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So, what have they ACTUALLY found around that star..?

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…and so last night, 6pm UK time, the Big News was finally revealed to the world (or at least to those people who hadn’t already figured it out for themselves, or heard or read about it, because, as usually happens, the Big Secret leaked out long before the press conference): international (not just from NASA or the US) teams of astronomers, using telescopes in space and on the ground, had detected a total of seven planets orbiting a star far, far out in space…

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– and as if that wasn’t cool enough (and it would have been pretty cool to have found a whole alien SOLAR SYSTEM!!!), all the planets are roughly the same size as Earth, and the icing on the cake was that several of them orbit within the star’s “habitable zone”, meaning they might, MIGHT have water  on their surfaces and if that’s true then they might, MIGHT have conditions suitable for life to exist on them too –

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– cue the internet going into meltdown, as wild speculation about their alien inhabitants began, fuelled by the gorgeous “space art” artwork released by the science teams showing artists’ impressions of the planets, showing spectacularly beautiful alien landscapes, complete with wave-lapped oceans and sci-fi skies crowded with more planets than the opening titles of Blake’s 7…

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Today the popular media picked up this story by the neck, shook it until it could hardly breathe and then went on a feeding frenzy of speculation and hype. The worlds were “like Earth!” and “might have life!” The star was “so close that we might visit it in future”. Etc , etc.

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Let’s just calm down, and take a look at what’s actually been found, and how significant all this really us.

Firstly  – where are these new planets?

Well, they are in orbit around a star which is now being referred to as “TRAPPIST 1” after the telescopes that detected the worlds. If you think that’s a poor name for such an important star, then consider this: it’s full official name is “2 MASS J230629280502285”. Yeah, suddenly “TRAPPIST 1” doesn’t seem so bad, does it?

TRAPPIST 1 lies in the constellation of Aquarius, one of the zodiacal constellations, but it’s hard to see at the moment because the Sun’s in the way…

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Actually, even if the Sun wasn’t in the way you’d need a telescope the size of a small cannon to see TRAPPIST 1 because it shines – if that’s the right word – at a lowly magnitude 18.8. That’s ridiculously faint. In contrast, Pluto is a blazing beacon with a magnitude of 13.5 at its brightest…

TRAPPIST 1 is so faint for a number of reasons, but mainly because it’s a very small, very feeble star that is a long way from us. I know a lot of the popular media have been saying it’s “only 39 light years away”, and 39 sounds like a small number when you compare it to star clusters which are thousands of light years away and galaxies which are tens of millions of light years away, but 39 light years is hardly next door in cosmic terms. That still makes it over 226 TRILLION miles away. To put it another way, that’s so far away that the fastest spacecraft ever built – the New Horizons probe which travelled to Pluto – would take 800 THOUSAND years to reach it, and Tim Peake, travelling in the  Soyuz capsule which carried him up to the International Space Station, would have to travel for 1.5 MILLION years before reaching it…

So, it’s close in astronomical terms, but realistically it might as well be in another galaxy entirely, it’s so far away.

But TRAPPIST 1 isn’t just far away, it’s small too. If you think of the Sun as a basketball, then TRAPPIST 1 would be a golf ball beside it. It’s a red dwarf star – but not just your typical run-of-the-mill red dwarf; it’s what’s known as an “ultra-cool dwarf star”, with a surface temperature just over 2000 degrees K, making it much cooler than our own Sun. So, to sumarise, this now-famous star is not just far away, small, and cool.

But in a way that’s a good thing – no, it’s a GREAT thing, because there are HUGE numbers of stars just like it, small cool stars, “out there” in our galaxy and beyond, and although we have always thought them unlikely to have any planets, the fact that we’ve now discovered a whole solar system around one of them suggests that others might… will… have, too. So, with the discovery of a family of worlds around TRAPPIST 1 astronomers suddenly find themselves looking up at a whole new sky – a sky where even the feeble, fluttering candle flame stars we thought would be barren have families of planets waiting to be found and studied. And that alone makes this discovery history-making.

But of course the planets are the stars of the show – if you see what I mean – and we now know that 7 worlds whirl around TRAPPIST 1. And not just any worlds – worlds roughly the same size as our own. Or, to give them their proper classification: “Earth-sized planets”.

Now, this is a good time to make a very, VERY important point. The hunters of exo-planets are very – some say far too – fond of flinging around the term “Earth-like” when describing planets found around other stars that share some but not all characteristics with Earth, but for all the reasons given in my previous blog post they really need to stop doing that. Thankfully the term “Earth-like” was hardly used at all during yesterday’s press event, but in the all-you-can-eat-media-hype-buffet that followed, some of the planets found around TRAPPIST 1 were incorrectly described as “Earth like” by reporters who had picked up on the use of the words “water” and “habitable”, and, adding 2 and 2 to get 50, told their readers, viewers and listeners that astronomers had found planets “like Earth” around TRAPPIST 1. So, let’s get this perfectly straight.

