Looking back: 2001

The 1968 film 2001: A Space Odyssey suggested that we would have extensive space flight in 2001. That turned out not to be the case. What we did get was the September 11 attacks on the USA and the military conflicts which followed. Nevertheless, NASA commemorated the film with the 2001 Mars Odyssey orbiter.

Films of 2000 included the superb The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring, several good animated films (including Monsters, Inc., Shrek, and Hayao Miyazaki’s Spirited Away), the wonderful French film Amélie, some war movies (Enemy at the Gates was good, but Black Hawk Down distorted the book too much for my taste), the first Harry Potter movie, and an award-winning biographical film about the mathematician John Nash.

In books, Connie Willis published Passage, one of my favourite science fiction novels, while Ian Stewart explained some sophisticated mathematics simply in Flatterland.

Saul Kripke (belatedly) received the Rolf Schock Prize in Logic and Philosophy for his work on Kripke semantics, while Ole-Johan Dahl and Kristen Nygaard (also belatedly) received the Turing Award for their work on object-oriented programming languages (both these pioneers of computing died the following year).

The year 2001 also saw the completion of the Cathedral of Saint Gregory the Illuminator in Armenia, which I have sadly never visited.

In this series: 1978, 1980, 1982, 1984, 1987, 1989, 1991, 1994, 2000, 2001, 2004, 2006, 2009.

Zhurong on Mars

For people asking “Where are the pictures of China’s Zhurong rover?” – it’s still early days. Above is a timeline comparison with NASA’s Perseverance. Testing processes take time – Perseverance did not start driving until 15 days after arrival. And apparently Zhurong’s initial uplink speed was only 16 bit/s.

As I understand the schedule, Zhurong will roll off the lander on 22 May, and the rover and lander will photograph each other on 27 May.

Update #1: the Zhurong rover has now established a higher-bandwidth uplink via the Tianwen-1 orbiter, so sending photos taken by the lander is now technically feasible.

Update #2: photographs have now been released (rover on left and view down descent ramp on right):

Current NASA DSN tasking

My visualisation of current NASA Deep Space Network tasking as per eyes.nasa.gov/dsn (click image to zoom). Several Mars orbiters are lending a hand to transfer Perseverance imagery from the Martian surface, while other space science is going on as normal.

The chart is for 2 PM Australian time, with the Sun overhead in Tidbinbilla, Australia, and Mars overhead in the 7 PM evening sky in Goldstone, California. The respective skies looked like this (click to zoom):

Later in the afternoon, as Mars rose in the sky, Tidbinbilla began to share the load of Martian traffic. As Jupiter and the Sun rose over Madrid, MDSCC prepared to take over traffic from Juno.

Mars Perseverance

NASA Mars Perseverance mission (click to zoom): top left: Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter photographs Perseverance descending by parachute, top right: onboard camera photographs Perseverance on final descent by jet-pack, bottom left: onboard camera looks out at Mars, bottom right: artist’s impression of Perseverance on Mars.

NASA’s Mars Perseverance mission, launched last July, landed on Mars yesterday. As well as the Perseverance rover, there is a small robot helicopter called Ingenuity. The landing site was the Jezero crater. We look forward to lots of interesting data, so keep an eye on mars.nasa.gov/mars2020.

Out of the Silent Planet: a book review

Since Mars is on my mind right now…

Out of the Silent Planet (1938) by C. S. Lewis (1996 cover by Kinuko Craft)

C. S. Lewis is famous for the Narnia novels, but more than a decade before they were written, he published Out of the Silent Planet. Lewis was to write two sequels (I have blogged about the last volume, That Hideous Strength). However, Out of the Silent Planet is essentially science fiction, while the sequels are better described as fantasy.

