting, costumes and tech from a kids sci fi movie… I was so disappointed. It wasn’t the show I remembered, at all. 😦

So, thank you DigitAl, thank you for ruining my beloved memories of British sci fi. I’ll keep watching UFO, but SPACE: 1999 isn’t going to find any free space on my Freeview recorder.

Oh, and by the way, thanks for ruining my memories of THE WONDER YEARS too. I was addicted to that, and thought it was one of the cleverest, most moving shows I’d ever seen… turns out it’s actually sugary, cloying, predictable-as-hell fluff.

And Winnie, who I thought was sooo cute, is actually a whiny pain in the backside.

😦

Mars beckons..?

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In the rosy afterglow of the Apollo 40th anniversary celebrations, one word, one idea, one dream seems to be on everyone’s lips and in everyone’s minds: Mars

Until this week the phrase  “manned mission to Mars” was whispered fearfully, in corners, like the names “Voldemort” or “Candyman”. But now astronauts, scientists and writers are almost pushing each other out of the way in their rush to talk about Mars, and the value of sending people there. Apollo 11’s Michael Collins wishes he could go, and Buzz Aldrin is desperate to send other people there, even if they don’t come back again. New NASA Administrator Charlie Bolden acknowledges that there’s a smouldering desire within NASA to go to Mars, and seems to feel it too. One newspaper editorial after another is calling upon NASA to be bold again, to break out of its self-imposed exile in Earth orbit and reach out for the Red Planet.

Is there a hint, just a hint, of Mars momentum building…?

Whoah there, Silver! I’m as keen as anyone to send people off to Barsoom, but let’s all just take a deep breath shall we? How likely is a manned mission to Mars by the 60th anniversary of Apollo 11’s historic landing on the Moon?

Well, let’s face facts and stop kidding ourselves: countries aren’t queuing up to go to Mars. China, whatever it says, isn’t going to Mars anytime soon. Europe hasn’t got the technology, the money or the experience to go either. The only nation that could possibly go it alone and send a manned expedition to Mars is the US, and that’s just not going to happen anytime soon. It’s becoming painfully clear that President Obama – whose pre-election support for NASA seems to be evaporating faster than a comet that’s flown too near the Sun – is not going to be the visionary supporter of space exploration we all hoped. It’s not his fault, really; the US economy is a mangled, smoking train wreck that’s been hit by a crashing plane, and it’s going to take a helluva lot of fixing, if it even can be fixed. Obama’s review of NASA is either a) a genuine attempt to get NASA back on track, or b) a cunningly-disguised way of cutting NASA’s budget and ambitious plans without being open about it. Either way, if you’re expectantly watching Twitter for news of a “We choose Mars!” speech from Obama you’re in for a long, long wait. Check your wall planners and calendars for the day hell freezes over – it’ll be a week after that.

What about an international mission then? Well – 

Sorry, I was distracted then. A pig flew past the window. 

No, come on, get real. That’s a pipe dream. NASA and ESA have just agreed to work together on the unmanned exploration of Mars, and that’s a generation’s worth of budget-balancing work right there, so any joint manned Mars expedition is way, way beyond that. 

But the real reason why we’re not going to Mars anytime soon has nothing to do with money, and it’s about time we accepted it. 

It’s the classic “elephant in the room” – a huge, looming, unpalatable truth that no-one in the space advocate or space enthusiast communities wants to acknowledge. 

THE PUBLIC AREN’T INTERESTED IN SENDING PEOPLE TO MARS. 

There. I’ve said it. We were all thinking it, but no-one was saying it. Time to face facts. There is, at present, NO public demand – or even support – for a manned mission to Mars. They think it would be a huge amount of money spent for absolutely bugger all practical use. And until space enthusiasts and the space community, and, yes, NASA itself, can give the public a damned good reason for sending people to Mars and not just more rovers, WE ARE NOT GOING TO MARS. 

Frustrating, isn’t it? 

Yes, but you know what’s even more frustrating? We already HAVE that damned good reason to send people to Mars, but it’s ANOTHER elephant in the room; we all know one way to get the public behind a manned expedition to Mars, but no-one will stick their head up out of the trench and say it, for fear of being thought of as impractical, or being ridiculed as the next best thing to a UFO spotter. 

But I don’t care. I’ll say it, right here, right now. The public don’t give a **** about rocks, or salts, or silicon-thick dust. They don’t give a **** about snow falling from the martian sky. They don’t give a **** about the potential for an area of Mars to have had possible microfilms of water in aeons past. 

The only – the ONLY – way NASA or anyone else is going to get the public behind a manned mission to the Red Planet is to make it something they can identify with, something that resonates with them, something they can understand. Something with a finishing line, something that would culminate in a world-stopping TV broadcast. 

The only was the public will support the expense, and danger, of sending a team of astronauts to Mars, from one country or many, is to make their mission a heroic, daring quest – a search for a prize that would either succeed, or fail. 

