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Last week, two more Chinese astronauts (or “taikonauts” as they are sometimes known) blasted into space, to spend a month on-board China’s experimental space station Tiangong. They successfully docked with the space station just before 19:30 GMT last Tuesday (18 October). The 30-day stay on the space station will be the longest mission yet undertaken by Chinese astronauts.

This is the latest chapter in an ambitious space programme; China has plans to send manned missions to both the Moon and Mars, although it has not publicly stated a time-line for these two goals. In fact, nothing would boost China’s feeling of becoming the World’s premier superpower than if they were to get to Mars before the USA.

The pace of China’s space programme is impressive. They are spending some US$2.2 billion a year on it, and to-date have sent 11 people into space. They plan to build a permanent space station by 2020, and have already launched 181 satellites into space.

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A summary of some of the key numbers for China’s ambitious space programme.

In 2016 alone it will have launched 20 space missions. I have heard it argued that it is easier for a one-party state like China to achieve ambitious long-term programmes like exploring space than it is for democracies like the US. This is because any programmes suggested and funded in the US can be axed by Congress, or shelved by a new president. Such changes of government do not happen in China. Of course, it is looking increasingly likely that the first US manned mission to Mars will not be undertaken by NASA, but rather by one of the private companies like Space X.

The race is on to get to Mars first, who do you think will be first?

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My latest book, Astrophotography, is now available. You can order a copy by following this link. Astrophotography is a book of exquisite images of space, including some of the latest images such as New Horizons’ images of Pluto, Rosetta’s images of Comet 67P, and Hubble Space Telescope images of the most distant galaxies ever seen. Each stunning image, reproduced to the highest quality, is accompanied by text that I have written to explain the object, and any background science relating to the object.

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Astrophotography is now available. You can order your copy by following this link.

One unique aspect of Astrophotography is that it emphasises the multi-wavelength approach taken to understanding astronomical objects. For millennia we could only study the Universe in visible-light (the light to which are eyes are sensitive), but for the last few decades we have used every part of the electromagnetic spectrum from radio waves to gamma rays to better understand the Universe. This multi-wavelength approach has also enabled us to discover previously unknown aspects of the Universe such as the Cosmic Microwave Background, the true appearance of Venus’ surface which lies hidden below its thick atmosphere, and huge quantities of gas between galaxies (the intracluster medium) which emit no visible-light but prodigious amounts of X-rays.

Astrophotography is split into 5 sections, namely

  1. Exploring the Solar System
  2. Exploring the Milky Way
  3. Exploring the Local Group
  4. Beyond the Local Group
  5. At the Edge of the Universe

Below are examples of some of the beautiful images found in Astrophotography, along with examples of the accompanying text. At the beginning of each page’s text I caption which telescope or space probe has taken the main image, and at which wavelength (or wavelengths).

Exploring the Solar System

Two examples from the first section of Astrophotography, the section on the Solar System, are stunning images of Mercury and of Mars. The images of Mercury were taken by NASA’s MESSENGER spacecraft. There are several pages of images of Mars, the page shown below shows an image of the Martian surface taken by the Mars Curiosity Rover, and an image of Victoria Crater taken by the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter.

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Images of Mercury taken by NASA’s MESSENGER spacecraft. The four main images are spectral scans, and show information on the chemical composition of Mercury’s surface.

The section on the Solar System also includes images of Pluto taken by New Horizons, images of Saturn and Titan taken by the Cassini space probe, images of Comet 67P taken by Rosetta, and images of Jupiter and her moons taken by the Galileo space craft.

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The surface of Mars as imaged by NASA’s Mars Curiosity Rover and, at right, Victoria Crater, as imaged by NASA’s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter.

Exploring the Milky Way

The second section of Astrophotography includes images of the Orion Nebula (Messier 42), the reflection nebula Messier 78, the Horsehead Nebula, the Pillars of Creation (part of the Eagle Nebula), and the Crab Nebula, the remnant of a supernova which exploded in 1054.

