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Waving a white flag at the sky…

Okay, that’s it – I give in. Cumbrian weather: you’ve won, you’ve beaten me. Every clear night since the start of June I’ve either stayed up until ridiculous o’clock, or set my alarm to wake me up at ridiculous o’clock, and then trekked up the high hill to Kendal castle, carrying a rucksack full of cameras and binoculars etc, in the hope of seeing noctilucent clouds, and you completely and absolutely ruined the 2010 season for me. Time after time I went up there, lured by a big area of clear sky to the north, and I swear that with every step I took that patch of sky grew smaller and smaller until, by the time I reached the castle, only cloud remained. That was bad enough, but to then wake up the next morning and read reports online of beautiful, stunning, glorious displays seen from across the rest of the UK, or across Europe, well, that was just pouring salt into the wound, adding vinegar and stirring the whole lot with a big, sharp stick.

I managed to grab a few photos of some modest, couldn’t-really-be-bothered displays, which I’m quite pleased with, but really, the season has been a bile-bitter disappointment, and to be honest I’ll be glad to see the back of it. I love astronomy, I really do, and I’m 10000 dedicated to it – which is why I managed to get the pictures I did – but this summer’s weather has really done my head in; night after gloomy night of tiny patches of clear sky in the midst of great thick saggy, fat blankets and quilts of sagging grey and black cloud, on the nights when it wasn’t actually hammering it down with rain…

Well, enough. No more speculative observing trips for me; I’m not going up to the castle now unless a) the sky is totally clear, and b) I either read on Twitter that a big display is in progress, or Phil Stobbart from EAS texts me to tell me there’s a display going on. So, Cumbrian weather, curse and damn you, you win – this time. This is me, waving my NLC 2010 season white flag.

My last trip up to the castle, last Friday night, was my final disappointment – the sky looked very clear as I started across the river and towards the castle, with a big area of clear sky calling to me from the north… but by the time I reached the top of the hill, that clear sky had been devoured by cloud, and my hopes of seeing a late-season display of NLC vanished. Yes, I swore, I actually swore at the sky.

But…

Then turning my back on the northern sky I saw a truly beautiful scene…

An almost-Full Moon, hanging just above Kendal Castle, shining through thin cloud (latecomer cloud, obviously, rushing north to fill in the final last patch of clear sky, just in case any NLC dared to show…!)… and a beautiful “Moon Dog” shining on either side of it, AND an “arc” of light glowing above it. Beautiful, just beautiful. And well worth trekking up to Kendal Castle for.

But NLC? You’re on your own now* 🙂

( * unless, of course, a huge display rounds off the season, in which case please forget everything I said in this post. Thank you! 🙂  )

“Curiosity” takes her first baby steps…

Yesterday was a huge day for NASA, especially the men and women at JPL in California, because it was the day marked for the next rover to go to Mars, called “Curiosity”, to take her first steps since having her wheels fitted. And the whole thing was shown live, online, for space enthusiasts around the world to enjoy!

Until relatively recently I think it’s fair to say that “Curiosity” has been, basically, a big white box with lots of interesting-looking things sticking out of it. But earlier this week her wheels were rolled for the first time, and last night – UK time – the clean room at JPL was packed with white bunny-suited engineers and techs to witness the rover’s first drive. It was only a short drive, just a meter or so, but it was hugely important, and, yes, historic, because it marked Curiosity’s first steps on her long journey to, and eventually across, Mars.

As I said, the whole thing was beamed to the world live, via the Ustream streaming video channel, and I was one of several hundred people who followed the First Drive on my computer monitor. It was, actually, great fun. Ustream has a screen split between the live “show”, and, to its right, another area showing a “chat window”, where the people viewing the show can post messages and hold conversations with each other. I say “conversations”; at first last night’s chat was a combination of newcomers asking “What’s that?” “Have I missed the drive yet?” and other questions like that, and informed comments and questions from the more clued-in viewers.

