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World(s) of water…

Here in Cumbria it seems to have been raining since the day after the Big Bang. Everything is sodden. You don’t walk anywhere, you squelch, and splash and trudge. Every day, every single day, it rains at some point – and not just ‘rain’, but great deluges of icy, sleety rain thundering down from a charcoal black sky. Just horrendous. Umbrella sales are up, moods and eyes are down. Normally I love stormy, wet weather, as many of you know; it reminds me of my Scottish island travels… how I miss Orkney, the Hebrides and Shetland… but this is just like living on a wet sponge being held under a shower nozzle. 

Nature seems to have declared war on Cumbria, and isn’t taking any prisoners. 

I’ve been very busy this past week or so doing a lot of Outreach, and estimate that in the past 8 days I talked to, and met, well over 500 people to “spread the word” about astronomy and space exploration. That’s not a lot compared to the pros, of course, but for me that’s not bad! I gave a talk to a Council Planning Committee group at Penrith last week, the purpose of which was to raise awareness of (and hopefully some up with some solutions to) the problem of  light pollution. It had been planned for several months, and the idea was to fill an afternoon with guest speakers (myself and two others) and then, after seeing a show in an inflatable planetarium, and having a meal, we’d all pile onto a coach then go on a Magical Mystery Tour, visiting different locations and viewing the night sky from places where light pollution was very bad, not too bad, and almost-not-a-problem. Threlkeld and Keswick were the places I’d chosen for the last two. 

Unfortunately, the event coincided with the day of the now infamous Great Flood, and by mid-afternoon, after almost 24 hours of non-stop rain, Cumbria was beginning to drown. Radio reports, phone calls and text messages all suggested that Keswick was virtually underwater, so our bus tour clearly wasn’t going to happen, and in fact many of the people signed up for the day didn’t make it there because of flooded roads and dangerous driving conditions. So after the talks, and a very enjoyable planetarium show and lovely meal of lasagne and cheesecake, we cut the day short and headed out into the rain, for home. 

Driving back we were assaulted and battered by rain, as we passed one flooded garage, road junction and dip in the road after another. Taking a breather in a service station car park we turned on the news on the radio, and it was good to hear that Kendal was safe, although the river Kent had come *this* close to bursting its banks.  

But it soon became clear that Cockermouth, my beautiful, old home town, hadn’t been so lucky. 

As we splashed our way towards Kendal I started receiving texts from friends and family up in Cockermouth, and I could hardly believe what I read: the Main Street was, literally, underwater… RAF helicopters were hovering over the town, rescuing people… the rivers had burst their banks… It didn’t seem real, didn’t seem possible. But back inside my flat, shucking off my coat – which had got absolutely drenched in just the 2 minute walk from the car, the rain was so hard – I watched the rolling TV news channel’s coverage of the floods, and I was absolutely horrified. It felt, like Nature itself had declared a “Shock and Awe” war on our beautiful county, and on Cockermouth in particular. 

It’s bad enough watching pictures of flooding in a place that you don’t know – you can’t help but feel moved and shocked by pictures of people’s cars and homes flooded – but to sit in front of my own TV, here, in my own home, and see The New Bookshop, Mills, Cockermouth Travel and all the other shops on Main Street vanishing under that coffee-coloured rage of filthy, churning water was horrible, just horrible. 

(images courtesy Tracey Atkinson)

Ironically, my contribution to the aforementioned light pollution “awareness day” event in Penrith had been my popular “Tour of the Universe” talk, a major section of which celebrates the fact that Earth is a “waterworld”. So, unknown to me, while I was happily showing colourful slides of gurgling streams, thundering waterfalls and surging ocean waves, celebrating the fact that it is Earth’s very wetness makes it so lush with life, Cockermouth and much of Cumbria was drowning. As I explained how amazing it is that Earth is a curious and blessed planet because water actually falls from the sky (as the rain was battering the windows like grapeshot – a nice dramatic effect, which reinforced my point) I had no idea that back in Cockermouth, birthplace of William Wordsworth, Fletcher Christian and Fearon Fallows, canary yellow helicopters were thwup-thwupping over the town, winching people out of danger, and rescuers were wading through the raging torrents to rescue people from shops, flats and houses. I actually felt sick when I found out what had been happening up there. 

Thankfully, everyone I know in Cockermouth was fine, living well away from the flooded areas as they do, but the beautiful town centre, with its wide Main Street and collection of great shops, is a mess, and will take many months to recover. 

