Tonight I saw the planet Mars with my own eyes.

We’ve all been hearing that Mars is as close as it will be to Earth for the next sixty thousand years. Unfortunately, since I live in the UK I haven’t really had the opportunity to look for Mars since our skies have been swathed in cloud for the past week. This evening, though, I noticed that the skies were very clear and began to scan them occasionally. A few hours later, I pointed to a chip of bright light in the south that almost seemed as big as a disc and said to my friends, “That’s got to be Mars.” There wasn’t anything brighter in the sky.

When I got back about an hour ago, I decided that I wanted to look at Mars through my telescope. I’ve never been a particularly diligent astronomer – to be honest, I’m just not that interested in it. So I’m forced to say that the lovely Bausch and Lomb reflector telescope that I won five years ago from the Mars Society was a bit wasted on me. Nevertheless, when it arrived from America and I put it up on the first clear night that came, I managed to see the moons of Jupiter and the rings of Saturn, all in one night, by the simple (and simple-minded) expedient of pointing it at interesting-looking bright points of light.

Of course this is no way to use a telescope; what I should have done is lined it up on the pole star, gotten a star chart out and actually figured out what the telescope’s various lenses did.

I’m embarrased to say that I haven’t gotten any better at all in the five years since, so tonight I just got the telescope out, lined it up on Mars using the little finderscope and spent about ten minutes fiddling about with the fine grain controls, swapping lenses in and out and the messing about with the focus. While I was futilely scanning around, I noticed a bright patch of light at the top of the viewfinder. I immediately looked towards it and brought it into focus.

It was Mars, and I could see it as a bright and clearly defined disc. It was a tiny disc, but it was still there. After pausing for a couple of minutes just to savour the moment and think that I was finally seeing it with my own eyes, I swapped in a 7mm lense to up the magnification – and yes, it became a slightly larger disc. Maybe I was just imagining it, but I convinced myself that I could just about see the poles; there was an almost imperceptibly subtle difference in the shading on the disc.

I stood there, stooped over the viewfinder, and I thought for a moment that I could reach out and touch the planet. I thought, What I would give to walk on there for a just a few minutes. And then eventually I carefully packed away the lenses, collapsed the tripod and carried the telescope back inside.

It’s easy to look at the photos of Mars on the Internet and in the newspapers and wonder what the point is of staying up at night in the cold and peering through a telescope to see an image that isn’t anywhere near as big or colourful or clear. I know, because that’s what I thought yesterday.

But the sensation of seeing another planet with your own eyes, a planet that could have someone walking on it within your lifetime, a planet that’s big enough to hold a million dreams – it’s not something that you can get by looking at a piece of paper or a computer monitor. It conjured up the same feeling I had when I first saw the Milky Way, that the universe is impossibly vast and beautiful and bursting with things to see, that we as a species have the wonderful opportunity to explore. There’s an awful lot to see out there.

Spirit and Opportunity

NASA’s two new Mars rovers have been named ‘Spirit’ and ‘Opportunity’. I’m just as much for getting schoolkids to name spacecraft as anyone else, but couldn’t they have picked anything more inspiring? It sounds as if the PC brigade had sucked all the life out of this competition well before it begun. They’re not terrible, but they’re hardly a patch compared to the evocative names of Voyager, Viking, Pathfinder and Galileo. Even ‘Beagle 2’ sounds better…

A China Moon

Some people believe that China is really serious about human spaceflight. Really serious, as in, intends to establish a permanent human present on the Moon in the near future. At least one Japanese politician thinks it could happen within four years.

To be honest, it doesn’t really matter exactly when it happens; if China decides to put its weight behind a human space program, then there’s really no reason why it couldn’t loft up a space station and put a man on the Moon without a vast amount of trouble – which I expect they will do in due course. However, I don’t think that they’re doing this mainly for prestige; China has quite rightly realised that the US is squandering its lead in human spaceflight and believes that this is an area where they have a real chance of leapfrogging them (as opposed to, say, Earth-based military).

I don’t really know enough about China to say whether this strategy will work. It really depends on whether they have the will and the means to employ next-generation propulsion technologies; not just nuclear propulsion, but the variety of plasma and solar-based propulsion ideas out there. Using the technology they’re employing in their Shenzhou craft, which is probably about as good as that used in the Space Shuttle, they could reach parity with the US fairly soon, and even overtake them. But that lead would only last as long as the US ignored all the research and scientists itching to work on new propulsion.

So: if the Chinese really know what they’re doing, they’re working on a nuclear engine right now. Nuclear propulsion is probably the easiest next-gen propulsion technology to use in practice at the moment, although ‘easiest’ is a relative term. If they’re really on the ball, they’ll be seriously thinking about constructing an orbital tower.

In any case, I think space advocates are in for an exciting couple of decades now that China, Japan and India are all raring to go. Of course, you can’t forget the array of increasingly proficient private space enthusiasts in the US, who actually have some serious money and talent behind them now. The only group missing from the party is NASA…


On Zetatalk – a cult religion has predicted that ‘Planet X’ will be passing by earth next month. As you might expect, some of the cult members are getting a bit nervous right now; ‘Shouldn’t it be visible in our skies now?’ they ask. Luckily, the daring astronomical community has it all under control (via K5).

Gravity Assist

Finally, I understand how gravity assists for spacecraft work now! (scroll to bottom of linked page)

Imagine a ball rolling down a hill. It gains speed rolling downhill, but then loses speed as it rolls up the next upslope. It’s hard to see how speed can be permanently gained this way. But now imagine that the hill is being propelled forward as you roll down it. Now you’re not only gaining speed due to the slope, but due to the motion of the hill as well…

Waltzing into Space

A couple of nights ago, I was happily showing a friends – a fellow space buff – my favourite moment in cinematic history. It was the heartbreakingly beautiful docking sequence set to the Blue Danube in 2001. An elegent spaceplane languidly waltzes towards a spinning Space Station which is still to this day the most realistic, graceful and simply majestic designs for a space station I have ever seen. It says: We’re humans, we can create a sealed world that can orbit around our planet, and we can pretend it’s normal. We can do anything.

This, I thought, is the epitome of space exploration. This is what I want to live to see. Even though 2001 has come and gone, I still think I will see the day when we can rise into space and discover all the secrets that our solar system holds. One day, I said, we’ll get there.

And today, the Space Shuttle Columbia was destroyed. It won’t stop space exploration any more than the destruction of the Challenger did, and if anything, we are more well placed to handle this disaster than we ever have been before – we have three countries that are independently capable of placing a man into space this year, with many more to come. We even have amateur groups that are making serious efforts at putting humans into space without billions of dollars and the resources of thousands. We’ll still get there.

But we do have to remember that for now, space exploration is an incredibly dangerous task and anyone who goes up there really is The Right Stuff. So while people have said, two accidents out of 113 is not so bad, I said:

“I have absolutely no doubt in my mind that all astronauts, cosmonauts and taikonauts are more dedicated to their cause than to a 2% risk of death. But does that mean we should accept that for every 100 launches, two should be destroyed? Definitely not. If there is a way to reduce that risk, then we should take it, as long as it doesn’t compromise the necessity of the cause.

And in this case, if we could have reduced the risk by simply designing a new and better spacecraft, then the loss of two whole space shuttle crews – some of the best and brightest people in the world, and two of the most expensive and complex spacecraft – is just unacceptable.”

Perhaps America will realise the bravery of their astronauts now, and that every Shuttle launch is a potential disaster. And perhaps they’ll understand the need to give their space programme the support it deserves. If that happens, we won’t have to turn on the television to see a waltz in space.