For the first hour and a half of the Ustream broadcast there wasn’t much to see – just Curiosity, centre stage, standing on a rather funky blue mat… thing… with a blue light on a pole blinking away behind her, and various engineers and techs, looking very scientific and serious in their white coverall suits, walking and wandering through the field of view. Whenever one of these people appeared, walking across the room or kneeling down beside the rover to pose for a photo with it, jokey comments would be posted about them, often encouraging them to give us all a wave…

So they started to! 🙂 One waved, then another, then another guy gave a bow to the camera! 🙂

That would have been funny enough, cos it was a nice personal touch from the MSL team to show that they were watching the Ustream coverage too, and appreciated everyone’s support. But then it went further.

Suddenly the engineers were being asked to do a silly walk or even a dance as they crossed the floor. No way. right? Wrong! 🙂 A couple actually joined in, and one guy, one brilliant guy, even did a “Robot Dance” for the camera, which was just a fantastic demonstration of the fact that the hugely-intelligent engineers and techs who work on these multi-billion dollar missions are all human too, and like a laugh with the rest of us! 🙂

(Sadly they didn’t take up my suggestion that they should all gather around the rover and sing “Greased Lightning!” from Grease, complete with all the moves, but that will take some rehearsing, so maybe next time! 😉 )

But eventually the serious stuff began. We knew it was about to begin because suddenly the clean room was FULL of people, and the lighting changed to a much cleaner, crisper light. Watched by a dozen others, two techs moved towards the rear of Curiosity and gingerly picked up her very complicated looking cable –

And the next thing we knew, she was moving! Curiosity was moving across the floor, only slowly, but surely. She was alive!! 🙂

(animations by The Planetary Society’s Emily Lakdawalla)

What a moment that was! As all of us watching cheered, the techs on the ground cheered and clapped and punched the air, too. The Ustream feed let us heer the cheers and claps in the viewing gallery above the clean room, further adding to the atmosphere.

Over the next hour or so, Curiosity drove a few more times, just back and forth, back and forth…

She didn’t, to the disappointment of many, turn in a circle, but that will come soon, I’m sure. What mattered was that she drove for the first time, and were were all allowed to watch it, thanks to NASA’s and JPL’s generosity and great public outreach. Soon, I gather, there’ll be a live webcam set up at JPL so people can watch Curiosity “coming together”, which will be fantastic!

So, a milestone reached, and passed; Curiosity has driven for the first time. There’s still a loooong way to go before she starts to drive across Mars, but she’s on her way. So far those wheels have only driven a few metres over a clean, blue, anti-static mat, but in a couple of years time, all being well, they’ll be scrunching and crunching their way across a rocky landscape, as Curiosity beams back stunning images of boulders, rocks and a huge pink sky – and who knows what else?

🙂

Christmas comes early…

Strange day at work today. Very strange. I had the most realistic, most vivid daydream. I dreamed that, in my break, I flicked open my phone and, sipping a tea and dunking a Bourbon, went online to catch up on goings on in the world “out there”, beyond the staff room, via Twitter…

There were more Tweets about yesterday’s flyby of asteroid Lutetia by ESA’s ROSETTA probe… more news about the water shortage in the Lakes… reports of Ed Norton being dropped from the forthcoming big budget “Avengers” film (not “The Avengers”, as in the British TV series with Steed and Purdy etc, it’s a comic Superhero flick… apparently…!)… Katherine Jenkins joining the cast of Dr Who for the 2010 Christmas Special… praise for the psychic abilities of that octopus in –

WHAT?!?!?!?!

Katherine… Jenkins… to be on Dr Who? My favourite, most-worshipped* classical singer, to be the Doctor’s Companion on Christmas Day’s one-off special of my favourite TV show, Dr Who?!?!

