New Horizons Colour

New Horizons captured this unique view of Jupiter's moon Io with its color camera - the Multispectral Visible Imaging Camera (MVIC) - at 00:25 UT on March 1, 2007, from a range of 2.3 million kilometers (1.4 million miles). The image is centered at Io coordinates 4 degrees south, 162 degrees west, and was taken shortly before the complementary Long Range Reconnaissance Imager (LORRI) photo of Io released on March 13, which had higher resolution but was not in color.

Like that LORRI picture, this processed image shows the nighttime glow of the Tvashtar volcano and its plume rising 330 kilometers (200 miles) into sunlight above Io's north pole. However, the MVIC picture reveals the intense red of the glowing lava at the plume source and the contrasting blue of the fine dust particles in the plume (similar to the bluish color of smoke), as well as more subtle colors on Io's sunlit crescent. The lower parts of the plume in Io's shadow, lit only by the much fainter light from Jupiter, are almost invisible in this rendition. Contrast has been reduced to show the large range of brightness between the plume and Io's disk.

A component of the Ralph imaging instrument, MVIC has three broadband color filters: blue (480 nanometers), red (620 nm) and infrared (850 nm); as well as a narrow methane filter (890 nm). Because the camera was designed for the dim illumination at Pluto, not the much brighter sunlight at Jupiter, the red and infrared filters are overexposed on Io's dayside. This image is therefore composed from the blue and methane filters only, and the colors shown are only approximations to those that the eye would see. Nevertheless, the human eye would easily see the red color of the volcano and the blue color of the plume.

Credit: NASA/Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory/Southwest Research Institute

Of course, while we were waiting for New Horizons to produce its first colour images of Jupiter, the show-offs at the Cassini Imaging Team beat them to it - from orbit around Saturn.

Update: Emily Lakdawalla has a more detailed composite of this image here.



I am still working on what I now think of as TBTBSG - Tile-Based Turn-Based Strategy Game. Every Sunday I seem to sit down and add and then bug-test a new feature. It is still early days so far. Today I changed the map so that instead of the 20x20 grid on the screen being the entirety of the map, it is just a portion of it, and you can scroll around to see the rest.

There is a little mini-map at the bottom that shows you where everything is. The light green rectangle is what is currently on screen, blue are your own units, bright green are friendly units and red are hostile.

What excitement! Perhaps too much for a lazy Sunday. I will go have a lie-down...


Friday Nymph Blogging

Echo, an Oread. All the various versions of her story seem to involve unrequited love. In this painting by John William Waterhouse, she pines for Narcissus.


Read Any Good Books Lately?

Yes. Yes I have.

Visions of Mars - Olivier de Goursac

A coffee table book, I suppose, although I don't have a coffee table, and have instead had to squeeze it into my bookcase. It is a pretty big book, as this abbreviated scan of its cover testifies. De Goursac has worked processing images for several of NASA's Mars missions, and here he presents some of the best of the lot, including some computer images generated from Mars Global Surveyor's nifty laser altimeter doodad, and some images that have been lovingly (re-)colourised or corrected.

With the emphasis on large, glossy images, the text takes a back seat. Some of it is either badly written or badly translated (from both French and metric - this being an American version of a French book), and much of it is presented very matter-of-factly, without actually discussing how certain we are about any of this stuff or even what the evidence is. I've always found the whole "We know this because..." way of writing to be the most compelling part of any science book, and finding the 'because' part missing in this book leaves the text feeling strangely empty. Still, the images are the purpose of the thing, and they are plenty, vivid and gorgeous.

A Scanner Darkly - Philip K. Dick

After my positive reception to the film adaption, of course I had to read the book. The film is a very faithful adaption, in terms of plot, dialogue, themes and tone. Obviously, the book is able to cover much more ground, and go into things more deeply, but a few decades of reflection and a couple of world-class actors have enabled the film to have a few snappier lines in places. As with the film, this is great stuff: high-brow and low-brow, funny and tragic, often all at the same time.