Why am I writing about this on my astronomy blog? Because it struck me, looking at those pictures of flooded Cockermouth, taken by my sister, just how much power water has. I don’t mean the physical power of water – the power that can thrust heavy tree trunks through the wrought iron railings of road bridges, spin cars around like toys or bring a road bridge crashing down in a shower of tumbling chunks of masonry and stone – but the power it has to influence our lives, just by being there. Specifically “Out There”, in space.

 As 2009 draws to a close, the buzzword astronomers are using most about 2010 is “life”. The potential for life seems to be everywhere “out there” at the moment, and 2010 could be the year we finally answer the most important question in science: “Are we alone?” 

Cutting thrugh all the science gobbledygook, searching for life “out there” basically means either a) listening for radio signals from extraterrestrial civilisations beyond our solar system, or b) looking for water in our solar system, because, as we understand it, life pretty much needs water to get started  and keep going. And now, having found water in quite a few places in our neighbourhood, it’s possible that primitive life might actually be on more than one world in our solar system, just waiting to be found. It might be thriving in the murky, slush-puppy ocean that seems likely to exist beneath the icy crust of Jupiter’s moon, Europa. It might conceivably be spewing out of the water geysers that gush out of the great fissures at the south pole of Saturn’s moon, Enceladus. It could be living inside droplets of water suspended in the less hellish layers of venus’ atmosphere…

But the spotlight of the alien hunters has swung back towards Mars, a world we once thought was drier than a baked bone but now know has vast deposits of ice beneath its dusty, cratered surface. New studies of a once-drenched-in-water rock blasted off Mars 16 million years ago, that then fell to Earth as a meteorite 13,000 years ago, seem to support eye-popping claims made in 1996 that it contains the fossilised remains of martian lifeforms.

Nothing very advanced – teeny tiny bacteria, stuff less advanced than the gloop you sneeze into a hankie when you have a cold – but life, nonetheless. If that’s true – and there’s a NASA press conference scheduled for early next week which should tell us more – then we might be one small step closer to finding out that Mars once had life. We might be just days away from knowing if there ever was Life On Mars…

So, as 2009 draws to a drenched, dripping end, it’s fascinating – and for me, slightly comforting – to think that once the godawful rain stops, and the silt-thick flood waters recede, because of the presence of water “out there” we might be part of a living solar system.

I can’t wait to find out…!

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Eddington AS MoonWatch Success!

Tada!!! 🙂 The clouds parted, the rain stopped, and people flocked to the garden at Kendal’s Brewery Arts Centre tonight for the Eddington AS’s November “MoonWatch”!

The event was scheduled to begin at 7pm, but there were already people waiting eagerly at the Brewery at 6.30 when I arrived to set up my ‘scope, and by 7 we had half a dozen different telescopes set up on the (rather muddy and shloppy) garden, with a good sized crowd of wannabe Moonwatchers eager to look through them.

Soon the number of telescopes had risen to 9, and for the next hour and a half members of Eddington Astronomical Society showed the Moon, and Jupiter, to over a hundred people. Some were Brewery visitors, come to watch a film or a play, so came across us by accident, but many people had come especially for the MoonWatch, having seen posters around town or in the Library, or read about it in the Gazette or online. There were lots of impressed “ooh!”s and “aaah!”s as people bent down to peer into the eyepieces. Many people there had never looked at anything through a telescope before, so seeing the Moon’s craters, mountains and seas in stunning detail and clarity was – literally! – an eye-opener for them.

The weather was kind to us for around 90 minutes, and the view through my own humble 4.5″ reflector was gorgeous…

Then the clear sky and the beautiful Moon were swallowed up by a great dirty bank of black cloud, and it started to rain too, so telescopes were hastily packed away and the event was brought to a close… only for the sky to clear ten minutes later! With people still milling around outside the Brewery, Eddington AS’s founder, Philip Stobbart, and I, and Stella too, decided to set up our ‘scopes again in the hope of showing the Moon to a last few people, and another 3 or 4 did manage a peek before the clouds rolled back in and rain started to fall again, so that was that.

So, yes, tonight was a great success! A lovely clear sky – until 8.00pm at least – and lots of very interested people wanting to see the Moon. With so many telescopes set up to look through, everyone had a variety of different views to enjoy, from high mangification views of selected craters and features to wide-field views of the whole Moon shining against the blackness of space. There were families, couples, lots of kids – a really good turnout. And all the members of the EAS who came along to help out were kept really busy, answering questions and talking about astronomy. Hopefully we’ll have attracted a few new members to the Society, but that wasn’t the point of the evening; the point was to just show people something amazing in the night sky, and we certainly did that!

