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Posts Tagged ‘space’

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Photo: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Space Science Institute

On 23rd July, NASA published a picture of Earth taken from the dark side of Saturn by its Cassini spacecraft. It is, apparently, only the third time that Earth has been photographed from the outer reaches of the solar system. The picture was taken in a photo session of Earth that occurred on 19th July between 2:27 to 2:42 pm PDT (9.27 to 9.42 pm in the UK). We have the technology to take that kind of picture from almost 900 million miles away.

Look at that amazing picture and think about it just for a moment.

Where were you and what were you doing between 9.27 and 9.42 pm?

I was eating my tea, having walked home through Gloucester Park after a trip to the cinema and a showing of Pacific Rim. It had been a beautiful evening – I posted a picture on Facebook – and I spoke to Laura on my way.

I’m on that dot. We are all on that dot. All of us together.

Suddenly, we all seem very insignificant.

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20120806-curiosityThe rover Curiosity launched from Cape Canaveral on 26 November 2011 and landed in Gale Crater, Mars, on 6 August 2012. Those of us who spend our days in the whirl of headlines about politics and sport and celebrities may have missed the steady stream of quiet but sensational revelations from the latest robot sent by NASA to investigate Mars, our nearest planetary neighbour.

A month or so ago there was a brief flurry of international media interest after a strange metallic-looking object was discovered. This provoked a wealth of chatter on the Internet, with conspiracy theorists revisiting the wilder realms of speculation. (Afficionados of Internet conspiracies may recall the flurry of posts when NASA pulled this photo from the batch of official photos released from Curiosity just after it landed.)

All of which is fun for techno geeks like me, but misses the crucial point of the Curiosity mission and its potential significance.

Since landing, Curiosity has been picking its way over the arid surface of Mars, attempting to assess whether conditions have ever existed that could have supported microbial life. To that end it has been looking for evidence of any role played by water in the planet’s history, not least of all because it is no secret that this mission has been created with a view to a potential manned exploration and scientists want a better understanding of the Martian environment.

Today, the BBC reported on the incredible discovery of rock that confirms earlier findings from Curiosity that neutral water once existed in the Gale Crater. NASA’s own website  contains this pretty stunning admission: “Curiosity’s analyzed rock sample proves ancient Mars could have supported living microbes.” NASA confidently proclaim that Curiosity is now seeing a trend in water presence on Mars.

Why does all this matter?

Because the revelation that life could exist elsewhere other than Earth strikes at the theological and philosophical heart of thinking that has informed the way we organise our societies for millennia. Everything, from myriad individual personal destinies (tragic and otherwise), to the political, judicial, economic and social organisation of communities, nations and entire civilisations, has been affected by the belief that life has only ever existed here, in this one special place: Earth.

How do the major religions of the world respond if it is proved conclusively that life once existed elsewhere in our Solar System, let alone the Milky Way or the Universe? Could they adapt to accommodate a revelation at least as shattering to established world views as the Copernican revolution – or would they continue to maintain a position like that of the Heliocentrists, becoming increasingly irrelevant and absurd over time?

We might not think it matters – but there was a time when recognition that our Sun orbited the Earth was axiomatic to an assessment of the authenticity of belief. Could those who profess faith adjust to accommodate the enormity of the truth that life once existed elsewhere – and might exist now elsewhere – without seeing the entire edifice of that faith crumble?

I suspect those who claim truth only in the most fundamentalist of interpretations will have the hardest journeys of all.

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death-star-660x448According to the last census (2011), there were still 176, 632 Jedi Knights in the United Kingdom.  As the Guardian reported, that represented a significant decline on 2001 when around 300,000 Jedi Knights were keeping us safe from The Empire (coincidentally, George Bush was US President from 2001 to 2009), but they are still a force to be reckoned with. And thankfully, we are not in Star Wars: Episode IV “A New Hope” territory yet.

