Archive for the Science Category

Johnny Mackintosh lands on Mars

Posted in Battle for Earth, Book news, History, Science, Space with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on August 6, 2012 by keithmansfield

This morning at 6.31 am (British Summer Time), Johnny and Clara Mackintosh (and their Old English sheepdog, Bentley) made history: thanks to NASA and its Mars Curiosity rover, they became the first literary heroes to literally land on another world. And all broadcast live in Times Square – wow!

Johnny, Clara and Bentley, lowered to the Martian surface on the back of Curiosity (courtesy JPL)

The descent was scary (I wrote a piece about it for Bookzone4Boys) – even NASA had described it as “seven minutes of terror”. Eventually the Mars Science Laboratory landed by “skycrane” in Gale Crater, a perfect location to examine millions of years of Martian geology in one go. Onboard was a microchip onto which had been etched the names of some of the people of Earth, the very first ambassadors to land on another planet. And among those names were:

  • Johnny Mackintosh
  • Clara Mackintosh
  • Bentley Mackintosh

I confess I’m delighted to say “Keith Mansfield” was also included.

Some great fictional stories have been set on Mars, but the paper or celluloid that tells them remains firmly grounded here on our island Earth. John Carter may have disappointed in cinemas lately, but Edgar Rice Burroughs’ series of “Barsoom” books are classics. A film that brought the red planet properly to life saw the now-Governator of California star as Doug Quaid in Dutch director Paul Verhoeven’s 1990  masterpiece, Total Recall. Why anyone feels the need to remake a movie that was originally so stunning is a mystery, but I’ll reserve judgement until I’ve seen Len Wiseman’s remake.

As a child I grew up reading the late, great Ray Bradbury, whose thoughtful Martian Chronicles helped inspire the stories I’ve written. In the first two Johnny Mackintosh books there are mentions of Mars and Johnny and Clara always intend to go there, yet somehow they never quite get round to it. In Battle for Earth they finally make the trip (I won’t spoil it for future readers by saying whether or not they find Martians).

David Bowie famously sang “Is there life on Mars?” and in a fun Doctor Who tribute, Steven Moffat christened the first fictional human settlement “Bowie Base One”. I’ve written a few pieces on whether or not there’s life of some kind on the red planet over at my Keith Mansfield website.

We’ve always found Martian exploration difficult. On page 3 of Johnny Mackintosh: Battle for Earth we read:

“Johnny and Clara had been planing their first ever visit to Mars, with Johnny telling his sister about all the probes scientists had sent to the red planet, but which had mysteriously failed to arrive.”

and then, a little later on page 61:

“Early space probes had taken intriguing but inconclusive photographs of the Martian surface, showing what were called the Pyramids of Elysium, next to what appeared to be a gigantic human face gazing upward. Johnny had always meant to visit and see for himself. For his part, Alf was curious to hear about the probes that had gone missing, so Johnny repeated the conversation he’d had with Clara, in a little more detail. Given the great expense of space exploration, the failure rate for Mars was unusually high. It wasn’t only Beagle 2 that had bitten the dust as it neared the planet. Over the years, around half the missions launched had failed for one reason or another.”

Of course the “giant face” is no more than an optical illusion, but sometimes you can’t let details like that get in the way of a good story. I first came across the pyramids through Carl Sagan’s Cosmos and these don’t only feature in Johnny Mackintosh – Total Recall also centred around the mysterious “pyramid mine”.

Nowadays we know a huge amount about this near neighbour, not least because there are actually three satellites in permanent orbit around the red planet. In the 1970s we sent the twin Viking landers to search for life (you can see a third in the Smithsonain Air and Space Museum in Washington DC). These tantalized, but also frustrated. Given the track record of previous Mars missions, this one played it relatively safe so the spacecraft set down in what proved rather dull areas – and that’s where they remained. The great thing about Curiosity is that it’s mobile.

Mars rover family portrait showing Sojourner, one of Spirit/Opportunity and then Curiosity (courtesy NASA)

We’ve come a long way in a short space of time with Mars rovers. The first was Sojourner, a little add on to the Pathfinder mission that landed in 1997. It was the size of a remote-controlled child’s toy and could only travel a few metres from the main landing station, getting up close and personal with a few interesting nearby rocks. Sojourner started the ball rolling, and the momentum was magnificently maintained by another pair of twin landers, the Mars Exploration Rovers Spirit and Opportunity, which set down early in 2004.

Mars panorama using composite images from Opportunity, showing the rover’s own tyre tracks (courtesy NASA)

Larger, more independent and mobile, it was hoped these two would function for around 90 days. Spirit lasted fully five years, becoming immobile on 2009 and finally ceasing communication in 2010. Opportunity is still going! These two have shown that we are more than capable, not just of landing on Mars, but traversing its surface.