  • Astronomers have found 7 planets in orbit around the star TRAPPIST 1.
  • All these planets seem to be roughly the same size as Earth. That makes them “Earth-sized”.
  • Three of the planets are in the star’s “Habitable Zone” – the area around the star where temperatures are mild enough to allow water to exist on the surface of a planet or body orbiting it at that distance. This does not mean they definitely HAVE water, just that it’s scientifically possible.
  • The people describing these worlds as “Earth-like” are wrong. Just because a planet roughly the same size as Earth is found in a star’s habitable zone, it doesn’t qualify as “Earth-like” and should not be described as such by anyone. By this very broad definition both Venus and Mars are “Earth-like” but as everyone knows Mars is a frozen desert world and Venus is an acidic hell hole, so just because as planet is the right size and in the right place it doesn’t qualify as “Earth-like”.
  • Yes, the three planets found in the star’s habitable zone are among the most promising candidates for having life that we’ve found to date, but again, there is absolutely no proof of this, it’s just scientifically possible, that’s all.
  • …and even if they do have life, that doesn’t mean they’re inhabited by living, thinking, spaceship-building, radio telescope-operating alien beings. “Life” could just be very primitive – grey lichen flakes coating the sides of rocks, extraterrestrial snotty slime dripping and dribbling down subterranean cave walls, or even just microscopic bacteria beneath or even inside the stones. That would disappoint the SF crowd, with their long-cherished dreams of shaking tentacles or at lease becoming pen pals with ETs from another star, but in purely scientific terms it would be unbelievably pant-wettingly exciting. The discovery of ANY life, however simple, ANYWHERE out there, would transform our view of the universe and our place in it.
  • We might have more of a clue about this in the years ahead. The Hubble Space Telescope will now study this star system and no doubt learn even more about it than we know now. And when – if – the James Webb Space Telescope launches it will be use to sniff the atmosphere of these worlds, if they have them, and might catch an electronic whiff of gases suggesting the presence of life on their surfaces. Imagine that..

So, what next?

Firstly, astronomers – amateur and professional – have to dampen down the media frenzy about “7 new Earths” being discovered orbiting the star. That’s simply not true. Just this morning I’ve heard utter rubbish on the TV about how “scientists” have found “7 Earths” orbiting “a nearby star“, which “have the potential for huge oceans” and “might have alien life”. We need to – kindly, not arrogantly – stomp on such inaccuracy, as enthusiastic as it is!

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Secondly – names! We need proper names for these planets and for the TRAPPIST-1 star itself. This is undeniably a very, very important solar system now, one which will be studied by future generations of astronomers and telescopes; we need to be able to talk about it *specifically* and for the public to be able to identify with the star and its planetary system. There needs to be a concerted effort now to name the star and its planets to give them a proper identity. How? Another public naming competition? Perhaps. The IAU? Maybe. The scientists themselves? Possibly. But they do need names. Not even names that will be permanent, but at the very least *working* names, just so we can talk about them properly.

Fascinating times we live in, and even more fascinating times ahead of us, that’s for sure. 🙂

NASA Press Conference Tomorrow – More Exo-planets?

There’s lots of breathless speculation online today about what NASA is going to announce at their big news conference tomorrow. The usual suspect quacks and hacks are giddily predicting NASA is finally going to announce they’ve found alien life “out there”, but that’s not going to happen; when (and I do mean when; I am absolutely convinced it will happen one day, there’s no “if” about it) they do that the news will leak out on Twitter long before the press conference, because there’s no way such a huge thing will be kept secret by the people involved, or by the journalists given a sneak peek at the press release. Someone, somewhere, will blab, that’s just human nature. So, all you tin foil hat-wearing fruit loops jumping up and down in joyous anticipation of NASA finally “coming clean” tomorrow – calm down, and go back to your X Files dvds.

Tomorrow will be about science, not science fiction.

Back in reality, what do we know so far about tomorrow? Well, all we know is that it relates to something “beyond the solar system”, which on the face of it could mean anything, but come on you lazy lot, a quick look at the NASA press release itself tells us it’s exo-planet related (an exo-planet being a planet in orbit around another star).

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So, logically, the announcement will relate to the discovery of a rocky planet, or more than one, in orbit around a nearby star. Which would be great news, but hardly worthy of a big NASA TV event. That means someone, somewhere, has found something along those lines which is a bit special, a bit unusual. So it looks like someone, somewhere, might have found one or more planets the same size as Earth orbiting another star..?

But as exciting as that would be part of me is already groaning at the prospect of hearing these new exo-planets being described as “Earth-like”.

You see, when astronomers and exo-planet hunters describe a planet as “Earth-like” they mean that it is Earth-sized, or roughly Earth-sized, made of rock, and that’s it’s in its star’s “Goldilocks Zone” – i.e. at a distance from the star which means it isn’t too hot and isn’t too cold but is just right – just right for liquid water to exist on its surface.. maybe.. possibly…perhaps.. – but few exo-planets are.

The problem is, when other people, like non-astronomers and the media, hear a world described as “Earth-like” they naturally assume it means the planet is, you know, actually “like Earth”, as in physically and visually like it – a world the same size as our own, a beautiful blue and white planet with surging oceans kissing warm sandy beaches, billowing clouds blown by soft summer winds, and life, life everywhere – in the sky, under the water, and in the fields. After all, that’s what Earth is like, so when they hear another world described as “Earth-like” people think it’s Just Like Earth, in many ways, if not every way. They think it has its own seasons of sunshine and snow, rivers gurgling and tumbling down its mountains, and kittens sleeping by crackling fires. That’s what people – and I know this for a fact, because I meet and talk to a lot of them in the course of my Outreach work – think a planet is like when they hear it described as “Earth-like”; not just a rocky-ish planet orbiting a star at roughly the Earth-equivalent distance from it.

Personally, this really winds me up, and I know it winds others up too. I think the exo-planet community really, REALLY should stop referring to planets as being “Earth-like” when they’re really not, when they’re actually just “Earth-sized” or just potentially in a star’s habitable zone.

Why? Two reasons. Firstly, I think at best it’s lazy science communication, and at worst misleading, even deceptive hype. It gives people completely the wrong idea, raises false hopes and expectations, and generally causes avoidable confusion and misunderstanding. And god knows there’s enough of that in astronomy already. Water has been “discovered” on Mars so many times now people think it has swimming pools and bloody mermaids…

But more importantly I think the reckless use of the term “Earth-like” dilutes the impact of the forthcoming (when? No idea? But it will happen eventually) CONFIRMED discovery – and even imaging – of the first truly “Earth-like” planet: a world that is the same size as Earth (or a bit bigger or smaller), at the right distance from its star for terrestrial conditions to exist on its surface, and with the tell-tale chemical signatures of life detected on its surface. THAT would be a truly Earth-like planet, and its discovery will be one of the greatest and most significant achievements in science. We’re a long, long way from making a discovery like that – but it will come, one day. And when it does, how many people will just raise an eyebrow and say “Really? I thought we’d found lots of planets like Earth?” because dozens of other planets have been described as “Earth-like” already?

So, as we await tomorrow’s news, please, everyone, familiarise yourselves with what the scientists will mean when they talk about “Earth-like planets”. They don’t mean “other Earths”, other lush, blue and green worlds dripping with water and covered with life. They mean rocky worlds, roughly the same size as Earth, which may or may not be in an orbit around their star which makes them suitable for water to exist on their surface, which might, in turn, make them possible habitats for life. Finding worlds like that will give us great candidates for follow-up science, with instruments that can look for certain gases in their atmospheres or the signature of water, but it won’t mean we’ve found Earth #2, or #3, or #4 (or #7… 😉  ) out there, and that we could just hop over to it in a super space ship and live there, ok?

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Book review: “Incredible Stories From Space” – Nancy Atkinson

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Space enthusiasts and readers of popular science books know full well that behind every space mission – success or failure – there are human stories every bit as compelling and exciting as the tales of the engineering and technology needed for those missions.  We know that every photo returned from the rocky surface of Mars, above the swirling clouds of Jupiter or beneath the Sun was only taken after months if not years of hard work and dedication by amazing people.  But I think it’s fair to say that many of the general public don’t.  I know from conversations with people after my outreach talks that many of them see the images space probes return and think they’re all taken automatically after getting to their destination. And they still think – perhaps because it’s how Hollywood still insists on portraying them – that space scientists are either a wild-haired, goggle-eyed boffins who run like lunatics around lab benches covered in smoking jars and jugs of bubbling chemicals, their arms flailing like ET,  or b) cold, unemotional  robots who stare at screens all day like computer hackers with their hearts removed, worshipping or looking for beauty in their strange graphs, diagrams and charts…

Nancy Atkinson (no, no relation!) knows they’re neither of those things, so she wrote a book about the real people behind the missions that fascinate and inspire us so much. Her book doesn’t bombard us with facts, figures and statistics. It sits us down by a virtual fireside on a stormy night, hands us a glass of wine, and shares with us “Incredible Stories From Space”.

Nancy writes with a real passion and love for the subject. She clearly loves and lives this stuff. Basically, she “gets it”, unlike some more established writers who simply repeat, regurgitate and repackage NASA’s press releases. She writes very visually, so visually that reading this book is like watching a really good TV documentary, one that tells real stories with clever and fitting language, and doesn’t need to rely on stupid trendy juddery camera angles and in-your-face CGI to tell those stories.

