Slingshot launched in Slingsby!


Watch this space…

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And speaking of space…

After NASA’s shuttle Columbia disaster in February 2003, interest in matters extraterrestrial waned considerably – nothing dramatically new was happening to capture people’s imaginations and, anyway, the funding for such adventures had been drastically cut back. Only the International Space Station (ISS)* remained as something of a constant.

In the last few years, however, space has become news again, even occasionally grabbing the headlines. (And you may have noticed that our own Triangle newsletter, too, has had a stargazing column since early in 2012.) Here are just some of the highlights: the Hubble telescope, the UK’s (failed) Beagle Mars lander, NASA’s Curiosity Mars rover; the Gaia telescope (successor to Hubble and given the mission of cataloguing around a billion of the Milky Way’s stars – still only about 1% of our home galaxy’s total population!), the Chinese moon rover; and this year or next we can expect to see test launches of one or more prototype replacements for NASA’s shuttles, and the first space tourists aboard Richard Branson’s Virgin Galactic.

There has also been significant activity closer to home, with enormous solar flares licking at our Earth’s magnetic field, giving people living as far south as Norfolk and Gloucestershire an unexpected chance to witness the stunning sight of the Aurora borealis. Even TV scheduling has had to acknowledge the exciting events occurring in our own solar back yard and beyond and make way for a plethora of stargazing programmes and documentaries on all the exciting developments taking place in space.

Something else that many people have been getting increasingly obsessed about is the possibility of life beyond our own solar system. With the improved Earth- and satellite-based telescopes available nowadays (like Hubble and Gaia), the search for exoplanets (potentially habitable planets in other solar systems) has been hotting up, and something like 2000 candidates have been identified so far.

But isn’t this quest for ‘estraterrestrials’ really rather pointless? What are the chances of ever being able to have a meaningful conversation with someone on another planet – let alone exchanging visits?

Remember that pair of Voyager spacecraft launched back in 1977? Having between them visited just about every planet and moon along the way, both of them have recently finally left our solar system and are cruising in interstellar space. Consider these statistics (in very round figures): Voyager 1 is travelling at about 18,000 mph; in a year it covers 320 million miles; at that speed it will reach the nearest star to us (Proxima Centauri, over 4 light years away) in something over 104,000 years! But the closest exoplanet that might – but is by no means guaranteed to – be inhabited by animate beings similar to ourselves is Tau Ceti, almost 12 light years away. Bearing in mind that, according to Einstein, the energy required to go faster approaches infinity as you approach the speed of light, we can forget thoughts of holidays even on Proxima Centauri.

What about making a phone call to Tau Ceti? Assuming that – under ideal conditions – the electrical signals generated by your communication system were able to travel at the speed of light, you would need to wait at least 24 years before hearing a tentative reply. And that’s assuming the ‘other party’ didn’t take too long translating what you said into something they could understand. (The Rosetta Stone wasn’t exactly translated overnight, was it?)

So, does it make sense to be spending so much energy and resources on ‘dreaming the impossible dream’? And, in light of the foregoing, will we ever be able to establish for a fact that the dream really is impossible?




*Did you know that you can watch the ISS as it passes overhead? To find out when it can be seen, in which direction to look and how long it will be visible, copy the following and paste it into your Browser’s address bar: