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Amazing times we live in…

While waiting to see the new “raw” Cassini images of Saturn’s moon Mimas this morning, it hit me, like a slap across the face, just how amazing the times we live in are…

As a member of the popular Unmannedspaceflight.com forum I frequently read posts from people moaning about how long they’re having to wait for images to come back from CASSINI, or LRO, or the Mars rovers, and it makes me laugh, it really does, because compared to how things were back in the “Voyager” days of the 70s and 80s, space enthusiasts like me are spoiled absolutely ROTTEN nowadays! The kids who are “into space” today don’t know they’re born!

I vividly remember how frustrating it was waiting to see the images when Voyager 2 flew past each of the giant planets during their Grand Tour. A handful appeared on the TV news on the night of each encounter – the few given to the media by NASA – and the next morning, if we were lucky, a couple more appeared in a daily paper, but seeing any more meant waiting months, and I mean months, for a special issue of “SKY & TELESCOPE”, “ASTRONOMY” or “NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC” to hit the shelves, featuring lots more pictures of the planets and their moons. I still have some of those NAT GEO specials over there, on my bookshelves, which are straining under the weight of all the Mars books crammed into them…

Of course, things changed radically with the rise of the web, and by the time Pathfinder landed on Mars, and Sojourner started to drive across the surface of the red planet, NASA was releasing images freely onto the internet for everyone to see. I wasn’t online then yet, so I had to rely on the generosity of friends who printed out the pictures taken by Sojourner and pushed them through my letterbox while I was at work, but it was still quite magical to see those pictures of Ares Valley’s rocks and boulders and dust dunes just a matter of hours after they were taken on Mars…

Today, things have moved on even more dramatically. Today, when I woke up, I was able to go online and download new images of the surface of Mars, taken by the Mars rovers, even before the kettle had boiled and before my eyes were properly open. And jjust an hour or so ago I sat here, at this very computer, looking at this very screen, and watched wide-eyed as dozens of “new” images of Mimas, Saturn’s famous “Death Star moon”, like this…

…were posted online for the whole world to see, just hours after they were taken way, waaay Out There.

It’s unbelievable, it really is.

But now I don’t even need to be near my computer to do this! Now I can sit in the car, or in a quiet corner of a busy pub, or pause in a shop doorway while out on a trip to Iceland to buy milk and toilet paper, and see new images from space on my phone!

I know many people take this for granted, but I can’t, not just yet, anyway. You see, in my heart I’m still the same frustrated teenager who went into his local – and very tolerant! – newsagents every day (and I do mean EVERY day!) at the start of each month to scan the shelves, without success, then go up to the counter and ask impatiently and forlornly, yet again, “Are any of my magazines in yet?” as I threatened to explode with the anticipation of seeing new images from spaceprobes and telescopes.

And that’s why I don’t allow myself to get frustrated when some images from Saturn, or Mars, or Mercury or Venus or some other planet or moon don’t appear on the net at exactly the time promised. I remember what it was like around my 21st birthday to watch TV news after TV news in the vain hope of seeing just a few more pictures of Uranus as seen through Voyager 2’s eyes, and I remember, with a shudder, what it was like to go into that newsagent’s and be told that he had accidentally sold my reserved copy of the SKY AND TELESCOPE featuring the first images returned by Pathfinder. I eventually found a copy in a shop 30 miles away (as you can see from the picture at the top of this post) but I wouldn’t want to go back to those dark, dark days for anything…

And I tell you what’s even MORE amazing: when I started doing Outreach talks it was back in the Days Of Slides, when Powerpoint hadn’t been thought of and laptops and video projectors were science fiction. If I wanted to show a picture at a talk at a school, or to a Women’s Institute or some other organisation, or at my astronomy society monthly meeting, I had to use my SLR – with its fancy zoom lens – photograph a magazine page, or a paused image on a video tape, onto slide film… post that slide film away and wait a week for it to come back… go through the rattly-rattly box of slides and pick out the best ones… put them into a long slide magazine and then show them with my Jurassic era slide projector, that threatened to jam every fourth or fifth slide… How I shudder at the memory!

Many years ago “doing a school talk” meant lugging a slide projector and a box full of slides, packed into rucksacks, to the school in question and setting everything up on a table in the middle of the room, just waiting for one stupid poor kid to bang into the table and send the hundred slides hissing and skimming across the floor, ruining everything. Now? Now I have a folder full of Powerpoint presentations, which are all updated regularly with new images, and “doing a school talk” means transferring one of those presentations onto a USB stick, putting it in my pocket, going to the school, sliding the stick into the classroom’s PC and showing it on their hi-tech Smartboard. It’s a different world.

AND… most amazing of all… last night one of my colourisations of Spirit stuck at Troy was used on THE SKY AT NIGHT!!!!

🙂 🙂 🙂