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On a lighter note…

Look what else I got for Christmas…

I know, I know. I’m a big kid. But I’ve wanted my very own model of the USS Enterprise ever since I first saw the show, (cough!) years ago…

And hey… look… it does this

🙂 🙂 🙂

Footprints in the snow…


This is going to turn into a bit of an I-can-feel-the-end-of-the-year-coming rant, and a very personal one at that, so if you just want something spacey to read you should maybe skip this post. I just feel the need to growl at the world this morning. And it’s my blog, so if you don’t like it, don’t read it, ok? Normal space cadet service will be resumed shortly! 🙂

If you’re a regular reader you’ll know that I’ve been thinking a lot about history recently. I’ve become fascinated by our species’ own history – our evolution, the development of our art and technology – and where that path will lead us to in the future. We will go to the Moon and build bases there, that’s a given; “Because it’s there”, and all that. We will go to Mars, and settle it… eventually. And one day, after crossing the solar system, we’ll step off the icy surface of Pluto to hop over onto the red ice of Sedna, and then we’ll take the most giant, most frightening, most humbling and most terrifying leap of all – into interstellar space, and towards planets orbiting other stars. Of that, I have absolute, unshakeable faith. It will happen. It’s just a matter of time. There’s no stopping it – unless we destroy ourselves with a war, plague or stupidity, or the universe wipes us out with one of its many weapons of cosmic mass destruction.

What is really, and I mean really, p****ing me off now is that it’s now looking like I might not even get to see the first of those things happen. It looks like we won’t Return To The Moon until around 2025, by which time I’ll be 56. So ok, I’ll see that, but for a decade after that what will happen on the Moon? Expeditions… forays… The construction of first Moonbase probably won’t begin until 2035, by which time I’ll be 66. Operational? 4 maybe 5 years later. I’ll be 70. Then, and only then, will we strike out for Mars. So, add another five years, minimum. I’ll be 75.

Great. Thanks.

I know, I know, this is all a bit moany, a bit “woe is me”, but that’s the way I’m feeling right now – well and truly hacked off that I was born too early to see the things I’ve dreamed about all these years; well and truly furious, raging almost, that after living this stuff for all these years, of being so passionate about it, of believing in it and standing up for it it won’t be me that gets to see it happen,  but the foul-mouthed, tweenage, wannabe gangsta, hoody-wearing, baggy-pants-around-their-arses street rat little ****s who laugh at me, swear at me and point their imaginary guns at me and mouth “pop!” as I walk past them on my way to work. That makes me so mad I honestly feel like there’s a volcano inside me, waiting to blow at any moment.

It’s just not fair, damnit. 😦

Hmmm. Is this my very own mid-life crisis, looking in through the window?

I don’t know. But I do know that recently, as well as thinking a lot about history, I’ve been thinking about the future – specifically what I’ll leave behind when I go. Even more specifically, how I’ll be remembered when I’ve gone – if I am at all.

This really slapped me about the head one morning just before Christmas, when I was walking up to Kendal Castle before dawn to take some pictures after a very heavy overnight snowfall. The castle, like the rest of Kendal, looked absolutely beautiful, just stunning, smothered in a thick quilt of blue-white snow – and I mean real snow, not the usual rubbishy gone-in-an-hour snow we usually get. This snow was fat, and thick, like meringue, perfect snow, and as I first trudged up the road and then up the hill and eventually up the footpath to the castle, welly boots crumping and squeaking into the fresh snow, I felt my skin tingling with the cold and with just the joy of being alive and surrounded by such beauty. Above me the sky was clear, and with the temperature nudging minus 5 degrees C the very air itself was like liquid ice, and at 5am the sky was still ablaze with stars. Above the streetlights of Kendal, looking like an orange-red jewel, shone Mars, just beautiful, and I had to stop and look at it, to drink in the view, even though stopping meant the cruel cold began to pulse up through the soles of my boots and creep up my legs within moments. I didn’t care; it was just the most perfect, perfect moment –

– until I started thinking about the future, and realised, with an almost crushing sadness, that I probably won’t be here to look up at Mars in the same way on the day that the first humans walk upon it. It’s just too far away now. I probably won’t see it.

Then I wondered, “Will I be a part of it at all?” Will anyone around then know how much that day, that moment, those first steps, would have meant to me?

Will anyone remember me at all?

I’m sure everyone goes through this at some point, it’s no big deal, right? Everyone wonders “When I’m gone, will I be missed?” It’s just human nature, right? Most people have easy answers to that question – their kids. They look at their kids and know, without any doubt, that of course they’ll be remembered because their kids will remember them… and their kids will remember them, etc etc, and The Line will continue. Me? I have no kids, and I really don’t think I’m ever going to have any now (but never say never, I know), so there will be no Line.

I like to think my books – my kids books, about spaceflight and astronomy – will live after me, but they’re already dated now, even the most recently-published ones, and as the years pass and more and more discoveries are made they will become less and less useful and relevent and eventually just become “old books” on the shelves of second hand and charity shops, and packed away in boxes in school cupboards, that is if they’re not just thrown away.

I also like to think my Outreach work in schools will have left traces of my passing. I’ve been giving talks in schools here in the UK (and other places) for a good 30 years now, and I like to think that I’ve lit a few sparks, ignited a few flames, in a few kids, with my Powerpoint talks, meteorite “show and tell”s and info sheet handouts, and maybe moved them to learn more about astronomy and science after I’ve left. I like to think that that’s my ‘Line’ – that maybe, somewhere along the years, while I’ve stood in a crammed-full classroom, or a drafty church hall, or a busy community centre, I’ve touched a young mind and stirred something up inside it that led them to follow a career in science, which will maybe lead to them becoming an astronaut and, one day, travelling to the Moon, or Mars, or one of the worlds beyond… and their adventures will inspire others… and so on. You think that’s possible? I don’t see why not.

