Tag Archives: space exploration

The Red Planet or Blue?

There is water on Mars!

Liquid water for that matter, held just below the surface, if the latest readings from NASA’s Curiosity rover are to be believed.

According to a paper published in Nature, which you can access here, humidity and temperature data collected from a full year of readings on the red planet indicate that the conditions are right for liquid brine to form on the surface of Mars. What’s more, instruments on board Curiosity have reportedly detected liquid water just below the surface, contradicting the previously held belief that temperatures on the red planet were too cold for water to exist outside of solid form.

Has Curiosity found the last remains of once mighty Martian oceans?

These latest findings, which suggest that the soil below the Martian surface is moist with brine (the freezing point of which is significantly lowered due to the high levels of salt), were made by Curiosity as the rover attempts to climb Mount Sharp which lies in the middle of the giant Gale crater, a scar on the Martian surface 154km in diameter which has been home to the intrepid robot explorer since 2012.

Previous images from Curiosity’s camera have indicated the presence of old riverbeds where liquid water once flowed across the red planet and it is known that ice exists in the form of caps at the Martian poles. The existence of liquid water on our closest planetary neighbor however, is an important step forward in our understanding of the origins of life in the solar system, not to mention the search for traces of extra-terrestrial life itself.

NASA’s Curiosity has been scouring the red planet since August 2012

So, should we get out the bunting and prepare to welcome little green men from the red planet to Earth? Not just yet. Even with the presence of liquid water, conditions on Mars remain hostile to life and it is still considered unlikely that there is anything living on the fourth rock from the sun, even below the surface.

In the paraphrased words of Ogilvy the astronomer, the chances of anything coming from Mars are still a million-to-one. But then again, if the late, great Terry Pratchett taught us anything, it’s surely that a million-to-one chances happen nine times out of ten. So a sci-fi nerd can always hope!

Bye bye HMS Thunder Child! Maybe the lack of Martians is a good thing after all.

That’s all for now. TTFN!



Here’s some general geekery for you, two stories from this past week that caught my eye:

Should Computer Scientists Study SF? & Elon Musk Names SpaceX Drone Ships in Honor of Iain M. Banks

The first comes from the Guardian which poses a question raised by Australian scientists concerned that the quest to develop artificial intelligence could be a quest that leads to our own destruction. Obviously this is not a new fear, it has been explored many times in the realm of speculative fiction which, interestingly, is exactly where these researchers suggest computer scientists look for answers, or at least for a little hubris-checking ethical argument.

Among the sf books suggested for inclusion on a new computer science curriculum are The Diamond Age by Neal Stephenson and The Sparrow by Mary Doria Russell, but the Guardian is keen to hear your picks too – as am I. You can find the original article here (link) and add your own thoughts to the comments, but feel free to add them below as well if the fancy takes you.

Highly unlikely but pretty freaking cool-looking AI super soldier, AKA a T800. Should the Terminator films be compulsory viewing for all computer science students?


Second is an article on TOR.COM which reports that innovative entrepreneur, SpaceX CEO and basically real life Tony Stark, Elon Musk has named SpaceX spaceport drone ships in honor of the late and immeasurably great Iain M Banks. Plucking the monikers from Bank’s Culture novels – excellent examples of a brilliantly written science fiction universe run by a huge number of thankfully benevolent AIs – Musk has apparently christened two of his craft after vessels from The Player of Games. 

The Just Read the Instructions and the Of Course I Still Love You are “custom-built ocean platforms designed to accommodate the landing of booster rockets after they have sent spacecraft into orbit” and represent an important leap in the development of commercial space enterprise. I honestly wouldn’t have though it was possible to make these giant autonomous ocean-going spaceport drone ships any cooler than they already are, but by honoring Banks and his wonderful literary creations, Mr Musk just has.

A SpaceX autonomous spaceport drone ship in dock. The Just Read the Instructions, or the Of Course I Still Love You?

You can find the original TOR article here (link) and some more info about SpaceX’s science-fiction-esque endeavors here (link). As for Banks’ Culture novels, well if you can’t find them in your local book shop then it’s not worthy of the title. They should definitely be on the reading list of every Computer scientist – it’ll give them something to aim for – and if you haven’t read them yourself, then they should be on yours too!

