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MINTFEST!

Big weekend in Kendal, as the streets, parks and arts centres are taken over by performance artists, musicians and the like. You can’t move for funny costumes, face paint and balloons!

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Here are some pictures I took over the weekend…

And before anyone says anything I know this has nothing to do with astronomy, but hey, it’s my blog, I can write about whatever I like! 🙂

Welcome to The 118th Carnival of Space!

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Welcome to Carnival of Space #118, here at CUMBRIAN SKY! This is my first time hosting the Carnival, so a huge THANK YOU to Fraser, for letting me join the exclusive club of blogs lucky enough to have hosted what has to be the biggest and best weekly collection of space and astronomy writing on the net! 🙂 If you’ve visited my blog before you’ll know all about it, and me, already. If this is your first visit then welcome to the online home of a self-confessed amateur astronomy nut, spaceflight enthusiast, astropoet and frustrated martian! I live in Kendal, beautiful and historic birthplace of the famous astronomer Sir Arthur Eddington. The astronomical society of Kendal – unsurprisingly named “The Eddington Astronomical Society”! – is currently holding a big exhibition of astronomy pictures, exhibits and attractions in our town’s fantastic museum, so if you’re in or coming to the area I hope you’ll call in and take a look at “Our Amazing Universe!”

Ok, shameless plug over, let’s get on with this week’s Carnival! 

By the way, in the hope of prompting our favourite sleepy head space probe, the Mars Reconaissance Orbiter, to wake up – at the time of writing it’s gone into Safe Mode again – I’m going to scatter some of my crops and colourisations of MRO images through the Carnival. They are all  real MRO pics of real places on Mars, I’ve just enhanced/tweaked/messed about with them, to make them more artistic, and to bring out what I see to be the true beauty of that magnificent world. So no, they’re not meant to be 1000% accurate in terms of colour, ok? They’re just unashamedly pretty pictures, and I’m hoping they’ll inspire first time Carnival visitors to spend some time browsing the galleries of stunning images at the MRO site, and get MRO some of the love it deserves while it’s feeling poorly. There will be a few non-MRO pics too. Click on any pic to bring up a larger version.

First up we have Lounge of the Lab Lemming’s report on yet more definition funny business from the IAU. Thankfully it’s a spoof report – although reading it I could easily imagine “The Big Bang Theory”‘s Sheldon taking it totally seriously, and I have to admit that I’m worried about someone in the IAU reading it and thinking “Actually, that’s not a bad idea…” after what they did to Pluto…

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Next we have “Finding The Fractals“, in which Twisted Physics’ Jennifer Ouellette points us all towards a fascinating new website where you can design your own fractal patterns Not sure what fractals are? Jennifer’s post will reveal all, but I absolutely love this line: “If a hurricane is a chaotic system, then the wreckage strewn in its path is its fractal pattern”… 🙂

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Walk on around the Carnival with me now and you’ll see we’ve come to Nancy Atkinson’s post for Universe Today. “UT”, as it is fondly known by its legions of readers, is always excellent, and is now required daily (sometimes hourly! Nancy is so prolific!) reading. And no, I’m not just saying that ‘cos we share surname! We’ve all drooled over the breathtaking images sent back by Cassini, Spirit and Opportunity and, more recent, LRO, but how many of us have ever stopped and wondered just how those fragile metal butterflies flit from Earth to their destinations so accurately? Nancy’s post for this week’s Carnival looks at how robotic spacecraft get to a specific and precise destination, and sings about the unsung heroes who make space missions possible.

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The space enthusiast community on the internet is a pretty wild place. There are many sites that leave you exhausted after visiting them, they’re so busy, frantic and angst-ridden. There are, however, a few oases of calm here and there, and one of them is Emily Lakdawalla’s Planetary Society blog. Emily covers all the major astronomical and space exploration stories on her blog, which is read by countless thousands of people worldwide. This week Emily’s post for the Carnival of Space concerns “WISE“, the Wide-field Infrared Survey Explorer, a NASA mission you’ve probably not even heard of, that could turn out to be very significant indeed. Why? Well, as Emily explains: “It’s similar to past all-sky survey missions like COBE (the Cosmic Background Explorer, whose DIRBE instrument imaged the whole sky in near-infrared wavelengths) and IRAS (the Infrared Astronomical Satellite, which imaged the whole sky in mid-infrared wavelengths). However, WISE has hundreds of times the sensitivity of IRAS, and a whopping 500,000 ties the sensitivity of COBE DIRBE.” Definitely a mission to watch, and I’m sure Emily will continue to keep us informed on its progress via her blog.

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In her Chandra Blog, astronomer Kimberley Kowal Arcand celebrates the 10 year anniversary of the release of the historic “1st Light” image by Chandra orbiting observatory, showing the supernova remnant Cassiopeia A.

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Astronomy can be an expensive hobby – big telescopes can cost many thousands, and it’s easy to become obsessed with buying the latest and greatest solar filters, GoTo drives and software – but it can be an inexpensive hobby too. This week’s offering from the Cheap Astronomy blog (ha! did you see what I did there! 🙂 ) of Steve Nerlich is a great podcast looking at space advocacy. Will aliens laugh at our jokes? Listen to the podcast and find out…

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Astronomers usually gather in fields, parks and schoolyards, but you can sometimes find them on street corners too… and on the Steve’s Astrocorner blog (ok, ok, I’ll stop it now!) you can read a “OK What Gives? Is It Meteoroids , Meteors or Meteorites?”, which does a great job clarifying the difference between the familiar terms – which many, many people STILL mix and get confused by. ( I’m going to bookmark this post and have it on hand, ready to send to any of my children’s science book editors who ask me about this, it will save me a LOT of time!)

