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the-martian-600x450Can you imagine how much I was looking forward to seeing this film? Can you even begin to imagine?

I have been a huge fan of the story of THE MARTIAN for a long time, ever since it first appeared online as a story a few years ago. I read it several times on my computer and tablet before buying the book when it was published – signed copy, of course! – and then when I heard it was going to be made into a film I was as excited as a dog in a lamp post factory. Then, of course, after I was excited I was terrified; what if they ruined it, like other brilliant books have been ruined by film-makers in the past? What if they dumbed it down, and stripped away all the science leaving just a “Castaway on Mars” rip-off?

My anxiety was eased somewhat when I heard who was going to be directing it – Ridley Scott. Phew. “Epic” is his middle name, he would be able to handle it, surely. But… his films are SO dour, SO serious, would he be able to keep in the comedy the book is full of? ( Oh, please, Ridley, don’t make a “dark” MARTIAN, don’t turn it into a Dark Knight film..) I knew a lot would depend on the casting of the lead role: would his Mark Watney be funny, and irreverent, and sometimes just plain silly, like he is in the book? Ah… casting Matt Damon in the lead seemed a good move – a safe pair of hands, Matt, and in my mind I could see him as Watney without any trouble –

But… but…!!

All I could do was cross my fingers and wait.

As the film entered production, and as I waited to see it in my local cinema, two questions were burning in my mind: how faithful would the film be to the book, and how real would Mars look in the film?

It was very important to me, as a “Mars enthusiast”, that the film of THE MARTIAN put a realistic Mars on the big screen. Mars has not been treated well by film makers in the past. RED PLANET’s Mars was okay, suitably red and dusty and craggy-looking, but ruined by those oxygen-farting bugs. MISSION TO MARS looked promising – stunning views of Mars from orbit – until the most stupid astronauts ever to go into space “woke up” the Face on Mars and were torn to bits by a sand storm (and the less said about the end, with a gormless- and bored looking Gary Sinese meeting the worst CGI aliens ever to be shown in a big budget film, the better)…

And then, of course, we come to TOTAL RECALL – the original one, not  the recent Colin Farrell bomb.

In Arnie’s film – which is about as scientifically accurate as an episode of Blakes 7 but is a hugely enjoyable romp, let’s be honest – Mars is not just “the red planet”, it is the OH MY GOD!!! THAT IS SO RED MY EYES ARE MELTING!!!! red planet. His Mars is a planet dipped in fire engine red paint, then dusted with red brick dust and then drowned in red paint again just to be certain everyone in the audience gets it that MARS IS RED.

total_recall_1990_pic02-1024x550An honourable mention must go to the classic “ROBINSON CRUSOE ON MARS”. Look carefully at this poster…


See where it says, bottom left, “Scientifically authentic”? Let’s examine it’s scientific authenticity… UFOs!! A ripped space suit! An APE MAN!! A MONKEY ON HIS SHOULDER, WITHOUT A SPACE SUIT! It’s still a fun film tho. And I was pretty sure THE MARTIAN would be rather more “authentic”… :-)

So, yes, it’s fair to say that it was very important to me that THE MARTIAN treated Mars, MY planet, always has been, with respect and, okay, yes, love. Regular readers will know of my passion for Mars, how I’ve been a “martian” since I was at junior school, long before the fictional Mark Watney ever thought about going there.

Then… the long wait until “word” started coming out of the studios about how the film was going.

Images started being released, and to my relief Mars looked… right. Well, not perfect, but much more realistic than it had been shown in other films. Just by looking at the promotional stills I got a sense of THE MARTIAN’s take on Mars, and it looked every bit as wide open and epic and noble and beautiful as I’d hoped it would. That was a good sign, and when the first trailers were released I literally cheered watching them, I was that happy and that relieved. It looked like Ridley Scott had pulled off what had eluded so many before him and made a Good Mars Film.

Release date approached, and the the early reviews started to appear, and they were all good. ALL good. It had blown people away; even the most cynical reviewers had loved it. I couldn’t wait to see it myself –

And last Tuesday night I finally did.