But yeah, I know. It’s a longshot. I’m probably kidding myself there.

What else then?

Well, I’m pinning my hopes now on my astropoetry – the poems I write which are inspired by the sensational discoveries being made in astronomy, almost daily it seems, and the images being returned during the amazing unmanned space exploration missions happening right now.

I’ve been writing this poetry for quite a few years now, and find it very satisfying personally. I love words and adore language, even more than I hate and fear figures and numbers, always have done, and although many people clearly think that my writing poetically and lovingly about the rocks of Mars, the ice geysers of Enceladus and the methane lakes of Titan is silly at best and foppish and foolish at worst, I really don’t give a ****. It’s inside me, and needs to come out, it’s as simple as that. If others enjoy it, then great, that’s a bonus, but I’m writing it for myself. And also, I’ve always thought, because I want the missions to be remembered not just for their images, but for their human drama, for their nobility and, yes, their beauty. They’re important, they mean something. It’s only right that they should be immortalised in words as well as pictures.

At least, that’s what I’ve always told myself until now. Now, I’m not so sure. In fact, now is the time to be honest with myself and acknowledge the real reasons for writing my astropoems: I want to be remembered, through them.

That might sound vain, or egotistical, or worse, but it’s just the way I feel. And I think it’s probably the way most writers feel.

I suppose what I really want is for my poems to be read, in the future, by the people living in the future I will never get to see or be a part of. I want my poems about “Spirit” and “Oppy”, NASA’s two seemingly-immortal Mars Exploration Rovers, to be on huge boards, displayed next to the rovers themselves, when they are recovered from the dusty plains of Mars and brought back to the first settlement and housed in the Museum of Mars that will inevitably be built on the Red Planet one day. I want those poems to be read by the thousands of men, women and children who will file past the rovers, just as men, women and children read information boards as they file past the famous aircraft and spacecraft gathered in the Smithsonian Air and Space Museum today. I want my poem about the icy geysers of Enceladus to be seen and read by the tourists who will visit the Baghdad Sulci Visitor Centre on Enceladus one day and stare out of its huge panoramic view windows and see for themselves those columns and jets hissing up out of the moon’s fractured icy crust and into the black sky. I want my poems about Pluto’s planetary status to be read by the extraordinary men and women who will stand on that far-flung world in centuries to come and look out at the vista of stars beyond, looking for the star they will be travelling to shortly after.

But most of all I want my poems about Mars to be read by the human beings who will travel to Mars in the years to come, and settle that beautiful, noble, savage world. I want my words, images and visions to be their silent companions as they sit in their Habs looking out at the pink sky, or as they rumble and roll across the wide open plains in their rovers, or as they fly above Valles Marineris and Olympus Mons in their shuttles. I want at least one book of my poetry to be there on Mars with them, along with whatever other books they have, the plays of Shakespeare, the essays of Sagan and the poetry of Wordsworth – not because I think for a moment that my words are as beautiful, as memorable or as worthy as theirs, hahah! but because, well, if I can’t be with them in person, there, in a spacesuit, I want to be with them through my words. I want them to know that, in their past, at least one person “got it” and was thinking of them. I want my book to be there, on a shelf, on a tabletop or beside a bed in that sweaty-smelling, dust-covered, photo-plastered Hab, and important to the martians of the future, because it touches something inside them.

But why am I feeling this way now? Maybe because – and I know many of you will laught at this! – I’m a huge Dr Who fan, and the current storyline – involving the imminent and inevitable ‘death’ of David Tennant’s 10th Doctor and his regeneration into the 11th – is everywhere, including inside my head. Maybe it’s because in a month’s time I’ll be 45, probably the halfway point in my time on this planet, if I’m lucky, so thoughts of my own future, and the realisation of my own mortality, are starting to make themselves felt. Maybe because, although I try to be positive about it, there’s no getting away from the fact that  death surrounds me at the Care Home where I work, and hides in the shadows, and looks down at me from the skylights, and is inescapable. I don’t know, I just don’t know. But I do know that I’m feeling a very urgent need to make more of a mark on this world, and, yes, on the future, and I have to do something about it – and soon.

I know what really brought this home to me – two experiences I had over Christmas. The first was on Christmas Day morning, and I was sat on the floor at my mum’s house, leaning back against the sofa, fending off repeated friendly attacks by their great, gallumping, gorgeous labrador, “Casper”, who thinks of me as his wrestling partner. Inbetween bouts I took a look at the beautifully decorated Christmas tree to my right, and noticed some familiar baubles and balls hanging from it…

I asked my mother how old they were, and was startled when she told me that they were at least 50 years old, because she remembered putting them on chrustmas trees before I was even born. 50 year old decorations! In this modern, throwaway age of disposability and mass production that’s quite a thing, isn’t it? And I couldn’t stop thinking about that connection with the past – my past – for the rest of the time I was there.

Then when I got home I opened the gift sent to me by my wonderful friend Bev, who lives in Australia. I have to be honest, she’s a much better friend to me than I am to her; I always forget her birthday, and never get organised in time to send Christmas cards or gifts, and she never, ever fails. This year she sent me “a little something”, which I opened knowing it would be something thoughtful and very appropriate. I was totally unprepared for the sight that greeted me when I opened the box…

“What’s that?” I hear many of you ask. Well that, dear readers, is a stone hand tool, made by one of our distant ancestors, between 10,000 and 50,000 years ago, in the Late Stone Age. Bev literally gave me a piece of our species’ history for a christmas gift. (And thanks to my UMSF friend, Dan, for pointing out the relationship visible on that photo – two of Mankind’s most useful and important tools, a Stone Age stone cutter and a Silicon Age computer keyboard, side by sidevery cool!)