Considered as a work of science fiction, Out of the Silent Planet was a pioneering novel. It followed (and was influenced by) novels by H. G. Wells, David Lindsay, and Olaf Stapledon, but preceded the work of Brian Aldiss, Arthur C. Clarke, and other British science fiction authors of the “Golden Age.” Lewis’s novel was one of the first to sound a cautious note about human colonisation of other planets. In his 1958 essay “Religion and Rocketry,” Lewis describes the rather sad results that human colonisation could have: “We know what our race does to strangers. Man destroys or enslaves every species he can. Civilized man murders, enslaves, cheats, and corrupts savage man. Even inanimate nature he turns into dust bowls and slag-heaps. There are individuals who don’t. But they are not the sort who are likely to be our pioneers in space.

Lewis’s word hnau (sentient being) was borrowed by James Blish in his alien-contact novel A Case of Conscience. In Out of the Silent Planet, Lewis brings colonisation to a halt after three deaths; Ursula K. Le Guin’s novel The Word for World Is Forest is one of many where exploitative colonisation runs its course. Several ideas in the 2009 film Avatar can be traced back to classic novels that were, in turn, ultimately inspired by Lewis.

In Out of the Silent Planet, Lewis introduces not one, but four, sentient species living in harmony with each other: the hrossa (farmers and poets), the séroni (scientists and philosophers), the pfifltriggi (artists, miners, and engineers), and the eldila (angels, essentially).

The scientist Weston actually recommends exterminating the inhabitants of the planet to make room for humans, claiming “Your tribal life with its stone-age weapons and beehive huts, its primitive coracles and elementary social structure, has nothing to compare with our civilization – with our science, medicine and law, our armies, our architecture, our commerce, and our transport system which is rapidly annihilating space and time. Our right to supersede you is the right of the higher over the lower. Life … is greater than any system of morality; her claims are absolute. It is not by tribal taboos and copy-book maxims that she has pursued her relentless march from the amœba to man and from man to civilization.” (this was an idea seriously suggested in the 1920s and 1930s, but one which was perhaps seen for what it was after World War II). The businessman Dick Devine simply wants to exploit the inhabitants for profit. Only the hero, Elwin Ransom, is interested in them for who they are.

Lewis wrote Out of the Silent Planet while a Fellow at Magdalen College, Oxford.

The science in Out of the Silent Planet is surprisingly good, considering that Lewis’s area of expertise was English literature. No doubt Lewis ran his ideas past the scientists at Magdalen College. There are some clangers in Lewis’s discussion of gravity onboard the spacecraft, and he no doubt knew that the theory of Martian canals was obsolete (although Robert A. Heinlein and Ray Bradbury were still using the idea of canals in the 1940s and 1950s). Lewis does an excellent job of explaining the impact of low gravity on Martian life, of pointing out that space is not “dark and cold,” and of describing the need for oxygen on the Martian surface.

He learned from the sorn that he was right in thinking they were near the limits of the breathable. Already on the mountain fringe that borders the harandra and walls the handramit, or in the narrow depression along which their road led them, the air is of Himalayan rarity, ill breathing for a hross, and a few hundred feet higher, on the harandra proper, the true surface of the planet, it admits no life.

Bringing in a specialist linguist (Elwin Ransom) to decipher the Martian language is a neat trick (and one repeated in Poul Anderson’s The High Crusade). Lewis’s friend J. R. R. Tolkien may have been an inspiration for this character.

Lewis’s naming of the planets. Out of the Silent Planet is set on Malacandra (Mars).

Lewis’s special interest was Mediaeval and Renaissance literature. In Out of the Silent Planet he is taking the cosmology of Dante’s great trilogy (see my discussion of the Inferno, Purgatorio, and Paradiso) and putting it through a Copernican Revolution, while retaining the Christian worldview. Naïve correspondences with Dante should be resisted, however, since Lewis was not originally intending to write a trilogy. If one absolutely must draw links, Out of the Silent Planet would probably correspond to the Purgatorio, with its emphasis on permissible vs wrongful desires.

Goodreads rates this ground-breaking novel 3.92. I’m giving it four and a half stars.

