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Yuri Gagarin

April 12, 2011 Leave a comment

50 years ago today (12th April 1961) the Russian Cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin was the first human to make it past our planet’s atmosphere and out into open space.

His entire journey in the Vostock 1 Rocket lasted 108 minutes (less than 2 hours) during which time he took off from the Baikonur Cosmodrome in the Southern deserts of Kazakhstan, orbited once around the Earth and landed safely back on land in Northern Russia.

It was a huge political coup for the Russians, taking the Americans almost completely by surprise. Nikita Khrushchev proudly claimed the superiority of Russian technology over their arch rivals, and it was no coincidence that less than 6 weeks later on May 25th 1961, J F Kennedy gave his now famous “American on the moon by the end of the decade” speech to the US Congress.

Although both countries had been working on Space Programmes for a number of years, the Russians were in fact lucky to win the prize. The US Mercury Programme had originally been scheduled to take off from Earth in October 1960, but concerns over safety and which engine type to use, had caused several scheduled take off’s to be delayed, resulting in Alan Shepard being the first American to reach space on 5th May 1961, nealry fouyr weeks after Gagarin

Interestingly Shepard’s journey was only a sub-orbital flight (effectively straight up and down) and the Americans didn’t in fact get an astronaut to orbit the Earth until March 1965, almost 4 years after Gagarin’s heroic flight. And when you consider the levels of technology available in the early 1960’s, his achievement is made even more remarkable. There is a short, edited highlights film of the events on the BBC website here and you only have to see the quality of the first ever live broadcast from Moscow and listen to Richard Dimbleby’s commentary to realise what a monumental achievement getting a man into space and back must have been.

Once Gagarin got back to earth, celebrity and fame awaited. He visited Europe (including the UK) Japan, Brazil and Finland promoting both himself and the Soviet Union’s success. Sadly though his time in the limelight was short lived, as in March 1968 he died when a routine flight crashed on route between Russian airbases, and a whole world of Conspiracy Theories were imagined into life…

There is also a feature length film of the whole event here, if you have the time and inclination…

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The Super Moon & The Mamalluca Observatory, Chile

March 21, 2011 1 comment

Last Saturday evening, me and A were standing on the river bank at 6.24pm, looking due east, shivering slightly and waiting for…. The Super Moon.

A Super Moon occurs when a full moon coincides with it being at its closet to the Earth. The Moon orbits the Earth in a slightly elliptical orbit, at its closet (known as the perigree) it is about 220,000 miles away, stretching to about 254,000 miles when the Moon is at its furthest (the apogee). A perigree Moon is about 14% bigger and 30% brighter than an apogee Moon.

This weekend the moon was the closest it’s been for 18 years and its overly large appearance was boosted by another phenomena known as the Moon Illusion. This effect occurs when the evening sky is very clear and, as the Moon rises up over the horizon, it is seen against familiar objects such as buildings and trees, making  it appear relatively much larger than it is.

In the weekend papers and online, I’d also been reading about Moonageddon… a series of conspiracy theories linking the disastrous earthquakes and Tsunamis in Indonesia, Haiti, New Zealand and Japan to the Super Moon and its actions on our tides and gravity…. some interesting ideas, but ultimately misguided by all scientific accounts.

Annoyingly, as we ran out to make sure we didn’t miss the spectacle, I forgot to take the tripod, so my photos are a bit shaky. Still it was a pretty impressive sight, watching a huge Moon rising up over the Thames..

Seeing the moon this clearly reminded me of when we were in Northern Chile at the end of 2009. We went on an amazing trip to the Mamalluca Observatory high up in the Andes near Vicuna, and for about 3 hours looked up at an almost impossibly clear sky.

For me, it was one of the standout experiences of our entire trip, watching, over the time we were there, whole constellations of stars climbing up from behind the surrounding mountains into the perfect night sky. It’s the only time I’ve ever been aware of the Earth actually moving through space in realtime. Made my head spin…

Our guide was a young Chilean guy whose knowledge of the Cosmos was unbelievable. He showed us an untold number of stars, Jupiter and its moons, the Magellan clouds (which are the galaxies beyond our own) satellites (small bright specs moving slowly through the starfield) shooting stars (small bright specs moving very quickly through the starfield) and of course the Moon. The photo to the left is one I took with my camera through the 12″ telescope at the observatory, and does not do the experience of seeing the Moon as big as a beach ball, any justice whatsoever (but it’s the only image we have of that night, stars don’t photograph well with a pocket digital camera….)

Opportunity Rover & Victoria Crater, Mars

February 17, 2011 2 comments

I watched a programme on one of the science channels recently all about the Mars Rovers Programme.. and one aspect of it inspired me to write this post.

In June and July 2003, two separate rockets blasted off from Earth towards Mars: the first contained the Mars rover Spirit which landed on the surface of Mars in January 2004 and the second contained the rover Opportunity, which landed 3 weeks later on the other side of the planet.

These two small vehicles were originally programmed to carry out surface explorations over a 90 day period, with a goal for each rover to cover up to 40 meters in a single day, and a total mission target distance of up to one kilometer. The design and management of the onboard systems was so successful however that both vehicles have had their missions extended several times, with Opportunity unbelievably still operating today, some 7 years after it was supposed to have died, and having covered more than 26km. The last contact with Spirit was in March 2010, and it is presumed to have not survived the Martian Winter.

Apart from the scale and ambition of the project as a whole, the thing that really caught my imagination was this beautiful image of Victoria Crater taken by the HiRise camera on board the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO) in October 2006. The colours within the picture and the clarity of the image are amazing.

Opportunity had visited the 750m wide impact crater as part of its extended mission the month before and the black and white image above clearly shows the tracks the rover left in the Martian Soil. What completey amazes me is that we can see these tracks so clearly. This is an actual photograph showing a man made object more than 70 million miles way from Earth…

And in this final image above you can actually see the Opportunity Rover itself, a small lonely grey dot showing up in contrast to the red soils of our nearest neighbouring planet.

To me these grainy and slightly blurred images are more impressive than the perfect CGI images and films that we all are so used to seeing, that depict  how a space craft  would look as it flies through our solar system or negotiates the surface of another planet.

I like the roughness, and the “realness” of these images, but if I even began to think about what technology it takes for me to be able to appreciate them more than 70 million miles away, I know I’ll start to feel faint.

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