Posts Tagged ‘Patrick Moore’

The Sky At Night Looks at Britain in Space

October 19, 2018

I just managed to catch the weekday repeat a day or so ago of this month’s Sky at Night, in which presenters Maggie Aderin-Pocock and British astronaut Tim Peake looked at the history of Britain in space, and forward to the country’s future in the deep black. The programme’s changed a bit over the past few years in the case of its presenters. It was famously presented by Sir Patrick Moore from its beginning in the 1950s until he passed away a few years ago. This made the programme the longest-running show presented by the same person. Aderin-Pocock joined it before Moore’s departure. She’s a black woman scientist, with a background in programming missile trajectories. She’s obviously very intelligent, enthusiastic and very definitely deserves her place on the show. But I wish she’d done a job that didn’t involve the military use of rocket technology, however much this is needed as part of national defence.

Aderin-Pocock was speaking to one of the management officials from Orbex, a new, British company, which has developed a rocket launcher and intends to open a spaceport in one of the more deserted areas of Scotland. The rocket will stand about 17 meters tall, using propane and High Test Peroxide as fuel. High Test Peroxide is a highly concentrated version of the hydrogen peroxide used by hairdressers to bleach peoples’ hair. The use of propane is particularly important, as it’s lighter than conventional rocket fuels, meaning that the rocket doesn’t have to carry as much fuel to lift off into space. Advances in satellite design have also allowed the rocket to be smaller than other spacecraft used elsewhere. British universities have succeeded in developing microsatellites – satellites that are much, much smaller than some of the satellites put into orbit, but which can perform the same functions. As these satellites are smaller and lighter, they only need a relatively smaller, lighter rocket to launch them.

The Scottish launch complex also wasn’t going to be as big as other, larger, major launch complexes, such as those of NASA, for example. I think it would still contain a launch tower and control buildings. As well as the official from Orbex, the show also talked to a woman representing the rural community in the part of Scotland, where they were planning to build it. She admitted that there would be problems with building it in this part of the Scots countryside. However, the community was only going to lease the land, not sell it to Orbex, and care would be taken to protect the farms of the local crofters and the environment and wildlife. Like much of rural Britain, this was an area of few jobs, and the population was aging as the young people moved away in search of work. She looked forward to Orbex and its spaceport bringing work to the area, and creating apprenticeships for the local young people.

The programme went on to explain that this would be the first time for decades that a British company was going to build a British rocket to launch a British satellite. From what looked the British space museum in Manchester, Time Peake stood under the display of Britain’s Black Knight rocket and the Prospero satellite. He explained how the rocket launched the satellite into space from Australia in 1975. However, the project was then cancelled, which meant that Britain is the only country so far which has developed, and then discarded rocket technology.

But Black Knight wasn’t the only space rocket Britain developed. Peake then moved on to talk about Skylark, a massively successful sounding rocket. Developed for high altitude research, the rocket reached a maximum of altitude of 400 km in the few minutes it was in flight. At its apogee – its maximum distance from Earth – the vehicle briefly experienced a few minutes of zero gravity, during which experiments could be performed exploring this environment. The Skylark rocket was used for decades before it was finally cancelled.

Aderin-Pocock asked the official from Orbex how long it would be before the spaceport would be up and running. The manager replied that this was always an awkward question to answer, as there was always something that meant operations and flights would start later than expected. He said, however, that they were aiming at around the end of 2020 and perhaps the beginning of 2021.

Orbex are not, however, the only space company planning to open a spaceport in Britain. Virgin Galactic have their own plans to launch rockets in to space from Cornwall. Their vehicle will not, however, be launched from the ground like a conventional rocket, but will first be carried to a sufficiently high altitude by an airplane, which would then launch it. I’m not a betting man, but my guess is that of the two, Orbex is the far more likely to get off the ground, as it were, and begin launching its rocket on schedule. As I’ve blogged about previously, Branson has been telling everyone since the late 1990s at least, that Virgin Galactic are going to be flying tourists into space in just a few months from now. This fortnight’s Private Eye published a brief list of the number of times Branson had said that, with dates. It might be that Branson will at last send the first of his aspiring astronauts up in the next few months, as he claimed last week. But from his previous form, it seems far more likely that Orbex will start launches before him, as will Branson’s competitors over the pond, Elon Musk and Jeff Bezos.