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Walking on around the Carnival we now come to collectSPACE‘s post looking at the story behind how mission patches for the current shuttle mission up to the ISS have – ahem – soared, for different reasons, becoming instant collectors items. The first mission patch turned out to have an error in its design – you’ll have to read the post for yourself to see what it was – which made it very collectable, like a wrongly-printed stamp or bank note. The second patch celebrates the delivery of a treadmill to the ISS. Yes, you read that right, a treadmill. Why all the fuss? Well, unless you’ve been living in a pit on Mars for the past year you’ll know that the COLBERT treadmill wasn’t going to be called that originally, of course, but following that historic vote to name an ISS module, which fans of The Late Show’s Stephen Colbert won, NASA had to find something to name after the comedy show’s star, so they christened the treadmill after him. Quick thinking NASA! (but they are still the winners of this week’s prestigious “D’oh!” award)

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Astroengine is always a good read, and this week, in his post “ ‘Knowing’ how solar flares DON’T work!” our clearly frustrated astroengineer Ian O’Neill takes a post movie-viewing look at the fact – and the fiction – behind solar flares, and in doing so very generously guarantees all his readers sleepless nights by describing exactly what would actually happen if a major solar flare hit us. The good news is Hollywood has got it totally wrong. The bad news is, if it happened, the consequences would be far worse than even Hollywood could imagine… 

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Ah, here we are at the Centauri Dreams blog of Paul Gilster. You’ll like this, I promise you. “Building Infrastructure: The Tether Option” discusses space tethers and their many uses, from raising satellite orbits to interplanetary propulsion and still more exotic possibilities. The article reviews Michel Van Pelt’s new book on space tethers and discusses how they could even be used to deliver cargo from space directly to the surface of the Moon. I’ve been fascinated by space elevators ever since reading Kim Stanley Robinson’s “Mars” trilogy, so I really enjoyed this post.

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If you are into astronomy, have a computer and an internet connection, it’s now The Law that you have to read Phil Plait’s “Bad Astronomer” blog, everyone knows that. This week Phil shares with the world his joy at finally receiving his Galileoscope in a detailed look at the instrument, how it works, and what can be seen through it – which, surprisingly, turns out to be “a lot!” Galileoscopes are a great, fun idea for IYA2009, and I’m sure they’ll both help to introduce a lot of new people to the wonders of the night sky, and maybe remind a few weary old timers why they fell in love with the night sky in the first place… I’m afraid Phil doesn’t get an award this week, because frankly having him here on my blog makes me feel all “I’m not worthy! I’m not worthy!” like Wayne, so I’d be too embarrassed to go over and give him anything…! 😉

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Adam Crowl’s Crowlspace blog always has something interesting to read, and this week his contribution to the Carnival is a fascinating 2 part look at some of the science behind well known worlds from science and fantasy fiction, particularly the location of a solar system’s habitable zone for differing degrees of wetness.  As a huge fan of anything exoplanety (not a real word, I know, but hey, it fits) I found this a great read, and you will too by going here:  Part 1   Part 2

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I mean absolutely no offence whatsoever when I say that Bruce Cordell’s blog 21st Century Waves often leaves me scratching my head. Reading this blog always leaves me feeling a) very, very impatient for the future to arrive, and b) like I’ve been smacked in the head by a time machine, because it looks at the future in fascinating ways in posts that I sometimes have to read a few times before a hand comes out of the screen, slaps me, and I suddenly “get it”. “Kepler, Carl Sagan, and the Guzman Prize — Our Century-Long Search for Space Aliens” deals with the – as yet under-appreciated – significance and promise of the Kepler mission. I honestly can’t think of a soundbite way to do justice to this blog or this post, so I’ll just promise you that 21st Century Waves is never less than an absolutely fascinating read, and urge you to go take a look for yourself.

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Weird Warp is a new blog to me, in that I don’t recall seeing it in the Carnival before, so welcome! (and if I’m wrong, welcome back!) I had a quick browse thru the archives while putting this CoS together and there really is some fascinating reading here, and this week’s Carnival post “Nuclear fusion and its future uses in spacecraft” is no exception. There’s a lot of talk about how nuclear propulsion is The Way Forward for space exploration, but what’s the reality behind this? Read this post and find out!

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For this week’s Carnival, Mang’s Bat Page (and no, I’m not going to explain why the blog is called that;  it’s almost a legal requirement that every visitor to the Carnival has to find that out from the blog itself!) brings another update on efforts to preserve the David Dunlap Observatory and surrounding lands, and asks you to sign a petition. Care about astronomy and the night sky? Read up on this observatory and the campaign to save it.

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The AART scope blog is another new one to me, but I was happy to find Peter Lake’s contribution to this week’s Carnival in my in-box because, as a dedicated observer,  it’s always nice to read about someone actually looking at something in the sky! Peter tells us in his post how excited comet watchers have been following with interest the prospects of Comet 217/P – Linear

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These are – to say the least – “interesting times” for NASA, what with the Ares X1 test fast approaching and the Augustine Commission revealing to the world what we space enthusiasts already knew – that NASA hasn’t got enough money to send astronauts any further than the airlock of the space station. In his thought-provoking post at The Next Big Future blog, Brian Wang provides us with a timely round-up of all the recent net reports regarding how the Russian Space Agency and Nasa try to drum up bigger budgets with Mars talk. Reality seems to be no budget increases and using private companies like SpaceX. (if SpaceX can deliver on its cheaper development path). I find all this very depressing, thinking that unless some more money is given to NASA astronauts are going to be exiled in LEO for the foreseeable future. Western astronauts, that is. I’m sure the Chinese and Indian space agencies have other plans.