The example I show below is of the reflection nebula Messier 78, and is a visible light image taken by the Max Planck Gerzellschaft Telescope, a 2.2 metre telescope located at the European Southern Observatory’s facility in La Silla, Chile. The text describes the history of observing Messier 78, and explains what produces a reflection nebula.

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The reflection nebula Messier 78 imaged in visible light by the Max Planck Gesellschaft Telescope. The text explains what reflection nebulae are, and the history of observing this particular object.

Exploring the Local Group

The third section of Astrophotography looks at the Local Group, our part of the Universe. The Local Group includes our Milky Way galaxy, the Large and Small Magellanic Clouds, and the Andromeda galaxy. Some of the images shown in this section include the Tarantula Nebula in the Large Magellanic Cloud, NGC 602 (in the Small Magellanic Cloud), the Andromeda galaxy, Supernova 1987A and the Seahorse Nebula.

The example I show here is the Seahorse Nebula, a dark cloud of gas and dust located in Large Magellanic Cloud. This Hubble Space Telescope image was taken in 2008, and the nebula is in the bottom right of the image.

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The Seahorse nebula is a dark cloud of gas and dust found in the Large Magellanic Cloud, an irregular galaxy visible to the naked eye and in orbit about our Milky Way galaxy. The seahorse nebula is in the bottom right of the image.

Beyond the Local Group

The fourth section of Astrophotography looks at the rich variety of galaxies found beyond our own neighbourhood. Examples are galaxies like Messier 82, which is undergoing a huge burst of star formation in its centre, Centaurus A, which shows huge lobes of radio radiation stretching far beyond the stars we see in visible light, colliding galaxies such as The Antennae galaxies, and evidence for dark matter such as the Bullet cluster.

The example I have shown here is the spread for Messier 81, a beautiful spiral galaxy found in Ursa Major. It is one of the best known galaxies in the sky, and is visible to northern hemisphere observers throughout the  year. The main image illustrates the multi-wavelength approach astronomers take to studying many objects. The image combines visible light, infrared light and ultraviolet light to teach us far more about the galaxy than we would learn if we only looked in visible light.

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Messier 81 is a beautiful spiral galaxy found in Ursa Major. Hence it is visible throughout the year to northern hemisphere observers. The main image shown here is a combination of of a visible light image (taken by the Hubble Space Telescope), an infrared image taken by the Spitzer Space Telescope, and an ultraviolet image taken by Galaxy Evolution Explorer (GALEX).

At the edge of the Universe

In the final section of Astrophotography, I show examples of some of the most distant objects known. Images include the Hubble Deep Field, the Cosmic Microwave Background, the most distant galaxy seen (GN-z11, lying about 13.4 billion light years away), gravitational lenses and the recent discovery of gravitational waves made by LIGO.

The example I show here is the spread about the gravitational lens SDP81, a galaxy lying about 12 billion light years away which is being lensed (and brightened) by an intervening cluster of galaxies which lie about 4 billion light years away. The top image was taken at millimetre wavelengths by the Atacama Large Millimetre Array (ALMA), the bottom image in visible light by the Hubble Space Telescope.

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Gravitational lenses enable us to see distant galaxies which would otherwise be too faint to see, but they also provide us with a way of tracing the distribution of dark matter in clusters.

I hope these few examples from Astrophotography have whetted your appetite to find out more. I really enjoyed putting the book together, and am very pleased with the quality of the images and their aesthetic beauty.