I swear I walked into the Brewery Arts Center a nervous wreck. I wanted so badly, SO badly for the film to be good, to not let me down, to not ruin the book in any way. And I took my seat and just sat there mentally sending Ridley Scott messages…. “Don’t you dare spoil this story for me, don’t you DARE…”

Lights down… music began…

… … … … … … …

End titles… credits roll… lights up…

…and I just sat there, staring at the screen, with a big grin on my face and all my worries and fears swept away. He did it. He actually did it. He not only brought THE MARTIAN to life, he brought Mars, the real Mars, to life too. Well, almost. But he’d done the best job yet.

I loved THE MARTIAN, and I loved the Mars that is shown in THE MARTIAN. Mars has never looked more beautiful on the big screen. Never. Watching the film, the Mars in my head, MY Mars, kept whispering “It’s still not right… where are all the rocks? It’s so flat! SO much open space! And the mountains look wrong! And… and…” But I didn’t listen. I told that voice to shut up, because the Mars on the screen was GORGEOUS, a huge John Ford western Mars, a Big Country Mars that looked noble and ancient and BIG, with sweeping vistas, a caramel sky, dust devils whirling softly in the distance, dust wafting over the ground. Yes, it was too flat, with too much open ground, but I forgave it that for just looking so stunning. Good job, Ridley. Good job.

But of course, to be fair here, I have to talk about the martian elephant in the room. Yes, that. The dust storm. The storm that strands Watney on Mars in the first place.

Obviously, it’s ridiculous. RiDICulous. Dust storms on Mars just aren’t like that. A dust storm on Mars is basically a wafting breeze carrying a lot of dust with it; it wouldn’t blow you over, it wouldn’t even bend you. So the scene where Watney and his team stagger through the dark, through a hail of jagged fragments of rock and stone is… ridiculous. But it’s in the book, and Ridley Scott obviously loved his shrapnel storm in PROMETHEUS **SO** much he shoe-horned it into THE MARTIAN too! And author Andy Weir admits that, freely; in a book otherwise crammed full of good science The Storm is just a plot device to strand Watney there. And you know, that’s ok, I didn’t mind that, because IT’S A FILM NOT A DOCUMENTARY!!!!! :-)

I loved so many things about the film. I loved the way that science is a hero in the film (and the book), and the people who do science are heroes and heroines too. I loved the fact that no-one died (I really did wonder if Ridley Scott would re-write the story so SOMEONE died, cos he loves killing people in his films). I loved that no-one had been turned into an all out boo-hiss villain. I loved the first shot of the crew on Mars, which actually made me whisper “Oh yes!!!” in the darkness of the cinema. I loved how, at the end of the film, Watney was shown surrounded by lush green, a stark contrast to all the martian hues through the rest of the two hours. I loved how they showed Sojourner rolling happily around inside the hab like a dog – and I was THIS close to blubbing when Watney knelt down and affectionately patted it goodbye, before abandoning the Hab and setting off to be rescued.

I loved how the film kept the fun of the book, which I was really quite worried about. I mean, “Ridley Scott” and “fun” go together like “politician” and “honest”, i.e. they don’t, but he kept almost all the humour of the book, especially Watney’s despair at only having disco music to listen to. ( Actually, I’d have been fine with that, but that’s just me and my taste in music… walking about on Mars with Sister Sledge playing in my helmet would do me just fine, thank you…!)

Yes, there are cliches in the film, lots of them. The JPL scientists are all shown as uber geeks, all messy desks, sleeping on couches and SF tee-shirts. The NASA chief, quite a nuanced, deep character in the book, is an old faithful Mr Stuffed Shirt who “comes around” in the end. The Chinese are deep and inscrutable… etc etc…

But he patted Sojourner goodbye, so I forgive all the above.

A few things did jar… a little… The Pathfinder landing site shown was just Anywhere On Mars, nothing like Ares Valles where it actually landed; I would have loved to have seen the actual landing site recreated, even with CGI, but sadly that was not to be. The film also gave the impression that JPL was basically a few farm barns where unwashed extras from an episode of Dawson’s Creek worked, and where a “spare” Pathfinder lurked under a tarpaulin that could be woken up with just a bit of a brush off and some jump leads. The spacesuits looked like… well, not really like spacesuits, but they were ok.

The storm was – yeah, enough about that.

What I really, really wish they had done (and I’m not even sure if this was a scene in the book) was show Watney sitting on top of a hill, or just standing out in the open, after sunset, looking wistfully at Earth, shining in the dusk like a blue star. That would have looked magical, and if ever a film could have done that image justice, THE MARTIAN was it. I wonder if they shot it and it will be in the obligatory “Director’s Cut” DVD? I’ll know when I buy it.