I’m not sure how long I held that piece of sculpted stone in my hand, just looking at it. 5 minutes? Ten? 30? I honestly don’t know. I just stared at it, imagining how, all those millennia ago, one of my deep ancestors spotted it, picked it up off the ground and chipped and flaked pieces off it until he, or she, felt it was a good enough shape to use.

History, again, looking in at me through the window.

I’m definitely being sent a message.

I don’t usually go for New Year Resolutions, they’re just wishes written in smoke. But this year I’m going to make one and work hard to keep it. As dawn breaks on New Year’s Day 2010 I’m going to resolve to have a book of my poetry published before daybreak on January 1st 2011. And nothing’s going to stop me.

Because this Christmas I’ve come to realise that history is a field covered in snow, and our lives are all mere footprints upon it. But most of those footprints melt and fade away, and only a few persist. I want mine to persist. I want my footprints not to be left in snow, but in stone, like the footprints at Laetoli in Tanzania by a group – perhaps a family? – of hominids who walked across a field of wet, slushy dirt and ash…

3.6 million years later, their footprints – preserved in that sludgy ash then fossilised by the passage of time – are still visible, for us to marvel and wonder at.

The creatures – the people – that made those footprints could have no concept of the future. They had no idea that there would be “years to come”, never mind dreams of what would happen in those years to come. We do. I do. I know that, one day, people will stand on the Moon again, and after them people will travel to Mars, and Europa, and Titan and worlds beyond, and it pains me to the brink of tears knowing that I won’t be one of them.

But I want them to know I Was Here. So I’m going to get that poetry book published next year. Just you wait and see. 🙂


Er, hello everyone… My name is Stuart Atkinson, and… I’m a DEFYING GRAVITY fan.

(pause for smirks, eye-rolling and laughter).

Fine, go ahead, laugh, I don’t care. Yes, yes I am a fan of the cancelled US sci-fi TV series, and I am standing here before you today to tell you all that, proudly. The TV series had a lot of critics – and I mean a LOT; it was panned more than Bob Mortimer on “Shooting Stars” – for its romantic storylines, poor science and pseudo-mystical plot, but it was, in my opinion, nowhere near as bad as many people said it was. Ok, so maybe it wasn’t the most scientifically accurate show ever written. And maybe it did get a bit “soap opera” at times. And maybe, in tormented astronaut Maddux Donner (below), it did have one of the most depressing, oh-just-slit-your-wrists-and-get-it-over-with! male leads ever seen on TV, but it wasn’t meant to be a laugh a minute comedy, or a ****** documentary, it was meant to be fun!

It was meant to be entertainment, an hour at a time of eunashamed, scapist fun. The special effects were superb, the costume and set design first class, and the underlying plot – nothing less than a secret a treasure hunt across the solar system, collecting aliens! – was great stuff. It had conspiracies, deception, boo-hiss villains, slimy reporters, femme fatales, the works. Now, all those elements might be called “cliches” by many people, but to me thay add up to an hour or so of kick your shoes off, put your feet up, open a can of Strongbow and forget the world for a while…

Now, as many people will tell you, I will watch just about any old science fiction rubbish. If it has spaceships, aliens, people in spacesuits, I’m happy, no matter how cheesy, unconvincing or silly they are. That’s not because I’m easily pleased; it’s because I can find a nugget of something interesting, or inspirational, or exciting, in even the worst sci-fi shows – a beautifully designed spaceship, a subtle plot, well-written character relationships. Hell, I can even sit through an episode of ANDROMEDA and enjoy it, because a) it’s often funny, b) it has the most gorgeous “ship” ever seen on screen, in the shape of the Andromeda’s avatar, Rommy, and c) it does have a certain epic sweep and feel to it.

But I have a basic and fundamental test for any TV drama series – not just sci-fi series – that is face-slappingly simple: do I care about the characters? Do I feel the need to tune in to another episode to see what has happened to them, because I care about them and their well-being? Not even all of them, just some of them. And DEFYING GRAVITY passed that test with flying colours.

Donner… Maddux Donner… ok, so he was a miserable, morose, droopy-eyed git, haunted by having to leave two crewmates on Mars, but he did grow during the series, and at the end I was feeling genuinely happy for him. But the main reason I was so hooked on DEFYING GRAVITY was its ‘heroine’, Zoe Barnes, played by the always-watchable Laura Harris.

Ah, Zoe, Zoe, Zoe… a woman with more issues than the archives of Radio Times. But her heart was in the right place, right from the start, and I really felt for her when she was struggling with her hallucinations and wracked with guilt. Just a good character, I thought.

Sadly, we’ll never know if Donner, Zoe and the rest of the crew of the Antares ever completed their mission, and collected all the aliens, because the series was cancelled after one season. In fact, in the US the first series wasn’t even shown in its entirety, the last couple of episodes weren’t broadcast. Thankfully, and to their credit, the BBC did show the whole series, so we got to see Zoe stumbling across the blistered surface of Venus, clutching the alien to her chest, in a race against time to make it back to the lander before her suit seals gave out and she went down in history as not just being the first human being to set foot on Venus but also the first human being to be poached alive on it.

As the end credits rolled I felt like doing that melodranmatic thing where you sink to your knees, clench your fists into a ball and shout “Noooooo!” at the sky, because I really wanted to know what happened next and knew the series was dead. But thanks to one of my Twitter friends (thanks Joi!), I was able to find out what happened next, on this American TV website: http://www.ch131.com (Go to “TV shows” on the left, select “Defying Gravity” from the list of shows that comes up, and then click on “Episode 14”). And having read that, I am even more frustrated – if the show had kept running I think it would have given us some wonderful TV, and some very memorable moments. I so, so wish I could have seen the crew landing on Mars; I think the design team would have done the Red Planet justice.

