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Joe Kittinger & Felix Baumgartner at The Edge of Space…

October 12, 2012 4 comments

It’s a real shame that, due to gusty winds at the jump site above Roswell, New Mexico, Felix Baumgartner had to abandon his attempt to make the highest freefall jump in history. His plans to leap from the mind numbing height of 37 kilometers above the earth’s surface last Tuesday, are now on hold until better weather comes along.

During his descent he would have theoretically broken the sound barrier, travelling faster than 1240km/h… (or about 1km every 3 seconds) and subjected his body to all manner of potentially fatal experiences including boiling blood, uncontrolled spinning and exploding lungs..

The event would have been (and presumably still will be when the time is right) captured by a live stream feed from over 30 video and stills cameras, 5 of which were to be attached to his pressure suit.

Baumgartner was hoping to break a record set way back in 1960 by the American Joe Kittinger who as part of Project Excelsior jumped out of a platform attached to a helium balloon at 31 km above the earth’s surface. It took him about an hour and a half to get to the jump height and about 15 minutes to get home, 4½ of which were freefall through the Earth’s stratosphere where he achieved a staggering maximum speed of 988km/h.

Amazingly there is footage of this fantastic achievement… and here it is. Someone’s even added a rather excellent drum and bass soundtrack which kicks in just as he jumps…)

Can you imagine what it must feel like to look down at your own planet so far below and then just step off…

So whilst the recorded quality and coverage of Kittinger’s freefall attempt may pale against what I imagine will be a beautifully edited and comprehensive visual record of Baumgartner’s jump (when it finally happens), these shaky and grainy images remind us that this courageous US Airman, who despite his first attempt going horribly wrong (he lost consciousness, got into a flat spin, experienced G forces more than 20 times that of gravity and only survived thanks to his automatic parachute opener) got back in the gondola, went up for a another go and did something quite unbelievable, probably using equipment that was barely suitable for the task and that no one would do again for more than 50 years…

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Astronomy Photographer of the Year 2012

September 20, 2012 Leave a comment

There is a new exhibition on over the river in Greenwich at the Royal Observatory that looks like it will be well worth going to see…

Featuring the winning entries in the annual Astronomy Photographer of the Year competition, the website promises images spanning the wonders found in our own atmosphere right through to the unimaginable mysteries of deep space.

The ones that really grab my attention however are those of the Northern Lights… For some time now, I’ve had a growing urge, almost a need to go and experience them for myself and seeing these images of huge open spaces, crystal clear skies and unbelievably beautiful displays of colour and exuberance, only confirms and strengthens that desire…

Other than getting it organised and paying for it, the most challenging thing will be persuading my Little A that a holiday to the cold wastes of Norway in December staring up at the night sky in hope, will be as enjoyable as a week exploring an unknown city or soaking up the sun on a beach in July…

(The images accompanying this post are all borrowed from Flickr and the name of photographer can found by hovering over the image)

Neil Armstrong

August 30, 2012 Leave a comment

Sad news over the weekend that Neil Armstrong, the very first human to ever step foot on the moon, died at the age of 82.

I was 5 in July 1969, when the amazing Saturn 5 rocket powered out of Cape Canaveral and took the Apollo 11 astronauts to another world. Along with Buzz Aldrin and Michael Collins, Neil Armstrong was to become a household name, not just because of his “that’s one small step for (a) man, one giant leap for mankind” speech) but also because he seemed like a thoroughly nice bloke and strangely unfazed by his life changing experiences.

The Space Race and Moon landings seem to mean more to my generation than those that followed. I guess it’s because like most kids from the 60’s, I can remember the excitement of being allowed to stay up late with M&D to watch history in the making on our scratchy little black and white telly…

Many years later I would fall for the whole conspiracy thing (the landing photos were faked and they were all in a warehouse in Area 51, or the computers were less powerful than todays mobile phones) …  but I’ve mellowed somewhat and read quite a lot about the moon landings, and I am now pretty convinced that there are indeed footprints in the moon dust…

Personally I think it’s a shame that we no longer think it worthwhile going to the moon “just because it’s there”… The next generation of exploration will almost certainly be money driven as we get ready to hoover up the natural resources and suck a second world dry..

