NASA Administrator Charlie Bolden has told hundreds of young visitors to the Science Museum of his strong belief that extraterrestrial life will be found.
NASA’s Charles Bolden takes questions from students at the Science Museum. Credit: Science Museum.
The Shuttle astronaut, now head of the world’s largest civil space agency, said “we will someday find other forms of life or a form of life, if not in our solar system then in some other”. But in a question and answer session with children from dozens of schools he pointed out that this life was unlikely to match the alien forms the young people may have seen in sci-fi films.
Asked whether he had always dreamed of being an astronaut, Bolden replied that, as a black person growing up in South California, being an astronaut or a pilot (he also served as a naval aviator) simply wasn’t an option and urged all of the young people in the audience to dream big, work hard and not fear failure. “You can do anything you want,” he said.
After taking questions from this enthusiastic audience for an hour, Bolden was thanked by Science Museum Director, Ian Blatchford, who presented the NASA leader with a book about the museum’s forthcoming blockbuster exhibition, Cosmonauts: Birth of the Space Age.
Bolden then moved on to Engineer Your Future, the museum’s interactive exhibition for young people thinking about their futures, which had been transformed into a Sky News studio for the day. There, the eight-strong panel of Hotseat - a collaboration between Sky News and First News that enables young people to interview notable public figures – put Bolden on the spot with a series of searching questions.
Bolden rejected the suggestion that NASA was in danger of falling behind other countries in the fields of technology, space exploration and earth science. ”Nasa is continuing to lead the world” he said, pointing to its partnerships with 120 countries around the world, among them the UK Space Agency. He also insisted that space didn’t need to be a point of conflict between nations, ”as long as we continue to use models like the International Space Station to show that disparate nations who may not agree on everything can in fact work cooperatively in space….I think if there’s anything that deserves a Nobel peace prize, it’s the International Space Station.”
As the father of one of the children in the audience for the NASA Adminstrator’s visit to the museum, I can attest to his inspirational impact on young and old. “That astronaut is awesome,” she told me, the highest compliment from an eight-year-old. His appearance followed a similarly stirring visit to the museum by NASA’s Chief Scientist, Dr Ellen Stofan. We look forward to NASA’s next trip to the U.K.
As Cosmonaut Alexei Leonov celebrates his birthday this week (30 May), Roger Highfield, Director of External Affairs, spent a day with the pioneering cosmonaut for the launch of Cosmonauts: Birth of the Space Age.
With the help of chalk and blackboard, Alexei Leonov recently gave a vivid personal account of the first seventy years of practical cosmonautics, from the birthplace of modern rocket science in Nazi Germany to his first ‘step into the abyss’ and the prospect of asteroid apocalypse.
At an event organised by the Starmus Festival, Leonov was introduced to a celebrity-laden audience in the museum’s IMAX theatre by Director, Ian Blatchford. Earlier that same day Blatchford and Leonov had sat in front of a reproduction of Leonov’s painting of his pioneering spacewalk to announce the most ambitious exhibition in the history of the museum, Cosmonauts: Birth of the Space Age, supported by BP, when many Soviet spacecraft will be gathered together for the first time.
As Mr Blatchford thanked the twice-hero of the Soviet Union, whose character is every bit as bold as his space feats, Sputnik 3, Soyuz and a Lunokhod 2 rover were being lifted through the museum into their temporary home on the first floor. Vostok 6 and Voskhod 1 had arrived the day before, the first wave of around 150 iconic objects that hail from the dawn of space exploration.
Leonov began by recounting Nazi Germany’s attempt ‘to destroy London’ in the Second World War, when modern rocketry was launched with the V-2, the first long-range guided ballistic missile. When the Russian Army entered Peenemünde, among them an expert group including Sergei Korolev, who would come to be known as ‘The Chief Designer’ in the Soviet Union), the Germans had left only 10 minutes earlier. ‘The coffee was still warm’, said Leonov.
The German rocketeers who had already fled included Wernher von Braun, who would become the father of the US Apollo moon programme, and had by then surrendered to the Americans in Austria. Von Braun had wanted to defect to the Americans but later told Leonov that he would have worked for the Soviets too, claiming he wanted to use rocketry for exploration, not murder. ‘He was very sincere, very frank,’ said Leonov, ‘though you may chose not to believe his words because these were weapons, after all.’
The USSR captured a number of V-2s, including one from the marshes of Peenemünde, and German staff. This paved the way for the manufacture of a Soviet duplicate, the R-1. By August 1957, a descendant, the R-7, was capable of launching a satellite into orbit.
The space age dawned with the launch of Sputnik 1, which was ‘just a sphere with a transmitter…beep beep, beep beep,’ said Leonov. ‘That was sufficient for people to get very excited, now we are in an era where there is an artificial object floating in space. This was only the beginning.’
The Soviet Union followed Sputnik by launching the first animal, man and woman into orbit in just six years, feats that will be recorded by the Science Museum’s Cosmonauts exhibition with objects ranging from a dog ejector seat from a sub-orbital rocket to a model of Vostok 1 (Russian for ‘East’), which carried Yuri Gagarin into space, and Valentina Tereshkova’s Vostok-6 descent module.
Alexei Leonov drawing his lecture. Credit: Science Museum.
After chalking the outline of a Vostok, Leonov moved on to the Voskhod (Russian for “sunrise”), which he said was part of a lunar programme that began with a directive in 1962 and was officially sanctioned by the Politburo two years later.
Voskhod 1 launched on October 12, 1964. Even though there was not enough room to wear space suits, or time to develop a launch escape system, it successfully took the first three-man crew into orbit years before the US Apollo’s three-man crews.