But the show is over, and won’t be coming back. It’s a shame, but there you go, and it’s a very common thing for fans of sci-fi and fantasy shows to “get into” a series only to have it cancelled. You get used to it.

DEFYING GRAVITY had its faults, no denying that. But it gave me one moment of absolute magic for which I’ll always be grateful – Zoe’s historic “first words on Venus” speech…

“Mark the day with a footprint, a step forward in the path of man.”

Now that actually brought a bit of a lump to my throat, I must admit.

Farewell, DEFYING GRAVITY. You deserved better.

And Zoe? We’ll always have Venus… 🙂

Carnival of Space #134

Welcome to the 134th “Carnival of Space”! I’m delighted and proud to be the host of the 2009 Christmas Carnival, which has to be one of the busiest – and best-written – Carnivals so far. Thanks to everyone who took the time to contribute a post and, as ever, to Fraser too for running the whole thing!

2009 is almost done, but before we throw our old calendars, desk diaries and wall planners out, let’s take a look at what’s been hitting the blogs this past week – and because it’s Christmas, if an author submitted more than one post, I’ve used them all… 🙂

First up we have this week’s contribution from everyone’s favourite “Babe in the Universe“, Louise Riofrio, who takes a look at the latest news concerning the discovery of water on the Moon. Louise reports direct from the giant American Geophysical Union meeting in San, explaining how the the clues were first found as Cassini passed the Moon in 1999. “Recent data from Chandrayaan and EPOXI,” she says, “confirm the presence of water and/or hydroxyl. ” Louise thinks that this discovery strengthens the case for someday settling the Moon. “Someday”? I think that Someday will be many, many days in the future, sadly…

Over at “Centauri Dreams“, in his post “A Super-Earth with an atmosphere“, Paul Gilster writes about the fascinating planet discovered around GJ 1214, which has an atmosphere that can probably be studied by Hubble…

…and talking about atmospheres (you see what I did there? 🙂 ), if you wander over to “Steve’s Astro-corner” you’ll find Stephen Tilford pondering the origins of our beautiful planet’s atmosphere.

It seems that space bloggers called Steve are like buses – you see none for ages, then two come along at once! For Carnival #134, Steve Nerlich, who writes the popular “Cheap Astronomy” blog, has submitted the podcast he recorded for “365 Days of Astronomy” on the subject of “the puzzling anomalies that keep rocket scientists up at night.” Anomalies, eh? Hmmm. A multi-million (insert currency of your choice here) satellite, telescope or payload strapped to the top of a huge metal tube filled with highly explosive fuel – what could possibly go wrong..? 🙂

Christmas is all about giving, right? Ok, so it’s also about family arguments, undercooked turkeys basted with salmonella, suspiciously lumpy looking bottles of old Advocaat and settling back on the sofa to watch the Dr Who Christmas Day special, but it’s about giving too. And this week John Williams, who writes the “Starry Critters” blog (a new one for me, thanks John!) , has something he wants to share with all of us – an incredible image  taken by the recently-refurbished Hubble Space Telescope’s WFC3 camera, showing the myriad twinkling stars of R136 in the 30 Doradus Nebula. John says “Zooming around the image in full-screen mode is like unwrapping a second present. Is it the sugar, or do I feel heady from the starry wonder?” And I have to agree.

There are two blogs that anyone who claims to be “into” space or astronomy absolutely has to have bookmarked, and absolutely has to check at least once daily, or risk being arrested by the Judoon and thrown into the deepest, darkest dungeon of the Shadow Proclaimation faster than you can say “Mohofojokomofodo!!!” – and the “Bad Astronomy” blog written by the “Bad Astronomer” himself, Phil Plait, is one of them. This week Phil wants us all to read about a stunning Cassini image he saw recently, showing the shadow of Saturn’s largest moon, Titan, falling on Saturn’s cloudtops. It isn’t just a breathtaking visual image, explains Phil, it’s also packed with scientific information. Take a look for yourself here.

I said there were two essential blogs – which is the second? Well, it has to be the Planetary Society’s blog, which is overseen by Emily Lakdawalla. If you’re a newcomer here then you won’t know – but truist me when I tell you – that Emily’s science journalism is among the best on the net. Comprehensive but comprehensible, accurate but exciting, her blog posts put the articles and features of many so-called “professional reporters” who comment on space and astronomy in our newspapers and magazines to shame (yes, I’m looking at you, guy who recently referred to the Phoenix lander as a rover…!). For this week’s Carnival, Emily has two posts. In a superb piece of writing she explains how CASSINI finally spotted a flash of sunlight glinting off one of Titan’s lakes.

That observation will surely go down as one of the most important events of 2009, and the image used to illustrate Emily’s piece has already achieved iconic status. Emily also invites you to view the Planetary Society blog’s advent calendar, but instead of pieces of chocolate, each door hides a breathtaking image of a body in the solar system. You can start drooling over the beautiful pictures by going here.

… and talking of droolsome pictures, at Kimberley Kowal Arcand’sChandra Blog” – which you don’t have to be Sherlock Holmes to work out is the blog of the Chandra X-Ray observatory – you can read all about how Chandra scientists are comparing images of supernova remnants  to see how the shape of the remnant is connected to the way the progenitor star exploded.

One of my favourite writers on t’internet is CC Peterson, aka the “Spacewriter”. Her ‘ramblings‘ (her description, not mine!) are followed by a very loyal readership, and so I’m delighted she has two entries in this week’s Carnival here on CUMBRIAN SKY. In one post she ponders the whole 2012 thing – you know, the almost gleeful predictions that the world will end in 2012 and that the Mayans predicted it. CC puts forward an argument that the 2012 hoopla might not be that bad a thing, and actually shows us in a good light – I’ll let her explain. ( Personally I just want to give 2012 believers athe same Benny Hill slap on the head I give to Apollo Hoax Believers! 🙂 ) CC’s second post, “Gifting the Cosmos“, has some useful ideas for presents for your space- and astronomy-loving loved ones.