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For this week’s Carnival, CC Peterson, who writes at The Spacewriter’s Ramblings,  brings us the story of how “Plutokiller” (oh, I think he might regret giving himself that Twitter nickname in years to come!) Mike Brown figured out that there’s methane fog on Titan. It’s a heck of a thing to imagine standing on Titan’s surface with wisps of methane fog swirling around you. It’s a wonderful story, and with all that mist drifting about it sounds like Titan will be a great, mega-spooky place to spend Halloween in years to come! (Award: the feathered quill  award“Most poetic post title of the week”)

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How many times a week – a day? – do you ask yourself “Why aren’t we back on the Moon yet? Why aren’t we on Mars? Where’s my rotating space station V?” Why haven’t we begun to live properly in, let alone conquer, space? Habitation Intentions’ Daniel Sims wonders if the education system might be at fault. Read why in this intriguing and extremely well-argued post. I only found this blog a few weeks ago but it’s essential reading now.

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“Twinkle twinkle little star” is a lovely nursery rhyme, of course, and when you think about it, hearing that song for the first time is probably everyone’s first real brush with the world of astronomy. But the truth behind that well-loved song is that ‘twinkling’ is just another word for ‘distortion’ to an astronomer. How do modern ground-based telescopes and their users get around that distortion? In her entertaining and informative contribution to this week’s Carnival, Astropixie Amanda Bauer tells us what it’s like to observe from Mauna Kea, seeing the giant laser shooting into the sky from the Gemini telescope, and explains how the laser is used by adaptive optics to improve image sharpness. Reading this post made everything much,um, clearer..! (sorry, couldn’t resist it!)

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Over at Commercial Space, Chuck Black compares NASA to General Motors, suggesting, sadly, that NASA no longer has “the Right Stuff” and predicting that the future of manned space exploration may well belong to private companies and entrepreneurs. Chuck’s award – an Oliver Twist-style begging bowl with “Please Sir, we want some more” inscribed on it, very useful for meetings at the White House…

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Finally, wrapping up the Carnival this week – and illustrating perfectly how the Carnival of Space has grown into a truly international event, open to and enjoyed by people from countries all around the world – Malaysian astronomer Teoh Hui Chieh swoons – as I and many others did – over an image of Erlanger Crater returned by LRO. The image is just breathtaking, a ring of light against a black velvet darkness, but it’s not just jaw-droppingly dramatic, it increases the chances that there might actually be deposits of ice on the floors of deep lunar craters, for future generations of lunar explorers and settlers to use. I’m not going to post the image here, I want that treat to be your reward for visiting Teoh’s excellent blog, My Dark Sky.

UPDATE: Apologies to Ian Musgrave for not including his “Nibiru it is not” post from his Astroblogger blog. Ian’s Carnival offering this week is an enlightening piece explaining that an image from Google Sky which is claimed to show the fantasy doom planet ‘Nibiru’ is something completely different, something even more fascinating perhaps. Great bit of detective work there Ian, and for that you get the “Shelock Holmes puffing pipe” award!

Well, that’s all folks! CUMBRIAN SKY is proud to have been your host this week and hope you’ve enjoyed all the entries.  Thanks to all the contributors for this week’s entries, and for all their blogging, week after week. Blogs are often dismissed in the traditional media as the worthless witterings of self-promoting web geeks, but at a time when the very same mainstream media is dumbing down, and placing more and more importance on reporting celebrity break-ups and scandals, it’s clear that the responsibility for reporting on and explaining science news has been taken over by bloggers, so everyone featured in the Carnival deserves praise for taking the time and trouble to do that.

Ok, I’m done, time to take down the Carnival tents, pack away the stalls and give the field back to the farmer. Next week the Carnival of Space moves on to another blog – I’ll see you all there!

Carnival of Space #117…

… is now online here… http://simostronomy.blogspot.com/2009/08/carnival-of-space-117-on-simostronomy.html … so get yourself on over to SIMOSTRONOMY and enjoy catching up on the best of the past week’s space and astronomy blogging! 🙂

Shuttle launch scrubbed… :-(

So, after working a double shift yesterday, and getting to bed at stupid o’clock I got up at ridiculous o’clock this morning, looking forward to seeing a rare, night-time launch of the space shuttle, only to find out half an hour later that the launch wasn’t going to go ahead because of bad weather.

Grrr.

Try again tomorrow morning.

Eddington AS “Sunwatch” a success!

You see? You see??! Have faith, everyone! The weather forecast was pretty poor for our Sunwatch, but in the end everything worked out fine! 🙂

The past few days the weather had been pretty poor, and the forecast for Saturday afternoon suggested we had about as much chance of seeing the Sun as there was of never seeing Katie Price or Peter Andre in The Sun again. But Saturday morning dawned bright and fresh, with lots of blue sky and a dazzlingly-bright Sun, so I was pretty confident we’d see something.