And with the current Mars Curiosity Rover mission having a similar goal of establishing what the planet is worth in terms of minerals, the heroic nature of the Apollo Astronauts endeavours, is something we may never see the like of again…

Expedition 31 – Space Ships on Trains in Kazakhstan..

May 15, 2012 Leave a comment

I saw this rather intriguing image in someone else’s newspaper on my way home last night…

It showed an old 1960’s diesel train pulling what looked like a huge rocket through the middle of nowhere. I liked the juxtaposition of the old, the new and the emptiness and I went to find out more…

It turns out that the rocket is a Soyuz TMA-04M spacecraft and is being carried by train to the Baikonur launch pad in the former Soviet state of Kazakhstan, from where it will take off on its short journey to the International Space Station (ISS). The rocket is moved to the launch pad area a couple of days prior to take off so that it can be fulled up and prepared for its journey…

The whole event goes by the name “Expedition 31” and the take off was scheduled for 9.05am this morning (Tuesday 15th May) with a crew of both Russian and US astronauts aiming to spend the next few months in orbit. It’s not clear from the reports I’ve read, but I think the rocket will also pick up and bring some astronauts who are already up in space, back home.

Interestingly (and I didn’t know this till last night), NASA which officially retired its shuttle fleet  last year, has relied exclusively on Russian Soyuz craft for transporting personnel to the ISS since late 2009. The trip to the station takes two days from launch to docking, as the rocket has to chase the space station around its earth orbit, whereas the return to Earth takes less than 3.5 hours.

There are a lot more photos on NASA’s flickr site here

Venus – Jupiter Conjunction

March 22, 2012 1 comment

For those of you like me who have noticed two unusually bright objects in the recently very clear night skies, and wondered what they were… then wonder no more… as we are all witnessing the best Venus-Jupiter conjunction for many years..

In astrological terms, a conjunction is simply when two or more planets appear to be close together in the sky, when in reality they are separated by almost unimaginable distances. The brighter of the two objects the we can see at the moment is Venus which despite being much smaller than Jupiter is obviously very much closer to us.

Venus is generally considered to be the second brightest object in our skies after the Moon, and at it’s closest, can be only about 38 million km (24 million miles) away, whilst at other times it disappears completely as it spins out on its 225 day orbit around the sun.

The closest Jupiter gets to Earth on the other hand is in the order of about 630 million km (390 million miles) so despite it being more than 120 times bigger than either Earth or Venus (which are surprisingly similar in size) its magnitude of brightness is significantly less.

Jupiter has quite a special place in my heart, as when we were in Peru a few years back, we visited the Maria Reiche Observatory in Nazca and saw with our own eyes (with the help of a big telescope obviously) Jupiter and four of her moons, clear as anything, about as big as a tennis ball. A trully amazing experience…

Anyway, I tried taking some photos of the conjunction last weekend when the two planets were closest together, but I just didn’t have the technology to pull it off. So I tried again with another camera this weekend and this one just about captures this alluring spectacle, especially as I also managed to catch the crescent moon (the lowest of the three lights).

If you’re interested, the next opportunity to see a Venus-Jupiter conjunction will be in May next year, although as the planets will be much lower in the sky, they will be visible together for less than an hour before they disappear below the horizon.

The rather nice image below is from someone’s Astroblg here. Taken looking over the River Spey towards Garmouth up in Scotland, I think it’s fair to say that it better captures the brightness and size of the two planets than mine does above.