Last week’s excellent Carnival was held over at the “Next Big Future” blog, and this week its writer, Brian Wang, has an entry telling us all about the latest developments in the study of using nuclear propulsion for interplanetary missions. I’ll be totally honest, it’s farther over my head than the London Eye, but  if you’re more technically minded than me, and have an interest in this field of study, you’ll find it absolutely fascinating. 

As the shuttle fleet nears its retirement date, and its replacement is still – ahem – up in the air, more and more private companies, universities and even individuals are seeking ways of getting their scientific payloads into space, and having them installed and operated on the ISS. On his “Kentucky Space” blog, Wayne Hall describes how “Kentucky Space delivered flight-ready hardware to Florida last week for Shuttle delivery to the International Space Station in March.” The Nanorack and Cubelab tandem will, he believes, “dramatically lower the cost of microgravity research for organizations that would like to experiment in this environment, but have been deterred by high cost.” This can only be good news of groups wanting to conduct research onboard the ISS, and it’s hard to disagree with Wayne when he says that “With regular orbital access and space available on the first of three planned Nanoracks, a unique research opportunity for your “Cubelab” is available.”

One of the very best things about the Carnival of Space is the way it introduces you to new blogs, blogs you would never have found any other way. It’s like panning for gold – occasionally you spot a real nugget glinting and flashing away amongst all the silt and crud. This week’s twinkliest nugget, for me at least, is the blog “We Are All In The Gutter“, which is written by – and I quote – “a bunch of selfish transients or astronomy researchers, whichever term you prefer.” 🙂 It’s “Dark Matter Week” on the blog, and if you go there you can read all about the latest results from the CDMS – that’s the Cryogenic Dark Matter Search. Emma Rigby and her friends have a fantastic blog here (and BTW, if you were wondering where the title of the blog comes from, it comes from the quote “We are all in the gutter, but some of us are looking at the stars.” from Lady Windermere’s Fan by Oscar Wilde), which you absolutely must read, and I have a sneaking suspicion that when they get together it’s like a real life “Big Bang Theory”! 🙂

Alan Boyle’sCosmic Log” blog is a very, very dangerous place. It’s one of those sites on the net that you go to planning to just “take a quick look at” and before you know it it’s dark outside and all your family have gone to bed. This week Alan submitted three posts for consideration, and I’m going to use all of them, partly because I honestly couldn’t choose just one to use, but also because it’s Christmas, so ho ho ho and all that… 🙂 “Alien ‘water world’ found”  “Koreans plan space tours” and my own favourite,  “50 years of science sagas” (“How do you summarize the past 50 years of discoveries in science, technology, engineering, medicine and mathematics? And how do you predict what breakthroughs will be made in the next 50 years? That kind of challenge would be doubly daunting for any one person – but fortunately, we have a huge crowd of science fans to help with the task. Coming up with the top 50 sagas in science is one of the ways that the Council for the Advancement of Science Writing plans to mark its 50th anniversary in 2010.”)

Alice Enevoldsen’s blog, the it-does-what-it-says-on-the-tin “Alice’s Astroinfo“, is a place you can go to and be guaranteed a good read. Alice is one of those bloggers who really keeps her finger on the space world’s pulse, and this week she has two posts for you to enjoy.

The first one caught my eye because, as a self-confessed “Mars nut”, I am absolutely fascinated by the work being done on the martian meteorite ALH84001, and on her blog this week Alice asks: “Curious about how magnetotactic bacteria work, and why we can find traces of them in ALH84001 when we wouldn’t be able to find traces of other bacteria? Well – check this out  to answer some basic questions about magnetotactic bacteria.” And for her second post, Alice makes an impassioned plea for everyone to listen to a podcast by American space writer and broadcaster Jay O’Callohan. Now, I trust Alice, but I must admit, my first thought was “Who?” and with little time to do any research I fired off an email to her, asking who Jay was. She replied: “Jay O’Callahan is a notable American storyteller – some might say he’s the best in the nation, though that is subjective and I doubt anyone has heard every great storyteller. He is truly wonderful, and the stories he writes and tells weave scientific fact in so expertly you hardly notice that you’re getting a cool lecture at the same time as you hear a fun story. Kids and adults hang on his every word, and he’s published several children’s books in addition to numerous CD productions.” Sounds like quite a character! Check out the podcast and find out for yourself…

Ian Musgrave is the “Astroblogger“, and this week he gets a bit Trekkie with his post “Earth-like world around Sun-like star“. “It’s an Earth-like world, but not as we know it.” says Ian. As Spock would say, with a single raised eyebrow – “Fascinating…” 🙂

Now… it is meant to be Christmas, right? I mean, I just looked at my wall planner and it says December 23rd… and there’s a decorated christmas tree over there, and a load of cards over there, and outside the snow is thick and crumpy on the ground, but the Christmas Spirit has evaporated for the UK’s astronomers and physicists in the past week or so. Why? Well, my namesake – but no relation – Stuart, who writes the “Astronomy Blog“, has the full, shameful and shaming story of almost barbaric cuts to the budgets of UK astronomy and physics, in all its this-is-so-stupid-I-want-to-bang-my-head-against-the-wall! glory, in this post on his blog. “What the STFC UK?” Stuart’s opening paragraph describes the situation both eloquently and agonisingly: “I’ve been putting off writing about this for a few days because it has been too painful: the UK is ending the International Year of Astronomy with a war on physics.”

