Humans in Space – What’s Next? Libby Jackson – UK Space Agency

Humans first went into space in 1961, landed on the moon in 1969, and have been continuously living and working on board the International Space Station (ISS) since 2000. But where will we explore next?  This was the question UK Space Agency’s Libby Jackson posed at our lecture meeting this month.

The Moon landings were all about exploration (arguably, actually, they were all about politics!) – and in contrast the activities aboard the ISS are all about science, part of which is to understand the effects of prolonged exposure to space travel on humans. The next phase in space flight is reverting to exploration with visions of trips to the Moon and Mars. But we have enormous problems to overcome.

Propulsion for example. For the Moon missions the Saturn rocket could lift a payload of 40 tons for a two week trip. The ISS is the size of a 5 storey building and took many missions to build it to its present size and functionality, and is constantly being re-stocked. A journey to Mars will take 9 months, then 6 months there waiting for an appropriate planetary alignment before setting off back, and another 9 months to return to Earth. The resources needed for such a trip will require an approach to getting stuff into space some orders of magnitude greater than what we currently have. The advances made by the likes of Elon Musk and his Space X operation may be the way forward here.

Astronauts will need to be protected from solar radiation because unlike us on Earth, protected by the Earth’s magnetic field, they will not have such shielding either during their journey or whilst on Mars itself – Mars has lost its magnetic field, remember. Right now, no technology exists to provide such protection (putting them in a lead spacecraft, for example, is impractical due to the weight).

The physical well-being of astronauts in long terms space flights is beginning to be understood – in short, space travel causes instant ageing (for example Calcium very quickly leaches out of bones under zero gravity resulting in osteoporosis). Solutions to this and to have astronauts who can actually function on arrival at Mars, will need to be devised.

Landing will pose problems too – it’s a sobering thought that half of all Mars missions so far have failed in this regard. Mars has very little in the way of an atmosphere and the problem of opening a parachute in a near vacuum (if this were to be the mechanism chosen) has yet to be solved.

Communications at these distances is lengthy. At maximum Earth-Mars separation for instance it would take a radio message 24 minutes to travel one way. Astronauts on the ISS or even the Moon are accustomed to more or less instant communications. The Apollo 13 mission recovery required constant and immediate dialogue between the stricken spacecraft and Mission Control. A different level of autonomy and self-sufficiency will be needed by the astronauts.

And how would astronauts cope psychologically over a 2 year period eating dried rations and being out of direct communication with friends, family and Mission Control? Simulations of such conditions on Earth have been carried out so at least a partial understanding is being gained here.

Finally, there are ethical, legal and environmental questions which require solutions – bio-protection is an issue even here on Earth when we start exploring the Arctic for instance. Indeed should we even consider going to Mars, risking us contaminating the Red Planet, or even bringing Martian contaminants back to Earth?

It has taken almost 60 years to get to where we are in space exploration from when Yuri Gagarin became the first person to orbit the Earth. Libby Jackson highlighted the formidable gaps in our knowledge and technology to take the next steps in space exploration. Nevertheless she remained upbeat about overcoming them and was optimistic that in her lifetime she would witness humans on Mars.

Sandy

Annual Astro-imaging Exhibition – 6th July 2017

The Society held its annual Astro-imaging Exhibition on 6th July 2017 at Coleshill Village Hall. Its purpose is to encourage and develop astro-imaging skills of WAS members through participation, teaching & sharing of techniques among the membership.

Almost fifty images were shown on screen with each imager giving details of what the picture was, where and how it was taken and what image processing techniques were employed. And what anastonishingly high quality was achieved! – not only by experienced imagers using state-of-the-art CCD cameras and scopes for deep sky targets, but also by members just embarking on the hobby using more modest equipment. Images included aurora, the Moon and Sun, the planets, nebulae and galaxies. The Society can be extremely proud of the standard of the images shown.

We plan to use some of the images to create a 2018 calendar. In the meantime we just await some more clear (and dark) nights to prepare for next year’s exhibition!