That HAD to be a dream, it just had to. Seriously? No, it was true. It was right there, on the SFX website, on the BBC website, and tweeted by “KJ” herself: following in the footsteps of Kylie Minogue and Michelle Ryan, THE Katherine Jenkins – she of that glorious mane, that cascading waterfall of golden hair, the would-make-Jessica-Rabbit-jealous hourglass figure, and the unbelievable voice – was going to be the guest companion in the next Dr Who Christmas special…

As Father Dougal would say…

“Oh WOW…”

This will be, as many have already pointed out, the opera singer’s first acting role (unless you can count “Looking interested at what was going on” during the recent celebrity opera singer reality show an acting role…), so obviously no-one has any idea if she can, well, act or not. It’s a big risk, to be sure, but “showrunner” Stephen Moffat must see something in the Welsh singer to make him think she’ll be a small screen hit, and worthy of being a Companion, so we just have to trust him, I guess. We’ll all find out on Christmas Day evening, when Amy and Rory go on their honeymoon – following straight on from the series 5 finale? – accompanied by The Doctor. Obviously THAT’s not going to go smoothly, but where Jenkins fits in is, at this point, anyone’s guess. No doubt the plot will be well known long before the special is shown, but at the moment all we know is… well, nothing. Which is fine by me.

Katherine Jenkins in the TARDIS… never saw that one coming..!

Is it Christmas yet?

Is it Christmas yet?

Is it Christmas yet?

Is it Christmas yet?

Is it Christmas yet?

Is it Christmas yet?

🙂

* Note: I can neither confirm nor deny the rumours that I have been known to go and “browse” in Kendal’s indoor market’s bag stall just to sneek a peek at the particularly-hot signed photo of Katherine Jenkins that the stall owner has pinned up above his till.

The poetry of exploration…

Thanks ESA for using my poem about ROSETTA’s encounter with Lutetia on the mission blog! 🙂

http://webservices.esa.int/blog/post/5/1248

A tale of Two Explorers…

My good friend AstroO, fellow member of the unmannedspaceflight.com forum, has done it again – turned one of my astropoems into an absolutely beautiful poster…

You can find the full size poster here…

http://astro0.wordpress.com/two-explorers

LOVE it, thanks AstroO!! 🙂

Do you suffer from “skymania”?

There are lots of great websites on t’internet that present you with a “quick look” guide to what’s happening ‘out there’ and ‘up there’. Most, it has to be said, are US-based, so it’s great to find one that is very much produced here in Blighty! Go check out Paul Sutherland’s “Sky Mania” site…

Skymania News and Guide: http://skymania.com/wp

Behold, Lutetia..!

In my previous post I said that yesterday was going to be a “big” day for the European Space Agency. Well, I’m happy to report that it wasn’t just ‘big’, it was triumphant! The close encounter of asteroid “Lutetia” by ESA’s unmanned spaceprobe went, it seems, without a hitch, and the probe took some truly stunning images during its screaming-fast flyby, which ESA released VERY quickly, and are now being drooled over by professional planetary scientists and armchair astronomers all around the world, and worked on by space exploration enthusiasts like myself in order to create different versions of those images.

To re-cap: Lutetia is a great, big, ugly chunk of rock which orbits the Sun a loooooong way away from Earth. ESA was interested in imaging it because, at more than 100km long, it is the largest asteroid ever visited and studied by a spaceprobe. Its composition was unclear, too, making it a very tasty and tempting target for ROSETTA as it sped through the solar system, en-route to its encounter with a comet in the year 2014… Yesterday ROSETTA flew past Lutetia, and turned its battery of cameras and instruments on the huge space rock as it passed. The plan was for it to take lots of photos, some at very high resolution, and then beam those images back to Earth. After some processing by ESA they would then be postd online for everyone to enjoy and be amazed by…

Of course, plans can go wrong, and that’s especially true for spaceprobe encounters with objects “out there”. Cameras can fail, tracking systems can go wrong, computers can just shut down and go into “Safe Mode” right at the very ******* moment they’re needed most, meaning the data is lost, the images are never taken, and the encounter is wasted and ruined. So there were a lot of white knuckles at ESA yesterday as the ROSETTA team waited to hear back from their spaceprobe…

None of those things happened yesterday, the encounter went off without a hitch and the data streamed back to Earth exactly as planned, so today we ALL have startling and stunning portraits of a new world to enjoy and celebrate! 🙂

Okay, here’s one of the first images to come back…

See? Already quite a bit of detail can be seen… but the quality got better…

… until finally we saw this

Well, not quite that. I’ve sharpened it up a bit and played about with the contrast and levels a bit, just to bring out the surface detail more, and to show just how cratered Lutetia’s surface is. That surface has also got something else, something we didn’t expect to see…

Grooves

Now, they’re interesting..! They look very familiar.. we’ve seen something like that before, haven’t we..?