Even before I read Stuart’s excellent post on this story I was angry about it. It’s hard to escape the conclusion that, here in the UK at least, politicians don’t appreciate the importance of scientific research or realise how crucial it is to our economy. I’ve thought for a while that, in general, politicians are threatened and intimidated by scientists, because they make them realise how ignorant they really are. Science = political antimatter. A politician would, in general, rather kiss a sick-covered baby than be seen in a laboratory or at the eyepiece of a telescope, because they think it would make them look “geeky” or, horror of horrors, intelligent. It’s actually a very simple equation: to a politician, science+technology+education+outreach = no votes. Unlike Nature, politicians adore a vacuum; they can fill it with BS. And it’s awful to realise that the Govt here in the UK is clearly happy to financially bail-out corrupt banks, and essentially steal off their own people by claiming outrageous expenses, but rip the guts out of UK science. But they won’t lose any sleep over it; as long as they can keep everyone in their homes watching X Factor and Jeremy Kyle, at least then they’re not Thinking, eh?

Ok, you can come out now, rant over! 🙂

Update: It wouldn’t be a Carnival of Space without a contribution from Nancy Atkinson (again, no relation!) over at “Universe Today“. Like Phil Plait, Nancy was inspired by the image of sunlight glinting off a Titanian lake. You can read her post here.

Well, that’s it for this week’s Carnival. As 2009 draws to a close, it’s worth a look back at what a fascinating and exciting year it’s been. The two seemingly-immortal (uh-oh, kiss of death or what?!) Mars Exploration Rovers have continued to delight and excite us with their beautiful images of the Red Planet. Opportunity has had a fine old time collecting meteorites, while Spirit has stubbornly refused to just give up and settle into its martian dustbowl beside Homeplate and has been spinning her wheels with a passion, determined to get free again. At Saturn, Cassini has sent back one jaw-droppingly stunning image after another, showing us the planet’s moons, rings and storms in unprecedented detail. Throughout the solar system other probes have worked tirelessly to increase our knowledge and understanding of our cosmic backyard, at the same time as might telescopes like Hubble and Kepler have pushed back the boundaries of our knolwdge about deep space and what’s “out there”. 2009 saw the discovery of many, many more exploanets (the discovery of a true Alien Earth can’t be far away, surely?!), while up in Earth orbit astronauts from many countries worked together to help complete the International Space Station. All these things, and many, many more, we’ve been able to follow and enjoy online, and many of us space enthusiasts, armchair explorers and “citizen scientists” have been moved to write about them on our space blogs.

What will 2010 bring? I can predict that in one word:


Have a great Christmas everyone!


Very puzzled… Months and months after I wrote it, my initial review of the 2009 “Star Trek” movie is still the most frequently read and most popular post on my blog, with dozens of views each day…

Yes, puzzled, but grateful too! I just hope some of the Trek fans who come here take a few minutes to read some of the other posts; the real life universe is even more wonderful, beautiful and exciting than the Trek one! 🙂

2009 Geminid meteor shower report

So…. yesterday was a fairly decent day, with quite a clear sky through the afternoon, then clouds rolled in right as it started to get dark… clear sky again at 9pm, while I was still at work, of course, and by the time I had walked back home, got changed, grabbed my binocs and trudged over to the park across the road from my flat to start Geminid watching it was cloudy again… There were a couple of small gaps, but no Geminids were seen through them, so I retreated back inside to wait for an hour and try again… Back outside, the sky was clearish, and I saw 10, maybe 11, non-remarkable Geminids in a frustrating half an hour, then back came the clouds… I retreated to bed, defeated at 01.00, but my mobile’s alarm was set for “on the hour”… 02.00 – cloud… 03.00 – cloud… 04.00 – cloud… 05.oo – cloud… 06.00 – cloud, and it was time to go back to work anyway…

What a waste of time. Seriously, I might as well live on Titan or Venus.

British weather, I hate you with a fist-clenching, knuckle-whitening, Kirk screaming “Khaaaaaaaaan!!!” passion. 😦 😦 😦

METEOR SHOWER visible in – ahem – the Cumbrian Sky this weekend…

If the night sky is clear over this weekend, skywatchers and stargazers across Cumbria – and across the UK – should be in for a treat, as one of the year’s best meteor showers reaches its peak.
Every mid-December the “GEMINID” meteor shower happens when the Earth passes through a stream of tiny pieces of space dust. As these particles streak through the atmosphere they burn up, and we see them as streaks and flashes of light in the night sky – shooting stars.
You don’t need a telescope to watch the show, in fact a telescope is useless: all you have to do is go outside, look up, and wait. Eventually you’ll start to see shooting stars! Some will be bright, some will be faint. Some will be brightly coloured too.
The best time to look out for the shooting stars is late Sunday evening and into Monday morning. The later (and longer!) you look, the more you’ll see. If the shower puts on a good show, we might see as many as two or three every minute, but the exact number we’ll see can’t be predicted. But one thing is certain – if the sky is clear this weekend, we’ll see a lot more shooting stars than usual.
Happy hunting!

An Enterprise will fly in space – but not yet, and not this one…


And so, finally, after months of waiting and teasing, on Monday, with much pomp and ceremony, and with flashing lights galore, “Spaceship 2”, the ‘world’s first commercial passenger-carrying spacecraft’, was revealed to the world…

The billioniare behind the program, Virgin boss Richard Branson, could hardly contain himself he was so excited, and as he stood there, in front of his super-sleek spaceship, beaming for the crowds of photographers, reporters and space enthusiasts, it was clear this is something he really believes in, passionately, and isn’t just doing it for the money, the exposure or the glory. He’s helped create a beautiful spacecraft, that’s for sure. With its swept back wings and bullet-shaped fuselage, carried into space by “Eve”, SS2 looks every inch the 21st century private spaceplane, and predictably the media have gone into absolute fawning meltdown over it, giddily declaring that “The Age of private spaceflight is here!” and “Soon flights into space will be available for everyone!”

Sorry to be a party-pooper, but, um, that’s not actually the case, is it?