So, to summarise… THE MARTIAN is a great film. Is it faithful to the book? Yes – well, faithful enough; filming the whole book would have been almost impossible, unless you were Peter Jackson and used to making films that last half a day. There’s enough of the book’s science in it to satisfy the people who love the book, and not so much that people new to the story will be bored. People who go to the book after watching the film will either enjoy the additional botany and geometry and mathematics, or they will think “Huh, the film was better…” and put it down again. THE MARTIAN isn’t the best SF film ever made, not by a longshot, but it is, hands down, the best Mars film ever made, and will bring that planet to life in the minds of a whole new generation of people.

As for how it shows Mars… I’m very, very picky about this, I know, but it didn’t quite nail it for me. It almost had it, but if you *know* Mars like Mars enthusiasts do, the Mars in the film is a bit too flat, a bit too jagged-hilly, and way, waaay too stormy! The view of the dust storm boiling over the mountains is fantastic to look at, very dramatic, but not accurate – but, again, that’s ok, I can easily forgive that when the film just looks so luscious and rich, and treats Mars, for the first time, with the respect it deserves.

And he patted Sojourner goodbye…!!!!! :-( :-(

But above all, the film is just great fun! It is hugely entertaining, just like the book. I must admit, watching The Storm I wondered if Ridley had made a dark and brooding film and stripped away some of the humour. I mean… the guy made PROMETHEUS, a film which relishes misery and angst, wearing gloom with all the pride and joy of a goth pulling on a new black t-shirt; PROMETHEUS, a film with so many unlikeable people you lose count, and really don’t care if they die or not – is drenched in depression, and after watching it I felt like I’d been to a funeral… But THE MARTIAN is full of so much fun, and wit, and warmth, it was as if Ridley was actually enjoying himself making it. Who ever imagined they’d hear disco music in a Ridley Scott film???

I will buy the DVD, yes, and I hope to see the film in 3D too, as the Brewery Arts Centre was only showing it in 2D on the night we went. But it didn’t matter; it was a rollicking good story, and even though – as is the case with Apollo 13 – I knew exactly what was going to happen at the end, and knew he would be Brought Home, my heat was in my mouth, hoping for the best!

Good job, Ridley, Matt, and everyone else involved. Good job.

And after watching the film, one thought keeps coming back to me. Now Ridley Scott has shown a good Mars film can be made, and Mars can be shown properly on screen, the idea of someone being brave enough to take on Kim Stanley Robinson’s Mars Trilogy, and do it properly, doesn’t seem so far-fetched after all…

Hunting the aurora… in Cumbria…

EAS Aurora Hunters 2

If you’re a regular reader of this blog you’ll know just how many times I have tried to see the northern lights from Cumbria, here in the north of England. It’s a pretty thankless task, for many reasons. Firstly, when it comes to the aurora, the “north of England” isn’t actually that far north. It’s almost the end of the world for politicians and media types down in London, they think we are permanently covered in snow and have to fight off sabre tooth tigers and mammoths, but in terms of being well placed for watching auroral activity we’re really not that far north at all, you need to go up to Scotland to have a chance of seeing anything with any regularity. Also, to be blunt, our weather is crap. The Lake District HAS lakes for a reason – it rains SO much here you would not believe it, and usually when it’s not raining at night it’s cloudy, so doing any kind of astronomy is “challenging” at best.

But that doesn’t stop us haring up to the north of our beautiful county if the KP index and the “space weather dials” suggest there’s even a hint of a whisper of a chance of seeing even the top of an auroral display peeking above our northern horizon. And off we go, with cameras and high hopes… only, usually, to have those hopes dashed by the weather or the aurora itself. What promised to be a Big Display ends up as little more than a water colour wash green glow on the horizon. And every time it happens we tell ourselves “Our time will come… our time will come…” Not really believing it, of course…

But sometimes, just sometimes, our time DOES come. And last week, on two nights in a row, we were able to see the northern lights from Cumbria.


Wednesday evening, and across the UK aurora-hunters and sky watchers are wondering what the night will bring. Earlier that morning, after doing nothing all night, a big auroral display had kicked off after our sunrise, delighting viewers in the US and leaving us banging our heads against ant available wall. As the day progressed we all kept checking the websites and blogs and Twitter feeds we rely on to give us warnings of possible aurora, hoping that when darkness fell we would see something, but it was very uncertain.