The only good reason to send people to Mars would be to make their mission a dedicated, focussed search for life on the Red Planet. 

Why? Because, at the end of the day, all this space stuff, it’s all about Life. 

As a species we are fascinated by Life. We are driven, with a ferocious, insatiable hunger, to learn all we can about its origins and fate, strengths and frailties, limitations and possibilities. Justifiably, we spend vast amounts of time, and money, trying to find ways of extending Life. Perversely, we spend even more time and money inventing, building and selling to others weapons to use to destroy Life. 

And we look for Life with an obsessive passion. For centuries we have travelled the globe looking for new forms of Life in dense jungles, under the ocean and now beneath the ice. We are now, with ambition and optimism, starting to search for Life beyond Earth, and are fascinated by the possibility of its existence. That’s why I get such a thrill looking at the sky on a clear night. Whenever I look at Saturn I know that two of its moons, Titan and Enceladus, may be homes for alien. Whenever I look at Jupiter, flickering and flashing in the sky, I feel a giddying tingle when I think about all the places Life may be lurking in that mini solar system of exotic worlds: perhaps underneath the icy crusts of its moons Europa, Ganymede and Callisto, perhaps even within the storm-wracked clouds of the mighty gas giant itself… If some optimistic exobiologists are right, then perhaps even the acid-saturated clouds of Twinned-With-Hell Venus, the gorgeous Morning Star which blaze above the mountains and fells of my Lake District home, may harbour hardy alien microbes… 

And now, while some astronomers search for primitive Life on the surfaces of Earth’s sister planets with robots, others are designing telescopes that will one day take pictures of Earth-like worlds orbiting other stars. Within a decade we could have the first photo of a “New Terra”, and when it appears on websites, TV screens and the front pages of newspapers around the world that first image of a tiny blue-green world shining like a painted marble against the blackness of deep space will have the same impact as the first Apollo photo showing Earth as a whole disc. And of course, as you read this, SETI astronomers are aiming sensitive electronic ears at the sky, straining to detect whispers from advanced alien civilisations on planets orbiting distant, mysterious stars. 

So, you see, in the end, it’s all about Life. Understanding, encouraging, creating Life – that’s what we, as a species, do. It may even be, in the grand scheme of things, why we’re here in the first place. Maybe the scientists who dedicate their lives to solving the hallowed Drake Equation are wrong, and there are no other civilisations Out There. Someone has to be first, after all. If it’s us, Man, then it might be our role, our responsibility, to spread life across the stars, across the Galaxy, who’s to say otherwise? 

And it’s only the quest for Life, and our desire to understand it, that will take us to Mars. 

Because as much as we like to tell ourselves otherwise, people, The Public, whatever you want to call them, are not excited by, or even interested in, the geology of Mars. Unlike the people who read articles and features on Universe Today, Space.com, UMSF, The Planetary Society blog and all the other space enthusiast-friendly watering holes on the web, they are not excited in the slightest to hear that MRO has taken the highest resolution images yet of craters in the southern highlands. They don’t bat an eyelid at the latest news report describing the Mars Express probe’s latest methane measurements. *** SO WHAT?! *** is the collective response to an announcement that new Themis data suggests Mars was once warmer and wetter than it is now… 

We like to kid ourselves that this isn’t the case, that the Public are as excited by these things as we are, but come on, let’s face it. They’re not. And that’s the truth of it. 

Ah, but even whisper a rumour that Life has been found on a meteorite from Mars, or drop even a hint that a space probe photo shows something artificial on the Red Planet, and boy, do ears prick up! 

Which is why I truly, sincerely believe that there’s only one way we’re going to get people to support a manned mission to Mars – and that’s to make such a mission part of a wider program to search for Life there, and elsewhere in the solar system. 

Forget clouds, people want critters; forget pH levels, people want primitive life-forms; forget mineralogy, people want microbes. 

Thanks to decades of enjoyable but hopelessly over-optimistic science fiction, The Public have “aliens” in their hearts, minds and souls, and there is a fascination with the subject of extraterrestrial life that grows stronger and deeper every year. There are many different camps, of course. While many – most? – are happy to look up on a clear night and, considering the number of stars in and the size of the Universe, and the odds against Man being the only  intelligent species in it, Believe, others believe that aliens buzz the Earth and its inhabitants every day, that the sky is full of cosmic joyriders swooping around in their hot-rod flying saucers with glorious disregard for the world’s air forces and air defence systems, only stopping now and again to either abduct some poor hapless (and, conveniently, always camera-less) truck-driving pig farmer from Idaho, or use the downdraught of their anti-gravity drives to cut breathtaking Mandelbrot set patterns in corn fields. Still others believe that even if the sky is devoid of aliens now, it certainly wasn’t in the past, and that on at least one occasion a UFO crashed, was recovered, and is even now being taken apart, “back-engineered” in the hope of revealing its secrets. You’ll have your own view on that one, I’m sure. 

