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Category Archives: Space

TODAY (12 July 2011) the gas-giant planet Neptune celebrates its first birthday.

Neptune, the Birthday boy.

The (now) most distant planet in our solar system was officially discovered by German astronomers Johann Gottfried Galle and Heinrich Louis d’Arrest at the Berlin observatory on the night of 23 September 1846.



The pair followed the calculations made by Englishman John Couch Adams and Frenchman Urbain Le Verrier, who had studied the orbit of the then last planet (Uranus) and calculated that another large object nearby was having an effect on the planet’s orbit.

Couch Adams.

Le Verrier.

Following the Anglo-French calculations, the German pair saw Neptune in almost exactly the right place after only an hour of work. This was the first (and now officially only time) that a planet in our solar system was discovered on purpose.

Now exactly 164.79 Earth years later, one Neptunian year has elapsed. The planet is in the very same place that it was discovered all those years ago.

1846 was the year the Texas state government was installed, the Corn Laws were repealed, the Saxophone and sewing machine were patented, the 49th Parallel boarder between America and Canada was established and Pope Pius IX began the longest papacy in history.

Neptune, named after the Roman God of the sea, is famous for having the fastest recorded wind speeds of any planet in the solar system with speeds of 1,200-mph (1,930-kmph) being clocked on the planet’s surface. The record for fastest wind speed recorded on Earth is a meagre 301ish-mph.

The eighth planet is on average 4.5 billion Km (2.8 billion miles) from the Sun, just over 30-times further away from the Sun than the Earth is. This means surface temperatures are as low as -218˚C (-360˚F, 55K).

With a mean radius of 24,622Km Neptune is around four times larger than Earth and is 17-times more massive (even more massive than Uranus) than Earth, despite not having a solid surface – the atmosphere of Neptune is 80% hydrogen, 19% helium and trace amounts of methane.

There are 13 known moons of Neptune, the most well known of which is Triton. Triton was discovered only 17 days after Neptune and is the only large moon in the solar system to orbit its planet backwards (the opposite direction to which the planet rotates). The theory that I believe is correct for why this is, states that Triton was a Kuiper belt object (like Pluto) that strayed too close to Neptune and was captured by its gravitational pull. It has fascinated astronomers for years because it has frozen nitrogen on its surface and is one of the few moons in the solar system to be geologically active.


Unfortunately due to how far away Neptune is from Earth, we have only visited it once. That was back in 1989 when the legendary Voyager 2 spacecraft flew by it and Triton on 25 August 1989, taking the definitive picture of Neptune (above).

Voyager 2 and Neptune.

So happy first birthday Neptune, and what better way is there to celebrate a planet’s birthday than by playing their piece from Holst’s The Planets?

THIS very day 50 years ago (12 April 1961), humanity witnessed what at the time was its greatest achievement. Yuri Alekseyevich Gagarin had just become the first human to travel into space and orbit the Earth in his rocket, Vostok 1.

Yuri Gagarin

Gagarin was born in the village of Klushino near Gzhatsk, Soviet Union (what is now Smolensk Oblast, Russia) to collective farm workers Alexey and Anna Gagarin on 9 March 1934. During the Nazi occupation of the U.S.S.R. the Gagarin house was taken over by a German officer and the family had to live in a small mud hut for 21 months. While his parents worked, young Yuri was raised by his elder sister. His two other siblings were forced into Nazi slave labour in 1943 but survived and returned home after the war.

Gagarin soon became interested in space and the planets, and often dreamt about spaceflight. He joined the Soviet air force and was soon qualified to fly light aircraft. He met his wife, Valentina Goryacheva, while he was earning his pilot’s wings which he got in a MiG-15. He became a Lieutenant just over a month after Sputnik 1 (Soviet) became the first artificial satellite to orbit the Earth and only two days after Laika (again Soviet) became the first animal in space. By 1959 he had risen to the rank of Senior Lieutenant.