The book starts, fittingly, with a detailed look at the New Horizons mission to Pluto. I say “fittingly” because NH was, arguably, the most high profile and successful space mission of the last couple of decades. Space enthusiasts know how, after a difficult birth and very troubled childhood, NH revealed Pluto to be a fantastic and fascinating world in its own right, and even though I thought I knew the mission back to front and inside out I learned a lot of new information here. But best of all, it brought the men and women behind the mission – the ones we saw waving tiny Stars and Stripes  and grinning like Cheshire cats at the press conferences – to life.

The next section, on the Mars Science Laboratory Curiosity, is another great fly-on-the-wall account of one of the most important space missions of our generation and, again, I learned a lot from it. MSL is a fascinating, history-making mission, which is doing spectacular science on the red planet and will help NASA prepare to land a crew on the surface one day. One thing I learned from this section, or rather had confirmed, because it’s something I’ve thought for a while now,  is that the MSL team hasn’t really bonded with their robotic ambassador; they haven’t anthropomorphized it like other teams – most notably the Mars Exploration Rover teams – have done with their hardware. Curiosity really is just a machine to them, a collection of tools dropped on Mars to do science. They don’t love Curiosity like Opportunity’s team clearly do. And that’s a shame, I think. They’re missing out on a lot. But that’s just me, I know others really can’t stand the way some probes and rovers are given personalities. Each to their own.  But I do think that the MSL are a quite serious lot compared to the MER team, and seem to have less passion for outreach and communicating their goals and results to the public, and I got that impression from this section too, although I readily admit that might just be my interpretation.

The section of the book on the Hubble Space Telescope is very enjoyable to read, a very pleasant review of the Hubble’s incredible impact on astronomy and its great value as an outreach tool. We take Hubble for granted now… “Oh look, another gorgeous Hubble image…” but its story, when you remind yourself, is pretty amazing, and will surely make a great film one day.

I was very pleased to see Nancy had devoted a large section of her book to the Kepler mission. One of my great passions is SETI, the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence, and although Kepler isn’t looking directly for alien life “out there” its surveys of the stars are turning up worlds where life might be possible, so in my head it’s a SETI mission, ok? Kepler isn’t really a “public” mission like MER or MSL in that it doesn’t produce pretty pictures;  its products are those aforementioned charts, graphs and squiggly lines, but Nancy shows how the people behind those are every bit as passionate and driven as the ones who take the front page-hogging portraits of martian mountains and Enceladean geysers. And this chapter gives a lot of insight into the fascinating science being conducted by the Kepler mission. I don’t think people have grasped yet the true significance of Kepler. We’ve started to take for granted its detections of planets whirling around alien stars, forgotten that what it is now doing regularly was, just a few years ago, science fiction. The fact is, Kepler is very possibly finding humanity’s far future homes.  One day flags will flutter, cities will be built and children will laugh and play on worlds discovered by Kepler, and the men and women working on the mission will be seen as every bit as heroic as the fictional starship captains who whooshed casually from star to star in their shiny, twin-nacelled Federation ships way back in the 21st century, so I appreciated Nancy’s book pulling back the curtain that separates me from them.

The Cassini mission is also covered well, but reading it I found myself feeling very sad that this amazing mission will soon be over: Cassini is due to be sent into a death dive into Saturn’s clouds later this year…

It was a lovely surprise to see the Solar Dynamics Obsevatory (“SDO” ) mission covered in Nancy’s book, as SDO is unfairly overlooked or even ignored by reporters and space enthusiasts because, for some reason, the Sun – that enormous hissing, spitting, flame-belching, roaring dragon at the solar system’s heart – is not seen as being as sexy or exciting as Mars, or Jupiter, or Saturn. This chapter makes it very clear just how fascinating an object our nearest star is, and how fascinated by it the people behind the SDO mission are.  I loved the chapter title too: “Downloading the Sun 24/7”, which describes accurately and very succinctly exactly what SDO does, drinking in data like a man dying of thirst who stumbles across an oasis in the middle of the desert.  And the book highlights the SDO team’s commitment to outreach, and the amazing outreach success of Camilla, the mission’s rubber chicken mascot, which has become a space celebrity in its… her… own right. Whoever came up with the idea of making a rubber chicken the public face of a multi-gazillion dollar mission to study the Sun either needs counselling or deserves a medal, I’m still not sure which..! But it’s a great example of how getting a mission mascot right can give that mission a huge public following and a priceless connection with the public. When it doesn’t work – and I’m looking at you, whichever genius thought it was a good idea to put a cat inside the Phoenix lander and send it to Mars, a planet which every space mad kid knows has no water, no food and no balls of string to play with – it’s cringe-worthy.