Then, at around quarter to eight in the evening, looking at my phone I saw a Facebook post from an aurora watcher in Finland, shouting to the world that he was seeing a BIG display in his sky… That pricked my ears up! REALLY??? Finland was dark ahead of us, so surely at least the upper part of a display as big as the one he was describing would be visible for us too? We get to our Shap observing site around half an hour later, but the sky was almost totally cloudy, with just a narrow, letterbox strip of clear sky to the north. Even though it wasn’t properly dark yet I decided to take a test shot, and aimed my camera at the clear sky…

1st 20-29 frameYES!!!!! AURORA, right there!!!

…and then it all went… nuts…

The sky cleared, and by some miracle it stayed clear ALL NIGHT, as the biggest and most impressive display of the northern lights seen from our part of the world for almost a decade painted the sky green, red and purple.

It started off slowly, with just – just! haha! – a huge green arc across the northern sky, looking like a lime green rainbow…


But slowly the arc started to sprout beams, and rays, which jabbed up into the sky like searchlights…



IMG_3258 20-44

Watching this from Shap we were more than happy with that. It was more than we had seen for a long time, But it turned out that was just the warm up act for the main show, like those cute little UFOs that fly over everyone at the end of CLOSE ENCOUNTERS before the Mothership arrived…because at about half past nine, the green arc vanished, as if switched off like a light bulb, and when it came back the northern sky blazed with cold, green fire…

IMG_3338 21-59 frameIMG_3341 22-02 frame

IMG_3343 22-03 frame

I took photo after photo after photo, laughing at the beauty of it all, as did Stella and someone who had come up on the off chance to see if he could see anything. By ten pm activity was dying down, the great green curtains had stopped rolling and flapping, but the northern sky was still glowing…

stella aurora frame

stella frame

bothIMG_3411 23-26 frame

beamcarol frame

By 01.30 on Thursday morning activity had died right down to a soft background glow, so we headed home, delighted with what we had seen. But activity continued throughout the day, so after dark on Thursday evening we headed up to Shap again.


Word had obviously gone out about the possibility of seeing the northern lights the next night, night because every lay-by we passed was crammed with cars full of hopeful aurora watchers, but our site was thankfully quiet and deserted. This time no aurora greeted us upon our arrival, and the sky was a lot cloudier. In fact, it just didn’t “feel right” for an aurora, so I took some constellation photos to pass the time, hopeful that something might appear. Reports on Twitter and Facebook were suggesting a display was visible further north from us – a LOT further, like Orkney and the Hebrides – but we couldn’t see it. There was a trace, a suggestion of a green glow on photos taken facing north, but that was all –

Then, suddenly, it appeared… The Blob…!

IMG_3530 22-46

At just after quarter to eleven a vague patch of pale green appeared above the NW horizon, and brightened and kept brightening. No rays came from it, no beams, nothing, just a green glow that came and went. But we were happy with that, and Stella posed in front of it for a photo… look at it carefully, over to the right…

IMG_3546 23-04

Yes! Some rays! I couldn’t see them by eye, but they showed up on the photo on the back of the camera, so I tried a few more shots towards them…

blob and rays

IMG_3548 23-08Again, activity died down around half past midnight, so we decided to call it a night. Stella bedded down in the back oif the van, and I curled up on the front seat, setting my alarm for 04.30 in the hope of seeing a quartet of planets lined up in the pre-dawn sky. Did I see them? Well, that’s in the previous post… :-)

Planets on Parade…

Yesterday morning (Friday, October 9th) I was lucky enough to see, and photograph, a beautiful line up of planets in the eastern sky before dawn –

Actually, no, I wasn’t lucky. Luck had nothing to do with it. As you need to do with many astronomical events, I planned it out carefully in advance, checking times, and dates, and angles and exactly how they would look, and where, and was in exactly the right place at exactly the right time to see what was going on; the only element of luck in the whole thing involved the weather, because it was wonderfully miraculously clear at 04.30 when I went out, ready to photograph the Great Parade Of Planets…