That’s Mars’ moon, Phobos, and we’ve known for many years now, since the 1970s in fact, that it has grooves on its surface. One of the theories about their origin was that the moon was struck by pieces of rock from Mars itself, blasted off the planet by an asteroid impact, but other scientists disagreed, saying this wasn’t very likely. Now we’ve seen something very similar here at Lutetia, which doesn’t orbit anything, so that particular Phobosian theory might well lose some more supporters. Or maybe these grooves were caused by Lutetia being struck by ejecta from some collision out in the dark depths of the solar system? All fascinating questions…

Here are some other views of Lutetia taken during the encounter yesterday…

That’s the asteroid seen as a crescent…

But this is a breathtaking picture… you’ll have to click on it to enlarge it if you want to see why…

Can you see that? Up at the top there? That’s SATURN, caught in the same field of view..!

I don’t know who programmed the probe’s camera to take that particular image, but well done whoever it was, that’s one of the best ESA images ever.

So, lots of images came back, and inevitably busybodies like myself load them up into Photoshop and mess about with them, either to bring out details not seen very well in the originals (like the grooves), or just make something a little “different” out of them. That’s what I’ve done here with one of the images – sharpened it, boosted the contrast, then added colour (FALSE colour, not suggesting it’s accurate for a  moment, ok?!) and some highlights, to create this informal, totally unscientific and purely aesthetically-pleasing portrait of Lutetia… (click to enlarge, as usual)

Just my own personal take on the encounter. I hope some of you like it.

Beautiful pictures, I’m sure you’ll agree. And many, many congratulations to ESA for releasing them so quickly. I’ve criticised ESA’s image release policy in the past, very severely and angrily, and with good reason, I still feel. But they did a fantastic job this time, really let people “in” on the excitement of the encounter and allowed us all to see the images quickly, so well done to everyone involved.

Inevitably some people will moan about how “ridiculous” it is to spend “vast amounts of money “taking pictures of stupid rocks” when there are “so many problems here on Earth” or when “there’s so little money about”. That’s completely missing the point. ESA and NASA don’t fill their rockets with money and then launch them into space; the money spent on missions like ROSETTA, and the Mars rovers, and CASSINI,  is spent HERE ON EARTH, in wages to the scientists, technicians, designers and engineers involved in the projects. People have to design these spacecraft, then build them, then fly them. They have to collect and then make sense of the data, then release it to the world. Those people are paid for that, then they use that money to buy the cars, houses, chinese takeaways and Pot Noodles that make the economy go round. Taxes come from their wages. School fees come from their wages. ALL the money spent “on space” is spent down here, on Earth.

And come on, this past month we’ve seen the footballers of the World Cup on our TV screens. The highest level players are paid many tens of thousands of pounds a week – perhaps even a hundred thousand pounds a week – for kicking a ball about… in England’s case, very badly and half-heartedly. yet no-one moans about that.

Equally no-one moans about the staggering cost of Hollywood blockbusters. A big budget movie, like the new Shrek or Toy Story movies, can cost over a hundred million dollars now… a hundred MILLION! How many hospitals could be built for that? How many schools? How many hospices? Yet no-one grumbles about that as they settle into their seat, put their hands into their tub of popcorn and put on their 3D glasses, do they? No, because that money has been spent on something they enjoy, so it’s okay.