Jeff Bridges, Ray Skelton & Endeavour

June 9, 2011 Leave a comment

Three oddly varied topics for today’s post, united only by the fact that I read about them all on the way into work today…. The Metro being surprisingly interesting for once…

Jeff Bridges has to be one of the finest actors in the world. Just a quick look at a list of some of his films gives you an idea of how good this man is at pretending to be other people… The Big Lebowski, Tron, Iron Man, True Grit, The Fabulous Baker Boys, Starman, The Fisher King, KPax, The Men who stare at Goats, Arlington Road, Crazy Heart……

Anyway apart from an excuse to include a picture of His Dudeness from one of my all time, top 5 films, the reason for this post is that there is a retrospective of the great man on at the BFI on the Southbank, so I will try and remember to organise getting to one or two of those. Especially as there are a number of the less well known films like the thrillers Cutters Way and Winter Kills and from 1971, The Last Picture Show with a very fresh faced Mr. Bridges, looking belive it or not, even younger than his CGI “avatar” in Tron: Legacy.

I also learned that Ray Skelton, the voice of Zippy and George from Rainbow died yesterday aged 79.

Like most people I suspect, I didn’t know his name, but being of a certain age (i.e. the wrong side of 40) I grew up with Rainbow and will always have a soft spot for this rather silly show with its overly large glove puppets, a man in a full size bear suit, singalongs with Rod, Jane & Freddie and of course the inimitable Geoffrey….

But even more cool than being the voice of Zippy and George (if that’s possible) and something I didn’t know until this morning, was that Roy was also the voice of the Daleks and the Cybermen… queue loud shouting of “Exterminate, Exterminate…” I have to be honest though, I can’t remember what the Cybermen sounded like, but I’m sure Roy made them sound scary too…

And lastly a photo of the final Endeavour flight which I think speaks for itself .. I wrote about the end of the shuttle missions recently and this beautiful and elegant image of the Endeavour docked at the International Space Station during it’s final flight only a few days ago, is a fitting tribute to the programme.

The End of the Space Shuttle Program

May 26, 2011 Leave a comment

Another anniversary that I missed recently was that of the final flight of Discovery which as part of Mission STS133 (STS stands for Space Transportation System, the programme’s official name) spent its final 14 days in service between February 24th and March 9th.

2011, in fact marks the end of the entire Shuttle programme and by the end of this year all the remaining vehicles will be retired after 30 years of service.

In all six shuttles were built. Enterprise was only designed to test the craft’s ability to land (after taking off attached to the top of a Jumbo Jet) and was never actually designed to be space worthy. The remaining five were all fully equipped to go into orbit and of these five Atlantis, Discovery and Endeavour remain in service. The other two were tragically lost whilst in use, Challenger shortly after take off in January 1986 and Columbia during re-entry in February 2003.

The concept of a returnable space craft was initially developed in the early 1970’s, with the first test flights almost a decade later in the early 1980’s. I can clearly remember the excitement of these initial launches, watching these ungainly shuttles struggling to leave the atmosphere strapped to a huge rusty looking rocket and then landing after the mission was over on what I always thought were worryingly small wheels… And over their thirty years of service, even if the Shuttles have not exactly revolutionised space travel as had originally been predicted, their contribution to space exploration has been unquestionable.

From the early Spacelab experiments, and servicing the Mir and the amazing, ever expanding International Space Station, through to crucial work correcting optical defects in the Hubble telescope, the ability to send astronauts up into space, carry out set tasks and bring them home in a controlled way, I think has been of huge benefit to Science and mankind’s development.

So the end of an era, sad but maybe not entirely unsurprising in these cash strapped times. The total cost of the shuttle programme by the end of its final mission has been estimated at about $180 Billion, which when divided by the roughly 140 missions equates to $1.2 Billion a flight….

But regardless of the huge costs involved, I have a feeling that a second space race is imminent with new fuels and technologies, and new countries getting involved. Our future lies in the stars, and I for one am looking forward to seeing how the next generation of space vehicles develop.

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