Curiosity being put through its paces on Earth (courtesy of JPL)

Curiosity is in a different league altogether. Weighing nearly a tonne, it’s around the size of a small car. It doesn’t move quite as fast, travelling at what’s almost literally a snail’s pace, but wherever it goes, Johnny, Clara and Bentley will go with it. I hope they and I are able to move across the surface of this faraway world for many years to come.

Buy the first book in the series, Johnny Mackintosh and the Spirit of London.

Buy the third book in the series, Johnny Mackintosh: Battle for Earth in which Johnny and Clara visit Mars.

Influences on Johnny Mackintosh: The Flipside of Dominick Hide

Posted in Influences, Science, television with tags , , , , , , , , , on August 28, 2011 by keithmansfield

When you’re a writer you have a whole lifetime of experiences to draw upon that can go into your creations. Some things stick with you. When I was fifteen I watched a Play for Today (a great vehicle for writers to get onto television at that time) called The Flipside of Dominick Hide. Dominick (played by Peter Firth, nowadays known better as Harry Pearce in Spooks) was from the future but had travelled back to our time searching for a distant ancestor. Early on in the show he’s in a bar when someone asks his name. Not wanting to give himself away, he looks at the bottles behind the counter and chooses “Gilbey”, a brand of gin.

So now you know where Mr Wilkins, the cook at Johnny Mackintosh’s children’s home, gets his own hilarious first name from but you’ll have to read Battle for Earth to find out why.

I presume it’s not just me but many writers who sprinkle their creations with little homages to things they’ve enjoyed or have had an effect on them. The show had a great time travelling story arc where the future affects the past every bit as much as the other way around. After all, it was the great American physicist Richard Feynman who pointed out that an electron can simply be viewed as a positron (the antimatter equivalent of an electron) but travelling backwards in time, something I think is an incredibly deep observation – if only I could work out what it meant!

One of the arguments against being able to travel into the past is the so-called grandparents paradox: if you were able to do it and you killed your own grandparents, you could never have been born to travel back into the past to do it. While I’m very sceptical about time travel in the backwards direction (of course we know how to go forwards) this particular argument holds no water at all. It’s a fallacy brought about by our limited three-dimensional perspective of the universe. if instead we think about four-dimensional space-time as one continuous present, then the paradox vanishes. An interesting twist on it in Dominick Hide is that the title character sets out searching for his great great grandfather and ends up becoming him!

Influences on Johnny Mackintosh: Carl Sagan

Posted in Influences, Science, Space, television, Writers with tags , , , , , , , , , on August 24, 2011 by keithmansfield

The very first episode of Cosmos should have hooked anybody:

“We will encounter galaxies and suns and planets, life and consciousness coming into being, evolving and perishing. Worlds of ice and stars of diamond, atoms as massive as suns and universes smaller than atoms … The surface of the Earth is the shore of the cosmic ocean. From it, we have learned most of what we know. Recently, we have waded a little out to sea, enough to dampen out toes or, at most, wet our ankles. The water seems inviting. The ocean calls. Some part of our being knows this is from where we came. We long to return.”

Here was a scientist who was also a poet – a slightly cheesy poet maybe, but definitely a great communicator of “awesome” ideas.

Cosmos was a TV series first transmitted in the UK at the start of the 1980s. Sagan’s definition was “The Cosmos is all that is or was or ever will be” so it had quite a wide remit. In the show, the American professor traversed the Cosmos in his “spaceship of the imagination”, a dandelion seed that he would blow on – the next moment he was inside, hair streaming in a non-existent breeze, hands waving over multi-coloured controls while he quoted from the Encyclopedia Gallactica. In this remarkable vessel Sagan traversed the universe, past and present. Readers of Johnny Mackintosh should recognize elements of this description and understand that Emperor Bram Khari bears a striking resemblance to the cosmologist from Cornell.

I always felt meeting Sagan was a highlight of my time at Cambridge University. He came to give a talk on the new theory of nuclear winter, the idea of which had come out of studying volcanoes on Mars. Afterwards I spoke to him and he signed by (battered) copy of Cosmos that I’d taken along.

When Brian Cox first started doing his Wonders of the Solar System TV  programme I was determined not to like it because I thought nothing could compete with Cosmos, but I quickly changed my mind when I saw how superbly put together Wonders was – not another dumbed down trite computer-graphics-laden programme but something of real substance, and I could see Sagan’s influence shining through. I first met Cox at the Royal Society and we talked about our shared love of Cosmos. Later, in the second series of Wonders, I found it funny  to see that the Manchester and CERN professor had carried his battered copy of Cosmos on location and referred to the photograph of the Anasazi rock painting, possibly depicting the supernova of 1054, that he’d first seen on this wonderful TV series from the 1980s.