But why? Why is there this desperate fascination with the existence of aliens? 

Simple. As a species we’re lonely. And we’re scared of the dark. 

Why? Well, ever since we began to realise just how big the Universe is, and how small we are, we’ve had a growing feeling of insecurity and vulnerability. We look out on a clear night and with our naked eyes and can see thousands of stars. A humble pair of binoculars reveals entire other galaxies, vast pinwheels of billions and billions of more stars. Now the Hubble Telescope is taking images showing tens of thousands of galaxies in areas of sky no bigger than a marble held at arm’s length… That’s a lot of space, a lot of stars. It makes us tinier than tiny. If we allowed ourselves to believe that we were the only intelligent creatures in the immensity of the Universe it would drive us mad, so of course we feel lonely, and scared. 

And so we yearn for the company of others. 

We are a social species, Mankind; we want the company of others, it’s bred into us, we’ve evolved that way. Our ancestors didn’t live alone, they didn’t want to, they needed interaction and co-operation so they lived in groups, in families. That hasn’t changed. The building blocks of our civilisation are population centres – towns, cities, etc. And now we know that our “world” stretches out billions of light years in all directions we WANT there to others out there to talk to and interact with, we WANT there to be aliens, we want it SO badly we can taste it. Ideally they’ll be humanoid, with only subtle differences to us – a wrinkled nose here, a pointed ear there – and they’ll speak perfect English (with a West Coast twang) or at least have a handy translator device, so we can talk freely with them and learn all about the secrets of the Universe from our new galactic neighbours. But even if they’re not that familiar, then fine, we still want them around. So what if they’re just transparent globs of gloop drifting aimlessly around in the icy waters beneath Europa’s crust, or mere flaking patches of lichen found underneath a martian rock, or even microscopic bacteria scooped up out of the swirling clouds of Jupiter, they’d be a start, right? Because if there’s gloop, lichen or bacteria here, then surely there must be more advanced life Out There, right? 

And we seem to have a particular obsession with finding Life on Mars. Remember the furore back in ’97, when news broke – prematurely, it turned-out – of the discovery of fossils in a martian meteorite? The world went crazy! The scientists, to be fair, had only been announcing initial results which suggested a possibility of martian life, but as usual the media added two and two to get twenty, and before we knew it every paper’s front page was declaring “We Are Not Alone!” and Bill Clinton really was standing on the White House Lawn – this time without Jodie Foster or James Wood at his side – beaming with pride at how Americans had made the “Greatest Discovery Of All Time”. 

Now, it’s rather calmed down. The last I heard, no-one’s sure either way. But the legacy of that breathless day remains. Ask people on the street, in the bar or in the store if they think there’s life on Mars and it’s a fair bet that they’ll tell you all about the fossils contained within ALH84001 as if the case was proven there on Day 1. As far as they’re concerned, yep, sure there’s life there, it was in the paper after all. 

Which is why, going back to my point, the only way we’re going to get people to support manned exploration of Mars is to focus on the Search For Life there. If we tell people their hard-earned dollars, pounds, Euros or Yen are going to be used to send people to Mars so we can learn more about its weather systems, rock formations or dried-up rivers then they’re not going to want to know. But if we tell them we’re going there to actively look for life, to find out once and for all if there really are “martians”, then they’ll sign up for the ride, I’m sure of it, I really am. 

So we must begin to refocus our Mars exploration efforts towards looking for Life. 

How? 

I believe that we have to make sure that every unmanned mission despatched to Mars from now on has a genuine “Life Quest” element. The MSL rover should ONLY be sent to an area deemed promising for Life – not just to some safe area where it’s not likely to tip over or be distracted by anything interesting – and actively sniff, test and LOOK for Life or its traces. Any future orbiters built should image the crumbling rims of the craters with spy satellite resolution, seeing once and for all just what those mysterious gullies are, and see if there really are “wet and warm oases” on canyon floors as some exobiologists hope. 

And we have to go back in time too. I am so, so tired of reading reports in science magazines and on websites debating whether or not Gil Levin’s Viking lander biology experiments did or did not reveal the existence of microbial life in the martian dust. Enough!! Can’t we have a determined effort to solve that riddle once and for all? Can’t we use our 21st century technology to go back and re-examine the Viking tests, try and figure out just what the hell did cause those spikes on the graphs? I mean, for pity’s sake, we can dig up the bones of Neanderthals and tell what they had for their last breakfast, what colour their hair was, what their favourite TV program was, almost. Instead of wasting time, money and energy fighting rumours that Armstrong and co. never actually walked on the Moon, why can’t NASA go back to those intriguing results and see if they can learn anything new, and stop pretending they never happened? At the very least it would help techs design equipment and procedures for future missions. 