BBC Radio Cumbria’s Val Armstrong rang me for an on-air chat at 10am, which was, as always, great fun, and allowed me to plug the “Our Amazing Universe!” exhibition as well as promote the “Sunwatch”, so by the time 1pm came around, and there was still more blue sky than cloud, I was pretty sure our Sunwatch event would not be thwarted. However…

A quick look at the website  I use for keeping an eye on activity on the Sun showed that there wasn’t a single sunspot to be seen on the Sun’s disc, it was blanker than the expression on my face than when I’m presented with a power tool, so I was very glad I’d invited the Cockermouth Astronomical Society’s Robin Leadbetter down to join us for the afternoon. My hope was that, even if the Sun’s face was featureless, his Coronado solar telescope would show some features on the limb of the Sun, such as prominences.

I got to the Abbot Hall Park just before 2pm – having sneakily put a couple of promotional posters up in Kendal town centre – but no-one else was there yet, so I was able to set up my trusty 4.5″ ‘scope in peace. Soon after tho the first visitors arrived, and I was able to show them a projected image of the Sun – showing absolutely NOTHING.

So I was very pleased when Robin arrived and set up his Coronado! And, phew, there were indeed a few prominences visible at the bottom of the solar disc…

Robin’s telescope was a huge hit, so I’m very grateful to him for coming down to join in with our event. He spent a lot of time explaining patiently to people there how his instruments worked, and talking people through the basics of spectroscopy too. Everyone seemed fascinated by the sight of the solar spectrum, and by the view of the Sun through the Coronado, too.

As luck would have it there was a wedding reception taking place at the Abbot Hall Community Centre on the edge of the park, and several of the wedding guests – clearly intrigued by what a bunch of nutters were doing standing around in the park, looking at the Sun! – wandered over to have a look, too. One of them was a member of an astronomical society from down south, so he was really glad he came over and was happy to meet members of EAS. Another of our visitors belonged to yet another astronomical society, so the Sunwatch ended up as something of a society meet-up!

It was also nice to see one of my friends from Twitter, “Bellatrixlestar”, who had travelled all the way up from Blackpool to attend the Sunwatch. Of course, EAS founder and fellow “Tweeter” Philip Stobbart was there too so I think the Snwatch qualified as a “Tweet Up” too! 🙂

People came and went through the two hours of the Sunwatch, as did the cloud, but during the clouded-out periods our visitors enjoyed just chatting with us about astronomy and space. But there’s no doubt that  Robin’s Coronado solar telescope was the hit of the day, because it allowed us to see the Sun in glorious colour, and see some small feathery prominences on its limb too, so thanks Robin!

Here are some of the photos I took during the afternoon.

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If you click on that last image you’ll see a larger version, and you’ll be able to pick out those prominences at 5 o’clock on the limb… beautiful! 🙂 And just to give you an even clearer view, here’s a crop shoing the prominences…

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Again, click on that image to bring up a full size version.

So, all in all it was a very succesful and enjoyable day! I think everyone who came along enjoyed it, and it was a great opportunity to share some views of the Sun with people, and promote the Society too. I handed out a lot of flyers for the exhibition at the Museum, too.

Thanks to everyone who came along, and a special Thank You! to Robin for coming down from West Cumbria to take part in our event.

For more photos of the Sunwatch see Philip Stobbart’s gallery, here… (Warning: the ones of me are absolutely ****** hideous, so thanks for that, Phil! 😉 )

“OUR AMAZING UNIVERSE!” opens in Kendal

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If you’re in or around the Lake District town of Kendal, in Cumbria, you MUST go to the town’s Museum to see the new exhibition that’s opened there today.

“OUR AMAZING UNIVERSE” – a joint project by Kendal’s Eddington Astronomical Society and the Museum, which is being held to celebrate the International Year of Astronomy –  features over 50 of the most beautiful, most stunning images of space taken in recent years, from portraits of the planets of the solar system to pictures of faraway nebulae and galaxies taken by the Hubble Space Telescope.

There is also a special gallery of 3D images taken by unmanned spacecraft exploring Mars, and a very special display of rare meteorites.

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And, as Kendal is the birthplace of famous astronomer Sir Arthur Eddington, the exhibition also features special displays telling the story of his life, and some of his letters. And, thanks to the generous support of the Town Council, the exhibition also features the beautiful medals presented to Eddington in recognition of his many achievements an discoveries.

If you’re a young astronomer, you can have fun in a special “Mars sand pit”, building a model Mars base and maybe finding a martian or two, too! 🙂

The “Our Amazing Universe” exhibition will run for the rest of the year, and more information about it can be found here:

http://oauniverse.wordpress.com

Spirit – 2000 sols on Mars…

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Today is a big day – no, a HUGE day – for fans and followers of NASA’s epic Mars Exploration Rover mission. Today, Spirit, the first of the two MERs to land on Mars, marked its 2000th day of operations on the Red Planet.

2000 days. 2000 days! This people who built, designed and sent this little rover, remember, were hoping that it would last 90 days on Mars before succumbing to the planet’s frigid cold, dust-blasting wind and general nastiness. It’s lasted 20 times longer than that, and if it hadn’t got bogged down in that blasted sucking sandpit called “Troy” it would by now have roved away from Homeplate and would be studying the intriguing peaked mound known as “Von Braun”. But somehow that doesn’t matter today. All that matters is that Spirit is still with us, still taking photos, still doing science and still showing us Mars more than five years after she landed.

I was, of course, planning on writing a long, rambling, over-sentimental and unashamedly rover-huggy post about this anniversary… but now it’s here all I can think of writing is, well…

Thank you.