When I got up at half four, unfolding myself out of the front seat of the van I’d slept in for three hours, after an evening of aurora-spotting, I peeked out the misted-over window and saw the sky was breathtakingly clear. Looking in the side mirror I could see Venus blazing like a diamond just above a nearby wood, and knew that the Moon wouldn’t be far behind, hidden by the trees, so I slid out of the van, grabbed my camera and tripod, and headed away a short distance before finally looking back… and seeing…

1st view

Oh wow…

A short time later Mars cleared the trees, and Jupiter rose too…

2nd view

Here, let me put some labels on that for you…

2nd view labelled…and basically I stayed out there for the next two and a half hours, taking different photos of the planets as they rose higher, with different lenses and settings, just – and many astro-photographers and observers forget to do this – having fun with something amazing in the sky! :-) While I waited for the planets to gain some altitude I took the opportunity to do some tracked deep sky imaging with my iOptron star tracker…


On the left, below, you can see a single 2 minute long tracked image taken with the tracker. On the right, a processed stack of ten 30 second images…

collage M42

…and with a bit more work you can get images like these…




But back to the planets. Here are the best photos I took…

Leo Planets f

planets plus cloud


Planets and clouds

As dawn approached I was also able to get *another* planet in my pictures, Mercury…!

4 worlds labelled

I was pleased to have four worlds on one photo, but then it was pointed out to me that I’d actually got SIX…

6 worlds f labels


Stella joined me for a few photos, as you can see…



By seven am it was just too bright to see Mars, Mercury and Jupiter, but Venus and the Moon were still visible in the cold, blue sky, but I needed to get *some* sleep so returned to the van.

And just to round things off, earlier in the evening I had managed to track down Uranus and Neptune too, so I actually photographed every (official) planet in the solar system except Saturn over the course of one night… :-) I just missed out on photographing Saturn as it had already set when we got to our observing site, but I’ll definitely try again from Kielder starcamp next week.

collage 8 worlds

Awesome Apollo

If you’re a space enthusiast you probably love looking at Apollo mission images. After all, the are a) dramatic, b) visually stunning and c) remind us of a glorious time, in days long past, when human beings actually went somewhere, and explored, instead of bumbling about in Earth orbit like glorified campers. Many of the Apollo images are iconic – Buzz Aldrin standing on the Moon, posing for Neil Armstrong (wish Buzz had returned the favour, but as we all know he was “too busy” to take an official portrait of the first man on the Moon… busy taking photos of rocks, and the sky, and the legs of the lunar lander…), Dave Scott posing beside the lunar rover, “Earth-rise” etc – but I think it’s fair to say that books, magazines and websites tend to use the same images all the time, so over time those images might have lost a little of their impact.

Of course, if you are online savvy, and “in the know” about Apollo, it has been possible for quite a while to look at other Apollo images, ones not so well known, but it’s been, to put it kindly, a bit of a faff about looking at them.

That has just changed.

NASA has just set up a new website – The Project Apollo Archive – which is basically an online gallery of all the Apollo images. Yes, all of them, thousands and thousands of them, more than 8000 of them, in fact. There are no endless lists to click through, no obscure catalogue numbers, no cryptic references; just page after delicious page of images – actual images – to scroll through and drool over, separated into the different missions.

Apollo Image Archive

Seriously, it’s as if someone at NASA, staring out the window and chewing their pen on a slow day, thought “Now… if I was a space enthusiast, or a teacher, or a student, fascinated by Apollo, what would I really like to see..?” and just made it. (One fly in the ointment: it’s a Flickr account gallery, but you don’t have to be a member of or sign up to Flickr to view or download the images).

The site is basically a free, all-you-can-eat buffet of Apollo images. Just pick an Apollo mission, click on a folder, and start scrolling, and eventually, because there are so many images, you will see a picture you have never seen before. The “classics” are there, of course, and when you see those you’ll smile and think “Ah yes, that one…” but a little bit further down, or in the next album, you’ll see something… new, an image taken on the way to, on, or coming back from the Moon that you won’t recognise, and that’s just a fantastic feeling.

