Farewell, Voyager 1

Some time soon we will have to say farewell to our most distant emissary – the Voyager 1 spacecraft. After almost 50 years in space, it’s 15 billion miles away and showing signs of wear and could soon stop transmitting. Late last year, Voyager 1 began to decline, sending back spools of gibberish to its handlers on this planet. A few days ago, Nasa engineers finally traced the problem back to a single chip but it’s clear that Voyager 1 will shortly have to cut contact and make its way out across the universe on its own. It’s strange to think that it will be exploring on out into deep

A bird’s-eye view: Orbital, by Samantha Harvey, reviewed

This slender, gleaming novel depicts a day in the life of six astronauts at the International Space Station – but a day isn’t a day for a crew orbiting Earth at more than 17,000 miles an hour. Space ‘takes their 24 hours and throws 16 days and nights at them in return’. Weaving a line of philosophical enquiry through her luminous prose has become something of a trademark for Samantha Harvey, who probed the elasticity of time through a portrayal of Alzheimer’s disease in her prize-winning debut The Wilderness and, in All is Song, transported Socrates to the 21st century. In Orbital, her sixth book, she explores time again, especially

Now imagine a white hole – a black hole’s time-reversed twin…

There are many ways to measure the course of human history and each will give an insight into one or more of the various qualities that have made us the most successful great ape. Every major advance, whether in war or art or literature, requires imagination, that most amazing of human capacities, and the ability to ask ‘What if?’ – to take the world from a different perspective. Nowhere is this more apparent than in the history of science. While there is an inherent provincialism in revolutions in art and literature, progress in science is universal, and moves, like Dante’s Hell, in concentric circles of ever deeper understanding. It is

Andrew Pontzen: The Universe In A Box

53 min listen

My guest in this week’s Book Club podcast is the cosmologist Andrew Pontzen. His The Universe In A Box: A New Cosmic History describes how we have learned to simulate first the weather, and then the universe itself – and how we discovered that those simulations don’t just mimic reality but allow us to learn new things about it. Dark matter, the Big Bang and the scientific importance of suboptimal pizza: it’s all here.

How humans may populate the universe in the billions of years ahead

I’m old enough to have viewed the grainy TV images of the first Moon landings by Apollo 11 in 1969. I can never look at the Moon without recalling Neil Armstrong’s ‘One small step for a man; one giant leap for mankind’. It seems even more heroic in retrospect, considering how they depended on primitive computing and untested equipment. Once the race to the Moon was won, there was no motivation for continuing with the space race and the gargantuan costs involved. No human since 1972 has travelled more than a few hundred miles from the Earth. Hundreds have ventured into space, but they have done no more than circle

What Jeff Bezos should have learnt from Neil Armstrong

Amazon founder Jeff Bezos joined the billionaire space race today in his suitably phallic looking New Shepard rocket. Bezos successfully travelled to just beyond the Karman Line: the official boundary between the earth’s atmosphere and the rest of the universe. So what sage words did the billionaire have for the rest of us as he looked out of the window at a sight that only 556 other humans have had the privilege to witness? A philosophical thought perhaps? A rumination on our planet’s beauty or fragility? Or maybe an assertion of mankind’s technical prowess? Alas, we were given none of this. According to the entrepreneur, as he descended on a rocket-powered

Branson vs Bezos: In praise of the billionaire space race

They are rich boys with some very expensive toys. As Richard Branson completes his first space flight, it would be easy to dismiss the race between the Virgin founder and Amazon’s Jeff Bezos to be the first billionaire in space as the self-indulgence of a couple of tycoons with too much testosterone and too much money.  The competition will be seen by some on the liberal left as a symbol of widening inequalities. They will view it as the emergence of a plutocratic class separated from the rest of us, and as proof of the argument that space should be left to the public sphere. Of course there is an element of

Why Elon Musk should fly me to the moon

I have just applied to fly around the moon. My chances of being selected are slim, but is it impossible? Hopefully the explosion of Elon Musk’s test rocket shortly after landing in Texas last week may have winnowed down the competition for a place on Yusaku Maezawa’s flight to the moon and back, scheduled for 2023. That Texas landing was in fact a success, proving it’s possible for a rocket of this size to launch and return intact: third time lucky, the first two rockets tested having exploded on impact. This one blew up too, but after safely landing, and what the report described as a ‘rapid, unscheduled disassembly’ was

Bezos vs Musk: who will win the new space race?

While the West gets itself into a lather on a weekly basis about the evils of past colonialism is anyone paying attention to the new empire builders in our midst? Although their ideas for space travel often read like the pages of an Arthur C Clark novel, Jeff Bezos and Elon Musk have done little to disguise the colonising instincts of their space projects. Both have outlined competing intentions to mine the moon and put humans on Mars. And, with Bezos stepping down from Amazon to devote more time to his space venture Blue Origin, we could be witnessing the beginnings of a galactic power struggle – executed not by States but by corporations. Bezos and