Next – MRO and HiRISE, obviously a big chapter for me, as a well-known Mars fanatic. Nancy relates how MRO was under quite incredible pressure to work after the humiliating failures of the Mars Climate Orbiter and the Mars Polar Lander missions, which famously fell foul of the “Faster, Better, Cheaper” philosophy introduced by Dan Goldin when he was heading NASA.  Corners were cut, and Mars happily claimed two more scalps. If MRO had failed too, Mars might have been abandoned by NASA for a generation. Luckily it succeeded – no, not luckily. It succeeded because amazing people working ridiculously hard made sure it worked, and an orbiter reached Mars that could photograph objects on its surface just 3 feet across, as the book describes.

The MRO chapter does a great job of describing how effective and revolutionary the probe’s HiRISE camera is, and, like many other books have done, and no doubt will do for years to come, illustrates its incredible spy satellite capabilities with a beautiful colour image showing Victoria Crater, with the Mars Exploration Rover “Opportunity” visible on its crumbling edge, circled to aid identification. Unfortunately, it’s identified wrongly.  I realised as soon as I saw the picture that the black dot supposed to be Opportunity was in fact just a rock – it had to be, because Opportunity never reached that part of the crater rim. This is an unfortunate error, and really should have been caught before the book went to print, but these things happen, and no doubt it will be corrected in the reprint.

The chapter on LRO, the Lunar Reconaissance Orbiter was very interesting to read, mainly because, I’ll freely admit, LRO hasn’t captured my attention or interest as much as other missions have done. Why? It’s not that I’m not interested in the Moon, I am! I think the problem has been that LRO’s images are not promoted and celebrated as much by NASA and the LRO team itself as those taken by other missons.  Also, as the book describes, LRO rather had the rug pulled out from under it early on, when NASA backed off from its ambitious plans to send astronauts back to the Moon in the near future. LRO’s mission was to support that endeavour by, as its name suggests, carrying out a detailed reconnaissance of the lunar surface. When NASA backed off from the Moon and turned its eyes to Mars once more, LRO was left floundering slightly. Which is a shame because its cameras have taken some jaw-droppingly gorgeous photos of the Moon!  Sadly,  the only time LRO images get any real exposure seems to be when they show Apollo hardware on the surface of the Moon, which must be very frustrating for the teams.

The book closes with a useful look at missions being planned for the future, and a thoughtful essay on “Why explore space?”

Ok, to wrap this up… This really is a good book and I can definitely recommend it to anyone interested in space exploration. Its great strengths are its writer, Nancy, and the way it is packed to bursting point with interviews with and quotes and comments from real people, the men and women who actually get the probes and rovers to their destination and keep them working there. That sets it aside from many of the other space exploration books out there.

If I have one criticism – and some of you will know what’s coming! – it’s that there’s no chapter dedicated to the Mars Exploration Rover missions of Spirit and Opportunity. They’re not ignored – they are covered, very briefly, in the Curiosity chapter – but surely those record-breaking rovers deserved their own section? I know authors like Nancy struggle to fit in everything they want to, because of limited space, and maybe she wanted to cover MER as well as MSL, I don’t know, but the MERs have been so successful, have achieved so much and enjoyed such huge public support that they warranted a chapter. The people who built the rovers, landed them safely on Mars and have driven them across Mars for so far and for so long have literally a generation’s worth of ‘Incredible Stories’ to tell, and I would have loved to read about those stories in this book.  I would especially have liked to have read about the heroic efforts to free Spirit after she got stuck in that dust-filled crater beside Home Plate in the shadow of the Columbia Hills. Now there’s an Incredible Story…!

But that omission doesn’t take ANYTHING away from the book as it is. It’s a great read, and really does a good job of describing the complexities behind the missions that intrigue, inspire and excite us. If you’re already a space enthusiast it will provide you with a lot of new information. If you’re just getting into space exploration it will open your eyes to the incredibly stressful but incredibly professional and passionate jobs real people do in order to get us priceless scientific data and beautiful pictures from across the solar system.

“INCREDIBLE STORIES FROM SPACE”

By Nancy Atkinson

Page Street Publishing

ISBN 978-1-62414-317-5

Full Moon, Eclipse and a Comet – Reality Check time…

Alright – enough. I mean, *enough*. As others have pointed out there is an absolutely ridiculous amount of utter rubbish being written and shared about the coming weekend’s astronomical events; one reporter – and I use the word very loosely – after another is tapping away furiously on their keyboard, like a monkey on crack, “writing” absolute b****ks about the “Snow Moon”, the penumbral lunar eclipse and the “close fly by” of Comet 45P. Most are just reporting them with a level of scientific ignorance that would get them a top job in Trump’s cabinet of cackling crazies, and illustrating their fairy tales with totally misleading photos and diagrams, but the worst are actually linking them all together to make some kind of perfect storm of celestial omens heralding armageddon.

