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Sleep well Phoenix – and thank you…

Two years ago today I was sat here at this very computer, nervously awaiting the safe landing of the Phoenix probe near the north pole of Mars. Thankfully the landing went well, and for the next 5 months I followed the mission closely, checking for new images every day, turning many of those images into colourised versions and even 3D views. You can find my coverage of the Phoenix mission here.

Phoenix went into a kind of hibernation five months after landing on Mars, as the martian winter closed in on the little spaceprobe and soon began to chill it to its core. We were pretty clear on what would happen next – ice would creep towards and then cover the lander, putting extreme pressure on its structure and delicate electronics, especially its fragile solar panels. When it went to sleep most people believed that was it, that it wouldn’t survive until Spring’s thaws, but some dared to believe that maybe, just maybe, Phoenix would survive, and, eventually, phone home to let NASA and all its followers around the world know that it had prevailed after all…

We now know that’s not going to happen.

NASA listened out for a signal from Phoenix many, many times over the past couple of months, but heard nothing, and we now know why: sometime during the brutal martian polar winter, Phoenix perished. New images taken by the HiRISE camera onboard the MRO probe suggest that one of those solar panels broke off sometime during the winter, thanks to the weight of ice that had formed upon it. Look at these “Before” and “After” images and you’ll see the difference for yourself…

Where there should be a round solar panel on the left, there’s just a gap, and the ground beneath. What we’re propbably looking at there are the tinkling, twinkling, shattered pieces of the circular solar array, dropped to the ground and covered in dust.

There’ll be no return from the dead for Phoenix. Her mission is over.

Phoenix’s five month’s of martian exploration was a fascinating, exciting, frustrating time. The story of her time on Mars is a story of ice discovered, clouds spotted, winds felt and stunning photographs taken. It’s also a story of failed ovens, and wasted dirt samples. But at the end of the sol, Phoenix’s mission was a triumph – she sent back images of beautiful bright ice flakes, scraped out from beneath the surface of Mars, and told us that her landing site could, possibly, perhaps, maybe, once, have been more friendly towards life.

So, farewell Phoenix, you showed us Mars as we’d never seen it before. Sleep now, you deserve your rest.

NLC season is almost upon us again…

… so there’s a new page here on Cumbrian Sky to keep you posted with reports of any displays. To go to it, just click on the “NLC” tab up at the top of the page there. 🙂

Oi! Doctor!

Dear Doctor…

That big blue box of yours – you know, the one with the flashing light on the top? That’s bigger on the inside than the outside? It’s a TARDIS! It can travel in Time AND Space! It can take you and Amy anywhere in the universe – the universe! – that you want! Absolutely anywhere! You told her at the start of your adventures together…

“So… All of time and space, everything that ever happened, or ever will, where do you want to start?”

Now, I’m no mind reader, but I’m pretty ***** sure she didn’t imagine going back to Earth every **** week! All those stars and planets out there, all those alien civilisations, all those amazing places, and you keep dragging the poor girl back to Earth – not just to Earth, but to England, or Wales, and usually to some boring little town or village in England or Wales. That poor, poor girl! Those impossibly-long, slim, cowboy-booted legs of hers deserve to be striding across alien landscapes, kicking alien baddies in their lunchboxes and leaping over alien canyons… not trudging around another yawn-inducing cemetery or down another country lane.

Will you please, PLEASE twiddle some knobs and throw some levers and take the TARDIS, and Amy, somewhere amazing Out There! Leave Earth to get along on its own for a while!

Oh, and while you’re at it, please, pleeeeeeeeeeease dump Rory. He’s a wet, moaning, wimpy waste of Time and Space. We all know he’s only there as an Everyman figure, to make you look all alien and decisive and masterful – no offence – and very few of us are convinced by the whole him and Amy thing anyway. Send him back to Earth – or rop one of those new fat-arsed Daleks on him and squash him – and take Amy somewhere amazing, somewhere fantastic.

Somewhere that doesn’t look like Wales.

Thank you 🙂

Gazing across the gulf of Time…

It’s always a wonderful feeling when you see a photograph and it’s so powerful, so moving, it calls out to something inside you so strongly and so loudly that it reaches into you, like a ghostly hand, takes a firm grip of your insides and squeezes them, hard. Images and moments like that are few and far between, so I savour them…

Which is why I was left almost breathless the other morning when two such images flashed up on my monitor here within the space of five minutes.