I’ll be honest tho; looking back through these galleries I was torn between feeling renewed admiration for the Apollo missions and the men and women behind them, and feeling frustrated and angry that we’re not on the Moon NOW and, indeed, taking our first steps on Mars. The images in the Project Apollo Archive remind us how high NASA soared, and how it has stalled since, at least in terms of crewed exploration…

Of course, faced with all those images I couldn’t resist doing a little “tinkering” (really just cropping, boosting contrast, ‘cos some are *very* washed out-looking etc)- and making some “processed versions” of the images. Not to “improve” them – how arrogant would THAT be, to even THINK you could improve images taken by astronauts On The Moon????? – just to bring out some details, and make them look a bit more dynamic, more like the images we’re now so used to seeing on the ISS and of distant planets and moons.

So, anyway, here you go. I hope you find at least one you like!

21036773464_035f2801e4_o b 21079047693_6c6f0801cf_o b

21657760696_0f4b7a8638_o b2 21683646195_85ed813730_o b

21691316382_bf116b8603_o b 21703989075_303db9b3b2_o b2

at rover b

boulder LM

parked rocks

New Horizons shows Crazy Charon in close-up

Well, they did it again. The NEW HORIZONS team released an image that has sent jaws plummeting to the floor faster than a Kardashian turning towards a camera. This time they have shown us Pluto’s largest moon, Charon, in stunning detail, and the new image shows just what a crazy body it is. I mean, it is **insane**. Think I’m overdoing it? Just LOOK at it…!

Charon-Neutral-Bright-Release b

Look at that enormous valley system bisecting the moon, looking spookily reminiscent of Valles Marineris on Mars! Look at that dark basin at the top of the moon, like a huge coffee stain! Look at all the craters surrounded by systems of rays! (Only in the northern hemisphere tho; the southern hemisphere seems a lot flatter and less colourful.) And look over there, on the limb almost…


On the right is what looks like a mountain sinking into the ground, and a short distance away a hole. Did that once have a mountain in it too? Did the ground there swallow a mountain? Or is it just a hollow in the surface? No idea. I just know that that… is… nuts

And if you take that released image and work on it a bit – sharpening it up, boosting the contrast and levels and saturation, etc – a lot more subtle detail jumps out at you…

Charon-Neutral-Bright-Release b2…but your eyes keep going back to that valley, don’t they?

valleyFrom the NASA press release: “High-resolution images of the Pluto-facing hemisphere of Charon, taken by New Horizons as the spacecraft sped through the Pluto system on July 14 and transmitted to Earth on Sept. 21, reveal details of a belt of fractures and canyons just north of the moon’s equator.  This great canyon system stretches more than 1,000 miles (1,600 kilometers) across the entire face of Charon and likely around onto Charon’s far side. Four times as long as the Grand Canyon, and twice as deep in places, these faults and canyons indicate a titanic geological upheaval in Charon’s past.

…and if you turn the processing dial all the way up to “OH MY GOD!!! WHAT DID YOU DO?????” you get this…

Charon-Neutral-Bright-Release b2crazyNow, I know what some of you are thinking: why did you DO that???? Well, because sending everything almost off the chart, to make what is effectively a “false colour image”, really highlights subtle differences in colour and texture on the surface. Usually I *hate* false colour images, but in Charon’s case I’ll make an exception, because you can see more clearly just how far that red-hued polar cap extends; how the valley system is surrounded by material that’s darker than the surrounding plain; how systems of rays extend really quite away from some of the craters, rays that spread away more in one direction than others. And if you isolate the polar basin, like this…

basin pole…you can see a wealth of detail and structure in there: craters, ridges, and more.

Time to update our “Before and After” image, I think…

collage charon oct2

Today, Friday, we should have another batch of images given to us by the NEW HORIZONS team. I wonder what they will show..? :-)

See FOUR planets in a row next week…

If watching the total lunar eclipse has got you interested in astronomy and the night sky, you’re probably wondering “What can I see next?”

Well, next week there will be a very interesting line-up of planets in the morning sky. Don’t worry, you won’t need a telescope to see them; the planets are all bright enough to be visible with just the naked eye, and will look just like stars in then sky. And to make watching this “planet parade” even more exciting, the crescent Moon will be in that part of the sky too, moving down the line of planets, from right to left, as the days pass.

As was the case with the eclipse, seeing this parade of planets will mean getting up early or staying up late, but it will be worth it to see four of Earth’s sister worlds strung out across the eastern sky before dawn, like gemstones on an invisible chain.