And I’ll tell you something else – I’m sick of the rumours and innuendoes and hints and whispers re the data from Phoenix and organics. I know these things take time, but for frak’s sake, tell us what Phoenix found. 

The chances are that martian life won’t be discovered by a lander, mobile laboratory or an eye in the sky, and all our unmanned missions will just show us where Life isn’t to be found on Mars. Fine. Their failures will just tell us where we have to go and look in person. 

It’s always been that way if we’re honest with ourselves. We just have to admit it, bite that bullet, and focus. Yes, the weather systems, geology and other aspects of Mars are all fascinating in their own right, and to the scientists who study those subjects, but now, today, they are not fascinating to the man or woman in the street. 

So. Deep breath. Where do we go from here? 

Like I said, we – and by “we” I mean NASA, politicians and space advocates such as ourselves – focus, and be honest, with ourselves, each other, and the people who we are asking to pay the bill for our dream. We rein-in all the noble speeches about it being our “destiny to explore” and put on mental hold, if only for a while, our lofty plans for colonisation and terraforming, because until the question of native martian life is solved they’re Not Going To Happen Anyway. We make a case for going to Mars based on one simple thing that everyone can understand – we want an answer to the question that haunts us more than any other: Are We Alone? 

In short, we have to put the adventure back into space exploration by MAKING it an adventure. Why, 40 years later, are the public still fascinated and excited by Apollo? Simple: the Apollo missions each WENT somewhere, DID something, brought stuff BACK and we all felt a PART of it. The Apollo program filled the watching world – at a time when the world was falling apart – with wonder.  

Today, four decades after Armstrong walked on the Moon, we’ve lost the wonder of going into space. Actually, “going into space” today just means Going to and from the space station, and whether that’s done in a shuttle or a capsule it is seen (wrongly) by the public as boring, mundane, routine. The case for returning to the Moon hasn’t been made by NASA, people out here just aren’t into it. A manned mission to an asteroid? Zzzzzzzzzzzz. 

Ah, but a mission to Mars, to look for life..? That’s a whole different ball game. 

So. It’s time. Time to stop delaying, and reviewing, and frakking about. It’s time to stop being timid, to playing safe, and grow a pair. It’s time to say: 

“We choose to go to Mars… we choose to go to Mars, to send our bravest, brightest men and women far from the blue Earth, across the solar system to the Red Planet, to look for the answer to the most important question faced by Mankind: are we alone?” 

So say we all?

One giant leap – for Google…

If you’re a user of “Google Earth” – the application from Google that lets you explore an online, high-resolution map of Earth – you’ve probably used it to explore the surface of Mars, too, and maybe even used it to have a look around the night sky as well. It’s a brilliant, useful and very addictive part of Google’s growing online empire.

Well, today, Google has announced the next stage in the evolution of Google Earth: you can now access, from Google Earth’s planet tab (the one at the top with the little picture of Saturn on it), a high resolution model of the Moon! That would be pretty good in its own right, but that’s not the end of it, oh no. Google has incorporated a lot of Apollo imagery, maps and information in its latest update, which allows you to essentially walk around the Apollo landing sites, following in the footsteps of the astronauts who travelled there between 1969 and 1972.

Here’s what the Apollo 11 landing site looks like when you zoom in on it using the new “Moon” option…

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By using the tilt and pan control you can manipulate the view and explore the landing site from different angles, elevations and viewpoints, like this…

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Not only that, but Google are incorporating into their Moon model realistic 3D terrain maps of the surface AND the images taken by the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter. That means you can really wander around the Apollo landing sites like a 22nd century sightseer, and enjoy gorgeous, unashamedly touristy views like this

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Well, thank you VERY much Google. I’ll NEVER get any work done now…! 😉

Wow… I’m on ALSJ!

I know NASA’s kept it quiet, and I’ve hardly mentioned it at all, but today is the 40th anniversary of the landing of Apollo 11 on the Moon. No, really, it is! 😉

… so I’m unbelievably chuffed, and proud, that on this very special day, when Apollo is everywhere, the prestigious “Apollo Lunar Surface Journal” has used my ‘Armstrong on the Moon’ mock-up portraits.

You can see them by going here http://history.nasa.gov/alsj/frame.html and clicking on the “Fun Stuff” link down at the bottom of the column of links on the left hand side…

ALSJ

Here’s one of the pictures they use. I know I’ve posted it before, but hey, if I can’t post it again today of all days there’s something seriously wrong! 🙂

Armstrong on Moon-Full Moon col s

Apollo revisited…

e to m

I bet many of you were expecting a breathless “Wow! Look at these!” post from me moments after the LRO images of the Apollo landing sites were revealed on Friday, eh? Well, it was a crazy day – what with work, then a funeral, and then an Outreach talk here in Kendal that night (which went very well, thank you to everyone who came along), I didn’t really have time, to be honest. And also, I wanted to pull my thoughts together and write something a little more – well, not meaningful, but considered and personal, you know?