When asked about the company’s capability of perfecting their technology, Orbex’s manager not stressed the skill and competence of the scientists, technicians and engineers working on the project. This included not just conventional space scientists, but also people, who had personally tried and failed to build their own spacecraft. He said that it was extremely important to fail to build rockets. He’s obviously referring to the many non-professional, hobby rocketeers out there trying to build their own spacecraft. He didn’t mention them, but one example would be the people at Starchaser, who started out as a small group of enthusiasts in Yorkshire but have gone on to create their own space company, now based across the pond in America. I think it’s brilliant that amateurs and semi-professionals have developed skills that the professionals in the industry find valuable. And the failures are important, as they show what can go wrong, and give the experience and necessary information on how to avoid it. I don’t think the rocket will be wholly built in this country. The manager said that some of it was being constructed in Copenhagen. This sounds like Copenhagen Suborbitals, a Danish team of rocket scientists, who are trying to put a person into space. They’re ex-NASA, I believe, but it’s a small, private venture. They have a webpage and have posted videos on YouTube, some of which I’ve reblogged. They’ve also said they’re keen for people to join them, or start their own rocket projects.

I’d been looking forward to that edition of the Sky at Night for the past week, but when the time came, it slipped my mind that it was on. I’m very glad I was able to catch it. If Orbex are successful, it will be the first time that a British satellite will launch a British satellite from here in Britain. And it sounds really optimistic. Not only will Britain be returning to space rocket development, but the Scots spaceport sounds like it will, hopefully, bring work to a depressed area. I’m also confident that the local environment there will also be preserved. The launch complex around NASA is necessarily so remote from other buildings, that it’s actually become a wildlife haven. So much so that it’s now a location for birdwatching.

When it was announced that they were planning to build a new spaceport in Scotland, I assumed it would be for Skylon, the British spaceplane. There had been articles in the paper about the spacecraft, which stated that it would be launched either from Scotland or Cornwall. It seems I was wrong, and that it’s Orbex’s rocket which will be launched there instead. But nevertheless, I wish Orbex every success in their venture, and hope that sometime soon Skylon will also join them in flight out on the High Frontier.

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Percival Lowell: Martians Would Have Global Government to Fight Environmental Decline

October 6, 2018

Percival Lowell was the astronomer most responsible for popularizing the idea of Martian canals.

It was the Italian astronomer, Schiaparelli, who first claimed to have observed watercourses he called ‘canali’. The Italian word was translated ‘canals’, but it also means simply ‘channels’. And many astronomers regarded them simply as that, natural features. However, at the end of the 19th century many confidently believed that Mars was the home of intelligent life, though astronomers were increasingly aware that Mars was not as hospitable as Earth. They believed it was a planet of vast deserts. Lovell, an American astronomer with an observatory at Flagstaff, Arizona, was convinced that not only was there intelligent life on Mars, but that the Martians had a highly advanced civilization. They had constructed the canals he drew and mapped to bring water from their dying planet’s polar regions down to the equator to sustain life and civilization. He realized that the canals themselves would have been too small to observe from the Earth, but believed that the lines he saw were the surrounding tracts of lush, green vegetation, flourishing amid the encroaching Martian desert.

And he had a highly optimistic view of the moral progress of their civilization.

I found this brief passage quoting Lowell, and commenting on his view of the people of the Red Planet in The New Challenge of the Stars, by Patrick Moore and David A. Hardy, with a foreword by Arthur C. Clarke, (London: Michael Beazley Publishers Ltd 1977). Moore writes

Perhaps we may look back to the words of Percival Lowell, written in 1906. He may have been wrong in his interpretation of the so-called Martian canals, but at least he put forward an idealistic view of the attitude of his ‘Martians’. Whom, he believed, had outlawed warfare and had united in order to make the best of their arid world. There could be no conflict upon Mars. In Lowell’s words: ‘War is a survival among us from savage times, and affects now chiefly the boyish and unthinking element of the nation. The wisest realize that there are better ways of practicing heroism and other and more certain ends of ensuring the survival of the fittest. It is something people outgrow.’ Let us hope that we, too, have outgrown it before we set up the first base upon the red deserts of Mars. (p. 18).

The passage is shocking in its espousal of Social Darwinism, and the ‘survival of the fittest’. Moore himself had extreme right-wing, anti-immigrant views. But he was also firmly anti-War, no doubt strongly inspired by the death of his girlfriend during an air raid in World War II.