Lost at Sea - Bryan Lee O'Malley

Another great Canadian graphic novel, another gorgeous comic from Oni Press. Gorgeous, both in terms of its outstandingly cute, black-and-white artwork, and its sensitive, compassionate soul. It's also frequently very funny, which I think, paradoxical as it may seem, is an important part of any work that hopes for you to take it seriously.

On paper, Lost at Sea's story of a confused and socially awkward 18 year old girl on a road trip with three people she hardly knows, where she will experience the necessary existential discoveries, sounds completely unoriginal. In fact, the entire plot is pretty much given away on the back-cover blurb. But the plot doesn't matter. It's not about what happens, but instead how the characters interact, and how it all feels. On both those counts, this book is right at the top of its game: very touching, and slightly deranged.

Blind Willow, Sleeping Woman - Haruki Murakami

I love Murakami, and his works have had a not insignificant influence on my own writing. The most important thing I learned from him, is that you can put any crazy shit you want into your stories, as long as you don't make a big fuss about it. Blind Willow, Sleeping Woman is a collection of short stories, published at various points throughout Murakami's career, some of which later developed into novels. I wasn't that big on Murakami's first such collection, The Elephant Vanishes, while I did quite like some of the stories in the slimmer collection After the Quake. On the whole, I've always felt that Murakami's peculiar, unconventional stories benefit from being longer and having more character development, so that you can actually get a feel for where you have ended up at the end of it all. But Blind Willow has pleasantly surprised me, and I think most of the stories are very good, even if only two or three moved me as much as one of his novels might.

Reading through these stories took me a long time, as each one seemed to demand its own space and rankle if pressed too close up against another. One story might be a light and touching vignette, while the one after might be a disturbing tale of Kafkaesque nightmare. In one story, a cute, quirky tale took a sudden turn for the worst, while in another a character faces up to what seems like a horror story, only to grow to accept things as they are. But, while I found most of the stories 'great but not earth-moving', as with After the Quake, I found the very last story so touching that it brought tears to my eyes. After saying that, I feel I should perhaps elucidate, but I can't. It's impossible to see where the story goes from where it starts, and I think it should remain that way for those yet to read it.



It is difficult to say what is impossible, for the dream of yesterday is the hope of today, and the reality of tomorrow.
Robert H. Goddard

The First Step

In March of 1926, in Auburn, Massachusetts, USA, a moustachioed, 43-year old man wrote the following in his journal:

The first flight with a rocket using liquid propellants was made yesterday at Aunt Effie's farm.

What started here, in a cabbage patch at Aunt Effie’s farm, continues today as footprints on the moon, rovers on Mars, and a probe on its way to Pluto (via Jupiter). This man did not bring us to this place single-handedly, nor were all his ideas original, nor can we say that his original ideas would not have later been thought of by someone else. But in spite of that, when we consider modern space flight, we can't help but feel we owe a debt to him. Rightly so, I think, because although it might be difficult to say why exactly it was him and not someone else, it was him, and he did a lot of work when it was hardest: at the beginning.


The man in the cabbage patch was a physicist by the name of Robert Hutchins Goddard, a man who marked every 19th October in his diary as ‘Anniversary Day’, in memory of an event that occurred when he was 17. Not a physical event, but, far more significantly, an internal, emotional one.

On the afternoon of October 19, 1899, I climbed a tall cherry tree and, armed with a saw which I still have, and a hatchet, started to trim the dead limbs from the cherry tree. It was one of the quiet, colorful afternoons of sheer beauty which we have in October in New England, and as I looked towards the fields at the east, I imagined how wonderful it would be to make some device which had even the possibility of ascending to Mars. I was a different boy when I descended the tree from when I ascended, for existence at last seemed very purposive.

In his early life Goddard worked hard, in the face of serious illness, to lay the theoretical groundwork for the rocket flight in the cabbage patch - including conceiving the basics of the modern rocket motor and patenting multi-stage and liquid-fuelled rockets. Goddard detailed his theories in a paper entitled A Method of Reaching Extreme Altitudes. This paper secured Goddard funding from the Smithsonian, and, late in 1919, it was published.


Although A Method of Reaching Extreme Altitudes was mostly about Goddard's theories and research, it did include a small discussion of some of the greater potentials of the technology. In particular, Goddard suggested that it might be possible to launch a rocket carrying an explosive payload so that it would impact on the moon and create a visible explosion, proving that it had arrived.

The New York Times (which regular readers will know has a habit of rubbing me up the wrong way) took particular offence at this suggestion, singling it out for a derisive editorial which accused Goddard of "intentional mistakes or oversights":

[A]fter the rocket quits our air and and really starts on its longer journey, its flight would be neither accelerated nor maintained by the explosion of the charges it then might have left. To claim that it would be is to deny a fundamental law of dynamics, and only Dr. Einstein and his chosen dozen, so few and fit, are licensed to do that.

While I shall leave the reader to draw their own conclusions about the integrity and scientific knowledge displayed by the editors of the NYT in January of 1920, it should be noted that they did print a retraction on 17th July 1969, the day after Armstrong and Aldrin landed on the moon.

More Work

Although Goddard was at first hurt by the public criticisms levelled at him for his work, he continued unabashed, focusing on liquid-fuelled rockets - launching one in 1926, launching another carrying a camera and barometer in 1929 and in 1932 developing modern methods of orienting and controlling a rocket. Five years before the NYT editorial, Goddard had also demonstrated, in a practical experiment, that rockets could indeed provide a propulsive force in a vacuum, as one expects from Newtonian - let alone Einsteinian - physics.


Although Goddard had started his work from a sudden desire to ascend to Mars, he died in 1945, 12 years before Sputnik orbited the Earth, 24 years before Apollo 11 landed on the moon and 24 years before Mariner 4 flew by Mars. He did however, live long enough to see the Nazis deploy the V2 ballistic missile, and the Americans detonate nuclear weapons.

As Carl Sagan mused, spaceflight is, in the long term, necessary for continued human survival; but in the short term, rockets carrying nuclear warheads are our quickest route to destruction. Wherever this situation may lead us, and however else we might have ended up here, it is strange to think that such an important thread of the human experience, upon which the whole thing may well pivot, includes as one of its most important events a 17 year old boy climbing a cherry tree and day-dreaming.

Read more stories of inspiration here.

A NASA fact-sheet on Goddard.
A Biographical Essay
A description of Goddard's contribution to rocket technology
The NYT Editorial in full
Robbert H. Goddard at Wikipedia


"Forget it, Nicholas. It's Sandford."

I've finally seen Hot Fuzz. If The Queen can be said to represent the Britons of two generations ago, then Edgar Wright and Simon Pegg are definitely the voice for my generation. Here they've made a film of two halves: the first demonstrating why no British action films are made, and the second half being a British action film.

Both parts work well. The film starts out as an alternately quirky and atmospheric murder mystery/police procedural, as model London cop Nicholas Angel is reassigned to sleepy Sandford and resolves to get to the bottom of a series of mysterious (and gory) deaths - in between capturing escaped swans and picking the winners of a raffle at the church fĂȘte. At the same time, his naive partner Danny - played by the third portion of the Wright-Pegg-Frost trinity, Nick Frost - tries to draw out his human side, apparently under the illusion that Angel is some sort of gun-toting Chow Yun-Fat figure.

Of course, in the end, Angel discovers a threat that his Metropolitan Police Vocabulary Book (it's a car collision not a car accident, as the word 'accident' implies that no-one is to blame) can't handle, and he is forced to start blowing shit up as the movie changes track to 'action movie logic', where throwing yourself around firing wildly is the solution to any problem, and even the village vicar has a pair of spring-loaded pistols hidden up his sleeves.

I don't think that Hot Fuzz quite reaches the giddy heights of Shaun of the Dead, but it is a lean, good-looking film with a strong sense of humour and some real dramatic intensity to it. I can only look forward to Wright and Pegg's next collaboration - and dream of the day that this is the kind of British movie winning Oscars.


Meagre Contribution

Saturn isn't the only planet in the solar system with rings. New Horizons captured this image of Jupiter's faint ring system - one of the clearest ever taken - while stealing momentum from the giant planet.

New Horizons has started sending back the main bulk of information it collected, so new pictures should start appearing on the homepage - hopefully including some dazzling colour photos of Jupiter and its moons.


