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Martian Surface Photos…

May 29, 2017 2 comments

A new book This is Mars has just been published that collects together some of the most striking black and white images of the surface of Mars I’ve ever seen, none of which have previously been published.

These amazing pictures were taken by the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO) which entered the Martian atmosphere in 2006 and which has since then, been quietly mapping the planet’s surface with its HiRISE telescope.

This one above and the one below particularly grab the attention as they seem to show landscapes that would be familiar here on  Earth, such as trees in the snow and river deltas…

The large majorityseem very alien however, and I’ve genuinely no idea what kind of geomorphic or tectonic processes makes shapes and patterns like these below…

These stunning images add a completely new dimension to that of the dusty red planet that we’re more used to seeing from the Mars Rovers. I for one can’t wait until a manned mission to Mars is finally a reality and the world watches as the real life equivalent of Mark Watney and his crew, finally leaves Earth to visit our nearest neighbour.. (I just hope I’m around to share the experience…)

Project A119 : A Study of Lunar Research Flights…

January 15, 2017 Leave a comment

va-cold-war-modern-6In light of the imminent inauguration of the real life American Idiot, and his rather troubling views on Nuclear weaponry, I thought I’d dig out this post I drafted a couple of years ago but never got around to posting.

I’d been re-reading the book that accompanied an excellent exhibition that the V&A organised a number of years ago. Entitled “Cold War Modern” it looked at the influences on style and design brought about through the increasing political tensions and exceptional bursts of creativity that defined the post war period between 1945 and 1970. A creativity that, despite being born from challenging and difficult times, undoubtedly benefited society in the long run through an improved understanding of materials, science and technologies.

With one notable exception, and this is a tough one to believe, but for a period of time, America were genuinely looking into the practicalities of exploding a nuclear bomb on the Moon… A terrifyingly over the top and stupefyingly ridiculous act that was justified by the argument that if Americans using American technology could make such a thing happen, then it would leave the Communist Block countries in no doubt as to how powerful a nation they were dealing with…

450px-study_of_lunar_research_flights_-_vol_i_-_coverCodenamed “Project A119 or “A Study of Lunar Research Flights”, this top secret plan was first conceived in 1958, but did not become common knowledge until around 2000.

In October 1957, The Soviet Union had shocked the West with the huge success of Sputnik, the world’s first artificial satellite. America desperately needed to regain the upper hand and set about developing plans (little knowing that they would once again be beaten into second place, when in April 1961 Yuri Gagarin would be the first human to leave the earths atmosphere).

I digress. Back in 1958, various ideas were considered and a certain Carl Sagan became attached to Project A119, a name familiar to my generation as the brilliant and charismatic Astronomer and Astrophysicist who later brought the ground breaking TV show Cosmos into our living rooms in the 1980’s. The team concluded that a nuclear bomb, rather than a more visually impressive hydrogen bomb would be best, however this was due only to considerations relating to payload at take off, as hydrogen bombs are apparently significantly heavier.

The maths were fiendishly difficult, however the principles were straightforward enough: put the bomb onto a rocket, launch the rocket from a secret base in the US, fly it to the moon, crash the rocket into the moon and detonate the bomb. At the same time (once the rocket was irretrievably on its way of course) let the world know and make sure it was watching when impact occurred. One up manship at it’s most insane..

Amongst other factors, Sagan and his team had to consider trajectories, possible debris and gas dispersion in the low gravity of the moon, the likely effect of radiation on any future manned missions and the affect of the explosion on the moons orbit, not to mention any potential affects such actions might have on our own planet.

Thankfully, driven primarily by fears of negative publicity should something go wrong during take off and the bomb explode on US soil, and a general reluctance to begin the overt militarization of space, this harebrained scheme was abandoned in 1959, with NASA concluding that sending men to the moon and bringing them safely home would be a far more effective political and popular “weapon”.

So there you are, a true and sobering story. Let’s hope the incoming 45th President of the USA doesn’t read this post and decide that Project A119 might be resurrected as a way of demonstrating to the world how suitable a candidate he really is for his new role in the world….

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Alan Bean: Moon Dust in every Painting…

October 13, 2014 Leave a comment

book jacketI’ve been re-reading Andrew Smith’s excellent book, Moon Dust. Published about 10 years ago it’s an absorbing series of tales that came out of Smith visiting, talking to and recording the thoughts of the last 9 people to ever have walked upon the surface of the Moon. Forty years after the moon landings, how did the momentous events of that period shape their lives once they got back and realised they were never going to top those feelings again…

Over the two and a half year period from July 1969 to December 1972, there were 7 flights to the moon, from Apollo 11 to Apollo 17. Apollo 13 famously didn’t make it due to problems with exploding oxygen tanks, which means that 12 men have left their boot prints in the lunar dust.

At the time the book was written, three of these men, Conrad, Irwin & Shepard had passed away leaving only 9. (To this list we now need to add Armstrong who died in 2012)

I’ve made this quick table of the astronauts that made the journey. There are a surprising number of names that are unfamiliar, considering what they achieved, the CM pilots who never reached the moon’s surface, especially so.