That’s all for now folks. Be kind to each other while you still have the chance – come the AI revolution you never know who you’ll end up sharing a cramped and dirty dugout bunker with as you cower at the advance of the machines.



Rosetta: rendezvous with a comet

Unless you have been living under a giant space rock for the last 24 hours, you are probably already aware that yesterday, Wednesday, November 12 2014, the European Space Agency’s Rosetta mission successfully touched down on Comet 67P, the first ever human-made object to land on such a body.

Welcome to a comet: The first ever image from the surface of a comet taken by Rosetta’s lander Philae.

The media response has been staggering and today #CometLanding is still trending on Twitter all over the world. All this public interest, and of levels normally reserved for flashy NASA missions, is partly because Rosetta is an amazing achievement and partly because ESA did such a great job informing their global audience about the extent and potential of the endeavor.

I blogged about the inspiring sci-fi short film ESA released to promote the mission here, and even though I am over a day late, I thought I’d better follow that up with a few pics of the historic landing itself.

You can find out more information about the mission along with links to more pics, videos, Twitter, Facebook, Flickr and so forth at ESA’s official Rosetta portal, here.

The first panoramic image from the surface of a comet showing a 360º view around the point of final touchdown.

The Rosetta mission was launched over a decade ago following eleven years of preparation and planning. Carried into space on an Ariane 5G+ rocket, Europe’s primary expendable launch system, the probe used the gravity of Mars and Earth to propel itself into deep space where it hibernated for two years while it caught up with its target comet.

Awoken in early 2014, Rosetta began collecting information about Comet 67P even before launching the Philae lander, including the first ever recording of a comet’s “voice” – a strange, astral “song” picked up by Rosetta’s Plasma Consortium that you can listen to here.

Image from Rosetta’s camera showing the Philae lander detached, with legs and antennas deployed, heading toward the comet.

After landing, Philae bounced several times and traveled more than a kilometer before finally settling relatively close to the intended touch down site where it will now stay and transmit data until it either runs out of energy or suffers mechanical failure. The lander itself is equipped with an array of sensors designed to answer questions about the presence of water on comets and the role such bodies may have played in the origins of life on Earth.

Philae’s parting image of Rosetta, taken shortly after separation looks for all the world like a still from a science fiction film.

ESA is ‘Europe’s gateway to space’, an intergovernmental organization with twenty member states including France, Germany, Italy, Spain and the UK. As human ambition in space becomes ever grander, missions such as Rosetta are increasingly beyond the scope of single nations and can only be achieved by a pooling of international resources. ESA’s mission, to expand human understanding and exploration of the cosmos, is a powerful and inspiring force for global cooperation, building peace as well as dreams.

So why am I blogging about all of this? Well, aside from the fact that we just witnessed a little bit of history in the making and that missions like Rosetta have the potential to shed light on some of the most fundamental questions surrounding the existence, origins and future of humankind, I believe they can also be the inspirational glue that holds this planet together. Seriously. In a world of increasing wealth disparity, where millions face hunger and disease while an elite few bask in a level of luxury systematical unattainable to the rest, looking to space, to the vastness of the cosmos and the fragility of our place within it, brings a level of perspective that, I believe has potentially healing properties. Also, it’s just freaking cool!

As a writer and a sci-fi nerd this stuff makes my spine tingle. I mean come on people – we have landed a robot on a comet and we have rovers on Mars! We’re living in the future, and what’s so great about all the best, uplifting sci-fi visions of tomorrow? In addition to traveling amongst the stars, to teleportation and warp speed, in the bravest, purest visions of human potential we have built an egalitarian society free of injustice, hunger, war and disease. I know Rosetta will not bring us any of those things, but it is a scientific success born of dreams, and if it inspires any of us just a little bit closer toward some of these lofty ideals, who knows what tomorrow may bring?


Ambition: the film

Howdy readers! I’m back with another post and this time it has nothing to do with Vestigial Tales. {gasp!}

Rather, I wanted to show you this short film by ESA (The European Space Agency) titled Ambition. It’s a rather clever bit of PR for their impressive (not to mention ambitious) Rosetta mission which was launched in 2004 and is currently chasing a comet 494 million kilometers from the Earth.  It’s also a pretty cool bit of sci-fi to boot.

You can watch the film below and find out more about ESA and Rosetta at their website here.

I’ll be back with a more down to earth update soon. TTFN!