Sagan didn’t only write and present nonfiction – though we should remember his fact was often far more extraordinary than most made-up traveller’s tales. If you ever saw the Jodie Foster movie Contact, it was based on a Sagan book of the same name. As is almost always the case, the book’s much better than the film, and a brilliant combination of science, faith, dreams and aliens to the extent I always thought it was the story I wished I could have written myself. But in many ways Johnny Mackintosh covers all these themes.

A final note is that Sagan and then wife Linda Salzman Sagan actually designed the plaque that went on the side of Pioneer 10, one of the early robotic probes. In some ways it’s unfortunate that it contains a map, using pulsars, showing where the probe was sent from (ie where to go if you wanted to wipe humanity out). Nowadays I think we’d want to be more careful about advertising out presence, but there’s very little we can do as the cat’s already out of the bag. Ever since the invention of radio and then television we’ve been broadcasting into space at the speed of light, so there’s now a bubble a hundred light years in diameter around the Sun to tell ET where we are, and no way to turn it off. Once someone, somewhere on a planet orbiting a distant star, watches an episode of Cosmos and decides to pay us a visit, let’s just hope they’re friendly.

12. Star Blaze

Posted in 12 Days of Johnny Mackintosh, Science, Space, star blaze with tags , , , , , , , , on January 6, 2010 by keithmansfield

“Johnny knew … he had the best seat in the house to watch the greatest explosion in the history of the solar system.” p. 309

Credit: NASA/CXC/M.Weiss

First there was the big bang. By definition, nothing can match the initial outpouring of energy that we believe created the universe, but even today there are some pretty cataclysmic explosions. A supernova (the Star Blaze of the new book) happens when a large star reaches the end of its life. Stars fight a constant battle, the outward pressure from the nuclear reactions at their hearts counterbalancing the gravitational collapse due to all that matter being in one place. When the nuclear fuel runs out, there can be only one winner.

In that moment, the light from a single star outshines the rest of the galaxy that contains it. When you realize our own Milky Way contains at least 100 billion suns, we begin to understand just how bright and powerful a supernova really is. The image here is an artist’s vision of a supernova, based on Chandra X-Ray Telescope observations. Subramanian Chandrasekhar, who did more than anyone to enhance our understanding of stars and black holes, was one of the greatest scientists of last century. The telescope’s named after him, and I’m honoured that he called me his friend. At the start of Johnny Mackintosh: Star Blaze, I give the great man a name check.

It’s because of Chandra that we know our own Sun won’t, at some future stage, become a supernova, as its mass is less than the Chandrasekhar Limit. It’s also because of him that we know we can treat some supernovae as “standard candles”, which help us measure the scale of the universe. And it’s because of these yardsticks that we’ve recently discovered that the rate of expansion of the universe is speeding up rather than slowing down, accelerated by something called dark energy, the same force that powers the Spirit of London’s engines.

Although a supernova marks the death of a particular star, it’s part of the continual process of rebirth in the universe. None of us – not even Earth itself – could exist without the first stars exploding. We’re all made of different types of atoms, the basic elemental building blocks of the universe. The big bang only produced the two lightest elements, hydrogen and helium, with a minuscule amount of lithium (the next one up). All the other, heavier elements have had to be made since and the place they are created is in the heart of stars. Only when those stars die, becoming supernovae, can those atoms be spread across space and come together to form such things as people and planets. Carl Sagan first said, “We are all made of starstuff.”

Today marks the end of the Twelve Days of Johnny Mackintosh, but only because tomorrow sees a new birth.

11. Titan

Posted in 12 Days of Johnny Mackintosh, Science, Space, star blaze with tags , , , , , , , on January 5, 2010 by keithmansfield

“He landed on a rocky outcrop which looked out across a vast … plane.” p. 292

Credit: NASA/JPL/Michael Carroll

Only two days of Johnny Mackintosh to go. I’ve jumped to much further on in the book, taking us to Titan, Saturn’s largest moon and the most planet-like of all the solar system’s satellites. Apart from Earth, it’s the only other body we’ve found that has permanent liquid features on its surface – oceans, lakes and rivers. Only, on Titan, the surface liquid is thought to be complex hydrocarbons.

