Friday, 26 July 2019

Chateau - Count of Monte Cristo

Alexandre Dumas is possibly the most widely read French author, ever. His writings number 100,000 pages and are translated into many languages. As an avid reader I am very familiar with his books The Three Musketeers, the Count of Monte Cristo and of course,writings on the Man in the Iron Mask.

Dumas was immensely popular and became very rich, for a time, until his various business interests eventually failed (such as his theatre and newspapers), his profligate spending on friends, entertaining, travelling and his reputed 40 mistresses. He had enough money to build a very extravagant house in Port-Marly, near Saint Germain-en-Laye outside Paris. In 1844 he found just the right section which could accommodate a park, writing house and also a grandiose residence. He knew what he wanted and hang the cost.

It has beautiful carving in stone and is very tall, with two towers, a staircase in each. The exterior features carvings of famous literary giants, such as Shakespeare, and Dumas's initial also feature. None of the rooms are especially large and it  must have been a tight fit for crinolined ladies to negotiate the staircases. The back of the chateau has a basin with dragons feeding it but it's not full of water and isn't working, alas.

Almost none of his luxury furniture remains as he was obliged to sell it all only a year after he moved in. He put the house on the market later on and negotiated to stay there for two years, busily writing.

This is a house of imagination. I think he must have wanted to live the lives in his books and plays. The Moorish room is particularly finely done and I can imagine the Count of Monte Christo and his lovely Haydee living there.

Inside the house they have tried to put furniture of the times. Inside a cabinet is a lovely set of porcelain decorated with scenes from the Count of Monte Christo.

Also in the house are posters, books written by the author, scenes from his travels abroad and rather a lot of drawings of his mistresses, plus his official son who is known as Alexandre Dumas le fils (son) who was also a writer and playwright.

Dumas was a political animal and his actions got him into trouble. Things were Ok while he was working for the future King Louis-Philippe but he ended up having to go into exile later, in Belgium, until the heat died down, much as another outspoken writer, Victor Hugo, had to when he upset Louis-Napoleon Bonaparte (Emperor Napoleon III) after 1851. After years in Belgium he moved to Russia where French was spoken in posh circles. He was popular there. He also got involved with Garibaldi who was trying to unify Italy. The man certainly had plenty of his own adventures.

Dumas was the grandson of a minor French noble plantation owner and a female black slave from what is now Haiti. His father went into the French army. Alexandre suffered discrimination because of his mixed ancestry. On the 30th November 2002, Alexandre Dumas was given a national tribute and he was laid to rest in the Panthéon alongside Victor Hugo.

It's such a shame, I think, that Dumas wasted the money he earned on stupid spending on things that would never last. After changing hands many times and falling into decay the chateau's then owner, a private development company that had rented out the chateau for a number of years, planned to build 400 new homes on the site. Demolition loomed in 1969. In an emotional response, two preservation groups came together to save this heritage from the threat of the speculators. The property has been restored. The Moorish salon has been renovated by Moroccan craftsman with the patronage of King Hassan II of Morocco.

This property is well worth a visit if you are near Paris. Stroll the beautiful park, peek in the window of his extravagant turreted study named Chateau d'If (for the prison where Edmond Dantes escapes, in the count of Monte Cristo).

After my visit I felt newly inspired to re-read some of his stories and to find a copy of Twenty Years After - a sequel to the Three Musketeers.

 Wander through the house but switch off photo flash if you want to take photos.

Parking is available onsite. 

Friday, 19 July 2019

Mount John Observatory and two famous star-gazers

I had the great good fortune to meet, and stay with, two New Zealand star-gazers who have recently been honoured with their own postage stamps as part of the Space Pioneers release this year.

Alan Gilmore and Pamela Kilmartin are 'retired' staff members of University of Canterbury's Physics and Astronomy department and have been observers at the Mount John Observatory, Tekapo, since 1980. They are Fellows of the Royal Astronomical Society of New Zealand and track Near Earth Objects (NEOs) such as asteroids and comets that may be a long-term threat to Earth. Together they have discovered 41 minor planets, a comet and a nova.

They help astronomers around the world to determine the orbits of objects passing near the Earth, objects that usually come from the asteroid belt between Mars and Jupiter.

Alan and Pam work with the country's second-largest telescope, the one metre McLellan Reflector which was built by the University's workshops and installed at the observatory in 1986.

Alan works the telescope while Pam handles the image processing and measurements. After photos are taken, spectroscopy is by fibre-optic cable to the HERCULES spectrograph.

They may be officially retired but they are still working, being given time on the telescope to continue to assist the global network of scientists in Arizona and Hawaii who discover objects and report them, to be followed up by observers such as Alan and Pam who can check positions, trajectories and help others estimate size of these flying objects.

We can image NEOs to 22nd magnitude, a millionth of the brightness of the faintest star seen by the naked eye,” says Alan.

Alan kindly took me up to the observatory to check out the 1m reflecting telescope they normally work on but also NZ's largest telescope, the 1.8m prime focus reflector which is housed in a separate building. In total there are 5 telescopes at Mount John.

