Saturn – Farewell Cassini

Farewell Cassini. You have been wonderful!

On Friday, just ahead of Cassini finally burning up in the atmosphere of Saturn as the probe ended its 13 years orbiting the planet, its rings and its moons, the mission’s Twitter feed sent this.

And so, I did.

The picture above was taken in Zakynthos where I was on holiday. I only had my RX100 III “point and shoot” with me, which only has a 70mm zoom lens. That means that I had no chance of seeing the rings of Saturn. So instead I took a photo of the night sky, looking southwest, and relying on mobile apps to point me in the right direction to see Saturn. There was also a little light pollution from streetlights in the village I was staying in.

You can see Saturn in the lower quarter of the picture, just to the right of the Milky Way, which was nicely visible. The photo was taken in the relatively early evening after the sun had set since Saturn was only visible for a few hours before dipping below the horizon.

The picture below makes it clear exactly where in the image Saturn is.

The rings of Saturn are very viewable for the amateur. I still remember the excitement when I was younger, and my mum borrowed a large telescope from the school she taught in that was going unused. We had it at home for a few months, and seeing the rings of Saturn from my suburban back garden, with all the attendant light pollution, was just the most wonderful thing.

Sadly, I don’t have a telescope today – it’s on the wish list – and I certainly didn’t take one on holiday with me.

But looking up and seeing Saturn was a wonderful thing.

BTW NASA has published a wonderful free eBook containing many of the best images of Saturn and its moons, taken by Cassini over the years. It’s definitely worth a download! All the images within have links to the full size images from NASA’s website, so you can download them and make your own prints if you choose.

Also check out both episodes of The Sky at Night and Horizon on the Cassini mission.

Ada Lovelace and the Cosmonauts

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Come on. Admit it! This sounds like some kind of awesome steampunk mashup – perhaps a graphic novel.

Actually it refers to two different exhibitions currently on display at the Science Museum, and that I’m finally posting about.

Ada Lovelace – the “Enchantress of Number” – was a friend of Charles Babbage and can be regarded as the first computer programmer, having essentially designed the first ever algorithm.

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The Science Museum in London has a small exhibition on at the moment. Unfortunately it’s not at all clearly signposted since it’s not quite on the blockbuster scale of other exhibits so you may need to hunt a little until you find it on the second floor.

There’s a single room dominated by a portrait of the “Enchantress of Numbers” herself, alongside a model of the analytical engine that Babbage built in the hope of building a full sized machine.

The room also includes some of Lovelace’s letters and even a lock of her hair.

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I’m not going to be able to do justice to her here, but she was unquestionably a remarkable women, who’s life was sadly cut short.

A few more photos on Flickr here.

The Science Museum’s blockbuster exhibition right now is their celebration of the Soviet space programme. This is massive display with hundreds of items both small and very very large. Anyone with any interest in space should definitely try to get along if they’ve not already.

What I found incredible was just how small those early spacecraft were, and packed in like sardines the cosmonauts were, having to spend many hours or days in incredibly cramped conditions.

It’s also remarkable that, as we watched Tim Peake head to the International Space Station before Christmas, to think that he was getting there onboard a launch vehicle that’s not massively different from what those earlier space pioneers were travelling in. The Soyuz launch vehicles we see today are recognisably based on the earlier craft. Perhaps that’s not surprising since the physics really hasn’t changed a great deal!

The Cosmonauts continue at the Science Museum until 13 March 2016, while you have a couple more weeks to see Ada Lovelace as that exhibit finishes on 31 March 2016.

Lunar Eclipse


I saw a Tweet yesterday that essentially blamed a continuous stream of “once-in-a-lifetime” astronomical events as all being Brian Cox’s fault. An amusing conceit. I suspect it’s really that we’re a little more aware of our surroundings in the solar system these days.

Anyway, last night was a lunar eclipse that coincided with a so-called supermoon. Although the moon is up to 14% bigger than normal, you’re a better person that I if you can tell the difference.

Unfortunately for us in the UK, the eclipse proper wasn’t due to start until just after 3am on Monday morning. I did look out at around 1am when the eclipse is supposed to become first visible, but it really looked like a normal moon. So I went to sleep, setting my alarm for two hours later.

I managed to sleep through some of the alarm – deep sleep I guess – but I pulled myself out of bed at about 4am, just after the eclipse was greatest. The photo above, and then afterwards, below, represent what I saw.