And would that humanity had outlawed war! We too also need, if not global government, at least global far-reaching global co-operation to fight the environmental decline of our own planet through climate change and mass extinction. Hardly a day goes by without another report in the papers about the immense seriousness of the environmental catastrophe. This last week two documentaries in particular on British TV warned us further about its extent. One was Drowning in Plastic, presented by Liz Bonnin, and the other was the final edition of Andrew Marr’s Darwin’s Dangerous Idea on BBC. This last programme appeared to trace the origin of the science of ecology to Darwin, and claimed that humanity’s destruction of the world’s ecosystem was partly due to ignorance of this aspect of Darwin’s theory of evolution.

It’s a contentious claim, as I suspect that the awareness of the interconnectness of living creatures actually predates Darwin, and that other scientists and naturalists, like the German explorer Humboldt, also made their own important contributions to development of ecological awareness.

But regardless of Marr’s claim about Darwin, we do need to be more like Lowell’s Martians to develop the global political, economic and social systems we need to fight our species’ destruction of the environment and its myriads of living creatures. And sadly, this is still being fought by vested corporate interests, such as the oil industry in America, led by the Koch Brothers, and right-wing Conservative parties. Such as the Republicans and Donald Trump, as well as the Tories and Tweezer over this side of the Atlantic. Lowell’s Martians don’t exist, but Lowell idealistic vision of them still has lessons for us in our own world, beset by environmental degradation and corporate, imperialist warfare.

Painting of Blake’s 7’s ‘Liberator’ by David A. Hardy

September 9, 2017

This is for all the fans of the classic British SF series, Blake’s 7. It’s a painting of their spaceship, the Liberator, before it came crashing to an end in ‘Tereminus’, the last programme of the third series. I found the painting on the SF/ weird art site, Tomorrow and Beyond.

David A. Hardy is one of the great veterans of British space and SF art. He’s illustrated numerous books on astronomy, including several with the late Sir Patrick Moore. The best known of these is probably The Challenge of the Stars. Hardy’s unusual in that he crosses the divide between space and SF art. It seems ridiculous to me that there is such a division, considering how so much science fiction art is set in the Black, and the care with which many SF artists take to portray it. I was rather surprised to find this. I knew Hardy also painted SF, I didn’t think he’d painted any TV material.

Torygraph Journo’s Book on Interstellar Travel Through Artificial Black Holes

August 10, 2017

The Iron Sun: Crossing the Universe through Black Holes, Adrian Berry (London: Jonathan Cape 1977).

No, not the Iron Sky, which was a Finnish Science Fiction film that came out a few years ago, in which the Nazis secretly colonized the Moon, and fight an interplanetary war with an America governed by a female president, who bears a certain similarity to Sarah Palin. This is the Iron Sun, a book in which Telegraph journalist Adrian Berry explains his theory that it should be possible to explore space using artificial Black Holes to travel faster than light. Berry was a Fellow of the Royal Astronomical Society, a Senior Member of the British Interplanetary Society, and a member of the National Space Institute of America. According to the potted biography on the back flap of the dust jacket, he also covered two of the Moon Landings from Cape Kennedy and Houston. Along with this book, he also wrote The Next Ten Thousand Years and The Great Leap.

The latter book was published in the 1990s, and is also about interstellar travel and exploration. It’s a good book, though marred by Berry’s Libertarian politics. Towards the end of the book, he devotes an entire chapter to argue for Von Hayek’s daft and destructive economic ideas. So did a number of other space and extreme technology groups at the time. The transhumanists, the crazy people, who want to transform themselves into cyborgs, explore the Galaxy, and ultimately achieve immortality by uploading themselves into computers, were also very much into Von Hayek and Libertarianism. I have a feeling that this has gone by the way now. A friend of mine, who was also into it, told me a year or so ago that the Austrian economist is rather passe now. One of the leaders of the movement has said that Hayekian economics was just something they were into at the time, and they’re now distancing themselves from him, so that his ideas aren’t synonymous with the movement as a whole.

In this book, after taking the reader through Einstein’s Theory of Relativity and explaining what Black Holes are, Berry then advances his book’s central idea. This is that humanity will be able to use a fleet of automated Buzzard ramjets as cosmic bulldozers to create an artificial Black Hole of a particular size one light year from Earth. The Buzzard ramjet was a type of spaceship devised in the 1970s. Instead of taking its fuel with it into space, like conventional rockets and spacecraft, the ramjet would scoop up the necessary hydrogen for its nuclear fusion engines from the surrounding interstellar medium, in the same way that a high-performance ram jet sucks in the air it needs to reach supersonic velocities from the Earth’s atmosphere. It was an immensely popular idea amongst space scientists, SF fans and advocates of the human colonization of space, as it appeared a practical way of creating a spacecraft that could reach the very high speeds approaching that of light needed to cross space to the nearest stars within a few years, or tens of years, rather than centuries and millennia.