My Cat Smells of Pizza

A few weeks ago there was an unfortunate incident which resulted in a pizza landing on my cat - wrong side up, naturally. Even now he still smells faintly of tomatoes, between his shoulder-blades, where he can't really wash himself.


Friday Game Over Blogging

This death is from classic RPG shoot-em-up platformer Front Mission: Gun Hazard.


Don’t Forget Saturn

While I have always been a big fan of Jupiter and its four Galilean moons, I have to say that Cassini has really swayed my opinion. With its breathtaking rings and numerous strange moons, the Saturnian system is easily equal to the Jovian in terms of beauty and intrigue.

Our robotic emissary, flying high above Saturn, captured this view of an alien copper-colored ring world. The overexposed planet has deliberately been removed to show the unlit rings alone, seen from an elevation 60 degrees, the highest Cassini has yet attained. [Source with more information and much, much larger, higher quality version]

And yet… Saturn does have one thing pulling it down, or so many have thought. “Saturn is a much blander world than Jupiter” is a sentiment expressed by many (in this case I’m quoting Patrick Moore). But I think this line of thinking needs to be nipped in the bud. Certainly, Saturn’s pastel clouds are more muted than those of Jupiter, but that doesn’t make them any less attractive. And, in its own quiet way, Saturn does interesting things. For example, suddenly turning blue.

Scientists studying Saturn are not yet sure about the precise cause of the color change from north to south. NASA Voyager spacecraft flybys witnessed a more evenly painted planet in the early 1980s, when Saturn was closer to equinox. However, the bluish color was readily apparent upon Cassini's approach to the planet in late 2003, when Saturn was just coming out of its northern hemisphere winter. Scientists have speculated that the color is due to seasonal effects on the atmosphere.

Words from the caption for this image, which nicely shows the patterning in Saturn’s cloud-tops from north to south:


A Story Tangentially Related to Superstition

I'm not feeling so well today. This is the dream I had last night. If you are superstitious, you may take it as a warning of the fate that would befall me if I ever ended up on a pirate's ship. It is also perhaps a warning about what happens to those who are not superstitious enough: they displease the monster octopus.

Looking back at this now, I think it was cool that I had such an involved, imaginative dream. But at the time it was pretty scary and all too real.

Obviously, certain parts of this story don't make sense. That's dreams for you.

The Octopus Town
(A Dream)

After forging an uneasy truce with the pirates, I was able to catch them unawares and push them overboard, into the mouths of some hungry sharks. Now I was on the ship by myself, sleeping in the captain's cabin as the waves rolling beneath me grew more turbulent and the skies darker.

As I slept fitfully, a great monster rose from the dark depths of the sea: an enormous octopus with thick, gnarled green skin. It latched onto my ship with its long tentacles and started to drag it slowly but inexorably down into the roiling ocean.

As the deck started to pitch, I awoke and left my cabin. The black sea was already spilling onto the deck - the ship was sinking fast. I was practically in the sea.

And then, from the stormy waves, squirmed some soft-bodied creature, larger in size than me: a cyclopean octopus, with metal hooks on the ends of its arms. It viciously clawed its way up on deck and looked around. I hid beneath the stairs to the quarterdeck, and it fumbled its way up them without noticing me.

Looking around for some way to escape, I approached the side of the ship. There was nothing in any direction but the ocean - dark and angry. Rain beat down from the sky. I had no chance against deadly sea creatures. My world had been invaded by water. It was no longer hospitable to the likes of me.

The first, much larger, octopus - the one still pulling the ship down into the water - grabbed hold of me then, and I was drawn deep into the cold, black depths of the sea.


I awoke, lying on the ocean floor, to find a young woman standing over me. Her hair was tied up into an austere bun and she wore a long, high-necked dress. It might have been white in colour, but an endless stretch of murky water separated the sun from us, painting everything a sickly shade of greyish-green.

She checked that I was okay and helped me to my feet, introducing herself as Anthea. Around us were dreary wooden buildings, like something from some dilapidated American prairie town. People stood around, doing little, showing no emotion. The men wore grey suits, the women long, high-necked dresses like Anthea's.