Alan prepares start charts to help amateur astronomers, welcomes university visitors to the Observatory, contributes articles and attends conferences with Pam.

The night I stayed with them, the weather was not cooperative and so I couldn't see the glorious Milky Way through the thick cloud overhead. Such a shame. What stars I did see through their home telescope were really just pinpricks. I learned to recognise the Southern Cross constellation which appears on the NZ flag. We had a lively discussion on science topics over dinner. It was a fun and intellectually stimulating short visit.

Most of their observatory activity requires working the night shift. The couple, who have been married for 45 years, say they are too busy working together to feel lonely in this remote part of the South Island.

They are planning to build themselves a modest home observatory outside their house. How marvellous to have work you love and can continue to do for as long as you wish, and how equally wonderful to be able to work and play throughout your life with your spouse.

There's a beauty in Tekapo, despite the cold temperatures and wind at times and recently an antique telescope has been installed  in the Tekapo township as a visitor attraction. Ski fields are nearby and there are plenty of places to go for a walk. Mount Cook is an easy drive from here.

The stamp which features Alan and Pam is part of a set recognising six famous space pioneers in their fields. Alan and Pam were surprised to be included among such illustrious and famous NZ astronomers, cosmologists, and rocket scientists such as Beatrice Tinsley, Charles Gifford, Albert Jones OBE, and Sir William Pickering, but they tend to be a modest couple.

 I popped into NZ Post to buy a set of stamps but I'd advise you to buy these stamps online as many post shops have run out. This 2019 stamp release coincides with the anniversary this year of the Apollo 11 Moon Landings.
Together, the stamps form a 5-stamp se-tenant rocket-shaped strip very cleverly designed. The stamps are sprinkled with real star dust collected from a meteorite found in Morocco.

Photos show me outside the largest telescope's housing braving a cold wind, Alan in front of the 1.8m telescope, me by the 1m, the township of Lake Tekapo in the South Island of New Zealand.

Tuesday, 16 July 2019

Reflections on The Moon - the shape of things to come

Space programmes are multiplying across the planet, with new players entering the field, including New Zealand. In the past there was an ideological/political push to it all. Now, it is acknowledged that space programmes are so expensive they need to be a partnership between countries or wealthy private companies in order to get off the ground.

Here are comments from those I have spoken to associated with the University of Canterbury, NZ.

 What’s ahead? The next giant leap
“The Moon Landing 50 years ago was long before I was born but it demonstrates just how curious the human race is, and always will be, about space. I see the future of science as a continuum of technology advances, with more and better space telescopes as well as larger global telescope networks, because telescopes in different countries observing the same objects increases the accuracy of the measured data. In the next 50 years I’d like to see solutions to greater efficiency of power use with handling the huge quantities of data that astronomy generates,” says Rosemary Dorsey, Master in Astronomy student. 

Sarah Kessans, who has a PhD from Arizona State University has a very personal take on NASA ambitions. 

“I applied to be a NASA astronaut in 2017 and was incredibly humbled to have made it through several rounds of selection to become one of the top 50 candidates,” says Kessans. “Whilst I wasn’t ultimately chosen as an Astronaut Candidate, it was an honour to take part in the process and to dream about potential missions with my fellow interviewees,” she says. 

“We discussed whether we’d prefer a Moon landing or a Martian fly-by if we had the opportunity. I would love to see Mars up close but I wouldn’t mind a quick stop on the Moon on the way home. We still have a lot to learn before we send humans to Mars and we’re fortunate that we can test systems via the Moon first.” 

“I’m still keen to be an astronaut so I’ll definitely be applying again, but beyond that, I’m pretty passionate about my research as a synthetic biologist,” she says.

 “I’d like to develop microbial solutions to food, fuel and pharmaceutical needs for space colonies, whether they are on the Moon or on Mars. We’re pretty fortunately here at UC to have the support of the university in bringing together academics from across science and engineering disciplines to develop flagship projects focused on space research as well as space-related teaching programmes akin to Aotearoa New Zealand’s space industry. It’s early days but I’m really excited about where we’re headed,” says Kessans.

“We are explorers. There’s nothing that can replace the inspiration that comes from actually seeing another human set foot on the moon, or eventually another planet. Seeing man’s footprint on the Moon, that was very emotional for me,” she says. 

“What I’d like in the future is to focus on in situ resource utilisation – making the most of what resources are available. Space colonisation will have organic problems that biosynthetic pathways might solve, such as food, fuel and pharmaceuticals," says Kessans. 

“The issue with manned space exploration needs to solve the problem of exposure to radiation,” says Mt John Observatory retired superintendent Alan Gilmore.

“Normally our astronauts working on the international Space Station operate within the Earth’s magnetic field, which blocks a lot of radiation, but beyond that there’s radiation from the Sun, particularly during solar flares, and also cosmic high energy particles from galaxies. Nothing we have currently can block that. How do we protect our astronauts from radiation? It’s going to be difficult,” he says. 