I’d got up for work early as usual, at 6am, and turned on my PC while drifting around the living room, putting the TV and kettle on, getting my bag ready, etc. Like most of you reading this I have a small number of websites I check religiously every morning, my “favourite Favourites” if you like. I check Spaceweather.com to see if anyone’s seen a stunning aurora overnight… Bad Astronomy to see what Phil has written about while I’ve been asleep… Universe Today to get the latest news… and, of course, old faithful “APOD”, Astronomy Picture Of the Day, which shines a spotlight on a diferent, stunning spacey image every day.

Usually the image on APOD is a pretty straightforward shot of a galaxy, or a planet, maybe a rocket launch. But this one was… different. It was this…

That beautiful image, by photographer Bret Webster, shows a panel of pictographs – ancient rock carvings – on one of the canyon walls in Horseshoe Canyon, in Canyonlands National Park, Utah. The APOD caption made the point that while the figures were very old – they had been etched into the wall of the canyon some 7000 years ago – the oldest things in the photograph, by far, were the stars in the sky, which were many billions of years old. Fair enough, and true enough, but I was quite hypnotised by the figures themselves, and imagined what went through the heads of the early – I refuse to say ‘primitive’ – people who etched them into the rock. What had they been doing before that? What events had inspired them to create such wonderful art? What were they hoping to achieve with it?

Then I went over to my home on t’internet, the unmannedspaceflight.com forum, and read all about the fantastic new raw images that Cassini had returned overnight (my time) after its latest encounter with Saturn’s fascinating, icy satellite Enceladus. “Hmmm,” I thought, sipping my tea and dunking a choccy biccie, “I’ll go take a look…”


My tea literally went cold while I gazed at that picture. Good grief… look at that… the south pole of Enceladus, in shadow, at the bottom of the frame, with Titan hanging in the sky above it, just clearing the horizon, and between them, the sword blade of Saturn’s rings… That’s a view straight out of a science fiction film, pulled from my very own frustrated space cadet imagination… but it’s real, a real photograph, taken god knows how many millions of miles away, beamed back to Earth and then, mere hours later, put online for the rest of the world to enjoy, for free, just for taking the time and trouble to click their mouse over the link on one of NASA’s countless websites…

Then I imagined the gulf in time between – and the bridge of time connecting – that pair of images, and for just a moment my head was literally spinning.

I mean, good god, just look what we’ve achieved in the space of a mere few thousand years. Just 7000 orbits of the Sun ago we were wearing animal skins and scratching and etching shapes and patterns into the crumbling stone walls of canyons. We had no idea of our place in the universe. We looked up and saw the stars and Hadn’t A Clue. We didn’t know what had happened before us, had no idea what would happen after us.

We grew up, of course. We grew up to master our environment, to tame and farm its creatures, and populate our planet. We grew up into a species that created beautiful paintings, sculptures and cathedrals – and tanks, cruise missiles and atomic bombs. We grew up into a race of poets and painters, explorers and adventurers, butchers and murderers. We discovered our place in the universe, and briefly left our Homeworld to explore the nearest part of it – only to turn our backs on it and run home again, scared by the expense, danger and vastness of the Great Black beyond our atmosphere.

… and we grew up to imagine a fabulous, fragile metal butterfly of a spaceprobe, which would be sent out to one of those lights in the sky, and we called it Cassini, after one of the scientists who had gazed at that sky light through a telescope. But we didn’t just imagine it, we designed it, built it, launched it on a roaring pillar of fire and then steered it halfway across the solar system towards, and then put it into orbit around that point of light, which we knew by then was a mysterious, magical behemoth of a planet, a bloated planet of  gas, a planet surrounded by a system of rings and a family of moons.

And one day Cassini swept around one of those moons, Enceladus, and took that stunning picture, a picture that will be featured in every decent astronomy book ever written from now.

I don’t know if any of the early people who etched those designs onto the walls of the canyon, 7000 years ago, ever looked up at their beautiful, totally light pollution free sky, and saw Saturn, but I like to imagine they did. I like to imagine that at the end of the very day on which they recorded their designs on that rock face, they strode out of the canyon, satisfied with their work, and looked up to see Saturn shining in the sky above them with its warm, golden light. Of course, they would have had no idea what it was, that it was a distant world, a world that dwarfed their own, a world with storms the size of planets and more moons than they had teeth, but maybe they found it an intriguing, perhaps even a comforting sight as they stared up at it. I don’t know.

But I do know that one day, unknown years from now, people will leave Earth and travel to Saturn, and after a journey of several years, peering out their window they’ll see this… Saturn’s rings, and Titan, through the plumes of the geysers erupting out of Enceladus…

That’s not a real photo, of course. It’s an image created by my fellow unmannedspaceflight.com member, AstroO, who combined and colourised several different Cassini images to create a make-believe portrait of the magical view astronauts will enjoy from a spaceship orbiting Enceladus. 