Voskhod 2 featured more powerful propulsion, TV and had been adapted to allow Leonov to carry out the first ever spacewalk. The spacecraft carried a ‘genius invention’, he said, an airlock that could be inflated through which a cosmonaut could step into open space. ‘That was me,’ said Leonov.
Earlier, Korolev had told him, ‘as a sailor should know how to swim in open ocean, so a cosmonaut should be able to swim in space.’
But Leonov’s ill-fated mission almost did not take place. An earlier automated unmanned test flight - Voskhod 3KD – had been destroyed after ground controllers sent a sequence of commands that accidentally set off a self-destruct mechanism designed to prevent the craft ending up in enemy hands.
At a meeting in a hotel, Korolev told Leonov he hoped to adapt his Voskhod 2 to complete the unmanned mission to test the airlock and spacesuit. ‘We were set dead against it,’ said Leonov. He protested to The Chief Designer: ‘We have personally worked through 3000 emergency scenarios’, which was greeted, understandably, with scepticism. ‘Yeah, of course you did,’ said Korolev. ‘You are sure to come across the three thousand and first. And, of course, Leonov ‘would know what to do.’
Leonov admitted to the audience that Korolev’s cynicism was well placed. To carry out his spacewalk above the Black Sea, on 18 March 1965, he and his crewmate Pavel Belyayev came across the ‘three thousandth and second and third and fifth and sixth…all of them were not described in any instructions before.’
As Leonov ‘stepped into the abyss’, he was struck by the sound of his own breathing, his heartbeat and a sense of the universe ‘being limitless in time and space’. Given that in the darkness the temperatures plunged to minus 140 deg C and in sunlight rose to 150 deg C his suit was ‘a stroke of genius’ for the way it kept him at a comfortable 20 deg C.
But eight minutes into the spacewalk, he felt that his gloves had expanded so much that he could no longer feel them with his fingers any more. His legs started to shake. Leonov’s spacesuit had by now ballooned in space to an alarming degree. ‘I started feverishly thinking of what I was going to do to re-enter the spacecraft’.
First he had to coil his tether. Every 50 cm dangled a 2.5 cm diameter ring, which he was supposed to hook.’ But he had ‘no support’ and was hanging on by one hand. ‘It was very hard.’
He disobeyed the orders of Korolev – there was no time to wait for a committee to be assembled to deliberate on his predicament – and opened a valve to bleed of some of the suit’s pressure, risking the bends by lowering the pressure beyond the safety limit.
On his back Leonov wore ‘metal tanks with ninety minutes’ worth of oxygen’ but it was clear from his talk that he remained concerned he had not left enough time for the nitrogen from the oxygen/nitrogen mix inside Voskhod to be purged from his blood. ‘There was a danger of nitrogen boiling in my blood and I was feeling this needling sensation in my fingers but I had no choice.’ Fortunately, ‘The feeling went away.’
Instead of entering legs first, as he had trained to do, Leonov went in head first, requiring ‘an awful amount of energy’ to turn around in the confines of the 1.2 m diameter airlock (he measured 1.9 m in his spacesuit). His core body temperature soared by 1.8 °C as he contorted himself. ‘That was the most stressful moment.’ Overall, the spacewalk lasted 12 minutes. By that time, Soviet state radio and television had stopped their live broadcasts.
The mission’s problems were far from over. The descent module’s hatch failed to reseal properly, leading to a slow leak. The craft’s automated systems flooded the craft with oxygen, raising the risk of fire of the kind seen in the Apollo 1 tragedy.
When they turned on their automatic descent systems, the spacecraft did not stop rotating. ‘It was difficult and dangerous to stop.’ Their automatic guidance system had malfunctioned. They asked Korolev for permission to conduct a manual descent, which the craft was not designed to do. ‘It was very similar to driving a car looking out the window from the side.’ From an ‘ancient Soviet radio station’ in Antarctica came permission, along with a note of caution: ‘Be careful.’
‘You know what, let us land in the Red Square, it would be so jolly funny,’ remarked Leonov, who was the mission navigator. Belyayev, commander, replied that they would ‘clip all the stars in the Kremlin so I don’t think we should do it’. Eventually, Voskhod 2 ended up far from the primary landing zone on the steppes of Kazakhstan, in polar forests – taiga – around 180 kilometres from Perm in Siberia. ‘To us, the trees of 30-40 m looked like a manicured lawn.’ Leonov transmitted a call sign with a manual telegraph system – ‘everything is in order’ – but it was greeted by silence.
A gust of cold air entered when they opened the hatch. Belyayev jumped out and ended up neck deep in snow. Leonov was sloshing around knee deep in water in his spacesuit. They stripped in the cold and Leonov wrung out his underwear. ‘Can you imagine this picture – a spacecraft, the taiga, and naked chaps standing next to each other?’
The next day, ‘comrades on skis’ arrived and, after another night and a nine kilometre ski trip, they were picked up by helicopter.
The Soviets had originally planned to orbit the moon in 1967 and had two parallel lunar programmes, one manned and one unmanned (This was a mistake, Leonov conceded). On his blackboard, Leonov drew a Soyuz (Russian for ‘Union’) 7K-L1 ‘Zond’ (‘probe’) spacecraft that was designed to circle the Moon and described how he had even studied the sky in Somalia to decide which stars to use for lunar navigation. ‘Everything was ready.’
Leonov was once the Soviet cosmonaut thought most likely to become the first human on the Moon. But the Soviet lunar programme was starved of resources compared with America’s Apollo programme, the Soviet manned moon-flyby missions lost political momentum and Korolev died in 1966 (‘those who took his place decided this was too risky’). One could sense his frustration when he declared: ‘Six spacecraft orbited the moon without a man on board.’