The light grew dimmer, and I looked up to see the immense octopus high overhead, blotting out what little light filtered down to us with its grotesque, writhing silhouette. I was afraid, but none of the townspeople seemed bothered. Not that they seemed pleased to see the octopus, in fact they obviously feared it themselves. It's just that their fear was a hopeless one. This creature was so huge and strong, like a mountain with multiple arms, and so much more at home at the bottom of the sea than frail humans, that they could clearly see they had no way to oppose it or escape.

Anthea tried to explain to me about the town. She seemed to say that it was a town full of people who had murdered close relatives. Murderers! I looked around at the limp, vaguely sinister people around me. No wonder they lived in this town, at the mercy of a demonic octopus.

But I had misunderstood. Anthea explained again, patiently: in the country these people once lived in, there was a ritual whereby people were expected to sacrifice someone they loved. The people in this town were those vilified heretics who refused to participate. The only place in the world they were accepted was in this town, relying on the sufferance of a carnivorous monster.


I lived in the town from then on, with nowhere else to go, not willing to risk the ire of the monster by trying to leave. Anthea's kind family took me into their home. It was dry inside and after entering from the slimy deep-sea water, it was polite to wipe one's feet.


The first time it happened, I was terrified. The octopus above descended upon the town, its arms spread wide, whirling slowly around and creating a formidable current. The townspeople tramped lifelessly onto a small hill by the town and stood in a circle, the monster directly overhead, coming closer and closer until it blotted out the whole ocean above, stupefyingly vast and fearsome.

Anthea took my hand and led me into the circle. It wouldn't be wise not to go, she said. The townspeople always went. If they didn't, who knew what might happen?

When everyone was present in the circle, the octopus reached down with a tentacle and snatched up one person, devouring them. Then we all tramped back down to the town.

This happened once every week, Anthea told me. You just stood in the circle and hoped that this week it wasn't you.


I think it was probably my fault. I didn't take well to the town - to the million little things that you had to do - or could not do - lest you upset the giant octopus. One night, the octopus descended on Anthea's house. It broke into one of the bedrooms and killed the woman sleeping in there - and not in a way that was at all quick or painless. The people in the room next door chose to break down their wall and drown rather than risk experiencing the fate she met. The father ran into the kitchen, hoping to swim up the fireplace and escape, but the octopus had already reached down the chimney. It grabbed him and pulled him up, out of the house, and into its beak.

With people dying and the house creaking and collapsing around us, it seemed that all was lost. The monster wanted to pull us all to pieces and eat us, and we didn't stand a chance. But Anthea saw a way out. After snatching her father through it, the octopus seemed to have neglected the chimney. We swam quickly up through the fireplace, not daring to look up at the monster above us, so close to the roof, and so huge. We swam down the side of the house, hoping to hide from its huge, bulging eyes as they roamed the town hungrily.

And then we ran. Ran across the ocean floor as fast as we could, not looking back or slowing down. Eventually we reached the shore and crawled out of the sea and onto a desolate, rocky beach.

Wet and bedraggled we held one another tightly. For a short while, we could feel relieved. But the memories of the townspeople who had been killed - and were yet to be killed - would weigh on us heavily. And worse still, we knew that the octopus could always come for us, reaching out of the sea with its long, grasping arms. Unstoppable.


Yay Jupiter!

So, New Horizons has successfully completed its Jupiter flyby, stealing a tiny weeny bit of the giant's momentum to speed itself to Pluto all the faster (learn more). New Horizons has snapped lots of pictures for us lay-people to gawp at, but it won’t start sending them back for a while:

That's it for the close-encounter downlink. Now we have to be a little patient and wait for the real data stream, which begins in about a week and will last through April. There will be lots more Tvashtar plume pictures, because it's near the north pole and so big that it rises above the pole itself, so every Io image we take will have that plume in it! We'll have color data and maybe even infrared pictures too, though detecting the plume in the infrared will be tough. The flyby is over, but the fun is just beginning.

John Spencer, New Horizon's science team member, writing here.

In the meantime, there are a few black-and-white images to look at on the New Horizon’s image page, here, including this one of three volcanic eruptions on Io (featuring the immense plume that Spencer was so excited about above):