NASA’s recent Dart mission to deflect an asteroid’s path, serves to illustrate just how precarious Earth’s existence is. We are at the mercy of what the Universe throws at us. Our atmosphere and magnetic field serve us well in protecting us from cosmic rays, eruptions of particles and energy from the Sun, and the small meteors that continually bombard us. The presence of large planets like Jupiter and Saturn in our Solar System act as protective big brothers, sweeping up any wayward asteroids that happen to pass by on the way to Earth.
At the start of September in Aptos, California, an elderly man slipped peacefully away, almost unnoticed. Aged 92, Frank Drake was one of the founding fathers of SETI ( search for extraterrestrial intelligence). Through his life’s work, he pioneered a scientific approach to a topic that in the early years, was seen as fringe at best and downright crazy at worst.
50 years. That’s how long it’s been since man last roamed about on the surface of the Moon. December 1972 to be precise. On December 11th, the lunar lander from Apollo 17 touched down on the Moon and spent a brief 75 hours there. The two astronauts on board, Gene Cernan and Harrison Schmitt spent 22 hours outside the lander, walking and driving about on the Moon’s surface. They collected over 110 kg of moon rock, drove almost 40 kilometres and explored distances up to 8 km away from their lunar lander. When they were finished, they packed away their collection of moon rock, took off their dusty space suits, took a brief nap and blasted off the surface of the Moon.
Christmas can be a hectic time, office parties, catching up with friends and family, up early for Santa and and days spent visiting and being visited. It can also be a time for reflection.
With that in mind, allow me to present two pictures that give us a unique insight and pause for thought, to contemplate our place in the universe.
Since time immemorial people have looked up at the night sky and tried to make sense of, and understand it. Pinpricks of light twinkling and glittering. Bright stars that seem to form patterns with neighbouring stars. Harvests were made, seeds planted and fields ploughed on the rising and setting of particular patterns. These patterns are what we call constellations. In simpler times, people spent more of their lives outside, were closer to nature, and so it is easy to understand how these stellar patterns held a special significance for cultures all over the world.