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Sadly, nonsense is written and shared about every astronomical event now – every minor meteor shower is hyped up to be a “spectacle”, every conjunction of planets “a dazzling gathering”, every Full Moon a “Supermoon”, etc etc – but this week there’s been a veritable feeding frenzy . And it’s not just the usual suspects, this time; if you look at the image above you’ll see some big names – National Geographic, The Smithsonian (The SMITHSONIAN, for pity’s sake!!) – have gone cuckoo over this and lost all sense of reality, over-hyping the weekend’s events, or just parroting the line being taken by others, when literally a five minute check on Google would have told them the truth.

So, what’s actually going to happen?

Ok. Here are the absolute basics – and the absolute truth.

Yes, there will be a Full Moon this weekend, and yes there will be a lunar eclipse, and yes, there is a comet in the sky. BUT…

You ONLY get a lunar eclipse when the Moon is Full, so it’s no great surprise, or mystery, or coincidence, that the Full Moon and eclipse are happening at the same time this weekend. Like BBC news and current affairs programmes and Nigel Farage, they can’t be separated. That’s just the way it works.

And contrary to many of the illustrations being used (see above, again), the lunar eclipse will NOT turn the Moon a beautiful orange-red colour, or even take a black bite out of it, making it look like Pacman. That only happens when the Moon goes through the central part of Earth’s shadow, the “umbra” and a totally eclipsed Moon, hanging in the sky like a blood orange or a pumpkin lantern, is a gorgeous sight. But between 10.34 tomorrow night and 03.00 Saturday morning, the Moon is only going through the *outer* part of Earth’s shadow, the “penumbra”, so it will only go a bit darker, a bit greyer, probably only at the top too, at its best around half past midnight or so. So unless you know what to expect, what to look for, you might not even notice anything different about the Moon. Astronomers and experienced sky-watchers will find it fascinating, but the average man, woman, child or dog in the street will not be slapped across the face by the eclipse like they would be during a classic total eclipse. That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t try to see it. You absolutely should! Just… don’t expect to see a big orange ball in the sky, as many photos are showing.

…and then there’s the comet, 45P, which is apparently going to “whoosh” or “zoom” across the sky this weekend too, and will, if you go by the photos being used by the media, look absolutely stunning, with a long, glowing tail and a head as bright as a piece of burning magnesium…

All utter, utter nonsense. The comet is so faint it will not be visible to the naked eye, you’ll need binoculars or a telescope to see it, and even then a) it will only look like a pale smudge, and b) you’ll only know exactly where to look for it if you have, and know how to use, a star chart or a star map showing the comet’s position. To make matters worse, the big, bright Moon will reduce the comet’s brightness even more, making it even harder to find. And comets don’t whoosh or zoom across the sky; they take days, weeks or even months to drift across it, changing their position a little every night.

And as for all those things being linked supernaturally, a sign the End really is Night – shut up, you plonkers, just shut up.

So, everyone, please, don’t fall for – or, worse, share – the hype appearing online. It really is ridiculous. Do get out there and look at the lovely Full Moon tomorrow night when it rises though, and do try to see the penumbral lunar eclipse too, and do have a go at tracking down the comet, because as unimpressive as it will look it will still be something rare worth looking for. Just don’t expect too much, and don’t blindly share this gumpf just because a Facebook page with the word “science” or “space” in its name posts a breathlessly-excited story about it.

And please don’t worry – or let your friends worry – about these events triggering the end of the world. They won’t. That’s rubbish. By all means worry about a compulsive liar and a lunatic sitting in the Oval Office, with his feet up on the desk, Tweeting like a maniac with the nuclear launch codes mere feet away from his unnaturally tiny, flashing fingers, but don’t worry about a perfectly normal Full Moon, a mildly-impressive lunar eclipse and an under-performing comet all being visible on the same night, ok?

Looking back at Huygens

Big space anniversary today which will probably go unmarked by the media, as they scrabble to fill pages and airtime with the latest Trump stories and reports of NHS misery: twelve years ago today the Huygens lander, carried to Saturn by the Cassini space probe, set down on the surface of Saturn’s largest moon, Titan.

Titan was the classic enigmatic, mysterious moon, one of the most mysterious places in the whole solar system. The size of the planet Mercury, Titan is big enough to be visible from Earth through a small telescope or even through a really good pair of binoculars, looking like a tiny “star” close to the Ringed Planet.

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Photos taken by the Voyager 1 space-probe as it whooshed through the Saturn system in 1980 showed the moon’s surface was hidden beneath an opaque atmosphere of thick, orange, smoggy gas, so the Huygens team had no real idea of what Titan’s surface was like, and the probe was designed to cope with various possibilities. In the end, after floating down through Titan’s atmosphere on a parachute and sending back breathtaking images of what were obviously – and unexpectedly, the channels of rivers of some sort, and the shorelines of lakes – Huygens  touched down on fairly solid ground, and before it perished in the unimagineable cold returned images from the surface showing it was surrounded by rounded pebbles of water ice, on a gritty beach-like surface.