Some more pictures of the event on Philip Stobbart’s photo site, here: http://www.flickr.com/photos/philipstobbart/sets/72157622889355456/show/with/4139272977/

Here we go again…

 

After being out of the media spotlight for a few years, that ugly, green-brown rock you see above is about to hit the headlines again. In a big way.

You see, that ugly looking chunk of stone is actually “ALH84001″, the most famous meteorite in history. ALH84001 is one of those rare “martian meteorites” – a piece of rock that was blown off Mars by an asteroid impact some 16 million years ago, and landed on Earth millions of years later, specifically on the snowy plains of Antarctica, as a “meteorite”. Its name tells you all about its discovery history: “ALH” stands for “Allan Hills”, which is a region of Antarctica. “84” tells you it was found in 1984. ( And, um, I’m not sure what the “01” bit stands for, to be honest! ) It sat there in Antarctica for many thousands of years before it was found by meteorite-hunting scientists, but it wasn’t recognised as being from Mars at the time, and was basically locked away in a vault for years until it was examined. That’s when the scientists discovered it was actually from Mars, and took a closer look – a much closer look.

Finally, in 1996 (oh.my.god! That’s 13 years ago!!!!), on August 6th, a group of NASA scientists announced that their studies of the inside of the meteorite had revealed… this…

Structures that looked suspiciously like the fossilised remains of bacteria… Maybe bacteria from Earth, that had gotten into the rock after lt landed, died and become preserved within it… or… or…

…possibly… maybe… perhaps… you know… bacteria from Mars..?

The world went absolutely crazy.

“LIFE ON MARS!” “MARTIAN FOUND IN SPACE ROCK!” screamed the headlines, right around the world. The meteorite was the lead item on every news report that evening, and President Clinton called a special media event to hail the discovery and praise the team for their work.

It was a thrilling time for space enthusiasts like myself. I well remember sitting in a pub that very night, with members of the Cockermouth Astronomical Society, discussing the story. Of course, as a) a firm believer in extraterrestrial life, and b) a lifelong Mars nut I was beside myself with excitement, almost unbearably so, but even I had to take a deep breath and remind myself that the results were by no means conclusive, that a lot – a lot! – of work had to be done before anyone was in a position to declare, confidently, that life had indeed been found on Mars. Calm down, calm down – the jury was still very much out.

In the years since then, studies of ALH84001 have continued, quietly, behind the scenes, out of the way. The arguments for and against have ebbed and flowed, back and forth, between “yes, it contains evidence of life!” and “no, that’s not evidence of life, it’s something else entirely”. Some scientists have embraced ALH as a kind of “Holy Grail”, insisting it is proof of life off Earth; others have dismissed it as a great big rocky red herring, insisting the structures seen are too small to be bacteria, and/or could have been formed naturally, and have criticised the “Mars rock team” for bad methods, jumping to conclusions, and generally getting it wrong.

Well, word is leaking out, slowly, that the team behind the original studies of ALH84001 have been doing some new work on the meteorite, using equipment and techniques unavailable 13 years ago to study the magnetite crystals and carbonate discs inside the meteorite, and are now confident that those structures found inside the rock make a very compelling case for the existence of life on Mars in the past.

There’s nothing official “out there” yet, but the story has been “broken” by Craig Covault over on Spacflightnow.com, a paper is going to be published in a scientific journal, and it seems that NASA will be commenting officially on the story within the next few days. So, get ready for an explosion of media interest in Mars again, reporting breathlessly on the prospect of life on Mars. Already The Sun newspaper here in the UK has picked up the story, and is reporting it in a typically restrained, low-key way…

Interesting times lie ahead…! 🙂

UPDATE: Thanks to Alice from Aliceastroinfo for letting me know that the paper has already been published, and is available here:
http://adsabs.harvard.edu/abs/2009GeCoA..73.6631T (note: there’s a charge to download it). Thanks Alice!

“Space – what a waste of money…!”

How many times have I had that fired at me after I’ve given one of my Outreach talks? I’ve lost count. From now on I’m going to refer people who say things like that to this excellent blog article, which lists some excellent “space spin-offs”…

http://onlinesciencedegrees.net/25-everyday-technologies-that-came-from-nasa

Perfect plumes…

I’ve been “into space” for a long time – a LONG time. Over three and a half decades, in fact. So I’m pretty hard to surprise and amaze now. Not hard to impress, not hard to delight, but hard to actually amaze. It’s not often that an image comes back from ‘out there’ that makes me go wide-eyed and slack-jawed with astonishment. The last time that happened was probably when Oppy rolled up to the edge of Victoria Crater and gazed out across it to the other side, that literally choked me up.