 But now, a couple of days after, things have calmed down a little and I obviously feel the need to comment on the amazing things NASA has shown us in the past couple of days – retouched video footage of the Apollo 11 moonwalk, and images of the Apollo landing sites taken by the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter.

I must admit I was looking forward to the release of the “enhanced Apollo 11 footage” so much I had gotten myself so excited – almost giddy – that I felt like a fat kid locked overnight in a sweet shop. A few months ago, waiting for the images to appear would have involved sitting here and constantly refreshing the NASA homepage until the news release appeared. But times have changed; I have come to realise, as I think a lot of space enthusiasts have, that Twitter is the best way to keep on top of space stories, because NASA and several other space-related agencies/companies/individuals post updates, alerts and press releases on there as fast as they can. So, here I sat, keeping a close eye on my Twitter page instead, waiting for the heavily-hyped “new footage” to be posted by NASA. When the notification came in that the footage was online I almost let out a silly yelp of delight! If the reports and rumours were right, then finally I was going to get to see Apollo 11’s moonwalk in startling detail! Hey! Maybe I’d see Armstrong’s face in the visor as he descended The Ladder and stepped onto the surface too?!? Lemme see, lemme see..!

<click> ( watches video clips… )

Ok… hmmm… that’s not quite as good as I expected, to be honest.

And, being totally honest, I was a bit disappointed at first. What had been knuckle-gnawingly grainy and blurry footage was now… well.. slightly less grainy and blurry. It was undoubtedly clearer, but, hand on my heart, the enhanced footage of Armstrong making his way down the ladder left me unmoved. We had gone from this…

1

… to this…

1b

… which is a some improvement, definitely, but hardly jaw-dropping, to be honest. So yes, I was a little underwhelmed by that.

Then I saw the final clip, the footage of Armstrong and Aldrin setting up the flag, and my heart leapt. NOW we’re talking! We’ve only ever had this…

2

… and now we have this…

3

Now that’s a BIG improvement. I was a lot happier with that! And the good news is that the whole Apollo 11 moonwalk will have been reprocessed and retouched and enhanced within a couple of months and then we’ll see some really impressive stuff! 🙂

Something “interesting” came out at the media press conference held to herald the release of the “new Apollo footage”. It’s a very complicated story, and one that many people are very uncomfortable with and embarrassed about, but essentially it turns out that the original data tapes used to record and then store the Apollo 11 moonwalk on were later… um… erased, and effectively recycled, and used to store data of something else on. I know, I know, I shook my head in disbelief too, and believe me, I was all fired up to write a long, rambling, angry post about this monumental cock-up, but I think it speaks for itself. All I’ll say is this: taping over an episode of DR WHO – bad. Taping MATCH OF THE DAY over your wedding video – very bad. Erasing original footage of Mankind’s first ever expedition to another world – priceless.

I just hope that when the re-processing of thisApollo footage is completed, the film company doesn’t hand over the original master copies to NASA. If they do, then someone is bound to tape FAMILY GUY or LOST over them… 😉

But as impressive as it was, the enhanced footage of the Apollo 11 EVA was really just the warm up act for the Big One – the release of images of the Apollo landing sites taken by NASA’s recently-arrived Lunar Reconaissance Orbiter, or LRO.

In recent momths the speculation about these images has reached fever pitch, as people wonderde just how detailed they would be. There was a lot of hype and over-optimism. While people In The Know warned that the height of LRO and the resolvig power of its camera meant that the images would only show the descent stages of the lunar modules – and some of the scientific packages left on the Moon by the astronauts – as mere knots and clusters of pixels, other people enthusiastically predicted that we’d clearly see the lunar rovers and even the flags, too! I was pretty sure it was going to be the former, but of course I was secretly hoping that we’d see a little more than that… 😉

On the day of the release, last Friday, the schedule was pretty clear. NASA would release the images to the world at mid-day my time, and two hours later there would be a press conference for the media, at which experts would talk about the images and explain what they were showing. Because I was giving an outreach talk on Friday evening I knew I’d miss the conference, but thankfully I was going to be home at the time the images were released, so after getting back from work I settled myself down in front of the computer, logged on to Twitter, and waited.

As mid-day approached there was no sign of any Tweets alerting me that the images had been released, so I wandered back to my real online home, unmannedspaceflight.com, to hang out there and wait with my fellow UMSFers for the images to come in. I knew that, in this case, UMSF would be a safe bet for hearing about the images as soon as they hit the net because many of its members are absolutely rabid Apollo fans, and if anyone was going to track down the images, they were!

And I was right. At 12.10 my time, with no sign of anything official from NASA yet, UMSF member Phil Stooke, a hugely-respected planetary cartographer and image expert, posted a link to a story on Spaceref.com, which had the first LRO Apollo landing site image. It was only small, and tucked away down at the bottom, but there it was…!