Sandy Giles.

Will Gater - "Alien Worlds" Lecture

On Wednesday we were treated to an enthralling lecture by returning speaker, Will Gater. 

Will, an Astrophysics graduate of UCL, is a freelance journalist of astronomy, author of several books and a regular presenter on TV and radio. 
 
Entitled "Alien Worlds: the extraordinary inhabitants of the Milky Way" Will took us on a spectacular tour of the burgeoning field of Exoplanets.  Setting the scene with Ancient Greek and Middle Ages philosophical reflections on the Plurality of Worlds, he took us through the groundbreaking discoveries of exoplanets,  namely those around Pulsar PSR B1257+12 in 1992, detected by investigating radio pulse anomalies, and then those orbiting a main sequence star, 51 Pegasi, identified in 1995 by the radial velocity method.  
 
Will continued to explain in detail the various methods of detection employed,  including the transit method, gravitational micro-lensing and the aforementioned radial velocity "Doppler shift" technique.  The Kepler mission, of course, featured largely and how its astonishing catalogue of discoveries continues despite its severely curtailed capabilities owing to mechanical problems.  
 
Will related the initial shock and still not fully understood nature of exoplanetary systems and their dissimilarity to our own.  The plethora of close orbiting  "hot Jupiters" and "super Earths" and corresponding paucity of systems structured like our Solar System is a distinct puzzle for near-future projects such as the EELT, JWT, TESS and others to try and solve. 
 
Having outlined the caveats in getting too excited about Earth-sized worlds in "Goldilocks Zones" around other stars, Will finished his brilliant (and non-stop!) talk on a fine up-note by presenting  the staggering extrapolated statistics of Earth-sized,  temperate worlds in the Milky Way.  There are probably billions out there,  he concluded, as we applauded another truly excellent evening and speaker at WAS lecture-night.

Mark Cullen

Cosmic Kidz and Stargazing Live

On Sunday 2nd April 2017 Wycombe Astronomical Society held its second Cosmic Kidz event.....an astromomy and science show for families. This year we were able to tie this in with the BBC's Stargazing Live programmes, being broadcast from Australia.

The event started at 2.15pm at a new venue - Amersham School in Amersham. Guests streamed in steadily from the start and this continued throughout the afternoon. It is difficult to estimate numbers but there must have been 130 or so and all were treated to a fun afternoon. Firstly, the sun was shining! This meant that the children and adults could enjoy some solar viewing. Several members had set up their telescopes and solar scopes which allowed for safe viewing of solar prominences and sun spots.

Inside there was a variety of displays and exhibits. We had 5 planetarium shows throughout the afternoon and each one was full. This was run for us by Mark at The Black Hole planetarium and all children and adults came out saying that they had learnt something. There was space food for the children to try - freezedried ice cream and freezedried strawberries. The mint chocolate ice cream was particularly nice! Paul Hill from the European Space Agency put on an excellent show - with explosions and "count downs" and the opportunity to wear a genuine spacesuit. WAS member, 13 year old Rio, gave two excellent talks which were well received and we had an indoor telescope display too.

The children had the opportunity to enter a competition by answering questions related to the show....what is the area in space called in which you have to wear a space suit in order to survive? (The Armstrong Line), Identify the object down the microscope (head louse), How is space food preserved?  (freeze dried) etc. The winning entry won a digital microscope. There was also the prize raffle in which a "GoTo" scope was the first prize and a pair of binoculars the second.

The lovely clear weather continued into the evening which allowed the second part of our event - the Stargazing Live part - to take place. This was just as busy as the daytime event and children and adults were treated to many a fine object. For a lucky few that arrived early the planet Mercury was a real highlight. Jupiter, another big highlight rose later in the evening and this produced the usual wows. M37 a lovely cluster in Auriga, M42 - Orion Nebula, the Moon and other objects were on display throughout the evening.

Huge thanks must go to all members who helped during the day and evening...no matter how big or small a role each member had it was a real team effort that made the event so successful one.

Sarah