However, Science Museum visitors will be able to inspect the monumental five metre LK-3 lunar lander, the finest example of its kind, which was designed to take a single cosmonaut to the Moon’s surface.
Lunnyi Korabl (Luna Lander), 1969, at the Moscow Aviation Institute, (engineering model) c. The Moscow Aviation Institute/ Photo: State Museum and Exhibition Center ROSIZO
Leonov counted himself lucky to be part of the Apollo Soyuz mission, when ‘the cold war could become a hot war at any moment.’ Conducted in July 1975, it was the first joint US–Soviet space flight, and the last flight of an Apollo spacecraft. The mission was a symbol of superpower détente. ‘Every day we spoke on Good Morning America,’ said Leonov. He groaned with mock horror, ‘awwww’, acting out the apoplexy of small-town America at the thought of a cosmonaut orbiting overhead.
Leonov went on to talk about how singer Sarah Brightman had cancelled her trip to the International Space Station, mention the Soviet Buran shuttle, which was delayed by discussions about pilots and automated control (the latter won but ‘we lost three years, launched only one and then nobody commissioned it’) and discussions to allow China to dock with the ISS.
He also discussed the greatest threat to humanity, that of asteroid impacts (now marked by Asteroid Day), which demanded the best of human ingenuity and technology in response. In 2008 the Association of Space Explorer’s Committee on Near-Earth Objects and its international Panel on Asteroid Threat Mitigation gave recommendations to the United Nations. ‘So far we have not heard back from them. I think they are waiting for the asteroid to hit them’.
Leonov had before him in the Science Museum IMAX an audience that ranged from amateur space enthusiasts to rock legends Brian May and Rick Wakeman, and the world’s best known scientist, Professor Stephen Hawking, who had recently given a highly publicised tour of the Science Museum. Leonov described him as ‘amazingly courageous’.
Sitting in the front row of the IMAX was the UK’s first astronaut, Helen Sharman, whose Sokol space suit will be shown in Cosmonauts. Leonov described how he had a ‘very moving’ reunion in the museum with ‘little Helen.’ ‘The best pupil I have ever had,’ said Leonov.
Sharman had been selected to travel into space on 25 November 1989 ahead of nearly 13,000 other applicants. She blasted off in 1991. Leonov encouraged her to stand, and the audience showed their appreciation with a round of applause. ‘She had a special energy, special intellect. You should be proud of this person.’
At the end of the event, Leonov was presented an honorary fellowship of the Science Museum by Hawking and the Chairman of the Board of Trustees, Dame Mary Archer. In return, Leonov, who had dined with Hawking earlier that day, presented the Cambridge cosmologist with a portrait he had sketched after lunch. ‘Stephen smiled, hooray,’ a delighted Leonov told the audience, who were also addressed by Alistair Scott, President of the British Interplanetary Society, and astronomer Garik Israelian of the Starmus Festival.
At a celebratory dinner in the museum that night, Leonov gave a speech in Russian (he preferred his mother tongue because, as he cheerfully recounted, he once ended a speech given in English by wishing his audience ‘sex for life’ rather than ‘a successful life.’) Leonov also alluded to the prevailing American bias in museum accounts of space history. He praised the Science Museum for containing the ‘wisdom of the world’ that would be an ‘inspiration and lesson for future generations.’ Finally, he wished Ian Blatchford ‘good luck’ with Cosmonauts: Birth of the Space Age.
Doug Millard, Deputy Keeper of Technology and Engineering, reflects on Orion’s maiden voyage in space and NASA’s first step on the Journey to Mars.
THE ORION spacecraft that could loft humans to Mars in coming decades has made its maiden flight.
The conical craft, which looks Apollo on steroids, was launched on a Delta rocket out of Cape Canaveral in Florida on a short test flight in which it reached a height of 3,600 miles—15 times higher than the International Space Station and the farthest anyone has sent a human-spaceflight capsule since Apollo 17 returned from the Moon in 1972—and orbited the Earth twice.
The craft splashed down in the Pacific Ocean off the coast of Baja California, where it was recovered with help from the US Navy.
The launch marked the first mission of its type for almost half a century and will test key technologies to ensure that Nasa can send astronauts into Earth orbit and beyond – to the Moon, asteroids and ultimately to Mars.
Currently the United States has no operational human-rated space launch system; astronauts are launched to the International Space Station aboard Russian Soyuz rockets.
Engineers installing the heat shield on NASA’s Orion spacecraft prior to its maiden space flight. Orion is similar to the Apollo capsule design but larger, heavier and capable of carrying four astronauts – one more than Apollo could. Image Credit: NASA/Daniel Casper
Orion, built by Lockheed Martin, will be a successor to the Shuttle, which acted as NASA’s human-rated launch system for 30 years but could not go beyond Earth orbit. Nasa administrator Charlie Bolden called the Orion test “a giant day for us.”
The Orion craft it is clearly an enlarged and improved Apollo command module, as on display in the Science Museum (Apollo 10) – the blunt-bodied ballistic capsule the took the first humans to the Moon and which was launched atop of a rocket and, at the end of its mission, hurtled back to Earth for a splash down.
Astronaut Eugene ‘Gene’ Cernan with curator Doug Millard (l) in front of Apollo 10. Cernan was Lunar Module Pilot on the Apollo 10 mission and flew also on Apollo 17 as commander and the last man to walk on the Moon. Credit: Science Museum
Orion’s first manned mission is planned for 2021 – a rendezvous with a captured asteroid as part of a plan to identify, capture and redirect a near-Earth asteroid to a stable orbit around the moon.
The last time Nasa launched a flight of this significance was in November 1967, when it launched the very first Saturn V rocket and with it the Apollo 4 command module on a very similar mission.