Thank you to the engineers and techs who, all those years ago now, designed and built Spirit, and her sister rover Opportunity.

Thank you to the people at JPL who drive these magnificent machines every day, steering them across the rocky landscape of Mars, around boulders, through and over dust dunes and from one wonderful viewpoint to another. I was lucky – no, privileged – enough to meet some of them when I visited JPL last year (OMG, is that really almost a year ago?!?!), and their dedication, pride and sheer joy is an almost physical thing.

Thank you to the webmasters who put the rovers’ images online so quickly, allowing me, and people like me, to virtually walk alongside the rovers as they roam Barsoom.

Thank you to my online family of fellow “armchair astronauts” on unmannedspaceflight.com, who have been my travelling companions during the epic, Enterprise-like 5 year missions of Spirit and Opportunity. UMSF is an online group of image makers, scientists, space enthusiasts and fans, and is now respected throughout cyberspace as a kind of online Babylon 5, a place where people with one thing in common – a love of unmanned space exploration – come together to try and make something, well, special. It’s not a place for woo-woos, or bigots, or rude big gobs, so it attracts people actually involved IN the space missions it discusses, because they know they won’t get hassled by knowitalls, or worse… and that means that there are many other online groups and communities that are jealous of us for what we have, who insult us and slag us off (hi, T42!). But it’s dust off a rover’s back. We’ll be here long, loooong after you’ve gone, my friends, so just carry on, ok? 🙂

But most of all, thank you to Steve Squyres, the man behind the machines. I’m not going to go into the role Steve has played in the MER mission, most people know that by now. But suffice it to say that without Steve’s lava-hot passion for Mars, and the exploration of Mars, it would not be appreciated for the dynamic, beautiful, noble world it is today, we’d still be stuck in the Viking era. I was lucky to meet Steve at JPL last year and I really did feel like a 13 year old girl meeting their favourite pop star, because standing there, talking to him, watching him lean back against that wall so casually, happy to just chat away, I was struck by how much Steve has revolutionised our view of Mars. He’s given us a Mars of dust devils and dust dunes; the Mars where meteorites stand on the surface like Easter Island statues and twin moons skate across a star-dusted sky; the Mars where hills are there to be climbed, and craters are there to be driven down into.

2000 sols… 2000 days… and I’ve lived through, and loved, every single one of them. I was here, at this very computer – tho in a different living room in a different flat in a different town – when Spirit landed, Opportunity too, and I’ll be here when they eventually die. That day will come, but it is not today. Today we celebrate the amazing achievements of a rover that has been on an alien planet for more than five years, has witnessed 2000 sunrises and 2000 sunsets, and has made us look up at that glittering red point of light in the sky in a new way – as our future home.

To mark the occasion properly I’ve written one of my astropoems about it, which you can find here if you are interested in having a read of it.

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Carnival of Space #116…

… is now available online for your spacey reading pleasure, at the “habitationintention” blog. Some really fascinating posts on there this week, so grab a coffee, and a (insert name of biscuit of your choice here… Peanut Chunky Kit Kats are a good choice for the discerning dunker, as are mint Viscounts, but you may prefer something else. Anyway, I digress…) and after clicking this  link you can spend a good hour, at least, catching up on the best of the past week’s space and astronomy blogging!

Wave the Moon, and Mars, goodbye…

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I’ve watched some depressing things in my life. The scene in Babylon 5 where the great space station is ripped apart by internal explosions… poor Dumbo’s little trunk snaking up to touch his mother’s trunk through the bars of that prison truck, both of them in tears… the Enterprise dying, in flames, as she fell out of the Genesis Planet’s sky… England playing Australia in the Edgebaston Ashes Test Match…

But nothing, and I mean Nothing, comes close to how depressing it felt watching the final public meeting of the Augustine Commission.

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It was like watching a post mortem, a funeral and a wake all rolled into one, and at the end I would have slit my wrists with a piece of jagged glass, if my hands hadn’t been clenched so tightly into fists of despair I couldn’t move them.

Let’s rewind. The Augustine Commission, as you probably know, was tasked by President Obama to find a way – a new way, a bold way, a practical way – forwards for NASA which, most people agree, has rather lost its way recently. More specifically, the manned spaceflight side of NASA. The unmanned side – the side that designs, launches operates and flies spaceprobes and robots – has been having a great time of late, and there can be very few people now who aren’t aware that there are incredibly succesful unmanned spaceprobes operating on and around Mars, around Saturn and on their way to Pluto. Pictures from the twin Mars Exploration Rovers and the Cassini spacecraft are literally everywhere. It’s a golden age of unmanned planetary exploration, that’s for sure. But the manned spaceflight side of NASA? In a mess. With the space shuttle coming up for retirement soon, and its proposed replacement, the Orion capsule, not going to be ready to fly for several years after the last shuttle mission ends, the US faced a bleak period of “no access to space” for its astronauts, during which they’d have to rely on cadging lifts up to the space station from other countries. Rather embarrassing for the country that, 40 years ago last month, put people on the Moon, something no other nation has done.

So, the Augustine Commission was set up by President Obama and given the job of finding some new ways to reinvigorate the manned space exploration program. The Commission has been extremely busy, and has done a fantastic job, I think, of involving as many people, parties and organisations as possible. They’ve used all the new “social media” tools, like Twitter and Facebook, to draw people into their discussions, in the hope of making their report and recommendations as informed as possible. They’ve invited people to write to them, to email them, to just get involved, and many, many people have. One of my online friends, Keri Bean – “aggieastronaut” to her tweeting friends – actually attended one of the Commission meetings and addressed it, as “a member of the public”, and did a fantastic job. I was very proud of her!