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On Saturday 18 June, as some of you may know, Tim Peake returned from his 6-month stint on the International Space Station (ISS). At the end of January, as a bit of fun, in a blog entitled “Is Tim Peake getting younger or older?”  I worked out whether he was getting younger (due to time dilation in special relativity) or older (due to time running faster due to general relativity). The answer was that the special relativity effect of time slowing down for him was greater than the general relativity effect of time speeding up. But, he would need to stay in space for 100 years to age by 1 second less than if he were on Earth! But, now that he is back on Earth time is running at the same rate for him as for the rest of us. 🙂

Peake held a press conference on Tuesday 21 June, and later that day I was on BBC radio making some comments about his time on the ISS. It was only a short 3-minute interview for the evening news programme (you can listen to it here), but one of the things I was asked was whether Tim Peake’s mission to the ISS had inspired young people (school students).

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Astronaut Tim Peake returned to Earth from the International Space Station on 18 June 2016 after a six-month period there.

My answer was that yes, it absolutely had. Peake has captured the public imagination with his trip to the ISS, and has inspired a whole new generation to think about space. As the first person from Britain to go into space at the taxpayers’ expense, he may have had instructions to engage with the public in his time spent there. I don’t know. But, what I do know is that he clearly enjoys communicating science and the wonders of space and the oddities of an astronaut’s life to the public, and has done an excellent job of it.

I just about member the last Apollo mission, Apollo 17, which went to the Moon in December 1971. I’m too young to remember the ones before; even though my mother sat me down in front of the TV to see Neil Armstrong take his historic steps in 1969, I sadly don’t remember it. Seeing astronauts going to the Moon was certainly a factor in igniting my own interest in space and astronomy, but since that time there has been very little to inspire later generations. Going up in the Space Shuttle or going to the ISS are not as exciting as going to the Moon; but thankfully Tim Peake has turned what has become a rather routine activity these days into something very exciting for our younger people.

I don’t know how much it cost the DUK taxpayers to put Peake into space, but I can guarantee you that the money will be recouped dozens of times over. There is no surer way to create wealth than through science and technology, and inspiring a whole new generation of school students into taking an interest in physics, mathematics, engineering and science will, hopefully, see more of them pursue such careers in the future. This can only be a boom for our economy.

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On Wednesday (27th of February) Dennis Tito announced ambitous plans to send human beings to Mars by 2018. The idea is to send a couple on what is called a free return trajectory trip to Mars. That is to say, the rocket would travel to Mars, then use a swing around the other side of Mars to come back to Earth. There are no plans in this mission to land on Mars, or even to go into orbit about the red planet. But still it is to me a very exciting project.


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For those of you who have watched the episode 1968 of the series From The Earth To The Moon, which I blogged about here, you may recall that a free return trajectory is mentioned by Frank Borman’s wife when she is worried about her husband as he makes his way towards the Moon. The Apollo 8 mission did not use a free return trajectory, because NASA wanted to put the command module into orbit about the Moon.

No such manouevre is planned for this proposed trip to Mars, the space craft would simply sling-shot around Mars and come back towards Earth. The entire trip would last 501 days, and because of the necessary favourable alignment required, another opportunity for such a short sling-shot mission would not arise until 2031.

Below is an artist’s impression of the proposed rocket and capsule. The company Tito is setting up to operate this mission is called Inspiration Mars Foundation. They say they will only be using already existing technology, which they will buy from NASA and other aerospace companies and manufacturers. Should this trip take place, it will be the first time a private organisation has accomplished something in space not previously accomplished by a Government agency.


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I mentioned this news item to my 11-year old daughter a few days ago, and she asked me what the point of going was if they did not intend to land on Mars. I wonder how many people share her point of view. To me, although I hope we will of course one day land on Mars and explore it in a way robots and rovers cannot, even the idea of going on a trip to Mars is an exciting one. Yes we have sent dozens of probes to Mars, but as Apollo 8 showed the World, human beings going somewhere we have not been before can inspire a new generation, and give us a perspective on our exploring that a space probe cannot.

Only two people will go on this proposed journey. Inspiration Mars Foundation say they are looking for a “mature” couple, so that they know each other well from having spent decades together, and can give each other companionship during this long trip. So, who said adventure is only for the young?

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