EAS Newsletter for March 2021

Welcome to the March newsletter.

Little did we think that when we decided to produce a newsletter for last April, that we’d still be doing it a year later. Given the Prime Ministers aspirations published yesterday [Monday 22nd February], it looks unlikely that we’ll be back in the Museum before May at the earliest. Even then, I suspect some members may not be willing to attend Kendal Museum for meetings. I also suspect that speakers before the summer will either be unable or unwilling to travel. For example, universities currently have their hands full trying to deliver courses and they will probably not quickly remove the current staff travel ban. Obviously, the Committee will just follow the guidance and we’ll inform you about what is happening through either this august publication or by email.

The recent astronomical news, quite rightly, has been dominated by Mars and the successful Perseverance landing. The landing video, do I need to say more, is extraordinary and well worth watching if you haven’t already seen it. But Perseverance wasn’t the only arrival at Mars as there were orbiters from both the Chinese and UAE too. The Chinese probe has a small rover too. The reason all three arrived at a similar time is simply due to orbital mechanics. More from David on these later.

I guess this is time for my frequent moan at the lack of clear skies in Cumbria… it certainly hasn’t been great this past month with only the odd short break. It was even cloudy at full moon! Mind you, the forecasts haven’t been accurate either as I found two clear nights mid-month [10th & 11th] which weren’t forecast to be – that makes planning and preparation difficult.

Last spring/summer we were rewarded with the first decent naked eye comet for quite some while – Comet NEOWISE C/2020 F3. For some stunning images, including something called the sodium tail, which I admit I’d never heard of, have a look at this link.

Sadly, no more naked eye comets are due for a bit although one, COMET LEONARD C/2021 A1, is possible low in the northern sky during early December. We’ll just have to see.

Don’t forget that at the end of the month, Sunday 28th March, the clocks change as we revert to summer time.

So, keep safe and don’t forget our upcoming meeting on March 4th – with Megan Argo from UCLAN on the Square Kilometre Array.

Clear skies.

SpaceX launch site – Ian Bradley

You’ve probably seen the iconic photographs of the two SpaceX spaceships SN9 and SN10 both sat together on the launchpad prior to the launch of SN9. I thought it might be useful to see the launch site to give a bit more context to David’s excellent reports. The assembly and control centre is a around 3km away from the launch site.

SN9 and SN10 with Starhopper on the right Credit: SpaceX.

They looked quite close together, and although they are quite large at 50m tall and 9m diameter, they do seem quite close to one another and the landing zone. Having seen SN8 have a RUD (Rapid Unscheduled Disassembly or in English, a destructive crash landing) on the failed landing attempt, I wondered at the possibility of the crash debris damaging the other rocket… so I looked for some aerial photos…

The launch complex. Credit: RGV Aerial Photography

To give an idea of scale in the first photograph, the distance from the left-hand edge of the construction site to the wall on the right of the tank farm is approximately 500m so the centre of the landing pad is about 200m from the launch test stands. They really are surprisingly close together. I guess that shows the confidence of SpaceX in their engineering and design. The second image, which must be a slightly earlier image, shows SN9 and SN10 on their launch test stands and the landing pad behind with what I presume is the remaining debris on the pad from SN8. Clearly the pad was damaged by the crash landing and was then undergoing repair

SN9 and SN10 with debris from SN8 on the damaged landing pad behind. Credit: RGV Aerial Photography

Astronomy News – David Glass & Richard Rae


On 9/2/21, the Hope probe from the United Arab Emirates successfully completed its braking manoeuvre and entered the orbit of Mars. The probe will study the upper Martian atmosphere, with the aim of discovering why Mars lost its water around 3 billion years ago and is now so cold and dry. It will look at how particles are being lost from the planet and escape into space and how the upper atmosphere interacts with the atmospheric layers below. The Martian atmosphere is tenuous and much thinner than the atmosphere that we enjoy here on Earth. Initially the UAE programme is destined to last 2 years and we should get some excellent photographs from its advanced Hi-Res camera. The probe was launched by Japan, is managed by the UAE and has collaborations with United States Universities – a truly international effort.

Here is a video (just over a minute long) revealing the rationale behind the mission.