Hopefully, the ranks of aspiring Luke Skywalkers will be emboldened by the latest announcement from the White House. In responding officially to a petition on the White House website calling for America to build a Death Star, Paul Shawcross, Chief of the Science and Space Branch at the White House Office of Management and Budget, offered this formal response:

“The Administration shares your desire for job creation and a strong national defense, but a Death Star isn’t on the horizon. Here are a few reasons:

  • The construction of the Death Star has been estimated to cost more than $850,000,000,000,000,000. We’re working hard to reduce the deficit, not expand it.
  • The Administration does not support blowing up planets.
  • Why would we spend countless taxpayer dollars on a Death Star with a fundamental flaw that can be exploited by a one-man starship?”

The geopolitical ramifications of building a Death Star aside, Shawcross is quite right to remind folks that actually it wasn’t exactly a masterpiece of robust design. Perhaps a little more worryingly it shows just how deeply imprinted Star Wars is on the American psyche. But let’s not go there!

Anyone wanting a little light relief and some reassurance that, just occasionally, government officials do have a sense of humour, should read his full response.

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Once upon a time in a galaxy far, far away…

Or something like that.

It was actually 1983 and Langdon Hills, Essex – and two friends, Bob and Ben, dreamed of becoming astronauts.

They used to sneak off to the school library in Lincewood Junior School  to look at space books. They wrote to NASA. They wrote space stories and they made space project books.

Then one day reality bit, as it tends to, and the dream died. One got embroiled in politics and the other joined the army (no prizes for guessing which I didn’t do!).

However, just at the time that Ben and Bob were dreaming space, Soichi Noguchi was in his penultimate year at Chigasaki-Hokuryo High School, about to study Aeronautical Engineering at Tokyo University.  In 1996, while Ben was stepping into Parliament for the first time, Noguchi was selected to train as an astronaut.

Noguchi was later lucky enough to travel to the International Space Station. His official NASA biography  is enough to make a Ben or a Bob green with envy:

SPACE FLIGHT EXPERIENCE: STS-114 Discovery (July 26-August 9, 2005) was the Return to Flight mission during which the Shuttle docked with the International Space Station and the crew tested and evaluated new procedures for flight safety and Shuttle inspection and repair techniques.  Noguchi served as MS-1 and EV-1 and performed 3 EVAs (spacewalks) totaling 20 hours and 5 minutes.  After a 2-week, 5.8 million mile journey in space, the orbiter and its crew of seven astronauts returned to land at Edwards Air Force Base, California.

Noguchi next launched aboard a Soyuz TMA-17 spacecraft on December 21, 2009, from the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan, docking with the International Space Station two days later to join Expedition 22 crew.  He became the first Japanese to fly on Soyuz as left-seat Flight Engineer.  For the next 161 days, Noguchi lived and worked aboard the International Space Station as a Flight Engineer on Expedition 22/23, accomplishing Kibo full configuration assembly complete.  The Expedition 23 crew returned to a safe landing in central Kazakhstan on June 2, 2010.  In completing this long duration mission, Noguchi logged 163 days in space.

Whilst in space, Noguchi took a series of amazing pictures which he tweeted from the ISS. Below is a selection of some of my favourites.

In the mean time, neither Bob nor Ben have lost their interest in space. Bob assures Ben that he is delaying his visit to Jodrell Bank until Ben can get up there.

And both can take heart from the fact that Soichi Noguchi is at least seven years older than either of them and so there’s time yet for them to get their butts up to the ISS.

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For those who missed it last month, this is one Romanian teenager’s astonishing and, in a strange way, deeply affecting tribute to the wonder of space exploration and the demise of the shuttle programme.

On 31st December, 2011, Oaida Raul, who has always been fascinated by space exploration (Bob and I know a thing or two about that), launched a Lego replica of the shuttle from a site near Lauda-Königshofen, in Germany. He had found support and backing on the Internet from a random businessman he had made contact with on Twitter and then Skype. They filmed the flight from a camera attached to the same helium balloon as the Lego craft and the HD film of it is simply awe-inspiring.

That combination of boyhood dreams, determination to celebrate the end of a space programme that saw both incredible discoveries and crushing tragedy, technology enabling two people whose world’s would ordinarily never collide to conspire in such a joyful endeavour is a reassuring testimony to humankind in what seem such cold, cruel times.

Read the story in his own words.

And click through to YouTube to watch the video in HD. It really is worth it.

Vodpod videos no longer available.

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