Berry believed that strong electromagnetic fields could be used to collect and push the necessary hydrogen atom ahead of the spacecraft. Once in place, the hydrogen and other gaseous material would be forced together into a single mass, until it was so large that it collapsed under its own gravity, forming a Black Hole.

It was Carl Sagan, who first suggested the possibility of using Black Holes as cosmic subways to travel across the universe faster than the speed of light. Einstein, Rosen and other scientists hypothesized that the gravity inside Black Holes was so massive, that not only did it crush matter out of existence, but it also created a wormhole through space and time to, well, elsewhere. An object, including a spaceship, could enter a Black Hole to travel through the wormhole, to exit from a White Hole somewhere else in the universe, or even in a different universe altogether.

The Black Hole would be built a light year away, as this would be a safe but accessible distance. The construction ships would be automated as they would not be able to pull back once construction of the Black Hole was underway, and would be allowed to fall into it.

Berry admits there is one problem with his scheme: no-one knows how far away, nor in what direction, the resulting wormhole would extend. He therefore argues that the first astronauts to use the new wormhole would also have their own fleet of construction vessels, in order to build another Black Hole at their destination, which would create the White Hole needed for them to return to the Solar System. The process would take about forty years.

He explains the details of his proposal in a fictitious interview. There’s also an epilogue, and three appendices, in which he gives further information on Black Holes, including the navigable apertures created by Black Holes of varying sizes.

It says something for the optimism about the future of spaceflight in the 1970s that Berry considers that we should have the capability to do all this sometime around 2050. The 1970s were the decade when it seemed almost anything was possible after the Moon Landings, and astronomers and writers like Sir Patrick Moore seriously predicted that by now we’d have bases and colonies on the Moon and Mars, holidays in space, orbital habitats at the L5 points, as suggested by Gerald O’Neill, and would be gradually expanding into the rest of the Solar System.

If only that had happened!

Despite the formation of public groups, like the Mars Society and the Space Frontier Foundation, for the colonization of space, humans so far seem stuck in Low Earth Orbit. There have been plans over the past few years for crewed missions to return to the Moon, and to Mars, but these haven’t materialized. NASA is planning an expedition to the Red Planet in the 2030s, but I’m really not confident about that every happening. And if it’s a struggle for us to get to Mars, sixty or seventy years after the Moon Landings, it’s going to be impossible for us to build a Black Hole.

Part of the problem is the difficulty of building a viable Buzzard ramjet. After the idea was proposed, someone worked out that the interstellar medium was so rarified that the vehicle would need a ramscoop 3,000 miles long to collect all the gas it would need. I’m not sure if this makes it completely impossible – after all, firms like the Hanson Trust back in the 1980s tried selling themselves to the general public with commercials telling the world that they made enough plastic chairs to go round the Earth so many times. And it might be possible to develop superlight materials for the scoop so that it would not be impossibly heavy. Such a material would similar to the mylar suggested for the solar sails for the Starwisp mission. This is a suggested mission to send a 50 kilo instrument package to Alpha Centauri in a journey lasting thirty years or so. And the construction of a space elevator, which would have to be of a light material strong enough to take the weight of cable cars and carry them tens of thousands of mile into space out of the Earth’s gravity well seems to me to present even greater problems. But even if a ramscoop of that size isn’t impossible, it would be very, very difficult and extremely expensive.

Not all scientists are convinced that it should be possible to use wormholes in this manner anyway. Philip’s Astronomy Encyclopedia state that one particular type of Black Hole, rotating Kerr Black Holes, which don’t have the singularity that eventually destroys all the matter passing through it, ‘have fascinating implications for hypothetical space travel to other universes’. (‘Black Holes, p. 57). However, the entry for ‘Wormholes’ states that, although they’re predicted by Einstein, ‘such wormholes cannot exist in reality, since the occurrence of white holes is forbidden by the second law of thermodynamics.’ (p. 440). On the other hand, Russian physicists have shown that it’s possible to create a wormhole a few light years in extent, though this would take more energy than is currently available in the universe.