1st glimpse SpaceRef

Yes, there it was… Tranquility Base, seen from above, four decades after Eagle landed there and Mankind became, albeit briefly, a multi-planet species. Ten minutes later UMSF member Paolo alerted everyone that NASA had officially released the LRO images, and they were up on a NASA website. I clicked, and found myself staring at this…

apollo sites official 1

Wow… wow… look at that! FOUR Apollo landing sites seen by LRO! And not only were the descent stages and their shadows clearly visible, but looking at the Apollo 17 image you couldn’t help thinking “Are those dark lines on the surface the tracks of the astronauts..?” Surely not, surely that was wishful thinking…

But no. It was real. And when the Apollo 14 landing site LRO image was posted, then things really kicked off…

LRO ap 14

That clinched it, it was there for everyone to see: the tracks of the moonwalking astronauts were definitely, 1000% there leading away from the lunar module. LRO had done it. It had shown us Apollo hardware – and the unmistakeable signs of human activity – on the Moon.

I must admit I was a little lost for words for a few moments. I’ve waited a long, long time to see those pictures, and finally I had them, on my screen, in my computer, and printing off on sheets of A4 beside me. “Historic” is a grossly over-used word, but these images truly are historic. They document nothing less than our species’ first tentative toes-in-the-water steps out into the universe.

I returned to the Apollo 11 image, wanting to relish every pixel. I also wanted to print out a good quality hard copy to put in a frame and take along to my outreach talk a couple of hours later. Here’s the official NASA image…

369440main_lroc_apollo11_lrg

I had to do a zoom-in and tweak it a bit, didn’t I? When I did, I got this…

lro a11 2 mine2

You can clearly see the Eagle’s descent stage dead centre, to the left of a small crater which is as far as Armstrong walked during his EVA. Beyond that small crater, to its right, you can also clearly see the much larger crater, surrounded by huge, scary-looking boulders. That’s the famous crater and boulder field that Armstrong had to steer Eagle away from during its descent. When you’re flying a spaceship with a hull barely thicker than a sheet of cooking foil the last thing you want to do is to come down on a boulder three times larger than you are…

While I was drooling over the Apollo 11 image, the members of UMSF who are good – no, great – at this kind of thing were busy working their magic on the LRO images, bringing out details not immediately obvious in them and also identifying features and landmarks on them. Space archaeology happening live, before my very eyes!

Scouring the image of the Apollo 16 landing site, “Charborob” managed to identify the location of “House Rock”, a huge boulder visited and studied by the astronauts. Here’s his crop of the image:

House_rock charborob

And here’s a screengrab from the Apollo 16 mission, showing House Rock and the astronauts beside it… look at the size of that thing…!

A16_House_Rock

Meanwhile, Phil Stooke had been busy slaving away over the Apollo 17 landing site image, and had found the famous huge “Split Boulder” shown in this iconic Apollo image…

split rock

Phil’s detective work turned up this view of the famous boulder(s) on the Apollo 17 LRO image…

lroc_A17_Station_6 P Stooke

You can’t see any traces of astronaut footprints, but that’s still impressive work! 🙂

UMSF member Ian Regan was also having a field day, comparing the LRO images with frames he had grabbed from looking-down-thru-the-window camera taken from the lunar modules as they blasted off from the Moon’s surface at the end of their stays. This allowed him to match up features on the images and identify them. Here’s what he did for Apollo 15 (top =LRO, bottom = frame from onboard footage):

 IanR A15

See those two arrows? The larger one is pointing to the lunar module’s descent stage. The smaller one, to the left is pointing to what Ian is pretty sure is a large piece of insulation material that blew off and away from the descent stage as the ascent stage lifted off. You can see it flapping and spinning away from the descent stage very clearly in the film taken at the time. Isn’t that amazing?!

Ian is also confident he’s identified the locations of three of the lunar rovers! They’re circled in red on this picture…

LRVlro IanR 

But it was the LRO image of the Apollo 14 landing site that was attracting the most attention on UMSF, and, by then, on Twitter and across the rest of the internet too. Because it clearly showed not just Apollo hardware, but dark lines, tracks, connecting and meandering between them…

LRO ap 14

Now that made me sit up and take notice, especially when Phil Stooke worked his magic and not just enhanced the image but labelled the things visible on it…

apollo14_lroc_annotated_post P Stooke

What do all those letters mean? Well, ALSEP stands for “Apollo Lunar Surface Experiment Package”, and basically every Apollo mission deployed an ALSEP on the Moon. Here’s Apollo 14’s ALSEP seen on the surface:

AS14 ALSEP

LRRR? What’s that? Ah, that stands for “Lunar Ranging Retroreflector”, and it’s one of the famous boxes covered in reflective panels deployed by the astronauts to allow scientists back on Earth to measure the distance to the Moon by bouncing laser beams off them. Here’s Apollo 14’s LRRR just after it was deployed…

A14 LRRRb

Between the lunar module and the science packages you’ll see a mark labelled “Turtle Rock”. This is a large rock visited by the moonwalking astronauts as they explored their landing site. Here’s how it looked to the astronauts:

a14_turtle rock

They’re all great catches, and show just how amazing the LRO images are. But the most important feature on the Apollo 14 LRO image is the scuffed-up ground connecting all the various rocks, science packages and craters… because those are tracks made in the lunar dust by the astronauts as they bounced and bounded across the surface during their moonwalk.