One year later Gagarin was chosen along with 19 other pilots to be in the Soviet Space Programme. Spaceflight became one step closer when he was selected to be a member of the Sochi Six, from which the first cosmonauts for the Vostok programme would be chosen. Gagarin made the final two along with Gherman Titov*.

The Soviet Union’s Buzz Aldrin, Gherman Titov.

The pair had both performed well in training and their height (or rather lack of, Gagarin was only 5ft 2in or 157cm tall) meant that they could easily fit into the cramped Vostok capsule. But Gagarin also had the support of his peers. When asked to vote in secret for who they thought should pilot Vostok 1, all but three of the 20 trainee cosmonauts chose Gagarin.

Finally, he was chosen to become the first ever cosmonaut. For his name, immortality beckoned.

On the morning of 12 April 1961, Gagarin and Titov (his backup) were woken at around 5:30am and had breakfast as per normal. The night before after the final pre-flight checks the two of them relaxed like any other men. They listened to music, played pool and talked about their childhoods. They were then transported to the launch site at the Baikonur Cosmodrome (now known as Gagarin’s Start in modern day Kazakhstan). Gagarin himself was extremely calm before take-off while others around him fretted like it was going out of fashion. Just 30 minutes before launch his heart rate was just 64 beats per minute.

Gagarin in Vostok 1.

Vostok 1 launched at 06:07 UTC. “Poyekhali!” or “Off we go!” shouted Gagarin as he headed into the annals of history.

Enjoying the ride?

The single orbit itself lasted 108 minutes with a top speed of 17,400-mph at an altitude of 187.7 miles. During his flight he was promoted to major in the air force. In his post-flight report Gagarin wrote: “The feeling of weightlessness was somewhat unfamiliar compared with Earth conditions. Here, you feel as if you were hanging in a horizontal position in straps. You feel as if you are suspended.” Shortly before re-entry Gagarin calmed the fears of those on the ground by telling Moscow: “I read you well.” But the re-entry was the most dangerous part of the flight. He wasn’t out of the woods yet by any stretch of the imagination.

The Flight plan. Sorry it’s in Russian.

After a slight hic-cup over North Africa (the spacecraft hadn’t separated properly – wires were holding it in one piece) Vostok 1 split in two and Gagarin was left in the capsule experiencing around 8-10g – more than twice what a Formula 1 driver experiences.

At 07:55 UTC and 7km above ground, Gagarin ejected and free-fell until he was 2.5km from the surface when the he opened his parachute. Two schoolgirls described the capsule landing scene: “It was a huge ball, about two or three meters high. It fell, then it bounced and then it fell again. There was a huge hole where it hit the first time.

The capsule after it’s landing.

The capsule is now in the RKK Energiya museum near Moscow.

When Gagarin eventually landed south west of Engels in Saratov, the first people who came across him were a farmer and her daughter. According to Gagarin himself: “When they saw me in my space suit and the parachute dragging alongside as I walked, they started to back away in fear. I told them, don’t be afraid, I am a Soviet like you, who has descended from space and I must find a telephone to call Moscow!

After the flight Gagarin became an international celebrity. He was awarded the title Hero of the Soviet Union (the U.S.S.R.’s highest honour) along with numerous other international awards. He went to many countries around the world to promote the Soviet Union which included: Italy, Germany, Canada, Brazil, Japan, Finland and Great Britain. It is said he fondly remembered his trip to Manchester in particular.

Tragically on 27 March 1968, Gagarin was killed along with his flight instructor Vladimir Seryogin when their MiG-15UTI crashed near the town of Kirzhach. Their ashes were buried in the walls of the Kremlin in Red Square. Very recent declassified documents state that the cause of the crash was the plane being manoeuvred sharply by either Gagarin or Seryogin in order to avoid a weather balloon or entry into cloud cover.

Gagarin is still widely celebrated in Russia to this day. 12 April is both Cosmonautics Day in Russia and Yuri’s Night around the world. Today, the golden anniversary of his flight, events are taking place all over the world, with a 50-gun salute in Moscow. This is just my small tribute to him.