That pioneering sixties mission was a great success with both the rocket and spacecraft performing largely to plan. Within a year, Nasa had launched the Apollo 7 mission – the first crewed flight of a command module.
One of the key differences between the two programmes is the rate of development: Apollo had billions of dollars and hundreds of thousands of personnel all working frantically to meet President Kennedy’s commitment of landing a man on the Moon and returning him safely to the Earth before the end of the 1960s.
Orion has no such political underpinning and still less the huge amounts of money Apollo was granted. Progress is and has to be slower, and it may be that a momentum of successive missions will be hard to maintain.
And yet, if humans are to have a future in space such large, state-directed programmes will almost certainly have to continue, even if they are extended over many more years than the decade or so invested in project Apollo.
Roger Highfield, Director of External Affairs, writes about the launch of Asteroid Day at the Science Museum.
Asteroid Day was unveiled last night in the Science Museum, as part of a global news conference lead by Lord Martin Rees, Astronomer Royal and former trustee, and the astrophysicist and Queen guitarist Dr Brian May.
Launching an international awareness day and accompanying declaration the organisers hope to draw more attention to the threat posed by the million or so asteroids in our solar system that have the potential to destroy a city. To date, we have discovered around one per cent, fewer than 10,000.
The event in the museum’s Cosmos and Culture gallery, chaired by organiser Grigorij Richters, was linked to the California Academy of Sciences in San Francisco where astronauts Tom Jones, Ed Lu, and Apollo 9 Astronaut Rusty Schweickart addressed the meeting.
A focus was the release of the “100x Declaration”, read out in the museum by Lord Rees, calling for a 100 fold increase in the detection and monitoring of near Earth asteroids that threaten human populations.
Lord Rees said: “We must make it our mission to find asteroids before they find us.”
“The human race has been living on borrowed time,” added May, who said he was honoured to be in the museum. “Nobody knows when the next big one will hit. It takes just one. We have a huge bridge to cross. But we do have all the technology to avert disaster.”
They urged the adoption of Asteroid Day on June 30, 2015 – the anniversary of the 1908 Tunguska explosion, caused by an impact which destroyed 800 square miles, the equivalent size of a major metropolitan area, in Russia.
The 100x Declaration was signed by more than 100 noted figures from 30 countries, including Richard Dawkins, Anousheh Ansari, Stewart Brand, investors Shervin Pishevar and Steve Jurvetson, Alan Eustace and Peter Norvig of Google, Peter Gabriel, Jane Luu and Jill Tarter.
The declaration was signed by around 40 astronauts and cosmonauts, such as Chris Hadfield and Jim Lovell. “We have the technology to deflect dangerous asteroids through kinetic impactors and gravity tractors but only if we have years of advance warning of their trajectories,” stated Dr Ed Lu, Shuttle astronaut, designer of the gravity tractor and cofounder of the Sentinel Mission, a space-based infrared survey mission to discover and catalogue larger asteroids.
The point, he said, was not to push any one particular technology or project but rather to raise awareness and encourage the discovery of asteroids in any way possible.
Currently, governments around the world spend up to $50 million per year toward this end, and scientists find about 1,000 near earth objects annually, said Lu.
Rusty Schweickart, who with Lu co-founded the B612 Foundation as part of their mission, said the magnitude of the threat dawned in the wake of the pioneering work of Profs Luis and Walter Alvarez, who linked an impact 65 million years ago to the demise of the dinosaurs, and when Comet Shoemaker–Levy 9 broke apart and collided with Jupiter in July 1994. “We need to accelerate the discovery of these objects.”
Roger Highfield, Director of External Affairs at the Science Museum, explores the physics of Hollywood blockbuster Interstellar. Book tickets here to see Interstellar in full 70mm IMAX quality.
Black holes are thought to lie at the heart of most, possibly all, galaxies. So it should come as no surprise that a particularly striking black hole lurks at the heart of the galaxy of Hollywood stars—Matthew McConaughey, Anne Hathaway, Jessica Chastain, Michael Caine, Bill Irwin, Casey Affleck and John Lithgow— in the blockbuster Interstellar.
What is truly remarkable is that Christopher Nolan’s sci-fi epic spins around Gargantua, the most accurate black hole ever simulated, the fruits of a remarkable collaboration between a leading scientist, Kip Thorne, and a team led by Oscar winning visual effects wizard, Paul Franklin, who will help present the film with me in the Science Museum’s IMAX Theatre on Saturday (8 Nov 2014).
Interstellar’s plot, which started out being developed by Nolan’s brother Jonathan, relies on the monster black hole to explore the theme of time dilation, through which clocks can tick at different rates for different characters.
This is an idea that appeals deeply to Nolan. He used it in his mind-bending hit Inception, in which time moved at different speeds depending on the dream state of his characters. The extraordinary computer generated visions of Nolan’s dream worlds would win Franklin an Oscar.
Black holes are so dense that their gravitational pull prevents anything from ever escaping their grasp. At their heart is what physicists call a singularity, a point of effectively infinite density where the existing laws of physics break down (the laws of quantum gravity are thought to take hold in its core but we don’t understand them at all well). Around the black hole space-time itself bends to the point where even light can’t escape.
This extreme bending of space-time means that as you approach a black hole time will slow down noticeably for you relative to the outside world. An astronaut who managed to navigate into the closest orbit around a rapidly-spinning black hole – without falling in – could, in a subjectively short period, view an immensely long time span unfold.
Nolan was adamant that for Interstellar he wanted to explore ‘real possibilities’, not pure fantasy. Enter Kip Thorne, the 74-year-old Feynman Professor of Theoretical Physics Emeritus at Caltech, who was the inspiration for the character played in the movie by Michael Caine.