I hope that it may one day be possible to construct such wormhole subway routes through the cosmos, as suggested by Sagan. I also wonder if the book may also have influenced comic writer Pat Mills in the creation of the Black Hole and White Hole bypasses for Termight – Earth thousands of years in the future – in the Nemesis the Warlock Strip in 2000 AD. This was an artificial Black Hole and its White Hole counterpart, constructed by Earth’s engineers to provide instantaneous access to space. ‘Nemesis the Warlock’ appeared about 1979, and while it’s definitely Science Fantasy, Mills actually did some reading in science as research for the comic. He said in an interview nearly four decades ago that he shocked the comic’s management because he bought a whole stack of books on science and then invoiced the comic company for them as research. He was annoyed that the attitude to comics at the time was so low, that the idea of doing basic research for them was looked upon with horror. Ah, how things changed after Frank Bellamy and ‘Dan Dare’. Bellamy’s studio for Britain’s greatest space hero, with the exception of Judge Dredd, included a model maker and researchers. Unfortunately, this was all cut away as an unnecessary expense when the Eagle changed hands. Sales had fallen, and the comic was then making a loss. Hence the decision to cut down the number of staff in the studio. But it does show the initial commitment to quality of strip’s creators, and Dare and Bellamy’s superb artwork are still admired as one of the greatest pieces of British comic art and literature.

The Fantastic Space Art of David A. Hardy

April 22, 2017

This is another couple of videos from the redoubtable Martin Kennedy showcasing the amazing work of yet another space and Science Fiction artist, David A. Hardy. Hardy is one of the longest running space and SF artist working. The entry on him in Stuart Holland’s Sci-Fi Art: A Graphic History, runs:

David Hardy’s introduction to astronomical illustration was a somewhat rushed affair. In 1954, as a mere 18-year-old, he was commissioned to produce eight black and white illustrations for a book by legendary UK astronomer Patrick Moore: Suns, Myths, and Men. He had just five days to create them before British national service-conscription-required him to join the Royal Air Force. The commission was all the more remarkable as Hardy had only painted his first piece of astronomical art four years previously, inspired by the work of Chesley Bonestell.

Since those early days, Hardy (1936-) has garnered numerous awards for artwork that spans the science fiction/hard science divide. Born in Bourneville, Birmingham, in the UK, he honed his talents painting chocolate boxes for Cadbury’s. By 1965 he had become a freelance illustrator, beginning a career that resulted in covers for dozens of books and magazines, both factual, such as New Scientist, Focus, and various astronomical publications, for which he also writes; and SF, including Analog and Fantasy & Science Fiction. 1972 saw the publication of Challenge of the Stars, which Hardy not only illustrated but co-wrote with Patrick Moore (the book was updated in 1978 as New Challenge of the Stars). A bestseller, it joined the select pantheon of book that influenced a new generation of up-and-coming astronomical artists.

By now, Hardy’s work was receiving international recognition, and in 1979 he was nominated for the Hugo Award for Best Professional Artist. Tow years later, another book followed, Galactic Tours, which as the name suggests is a “factitious” guidebook for the interstellar tourist. As a result of the book, travel company Thomas Cook approached Hardy about becoming a consultant on the future of tourism in space-long before Richard Branson had planned Virgin’s conquest of the stars.

Hardy has written an SF novel, Aurora: A Child of Two Worlds; worked on the movie The Neverending Story, and on TV (Cosmos, Horizon, The Sky at Night, Blake’s Seven), and produced record covers for – unsurprisingly – Holst’s The Planets and for bands such as Hawkwind, the Moody Blues, and Pink Floyd.

In 2004, Hardy’s long-standing partnership with Patrick Moore culminated in the award-winning Futures, in which the two explored the changing perceptions of space exploration since they first collaborated in the ’50s, the ’70s (the era of Challenge of the Stars) and into the 21st century. Artistically, Hardy has also embraced the growing digital trend that started in the approach to the new millennium. While still painting in acrylic and oil, he now uses Photoshop as a matter of course.

In March 2003, Hardy was paid perhaps the ultimate accolade an astronomical artist can receive: he had an asteroid [13329] named after him. Discovered ini September, 1998, it was christened Davidhardy=1998 SB32-high praise indeed!
(P. 130).

Several of the paintings in the video come from the Challenge of the Stars and its updated version.