The image below contains more on the probe…

Schematic of the Hope probe (credit: https://www.planetary.org/space-missions/uae-hope)

And here’s one of the first images to be returned from Hope…

full-disc image of Mars from the Hope spacecraft (altitude 24,700km). (Credit: UAESA/MBRSC/LASP/EMM-EXI)

Hope’s research aims build upon NASA`s MAVEN (Mars Atmosphere and Volatile Evolution Mission) mission, which was dedicated to researching the upper atmosphere of Mars and determining the importance of the role a planet’s magnetic field plays in the retention of an atmosphere. Hope, however, will be at a much higher orbit (22,000 – 44,000km) instead of MAVEN`s 4,500 to 150km. MAVEN has been in orbit since 2014, and has painstakingly created a map of electric current systems (interaction of charged particles in the atmosphere and the solar wind). For more details, MAVEN’s home page is here. Some very interesting information on mapping electric currents, and the importance of the planet’s magnetic field in regulating climate and retaining water can be found here (~4 minutes)


Impression of Tianwen-1’s rover after deployment. (credit: CCTV/China National Space Administration)

The Tianwen-1 spacecraft successfully entered the orbit of Mars on 18/2/21. Richard Rae mentioned this ambitious Chinese mission in a talk to EAS last year and you may remember it comprises 3-parts – an orbiter, a lander and a rover. If successfully deployed, this will be an engineering first for remote planetary exploration, whereby the three components are contained within one payload at launch.

Tianwen-1 means “questions to heaven” and China will become the second nation to operate a rover on the planet’s surface. The craft is currently able to collect information on potential landing sites in the Utopia Planitia region. Here is an inspiring video of Tianwen-1 during February`s orbital capture from space.com. The landing containing the rover is expected to occur in May or June of this year. The rover carries scientific payloads to investigate the minerals on the Martian surface as well as a ground penetrating radar to detect ice deposits.

Here is a (1 minute video) representation of how everything should go from space.com. This is a pathfinder mission for the Chinese exploration of Mars as there are plans for future mission to retrieve Martian samples and bring them back to Earth by 2030.


Few of us can have missed the spectacular landing of the new Perseverance rover on Mars on 18/2/21 – or the equally spectacular coverage of the event, and the initial images and videos released afterwards which really highlighted the technology at work. So, I won’t dwell on it here. If you want to watch it again, highlights and video footage released post-landing are here.  Raw images from the rover are coming in, and can be found at here.

A typical shot from the right Mastcam-Z on the Perseverance rover on Mars (credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/ASU

Stuart Atkinson does an excellent job of processing these images to bring out the best in them – check out his Facebook page “Postcards from Perseverance”. 


After the successful test firings of the engines on Starship SN9, we just had to wait until it was launched up to an altitude of a few kilometres and brought safely back. They got part of it right.

SpaceX never seem to announce when tests and launches are going to happen (please put me right if they do!), so the only way to find out is to check with online resources frequently. SpaceX’s Twitter feed can be of use, but it can also be very informative to use Labpadre’s or NASASpaceflight’s live streams on YouTube. I check the LabPadre feeds daily. On 2/2/21 I found that the SN9 launch was imminent, so throughout the afternoon I kept checking, but not a lot seemed to be happening so I parked it. Then by chance I checked the SpaceX twitter feed that evening, and found a live feed with a countdown – 1 minute 30 seconds to go! Here are some of the live images from LabPadre’s Nerdle Cam that I screen grabbed after a panic rush to grab the laptop. The test didn’t quite go to plan…

Launch – looking good!

Five minutes later. Er…should it be coming in on its back?? Nope.

(all images credit: LabPadre)

Fireball from the liquid methane tank, oxygen tank detached and failed separately (right of image). Jet- propelled debris from the non-burning release is apparent – look closely in both images! Something is skating along the ground in the right-hand image.

During the flight, the Twitter live feed showed a large stream of cryogenic vapour coming out of the back of the rocket, which might have been unignited fuel/oxygen/both. Without sufficient engine power and the ability to steer properly, a crash was inevitable.

The only thing to do after an event like that is to try again. SN10 is in position, and is now getting ready to fly. The first test firing of its engines was on 23/2/21, after which one of the engines was replaced. The second test firing was on 25/2/21…  (sound available!).

So, we now wait for readiness to launch of SN10, which hopefully will be soon (but we’ve said that before and it’s taken ages!).

Shortly after the SN9 flight, SN7.2 (a lightweight cryogenic liquid storage tank for use in future Starships was pressure tested on 4/2/21. It did fail (see image), but at least the test will have helped to establish the limits for operation.

SN7.2 under test – large leak is apparent to the right (credit: LabPadre).