Thorne is one of the world’s leading experts on general relativity, the theory of gravity that Albert Einstein unveiled almost a century ago, and he once helped Carl Sagan with interstellar travel in his novel and movie Contact. Nolan brought Thorne together with Paul Franklin, along with his 30 strong team at the British visual effects company, Double Negative.
To make Gargantua scientifically plausible, Franklin asked Thorne to provide him with equations that would guide their visual effects software in precisely the way that Einstein’s physics models the real world.‘This is the first time that a movie’s black-hole visualisation started with Einstein’s general relativity equations,’ says Thorne.
Franklin and the Double Negative team, notably Eugénie Von Tunzelmann (CG Supervisor) and Oliver James (Chief Scientist), used a “render farm”, consisting of thousands of computers running in parallel, to trace light beams around the black hole. Some individual frames for the movie took up to 100 hours to create this way and, in all, the movie manipulated an eye-watering 800 terabytes of data.
The resulting Gargantua black hole looks like “a great lens in the sky with a dark heart,” says Franklin. And there is no way better to enjoy this, the most accurate depiction of a black hole created to date, than on one of the handful of 70 millimetre IMAX cinemas in the UK, notably at the Science Museum in London and the National Media Museum in Bradford.
Physics modelled by the film includes one of Einstein’s most famous predictions: that the path of a light beam can be warped by the gravity of a massive object, such as a star. When light from distant bodies passes through the gravitational field of much nearer massive objects, it bends by an effect known as “gravitational lensing,” providing extra magnification akin to a natural telescope and, as Thorne puts it, “image distortion akin to a fun-house warped mirror.”
This modelling of warped space around Gargantua creates a curious, compelling and surprising feature of the gravitational lensing of the star-studded sky along with the simulated accretion disc, the matter swirling into the hole at speeds approaching in the speed of light, which glows brightly.
‘This is the first time that a movie’s black-hole visualisation started with Einstein’s general relativity equations.’
At first they thought that there was a bug in their programming but when it persisted in the Double Negative simulations Thorne became convinced that the unexpectedly complex halo near Gargantua’s shadow was real and not an artefact. He expects at least two papers to emerge from the new details they found lurking in Einstein’s equations: one in the British journal Classical and Quantum Gravity for astrophysicists and one for the computer graphics community.
Thorne’s long term scientific collaborator and friend, Stephen Hawking, has argued that the long-term survival of our species depends on us developing interstellar travel. This is the central theme explored in Interstellar but, of course, to visit another star without spending thousands of years on the journey is not easy.
As one example of the distances involved, it takes light itself some 25,000 years to reach Earth from the gaping maw of the black hole that sits at the heart of our own galaxy, one with a mass of around three or four million times that of the Sun but 30 times smaller than Gargantua.
Physics forbids travel that is faster than the speed of light but might possibly allow for radical shortcuts: wormholes – hypothetical tunnels through space-time – predicted by Einstein’s general theory of relativity that can connect remote parts of the universe.
Their inception dates back decades to 1916 work by Ludwig Flamm at the University of Vienna, and later work in the 1930s by Einstein himself and Nathan Rosen in Princeton. Flamm, Einstein and Rosen discovered a solution of Einstein’s general relativity equations that describes a bridge between two places/times (regions of what scientists call space-time). This so called ‘Einstein-Rosen bridge’ – what we now call a wormhole - could pave the way to the possibility of moving colossal distances across the universe, even time travel.
It turned out that an Einstein-Rosen wormhole could not exist for long enough for light to cross from one part of the universe to the other. In effect, gravity slams this interstellar portal shut. This was a headache when the late astronomer Carl Sagan decided to write a science fiction novel, Contact, to travel from Earth to a point near the star Vega.
In 1985, when the book was in page proof form and Sagan’s attempt at interstellar travel relied on a black hole, he approached Thorne at Caltech, whom he had known since 1970. Indeed, Sagan had even set up Thorne on a blind date with Lynda Obst, who later became the producer of the film Contact (and of Interstellar). Thorne said a wormhole, not a black hole, was what was needed and enlisted the help of his students to work out what flavours of matter and energy would be needed to enable this feat of interstellar travel.
Thorne, Michael Morris and Ulvi Yurtsever speculated that with the help of fluctuations in quantum theory – one aspect of the bizarre theory that governs the subatomic world in terms of probabilities, not certainties – it might be possible to travel between different places and times.
In 1987, they reported that, for a wormhole to be held open, its throat would have to be threaded by some form of exotic matter, or some form of field that, because of quantum fluctuations, could exert negative pressure or negative energy and thus have antigravity associated with it. Thorne suggested that only an advanced civilization could make and maintain a traversable wormhole, “if it is even allowed by the laws of physics.”
At Hawking’s 60th birthday celebrations in Cambridge in 2002, Thorne told me that the laws of physics probably forbid ever collecting enough of exotic matter inside a human-sized wormhole to hold it open, but the final story was not in. There were still researchers studying whether it is possible to stuff enough exotic matter into the maw of a wormhole to maintain its gape – and there still are today.
So wormholes, while likely forbidden by physical laws, are still the subject of serious and respectable scientific study, and hence also of serious science fiction. Thorne has now written a book to accompany Nolan’s movie, The Science of Interstellar, in which he tackles wormholes, black holes and much more. With Interstellar we have another remarkable example, along with Contact and Gravity, of where the dreams and imagination of Hollywood thrive on real science.
See Interstellar in the Science Museum’s IMAX Theatre from 8 November 2014.Book tickets here.