Apollo Flights copyThe book is truly fascinating, touching on the highs and lows, the expectations and the disappointments, the marriage breakdowns, the back stabbing, the hierarchy within NASA, the demeaning appearances at conventions for the less well known, the voices from god, the new age beliefs and ultimately asks each man, where they felt they were at the turn of the 21st century, mentally, physically and spiritually…

I can recommend it thoroughly.

NightLaunch 1975One name that has stuck with me is that of Alan Bean. The fourth man to stand on the moon, his post moonwalk journey seems to have been both less traumatic and less obvious that the others.

Staying on at NASA, he lived in Skylab for 56 days over the summer of 1975, was a key member of the joint US/ Russian Soyuz programme before leaving NASA in 1981 to become a full time professional artist.

Attending art night classes whilst on astronaut training, his early work (Night Launch above from 1975) had to my eyes at least, genuine promise, with its expressionistic plumes of exhaust smoke from the jet engines creating a real sense of power.

beanToolsHowever since the early 80’s Bean has developed a singular visual style that focuses solely on the limited amount of time (in his case less than 4 hours) that he and the others spent on the moon, endlessly reinterpreting and deconstructing his memories, sometimes painting exactly the same scene 6, 7, 8 times slightly altering the colours or minutely correcting details in order to capture the essence of the experience…

Bean begins by painting the canvas (or more usually a solid backboard) with a thick paste which he then imprints with a variety of devices especially moon boots and tools he brought back from his trip. He also sticks into the paste small cut offs from the various badges and patches that were sewn onto his space suit. These are ingrained with fine grains of moon dust which then become part of the painting. He also uses specially commissioned scale models to help him “meticulously construct” the desired view and get the lighting correct..

The results I would suggest are mixed…

Some are pretty good like the following four, which capture some of the feelings of what it must have felt like to be so far from home in such an alien landscape…

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Examples of the same view done over and over with slight variations in colour and detail…

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Some works however are less impressive, as Bean seems to rely too heavily on his imprinting techniques to carry his vision across…

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And others are just bizarre.. Oddly these seem to be the ones where he deviates from what happened and relies more on his imagination…

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Still Alan Bean comes across as a contented man in Andrew Smith’s book, which is more than can be said of the other astronauts he meets, many of whom struggled to come to terms with Life after Lunar. And why not, most of Bean’s work is sold as soon as it’s finished for pretty big bucks. There are a few originals available here if you fancy one. Prices start from around $70K. The cheesy (and not unsurprisingly unsold in my book) flag and gold olive leaf one above will set you back nearly $450K…

There’s also a gallery of all Alan Bean’s paintings here where I’ve taken all of the images for this post from.

Sochi Medals and Russian Meteorites…

February 9, 2014 Leave a comment

sochi-2014-olympic-medal_large_verge_medium_landscapeThe medals that have been designed for this years Winter at Olympics at Sochi are looking pretty sharp…

In keeping with the entire Winter Olympic theme, the design is centered around the idea of the contrasts that embody Russia: Europe meeting Asia, pristine nature set against huge cities, and innovation alongside its rich cultural heritage.

The usual metals of bronze, silver and gold, have been embellished with a rather stylish glass element, through which “the sun’s golden rays are deflected as through a prism of snowy mountain tops, the warm sea and frosty ice living side-by-side.” The glass has been engraved with the patchwork quilt design seen throughout the games, and which represents the “mosaic of national designs from the various cultures and ethnicities of the Russian Federation.”

MeteoriteAll very nice…

Another aspect of the Sochi Medals that intrigues me, is that the 7 gold medal winners scheduled for Saturday 15th February, will all receive an additional gold medal, embedded into which is a small piece of the meteorite that landed near the Russian city of Chelyabinsk on that exact day last year.

You may remember seeing videos and images of the meteorite as it made its fiery way across the Russian skies before exploding with a power greater than 20 atomic bombs and smashing into the Russian landscape, causing widespread injury and damage.

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The shards for the Olympic medals have been taken from the largest chunk that landed in Chebarkul Lake, deep in the Ural Mountains, and which was finally retrieved after a three week long operation, weighing in at 650kg (before it was sadly dropped and split into  3 pieces…)

Which, after reading the reports this weekend about courses and tracks being too short or too long (an believable 750m too long in the case of the 15km Ladies Skiathlon according to one BBC commentator) hotels rooms being neither ready nor habitable and technical problems at the opening ceremony, may have been an early indication of things to come…

Chelyabinsk meteorite

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Happy New Year from Mars…

January 3, 2014 2 comments

On January 1, the Curiosity Rover celebrated its 500th Martian day (otherwise known as a sol) on the surface of the Red Planet.