Yesterday, after much behind-the-scenes deliberation and discussion, the Commission held its final public meeting, to explain how it had whittled down the list of “options” it would be putting to the President, from roughly a gazillion to a more manageable half dozen, and then refine that list still further in advance of taking a completed report to the White House. Before the meeting there was great excitement amongst the so-called “space enthusiast community”, and Twitter, message boards and forums were full of fevered speculation. Would the Commission be supporting the proposed Return to The Moon? Would it, instead, suggest NASA sends manned missions to asteroids Would it be truly bold and visionary and recommend NASA embarked on a program that would send people to Mars? Sat here at home, watching the meeting live on NASA TV, I felt the excitement too. As the Commission members took the stage and settled into their seats, everything and anything seemed possible!

A couple of hours later, after Sally Ride – the first US woman in space – had given her presentation, it was clear that Nothing Is Possible. At least, nothing is possible with the budget NASA is going to be given.

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Sally Ride – oh, the poor woman; she looked like she would rather have been cleaning out a constipated elephant’s intestinal tract with her bare hands than standing on that stage, at that podium, breaking the bad news – put on a brave face, and littered her presentation with quips and witty lines, but it fell to her to tell everyone the slap-across-the-face brutal truth: NASA’s budget simply isn’t great enough to let it do anything other than fly the space shuttle a few more times than planned, and then keep using the International Space Station. Unless the US Govt gives NASA more money, its astronauts will remain exiled in LEO onboard the ISS, and any exploration “out there” will be carried out by robots only. No matter how hard the Commission looked – and they looked under every rock, stone and Powerpoint presentation – they simply could not find a way that NASA could boost astronauts beyond Low Earth Orbit unless NASA’s budget is boosted too.

Sally actually said: “This budget is simply not friendly towards exploration”. Which is a subtle, non-offensive, non-inflammatory way of saying “The Moon? Mars? Ha! Don’t make me laugh! You’re taking the ****! We are going NOWHERE unless more money is spent on manned spaceflight.”

At the end of the meeting – well, I say the end, I didn’t actually see the end, I literally had to switch it off before the end I was so depressed – it was clear that for all its good intentions and enthusiasm, the Commission had run up against a financial brick wall. There would be no “Dash out of Low Earth Orbit”, which was one of their most visionary options, just a slow, wheezing, asthmatic crawl around the Earth for the lucky few astronauts who managed to thumb a ride up to the space station onboard foreign or even privately-funded commercial spacecraft. There would be no grand Return To The Moon, just a few, grudging “Are we there yet?” wet Bank Holiday excursions to it. There would be no Moonbase, not even a program of short stays. There would be no manned lunar exploration At All.

And as for sending people to Mars… well, that was swept off the table like crumbs left after a meal. All that was left was a well-meant and sincere – but ultimately absolutely frakking meaningless – statement of support for the goal of eventually sending people to Mars, without a time frame being mentioned. What this means in reality is that Mars is as far away as Alpha Centauri, to all intents and purposes.

So, any kids reading this who want to go to Mars when they grow up – forget it, set your sights on something more realistic. Hey, try going into your bedroom and walking into your wardrobe – you might come out in Narnia… don’t laugh, that’s about as likely as NASA sending people to Mars before you grow up, or the 100th anniversary of Apollo 11, or whichever comes first…

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So, what was the Commission left with? What are the options it is now considering?

A lot depends on the International Space Station. That will either be decomissioned – translation: abandoned and allowed to burn up like a shooting star – in 2016, when NASA’s primary responsibility for it ends, or, if more money and support can be obtained for the ISS from NASA’s international partners, its life could be extended to 2020 or even beyond. However, with no money in NASA’s kitty for a shuttle replacement, this would mean ISS crew travelling to and from it in privately-funded and built spacecraft, essentially the commercialisation of LEO which NASA would support. It was also possible that the ISS could find a new role as a kind of “orbital refuelling depot”, a bit like that ramshackle Russian space station in ARMAGEDDON…

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What about the ARES 1 rocket that NASA has been touting as the replacement for the space shuttle? Sorry, looks like there’s not enough money to build that AND the ARES 5 heavy lift rocket that the Commission is absolutely convinced that NASA needs, so if President Obama takes the Commission’s advice ARES 1 could be dead before it’s even made its first test flight, which is a bit ironic because the Ares 1 that will make that first test flight is almost ready to be wheeled out of the VAB…

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Instead NASA could encourage and support private companies to build the rockets and capsules that would ferry astronauts into LEO and back again. That would be a radical departure for the modern NASA, true, but it is, apparrently, what NASA was actually set up to do in the first place – i.e. to develop new technologies and then pass them on to private industry for them to use commercially.

What about the plans to Return To The Moon? Well, basically, they’re dead, or at the very least on hold. No money. Certainly the Commission thinks that a big Moonbase at a lunar pole is just not possible. They also think that a series of smaller missions, explorations of different lunar sites, is impossible under the current budget guidelines, so what’s left? Well, either a short, grudging visit to the Moon every couple of years, or even just manned flybys of the Moon. if that. But the way things stand, no-one is going to land on, or even just fly around, the Moon in the next twenty years. There’s just no money, see?