So, anyone who grumbles to me about the cost of ROSETTA’s mission, or the cost of these stunning images, had better be a saint, had better have given every penny they’ve earned to charity, because if they’ve ever bought a pizza or an expensive pair of shoes, or a lipstick or a copy of “Hello” or “OK”, or been to see “Avatar” or “Sex In The City 2”, or have a subscription to Sky Sports to let them watch the football, then they’re a hypocrite, because they could have donated the cost of those things to Save The Children, or Barnados, or some other charity but chose not to.

So please, no-one lecture me about money being “wasted” in space. The money spent “on space” has shown us the wonders of the solar system, helped us understand our place in the universe and shown us a possible, bright future. And if those achievements are too airy-fairy for you, too “spaceprobe-huggy”, then money spent “on space” has also taught us about global warming, helps us predict weather and plan when to plant and harvest crops, and has given us the ability to watch the football on satellite TV.

Some people still won’t be convinced, they’ll still moan and groan about these pictures. But you know what? And it’s not very “PC” of me to say this, but Stuff Them. I really don’t care if they disapprove, because if they really feel that way, if they really are that small-minded, if their horizons really are that close, then these images simply aren’t for them, and they actually don’t deserve them, because they can’t appreciate them or their significance. They can’t see that these images of Lutetia are important because they represent a leap forwards in knowledge, which is a very precious thing. This time yesterday, as ROSETTA was closing-in on Lutetia, the asteroid was just, essentially, a name, a word. It had never been glimpsed as anything more than a point of light in a telescope’s field of view. Today, Lutetia isn’t a word, it’s a world, a place with craters and pits, ridges and ravines that, one day, people will travel to, land on and walk upon. Just think about that. One day, men and women from Earth will stand on Lutetia and look back at this planet and feel awe for the achievement of ROSETTA and her team, and wonder what it must have been like for us, you and me, to be the first people to see her battered, cratered surface, all those years ago. For them, ROSETTA’s images, which are so fresh for us today, will be part of their history.

So, when you look at these images, you’re looking at pictures that are every bit as important as the first images of Yosemite Valley, taken by Charles Leander Weed in 1859, or the first pictures ever taken of Antarctica, or Everest or the ocean floor. They’re not pictures of something, they’re portarits of somewhere, somewhere new, proof that the desire, the need to explore, and see new places, is etched into our DNA like petroglyphs on a canyon wall.

That has to be something to celebrate!

Zooming in on – and past – Lutetia…

Today is a big day, a VERY big day, for ESA, the European Space Agency. In just a few hours time, its unmanned spaceprobe ROSETTA, which is en-route to an encounter with a comet in 2014, will fly past a 100km wide chunk of rock and metal called “Lutetia” more than 450 million km from the Sun. And it’s taking pictures as it does so!

Lutetia is an asteroid, a piece of debris left over from the birth of the solar system 4.5bn years ago, so anything we can learn about asteroids like Lutetia tells us about the birth and evolution of our solar system. ( And with Earth essentially a sitting duck in the firing line from a solar system swarming with potentially planet-killing chunks of rock, anything we can learn about the composition of asteroids might help us protect Earth from devastation one day, if we discover one of them heading right for us. No, we can’t just send out Bruce Willis in a dirty vest, it’s rather more complicated than that, so everything we learn about Lutetia will be a golden nugget of priceless information. )

Spaceprbes have visited and imaged asteroids before, but this is an especially important encounter, perhaps the most important encounter so far, because Lutetia is the biggest asteroid to be visited and studied by a spaceprobe so far: the previous record-holder, “Mathilde”, is less than half the size of Lutetia.

As I write this, ROSETTA is closing-in on Lutetia. Closest approach is scheduled for approx 16.45 my time (British Summer Time) but with my usual lousy timing I’ll be at work, so I’ll have to catch up on the encounter in my break, when I expect to see some gorgeous pictures taken by ROSETTA’s cameras.

We’ve already got one image, but taken from very, very far away it doesn’t show much detail…

Yes, that’s Lutetia in the centre of the image. Ok, ok, it doesn’t look much, granted, but the fact that we can already see the asteroid has an irregular shape from so far away bodes well for the close encounter later today.