Dr Matthew Hughes and Associate Professor Allan Scott from UC’s Civil and Natural Resources Engineering department agree but say they are already working on solving that crucial issue, with a focus on radiation shielding on planets. 

“We’re developing a new type of concrete based on a magnesium binder system,” says Scott. “This is important because we need to protect astronauts living beyond Earth from solar radiation, which is lethal. Three metres of concrete or sand is needed to minimise the effects of radiation so we may need to be underground most of the time or with regolith (soil) heaped on top. We’re making regolith. 

Regolith is loose, broken rubble that covers the Moon and Mars as a result of meteorite impacts, along with weathering from wind abrasion on Mars. So right now we are using Earth rocks to simulate Martian rocks. Once we can produce a suitable regolith simulant we need to find a way to turn it into both a construction material and useable soil where, with water and oxygen, we can grow bacteria and ultimately plants. The Martian soil contains perchlorate, which is toxic to life. We are working with Chris Oze, a former UC Geology Professor, to find a way to remove that so we’ll be practicing with our simulants,” he says. 

“To advance the science and engineering of habitation, new materials will need to be developed, new additives such as carbon fibre and nanotechnology may be involved. Artificial Intelligence (AI) will be harnessed to run autonomous refineries and factories, and all this will require efficient power systems. With a strong commercial push for space mining, many of these systems could be developed in the near future and be applicable to Moon and Mars colonisation,” says Matthew Hughes. 

“I believe we will never live sustainably anywhere else until we learn to live sustainably on Earth,” says Hughes. “We depend on ecosystems so we need to live within our means. We take water and air for granted. In space that’s all you think about. We can care for Earth and develop space technologies at the same time. The amount of money spent on space exploration is negligible compared to what is spent yearly on weapons.”

“We won’t abandon Earth. Most will stay here because the Moon and Mars are death traps where we will be dependent on life support. We’ve always used technology to go to extreme environments,” he says.

“The concept of waste during space travel will not occur because it is a closed system. The resources are finite. Our technological, economic, and philosophical mind-set needs to change. Our abilities will be augmented by artificial intelligence and even modification of our own bodies in the future,” says Hughes.

“We can develop new construction materials, use 3-D printing or modular building options using our magnesium concrete, says Allan Scott. “ Once we get the soil sorted we can create a greenhouse for Mars and jumpstart an ecosystem. The environment on Mars is hostile so I see us being reliant on robotics in small factories that will produce the concrete and start the growth processes, AI machines will be self-directed, where possible.” 

"The physical limitations bring us ‘back to Earth’ but it’s still inspiring. Matthew and I feel what we do is supporting wider human endeavours,” says Scott. 

The Civil and Natural Resources Engineering Materials and Ecosystem Design for Space Habitation (MESH) research team. From left to right: Connor Cleland and Georgia Crosby (final-year undergraduate research students), Associate Professor Allan Scott, Dr Matthew Hughes, Milap Dhakal (PhD candidate). Left foreground: Martian regolith analogue derived from volcanic rock. Right foreground: samples of concrete made with materials representative of those found on Mars.

See videos

Return to the Moon
NASA intends to build a sustainable, long-term outpost on the lunar surface over time. The lessons learned by working and living on the Moon will then contribute to the next giant leap – manned exploration of Mars. 

“We are going back to the Moon by 2024 – this time to stay,” promises the Director of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA).

The plan is to land on the lunar South Pole. To get there, the biggest rocket ever built is well into development. It’s called the Space Launch System (SLS). On board will be the Orion spacecraft and the Gateway lunar command module. 

It is very possible that the work UC scientists, engineers and students are currently doing could contribute to this new bold human endeavour towards life and work on the Moon and beyond.

“This is the next chapter of human space exploration. Humans are the most fragile element of this entire endeavour, and yet we go for humanity. We go to the Moon and on to Mars to seek knowledge and understanding, and to share it with all. We go knowing our efforts will create opportunities that cannot be foreseen. We go because we are destined to explore and see it with our own eyes. We turn towards the Moon now, not as a conclusion, but as preparation. As a checkpoint toward all that lies beyond. Our greatest adventures remain ahead of us.” – NASA Science 2019.
US Space Policy Directive

President Donald Trump signed off on an integrated programme with private sector partners for a human return to the Moon, followed by missions to Mars and beyond. The goal is to “lead an innovative and sustainable programme of exploration with commercial and international partners to enable human expansion across the solar system and to bring back to Earth new knowledge and opportunities.”

For a view of the new Space Launch System under development for deep space missions view here (no commentary, bits and bobs) 

NZ’s new place in Space

New Zealand is increasingly making its presence felt in the area of satellite launches. Fifty years ago NZ had no space programme. These days we are having regular commercial payloads launched.

The New Zealand Space Agency was set up in 2016 as the lead government agency for space policy, regulation and business development. With close ties to the US via Rocket Lab, NZ is proving its worth in launching miniature satellites from the Mahia Peninsula. 

Take a look back at the greatest rocket ever built my humans so far 
Such a beautiful thing.
We await the new rocket system that will take us back to the Moon.