The Night Sky – an Awesome Free Show for Everyone

Here at A&G magazine, we firmly believe that age is just a number. So perhaps we should venture outside tonight and take up Northern Male’s suggestion!

Have you ever laid on your back in a field or garden at night and looked up into the heavens? The night sky is an awesome free show for everyone and frankly nothing on Earth comes close.

February’s full moon will rise above the UK and illuminate the night sky this weekend

My father and I would stand in his garden and identify the constellations. He showed me the difference between stars and planets. A star twinkles but a planet does not as the latter isn’t a source of light.

When Sir Patrick Moore passed away in 2012, the BBC came close to cancelling The Sky At Night which began in 1957 and still holds the record for the longest running TV programme with the same original presenter. Dad was mortified and he wasn’t alone. A stellar rumpus erupted.

Television licences were ripped up in disgust. Telescopes were brandished as the silent majority of sky-watchers informed Auntie no presenter was bigger than its subject.

She got the message. The Sky at Night remains and is currently hosted by Maggie Aderin-Pocock and Chris Lintott.

What drives this is we’re searching for life. To know we’re not the only ones. We’d like to find a friend out there – or just anyone or thing really. Being alone is hard.  

I like a happy boffin. There were plenty of socially distanced ones at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in Pasedena, California recently as they pulled off the remarkable feat of soft-landing their rover Perseverance on the surface of our nearest neighbour planet. Her goal? To seek out signs of ancient life on Mars.

It’s interesting we always think of our spacecraft, ships and cars as female. My theory is they’re generally more dependable. I could be wrong.

Because messages between the spacecraft and JPL take over 11 minutes, her descent couldn’t be controlled manually, so she had to do this alone. Brand new onboard technology guided her down and onboard video cameras recorded this descent in what scientists had dubbed “Seven Minutes of Terror”. The resulting footage is jaw-dropping – and that’s not all.

For the first time microphones have recorded the sound of Mars. For the record it’s a bit windy.

China has already confirmed orbital insertion (not something I’d personally recommend) of their latest mission to Mars. They also hope to put a rover on the surface. Not to be outdone the United Arab Emirates have also arrived.

Why all this activity?  

Currently the Red Planet is only 62 million miles away from us. In terms of the vastness of space that’s about as far as your front door so it only took NASA seven months to get there.

If you want to see Mars it’s easily visible on a clear night near the meridian. Look for it in the east about an hour after sundown. Or sit inside and watch mindless soap on television, as it’s warmer and easier. Forgive my cynicism but I’m an Aries and Mars is my planet.

Here’s the thing. The God of War may also be the life-giver.

Perseverance has landed close to Jezero crater which, billions of years ago, held an enormous lake. In the ancient sedimentation left behind scientists hope to find evidence life once existed there. If she succeeds, the future for humanity is mind-blowing.

Historically of course we arrive, find no evidence of anything and get a bit upset. But then we build another robot and try again.

In 1977 we launched Voyager 1. It’s now the farthest object from us at over 1367 billion miles and has escaped the gravity of our sun. Voyager 2 followed her and both are remarkably still operational in the deep cold of interstellar space.

I didn’t use the phrase “man-made” for these scientific achievements. As I wrote in a previous article we know women are as involved in this stuff as men.

On Voyager 1 there is a gold LP disc containing music. One of the tracks is Chuck Berry singing Johnny Be Good.

Millions of years from now an alien civilization could stumble across this traveller and wonder what on Earth we were doing. Might they invent a record player to hear it? If so will they like rock and roll or just use it as a Frisbee? We’ll never know.  I’m not sure I could explain Chuck Berry to another alien civilisation but thankfully I’ll never get the chance.

Whilst I’m boggling your mind, try this. Europa is a moon circling Jupiter. Scientists think there is currently twice as much water there than in all the oceans on Earth. Surely it can’t all be barren. Can it?

In 2019 the media battered us with Brexit. In 2020 they did the same with Covid. In 2021 this continues to the point many now avoid the news. No holidays, going anywhere, haircuts, meeting others and all the rest. Just stay indoors. Thanks. Not much of a life.

However space exploration holds out a hope that exists beyond our own locked-down planet and existence.

The Galileo Seven is my favourite episode from the original Star Trek. Written by Oliver Crawford and directed by Robert Gist, it was first seen on US screens on the 5th January 1967. Spock gets his first command and almost blows it. He has an exchange with First Engineer Montgomery Scott who sees no way out of their danger. Spock tells Scotty “There are always alternatives”. I love that.

As we’re struggling to survive a pandemic, at the same time we’re also reaching out. Looking for that alternative.

On the left side of Perseverance there’s an aluminium plate celebrating the work of C19 healthcare workers. It shows the Rod of Asciepius, a serpent wrapped around a staff. This ancient Greek symbol for healing and medicine is shown holding up the Earth. Chuck may have approved but I suspect the aliens won’t get it.

The moral of the story? With vaccine rollouts gathering pace and a roadmap to normality appearing, human life on Earth will survive for now because we persevered.

So let’s all join with the happy boffins in hoping their aptly named rover finds the evidence she seeks. So we can hope there was once life on Mars – and maybe dream we are not  alone. Because there are always alternatives.

Enjoyed reading Northern Male’s latest article? Lots more from him here.

2 Comments

  1. Enjoyed reading this post but thinking even if there isn’t evidence of life on Mars it doesn’t mean there isn’t life out there in our galaxy or all the other galaxies as space is a pretty big place. Seems rather wasted don’t you think that we are the only planet that has evolved with self aware intelligent beings. These other intelligent beings may be quite different from us but maybe doing the same as us wondering is there life on other worlds?

  2. Hi Pamela, good point and I agree. The Perseverance mission is to prove life can evolve independently, but of course with infinite possibilities the existence of sentient beings is nailed on. Especially as it’s possible there are “multiverses” and consequently somewhere out there is your parallel self. I’ll leave that with you.

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