Since his pioneering flight, over 500 men and women from 38 different countries have gone into space. Hopefully one day I’ll join the club (if I can afford it) and if I do I’ll be thinking of Gagarin, and what it must have felt like to be the first man ever to leave our safe little blue world.

*Titov became the second man in space in August 1961 aboard Vostok 2. He was the first person to spend a day in space, sleep in space and suffer from space sickness (motion sickness in space).

Earth is the cradle of humanity, but one cannot remain in the cradle forever.” – Konstantin Tsiolkovsky, Father of rocketry.

AT 00:45 GMT on 18 March 2011, NASA’s MESSENGER (MErcury Surface, Space ENvironment, GEochemistry and Ranging) spacecraft became the first probe to enter into the planet Mercury’s orbit.

An artist’s impression of MESSENGER in Mercury’s orbit.

MESSENGER was launched from Cape Canaveral, Florida, back on 3 August 2004. To finally get into a position to be captured by the smallest planet’s gravity, MESSENGER had to complete no less than six planetary flybys: one of Earth, two of Venus and three of Mercury itself.

During its mission from here on in, MESSENGER will orbit Mercury approx. 730 times, and will capture some spectacular pictures of the planet with orbits on average just 36 million miles (58 million Km) from the Sun.

Because of its close proximity to the Sun, Mercury’s surface temperature can reach over 427˚C, which is hot enough to melt lead. So to cope with these extreme mercury levels (couldn’t resist) MESSENGER has had special heat deflecting shields attached to it. But that’s just when it is facing the Sun. The night side of Mercury has to suffer temperatures of a chilling -183˚C.

MESSENGER is only the second spacecraft to visit the innermost planet. Back in 1974/5, Mariner 10 mapped around 45% of Mercury’s surface. It is now MESSENGER’s job to map the rest. Hopefully we’ll be getting some more great images of Mercury like the one below, which MESSENGER took on a previous flyby.

Meanwhile, deep in the Solar System another NASA probe reached an important milestone. The New Horizons spacecraft crossed the orbit of the planet Uranus on the very same day MESSENGER entered Mercury’s orbit at 22:00 GMT. But unfortunately no pictures could be taken because Uranus was nearly 3.9 billion Km away at the time.

New Horizons is just over five years and two months into its mission to the dwarf planet Pluto, and will be the first probe to reach the ex-planet. On its long voyage across the Solar System, New Horizons crossed Mars’s orbit on 7 April 2006, got a gravitational assist from Jupiter on 28 February 2007 (and took some awesome pictures of the gas-giant and its moons to boot), passed Saturn’s orbit on 8 June 2008, and reached half-distance on 29 December 2009. New Horizons will cross Neptune’s orbit on 24 August 2014.

Pluto will finally be visited on 14 July 2015 at 11:47 UTC at a distance of 13,695 Km. 14 minutes later, New Horizons will flyby Pluto’s three moons: Charon, Hydra and Nix. The probe will then do as Pioneers 10 and 11 and Voyagers 1 and 2 did and leave the Solar System. This is expected to happen in 2029, 99 years after Pluto was discovered.

An artist’s impression of New Horizons’ Pluto flyby.

A day later (19 March) it was the Moon that made the headlines as it made its closest approach to Earth in almost 20 years. The Supermoon appeared about 14% bigger and up to 30% brighter than a normal full moon in the cleat Saturday night sky.

I for one wasn’t going to miss it, and went up into my garden with my plucky digital camera. I go a few pictures, but they are far off being world class. The one below is the one I am most proud of.  I think I set it to black and white, and was quite stunned to find that I had captured some of the detail on the lunar surface.

Eat your heart out Hubble.

And finally, today (23 March 2011) is the tenth anniversary of the deorbit of the Russian space station Mir.

Mir in it’s prime.

After years of service, it became unfeasible for the Russians to fund both it and the International Space Station (ISS). So Mir was brought back down to Earth over Fiji in a fire ball, which as an eight year-old boy I found rather exciting.

One ex-space station.