I remember the day well. I was up in Cockermouth, visiting my mother who lived and still lives there. and I had arranged to go and give a talk on astronomy and space exploration to a class of kids at the junior school which is – literally – a stone’s throw away from my mother’s house. It was a “Tour of The Solar System”, looking at each planet and major moon in turn. I was a bit distracted during the talk, to be honest, because my head was full of thoughts of Huygens – would everything go ok? Would it take images on the way down as planned? Would it land safely? Would we get to see Titan’s surface? – but it was exciting to be able to tell the kids during the Saturn section of the talk that right then, at that very moment, a space probe was dropping down through Titan’s atmosphere and taking photos which would be on the news that evening. History in the making, as they say, because this would be the most distant landing every attempted by us. We’d landed lots of hardware on the Moon, and on Mars, but never on anything as far away as Titan…

It was a long and very frustrating wait for the images to appear online, and in those days ESA was nowhere near as generous or speedy with its image releases as it is now, so I spent a lot of time with my laptop on my knee, checking, re-checking and re-checking for images until finally, FINALLY, one appeared…

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At first I wasn’t sure what I was looking at… the horizon was blurred, out of focus, and those objects in the foreground looked like stones, or rocks of some kind, but without any sense of scale, or colour, it was difficult to get too much from the image. But that didn’t matter – that was TITAN! That was the surface of Titan, the largest moon around the Ringed Planet, the moon I had seen through my own little telescope so, so many times, as a “star” close to the rings… It was a genuinely moving experience, being able to see those images as they were released. Titan would never be the same again for any of us who were “into” space or astronomy. It truly was a world, not just a moon, not just a speck of light in an eyepiece.

Later, a colour version of the image appeared, and that was when many of us fell in love with Titan…

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It looked a bit like Mars, or Venus, but was obviously not either of those worlds. It was a world in its own right, a world that, from that day on, would call out to us from across the solar system like a siren.

Amazingly it was clear that night, I remember, so I got out my telescope, set it up, and looked at Saturn, which was well-placed for observation, already above the eastern horizon at sunset, and obvious to the naked eye as darkness deepened, shining not far from the stars Castor and Pollux. Lining up on Saturn with the finder scope I looked into the eyepiece.. and there it was, Titan, a speck of light close to the planet itself. And yes, it was genuinely thrilling to see it on the same day it had been “conquered” by Huygens, and looking at it I remember wondering what the little probe looked like those hours after its historic landing. Was it now covered with dust or sand, blown on the wind? Had it sank into the soft ground? We’d probably never know. But to be able to stand there and see Titan through my little telescope’s eyepiece, and look at a photo of its surface taken just hours earlier, was quite something.

Since then Cassini has revolutionised our view and understanding of Titan, using its cameras and radar instruments. We now know that Titan has huge lakes, and winding, meandering rivers – not of sparkling water, like Earth, but chemicals such as methane. We know it has vast plains of dark sand dunes, blown and sculpted by the winds, and bright clouds swirling in its atmosphere. We know that, contrary to what science fiction illustrators had imagined in the years before Huygens’ landing, the moon’s atmosphere is too thick and claggy to allow Saturn to be seen from the surface, which is shame, because that had always been one of the most thrilling and romantic views thought possible from “out there”.

Today we know that Titan is essentially a planet in its own right orbiting Saturn, and there is a huge demand from planetary scientists for a return to Titan as soon as possible, so we can properly explore its lakes – perhaps with a boat, or even a submarine – and map its surface in greater detail, studying its mountains, valleys and lake shores with a dedicated orbiter or even a balloon which would drift around the moon, carried on its winds. We will return to Titan one day, that’s for sure, it’s just a matter of when.

But today is the day to cast our minds back to events twelve years ago, when a little probe landed on the most exciting, most bizarre moon in the whole solar system. There’s a fantastic video of the landing here, made from actual images taken by Huygens as it dropped through Titan’s atmosphere and settled on the surface.

If the sky is clear before sunrise where you are tomorrow morning (in the northern hemisphere, that is), you can see Saturn for yourself, looking like a yellow-white “star” very low in the south east at around 6.30am. And if you have a telescope you’ll be able to see Titan, looking like a tiny star next to the beautiful ringed planet. If you see it, spare a thought for Huygens, and all it achieved, a dozen years ago, and marvel at the thought that we have landed one of our machines on a world so ridiculously far away that it just looks like a tiny star through a telescope.

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Gazing at sand…

Weird title for what is generally an astronomy- and space-related blog, I know, but bear with me…

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There’s a fascinating exhibition at the Brewery Arts Centre here in Kendal at the moment. “Sandgazer” features magnified images of sand grains gathered from around the world, taken by artist and photographer Jenny Natusch. Stella and I went to have a look on Thursday, and I couldn’t wait to see it because I’ve been fascinated by this topic for as long as I can remember. And the exhibition didn’t disappoint. Some of the photos are absolutely beautiful – portraits of tiny etched fragments of glass, minute shells, miniscule shards of stone, all photographed through a high-powered microscope and their images blown up to allow every tiny detail to be seen. A lovely touch is the way that each of the sand grains photographed is actually mounted on the wall next to its photo, in a tiny display box, which really gives a sense of scale.