I mean, no disrespect to the ship, or the team behind it; I’m sure it will really shake things up a bit. But the very bottom line is that, as I understand it, SS2 will NOT go “into space”. Now, before anyone writes a comment pointing out that “space technically begins xx km up, so technically speaking SS2 WILL go into space”, let’s be honest, shall we? SS2 is a sub-orbital craft. It will go up TO THE EDGE of space, give its mega-rich, fare-paying passengers a few precious moments of zero gravity, and a chance to see the blue and white Earth curving and spread out below them inbetween spattering barfs into their complimentary “Virgin Galactic” sick bags, then it, and them, will come down again. It will not go into orbit. It will not have to re-enter. That will have to wait for a later model, perhaps SS3 or even SS4. So – at the risk of being blasphemous here – I personally have a bit of a hard time thinking of SS2 as a “spacecraft”.

And I’m sorry, but the arrival of SS2 absolutely does NOT “open up space travel to normal people”. Come on, be serious. It opens up sub-orbital trips to the edge of space to mega-rich people who have ÂŁ120,000 to throw away. That’s not you, or me; that’s not the people who enjoy a week’s holiday in Spain or Greece every summer; that’s not the family that treats itself to a two week break in Florida. SS2 is for millionaires – pop stars, movie celebrities, businessmen, etc. One day the price will come down, that is absolutely certain, but for the forseeable future “space” will still be reserved for either a) professional astronauts or rich people flying to the space station, or b) rich people who don’t mind forking out more money than I’d earn in half a dozen years just for 5 minutes of floating about.

So I’m sorry, but I’m going to wait until the first private spacecraft actually goes into orbit, and comes down safely again, until I’m ready to accept that a Bright New Age has begun. That age is on the horizon, certainly, but it’s not here yet.

But taking off my Mr Grumpy hat, when I saw the pictures of the grand unveiling I was quite excited about one aspect of the SS2 story for an hour or so – its name. “Richard Branson has chosen his spacecraft’s name well,” I thought. And when you think about it, what other name could he have chosen..?

Ah… there you go… see?


Now, to many people “out there” that’s just a name, just a word. But if you’re like me, just saying – just thinking – that word makes you shiver just a little bit. Because “Enterprise” IS ‘space’ for many, many people, perhaps two whole generations of people, thanks to a certain rather famous science fiction series from Ye Olden Days…

Ever since I was a young kid, watching STAR TREK on the small, cranky, you-often-have-to-slap-it-on-the-top-to-make-it-work black and white portable telly I had in my bedroom, I’ve been in love with the USS Enterprise. And I don’t use that word lightly. I LOVE that ship. I must be one of the few people in the world who wasn’t bored during the five minute long sequence in STAR TREK: THE MOTION PICTURE when Kirk’s shuttle drifts around the newly-refitted Enterprise in its drydock, high above the Earth. I loved every drawn-out, self-indulgent, over the top, space geek porn moment of it. I was there, in that shuttle, peering over Kirk’s shoulder, wanting to push him out of the way, drinking in every moment, savouring the sight of the spotlights bouncing off the great starship’s hull, loving it, just loving it…

And I’ve loved every version of the Enterprise that’s appeared on-screen since (well, with the obvious exception of the Excelsior class version; god, that’s an ugly spaceship design, isn’t it? What were they thinking? That monstrosity even makes an Orion capsule look graceful – actually, no, it doesn’t, I take that back, sorry! 😉 )

The “re-imagined” Enterprise-on-steroids featured in the new movie has been criticised brutally by some fans as being too far removed from the original(s), design-wise, and for being just too big. Trek fans who take this very seriously have – somehow – measured the size of the new ship and reckon it’s about the same size as one of those wedge-shaped Imperial Star Destroyers from Star Wars, i.e. much, much bigger than the “original” Enterprise seen in the TV series and early films, which is a huge enough crime against Trek to warrant execution for Producer JJ Abrams. Personally, I’m not that bothered. Externally the new Enterprise is just gorgeous – even if it is a lot bigger – and it is true to the heart, spirit and soul of the original spaceship. It has the same sleek lines, the same powerful-looking engines, the same graceful saucer section. It’s a design classic, like Concorde, a Rolls Royce, or Ugg boots on a tall blonde. It just works. It just Looks Right.

(Actually, I do have a problem with the new Enterprise, Mr Abrams, if you’re reading this. My problem is with the ship’s interior – its bloody awful. The engineering decks are all huge tanks, gantries and metal railings and ladders that make it look more like the inside of a brewery than the heart of a starship. And those Scotty-scooting water pipes? Where did you get those from, Willy Wonka’s factory?! Please. I hope you change it for the sequel, I really do. I won’t even need an explanation why it changed between films, just get rid of all the pipes and tubes that make it look like a huge version of “Mousetrap” and I’ll be happy…!)

How much do I love the Enterprise? Ok. Confession time: yesterday whilst shopping in Blackpool (which was shut, by the way, as it’s the end of the holiday season and every shop along the seafront was either closed or boarded up. Not a stick of rock, box of fudge or bag of cinder toffee to be found anywhere, very poor!) yesterday, I found something that I just had to have. It was duly bought for me by my ever-supportive and understanding partner, and I’ll be given it for Christmas. What is it? This…

Yep, a model of the USS Enterprise from the new movie. Ok, when I say “model” I suppose I really mean “toy”, because it’s plastic, has flashing lights, and when you press a button dialogue from the movie comes out of a little speaker, but I don’t care! I saw it sitting there on a shelf – discounted to a third of its original price – and knew I had to have it, because … well, because I’ve always wanted a model of the Enterprise, and I’ve never had one, just like I never had one of the classic Airfix Saturn V rocket kits, becauase they were too expensive (pauses for “Awwwww!” from readers). I did have an Airfix kit of the “Eagle” lunar lander, but that fell off a shelf and broke. I had a plastic model kit of a space shuttle orbiter too, but that broke as well, and wasn’t really that good anyway. But haha, now I have my Enterprise!