Ulrika Danielsson, Content Coordinator for the Cosmonauts exhibition, reflects on the life of Konstantin Tsiolkovsky, the grandfather of Soviet space travel, 157 years after his birth.
Look closely at this picture from the Russian module of the International Space Station and you will see two images of a man with a white beard. Known as the grandfather of Soviet space travel, this man dreamt of international space stations as early as the 1890s and cosmonauts still pay homage to him today. Born on this day (17 September) in 1857, the man’s name is Konstantin Tsiolkovsky.
Aboard the International Space Station. Credit: NASA
Tsiolkovsky’s contribution to the science of space travel is diverse and astonishing, with his work ranging from robust science to science fiction. Citing the work of Jules Verne as a personal inspiration, Tsiolkovsky believed science fiction was a valuable tool in advancing and popularising serious scientific ideas. Subsequently, Tsiolkovksy himself produced three sci-fi novels, and towards the end of his life acted as technical advisor on the production of the Soviet sci-fi film ‘Cosmic Voyage’ (1936).
Konstantin Tsiolkovsky. Credit: Archive of Russian Academy of Sciences
However, Tsiolkovksy’s prominence in the field of space travel is due to his work on the mathematics and mechanics of how to reach outer space. He famously calculated the possibility of doing so by using liquid-propellant rockets. In addition to developing concepts on launch and orbital dynamics, Tsiolkovksy considered devices that would allow a human being to survive in space, including space suits and space food.
Drawing by Tsiolkovksy for the film ‘Cosmic Voyage’ showing a cosmonaut exiting a rocket via an airlock, 1932. Credit: Archive of Russian Academy of Science
Tsiolkovsky’s achievements are even more extraordinary in light of his circumstances. Growing up in a large family of limited means and suffering from severely impaired hearing after contracting scarlet fever as a child, Tsiolkovsky was self-educated. After a brief period in Moscow where he taught himself mathematics, physics, astronomy and chemistry using public libraries, Tsiolkovsky returned to the provinces to become a school teacher and start a family.
Fleeing a bleak existence, he immersed himself in a world of inventions, struggling to get his work published – he was essentially founding a new field of science – but doggedly self-publishing when possible and gaining local followers intrigued by his ideas of metallic air ships, extra-terrestrial life and the colonization of other planets.
Tsiolkovsky’s work was driven by the idea that space travel would allow the human race to abandon Earth in the face of overpopulation and natural catastrophes, thereby securing the continued existence of humanity. He envisioned a species of super humans, a form of eugenics drawing on the likes of Nietzsche that does not tend to sit comfortably with those eulogizing his life and work in modern times. These super humans would use Earth as a source of energy and raw materials and cosmic evolution would eventually allow them to shed their physical “shells” and develop into energy, becoming immortal and boundless.
Despite receiving minor recognition from the state following the Russian Revolution of 1917, Tsiolkovsky’s situation remained relatively unchanged until he neared the end of his life in the 1930s when he was officially hailed as a hero.
Following the launch of the Soviet space programme in the 1950s, he went on to achieve cult status. To this day, Konstantin Tsiolkovsky remains a key inspirational and spiritual figure in the cosmonautical movement, alongside Chief Designer Sergei Korolev and the first man in space, Yuri Gagarin.
Discover Tsiolkovsky’s story and the dramatic history of the Russian space programme in our new exhibition, Cosmonauts: Birth of the Space Age, opening 18 September 2015.
This week (8 September 2014) marks 70 years since the first V-2 rocket attack on London. Curator Doug Millard reflects on the rocket that helped start the space age.
On 8th September 1944 Professor Jones and his colleague turned suddenly to each other in their Whitehall office and in unison said, ‘That’s the first one’. London had experienced four years of explosions from Luftwaffe bombs so this latest blast was hardly remarkable. But what they had noticed was the second bang following immediately after the first: a double detonation.
For over a year Jones, as Assistant Director of Intelligence (Science) at the Air Ministry, and his team had been assembling evidence for the existence of a new type of German weapon – one quite unlike anything developed before.
The bombs dropped during the blitz had been carried by manned aircraft; more recent attacks came from pilotless planes nicknamed doodlebugs or buzz bombs (on account of their leisurely flight across the sky and the staccato drone they made). Both could be detected on the way to their targets and warnings issued for the populace to seek shelter.
The new weapon gave no such warning: its exploding signalled that it had already arrived. It was a rocket that dropped from the sky at twice the speed of sound: one explosion was the warhead detonating; the other the sonic boom of the rocket’s arrival.
A V-2 rocket on display in the Science Museum’s Making the Modern World gallery. Credit: Science Museum
It had been developed at the Peenemunde research establishment on the Baltic coast line of Germany. Designated the Aggregat 4 or A4, it was the latest in a series of new rockets designed by the German Army. It stood 14 metres high and weighed twelve and a half tonnes. It had a range of over 300 kilometres and touched space as it climbed to a height of 88 kilometres before dropping in a ballistic path on to its target. Joseph Goebbels renamed it Vergeltungswaffe 2 (Vengeance Weapon 2), which was later abbreviated to V-2.
Thousands of V-2s were launched during the war, most aimed at central London. They steered themselves and could not be jammed with radio signals. So even when a rocket’s launch was spotted by allied forces there was nothing that could be done to counter its flight. The V-2 was the harbinger of the Cold War’s missile age and the four minute warning.
A gyrocompass used to guide the flight path of V-2 rockets. Credit: Science Museum / SSPL
The V-2’s guidance was innovatory – it employed a system of gyroscopes that registered any deviation in flight – but by today’s standards the missile’s accuracy was very poor. Most landed kilometres off target. Nevertheless, it was clear to many that this new weapon represented a future of strategic warfare; one in which far more powerful missiles mated to nuclear warheads would cover intercontinental distances on the way to their targets. To others it signalled the dawning of a space age when still bigger rockets would counter the pull of gravity and place satellites in orbits around the Earth.