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What really caught my eye was how one ridiculously tiny grain, when magnified, looked spookily like Mars as seen from orbit… the contrast in scale there was quite mind-spinning..!  It inspired me to make this image of my own…

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If I had one criticism/frustration viewing the exhibition it was that there are no descriptions of what each object is – is this one a shell? is this one a piece of glass? I wondered as I wandered around – but I did also wonder if maybe that was the point, and maybe they’re on display purely as objects of beauty, not there to be classified or labelled?  Turns out I was right: Jenny kindly explained the reason for the lack of labels in a reply to me on Facebook…

To answer your question……you guessed right…..I am not interested in labels, there are so many scientists doing that already, and some how it takes away the magic of it all to know what something is! Likewise, instead of giving the magnification I would rather display the grain next to the image.

Fair enough! Probably just me being my usual over-inquisitive science self. The lack of labels doesn’t take anything away from the exhibition at all; it really is fascinating, and the images themselves are beautiful, and, I’ll be honest, far more to my taste than some of the exhibitions the Brewery hosts. I know, I know, art is a very personal thing, not everyone can (or should) like the same thing, and every artist sees the world in their own unique way, but personally I can’t appreciate anything too abstract or “out there”, and sometimes I wander around the exhibitions at the Brewery in a state of bemusement, disbelief and utter confusion, not “getting” at all how… that… is “art”. This gripped and inspired me though. Maybe it’s because I’m someone who appreciates the beauty of rocks anyway; seeing these teeny tiny objects seemed very real to me, much more real than a few wispy brush strokes on a canvas that are supposed to represent the angst of modern existence… or something… 🙂

Walking around the photos you’ll think you’re seeing alien monsters, huge chunks of rock, glittering shards of magical gems, even a huge glowing nebula seen by the Hubble telescope… but every image is a portrait of a speck of matter, some less than a millimetre across, picked up off a beach somewhere in the world, just like the countless millions you’ve walked on or kicked into the air or patted into castles while on your holidays in Blackpool, Benidorm or Bali.

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“Sandgazer” is currently on display at the Brewery Arts Centre in Kendal, and is free. Go see it while it’s there!

More information: “Sandgazer”

A “star crash” in 2022…?

Ok, so this epic “star crash” predicted for 2022… sounds fascinating, and if it happens it will be a) very interesting to see, and b) a great success for the scientists making the predictions. But there is SO much hype about what it will look like! If you read some reports online it will be “dazzling”, or “blazing”, or “as bright as one of the brightest stars in the sky!” But if you take a moment to read the actual predictions, the astronomers are predicting a maximum magnitude of 2… which makes it as bright as Polaris… which is not really that bright at all (although many people think it is the brightest star in the sky) or one of the stars in The Big Dipper, which are all roughly around magnitude 2.

Now, that means that IF this star suddenly appears in Cygnus it will be very noticeable to astronomers and sky-watchers, who know the patterns the stars make up there so well they will instinctively realise that Cygnus looks… wrong… But non-astronomers will not have their gaze drawn to it, it won’t be bright enough to do that (although if it is a “red nova” as it’s being predicted that will help people spot it, because there aren’t any other red stars in that part of the sky). They’ll have to have it pointed out to them. But that’s ok… astronomical societies and individual astronomers will be able to use this as a great outreach opportunity, I think. And we have plenty of time to prepare! But it will be very important to manage expectations: we have to be stressing from now that this is only a possibility, a prediction, and making sure people don’t expect too much, i.e. they don’t believe the hype and expect to see a new Venus blazing in the sky. And it will be important, when 2022 rolls around, to help people see it if it appears, because it will be something very new and exciting – and handle their disappointment if it doesn’t.

I think we need to handle this very carefully. If you listen you can actually hear the ghosts of Comet Kohoutek and Comet ISON stirring out there in the dark depths, reminding us what happened with them when they promised so much but ultimately let us down. But we’re up to it, as a community, I’m sure!

Below – a couple of images I’ve made showing how the “red nova” MIGHT look if it appears as is being predicted. The background image is a Milky Way panorama taken at Kielder starcamp back in October, and I’ve added the nova in the **approximate** position where it could appear. I’ve made it about magnitude 2, as predictions are suggesting, and you can see it’s not going to be “blazing” or “dazzling” at all. Fascinating, yes. But not slap-across-the-face obvious.

Discuss by all means, but please note this is just a bit of fun, I’m not passing judgement on the prediction, or predicting this is exactly what we might see

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