Seriously, why is this spaceship and its appearances on screen such a big deal to me, and to so many other people? Isn’t it just a stupid spaceship – and a make-believe one at that?

Well, the thing is, to me – and I say this in the full knowledge that some of you reading this will laugh at me, but I don’t care – the Enterprise represents spaceflight just as much as an Apollo lunar module or space shuttle orbiter does. It stands for the spirit of exploration, and speaks to me, and many people like me, of the beauty of just Going Out There. Look at this picture:

Isn’t that the kind of spaceship that Mankind deserves to travel to the stars in? Isn’t that the kind of spacecraft that should carry into space members of the same species responsible for the Pyramids, the Great Wall of China and the Taj Mahal? It isn’t “functional-looking”, it isn’t “practical”, I know, but it’s… beautiful, it’s worthy of us.

And this is why I am so anti-Orion. Yes, I know that compared to the space shuttle it is a safer design, it’s more versatile, it’s more practical, yada yada yada, but it’s a hideous, snub-nosed, pug-ugly looking thing, and if I was an astronaut, putting my ass on the line, I’d much rather fly into space, and (hopefully) come home again, in something that at least looks sleek and graceful and attractive, instead of something that looks like a recycled Apollo capsule. I know that’s not a popular or common view, but it’s mine, and it’s heartfelt, and I won’t change. After a generation of runway landings and walking down steps, astronauts deserve better than to return to Earth strapped into a metal can and dumped into the ocean. It’s just wrong.

Anyway, back to my original point: I was initially delighted to see the name “Enterprise” on the side of SS2 when it was unveiled, and thought “Finally! An Enterprise in space – !” Then I remembered, SS2 isn’t going INTO space, is it?

And I thought “Oh crap… this is the first space shuttle, all over again…” 😦

History lesson for all you young ‘uns. Back in the late 1970s, when the Moon landings were a memory and NASA was preparing to fly the first space shuttle missions, there was a massive campaign by Star Trek fans to get the first space shuttle named “Enterprise”, in honour of their beloved starship. And yaay! Their campaign succeeded! “Enterprise” was duly rolled out with great fanfare, gleaming white in the sun, and Gene Roddenberry and members of the Star Trek cast came along, in their best wide-collared suits and flares, to see the shuttle and celebrate, along with many of the series’ fans…

But it was a massive own-goal, because the first shuttle built was destined to never actually fly in space – it was a test vehicle, designed to be carried aloft by a modified 747 jet and then let go, to glide down to a runway landing after its short flight, the idea being to see how well it handled, aerodynamically, as it flew through the air after re-entering the atmosphere…

The so-called “Approach and landing tests” were great successes, but, sadly, Star Trek fans never got to hear astronauts talking to Earth from an orbiting “Enterprise”. And that’ll be true with SS2, too. The spaceplane won’t truly go into space, won’t actually orbit the Earth, so the dream of having an “Enterprise” actually In Space is going to remain that for a while longer, which I’m quite sad about.

The shuttle “Enterprise” now stands in a gallery inside the famous Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum. I hope to go and see it myself one day, walk alongside it, and take photographs like this…

In the Smithsonian’s Washington “Mall” site is the Smithsonian’s shop, and what has pride of place within the shop..? This wonderful, beautiful model…

So ha! It’s not just me, is it? Alongside the world’s largest collection of famous aircraft and spacecraft there stands a model of a fictional spaceship that has, for almost four decades, captured the imaginations and hearts of millions and millions of people around the world. If I ever get to the Smithsonian I’ll probably spend almost as long looking at that model as I will gazing wide-eyed at the real spacacraft on display there… 🙂

I know we’re a long, long way from building a real Enterprise. We’re a good century, at least, away from being able to go up to the fence of a starship construction yard and see this view…

But one day we will build an Enterprise, I truly believe that. Probably not a starship; our first starships will be functional, practical and ugly – no need for them to be anything else as they cross the gulf between the stars, after all – but more likely a life size model, designed as a tourist attraction for guests at some orbital hotel to ooh and aaah over from the hotel’s observation deck. But that’s okay, it will still serve its purpose, it will still call out to us and inspire us just by being there.

That’s why I’ll be proud to have that model of the starship Enterprise standing on my bookshelves after breakfast on Christmas day, even if it is just a toy, really.

It’s a shame that SS2 “Enterprise” won’t fly into space. But one day a real spaceship bearing that name – perhaps built by Richard Branson, perhaps built by one of his competitors, perhaps even built by NASA – will leap away from ground, slide into orbit around the Earth, and millions of people around the world will grin from ear to ear as they hear the spacecraft’s name spoken by its astronauts and ground controllers, then go outside, into their gardens, look up and see a spark of light skating across the starry sky, and know that, at last, after all the waiting, an Enterprise is finally in space.

Where it belongs.


NOTE: For a very well-informed and constructive examination of the ways in which SS2 could eventually make space travel for private citizens more affordable and easier, I urge you to read the Comment by my good friend Dan Brennan at the end of this post. Dan has a much greater understanding of the economic side of this, and I’m grateful to him to showing me the other side of the coin. Thanks Dan! 🙂

Circling Marquette…

Opportunity has been taking some more images of the huge chunk of rock called “Marquette Island”.  Here’s a colour view I made by combining three black and white images taken through different coloured filters…

Lots more images of this rock over on my “Road to Endeavour” blog (see list of Links, opposite)

It’s Carnival time again… :-)

This week’s CARNIVAL OF SPACE is the 132nd, and you can read it here:


Some great blog posts there for you to enjoy! 🙂