Take a few moments to look at that view properly, to really let the majesty of it sink in, and wonder what it would be like to see it with your own eyes…

Then consider this.

Eventually explorers from Earth will descend to and stand on Endeladus, their boots crumping down into the snow covering the south pole. They’ll stand there, on Enceladus’ alien, bizarre surface, and stand on the edge of one of the”Tiger Stripe”  sulci, or fissures, which contain the geysers. Standing there, close to the erupting geysers, they’ll see unbelievable things. What will go through their minds as they stand there, feeling Enceladus rumbling beneath their feet as fountains of water vapour explode into the black sky just a short distance away? How will they be moved to record their feelings, their experience?

Obviously, like any self-respecting tourist, they’ll take photographs, lots of photographs. But maybe they’ll feel the need to do something more personal. Maybe one of them will spot a suitably-flat piece of ice and record what they are seeing in a less hi-tech but oddly appropriate way… carving a cryoglyph* into the ice…

* thanks Nick! 🙂

View from a castle

Oh wow, I love my new camera. Ok, so it’s not really that ‘new’ any more, I’ve had it a good few weeks now, but it still feels new to me, especially when I try it out in a new place or a new situation and am impressed all over again by what it can do.

Like Sunday night. After finishing work I raced home, grabbed my camera and took off across the river and then up the steep hill to Kendal Castle, in the hope of getting some pictures of the crescent Moon and Venus shining close together in the sunset sky. I was pretty confident I’d get something, I know the camera well enough now to be pretty sure that one of its many settings will get me a good pic, but Sunday night was one of those wonderful, rare nights when everything, just everything, came together- the weather, the camera, the light, the silence and the peace and quiet… When I headde back down the hill, and stomped over the river footbridge an hour and a half later I was quietly confident that there were a couple of half-decent images on the camera’s SD card…

They turned out far better than I hoped…

Can’t wait for noctilucent cloud season to begin! 🙂

A new iconic image of the Space Age..?

There are quite a few images taken during the ‘Space age’ widely agreed to be “iconic”: “Earthrise”… the bootprint on the Moon… Buzz Aldrin standing on the Moon in that Napoleonic pose… the discovery image of Io’s volcanoes…

Introducing a new one, an image that will be featured in books for years and years to come; an image that offers us a tantalising glimpse into the future, to the day when astronauts actually travel to Saturn and see such amazing sights with their own, startled, wonder-widened eyes…

What you’re seeing there, if I’m ‘reading’ it correctly, is the dark horizon of Enceladus at the bottom, with Titan rising up (or setting) beyond it, itself sliced by Saturn’s rings.

Incredible. Just incredible.

Cassini has taken some stunning images out at Saturn, but this one is one of its best. You’re going to see it e v e r y w h e r e….

And this one, showing three of the “fountains of Enceladus”, isn’t bad either…


And people ask me why I’m so fascinated by “space”… 🙂

Busiest day ever…

Because so many people – most notably the “Bad Astronomer” Phil Plait, and Universe Today’s Nancy Atkinson (no relation) – let their readers know about the 153rd Carnival of Space being hosted here this week, yesterday was the busiest day ever for this little blog of mine, setting a new record for visits…

Thanks to everyone who stopped by to read the Carnival entries. I hope you enjoyed them, and that you come back again. 🙂

The poetry of science…

I am VERY chuffed and VERY honoured that the SDO team has put my “First Light” poem up on their website…


🙂 🙂 🙂

Carnival of Space #153

Welcome to the 153rd “Carnival of Space”… and this week it’s a…

Well, everyone else is jumping on the 3D bandwagon, so why shouldn’t I? 🙂

If you’re a regular Carnival goer, then welcome to this week’s show, and welcome back to Cumbrian Sky. If this is your first visit to a Carnival, and you’re wondering what it is and what it’s for, it’s simple. The internet is brilliant, but basically there’s too much of it, it’s just too big; there’s so much happening Up There and Out There it’s hard, if not impossible, to keep track of things, isn’t it? So, every week a different blogger hosts on their blog a kind of “get together” for the bloggers who write about space exploration and astronomy, and generally spacey stuff, offering readers a chance to catch up on all the most interesting and exciting stuff in one go on one site. This week it’s my turn to host the “Carnival of Space”, and we have lots of fascinating and educational posts, from some of the best astronomy and space bloggers on the net, for  you to read. And because 3D is all the rage at the moment, I’ve taken the liberty of scattering some of my own favourite 3D images of Mars, including many showing the Red Planet as seen by the two heroic Mars rovers, Spirit and Opportunity. Images like this one (click on it, and all the others, to bring up larger versions)…

You’ll need a pair of those unflattering red and blue glasses to view these anaglyphs – the funkier “sunglass” type 3D glasses you, um, forgot to give back after you watched AVATAR won’t work. (If you haven’t got a pair of those, just wander down town to the discount bookshop there and you’ll almost certainly find a kids book on sale in there, probably about dinosaurs or bugs or something like that, that comes with one or even two free pairs of 3D glasses 🙂 )

Right, on with the Carnival!