UMSF member jekbradbury cropped and enhanced the LRO image to show the astronauts’ tracks more clearly…

apollo14enhanced2 jekbradbury jpg b

In fact, they’re not just tracks made by the bootys of Alan Shepherd and Stuart Roosa, they’re wheel tracks, too. Apollo 14 didn’t carry a lunar rover – the three missions that followed did – so to help them transport their equipment around the landing site, and bring their heavy rock samples back to the lunar module, the astronauts used a small, two-wheeled cart called the “Modularised Equipment Transporter”,or MET for short (oh, how NASA loves its acronyms!). Here’s an image of the MET on the surface…

MET 2

You’re right – it’s basically a fancy wheelbarrow, stuffed full of Apollo kit. So, the LRO Apollo 14 image doesn’t just show the astronauts’ tracks, but also the wheel tracks of the MET.

But that makes this image – for me, at least – easily the second most thrilling LRO / landing site image after the Tranquility Base portrait, because it shows unmistakeable signs of human activity on the Moon. It is Important. I’d even compare it, in terms of importance and historical significance, to the trail of footprints left by our distant ancestors at Laetoli, Tanzania, preserved for the last 3.6 million years…

footprints-big

Here’s a lovely shot of the wheel tracks of Apollo 14’s MET, shining in the sunlight…

MET tracks 

But back to The Image, that picture of the Apollo 11 landing site, the one we’ve waited to see for so, so long. That image is as important as… actually, I can’t think of one historical image that matches it. If Columbus had taken a picture of land on the horizon as he sighted the New World, that would have been an equivalent, perhaps? If Galileo had pointed a camera into the eyepiece of his telescope as he peered at the Moon and Jupiter for the first time, capturing that historic view, that might have been as important. But obviously we missed those photo opportunities! No. The LRO image of the Apollo 11 landing site is absolutely unique, because even if the images taken by LRO of the same site in the future are of better resolution – which we’re assured they will be – there will only ever be one First Photo of Tranquility Base from orbit, and this is it…

lro a11 2 mine2

I showed the LRO pictures at my outreach talk on Friday night, and most – I can’t honestly say all – of the people there were very impressed. The print out of the LRO image I put in a frame was handed around, and looked at appreciatively, and several people there were genuinely impressed and moved by the sight of Eagle’s descent stage sitting there, on the Moon, 40 years after its crew blasted off back for home.

Looking at that image I can’t help wondering… what would it look like if we were actually standing there, on the Moon? Well, it would look a lot like this…

A16 a11

 That’s the descent stage of the Apollo 16 lunar module, “Orion”. I’ve tweaked it a bit, but it’s a real picture. And the descent stage of Eagle, Apollo 11’s lunar module, will look exactly like that right now. Of course, there’d be some impiortant and historic pieces of equipment and Apollo artefacts scattered around it – the ground beneath the descent stage would be littered with discarded cannisters, containers and even bags of urine dumped out of the module before blast off. The famous flag would be there too, but probably lying on the ground, not standing up – footage taken during the Eagle’s ascent clearly show the flag being battered brutally by the downblast of the engine, and if it didn’t fall over completely the chances are it was left bent over at a crazy angle. There’d also be the Apollo 11 ALSEP and the tv camera Armstrong erected, too. Doug Ellison, the merciless ruler of unmannedspaceflight.com worked his computer magic to show what is where at Tranquility Base…

doug 1

 And that’s not just a map, oh no. Doug has simulated LRO’s view of the Apollo 11 landing site, with the lighting angle and orientation and everything else portrayed accurately, so what you’re seeing there is exactly what LRO saw, and what the image actually shows, too. Compare the two at a similar scale and you get…

 doug vs lro

How stunning is that? When I look at the two side by side, I can almost convince myself I can see structure within the LM’s shadow… almost! There’s no sign of the flag or tv camera or ALSEP, I don’t think… I can’t see them anyway… but maybe when LRO’s orbit drops, and it rephotographs the landing site at much better resolution they’ll pop into view. I hope so. But even if they don’t, we already have this fantastic image to treasure.