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That loud “bang!” you heard last night? That was the sound of the Augustine Commission pushing NASA’s poor terrified plan for lunar exploration to its knees and then executing it with a shot to the back of the head…

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Remember that poignant scene in APOLLO 13 where Jim Lovell takes in the dreadful truth and tells his crew “We just lost the Moon…”? Well, right now there are dozens of astronauts in NASA’s astronaut corps thinking exactly the same thing: “I just lost the Moon…”

One option the Commission had been discussing – before it realised that NASA doesn’t have enough money to do ANYTHING – is its so-called “Deep Space” option, which would see astronauts leaving low Earth orbit and travelling to other destinations… without landing on them.

Yes, you read that correctly, WITHOUT LANDING ON THEM.

There’s a technical term for that kind of mission, it’s called a “fly-by“!

Now, I have to make it clear before I go on that I admire the hard work the Commission has done. ( Personally I think they were handed a classic “No Win” situation, in that Obama knew from the start that NASA isn’t able to do anything exciting with its astronauts because he has no intention of giving them enough money to DO anything exciting with them, but this way he can say he’s just taking the advice of a panel of experts. Clever, eh? ) They have clearly worked tirelessly on this. But… come on… seriously? Fly-bys? Let me tell you about fly-bys.

Astronauts on a fly-by of a planet aren’t explorers, they’re tourists.

Fly-bys aren’t bold, they’re timid.

Fly-bys aren’t visionary, or daring, they’re shameful and shaming.

Fly-bys aren’t “exploring”, they’re sightseeing.

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That picture is funny cos it shows astronauts dragging suitcases behind them, but the truth of this situation is much worse – astronauts wouldn’t land on anything to drag suitcases across! Their feet would never touch the ground!

Can you imagine, I mean, can you IMAGINE, the utter waste of time, resources and money it would be to finally, after all these years, build a spaceship big enough to send people to Mars, and bring them home again safely, without them landing on the **** thing?!?!? Picture the scene. After a hazardous and arduous voyage of 6 long months, the crew of Ares 1 are approaching Mars. It looms large in their window, like a diseased orange. The mission is about to reach its wonderful climax…

“Let me see!”

“No, let ME see! Oww! Watch your elbows!”

“Well move! I was at the window first! Give me that camera!!”

“No! I want it – oh. Too late. We just passed Mars…”

How frustrated – how sick – would those astronauts be? How cheated would the taxpayers feel? How angry would the scientists be? Talk about a Lose Lose scenario.

Ok, what happens next? Well, the meeting – and the feelings of the Commission – can be summed up in one dagger-to-the-heart sentence: with the money available, the US’s human presence in space will be limited, for the forseeable future, to Low Earth Orbit, and the modules of the International Space Station.

And that’s it, really. For the forseeable future, the farthest US – and European and, essentially, Western – astronauts will travel in space is a few hundred metres beyond the airlock door of the International Space Station. The most exciting things they’re going to get to “explore” are the micrometeorite pitted rivets, pipes and plates on the outside of the ISS.

From now until around 2015, or 2020 at the latest, Space will not be the Final Frontier, the outer hull of the ISS will be. Maybe they should hang a sign on the inside of the Quest airlock, something like this…

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2009 will go down in the history books as a historic year for space exploration. It will be remembered as the 40th anniversary of Neil Armstrong stepping onto the surface of the Moon… and if President Obama doesn’t put his hand in his pocket and give NASA some more money it will also be remembered as the year NASA ‘s astronauts were forced into exile in low Earth orbit, while the US Govt happily surrendered the many diverse worlds of the solar system to machines.

Here’s the bottom line, folks: unless NASA’s budget is given a boost, for at least the next 30 years the solar system will belong to robots.

Or maybe not…

There are other nations interested in exploring the solar system in person. They don’t have the technology to do it… yet… or the experience to do it… yet… but they definitely want to, and it might well be that, sometime around 2020, US and European astronauts will stare forlornly out of the ISS window and see a manned spacecraft leaving Low Earth Orbit and heading out for the Moon…

Before the Commission shone a light onto the budget shortfall within NASA, the idea was scoffed at and ridiculed, but now I think there’s now a  very real possibility that the next words spoken on the surface of the Moon will be spoken in Chinese.

I’ve been giving Outreach talks for a long, long time, and have always told my audiences that  the person destined to be the first man or woman to set foot on Mars is already alive, and running around a school playground somewhere. I have always illustrated that point with a picture, something like this…

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… now I’m going to delete that picture from my Powerpoint presentation and replace it with this one…

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Melodramatic? Perhaps. Overly pessimistic? I think not. There’s no escaping the brutal truth of this. NASA now doesn’t have the money to send people farther than a couple of hundred miles away from Earth.

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Of course, there’s another, intriguing possibility. Maybe President Obama actually WANTS to boost NASA, and wants to give it more money, and that has been his Baldrick cunning plan all along, but he doesn’t feel he can do it without some kind of input from people ‘in the biz’ who know more about space exploration than he does? Maybe Obama really does feel some of the passion for spaceflight and exploration he talked about during his election campaign, and does want to see NASA sending people to the Moon and Mars, but doesn’t feel able to just stand up and call for increased funding on his own? Maybe his Masterplan all along was to set up a Commission that would tell him something he already knew – that NASA needs more money – thus allowing him to stand up in front of Congress and say “NASA could be great again… American men and women could push back the Final Frontier again… American astronauts could travel to other worlds again, and plant the Stars and Stripes in their ground again, but only if NASA is given the resources, the funds, to do it. This is not my opinion, but the opinion of a panel of respected space experts, explorers and commentators. The Moon calls… Mars beckons… the solar system is ours for the taking… if we are willing to support NASA…

You think?