Golf on the Moon…

I tried pitch-and-putt once. I declared myself dangerous, and consequently I’ve never developed an interest in golf. However, this is a moment where golf was out of this world. Alan Shepard was commander of the Apollo 14 mission in early February 1971 (50 years ago!), and took with him a specially-designed golf club head that would fit on a lunar sampling tool. On 6/2/71 he took two one-handed shots from the Moon’s surface. The second one apparently went “miles and miles and miles”…

Andy Saunders, an image specialist who specialises in re-mastering Apollo images, has analysed photos and images of the event from the astronauts’ cameras, a camera on the Lunar Module and images from the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter. Features are apparent on the Lunar surface from this classic experiment…

Traces of the golf shots taken on the lunar surface – divots and balls. (credit: NASA/JSC/ASU/Andy Saunders)


Scaled image showing the features and distances for the golf shots. (credit: NASA/JSC/ASU/Andy Saunders).

The maximum distance travelled for the second ball was about 40 yards – and there’s no blaming a gopher that picked up the ball and ran back with it. The challenge for future visitors is to do better!

Celestial Selfies – James Robertson

How many images of the night skies have been taken? Millions probably, adding up everything from backyard astronomers to professional observatories. This article turns this on its head.

The one object we don’t think of imaging at night is Planet Earth, not least because we can’t beyond our terrestrial horizons. Yet humans have launched satellites and probes into the solar system and beyond, bearing cameras. They are our selfie sticks. They photograph us and our world.

This article presents a selection of visually great and also significant images together with their history. It follows on from the February Newsletter where Graham Fell recollected the 2013 photo of Earth taken by Voyager with at least members of EAS waving back at it.

It all started with this, Photo 1, the first image of Earth taken from space, in October 1946. The camera was on board a V2 rocket captured by the Americans from the Germans at the end of WW2. The warhead was replaced with scientific instruments and a 35mm cine camera taking one frame every few seconds.

The photo here was taken from a height of 105km, considerably beating the previous altitude record of 22km in a balloon flight. The camera was destroyed in the crash landing on return but the film survived in a sturdy steel case.

Photo 1: V2 rocket view of Earth from 105km

All image credits are NASA.

At the time the V2 image must have seemed remarkable. Today it looks pretty tame through eyes accustomed to the Hubble Space Telescope images. A more modern equivalent of the V2 cloudscape nevertheless does pack a punch. This shot (Photo 2) from May 2011 of clouds from orbit was the first picture taken of a Space Shuttle attached to the International Space Station and gives a good indication of its scale. It was taken from the Soyuz capsule being used to bring astronauts home. The thin blue envelope of the atmosphere shows clearly at the edge of the planet and the floating structure of the ISS is still novel. We see a lot of images shot from the ISS but not many of the outside detail.

The image was not released for some weeks after being taken. The camera’s SD card was left on board the Soyuz craft. At least they got it back, which is more than they did with the V2s. Sixty-four V2s were launched between 1946 and 1952 taking photos of the Earth. A lot of cameras got trashed.

Photo 2: ISS in orbit over clouds

For something iconic featuring the Earth, we have to go back some decades to the Apollo lunar missions. This image (Photo 3) was taken from the Apollo 8 Moon orbit on Christmas Eve 1968 by astronaut Bill Anders. For many at the time, and even now, the pure beauty of the planet and the contrasting desolation of the lunar surface was a haunting sight. Phases of the Earth are still an unexpected sight too.

Photo 3: Apollo 8 view of Earth

The patterns of clouds on these Apollo images have been compared to those taken on the same date from Earth orbit satellites, identical, in an effort to debunk the claim that the Moon landings were faked in a Hollywood studio. But you can’t convince some people. No doubt the satellite images were all faked as well in Photoshop.

Kennedy said in his 1962 speech that the goal was to land a man on the Moon and return him safely. A lot was riding on this as well as on accomplishing it within the decade as promised.

Photo 4 shows the ascent of the Lunar Module (LM) about to reunite with the Command and Service Module (CSM). It is a photograph that very nearly didn’t get taken. Things had not gone to plan. The connection between the CSM and LM was not fully depressurised and the LM got an extra impetus from escaping air when disconnected. Armstrong reckoned it would send the LM past the planned landing point by 3 miles. Then two alarms registered computer processing overload, the second being a Master Alarm that set off a klaxon. Aldrin later described it as what you got in a Dive, dive, dive scene in a submarine movie (this sort of thing ).

Armstrong switched to manual control at about 500 feet. Although Aldrin was designated Pilot for the LM his role was not to fly it as such but be Chief Engineer. Much of the descent was computer controlled and any human intervention was Armstrong’s job as Commander. The manual controls were on the left side of the LM looking outwards where Armstrong stood, and the LM was too small in any case for the two astronauts to swap places quickly. Armstrong got the LM down with just 18 seconds of fuel to spare, four miles past target, and with the LM sliding several feet sideways on the lunar surface on contact. Renowned for his ultra-coolness in actual emergencies, Armstrong’s heart rate nevertheless doubled to hit 156 per minute by the time the Eagle had landed.

The photo illustrates a key accomplishment of the Apollo 11 astronauts, at a finalising point in the mission – getting there, completing the exploration, getting off the Moon in one piece and preparing to dock with the CSM, with home in sight. It was taken by Michael Collins on the CSM on 21 July 1969. Though not the mission Commander, it was his job to fly the CSM for real rather than Armstrong. Soberingly, he was the pilot trained to be able to return home solo if the other two astronauts were killed outright or stranded on the Moon

Photo 4: Apollo 11 Lunar Module Eagle returns from lunar surface, destination Earth

HG Wells began War of the Worlds with these words: ‘No one would have believed in the last years of the nineteenth century that this world was being watched keenly and closely by intelligences greater than man’s.’[end Quote]

What might the Martians have seen? With the help of an increasingly long selfie stick we now know (Photo 5). This is a milestone image of the Earth, the first taken from the surface of another planet. Curiosity sent it back on 31 January 2014. It provokes the question: Will there ever be a moment when a human born on Mars looks up at a bright star that is Earth, and wonders what it’s like, never having been there?

Photo 5: Earth from the surface of Mars]

The next two selfies were taken on the same day, 29 July 2013, but from different directions. The first image (Photo 6) shows Earth and Moon viewed from Mercury, captured by a Messenger probe looking for moons of Mercury. Pluto is said to be in the field of view, but is far too small to show up. The distorted shapes are due to overexposure. It’s arguably not packing the visual punch of some of the other selfies. But taken from a distance of 98 million km by a robotic spacecraft that got there safely, achieved orbit, took images and successfully transmitted the data back home, it sums up how much a species of tree dwelling primates had evolved to aspire to and then achieve.

Photo 6: Earth and Moon from Mercury Messenger

From the other side of Earth orbit, the Cassini probe imaged us as described in the February ’21 Newsletter. This (Photo 7) is another from the sequence of images, with a close up of the rings and with the Moon recorded as well but not visible here. It was taken from the impressive distance of 1.5 billion km. Carl Sagan, the planetary scientist, populariser of astronomy, cosmologist, pondered on these images and our true significance. He saw them as transcending all our earthly preoccupations, the Earth floating as a speck in an infinite Cosmos. He called it a very small stage in a vast arena.

Photo 7: Earth from Saturn’s rings

Carl Sagan was also involved with the final selfie for this article. Voyager 1 was by this time heading to the fringes of the Solar System. He strongly advocated capturing a view of Earth, from what was a record distance away, at approximately 6.4 billion kilometres. NASA was unsure, concerned that sunlight even at that range might burn out the camera (as had happened on the Apollo 12 mission).

In the end, a wide-angle image of the sun was taken using the darkest on-board camera filter with the shortest possible exposure. The results have been presented by NASA first as a mosaic of the wide angle shot and two narrow angle colour frames (Photo 8), containing Earth and Venus. They are in the correct place in the image and taken using three coloured filters (at less than 1 second exposure each). There doesn’t seem to be a version actually showing the planets. The alternative highly processed version (Photo 9) does show Earth, coincidentally in a shaft of sunlight scattered off the Voyager camera shading.

Photos 8 & 9: Earth from the greatest distance ever.

Carl Sagan made a renowned poetic speech about the blue dot of Earth, so easily masked by a mote of dust on a computer screen. Sagan died in December 1996 but left a recording of his 4-minute speech available here.

This is the concluding line, fitting at a time of pandemic and growing urgency about global warming:

“[This distant image of our tiny world] … to me, it underscores our responsibility to deal more kindly with one another and cherish the pale blue dot, the only home we’ve ever known”

Carl Sagan 1994

Recent Photos

NGC2264, the Cone Nebula and Christmas Tree cluster in the constellation of Monocerous. The Fox Fur Nebula just right of the bright star at the top.

Two-panel mosaic imaged from Kendal over the nights of February 10th & 11th using a Skywatcher 10″ Newtonian, and a QHY163m mono camera with Hα and OIII filters. Total exposure time over 7 hours.

M42 and M43 in Orion with NGC1977, The Running Man Nebula, above..

Two-panel mosaic imaged from Kendal over the nights of January 30th and February 10th using a Skywatcher 10″ Newtonian, and a QHY163m mono camera with Ha and OIII filters. Even with 30 second exposures, the core of M42 is blown out!.