The videos also include his cover illustration for Arthur C. Clarke’s The Snows of Olympus: A Garden on Mars – the History of Man’s Colonisation of Mars, which is another ‘future history’, this time of the terraforming of the Red Planet.

I have to say that I’m really impressed he also worked on Blake’s 7. This was low-budget British SF, but it had some create scripts and a really beautiful spaceship in The Liberator. And I would far rather go into space on something designed by Hardy, and operated by Thomas Cook, than by Branson.

David A. Hardy on Terraforming the Solar System

December 31, 2016

As well as colonising the other planets in the solar system with self-contained, sealed environments to protect their future human inhabitants, it may also one day be possible to terraform them. This means transforming them from their currently hostile conditions to an Earthlike environment. At the moment, the planet considered most suitable for terraforming is Mars, because of all the planets it seems to present the least obstacles to this form of planetary engineering. I can remember reading a piece in the Sunday Express way back in the 1980s, which discussed James Lovelock’s suggestions for creating an earthlike atmosphere on the Red Planet. Lovelock is the creator of the Gaia hypothesis, the theory that Earth’s biosphere acts like a gigantic, self-regulating organism. This became a favourite of several of the New Age neo-pagan religions in the 1990s, where it was incorporated into worship of the Earth Mother. Lovelock believed that while nuclear weapons were a serious danger to all life on Earth, they could be used creatively on Mars to produce an environment that would support life. Mars has large amounts of carbon dioxide locked up at its polar regions in the form of dry ice. he believed that this could be melted using nuclear missiles. Specially targeted nuclear explosions would cover the polar regions with an insulating layer of soil. This would keep the heat in, which is currently radiated back into space, reflected by the white ice. The rise in temperature would cause the dry ice to sublimate into carbon dioxide gas. This would then start a greenhouse effect, which would see more carbon dioxide and other gases released into the Martian atmosphere. This would eventually create an environment, where the atmosphere was thick enough for humans to be able to move around without space suits. They would, however, still need oxygen masks and tanks to be able to breathe. Lovelock was extremely optimistic about how many weapons would be needed. He believed that you’d only need four, if I remember correctly.

Lovelock’s ideas are wrong, but other scientists and Science Fiction writers have also suggested ways of transforming the Red Planet into a place where life can thrive. Back in the 1990s, Kim Stanley Robinson wrote a trilogy of books set on a Mars that was being colonised and terraformed by humanity, beginning with Red Mars. The veteran SF writer, Arthur C. Clarke, also produced a book in which he used to a computer programme to show what Mars may look like as it’s being terraformed. Over hundreds, perhaps even a thousand years, rivers, seas and oceans develop and green spreads over its land surface as vegetation begins growing on its previously barren surface.

David A. Hardy, the space artist, who has illustrated a number of books on space, including several with the late Patrick Moore, also described the various ways in which the Moon, as well as Mercury, Venus and Mars, could be terraformed in his 1981 book, Atlas of the Solar System (Kingswood, Surrey: World’s Work). He writes

Taking the concept of manned bases on other planets still further, there is the staggering possibility of ‘planetary engineering’ or terraforming – a term coined in 1942 by science fiction writer Jack Williamson. The idea is simply to make other worlds habitable by humans. An early suggestion, in 1961, by Carl Sagan was to ‘seed’ the atmosphere of Venus with blue-green algae, converting the carbon dioxide into oxygen and at the same time reducing the pressure and temperature (by eliminating the greenhouse effect). The upper clouds would condense and rain would fall, forming oceans.

A more recent alternative, now that we know how hostile Venus really is, is to ferry in ice asteroids 15 km or so in diameter, put them into orbit around Venus and aim them, using rocket jets, at a specific spot on the surface. Each crashes at nearly 100 km/s, at such an angle that Venus’ rotation is increased until a 24-hour day is approached, while at the same time water is provided as the ice melts. Then the atmosphere is seeded with blue-green algae.

The same could even be done with the Moon: once given a breathable atmosphere by baking oxygen out of the rocks with giant parabolic mirrors, it would remain for thousands of years, even if not replenished. The time factor for the operation is remarkably short. Mercury would need to be shielded from the Sun by a ‘parasol’ of rocky particles put up by mass-driver, or by a man-made ring. Mars would need to be warmed up, perhaps by reflecting sunlight on to the poles with huge, thin metal-foil mirrors, increasing the energy-flow at the poles by 20 per cent. or we could spread dark material from its carbonaceous moons on them with a mass-driver. Rich not only in carbon but in oxygen, nitrogen and hydrogen, this is excellent raw material for fertiliser. One the atmosphere was thickened, the greenhouse effect and carefully chosen plant life should do the rest. (pp. 86-7).

The process of transforming these planets into habitable worlds would take quite a long time – decades, if not centuries, and at present it is the stuff of science fiction. But I hope that there will be a time when we can move out from Earth to create new homes for life and civilisation on these worlds.

The French Astronomer Who Gave His Name to the Captain of the Enterprise?

December 28, 2016

More space/ SF stuff.

Looking through the 1982 Yearbook of Astronomy, edited by Patrick Moore, I found on the chapter for July a very brief biography of the 17th century French astronomer, Jean Picard. The piece ran

1982 is the anniversary of the death of Jean Picard, a celebrated French astronomer. He was born at La Fleche, in Anjou, on 21 July 1620; he studied for the priesthood, and was ordained, but his main interest was in astronomy. In 1645 he was appointed Professor at the College de France, and took a leading part in the establishment of the Paris Observatory. His most famous piece of research was undertaken in 1669-70, when he made a new and more accurate determination of the radius of the Earth. it has been said that it was this which allowed Isaac Newton to complete his work on the theory of gravitation, though in fact Newton’s earlier hesitation was due to the fact that one link in his chain of argument was incomplete. Jean Picard died as the result of an accident on 12 July 1682. (pp. 103-4).

Reading that, I wonder if he was the inspiration for Patrick Stewart’s character in Star Trek: The Next Generation, Captain Jean-Luc Picard. I’ve also got a feeling that another Francophone space scientist may also have inspired the name and character. Professor Calculus in the Tintin books by Herge is based on a real French scientist, who ascended to the edge of space in a high altitude balloon in the last century. I can’t remember the scientist’s name, but I’ve got a feeling it was also Picard.

Of course, it could all be coincidence. But considering the high standard of TV drama set by the series, it really wouldn’t surprise me if the creators and producers had done their historical research, and decided to create the Picard character partly as a tribute to these scientists.

Patrick Moore on a Conjunction of Jupiter and Saturn as the Star of Bethlehem

December 18, 2016

The Christmas season is definitely upon us, so I thought I’d post something seasonal. Patrick Moore was sceptical of some of the explanations offered for the Star of Bethlehem, which led the Magi to the infant Jesus. In the 1983 edition of the Yearbook of Astronomy, he dismisses the idea that it could have been an particularly bright appearance of Venus, noting that the planet was far too well known to appear new. He also noted that no new stars were recorded in the astronomical records of the time.

However, in the 1981 Yearbook of Astronomy, he speculated that an extremely rare triple conjunction of the planets Jupiter and Saturn occurred in 7 BC, and that this could be the basis of the Star of Bethelehem because of the immense significance this would have had for contemporary astrologers. He wrote

If we regard the periods [time taken for planet to complete one rotation around the Sun – Beastrabban] as 12 and 30 years approximately, we see that Jupiter covers about 30 degrees a year, while Saturn moves through 12 degrees. Thus, Jupiter gainis 18 degrees a year on Saturn, and conjunction of the two planets can only occur at an interval of 20 years. If both planets travelled in circular orbits it can be shown that only one in six of these conjunctions could possibly be triple, and we should then expect to have a triple conjunction every 120 years. However, both of these giant planets have accentric orbits, and both are subject to severe perturbations, so tyhat this average is never realized. the last three tiple conjunctions of Jupiter and Saturn occurred in 1452, 1683 and 1940, and the intervals here are more than double the 120 years. In all of these cases, the time between the two oppositions was of the order of a day or less.

One tripole conjunction of Jupiter and Saturn has received a great deal of attnetion. This is the conjunction of BC7 which, it was suggested, could be the explanation for the Star of Bethlehem. This old idea had been rejected in many quaarters because the two planets were well separated in latitude and were, in any case, familiar objects to the Magi. In recent times the subject has been revived, but now the astrological significance of the even has been emphasized. This seems a more reasonable suggestion, though it does not explain all the details of the story. Certainly the rarity of this triple conjunction (which the Magi would never have witnessed before) would give added significance to the event. (p. 83).