We know a reasonable amount about it because it’s the body furthest from Earth on which a spaceship has landed. On 14 January 2005, the Huygens probe (carried by its mother ship Cassini) descended through the moon’s thick orange atmosphere and touched down safely on Titan’s surface. The joint ESA/NASA/ASI mission (ASI is the Italian space agency) was an amazing feet, and there’s a rather odd video of the descent at the NASA site. It’s like watching the landing through a fish-eye lens and only really comes into its own towards the end of the movie, but worth sticking with it. It’s a shame that the probe wasn’t able to carry a more regular camera so everyone could have been captivated by extraordinary pictures from the surface of another world.

Titan’s unique as the only moon in the solar system with a notable atmosphere. It’s so thick that, with the lower gravity, humans could strap on wings and fly through the air, soaring over the plains like the one above. I started the Twelve Days of Johnny Mackintosh by saying the first place I’d visit, if I had my own spaceship, would be Saturn, but I’m sure I could take some time out from the majestic rings to have a bit of a play on the solar system’s second-largest moon.

It’s the final day of Johnny Mackintosh tomorrow and we’re going out with a bit of a bang.

7. Solar Sails

Posted in 12 Days of Johnny Mackintosh, Science, Space, star blaze with tags , , , , , , , , , , , on January 1, 2010 by keithmansfield

“scientists think you can fly a spaceship with the stellar wind, the particles a star gives off when it shines. If the sail’s big and light enough.” p. 83

Credit: Rick Sternbach, The Planetary Society

Happy New Year!

One of the biggest difficulties in spaceship propulsion is having to carry your fuel on board. The more mass your ship has, the more energy it needs to accelerate to faster and faster speeds. Scientists have come up with an ingenious solution – not carrying any fuel. Instead, a solar sailing ship has been proposed to surf the currents between the stars. When the Sun shines, it gives off a steady stream of subatomic particles called the stellar wind. Individually these are insignificant, but add up all their effects and they can become quite sizable.

When solar sails were first mooted, it was thought that this “radiation” pressure might be enough to fly a ship on its own. Nowadays, scientists calculate that we have to give a solar sailing ship a helping hand by firing lasers into the sail to push it along. The Planetary Society have been at the forefront of solar sail research and launched Cosmos 1 back in 2005 to demonstrate the theory. Sadly, a rocket failure meant the first ever space-bound sailing ship never reached orbit.

Undeterred, Lightsail is a new initiative from the same organization – they plan to launch the first prototype before the end of 2010 (and you can even send your name or a message into space with it). Lightsail 1 will be restricted to flights in Earth orbit, but ships 2 and 3 will be more ambitious.

I first came across the concept of solar sails in Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle’s 1974 novel The Mote in God’s Eye. Nowadays, I remember little else about the book, but think it was trying to use the same “science in fiction” approach that I’ve attempted with Johnny Mackintosh. After you’ve all read Star Blaze and while you’re twiddling your thumbs waiting for me to finish the third instalment, you may want to take a look at it. Jerry Pournelle also wrote A Step Further Out, which was a manifesto for investing in space travel.

Tomorrow we’re taking one of those steps, travelling to a star in the constellation of Orion the Hunter.

5. Carina Nebula

Posted in 12 Days of Johnny Mackintosh, Science, Space, star blaze with tags , , , , , , , , on December 30, 2009 by keithmansfield

“move the First Fleet to the Keyhole Nebula . . . and the Third Fleet behind the great star Carinae itself”, p.70

Credit: NASA, Hubble Heritage Team (AURA/STScI)

For day five of Johnny Mackintosh, I’m giving you an amazing photo from the Hubble Space Telescope. My hope is that it shows the enigmatic star, Eta Carinae and the Keyhole Nebula, all embedded within the wider Carina Nebula. Sadly I’m forced to confess that, unlike Johnny, I haven’t seen it close to so am not quite sure what’s meant to be where! The Hubble Heritage Team has a separate labelled map that looks a little different, so you might try to superimpose one over the other.

The Ancient Greeks called the stars “fixed” (while the word planet means “wanderer”), but the heavens aren’t always as unchanging as they believed. Eta Carinae is classed as a hypergiant, about the biggest star there is – around a hundred times bigger than our own Sun. Its behaviour is unusual for how quickly it changes .

We should be grateful that astronomers have left meticulous records of their observations for hundreds of years. In 1677, Edmund Halley (who the comet is named after) classified Eta Carinae as “fourth magnitude”. Fifty years on, astronomers were surprised to record it as much brighter than this – perhaps Halley had made a mistake?