Today it happened again.

The Cassini spaceprobe has taken tens of thousands of images of Saturns, its rings and system of moons by now, and many of them are stunningly dramatic, beautiful and striking. Today, Cassini sent back some pictures that might well go down in the history books as being among the most important of its entire mission – images of the plumes that are spewing out of the geysers at the little moon’s south pole.

We’ve seen images of these geysers before, of course. But today’s images were, well, literally breathtaking.

This is how we’ve seen the geysers before today…

… bright wafts and shafts of material jutting out into space from the south pole, almost like the prominences seen around the edge of the Sun during a total solar eclipse. But today Cassini flew so close to the plumes, and over them, that it was able to take images of the plumes from the side and from above too, allowing us to see them properly for the very first time.

This is what Cassini sent back – and armchair explorers all around the world saw on their monitors – earlier today…

Look closely – click on that picture to enlarge it – and you can see, at the top there, jets of material shooting out of the surface of Enceladus. Several of them. LOTS of them. That’s not an artist’s impression, it’s not a computer graphic, I haven’t gone nuts in Photoshop, that’s a real picture of the geysers of Enceladus shooting out into space. Let’s take a closer look – and yes, I have played about with and enhanced this crop from the original image…

I’m not exaggerating when I say that I never expected to see an image like that for another twenty or so years, until a post-Cassini probe headed out to Saturn and undertook a detailed photographic survey of the icy moon. Unbelievable! 🙂

But Cassini didn’t just take images of the plumes. It took some very detailed images of Enceladus’ surface too. So, put on your 3D glasses (not the migraine-inducing ones needed for the Channel 4 programs last week!)  and feast your eyes on this…

And finally… here’s a panorama I (crudely) stitched together, showing more plumes than you can shake a spaceprobe camera at…

Don’t know about anyone else, but this encounter with Enceladus has made me feel an almost childlike sense of wonder again. I thought I’d have to wait maybe another 20 years to actually see the plumes coming out of Enceladus, on images taken by a post-Cassini orbiter, yet there they are, and I’ve been able to mess about with them and not just gawp at them.

This is nuts, absolutely nuts. On exceptionally still and clear evenings here in Cumbria I’ve seen Enceladus through my humble 4.5″ scope. It looked just like a pinprick of light close to Saturn, a hole in the black velvet of space made by the point of a needle… now I see it, on these very pages, thanks to the Cassini team and all my friends and fellow explorers here, as a world, a real world, criss-crossed with meandering canyons of ice, covered with fields of snow and slashed by deep, axe-wound gorges out of which gush geysers…

One day people will walk up and down those canyons, running their gloved hands along their sides, maybe stopping to carve out intricate designs in the ice, leaving their mark as humans are always moved to do. One day spacesuited children will bound across those snowfields, boots crump-crumping as they land, laughing and giggling in the low gravity. One day explorers will stand on the edge of Baghdad Sulci and stare wide-mouthed at the beauty of the scene, leaning back to stare up at the geyser erupting out of the ground before them. Seen through the geyser’s veil, the Sun will be surrounded by glorious haloes of rainbow-hued light, and the stars above them will shimmer and dance…

And standing there, beside that geyser, they’ll wonder how it felt like to be us, here, in 2009, to be the first people to see the beauty of their homeworld, on grainy images taken by a tiny, Mayfly-fragile spaceprobe sent out across the gulf of space by a generation that Wanted To Know.

Amazing.

Waiting for word…

All around the world, planetary scientists and “space geeks” (and, as one of them, I use the term with love and respect!) are waiting anxiously to hear if the Mars Exploration Rover “Spirit” has started to move out of its dustbowl trap. It’s been stuck there for months now, bogged down in talcum-fine powdery sand, going absolutely nowhere. Earlier today commands were sent to the rover that the MER team hope will start the process of slowly backing it out of – or “extricating” it from – the buried crater that has been its nemesis all these sols. We’re all keeping a close eye on the website that shows the “raw” images sent back by the rover, and while no-one is expecting to see that Spirit has popped out of its sandtrap, we are all obviously hoping that we’ll see some kind of movement, however small. 

One thing’s for sure – if Spirit could be pulled free by the amount of goodwill there is for her, she’d be standing proudly on all wheels again by now!

Fingers crossed everyone!

See the SPACE STATION!

This is a great time to see the International Space Station from the UK! Just go here https://cumbriansky.wordpress.com/space-station-spotting for your full “How To” guide! 🙂