Seeing the new footage, and the LRO image, and following all these Apollo celebrations has put me in two minds, to be honest. I’m in a bit of turmoil here. Part of me wants to join in the party, to put on a silly hat, grab a can of beer and celebrate, rejoice at the incredible achievements of Apollo and honour not just Armstrong, Aldrin and Collins but all the tens – hundreds? – of thousands of people who stood behind them; the technicians, engineers, programmers and everyone else who enlisted or were drafted into the Silent Army of Apollo, the men and women who pushed that might Saturn V – and all the others – into orbit and beyond with the sheer power of their belief, dedication and passion…

… then there’s the other part of me, the spacesuited devil on my other shoulder that wants to scream “Noooo!!! You fools!!!” at my entire species for being so timid, so apathetic and so short-sighted. I’m so mad at Mankind because, after centuries of looking longingly and fearfully at the stars, we found the courage to leave home and reach the Moon, only to run home again with our tails between our legs, frightened by the immensity of the universe we suddenly found ourselves in, terrified by the emptiness we felt all around us Out There.

Goddamnit, I’m so mad at us that I wish I was “Q” from Star Trek: The Next Generation, then I would put Mankind on trial, before a jury of our baffled and ashamed descendants, and force us to defend charges of cowardice, timidity and apathy in the face of our destiny. I’d sit in that great Q throne, a sneer on my face, and, leaning forward contemptuously, say: “I put it to you, Humanity, that for a brief, shining, golden moment in the 20th century, you pulled yourselves up to your full height, stared the cosmos straight in the eye and said ‘Bring it on…’ … and then turned tail and fled, to huddle in the corner of your cave, hiding from the stars once again… How do you plead?”

Because we really shot ourselves in the foot with Apollo, didn’t we? We should have had a permanently-manned Moonbase by now. We should have had a scientific outpost on Mars too, where scientists from different countries would be working together to look for signs of life, past or present, on the Red Planet. We should have had not just one but several space stations, and regular and easy access to and between them via spaceplanes. Jeez, I should be sitting here, writing this, and be able to look up from my monitor and see a framed print of Christa McAuliffe posing beside Eagle’s descent stage – standing on the special transparent platform that covers the entire landing site, protecting Armstrong and Aldrin’s footprints – conducting the first teacher’s lesson from the surface of the Moon. And I should be able to go to YouTube and see footage of Miles O’Brien looking over the edge of Hadley Rille, shaking his head in disbelief and wonder…

How do you plead?

Guilty as charged, M’lud Q.

Ok, calm down. Take a deep breath. It’s been a crazy couple of days, hasn’t it?

What do these images actually mean? Well, the bottom line is, that’s it. See? Right there. The proof is there now. We have pictures of hardware and can even see tracks and trails of spacesuit boot-disturbed dust between them. As far as I’m concerned the game is over, and has been won. The people who believe the Moon landings were all a hox, and were faked, can now either accept that, and rejoin the rest of us here in the real world, or they can continue to don their silver foil hats and run around flapping their arms like crack-addicted chickens, insisting that they’re the only people in the world who know the truth. It’s their choice, plain and simple.

So, thank you NASA, and thank you LRO team. I used to try and reason with people who raised the Hoax issue during my Outreach talks here in the UK, you know, go through… again… the reasons why you can’t see stars in the sky above the moonwalking astronauts, explain yet again why the flag looks like that on the pics, but now, naaah, frak it, I’m just not going to bother anymore. From now on, each time I give an Outreach talk I’m going to take along some prints of these LRO pics, and if anyone suggests Apollo was fake I’m going to stop my talk, reach into my bag, pull out the pics, walk right up to them in the audience and hand them a picture, in front of everyone, and leave it at that.

I am a defender of free speech, but I’m not a defender of absolute bloody stupidity, especially when it infects and corrupts the minds and free-thinking of other people who read the web pages and blog posts of Apollo hoax believers and, mistakenly, assume they have a frakking clue what they’re on about.

So, at the risk of offending some people, for which I apologise in advance, I’m going to say what many… most… of you are thinking…

Moon Hoax Believers – STFU!!!!!

And if, having read this, any HBs out there have taken offence and are preparing to fire back a flaming, angry response, I’ll save you some time. I know exactly what you’re going to say, and trust me, I don’t care. You’ve lost. The argument has moved on. You guys are like the last few remaining dinosaurs which survived after the asteroid stuck: your world has changed, gone forever, and you can howl and roar at the sky in defiance and denial as much as you like, it doesn’t change the fact that the flames of reason are coming closer and closer and will soon engulf you, rendering you extinct. So, flame away. I will quickly skim your responses, laugh quietly, shake my head, and then go back to updating all my schools and community Outreach talks by inserting the LRO pics into the “Moon” sections of my Powerpoint presentations. Because soon I’ll stand up in front of a classroom of 7 and 8 year old kids, or a drafty church hall full of retired farmers, or a library full of young families, and show them just what we achieved when we dared to reach for the stars all those years ago.

And maybe, just maybe, having seen these LRO images of Tranquility Base, some of those people will look up at the sky as they leave my talk, and smile.