Jodrell Bank and Amateur Radio Telescopes

December 18, 2015

BBC 4 a few weeks ago broadcast a documentary on the history of Jodrell Bank, Britain’s pioneering radio telescope. Bernard Lovell, its founder and director, had been one of the scientists working on the development of radar during the War, and the radio telescope was originally built using parts left over from the project that were due to be scrapped. In the early days it was very much an ad hoc operation. The size of the telescope’s dish has the radius it has because that was the distance between the van holding its key components in the early days to the edge of the field. The programme covered the history of the telescope from its very beginnings to today. It described how the telescope came into its own in the late 1950s and 1960s when it was the only instrument that could independently verify the first Soviet space missions and their conquest of space. This also caused additional pressure on Lovell, as there was official demand for him to monitor space missions in the USSR, which detracted from his real interest in exploring the heavens through the radio signals sent out into space from stars, nebulae and galaxies.

The Russians also liked and admired Lovell, so much so that on scientific trip to the Soviet Union, the Russians showed him some of their highly top secret space installations, and hinted that he would be very welcome if he left Britain and joined them. Obviously the great man did not take up the offer. Eventually such pressure proved so great that he was off work suffering from depression, and even considered leaving science altogether. Lovell was a Methodist, and to the surprise of his children, at this point in his career he considered joining the clergy. He didn’t, but went back to charting the heavens.

Other highlights of the telescope’s fifty-odd year history was the discovery, by Jocelyn Bell-Purnell, of pulsars. These are neutron stars, small, highly compact stars at the end of their lives, which broadcast a signal into space. The stars are small, about 40 miles or so in diameter, and spin quickly, so it appears that the signal is being sent in pulses. They’re also regular, so that in the first few days when they were discovered one of the theories about them was that they were a signal deliberately sent out into space from an extraterrestrial civilisation. After more pulsars were discovered in the following days, the scientists were able to give the true explanation of their origins.

Since its heyday, much larger telescopes and arrays have been built. Jodrell Bank nevertheless still remains important, contributing valuable research in this area of astronomy.

Indeed. I remember a few years ago an edition of one of the Beeb’s astronomy programmes in which Dara O’Brien and Brian May were up there. O’Brien is a failed mathematician, having dropped out of a university maths course, while May is a properly accredited astrophysicist. He had, it’s true, a twenty-odd year gap in his career, due to performing with Queen, but he finally handed his thesis in a few years ago. It was duly marked, and he passed. This obviously makes him one of the most rock ‘n’ roll scientists ever. I think in the programme they were supposed to be looking for signals from alien civilisations. They didn’t find any, which probably surprised no one, given that scientists have been looking, off and on, for radio signals from aliens since the days of Project OZMA in the late ’60s and 70s. Despite NASA’s optimistic prediction in 1995 that in five years they would be discovered, no has as yet.

Patrick Moore, one of the greatest science communicators and popularisers, always maintained that astronomy was still one of the very few areas of science where amateurs using modest equipment could make a real contribution. I doubt that there are very many ordinary people outside the big observatories, who have an active interest in radio telescopy. Nevertheless, it is possible to build your own radio telescopes. There’s a piece by Trevor Hill, who was a science teacher at Taunton School in Somerset, about how he built a an array of radio telescopes in the book, Small Astronomical Observatories, edited by Patrick Moore (London: Springer 1986). He did so as part of an attempt to get the pupils interested in astronomy. Naturally, he started off by building a normal, optical observatory for a telescope. He turned to radio astronomy at the suggestion of one of the pupils after the normal astronomy session had been cancelled due to rain. The pupil pointed out that radio waves travel through clouds, and so observation wouldn’t be stopped by bad weather. His article in the book describes the radio telescopes he built. This includes a set of Ham radio aerials set up in an array to receive radio waves from solar flares.

Taunton School Radio Telescope

Trevor Hill’s Solar Flare Radio Telescope at Taunton School

He also provides a schematic of the telescope’s construction. As you can see from the photo, even as a small-scale amateur project it’s still very large. Nevertheless, he states that it was very cheap. With the exception of the computer, it cost about £200 in 1995. Which means it’s almost possible for every man or woman to become their own radio astronomer. Obviously, this was before the boom ended, and Cameron got in to hit everyone with massive debt and advancing poverty.

Here’s Tim O’Brien, professor of astrophysics at Manchester University and the radio telescope’s associate director, talking about the telescope on the 70s anniversary of its establishment. It’s great to hear him say that it remains at the cutting edge of research, and may be so for the next fifty years.