After the war the Allies acquired the V2 technology and many of the rocket programme’s leading scientists and engineers. The Soviets constructed their own version at the start of a research programme that led eventually their own R-7 rocket which put Sputnik – the world’s first artificial satellite – into orbit.
The Americans took many surplus V-2s along with the rocket programme’s technical director Wernher von Braun. The Redstone rocket that launched the first American into space was von Braun’s derivative of his V-2. Eight years later his massive Saturn V rocket launched astronauts Armstrong, Aldrin and Collins to the Moon.
The missile Jones heard had come down in Chiswick, west London. It killed three people and destroyed a row of houses. Over the next months many more were launched with most falling in south-eastern England and killing thousands of people (a map of V-2 rocket strikes across London and surrounding counties can be seen here). In a grotesque irony the V-2 killed many more in the course of its manufacture by slave labour from the Mittelbau-Dora concentration camp in central Germany.
The final V-2 landed south of London in Orpington on March 27, 1945 killing one person – the last civilian fatality of the war in mainland Britain.
For more information, visit the Science Museum’s Making the Modern World gallery, where a full size V-2 rocket can be seen on display.
On the anniversary of Venera 7’s launch – the first spacecraft to successfully land on Venus – curator Doug Millard reflects on the challenge of exploring other worlds.
Over a 20-year period from the mid-1960s, Soviet scientists and engineers conducted one of the most successful interplanetary exploration programmes ever.
They launched a flotilla of spacecraft far beyond Earth and its Moon. Some failed, but others set a remarkable record of space firsts: first spacecraft to impact another planet, first controlled landing on another planet and the first photographs from its surface. The planet in question was not Mars – it was Venus.
Our knowledge of Venus at the time had been patchy. But as the Soviet probes journeyed down through the Venusian atmosphere it became clear that this planet – named after the Roman goddess of love – was a supremely hostile world. The spacecraft were named Venera (Russian for Venus) and the early probes succumbed to the planet’s immense atmospheric pressure, crushed and distorted as if made of paper.
Venera 3 did make it to the surface – the first craft ever to do so – but was dead by the time it impacted, destroyed by the weight of the air. Venera 4 was also shattered on the way down, but it survived long enough to return the first data from within another planet’s atmosphere. The engineers realised, though, they would have to reinforce still further the spacecraft’s titanium structures and silica-based heat shield.
The information coming in from the Venera probes was supplemented with readings from American spacecraft and ground-based observatories on Earth. Each added to an emerging picture of a hellish planet with temperatures of over 400 °C on the surface and an atmospheric pressure at ground level 90 times greater than Earth’s.
Spacecraft can only be launched towards Venus during a ‘window of opportunity’ that lasts a few days every 19 months. Only then do Earth and Venus’ relative positions in the Solar System allow for a viable mission. The Soviets therefore usually launched a pair of spacecraft at each opportunity. Venera 5 and 6 were launched on 5 and 19 January 1969, both arriving at Venus four months later.
There had not been time to strengthen these spacecraft against the unforgiving atmosphere, so instead the mission designers modified their parachutes so that they would descend faster and reach lower altitudes, sending back new data before their inevitable destruction.
This Venera 7 descent module (engineering model) with parachute lanyards clearly visible, was used for drop tests on Earth in 1970. Credit: Lavochkin Association/Photo: State Museum and Exhibition center, ROSIZO
Launched on 17 August 1970, Venera 7 made it intact to the surface of Venus on 15 December 1970 – the first probe ever to soft land on another planet. Its instruments measured a temperature of 465 °C on the ground. It continued to transmit for 23 minutes before its batteries were exhausted.
Venera 8 carried more scientific instruments which revealed that it had landed in sunlight. It survived for another 50 minutes. Venera 9, the first of a far stronger spacecraft design, touched down on 22 October 1975 and returned the first pictures from the surface of another planet. It too showed sunny conditions – comparable, the scientists reckoned, to a Moscow day in June.
This photograph, the first taken from the surface of another planet, was taken by the camera on board the Venera 9 descent module shortly after it landed on Venus on 25th October, 1975. Credit: NSSDC Photo Library
The surface was shown to be mostly level and made up of flat, irregularly shaped rocks. The camera could see clearly to the horizon – there was no dust in the atmosphere, but its thickness refracted the light, playing tricks and making the horizon appear nearer than it actually was. The clouds were high – about 50 km overhead.
The Soviet Union now had a winning spacecraft design that could withstand the worst that Venus could do. More missions followed, but then in the early 1980s the designers started making plans for the most challenging interplanetary mission ever attempted.
This photograph was taken by the Venera 13 camera using colour filters. It shows the serrated edge of the Venera 13 decent module gripping the soil on the rocky surface of Venus. Credit: NASA History Office
Scientists around the world were keen to send spacecraft to Halley’s Comet, which was returning to ‘our’ part of the Solar System on its 75-year orbit of the Sun. America, Europe and Japan all launched missions, but the Soviets’ pair of Vega spacecraft were the most ambitious, combining as they did a sequence of astonishing manoeuvres, first at Venus and then at Halley’s Comet.
Both craft were international in their own right, with many nations contributing to their array of scientific instruments. They arrived at Venus in June 1985.
Each released a descent probe into the Venusian atmosphere. Part of it released a lander that parachuted down to the surface while the other part deployed a balloon, with a package of scientific instruments suspended underneath that first dropped and then rose through the atmosphere to be carried around the planet by winds blowing at well over 200 miles per hour.