Ok, here’s what you’ll see… click on each image to enlarge it…



OCT 10

If you’re lucky you’ll be able to see this from your garden, but be aware that if you live in a built up area, with trees and buildings around you, or if you love somewhere with hills on your eastern horizon you might struggle. If you can, get out into the countryside – or at least to somewhere dark and more wide open, like a park – and you will have a much better view.

With a digital SLR camera – or a good “bridge” camera – on a tripod, or resting on something, you should be able to photograph this planetary pile-up using time exposures.

As I said, this will be clearly visible to the naked eye (although Mercury might be a challenge, being so low as the sky is brightening), but if you have or can get hold of a pair of binoculars they will enhance tour view and your enjoyment. They’ll definitely make the different colours of the planets much more obvious, and make them look brighter too. They will also show you some of Jupiter’s family of more than 60 moons, looking like tiny faint stars next to brilliant Jupiter. And with Mercury being so low, they’ll help you pick it out from the background glow.

Good luck!

Water! On Mars! Again! BIG Deal, or Big DEAL?

Much excitement yesterday around teatime UK time as, around the world, space enthusiasts, scientists and the simply curious – many of them still pale and watery-eyed from sleep deprivation after a late night of lunar eclipse-watching – gathered around their computers or stared into the screens of their tablets and phones to hear NASA make its Big Announcement. “Mars Mystery Solved!” had been the cry a couple of days earlier, prompting outrageous speculation on Twitter, Facebook and every other social media platform (and in Ye Olde printed media too): what were they going to tell us?

Many people were convinced it was a big astrobiology story – that NASA was finally going to announce that Mars wasn’t dead. But what were they going to say? That they’d found fossils? That they had found chemical traces of life? That they had looked again at the Viking laboratory results and decided that maybe the 1970s probe had detected signs of life after all? Others thought it might be an announcement that they had found one of the many space-probes lost on Mars. Others, wearing neatly-folded tin foil hats, were convinced NASA was going to “come clean” and admit that its photos really DID show yetis, small women or dinosaur skulls…

But those who took a little bit of time to think about it, and to do some research, already had a pretty good idea what the announcement was going to relate to. A quick look at the names of the people on the panel was enough to tell one that it was about water, or water processes, rather than life. And digging into the recent work of people on the panel strongly suggested that the news was related to the “gullies” and “dark stains” observed on Mars in recent years.


And that turned out to be the case. No yetis, no tiny women, no fossils – but something very exciting for people with a more scientific approach. Basically, NASA has now got evidence that the dark streaks seen on the sloping sides of certain martian landscape features were caused by water –

WHAT???? Cue disappointed groans from thousands… Oh, great… NASA had found water on Mars. AGAIN.


Hang on, hang on…! Well, ok, it might have sounded like NASA was reheating old news, but to be fair that wasn’t the case. This was different. The water found on Mars so far before has all been frozen or misty water. Orbiters have photographed veritable martian ice rinks, in craters and at the pole, and going all the way back to the Viking days landers have seen frost (frozen water) sparkling on rocks around them before dawn broke. The Phoenix lander (which many people seem to have forgotten about, you hardly hear it mentioned now, do you?) even sent back photographs of a slab of ice right beneath it, and yet more ice glinting on the floors of the trenches it dug in the dirt with its robot arm, and many people think that strange globules photographed on the lander’s own body were actually water droplets. Other missions, notably the Mars Exploration Rovers – now all but erased from history whenever a NASA media event is held, they just aren’t mentioned any more, it’s all about Curiosity – have found evidence of past water flowing or standing on Mars. But this water was, well, proper water. Of a sort.

What NASA was saying was that the dark streaks observed by orbiters had been caused by water. Not, they were quick to point out, liquid water running or rushing down the slopes, not by rivers gurgling down crater or valley walls, not even by weedy trickles slithering their way past and around boulders, creeping towards the floor below. They had been caused more by a dampness gradually spreading through the dirt, staining it, darkening it. So, yes, the dark streaks had been caused by water, but not what we think of as water here on Earth; rather a very salty “brine”, that you couldn’t possibly drink or use for anything, really, spreading like damp through the dirt.

So, to be clear, here’s what NASA HASN’T found…


Seriously, some papers and websites are going well over the top about this news. If NASA had found water running freely on the surface of Mars that would be amazing news, astounding news! What they’ve actually found is evidence for water seeping through the ground, briefly, occasionally, leaving behind, for a brief time, damp dirt. But that’s still exciting, still important, because it’s something new, something found after years of painfully hard, challenging work, at the end of a very rigorous scientific process. And it means that if Mars has water of this type, it improves the chances of finding other, more familiar forms of water elsewhere – and that, in turn, improves the chances of Mars having life, of some sort, today. It also means future astronauts, and after them, settlers and colonists, might have water to use when they get there, instead of having to bring it all with them, or have it sent up from Earth for them.

And that is a Big Deal.

But everyone, please… a deep breath. Calm down. Yes, yaaaaay for the news, yaaaay for the discovery, yaaaaaay for science, and yaaaaay for NASA. But let’s keep it in perspective. Red Mars is STILL Red Mars. It still isn’t the kind of place to raise your kids, and it is still as harsh and cruelly cold as the north pole at midnight on New Year’s Eve. There are no rushing rivers with salmon leaping in the sunlight, no tinkling streams dancing over mossy stones, no rainbow-framed waterfalls roaring. It’s still a dusty, desolate wasteland of a planet that is as dry as a bone compared to Waterworld Earth – but now we know it is damp, in places, now and again. That’s a big discovery, in scientific terms, but no matter what they are saying on TV and in the papers it doesn‘t mean there absolutely definitely is life on Mars.

And it doesn’t mean astronauts will set foot on Mars one day or even one hour sooner than they would have done otherwise, either. There will not be a land-rush to Mars now. Schedules set for future exploration will not change. We won’t see landers dropping down next to these dark streaks and sampling them, and we certainly won’t see astronauts scrambling up those slopes to dig into the dirt and scoop it up in test tubes to analyse “back at the Hab”.

If Mark Watney put THIS type of martian water on his potatoes, THEY WOULD DIE.

Enough frivolity. If you want the hard science behind this story, I can direct you to two very good blogs, each of which goes into the science in much more detail than I could – or at least want to.

Firstly, you should take a look at what blogger “Space Kate” has to say about the story. Kate is very prolific on Twitter, but if you’re not you might not be aware of her great work.  You can change that now by going to…


Then – of course – Emily Lakdawalla has the hard science behind the headline. If you want to cut through all the weeds to get to the truth of any space exploration-related story, it’s really quite easy – just go to Emily Lakdawalla’s blog on the Planetary Society website and read her write-up, because the golden rule for whenever a big space/astronomy story breaks is “What has Emily written about it?” She can go into a lot more detail about a story than other people because a) she has all the space she wants on her blog, so doesn’t have to skim over a story and write it in soundbites, b) has a very strong science background, so knows what she’s talking about, and c) is an expert communicator. And she is very honest too; if she thinks NASA is over-hyping a story, or making wild claims or assumptions she’ll say.I admire her and her work a lot.


So, after all that hard science, what does this discovery mean for the future? Well, in an ideal world it would mean that NASA sat back in its chair, let out a deep sigh, stared out the window for a few hours and had a good hard think about what it is doing, before deciding to stop “following the water” and studying one rocky landing site after another and, instead, bite the bullet and design and send a mission to Mars dedicated solely to looking for signs of life, past or present. As huge a supporter of NASA as I am, and as thrilling as I personally find images of martian geology, even I have seen enough “rusty red” rocks, enough “melon-sized” boulders, enough “crumbling outcrops” and “fascinating veins” to last me the rest of my lifetime. It’s time NASA went to Mars for the only really good reason TO go to Mars – to look for signs of life. IMHO, of course.

But as optimistic and enthusiastic as I am, I’m not naive or stupid. I know that’s not going to happen. In the real world, this discovery means no new hardware will be built and sent to Mars, and there will be no boot-prints in the dirt – damp or otherwise – for a good couple of decades yet; for now, watching THE MARTIAN is as close as we’re going to get to see humans exploring Mars. What it means is more science is needed, and will be done, and more hard work is needed, and will be done, so scientists can refine these results even further. That takes time, but tough, that’s how science works.

But if you’re up before dawn any time soon, take a look at the eastern sky and you’ll see a line of three stars shining there. These aren’t actually stars, they’re planets. I took this photo the other morning…

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The middle one is Mars, see? When I took this photo, Mars was known to be a planet with water, but not actually known to be “wet” anywhere. That has changed, and that is why this announcement was worth making, and why this discovery is important.


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