4.5 stars
Out of the Silent Planet by C. S. Lewis: 4½ stars

Hope Mars Mission News

MBRSC image of the Emirates Mars Mission Hope orbiter superimposed on an ESA/MPS/OSIRIS true-colour image of Mars

The Emirates Mars Mission Hope orbiter, launched in July last year, is scheduled for Mars orbit insertion on Tuesday 9 February (at 3:42 PM GMT = 9:42 AM Chicago time = 2:42 AM Wed Sydney time). The orbiter has three scientific instruments intended to study different aspects of the Martian atmosphere:

  • The Emirates Mars Infrared Spectrometer (EMIRS) will study the lower atmosphere of Mars at infrared wavelengths, looking for dust, ice particles, etc.
  • The Emirates Exploration Imager (EXI) will study the lower atmosphere of Mars at visible (RGB) and ultraviolet (UV-A/C) wavelengths and will also take pictures of the planet itself.
  • The Emirates Mars Ultraviolet Spectrometer (EMUS) will study gases in the upper atmosphere of Mars.

For updates, see the Hope Mars Mission website and the official Hope Mars Mission social media at        (click on the icons).

Update: Hope Mars orbit insertion was successful.

That Russian Cyberfarm video

This fantastic Russian video by birchpunk has taken the world by storm. I thought I’d collect up some highlights (see also the screenshots below).

  • 0:00, QR code: this goes to the Twitter profile of Dmitry Rogozin, the Director General of Roscosmos.
  • 0:28, Izhevsk Dynamics Corporation: a play on Boston Dynamics, but one of the factories in the city of Izhevsk was responsible for the AK-47.
  • 0:42, We don’t need them: an apparent Back to the Future 2 or 3 reference.
  • 0:44, We suffer from air turbulence: that is what the road sign says.
  • 0:50, Two years by Post of Russia: Russian Post has a reputation for delays, although of course they are justified in this case. The dropping parcels may be a reference to incidents like this one.
  • 1:06, We took it apart for металлолом (scrap): may be a reference to incidents like this one.
  • 1:08, Cyberfolk song: see this subtitled version.
  • 1:38, Poster: the poster shows the face of Dmitry Rogozin and says “Let’s Make the Red Planet Green.”
  • 2:39, РАССАДА ERROR: something is wrong with Nikolay’s seedlings.
  • 2:46, Fractal cucumber: fractals are a real thing, and some strange conjoined cucumbers exist, but this is one of my favourite flights of fancy.
  • 2:58, Genetically modified: this is kombucha, which was popular in Russia long before it became a fad in the West.
  • 3:31, We have Netflix: notice the two moons, this one and that one.
  • 3:45, But network is not so good: I haven’t heard that dial-up modem sound in years.

Oh, and don’t miss the New Year Special sequel.

Mars Close Approach

It is Mars Close Approach again. Check Fourmilab Solar System Live for what the solar system looks like right now (and see the image above). Wolfram Alpha will calculate the distance for you (62,070,000 km right now).

Or check the actual night sky. “The Finger points / At an Eye blood-red,” as Anne McCaffrey wrote in Dragonflight.

Looking back: 2004

In 2004, I was privileged to visit Middle Earth (aka New Zealand) with a colleague and to present the paper “Network Robustness and Graph Topology.” A major event of that year was the landing of the Mars rovers Spirit and Opportunity. Intended to operate for 90 Martian days (92 Earth days), Spirit kept going until 2010 (as xkcd remarked on in the comic above) and Opportunity set a record by operating until 2018. Also in 2004, the Stardust spaceprobe collected some comet dust.

On a more sombre note, 2004 saw the Boxing Day Tsunami. In the field of technology, Facebook and Gmail both launched in 2004, and Vint Cerf and Bob Kahn shared the Turing Award (for having invented the Internet).

This was an excellent year for cinema. Examples from different genres include National Treasure, Troy, Van Helsing, Man on Fire, Hotel Rwanda, The Village, Howl’s Moving Castle, and The Passion of the Christ. I certainly have memories that I treasure.

In this series: 1978, 1980, 1982, 1984, 1989, 1991, 1994, 2000, 2004, 2006.