So why should people – and by “people” I mean people who aren’t amateur astronomers, space geeks or internet science junkies – be bothered by all this? Well, because on a very basic level this is EXPLORATION, we’re all about to see somewhere that’s never been seen before. Until today, Lutetia has just been a point of light in the sky, a dot on a star chart. By the time I come home from work and collapse into this chair again, that point of light will have been transformed into a real world, with its own unique and fascinating craters, mountains, ridges and who knows what else! By the time I get home and turn on my computer that “point of light” will have been mapped, just as the coastlines of Australia and America were mapped by the ocean-going explorers of centuries past. And within a few days, Lutetia’s features will have names, giving the asteroid its own instant history, and a connection to our species, and its history.

Thanks to ESA sharing this encounter with us, by releasing images as soon as they can (still wish they’d release “raw” images, tho, like the MER and CASSINI teams do!), we can all be part of the mission, of this interplanetary adventure.

We might take that for granted now, we might even think it’s our right to have these front row seats for these encounters, but it’s easy to forget that in years gone by, we were not so fortunate. When the Voyagers encountered Jupiter and Saturn, when the Vikings encountered Mars, there were no web pages with images, no blogs being writtten by members of the science teams, nothing like that. After seeing one or two grainy, badly-printed images in the next day’s paper we had to wait months until a “special issue” of an astronomy magazine printed pictures from the encounters. But later today we will all be able to see what ROSETTA sees on ESA websites. We’re all along for the ride. We’re all deckhands on the Santa Maria, or the Endeavour, leaning over the railings and seeing a fascinating, beautiful new horizon.

But the bottom line is this: by the time Lutetia falls away behind ROSETTA, all of us will know just a little more about what’s “out there”, and that has to be a good thing.

No, it’s more than good. It’s amazing!

You can follow the encounter via this ESA blog…

http://webservices.esa.int/blog/blog/5

And don’t forget to check back here later for images from the fly-by.

Some forthcoming events…

Would be good to see some of you at these events… (please click on the images to see full size versions)

Dr Who exhibition at Newcastle’s “Life” Centre

If you’re a regular reader of this blog then you might, possibly, have picked up the subtle signs that I’m a fan of the BBC science fiction series “Dr Who”. I know, I know, I’ve hidden it pretty well, but surely some of you have picked up on it by now… 🙂

Well, last week, we went through to Newcastle to visit the “Dr Who” touring exhibition, which is currently on display at the sprawling “Life Centre”, in the busy town centre. Admittedly we were a little bleary-eyed, after being woken in our tent at 7am that morning by the kids of the Geordie Family From Hell, who – after their inconsiderate ********* parents had finally gone to bed at 2am, laughing at the camp rule of “No noise after 11pm” – got up and started setting up a *(^&*&^*)&^P*(^O&*%*O barbeque for breakfast, (if you’re reading this, thanks a LOT you inconsiderate, selfish ***s) but we still really enjoyed it! 🙂

The Life Centre – or “Centre for Life” as it’s actually called – is big, very big, with lots of different galleries and an upstairs level too, plus the obligatory shop and cafe. It’s basically a “Science Outreach” centre, telling the story of, surprise surprise, life and its development. There’s also a great domed theatre area, for demonstrations etc, and one of the best planetariums I’ve ever been in, and I do mean ever – but more of that later…

The Dr Who exhibition is being hosted at the Centre until October, and with series 5 just having finished we thought we’d go along and take a look before the school summer holidays swamped the place with screaming, running, shrieking, sticky-pawed kids. We weren’t quite sure what to expect, but thought it was a pretty safe bet that there’d be costumes, props, things like that. I was hoping, I’ll admit it, to see daleks – old and new style – and some “Amy Pond” stuff, being something of a fan of that character.

So, in we went, paid our £9ish each, and weaved our way through “everything else” and headed straight for the exhibition. Getting to it meant following a tortuous route around corner after corner, through several groups of visiting schoolkids, then up a walkway, until finally we saw this huge banner dropping down from the ceiling…

Woo-hoo!! So, through the entrance and into the room… wow…!

That’s the TARDIS, after it had crashed onto Amy Pond’s shed! 🙂 Very atmospheric, with smoke coming out of it and lights flickering and flashing within… a good start! 🙂

We made our way on through the exhibition, and it soon became clear that our predictions and expectations had been pretty much spot-on: the exhibition consisted of lots and lots of costumes, and props, from the “new era” of Dr Who, i.e. everything post Paul McCann’s 8th Doctor, plus some things from Chris Ecclestone’s lone (and now often under-rated) series, lots of things from David Tennant’s stay in the TARDIS, and some things from the new, Matt Smith series – but  not as much as I’d been expecting tho, to be honest; and my hopes of seeing some Amy Pond costumes or memorabilia were to be cruelly dashed, because there just weren’t any, just the odd picture of here here and there. Very disappointing.

But daleks there were. One of the highlights of the exhibition was the “Ironside” dalek from the episode set in WW2, where Winston Churchill thinks the daleks are the answer to defeating the Germans. Of course, the daleks were in it for themselves, and regenerated into those monstrous, multi-coloured, crime-against-design Mini Cooper daleks at the end of the episode, but the star of the episode, for myself and for many people, was the military green dalek, complete with webbing and a Union Jack on its head. Genius, and a fantastic, fantastic design that many Who fans fell in love with that evening…

And suddenly there I was, staring up into the eyestalk of a genuine tea-serving Ironside dalek…

🙂 🙂 🙂

Moving on… we passed (not necessarily in this order, mind; there was a fair bit of going to and fro, we were a bit like kids in an aquarium) a Weeping Angel, complete with a dummy wearing River Song’s floaty black ballgown from that two parter… a big-bellied Slitheen… a Sycorax… the Absorbalof…

And then we encountered the Cybermen…!

I must put my cards on the table here: the Cybermen don’t do much for me, they never have done. They’re just big thunky clunky robot men that stamp and stomp about trying to act hard. I don’t find them menacing or threatening – or, my real test of a Who baddie, “epic” – at all. But they were shown very well in the display, complete with a set-piece with flashing lights and vocal track, which was good fun. But, hmmm, yeah, Cybermen, I can take them or leave them. I was actually much more excited to see this dapper fellow tucked away in one corner…

Recognise him? That’s one of the clockwork robots from the episode where the tenth Doctor travels back in time to pre-revolutionary France and falls in love with a beautiful aristocrat… Those clockwork robots were fantastic in that episode, a real design classic I thought at the time, so I was very happy to see one at the exhibition.

Moving on…

Costumes. lots of costumes… Kylie Minogue’s costume from the Christmas Special she was in (and yes, she is absolutely tiny in real life, as her Astrid Peth costume showed!)… Michelle Ryan’s leather and boots costume from her appearance in “The Planet of The Dead” as Lady Christina, who is surely, along with Sally Sparrow, one of the Best Companions The Doctor Never Had… one of the costumes worn by the beautiful and scene-stealing “vampire girls” from “Vampires of Venice”… and many, many more.

Other highlights… it was nice to see The Lady Cassandra in all her tautly-stretched glory…

… and Matt Smith’s “raggedy Doctor” and “Bow ties are cool” costumes from the opening episode…

As I absolutely hate, Hate, HATE spiders, I really wasn’t a huge fan of the big Racnoss model that I almost walked into as I went around a corner… It was very impressive, but…

Ugh…!!!

One thing I found very puzzling was why one of the best designs from the whole of the last series, a Vashta Nerrada-infected spacesuit – was almost hidden from view, stuffed away in a dark corner of the exhibition…

But coming – ahem – face to face with “The Face of Boe” made up for that…

But what about those daleks?