Curiosity-Sol-494_3Aa_Ken-KremerA few days earlier, it had taken this wonderful photo of the 18,000ft (5500m) foot Aeolis Mons (more commonly known as Mt. Sharp), created by combining several different images taken by the mastcam on December 26th 2013 (Sol 494).

In celebration of this momentous achievement, the Curiosity Rover posted this Tweet: “500 sols of Mars: While Earth celebrates #NewYear2014, midnight on Mars marks my 500th day of operations.”

You can find & follow the Curiosity Twitter feed here (if such a thing appeals…)

Since its spectacular landing in the Aeolis Palus region of the Gale Crater in early August 2011, Curiosity has driven nearly 3 miles across the floor of this massive 100 mile diameter feature, heading slowly and inexorably towards the centre. An extraordinary achievement, especially if you watch the proposed landing video again and marvel that the third “powered descent” stage and the subsequent “skycrane manoeuvre” actually worked…

I rather like this photo montage of the Curiosity Rover doing it’s lonley thing, all those millions of miles away from home (although, unless a boom has been Photoshopped away, I have no idea how it managed to take such excellent selfies…)

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Curiosity’s landing site was within the blue ellipse…

Iain M. Banks

June 11, 2013 2 comments

Consider Phlebas_frontI can’t begin to tell you how saddened I am by the recent death of Iain Banks. I can’t believe that The Hydrogen Sonata will be the final word on his most consistent, unparalleled and brilliant of inventions, The Culture, a seemingly futuristic construct that allowed Banks to assess and reassess aspects of our own society’s development and it’s likely outcomes should we continue as we are…

I’ve been a Banksian fan almost from the very beginning. Bank’s first novel The Wasp factory was published in 1984, but it was a year later when I started at Leeds Poly in 1985 that I was told in no uncertain terms by one of my new friends that I just had to read it and that I was obviously from some backwater town for not having done so already (students are like that).

Suffice to say my friend was right (about my birthplace and Iain Banks) and from then on I was hooked. I’ve bought every single one of his books since, even taking time off work to go to bookshops where I’d queue to get whatever his latest book was signed by him and to shake the great man’s hand… (well I did that 3 times anyway)

Iain Banks (and even more so Iain M. Banks, the name he used for his Science Fiction works) was the only author I can think of that I counted down the days to the “release” of his newest book in the same way I did for the new releases of records from bands. It was the seemingly limitless invention of his imagination that amazed me, with each story in whatever style or genre, expanding beyond all expectations to the point where I used to wonder how on earth he was going to follow on from (let alone better) the last one.

Banks’s writing never disappointed, and I would argue that he almost single handedly (along with maybe William Gibson) made Science Fiction cool again in the 1980’s, giving it a more high tech and politically aware aspect that, after the floppy excesses of the Science Fantasy books that washed out most of the decade, was very welcome to a hungry mind like mine.

So it is with an empty heart that I have to accept that there is only one more book to look forward to from one of Britain’s very finest writers. The Quarry will be a story about living with cancer and was rushed forward in the schedules so that Iain could be there to see it published on June 20th.

Sadly this was not to be and the literary world is a lesser place for his loss.

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Startrails, Observatories & Carbon Based Lifeforms

March 12, 2013 2 comments

I found these three wonderful things recently…

Firstly this magical video of stairtrails, by Christoph Malin.

As I understand it all the original still shots are from cameras aboard the International Space station (ISS) which have then been “stacked” via a computer programme. The process of stacking is very similar to creating a timelapse image, however as each new image is added, the previous one is retained, hence the continuous trails, lines and general wonderousness that is revealed as the image builds up…

I’m no scientist, but aren’t they the Northern Lights/ Aurora Borealis at about 1 minute in, and isn’t that lighting at about 2.05? I like the heightened sense of movement that these images generate. The ISS is traveling at just short of 28,000km/h – orbiting the planet  about 16 times a day, and the quality of these images is made even more impressive when you consider the very high ISO levels that the cameras have to achieve in order to take account of this phenomenal speed.

Also on the Vimeo site, I also came across this stunning video by Babak Tafreshi

We had the very good fortune to spend an evening in the Atacama Desert in Northern Chile watching the stars at the Mamalluca Public Observatory a couple of years ago. The memory of seeing whole constellations of stars and neighbouring galaxies climb up into the night sky, as our planet moved through its bit of space, will stay with me for ever. A truly amazing experience that this video captures pretty much as I remember, although as always through the restricted medium of a monitor/ TV screen, the mind numbing sense of scale will always elude the casual watcher…

And finally the music on the Atacama Starry Nights film. A track called Arecibo by the Swedish producers Carbon Based Lifeforms. No idea how I’ve missed this wonderful, epic space noise, as it’s right up my strasse…. Huge washes of static and infinitely deep chords and pulses that gradually build and mutate into.. well nothing really, just more of the same. Which is seriously what I like…

Their most recent album Twenty Three can be linked below via Spotify, but for now sit back, turn off your phone, click away your email, put your headphones on and pilot your own psyche through the Cosmos for 10 minutes… Nice…

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