No. Me neither. I live in hope, but I won’t hold my breath while I do it.

This is all very depressing, isn’t it? When you think of where we could be, and should be. Seriously, watching that Commission meeting was like going to the vet with a beloved pet. You’ve known it was ill for a while – it was off its food, was looking dishevelled and out of sorts, and couldn’t do the exciting things it used to any more – but you’d managed to convince yourself it was just a little off colour, not seriously ill. Suddenly the vet is telling you that your pet is actually VERY ill, and without radical treatment, probably surgery, it could actually die. Saving it will take money. A LOT of money…

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I mean, we all knew NASA was ill, right? We all knew that there was no chance of it escaping the global recession, that it wasn’t surrounded by some magical force field that would deflect all the financial bullets and shells… but I don’t think it was too naive of us to believe that it could be spared the brutal gutting it now looks destined to suffer. These are dark times indeed, and might be about to get even darker.

On Thursday night I thought I’d cheer myself up by going out and actually looking at the night sky. That usually lifts my spirits! After two evenings of Perseid meteor-hiding cloud the sky Thursday night was lovely and clear, so as I walked over to the Park opposite my flat I had high hopes of seeing some shooting stars, and was pretty sure that spending some time out beneath all those distant suns would help distract me from my Augustine-triggered melancholy. So, there I stood, looking up. To my right a golden, waning Moon was shining above the jagged silhouette of Kendal’s ruined castle, and above me the stars were clear and bright. “Come on,” I thought, urging the shooting stars to appear, “any time you like…”

Half an hour later, as the Parish Church bells tolled midnight, I hadn’t seen a single frakking shooting star. I can’t blame the Augustine Commission for that, I know, but it was just One More Thing.

So I did what I usually do, I wriggled my MP3 player’s headphones into my ears and put some music on to keep me awake. KT Tunstall first… couple of Ting Tings tracks… some Mike Oldfield…

Then the theme from the movie STAR TREK: FIRST CONTACT started playing, and I had a real Moment. Because as that beautiful trumpet fanfare began I just happened to be looking high to the south and west, up at the stars of the Summer Triangle – Deneb, Vega and Altair. Between them the Cygnus Star Cloud was a misty blur, beneath them the fainter star clouds of Sagittarius were just visible, vanishing behind the trees… It’s an area of sky I know very well, but now I can’t help but see it differently, because that part of the sky is where the planet-hunting KEPLER probe is now studying intensely, looking for Earth-like worlds orbiting other, alien suns. Whenever I look at that area of sky now I can almost see the Kepler “Field of view” superimposed on the sky…

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And as I stood there, staring up at those myriad stars, with the movie’s theme playing, listening to the trumpets blaring and the strings swirling, rather than feeling happier and lighter, I found myself feeling even more melancholy, because I realised that that Federation Future I wish for Mankind – where we’re an interplanetary, even an interstellar species – might now be much, much farther away than before. Now before anyone fires off a “Star Trek is science fiction! It’s not real life!” comment, I KNOW that already, ok? I’m not stupid! I don’t think we’re even remotely near a future where people travel between the stars at “warp speed” in gleaming, sleek, white starships. I believe… I hope… we’ll get there one day, but that’s many centuries ahead. But I did think we were heading for a future where missions to the Moon and Mars stopped being science fiction and became science fact.

After watching that Augustine Commission meeting I felt like Neo in the first Matrix film, you know? I had been perfectly happy in my own little pod, drooling over NASA computer animations of Ares rockets thundering skywards and astronauts bouncing around glinting Altair landers, believing as I read yet another NASA report or .pdf file describing the Return to The Moon and the subsequent exploration of Mars. I looked up at the sky believing that Everything Would Be Alright, believing that before I died I’d see see at least a couple of lights glinting in the dark seas of the Moon, as manned outposts were set up, believing that I’d live long enough to stand in my garden, believing that in my old age I’d look up and see an Iridium-like flare in the sky as the first manned expedition set off for Mars, followed half a year later by live TV footage of people bouncing across the surface of Mars…

Then Norm Augustine handed me that blasted red pill and I found myself in the Real World, the world beyond the Matrix, the world where, unless NASA is given more money, none of those things are going to happen before I die. None of them.

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Looking up at that starfield between Deneb and Vega, into which Kepler is currently staring, I wondered how many Other Earths are hiding within it.

And I wondered… if they are inhabited, how many of the species living on those Earths once took a Giant Leap off their homeworld and flew into space, only to turn their backs on the stars and their destiny a few short years later?

Or are we the first…?

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NOTE: Just in case anyone is confused, this is NOT an attack on, or a statement of dissatisfaction with, the Augustine Commission itself. They’re just the messenger giving the bad news, and don’t deserve to be shot. They’ve just shone a light on the problem that is NASA’s insufficient budget. Their report is a wake up call for the politicians who have the final say over NASA’s budget. In an idea world those politicians would think “Hmm, maybe we should give NASA more money… they inspire people and actually make the country money” but I’m not going to hold my breath. The worst case scenario here would be that the politicians suddenly decide that manned exploration should be given more money, but that money should come from NASA’s unmanned programs, which would mean huge problems for the plans for future Mars rovers and probes to the outer planets. I guess all we can do is wait and see what happens.

Carnival of Space #115…

… is now online for you to enjoy, here

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