Category Archives: Astronomy

Curiosity goes for a spin on Mars


7 minutes of dread…

Listen to my BBC radio chat with Malcolm. We discuss the Mars Science Laboratory at 1 minute 33 seconds in this clip:

[audio – Mars Curiosity and cuckoos.mp3]

Curiosity’s landing was the stuff of science fiction. Click image to watch video (make popcorn first!).

Just watch the video, an animation of Curiosity’s landing on Mars. It’s amazing. I wish I had been a Martian standing there watching it land. It would have been awe-inspiring.

Anyway, this week’s landing of the Mars Science Laboratory (MSL) (which is the rover called ‘Curiosity’ and it’s associated science equipment) was the culmination of one phase of the work of a great number of scientists over many years. Videos of dancing scientists and engineers in NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, and about a million celebratory tweets, highlight the importance of those crucial few minutes when Curiosity was touching down.

Curiosity, ready to rock and roll

The thing is, though, that Mars is a long way away and radio transmissions from the planet take a long time to get back to Earth – 7 minutes to be exact. Hence the subtitle of this piece – 7 minutes of dread. Try to imaging what it must have been like for all of the people associated with getting the rover to Mars. They had spent years planning and building for every contingency, systems on board had multiple redundancy as a hedge against failure, everyone was certain that nothing could go wrong… But you just never know, do you? The entire assemblage of space vehicles and parts was programmed to go through a choreographed sequence – brake against the weak Martian atmosphere, adjust trajectory, jetison heat shield, deploy parachute, fire rockets, lower Curiosity on tethers, cut tethers – what could go wrong? Meanwhile, back on Earth, scientists have to wait during the time Curiosity is supposed to have landed because radio transmission to verify a successful landing takes 7 minutes to get here. During that time, Curiosity might have been fine – or it might have been a mass of twisted wreckage blotting the Martian landscape. For those waiting, 7 minutes of dread indeed.

Jubilation at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory

The picture says it all. I’m sure the 7 minutes probably seemed to last 7 years but, very shortly after the allotted time came the first transmission of a successful landing on the red planet. My sincere congratulations to all of the women and men who have devoted their scientific careers to making such an incredible moment.

What now? Curiosity has already turned its systems on and verified that everything seems to be in working order.  It will just sit for a bit and sample its surroundings using a vast array of cameras and scientific gadgetry designed to look for, amongst other things, signs of life. Once it has the lay of the land, the rover will head out to explore the environs of the giant crater that it has landed in. Experiments are set to run for almost the next two Earth

Is there life on Mars?

years (one Martian year). Will Curiosity find life? Probably not giant life forms but, hey, we’d be happy with a few biomolecules like amino acids or nucleic acids. Anything that gives us a clue about what went on in Mars’ past.

What a giant step for Science.

Did moon landings really happen?


Apparently 25% of teenagers aren’t certain whether the moon landings really happened. They did, and new images put this completely beyond doubt.

Listen to my BBC radio chat with Malcolm. We discuss moon landings at 7 minutes 10 seconds in this clip:

[audio – World sports records and faked moon landings.mp3]

Were the Apollo moon landings shot in Hollywood?

Very shortly after Neil Armstrong walked on the moon (July 20th 1969), conspiracy theorists started to claim that the whole thing was a massive hoax perpetrated by the American government in their Cold-war era one-upmanship dance with the Soviet Union.

I guess the reason for attempting a hoax on such a grand scale would have been that the technology just simply wasn’t up to an actual moon landing. As far as I’m concerned, all of the points that conspiracy theorists have made to illustrate the hoax have been completely de-bunked – most thoroughly by the Mythbusters in Episode 104 NASA Moon Landing (Aug. 27) in which Adam and Jamie investigate if the U.S. government shot the footage of the astronauts in a studio.

Those that doubt the veracity of moon landings have suggested many things that are apparently wrong with the evidence presented in the media:

Photos from the moon look faked,
The flags shouldn’t flap in zero-gravity,
Lighting is incorrect and there are no stars in the photos,
Identical backgrounds in photos from different sites on the moon,
Travel to the moon would be impossible for a Human being to survive,
Landers made no blast craters,
Suits as designed would not have worked… etc.

But stop… think about it. Since it is nigh on impossible to have even three people keep a secret, how is it possible that the 1000s of people that have worked for NASA and the US government on getting men to the moon have kept this hoax secret? The answer is that it wasn’t a hoax.

From a science perspective, the moon landings were an incredible achievement. Objections to the claims that we have walked on the moon have often been put forward by scientists who believe that they see inconsistencies in filmed images. The beauty of the scientific method is that when claims are in doubt, other scientists will examine those claims. That is what has happened here and there are perfectly reasonable explanations for every one of the inconsistencies listed above. New pictures from the Lunar Reconaissance Orbiter now show that the flags are still there.

For the younger generation who might be in doubt about whether or not we’ve been to the moon – we have. Their doubt is, no doubt, because of that peculiar thing that affects us all. Anything that happened before we were born is ancient history. I still wrestle with the idea that my parents didn’t have TV when they were growing up – how did they survive?!

‘One small step for a man – one giant leap for Mankind’ Oh… except that whether it happened will be debated and the youngsters will forget about it anyway.

Edmund Halley (he of the comet) comes up to Oxford


The scientists of days-of-yore were multitaskers extrordinaire

Listen to my BBC radio chat with Malcolm. We talk about Edmund at 5 minutes 59 seconds in this clip:

[audio – Synthetic biology Halley and Sally Ride.mp3]

Edmund Halley – he’s on a stamp just like Jacques Cousteau

On July 24th, 1673, young Edmund Halley ‘came up’ to Oxford as a fresh-faced new student (I guess they all came up from London in those days). He attended The Queen’s College but never did get a degree out of them.

When I read about the scientists of days of yore, I am always amazed by all of their interests and accomplishments. These days we tend to specialize but Halley did everything. He:

-Was an astronomer

– charted trade winds and monsoons

-thought about the problem of gravity and convinced Issac Newton to publish his mathematical principles (Philosophiæ Naturalis Principia Mathematica one of the most significant math books ever – and with publishing costs paid by Halley!).

-built a diving bell and spent much time underwater (hmmm… just like Cousteau again).

-Oh… he also discovered a comet which is now named in his honour.

Halley's Comet in 1986

Halley’s comet (not to be confused with Bill Haley and his Comets) is the most famous of the short-period comets and returns to visit us every 75-76 years.

The comet sheds a bit of its surface each time it approaches the sun and heats up – at the rate its melting, it looks like its only got a few tens of thousands of years left. Be sure not to miss it in 2061 (tickets on sale now at usual outlets).

The summer solstice… it’s too bright, I can’t sleep…


I used to hate being sent to bed when it was still so bright outside

Listen to my BBC radio chat with Malcolm:

[audio – Solstice and rhino horns.mp3]

Makes me think of Spinal Tap for some reason?


Origins of life in the Universe – the ‘panspermia’ concept


We are not alone – and there is a formula that proves it!

Listen to my BBC radio chat with Malcolm:

[audio – Bumblebees and panspermia]

The Drake equation