Tag Archives: #NASA

Juno mission’s extension reveals Jupiter’s colossal swirling artwork

Jupiter has been revealed as a place where art and physics co-mingle in the most magnificent way.

I mentioned the Juno mission briefly in a piece I wrote back in October 2016. At that time, the project was due to end in 2018. But on June 6th of that year, NASA announced that the voyage around our biggest gas giant would be extended until 2021, with scientific analysis continuing into 2022.

The recent photos sent back by the craft have astonished space exploration professionals and enthusiasts worldwide. The combined effect of the planet’s stupendous size with the breathtaking beauty of its multi-coloured swirling gas clouds has finally been revealed. It sets the mind racing.

We often use the expression “the eye of the storm” when referring to hurricanes on Earth. Jupiter has storms – and eyes – on a scale never seen on Earth. As mentioned in my 2016 piece, wind speeds in its atmosphere can reach 384 mph (approximately 618 kph). If we zoom in, we can imagine that those eyes are watching the other members of the Solar System, waiting to take action if any should dare to stray out of their assigned orbit …

One person who knows just about everything there is to know about Jupiter is Professor Emma Bunce, Professor of Planetary Plasma Physics at the University of Leicester, who described the inner workings of Jupiter in a recent edition of The Life Scientific on BBC Radio 4. She emphasised the significance of the shape of Juno’s trajectory – an elliptical polar orbit designed to observe Jupiter’s gravity and magnetic fields, atmospheric dynamics and composition, and evolution.

Her scientific studies have been wide-ranging, encompassing the magnetospheres (magnetic fields) of Jupiter, Saturn and Mercury, which each have unique characteristics, as do certain planetary moons. But she was also keen to acknowledge the aesthetic dimension which the mission’s unusual orbit had revealed. Indeed, she suggested a resemblance between the latest photos from Jupiter and the work of Vincent Van Gogh.

I’m sure she was referring to his masterpiece The Starry Night (above), painted 111 years ago this month. Who knows, maybe human artists will one day compete for gallery space with scenes captured by future space missions …



Image credits

Jupiter: NASA
The Starry Night, Vincent van Gogh, 1889: public domain

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Memories of the Apollo II Moon landing

One thing, I think, that isn’t always made completely clear by TV documentaries about the Apollo II mission is the universal (for want of a better term) interest in the event.

Forget blockbuster box sets, World Cup championships and celebrity scandals: the Moon landing had absolutely everyone glued to their TVs and radios. In my student flat in Blackheath, south east London, I remember that my four or five co-habitants, with assorted partners, were furnished with more than adequate amounts of beer and I seem to recall large amounts of curry being involved too. Everyone had followed the mission closely, right from the weeks preceding the launch itself to the take-off, transit and subsequent manoeuverings to arrive at the situation where the Lunar Excursion Module undocked from the Command Module and began its descent.

The best part of the media coverage was hearing Armstrong, Aldrin and Collins communicating directly with Houston – and then on to our TV set! We’d followed the previous Apollo missions too, of course, but this was so much more dangerous and historic. Everyone feared that there would be a disaster. People’s hearts were in their mouths at the more dramatic moments. It was like living through some fantasy novel – but it was really (like, really) happening. Although the transmissions were crackly, we could make out most of what was being said.

We soon recognised the pattern of the data that was being referred to, as the astronauts reported back and NASA controllers responded with instructions, reminders and acknowledgements.

In the last few minutes of the LEM’s descent towards the lunar surface, more of a hush grew in our room, apart from the occasional “What did he say?” or “300 feet …” blurted out by one of my friends. There were two or three instances where communications were briefly lost and we looked round at each other, fearing that the worst had happened. We also heard references to ‘alarms’. Plates of curry were left untouched.

For me and many others, something that put a dampener on proceedings here in the UK was the intrusive commentary provided by the BBC. They were simply unable to recognise that their constant chipping-in with ‘helpful’ snippets of technical explanations was detrimental to the coverage. Sometimes, less is more. Even the silences were interesting. James Burke, lead commentator with famous astronomer Patrick Moore at the time, was on the radio just yesterday, and referred to the way that “Patrick” had an amazing ability to fill in the silences, however long they were. I would say that that wasn’t always necessary, certainly not to the extent that they did it; but more to the point they both often talked over the communications between the astronauts and NASA. They got the balance very wrong.

These unnecessary intrusions were repeated often in subsequent missions and on into the Shuttle program. Eventually, both the BBC and other channels giving live coverage got the message and started to give viewers the option of a plain, direct transmission of the conversations. But I’m sure this lesson will have been forgotten by the time manned missions to Mars get under way (assuming a US mission is first).

Suddenly we were down to two-figure heights … One of the girls in the room began to suggest that it was all a waste of money which could have been spent on feeding the poor in Africa. In terms of timing, this was a less-than-apposite moment to make such political statements, whether she had a point or not (which maybe she did) and she was instantly shouted down.

The actual moment of touchdown was somewhat confusing. “The Eagle has landed” sounds pretty clear, but … that would mean that they were safe. Which was clearly impossible.

Then a slow, dawning realisation that yes, they’d made it.

Wows! were exclaimed, along with a goodly measure of expletives. Cans were cracked open, cold curries were wolfed down and sighs of relief were breathed. Wall-to-wall BBC commentary resumed, blocking out the post-landing exchanges between the crew, the Command Module and the NASA base.

And we had all experienced one of the most exciting moments of our lives.





Video credit: Stephen Slater; image credit: NASA, public domain



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