The moon is actually quite dark during the eclipse. Yes, it turns red, but the reduced light makes it actually quite hard to photograph. I had to boost my ISO quite a bit, but on closer inspection on the computer 6400 ISO was too much noise to easily deal with in Lightroom. On my A77 MKII 3200 ISO was better.

For the record, I was using my Sigma 70-200 2.8 lens, with a 1.4x teleconverter. Add in the fact that I was using a crop-sensor, that means an equivalent of roughly a 420mm lens. That still means plenty of cropping. Exposure lengths were variable, but the best images seemed to come around 1/10 and 1/6 second. Obviously the camera was tripod mounted, and I used manual focus, using focus peaking to determine the infinity setting on my lens.

While I didn’t do anything smart like take a photo of the moon over a mountain range (London is short of mountain ranges), overall I’m pretty happy with things, but the photos could be better.




Gravity-London Film Festival-3


I’ve just seen Alfonso Cuarón’s latest film, Gravity, and, well, just… wow!

It’s a stunning piece of work, and I was just blown away by it on every level.

Fear not – I won’t be spoiling the film in any way, and will say as little about the plot here as I can. Because I deliberately avoided learning anything more than the basic premise in the run up to this film as I thought that I’d enjoy it that much more.

Sandra Bullock is Ryan Stone, a mission specialist on her first trip into space where she is helping fix the Hubble space telescope with astronaut Matt Kowalski (George Clooney). The film opens with an epic single shot in which the camera swoops and dives around the shuttle and space telescope as Kowalski tries out a jetpac and Bullock, along with another astronaut, carry out repairs.

Very quickly we get into the very simple plot of the film. There’s been an accident in orbit with a Russian satellite that has left debris on a collision course with the astronauts. They need to get out now.

From that point on, the film becomes a thrilling, epic and sometimes horrific ride. While it doesn’t quite take place in real time, we follow procedings over a matter of hours as we stay with Stone as she attempts to cope with a situation that tests her to the limit.

I admit that I’ve always had a soft spot for Sandra Bullock, despite her making some decidedly average films over the years. But she’s turned in a superb performance in this – a film she has to carry herself. Clooney is great as the grizzled veteran, telling homespun stories to Ed Harris’s voice in Mission Control, Houston.

This is a film that takes place entirely in space. After the initial set-up, the cast is spartan indeed.

But the story is really only the tip of the iceberg as to why this film works so well.

The visuals are almighty. The technique that they used to CGI a human Sandra Bullock into animated space scenes is exceptional. There is a strong sense of reality – something that’s so hard to do with CGI (and why films like 2001 and Star Wars still stand up with their use of miniatures).

Remarkably, I actually liked the 3D. Yes – on occasion Cuarón does the things-out-of-the-screen things, but actually he uses it very skilfully. When things are spinning out of control, you feel the desperation of the characters trying to get a grasp on the situation.

The camera spins and zooms around with wonderful control. at times in the film, the camera becomes a first person viewpoint, emphasising the claustrophobia of the space craft.

And yet, at no time does it feel like the special effects teams – led by Tim Webber and the team at Framestore in London – is trying to show off. What would it really look like? That seems to have been the watchword. And we’re offered a visual feast throughout.

But perhaps even more important is the sound. It’s extraordinary, and you really need to see this film is a cinema with a fully equipped sound system. Indeed you need to see this film at the cinema fullstop. From the very first scene introduced with a deafening sound, we’re given an extraordinary mix of the sound of silence, effects and Steven Price’s soundtrack – often all at the same time. Even the way the silence of space is captured is remarkable.

The Verge has a great feature on the sound including a terrific 10 minute video that is perhaps worth only watching once you’ve seen the film, although there aren’t really any spoilers within it. It does get heavily into the whole world of object-oriented sound that they used as you get with systems like Dolby Atmos. This is clearly the future of sound.

The film is, at heart, an action thriller, so you need to view the film in that light. And if you look around online, you’ll probably find plenty of criticism of the science. I wouldn’t doubt that for a moment. But I will say that it looks and feels as real as any film set in space that you’ve ever seen. The obvious comparison is Apollo 13 which recreated that infamous mission with as much verisimilitude as it could muster. But you also have to look to the peerless 2001 A Space Odyssey as well as films like Contact or Sunshine, all of which took their science seriously in science fiction stories.

Go and see this film on a big screen with the best available sound system you can find!

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