First off this week, we have not one but two entries from Alan Boyle, who writes the Cosmic Log blog over at MSNBC.com. In his first post, Alan tells us all about the latest preparations for the launch of Elon Musk’s Falcon rocket. “SpaceX founder Elon Musk says it’s hard to imagine being under more pressure than he is now, during preparations for the first launch of a
rocket that’s being put forward as a replacement for the space shuttle
system.”, writes Alan. In his second Carnival offering this week, Alan reports on how NASA is preparing for the final, into-the-sunset flight of space shuttle orbiter “Atlantis”. I know the STS has had its problems, and perhaps didn’t live up to its initial promise, but I really will miss seeing those beautiful shuttles taking off, circling the space station and landing again. Whichever capsule replaces the shuttle it will look like a pug-ugly, snub-nosed throwback compared to the sleek, beautiful shuttle orbiters…

One of the most consistently thought-provoking blogs on the net is Brian Wang’s “Next Big Future”, and I’m delighted to be able to feature two of Brian’s fascinating posts this week:

“Lasermotive, winner of the power beaming competition of the space elevator games, provides details on power beaming to UAVs and powerbeaming among ground facilities” http://nextbigfuture.com/2010/05/laser-powerbeaming-to-uavs.html

“The path to Bose Einstein condensate positrinium then leads to gamma ray lasers which leads to better laser nuclear fusion.” http://nextbigfuture.com/2010/05/path-to-bose-einstein-condensate.html

Very popular blogger Dr Ian O’Neill, Space Producer of Discovery News, writes this week about how NASA has found life on Earth… Intrigued? I was too! Read on…!

Steve Nerlich writes a blog called “Cheap Astronomy“, but there’s nothing cheap about this enthusiasm and passion for the subject. This week, in a special podcast, he tells us all about the “Nice model of solar system formation“.

One of the most authoritative and respected space history bloggers is Robert Pearlman, whose blog CollectSpace is required reading for anyone with an interest in space exploration, past, present and future. For this week’s Carnival, Robert offers his post describing how NASA’s first Mission Control has been demolished.

Paul Gilster’s blog, “Centaurui Dreams“, is a big spacey chocolate box crammed full of tempting treats for deep thinkers. For this week’s Carnival he presents his post ‘Artificial Intelligence Among the Stars’: “Will evolving AI systems used for spacecraft design eventually become
sentient? Greg Bear gives one exciting read on the idea in his novel
Queen of Angels. Here I look at artificial intelligence in today’s
probes and discuss Paul Davies’ belief that any intelligent species we
run into in the galaxy is likely to be machine-based.”

Some blogs – like Cumbrian Sky (I hope!) – are ideal for dipping into and picking out a snippet of info, or looking at a gorgeous picture, without having your brain taxed too much. Other blogs are rather deeper and require lot more mental effort, but that effort is worth it because they open your mind to exciting and intriguing new ideas and concepts. One such blog is “21st Century Waves“, where Bruce Cordell uses a statistical crystal ball to try and gain glimpses into our future. For this week’s Carnival, Bruce takes a look at “The Greatest International Space Project of All Time” And what is that project? Make a few guesses before you click on the link and actually find out… 🙂

Mars is, as some of you will already know (and come on, if you didn’t already know that then all the 3D images are a pretty big clue!), my favourite planet, so I’m very happy to share with you John Williams’ post “Hiding in a Martian pit“, from his blog “Starry Critters“. In it, John explores what may be a door to a new home for future Martians.

Still on the subject of Mars, one of the most respected of all bloggers, Emily Lakdawalla – who writes the blog of The Planetary Society – has an absolutely fascinating martian tale to tell for this week’s Carnival. In a very personal post she describes  how one of the twin Mars rovers, all those many millions of miles from Earth, took part in “A Moment In Time“, a global photographic project organised by the New York Times.

Emily has also written an absolutely fascinating report on some surprising results from the Cassini probe, which might have found something interesting, very exotic, and very alien on the floors of some of Titan’s meandering river channels

I do a lot of Outreach work, and often after my talks I’m asked by a keen audience member if I can recommend any good websites. I always recommend Universe Today. Not just because it’s always guaranteed to have the very latest space news, but because it’s where where you can find brilliant articles and features by Nancy Atkinson (no relation, but I’d be proud to be!) For this week’s Carnival, Nancy offers her post describing an amazing event on Mars – a dust avalanche, triggered by a meteorite impact!

Nicole Gugliucci reports for the Carnival this week from the National Radio Astronomy Observatory in Green Bank “where diesel cars rule and microwaves hide in thick metal boxes.”

Remember the whole Pluto – Planet or Not? debate? Seems ages ago now. Well, even though the Pluto debate seems to have been settled, many people are now wondering about the status of other bodies in the solar system. Over on the “Weird Warp” blog, Chris Dann takes a look at the classification of Ceres.

It’s hard to think of an astronomy blog with a more eye-catching and intriguing name than “Dynamics of Cats”, which is where Steinn Sigurdsson has a report for the Carnival this week on NASA’s Senior Review of 2010, when the futures and fates of some NASA programs was decided. Kind of a “Pop Idol” results programme for space missions. Take a look at Steins’s post to see how your favourite fared.

One of the most popular blogs “out there” is Alice’s Astro Info, simply because it’s always an entertaining but educational read! This week Alice shares with us a touching story she had on 365 Days of Astronomy: “Iapetus and the Cassini Regio” Trust me, this is a story you’ll want to print out to keep, and share with other people, because Alice has the essential, key skill of a succesful Outreacher – she makes science fun!

One of the joys of hosting the Carnival is that you get to visit blogs you haven’t come across before. This week I was introduced to the Armagh Planetarium blog, which is written by Colin Johnston – and it’s a great blog! I wish I’d found it earlier! For this week’s Carnival, Colin shares with us some of the more… um… unusual theories about the nature of the Universe that he’s come across. Your eyes will roll as you read them, but at the end of his post Colin makes a very valid point about why it’s important to counter and not censor or just ignore such claims for the good of science as a whole. (I REALLY will have to get over to Armagh Planetarium one day, it looks like a wonderful place… 🙂 )

As NASA’s plans for human spaceflight lurch from one panel or proposal or review to the next, and manned missions to the Moon and Mars seem to recede further and further away into an uncertain future, many people are hoping that private industry and entrepeneurs will pick up the torch and open up the High Frontier. At the recent Space Economy Leadership Summit, held at Austin, Texas, panels looked at “job creation and entrepreneurship for the next economic frontier.” Kenneth Murphy attended the summit, and has posted a very comprehensive, and enlightening, report on the meeting  on his blog “Out of The Cradle“.

There’s no such thing as a ‘quick visit’ to Bruce Leeeowe’s blog Weird Sciences because there’s so much to read there, and it’s posts are so detailed too. It’s what I call a “two cups of tea blog” – one cuppa won’t last long enough while you’re there reading. For this week’s Carnival, Bruce has a very thought-provoking post on the possibility of life “Out There”, and looks at how learning as much as we can about extremophile life here on Earth  is vital if we’re to understand what life might be like out in the Great Black…

I don’t think this has ever happened before, but we have a “reader recommendation” this week! AFAIK, entries to the Carnival of Space are always submitted by their authors, but this week I was contacted by Carnival reader David Digwood, who suggested that a post by Paul Spudis on the “The Once and Future Moon” should be enjoyed by Carnival readers. I took a look and had to agree. So, take David’s advice and go read about “The Four Flavours of Lunar Water“. Thanks for the suggestion, David!

…and finally, my own contribution to this week’s Carnival is a poetic tribute to the amazing view Oppy (that’s the Mars Exploration Rover ‘Opportunity’, if you didn’t know) is currently enjoying. On the horizon she can see a range of hills that form the rim of the huge crater “Endeavour”, which she will hopefully reach in another year or so’s time. We’ll see. But I have every confidence in her and the men and women behind her. Never bet against a Mars rover doing anything, it’s a guaranteed way of losing your money… 🙂

Okay, the Carnival is closing now, so time to wrap things up and take off your 3D glasses, too! I hope you’ve enjoyed your visit here, and that you found something interesting this week. If you write a space blog, why not send in a contribution to next week’s Carnival? Or, better yet, think about hosting a future Carnival on your blog?

Thanks for stopping by Cumbrian Sky! 🙂

Mars rovers update…

Want a REALLY detailed, in depth look at what the two Mars Exploration Rovers, “Spirit” and “Opportunity” have been up to this past month? Then go to the latest update by the Planetary Society’s excellent science writer AJS Rayl…


I’m very proud that some of my images, and thoughts, sometimes appear in these updates, and there are a few in this month’s too.