Meanwhile, the main part of each Vega spacecraft continued on past Venus, using the planet’s gravity to slingshot itself towards an encounter with Halley.
A little under a year later both arrived a few million kilometres distant from the comet. Both were battered and damaged by its dust, but their instruments and cameras returned plenty of information on the ancient, icy and primordial heavenly body.
A golden age of Russian planetary exploration had come to an end.
Russia plans to return to Venus, but meanwhile its Vega spacecraft, their instruments long dead, continue to patrol the outer reaches of the Solar System, relics of the nation’s pioneering days of space exploration.
Ulrika Danielsson, Content Coordinator for the Cosmonauts exhibition, reflects on the first woman to travel into space.
On this day (16 June) in 1963, the spacecraft Vostok-6 thundered off into space, joining Vostok-5 in orbit. Shortly afterwards, the commander of Vostok-6 could be heard excitedly calling out over the radio:
“Ya Chaika, Ya Chaika [I am Seagull]! I see the horizon [...] This is the Earth; how beautiful it is. Everything goes well.”
Tereshkova became an instant celebrity as images of her on board Vostok-6 were transmitted to Earth. In fact, due to the mission being shrouded in secrecy, Tereshkova’s own mother only found out about her daughter going to space when seeing the television broadcast.
Returning to Earth after 2 days, 22 hours and 50 minutes in orbit, Tereshkova was feted as a heroine. The mission was not a flawless success but this was hushed up by Soviet leaders who recognised her propaganda value. Joining a small group of flown cosmonauts, Tereshkova soon travelled the world as a cultural ambassador and political spokeswoman.
Within the Soviet Union the cosmonauts were idealised as heroes of a new era that the population should seek to emulate, while abroad they became the public face of the regime. Consequently their schedules were gruelling, and their image and behaviour carefully controlled; private lives ceased to be private.
Tereshkova, fellow Cosmonauts and Russian Premier Nikita Khrushchev on the Lenin mausoleum in Moscow
Like the first man in space, Yuri Gagarin, Tereshkova wanted to fly again but was considered too important as a propaganda tool. Gagarin and Tereshkova’s value partly lay in qualities identified already at their initial selection; both came from modest backgrounds, were diligent students, model workers, politically loyal and personable. They were now celebrated as the communist dream come true.
Tereshkova’s public image differed from Gagarin’s however and was strictly gendered. While Gagarin was portrayed as a military hero in uniform, Tereshkova was shown with immaculate hair and make-up, wearing feminine dresses and high heels. In this way she came to embody the civilian, peaceful aspect of space travel.
In the early 1960s Soviet women were also encouraged to combine good work ethics and political commitment with femininity and a sense of style. Official accounts of Tereshkova consequently tried to reconcile her aptitude for science and technology with being feminine and chic. To quote R.P. Sylvester, “[...] drab was out and Dior was most definitely in”.
Tereshkova and Gagarin, credit: RIA Novosti
While Tereshkova’s accomplishment was held by many as living proof of gender equality under Communism, it soon became apparent that there was a lack of real commitment to continued female participation on the Soviet space program. Not until 1982 would another woman make it into orbit.
Over 50 years after her own space flight, Valentina Tereshkova describes it as the most bright and wonderful experience of her life, and maintains that given the opportunity she would fly into space again.
Julia Attias, a Research Assistant working at the Centre of Human and Aerospace Physiological Sciences (CHAPS), talks about her career in space science for our Beyond Earth festival this weekend.
My name is Julia Attias and I’m a space physiologist. What does that mean? “Physiology” generally refers to the functions and processes of the human body. Space physiology involves the understanding of how the body functions in space, and particularly in an environment that has far less gravity than on Earth. It’s important to know how low gravity environments affect people taking part in space missions.
I became a space physiologist through completing a Masters degree in Space Physiology and Health at Kings College London in September 2012. The course is designed to help us understand the challenges that an astronaut’s body faces both in space and on return to Earth, such as muscle and bone loss, weakening of the cardiovascular system and visual disturbances.
During my masters dissertation, I started to research the “Gravity-Loading Countermeasure Skinsuit” (GLCS), funded by the European Space Agency (ESA). The Skinsuit was designed by a group of aerospace engineers at MIT, with the aim to recreate the same force that the body experiences through Earth’s natural gravitational pull. This way, if the Skinsuit is worn in environments of zero-gravity, the body should be protected from some of the issues mentioned above.
Testing the Skinsuit
I’ve been studying the Skinsuit to see if it really does produce a gravity load similar to Earth’s, and if it could be used in the future alongside exercise activities to keep astronauts fit and keep their heart, muscles and bones strong in space.
Space travel is becoming of increasing interest in the UK, primarily owing to British astronaut Tim Peake, who will be flying to the International Space Station in 2015! During the next year, there will be many discussions about how to keep him healthy while in space.
I’ll be starting a PhD in October 2014 which will involve continuing my research with the Skinsuit to see how it might help tackle issues such as back pain and spinal elongation. This research will combine with other work conducted all over the globe to help keep astronauts like Tim Peake as free of physiological burden as possible for their return to Earth.
Unfortunately I won’t be at the Beyond Earth festival this weekend, because I’ll be testing the Skinsuit with ESA astronaut Thomas Pesquet! We’ll be testing the Skinsuit in a weightless environment (not in space unfortunately!) through a parabolic flight. We will get into an aircraft which descends rapidly, creating up to 22 seconds of weightlessness at a time – it’s a bit like being on a roller coaster. The flight is to test the Skinsuit in a weightless environment – taking off and putting on the suit to ensure the simple things we take for granted on Earth are possible in zero-gravity!