Thursday, 14 May 2009

Space

Today was the launch day of the Herschel and Planck satellites (I have as much trouble spelling the word satellite as I do spelling the word disposable!). I followed it on twitter. It's the first time I've followed anything happening that quickly on twitter and the excitement of the teams was very clearly shining through in their tweets during the hour or so from just before launch to first signal from the satellites once in space.

Of course, the satellites have a long way to travel. L2 is a long way from earth, and even travelling at that many kilometres per second, it's going to take a while to get there.

To paraphrase the wonderful Carl Sagan from the opening line of his book "Cosmos"...

"Space is big"

It's enormous. And it's got a lot of stuff in it. No matter which direction you look in, there will be an enormous amount of stuff laid out in front of you. Some of it you can see, and some of it you can't. But that doesn't mean it's not there - simply that it's so far away that your eyes can't quite make it out.

Personally, I find it impossible to think about space without feeling a certain sense of awe. There's so much of it, and so little of it we know about - and even littler of it that we've explored in any detail.

Pluto is, in cosmological terms, really not that far away. It's small, admittedly, but it's only in recent years that we have known what colour the surface is. Even now, we know that there's a darker bit around the middle of Pluto but aren't quite sure what it is.

I guess the whole field holds a certain romantic interest for me. Staring into space is, literally, staring into a great unknown and I find that fascinating. Who knows what new discoveries - in the field of physics, or even biology, lie out there just beyond our reach.

Watching the rocket take the satellites up today is watching an enormous engineering achievement. Making something that big go that fast, and that high, is an achievement of great cost both in terms of the money spent to build - and in the time and brain power spent to design it. But we have gone nowhere in space yet. If the Earth is our home, then we haven't thrown our footballs any further than our own back garden yet - and in terms of where we've walked; we've not even stepped off the patio by the back door.

There probably is other life in the universe. But, when talking on the scale of time and space of the universe, the word "is" doesn't really make sense. There probably was, or will be, life elsewhere in the universe - but if that life ever does send a signal to us, the civilisation which sent it will undoubtedly be long gone before we receive it. They may have sent the telegram, but they are all dead and gone before it arrives - let alone before we have chance to reply.

But maybe I'm being pessimistic. Maybe our understanding of physics is limited, and maybe there are some loopholes in the prevention of faster-than-light travel which we've yet to find but which may already have been cracked and exploited somewhere out there.

I bought a telescope recently. I'm not expecting to see little green men waving at me when I look down it. Nor am I expecting to glimpse the bumper sticker of a spaceship making its retreat after a vacation on Earth. But I am expecting to see Jupiter. And Saturn. And Mars. And for me, that is enough. For now :-)

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