Yet, over the next fifty years, the star dimmed back down to where Halley had categorized it. Then, in the early 1840s, Eta Carina flared suddenly to become the second brightest star in the sky after Sirius, despite being a thousand times further away – scientists wondered if they were watching a supernova, the great explosion when a star tears itself apart. Yet the star remains in place. It quickly faded and by the start of the twentieth century had become invisible to the naked eye.

Late in 1997 Eta Carinae brightened again, so we can now see it without the aid of telescopes. There are only a very few stars in all the Milky Way of comparable size and there’s a rule – the bigger the star, the faster it burns its fuel. This means there’s a chance this giant is near the very end of its life, so we think it is one of the best candidates for a supernova in our galaxy in the near future.

Tomorrow we’re travelling back in time, to the early nineteenth century. It’s one of my favourite sections of the book.

4. The Sun

Posted in 12 Days of Johnny Mackintosh, Science, Space, star blaze with tags , , on December 29, 2009 by keithmansfield

“A bloated star was in its death throes, having finally run out of usable fuel to keep shining … The commentary told Johnny he was watching Earth’s own Sun, somehow altered.” p. 24

Credit: EIT/SOHO Consortium, ESA/NASA

We’re a third of the way through the twelve days of Johnny Mackintosh and hitting the meat of the story – far more appetizing than those cold turkey sandwiches you’ve been eating. When my editor suggested “star blaze” to me for a title, this is the image that instantly sprang to mind. For me it simply oozes astonishing power and energy. Even though space is a vacuum that sound wave can’t cross, when I look at this I imagine a deep rumble that hasn’t stopped for five billion years and won’t for another five billion – all being well.

This raging furnace is our Sun. There’s a huge solar flare shooting out from the bottom left-hand corner. The Sun has an eleven year heartbeat, that we don’t understand but which means that the magnetic activity on its surface goes through eleven year cycles. In two to three years we’ll reach a maximum where big flares such as this will be more common, the aurora (the Northern and Southern Lights) will be become more spectacular and visible to more people and there may be times when your mobile phone stops working because of the effect on satellites in orbit. What this picture reminds me of is the incredible power of nature – of the awesome star blaze.

Tomorrow we’re taking several steps further out…

3. International Space Station

Posted in 12 Days of Johnny Mackintosh, Science, Space, star blaze with tags , , , , on December 28, 2009 by keithmansfield

“Three hundred and forty kilometres above Earth, they passed the space station windows so close that they could see the astronauts inside.” p. 9

Credit: ESA/NASA

It’s the third day of Johnny Mackintosh. If I had countless millions of pounds, I would spend around £15m of them on a trip to the International Space Station.

Several people have done this and Charles Simonyi has even been twice. He donated money to Oxford University where I work so we could have a Professor for the Public Understanding of Science. For a while this was Rickard Dawkins who wrote The Selfish Gene and The God Delusion. Nowadays it’s the mathematician Marcus du Sautoy. I went to his inaugural lecture in November and we chatted about football and space afterwards, making me think that Marcus would probably like Johnny Mackintosh.

The ISS is in what we call low Earth orbit, at an altitude of around 340 km (that’s just over 200 miles). When I was growing up, for a while the Americans had Skylab and then the Russians broke all sorts of records with Mir. From space, Earth has no borders and it’s great that a cooperative, international approach is being taken to much space exploration. If you want to see the space station, as it crosses the night sky, it’s easy. NASA have an applet at their Human Space Flight website which will tell you when the ISS will be visible, wherever you are in the world.

Tomorrow we’re off to the very heart of the solar system.

Real Life in Space

Posted in Science, Space with tags , , , , , , , , on July 29, 2008 by keithmansfield

“The others followed suit . . . sliding down into what looked like a chaotic junkyard, about the size of a school gym. Johnny wondered if he was ever going to see the type of gleaming hi-tech spaceship he’d always imagined.”

JM&tSoL, p.81

When we watch science fiction films or TV shows, spaceships are normally spotlessly clean and tidy. The Discovery One of Kubrick/Clarke’s 2001: A Space Odyssey would be the perfect pristine example if it weren’t for the mess going on inside computer HAL’s brain. From James Tiberius Kirk’s starship Enterprise through to Roj Blake’s Liberator, once we leave the shackles of Earth it seems nothing is ever the slightest bit out of place (even in zero G).

In real life things are seldom like that. I hate to disappoint any parents reading this, but I have to tell you that Johnny’s quarters on the Spirit of London are just as untidy as his bedroom back in Halader House.

At the UK’s National Space Centre in Leicester, there’s a mockup of one module of the International Space Station:

It’s informative to see how the same module looks in Earth orbit:

Thanks to Joey deVilla’s Global Nerdy blog for pointing out the pictures.
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