Well, they were hiding upstairs, in a special part of the exhibition – a circular gallery, initially in darkness, which soon after you enter fills with light as daleks.. several of them… emerge from the shadows and really start being the intergalactic bullies we all know, fear and love. Lots more happens in there too, but, as River Song would say, “Spoilers, sweetie!”… 😉 And at the end, if you time it just right, you can get a photo like this

But there were none of the new daleks on show, which was very disappointing. “Why?” I hear many of you cry, “I thought you HATED those new daleks?!” Well, yes, I do, I think they’re a very fundemantal design mistake, but it would have been interesting to see new and old side by side, just to see the differences for myself. Maybe new daleks will appear later in the year, when all the props from series 5 are packed away, I don’t know. If they do, I’ll have to go back and have a look, because when I saw them in the season finale, “The Big Bang”, I had to admit they looked pretty impressive amidst all the other show baddies and monsters, but only because of their size, not because of their Teletubby colours.

And that was about it, really. Obviously there’s a LOT more to the exhibition than I’ve described and shown here, but if I showed you and told you about everything there’d be no point in going to see it for yourself, would there? And if you’re a Who fan you really MUST go, because the exhibition is a real treasure trove, with gems of Whodom (is that a word? It is now!) around every corner.

You also really should go visit the Life Centre itself, just because it’s a very, very cool place. Not only does it have lots of fascinating exhibits, it has some of the friendliest and most helpful museum staff I’ve ever come across, and has a BRILLIANT planetarium, too, with a small dome but clearly state-of-the-art projection gear.

We watched two shows in the Planetarium. The first was called just “The Planets”, and was a pretty straightforward beginner’s guide to the solar system. Some nice graphics, decent enough narration, yeah, ok.

(NOTE: the first ten minutes were absolutely ruined by  museum staff repeatedly opening and shutting the entrance door after the show had started, each time flooding the inside of the dome with light and so obliterating any hope of creating a suitably peaceful, dark-adapted atmosphere until the show was almost over… Numpties, whoever they were.)

But the second show, ah, well, that was something special – and we’d have missed it if it hadn’t been for one of the Life Centre staff who came up to us, just as we were about to leave, and very helpfully intercepted us to tell us that the second planetarium show of the day was different to the earlier one! Phew! We almost missed it!

And “it” was the absolutely wonderful, narrated by David Tennant, graphics tour-de-force “We Are Astronomers”, one of the best planetarium shows EVER. Real tear-in-the-eye stuff. There were some quite noisy kids in the audience, and I feared that they might disrupt the show, but they were absolutely hypnotised by the whole thing, and clearly enjoyed it from their comments afterwards. And the door stayed shut too, which really helped maintain the classic planetarium atmosphere of peaceful hushness…

So, there you go, that was our visit to the Dr Who exhibition at the Life Centre in Newcastle. Very enjoyable, very enjoyable, though, to be totally honest, I was disappointed that I didn’t see at least a one of the following:

* A Sea Devil (these put the fear of god into me as a kid, they really creeped me out, even though I can now see they were just slouchy frogs with legs, draped in cheap netting and carrying irons…ah, we live and learn, eh?!)

* Some mention – ANY mention – of Martha Jones. Maybe I missed something, but I don’t remember seeing anything belonging to my favourite ever companion. I was hoping for a glimpse of that classic red leather jacket, but naah…

* One of the new-look daleks: I’m not a fan, no, but as I said earlier, I’m interested to see how they stand-up – literally – to the daleks from the RTD era. And, if I’m honest, when I saw the “New Paradigm” daleks in the season finale I couldn’t prevent myself from thinking that they did, actually, look kind of impressive, surrounded by all the other monsters and baddies, real scene-stealers. But I’m NOT going over to the Dark Side, I’m just curious to see one close up.

* Something belonging to Amy Pond… or even Karen Gillan herself, maybe visiting the Centre, standing in the entrance to the exhibition in those cowboy boots and mini-skirt with her hair blowing behind her in the wind –

Ok, that last one was never going to happen, but it’s my blog so I can put down any fantasy I want! 😉

Seriously tho, if you’re a Who fan, and can get to Newcastle, then you absolutely must go see the Dr Who exhibition. You won’t be disappointed. Full details can be found here: