Friday, 14 November 2014

In Nomine Primo et Philae

Or: How to Get Yourself Stuck Between a Rock and Outer Space

I'm sure a few of you may have realised over the past couple of days the words: Rosetta, Philae, comet, landing, ESA and the sentence: "Holy shit! We just landed a space craft on a comet!" have been thrown around a fair amount. 

But just who, what, when, where, why and how is all this about? And why should you care?

Just a heads up - this is a text heavy post and I'm going to be linking to images rather than posting them directly as they're obviously not mine and are protected by copyright against republishing. Sorry!


Let's start nice and gentle. So who the hell just had the audacity to go and fire a hunk of metal about the size of a classic Mini around 6.4 billion (6,400,000,000) km at an object less than 4km across travelling at 135,000 km/h (37,500 m/s!!!) and actually hit the damn thing? Well the ESA, that's who. You may polish your knuckles now ladies and gents of ESA, you've deserved it.

The ESA is the European Space Agency. An international organisation of 20 Member States whose mission is to provide Europe's gateway to space as well as plan and perform Europe's space program. Founded in 1975, ESA aims to provide, promote and advance space research and technology for exclusively peaceful purposes. 

Alright, that's pretty nifty. Somehow more than 20 country's statesmen and women are able to cooperate enough for a department dedicated to space research to actually run successfully. And that's the simple part - onto the fun nitty-gritty stuff now!


Next up we'll discuss where, another nice and simple one to ease us into it. Well the ESA is based in Europe, funnily enough, with its headquarters in Paris. However, the actual flight control and cool stuff is happening (on Earth anyway) at the European Space Operations Centre (ESOC) in Darmstadt, Germany. 

The other half of this mission is occurring in, you guessed it, space! But, "That's a big place!" I hear you all collectively shouting in earnest at your screen. It's in earnest, as I can't actually hear you through the screen. Geez, we can land a craft on a comet but I can't hear someone shouting at me through the internet, someone has got their priorities mixed!

Within space there are many comets. I'm sure most of you have heard of the very well-known Halley's Comet. Well, we're not aiming for that, you took a wrong turning somewhere if you ended up there. Where this mission is aiming for is a particular comet by the name of 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko. Catchy, no? From here on out I think we'll stick with the common shortening of Comet 67P or 67P

Discovered on the 20th of September, 1969 by the comet's namesake's Soviet astronomers Churyumov and Gerasimenko, (and whoever said that scientists couldn't come up with original naming schemes?), 67P has an irregularly shaped nucleus of two distinct lobes. The larger of these two lobes is ~4.1x3.2x1.3 km and the smaller is ~2.5x2.5x2 km. There are various ways the comet could have formed this way, potentially through a collision of two other comets, through a gravitational affect or through asymmetric sublimation of its surface ice. It is currently orbiting the sun every 6.45 years or so and performing one rotation every 12.4 hours. A comet's orbit will be regularly changing due to the gravitational effect of other objects, particularly when they pass nearby Jupiter, a rather large mass of a planet that also happens to be a major reason why we exist at all! But more about that another time. The current orbital characteristics of 67P are ~8.5x108 km and ~1.86x108 km aphelion and perihelion respectively with its orbit passing between Earth and Jupiter. Aphelion is the comet's furthest distance from the sun and the perihelion is its closest distance to the sun. And the comet is currently about 510 million km away from Earth

The specific landing site is designated 'J' and is located on the 'head' of the comet and was selected on the balance of scientific potential, nearby activity and minimising risk to the lander. Images and more details can be found here.

Phew, OK, there were a fair few number there but they were necessary. And numbers are fun anyway! I know elephants are often used as analogues to help form a relative scale and image in ones head so', to help out, the Comet 67P is approximately the size of 1360 stacked elephants and is ~170 billion stacked elephants away or ~40,000 Earth's away - these scales are mind boggling I know!


The scales of numbers involved here are considerably smaller thankfully but still a little complicated. The most timely event occurred yesterday (12 November, 2014 1535 UTC) when the landing craft touched down on the comet. The mission and the whole sequence of events that led up to this point however, started more than 20 years ago. 

The mission was approved in November 1993, ignoring all the of the planning, research, development and building that then occurred, the Rosetta mission launched on 2 March, 2004 from Kourou in French Guiana. The space craft then spent the next 10 years travelling to the comet with various key milestones explained below. The total planned mission life time is about 12 years, nominally planned to end in December 2015 once the comet has passed around the sun and is en-route back towards the outer solar system.

Key Milestones

  • March 2005 - Rosetta caught up with the Earth for its first gravity assist (more on this later)
  • July 2005 - heading to Mars, Rosetta analysed the collusion between Deep Impact's impactor and the comet Tempel-1
  • February 2007 - flyby of Mars for its second gravity assist
  • November 2007 - flyby of Earth for its third gravity assist in order to reach the asteroid belt
  • September 2008 - analysis of asteroid Steins as Rosetta passed within 1700 km
  • November 2009 - final gravity assist from Earth
  • July 2010 - analysis of asteroid Lutetio as Rosetta passed within 3000 km
  • May 2011 - Rosetta goes into hibernation mode to conserve power as it heads into the outer solar system, almost 1 billion km from the Sun, the craft's solar arrays are unable to gather much energy
  • January 2014 - Rosetta comes out of hibernation and begins post-hibernation procedures, ground control is able to communicate with the satellite again and begins updating software to upgrade the rather slow information transfer rate of 8 b/s
  • May - August 2014 - Rosetta performs 10 orbital correction manoeuvres to align itself for touch down, slow down and begin to orbit the comet
  • August 2014 - Rosetta begins to orbit Comet 67P
  • September 2014 - Rosetta begins its first observation and analysis of the comet
  • November 2014 - the Philae lander craft successfully touches down on the surface of the comet

Future Milestones

  • March 2015 - lander likely to become too hot to operate due to proximity to the sun
  • August 2015 - comet will pass its perihelion to the sun
  • December 2015 - nominal mission end
A nice and simple section and lots of what is mentioned here will be explained in further detail below.

What and How

I figured these two questions are probably simpler to group together so the discussion of 'how' can be with its respective 'what'. There's no way I can fully go into and explain the mission and all its juicy details here but I will do my best to give a decent summary of what's happening out there.


Let's start with what the heck is a comet, besides that thing that we were aiming to land on? Comets are basically big balls of ice, dust formed in the outer reaches of the Solar System some 4.6 billion years ago during the early stages of development of our Sun and Solar System. This is in opposition to asteroids which are generally made up of rock and metal also from ~4.6 billion years ago during the formation of the solar system. However, there is no clear boundary between comets and asteroids and there are many similarities between them and many comets will ultimately become asteroids once the volatile components are gone. Meteors and meteorites are solid piece of debris that can originate from either comets or asteroids and enter the Earth's atmosphere. Meteors burn up completely in the atmosphere (shooting stars) whilst meteorites survive the journey through the atmosphere and actually impact the Earth's surface. They can range in size from tiny to huge (hope you never see a huge one) with the most recent notable event being the Russian 2013 event. This was the event in February 2013 where a 17m, 10,000 ton asteroid exploded in the atmosphere above Chelyabinsk, Russia at 19 km/s producing a very bright fireball and large explosion damaging over 7200 buildings and causing almost 1500 injuries (mostly from shattered glass). 

There are billions of comets and asteroids in the solar system, even though they rarely appear in the news. The most famous of these is Halley's Comet and the asteroid from Armageddon. In general, only comets will form those distinctive 'tails' one imagines. This is from the volatiles sublimating (transition from solid directly to gas) in the heat of the sun. The 'tail' of the comet isn't actually dependent on the direction the comet is travelling but is always pointing directly away from the sun.

Rosetta Mission

As you may have guess by this point, the Rosetta Mission is an ESA operation aiming to perform a detailed analysis of Comet 67P as well as several other smaller objectives. Rosetta is the world's 11th cometary mission (10th launched - more details here) but is achieving many historic firsts. These include:
  • First spacecraft to orbit a comet's nucleus
  • First spacecraft to fly alongside a comet towards the inner Solar System
  • First spacecraft to examine how a frozen comet is transformed by the heat of the sun, in close proximity
  • First controlled touchdown on a comet nucleus
  • First images obtained from a comet's surface
  • First in-situ analysis of a comet
  • First European close encounter with objects from the main asteroid belt
  • First spacecraft to fly close to Jupiter with its main power source being solar cells
This mission will be completed using two craft - a robotic space probe orbiter Rosetta and the robotic lander Philae.

Rosetta Probe

The Rosetta Orbiter is a 2.8 x 2.1 x 2.0m aluminium box comprised of scientific instruments, subsystems, communications dish, two large solar panels, the propulsion system as well as carrying the Philae Lander craft. The probe's objective was not merely to navigate to the comet and drop the lander; there is an array of eleven instruments that will actually be performing the primary, most important, long-term scientific investigations of the comet meaning that even if the lander fails, the mission can still be classified as a success. Images here.

The Rosetta probe is named after the famous Rosetta stone. This 762lg slab of basalt was paramount in unravelling the mysteries of ancient Egypt as the stone contained the hieroglyphics and Demotic script used by the Egyptian civilisation and Ancient Greek which was readily understood by modern historians. By comparing the two sets of writings it was possible to piece together an understanding of the glyphs. As the Rosetta stone provided a gateway to an ancient civilisation, the Rosetta Mission will also allow scientists a look back 4.6 billion years to a time before the planets of the Solar System even existed. As an interesting side note, the Rosetta spacecraft is also carrying a Rosetta Disc. This is a nickel allow disc micro-etched with 13,000 pages of text in 1200 different languages, donated by the Long Now Foundation.

Obviously a very important objective of the probe was getting to the comet in the first place. This was achieved through the use of vertical thrust tube and then 24 small thrusters for trajectory and attitude control. Each of these thrusters delivers a force of ~10 Newtons, or about the same force experience by someone holding a bag of apples (1kg). Over half of the payload of the craft is dedicated to fuel (~1670kg of ~3000kg). As discussed earlier, the Rosetta spacecraft had to perform four gravity assist manoeuvres in order to reach Comet 67P. These 'gravity assists' are slingshot manoeuvres to reach the required exit velocity as no existing rocket has the capability to send such a large craft directly to the comet. The journey is beautifully visualised here.

The probe rendezvoused with the comet in August of this year where it performed a series of manoeuvres to place it in orbit around 67P ~30km above the surface where it could then unceremoniously dump little Philae after analysing the comet's surface. Image of the asteroid from the probe here. And talk about a killer selfie!


The Rosetta orbiter craft contains 11 instruments with which to carry out scientific analysis:

  • ALICE - Ultraviolet Imaging Spectrometer, used to analyse gases in the comet's tail and atmosphere (the coma) and the surface composition
  • CONSERT - Comet Nucleus Sounding Experiment by Radiowave Transmission, used to analyse the comet's interior through analysis of reflected and scattered radio waves
  • COSIMA - Cometary Secondary Ion Mass Analyser, used to analyse the dust grains emitted by the comet
  • GIADA - Grain Impact Analyser and Dust Accumulator, measures dust grain characteristics (number, mass, momentum, velocity distribution) from the comet nucleus as well as other directions
  • MIDAS - Micro-Imaging Dust Analysis System, measures dust environment characteristics (particle population, size, volume, shape)
  • MIRO - Microwave Instrument for the Rosetta Orbiter, used to determine the abundance of various gases emitted from the comet, the surface outgassing rate and the surface temperature of the comet
  • OSIRIS - Optical, Spectroscopic and Infrared Remote Imaging, used to obtain high-resolution images of the comet, equipped with a wide- and narrow-angle camera
  • ROSINA - Rosetta Orbiter Spectrometer for Ion and Neutral Analysis, used to analyse the composition of the comet's atmosphere and ionosphere, velocities of electrified gas particles, their respective reactions and as a secondary device for investigating potential surface outgassing
  • RPC - Rosetta Plasma Consortium, comprised of five sensors to measure the physical properties of the comet, examine the structure of the inner coma, monitor activity and analyse the interaction of the comet with solar wind
  • RSI - Radio Science Investigation, used to determine the density and internal structure of the comet, define the comet's orbit and study the inner coma using radio signals to measure the mass and gravity of the nucleus.
  • VIRTIS - Visible and Infrared Thermal Imaging Spectrometer, maps and analyses the solids and temperature of the comet surface as well as identifying gases and physical conditions of the coma to determine the best landing sites
VIRTIS, ALICE and OSIRIS (the imaging and plasma instruments) were used during the Earth flybys for calibration. These instruments were then used as well as MIRO during the Mars flyby to analyse the Martian atmosphere.

Rosetta also performed two asteroid flybys as discussed earlier as well as observing an asteroid fragment in conjunction with the Hubble Space Telescope. Rosetta was able to determine that the first asteroid, 2867 Steins, exhibits a loosely bound rubble-pile structure and was also the first E-type asteroid to be observed close-up. E-type asteroids have a surface comprised of the mineral enstatite (MgSiO3) and exhibit a high albedo (measure of reflection coefficient, or how much light is reflected from the surface) of 0.3 or higher. The second asteroid flyby of 21 Lutetia observed that the asteroid had a surprisingly high density and surface composition thought previously to only exist on larger asteroids. This third flyby was of asteroid fragment P/2010 A2 where Rosetta analysed its dust tail in conjunction with Hubble to confirm that it was indeed an asteroid and not a comet and the dust tail is likely due to particles ejected from an impact with a smaller asteroid.

Philae Lander

The Philae Lange is a little (1 x 1 x 0.8m) 100kg robot designed to perform the first ever controlled touchdown on a comet nucleus. The structures consists of carbon fibre baseplate, instrument platform and a polygonal sandwich construction with a solar panel hood and three legs to provide a gentle touchdown which can rotate, lift and tilt to return the lander to an upright position. Its primary objectives are to focus on the "elemental, isotopic, molecular and mineralogical composition of the cometary material, the characterisation of the physical properties of the surface and subsurface material, the large-scale structure and the magnetic and plasma environment of the nucleus." source These samples will differ from the orbiter's and previous gathered dust samples in that they will be in-situ and so will still contain its volatile components and their original physical characteristics unaffected by heat or impact. Images of the lander can be seen here.

The lander is named after the Philae Obelisk, one of two obelisks found at Philae in Egypt which was used in conjunction with the Rosetta stone to decipher Egyptian hieroglyphics as it contained bilingual inscriptions in hieroglyphics and Ancient Greek.

Philae deployed from Rosetta on the 12 November this year from its stable orbit (images of departure here). This was a 7 hour journey along a ballistic trajectory that would result in an impact velocity of ~1m/s (image from 40m before touchdown here). As discussed previously, this is the first ever controlled touchdown on a comet as opposed to NASA's Deep Impact probe that effective crashed itself into another comet (on purpose) in 2005 to perform its analysis. So Philae's design concentrated heavily on safely and securely getting this craft onto the comet surface, a feat not to be underestimated as the escape velocity (the velocity needed to break free of the gravity of an object) of the comet is only ~0.5m/s (1.8km/h - you could literally jump off this thing).

First up are the lander's three legs, allowing a landing on a surface up to a 30º angle. These were designed to absorb and dampen the initial impact upon the surface. The three legs each have large pads to distribute its weight in the event of landing on a soft surface and the instrumentation can still operate in the scenario that the surface is so soft the lander doesn't stop until it sinks to the belly of the bulky body. On the bottom of each of these pads is an ice screw designed to be driven into the surface of the comet upon the initial impact. Next up are twin harpoons that would fire into the surface upon touchdown at 70m/s to anchor the craft to the surface. And finally, a thruster on top of the craft would fire to reduce the recoil from both the initial impact and the harpoon firing.

Unfortunately, this landing all went a bit wrong. The harpoons failed to fire and the top-thruster was not functioning. The harpoons were meant to be fired using 0.3g of nitrocellulose which was unfortunately shown to be unreliable in a vacuum environment in 2013, an official reason for the top thruster not firing has not been released as of yet, but unfortunately things do go wrong with pioneering experiments, not to mention 10 years flying through space. So Philae ended up bouncing. Three times! The first ricochet occurred immediately after impact and sent the lander upwards of 800m off the surface. With a bit of luck added into the mix of the excellent design of the lander, the weak gravity of the comet pulled the lander back down... after two hours. Two more gentle bounces occurred after this and the lander ended up over 1km away from its planned landing site. Not only this, but it only has two of its three feet on the ground, is completely un-anchored and is sitting in the shade of a rather large cliff. But it did successfully touch down on the surface!!! First photo from final touchdown here. And image of the target site, rebound sites and final site here (crosshairs - target site, blue lines - bounce sites, red square - final landing. The second image clearly shows the rather shady area where Philae settled.

This shade is a rather large issue as the lander needs to be powered by its solar panels and its battery can only power the lander for 60 hours. This has left the ESA scientists with two options: the first is to let Philae go back into hibernation mode and hope that the rotation of the comet brings it around to a better angle of the sun as it's currently only receiving ~1.5 hours of sunlight rather than the expected 6-7 hours, but this is by no means definitely going to occur. The second option is to try and reposition the lander by using some of the on-board instrumentation to jolt and jump the craft. This is a rather tricky problem having to take into account the lander's angle, its position, the spin of the comet and the force able to be generated from the equipment.

And because scientists don't tend to shy away from challenges (like you know landing a space craft on a comet) and because they're generally just bad-asses, they've elected to try the second option. With only ~20 hours of battery life left, ESA have activated the lander's drill. This could result in the lander being pushed away from the surface as the drill presses down, or if the drill manages to proceed into the surface at all, the resultant torque force could cartwheel the lander into a new position. Either of these could result in the lander being moved into a better position or possibly toppling the craft and ending the mission for Philae right then. If the lander is still alive after the drilling there are a few more radical actions that can be taken. There is a hammer on-board used to measure the hardness of the surface that could be used, the legs could be used to try and hop the lander into sunlight (though this will be very tricky with only two feet on the surface) or the failed harpoons or thruster systems can be attempted to be re-activated. It's going to be an exciting few hours regardless of what happens.

If all of this manages to get the lander into a better position the actual operating time of the lander is anything but certain. The survival of Philae is dependent on many factors, including its initial landing, power supply, temperature and surface activity. Dust may end up covering the solar panels more quickly than anticipated, especially with this bumpy start, and prevent the batteries from charging. But regardless of this, the operational lifetime of Philae will probably not last beyond March 2015 when the proximity to the sun will render the lander too hot to run.


Philae carries 10 instruments totalling ~21kg, some of which are beneath its hood of solar cells.

  • APXS - Alpha X-ray Spectrometer, used to detect alpha particles and x-rays to analyse the elemental composition of the surface
  • ÇIVA - six cameras used to take panoramic pictures (check it out here) as well as a spectrometer to analyse composition, texture and albedo of collected samples
  • CONSERT - Comet Nucleus Sounding Experiment by Radiowave Transmission, using radio waves from the CONSERT instrumentation on the orbiter, probes the internal structure of the comet through a analysing the penetrating waves to the lander's transponder
  • COSAC - Cometary Sampling and Composition experiment), one of two evolved gas analysers used to detect and identify complex organic molecules from their elemental and molecular composition
  • PTOLEMY - the second evolved gas analyser used to obtain accurate readings of isotopic ratios of light elements
  • MUPUS - Multi-Purpose Sensors for Surface and Subsurface Science, measures density, thermal and mechanical properties of the comet surface using sensors on Philae's anchor, probe and exterior
  • ROLIS - Rosetta Lander Imaging System, a CCD camera (an alternative type of sensor to the more common CMOS type allowing higher quality images) used to obtain images during descent and areas analysed by other instruments
  • ROMAP - Rosetta Lander Magnetometer and Plasma Monitor, used to study the magnetic field of the comet and its interaction with solar wind
  • SD2 - Sample and Distribution Device, Philae's drill that will penetrate more than 20cm into the surface, collect and deliver samples to different ovens or instruments. Now also a big hope to being able to relocate the lander to a landing area with more light
  • SESAME - Surface Electrical Sounding and Acoustic Monitoring Experiments, comprised of three instruments in itself: CASSE (Cometary Acoustic Sounding Surface Experiment), PP (Permittivity Probe) and DIM (Dust Impact Monitor). These measure the way sound travels through the surface, the surface's electrical properties and analyses the dust falling back to the surface respectively.

Why Why Why?

OK. Deep breath. You've made it this far (I hope) and you're finally going to be rewarded (besides the lovingly assembled and brilliantly written article above you) with why in all hell are we doing this and why indeed you should care!

So Why Are We Doing This?

Why did we send a 3 tonne hunk of metal hurtling nearly 6.5 billion km to land on a piece of dirty ice? Alright, so specifically speaking, how life began on Earth is one the biggest questions in modern science.  Previous observations showed that comets contain complex organic molecules (molecules rich in carbon, hydrogen, oxygen and nitrogen - the pre-requisites for life as we know it) as well as nucleic and amino acids - the building blocks of our DNA. Whilst it is unlikely that biological cells evolved on comets, the prevalent theory is that during the formation of Earth, comets bombarded the proto-planet billions of years ago bringing the essential ingredients for not only water, but life. These ancient remnants from the formation of the Solar System will also allow for further understanding and development of models pertaining to the formation of planets, the development of hospitable planets and even potentially life.

If Philae survives it will also test some hypotheses pertaining as to why essential amino acids are predominantly 'left-handed'. This refers to how atoms are arranged around their central carbon core where a 'left-' and a 'right-handed' molecule are mirror images of each other. 

Alright, but we've observed comets before why do it again?

Prior to Rosetta, very little is really known about how a comet works and even this mission will only allow us a further step in the understanding. Previous missions may have observed comets at close quarters but Rosetta is much more advanced and ambitious and will not be limited to simple snap-shots from fly-bys. With Rosetta being comprised of an orbiter and a lander it is able to investigate the comet nucleus and coma over a long period of time as well as the development as it transitions towards the sun and goes from inactive to giving off hundreds of kg of debris every second. Operation Stardust was able to capture some black and white imagery and some dust samples from the comets tail - but as mentioned before, these will have already lost their volatile components and the method of capture involves a lot of heat as the captured particle decelerates very quickly and will affects its physical composition. Deep Impact was impact was able to fill in some more gaps when it landed on a comet but its instrument package was nowhere near as comprehensive or advanced as Rosetta's. Basically, Rosetta can investigate the composition and behaviour of a comet in-situ which is a huge development.

Fine. But Why Should I Care!? I'm not a scientist.

OK, let's break it down.

First, it's fucking awesome! It's amazing and cool and interesting and epitomises everything that makes the human race great and unique - curiosity, exploration and innovation.

Onto slightly more practical reasons. At a cost of 1.4 billion Euros, the Rosetta mission seems pretty damn expensive. But thanks to physicist Andrew Steele who broke down the costs into a nice comparison on his website Scienceogram, we can see that we've actually got one hell of a bargain price on this mission! For the same price as 4 Airbus A380 we've sent a craft rather a lot farther than they're capable of! And over the course of the mission (1996-2015), the total cost per person in Europe is ~3.50, or 0.20 per person per year. So really not a bad way to spend a few pennies of your tax money.

And whilst it is hard to put a hard value on what we get back out of the mission, I think it's glaringly obviously worth it. To start with there are all the jobs that have been created through the research, development, building and operation as well as all the support jobs that go along with these positions. Another immediate pay-off is the engineering spin-offs and know how. The contribution and advancement of human knowledge has huge relevance to everyday life both practically and philosophically. Directly from the Rosetta project is the advancement in solar technology made possible through the development of the space craft. Since ESA did not possess the nuclear power technology used in other spacecraft, they went the solar route. More broadly speaking, if particle physicists hadn't had a need to share data effectively, there would be no internet!

Next up let's look at the inspirational factor. Technology advancement in general and space travel in particular has always been a huge motivator for dreamers and thinkers to come up with ideas. This event could easily be the motivation for a whole swathe of new young minds to enter into the scientific world, further advancing our knowledge and leading to who knows what?

Now let's look politically. This is an example of global cooperation and success in an ever more fractious time. Scientists and engineers from more than 20 countries have been working together since 1996 to make this possible! Not just within Europe, but ESA has worked with NASA on this operation as well.

Now this next one has nothing to do with science. It's beautiful! Look at the images in the article above, check out all the images here, hell there is even a five minute AUDIO recording from the Comet 67P!!! Check it out here. I'm sure you've heard that in space, no one can hear you scream. But we've managed to record a comet! And even loads of other sounds from outer space, check them out here. Whilst the sounds from the comet wouldn't have been audible to normal human hearing, it's amazing that we can even record this data let alone convert it into something we can hear and feel. The sounds are said to come from oscillations in the magnetic field around the comet and occur in the 40-50 millihertz range.

Another big reason. At some point in the future (I imagine sooner than you may think), we WILL be mining minerals and water from asteroids and comets. That's a whole story in itself but if you're interested then head here. Everyone needs the products of mining to survive. If it can't be grown, it has to be mined! Everything around you is built from the products of mining and need more resources every day as the human population expands and the technology advances. Resources on Earth are getting harder to find and mine and pretty soon, asteroid mining is actually going to be the more cost effective method of obtaining raw materials.

I'm sure a plethora of other reasons could be discussed, but I will finish with this one: the very survival of the human race depends on this mission and others like it. Many notable scientists have stated as such including Stephen Hawking and Carl Sagan. Whilst we will colonise the moon and Mars in the not too distant future, nowhere will be found as hospitable as Earth without leaving the star system. Earth won't last forever. Be it global warming, nuclear war, genetically resistant disease, an asteroid impact or the eventual heat death of the sun in ~5 billion years, if the human species is to survive in the long term we have the responsibility to venture out to other worlds. And the data, research and technology achieved through these programs gets us a step closer to achieving this every time.

Now that last paragraph may seem a bit doomsday and negative and even scary. But just think of how exciting the prospect is of exploring the rest of the universe! I hope the only reason we spread out into the universe is for peaceful reasons, I have slightly more pragmatic views, but regardless it is a necessity as the population continues to expand and I can't wait to see the developments that will happen in my lifetime.

Thank you

If you made it all the way through this beast of an article, thank you so much for taking the time to read it! I hope you enjoyed it and please chime in your opinions and comments. Discussion is always good!

Tuesday, 11 November 2014


If your life was a story, what is the title of your current chapter?

I recently came across this question whilst spending some of my far too abundant time online. Using some of my other time I also started listening to audio books a few weeks ago. I've never actually listened to audio books before but I found it as an awesome way to manage to get through more of the books I want to read faster. I'm sure at least some of you will understand the relationship between books I own/want to read and books I actually manage to read. Please see the very scientific graph below illustrating this relationship:

As this graph demonstrates the exponential amount of books that I want to read quickly out paces the linear amount of books that I am able to read, and this dear bibliophiles is clearly quite an issue.

So back to audio books. This effectively doubles my reading ability and also provided both excellent amusement as my cycles got longer and music no longer was making the cut, and also excellent motivation to get back on the bike to find out what is happening. So I started listening to Patrick Rothfuss' "The Kingkiller Chronicles" whilst reading Steven Erikson's "Malazan Book of the Fallen".

Let's start with the Malazan series. Click here to get yourself started or support your local bookstore!

This is an epic fantasy series of ten volumes and is a complete series. And for anyone out there who doesn't enjoy reading fantasy series themselves, having a complete series, especially if that series also happens to be awesome! The fact that there are also five further novellas, six canonical novels by the Malazan Universe co-creator Ian Cameron Esslemont, two further incomplete follow-on trilogies, and a yet to be published extensive guide to the series just makes the Malazan Universe even more exciting knowing that I'm going to be able to enjoy it for years to come. I've been reading these books for a few months now based on the recommendation of a friend and they are fantastic. There are a huge number of diverse characters that you get to know slowly and whilst the plot build-up of each book can be a little bit slow to begin with, the picture that is painted using this process produces an absolutely amazing climatic end of each book that has you reading longer into the night with each chapter and excited to start the next in the series.

And now The Kingkiller Chronicle. First one here or go peruse the shelves at your local book store!

I do actually have the physical copies of these books as well, even though I'm listening to the audio books. But I also have most of the physical copies of my e-books as well. I love books! Books books books! One word that won't lose meaning no matter how many times you repeat it!

I was introduced to this series whilst perusing the shelves of Elizabeth's Bookshop in Perth. It was heavily recommended to me by one of the staff of the store upon seeing the hearty pile of books I had placed on the counter to purchase. She was so enthusiastic about it I excitedly agreed to start the series. Over to the shelves we went, only to find the second book in the series... I was physically deflated upon not finding this book as I really wanted to read it after the recommendation. And so I went into the store regularly for months hoping it would come back in. For anyone who's not lived in Western Australia, books can be rather hard to come by and insanely expensive to boot, plus I enjoyed this book store and was happy to give them my custom. But every time I went looking, every time I was let down. But I eventually managed to track it down once I returned to the UK, and thankfully it was worth the wait!

The Kingkiller Chronicle is a fantasy trilogy of which two of the volumes are so far released. There is also one released and unreleased novella and one novel on different characters from the books and a further trilogy from the same universe planned. These books are a story of two threads: the first is of the 'present' day protagonist Kvothe (pronounced nearly the same as "quothe") and the other is of Kvothe's life story told in the first person narrative. It is presented in the form of him telling his autobiography to the character Chronicler with each book representing one day of the story telling. It is full of action, suspense and evokes plenty of empathy, allowing you to really get into the book. I have loved every word of this book including every word of character and plot development and I have moved on to listening at many other times besides cycling as I can't stay away from it.

And this book is what brings me to my chapter. Within the Kingkiller books, when we are with Kvothe in the 'present' day, the chapters are title 'Interlude'. Don't worry I won't actually reveal any spoilers. At this point in time in the books Kvothe is laying low, he is not his normal self and he is doing very little. And this is the point I find myself at now myself.

I came back to the UK in May and finished travelling around the end of August with a couple of very slow weeks in June applying for jobs as well. I spent my time applying for dozens of jobs, received a handful of replies and got one offer exactly two months ago in another stroke of serendipity. Two months! And I still don't have a start date. I can't do a huge amount with my time as unfortunately I don't have an income and money makes the world go around as much as anyone may hate that sentiment. If nothing else, petrol costs money. So I find myself waiting around, going slowly crazy, getting increasingly irritated with the state of the economy and human resource departments and not quite slowly dwindling my remaining savings on Christmas errands and getting out of the house enough to not go insane. So here's hoping to a rapid resolution of the seemingly convoluted hiring process. Apparently choosing to leave the country at all is a big negative check mark on the CV... Who would have thought in 2014?

So anyway, if anyone else wants to share your current chapter then feel free to comment below! I would love to hear your stories.

Until the next time.

Monday, 3 November 2014

Cakes, Puppies and Kittens!

So it's been 7 months today since I last wrote or released anything on here. This revival isn't timed purposely, it's just serendipity that makes it a nice round number.

Quite a lot has happened since then. I will very quickly summarise:

  • I travelled around New Zealand
  • I returned to the UK
  • I travelled around the UK and Ireland
  • I decided I want to get a job again
  • I have got a job offer
  • I have been doing A LOT of waiting.
And that last point is what ultimately brings me back here. I have nothing but time on my hands. I received a job offer about 2 months ago now but am still going through the various reference and security checks required and I still have no indication of when I might actually be starting... But enough of that for now.

I'm sure no one was hugely disappointed when I stopped posting, and I'm sure no one will be particularly excited that I'm back on here again but hey, just like photos of holidays are more for the person on vacation than to those they show them to, I'm sure some parallels can be drawn to blogging. Anyway, I stopped writing after the post about my Grannie. I released two more posts, but they had already been written before hand and all I had to do was press Publish. I just didn't really feel like writing after that and decided to just enjoy my time in New Zealand. That's somewhere I've wanted to to go for a very long time and even almost ended up moving there for work a couple months ago so I'm sure I will write the back logs of at least some of my travels still.

But for the moment, a slight detour on my normal travel writing and onto the subject of this post. I will have to admit, I have mislead you all slightly. Whilst I really want a puppy, this post is not about puppies or dogs. And whilst I really do not want a kitten, this post is not about that either. However, this post is about cakes! So into the moist, delicious heart of the matter.

If anyone recalls from the post about my Grannie (recap here if anyone really wants), I showed an image of Grannie at my cousin's wedding and mentioned that the rest of our chances have dropped significantly since losing Grannie's influence. Well, somehow, my eldest brother Ben has managed to convince, trick, blackmail or otherwise coerce someone into agreeing to marry him!

That's right:

Somehow, this...
Has managed to go to this.
I believe this is a classic case of what one might classify as punching above one's weight. But take heart; if Ben can manage this - so can you! Stay tuned for his best selling novel telling you all the secrets to a successful relationship!

All of this is in good jest, and far more importantly and more excitedly is my role in this: I have been asked to make their wedding cake! See, we got to cake eventually.

I'm sure many of you know that I love to bake and I'm sure many of you also know that I have made a couple of wedding cakes before. I ended up making two for one wedding for a very good friend of mine a couple years ago.

Now I wasn't blogging at the time so didn't document the process at all but it was a rather interesting time. I had moved to Australia about a month before their wedding and so flew back shortly after settling in. I was staying at their house and had ordered a whole bunch of baking supplies to get there in time for me arriving as all of my possessions were still in transit on a boat from the UK to Australia. So it was using an unfamiliar mixer, all new equipment and someone else's oven and all at the same time as having to make last minute preparations, shopping for clothes for myself for the wedding and also seeing some friends in my short time in the UK. It was a fun few days leading up to the wedding and the wedding was an excellent day and the whole process went fairly smoothly apart from one slight mistake of icing the wrong cake with the wrong icing. But I won't go on for the moment as this is already getting quite lengthy. See below the final products!

As I'm sure you can tell from the picture there was a cake for the bride and one for the groom as they both had different preferences for flavours. And yes those are Daleks bedecked in a veil and top hat. The bride's cake is lemon cake with my famous lemon curd filling and frosted in vanilla butter cream. The groom's cake is chocolate fudge with a strawberry coulis filling (I think) and a white chocolate Swiss butter cream frosting, complimented by white and dark chocolate tuxedo'd strawberries. I was given free reign on creative control after the initial flavour suggestions and I can honestly say that I am very proud of the results, but that creative control was rather stressful for someone else's wedding. So with that experience, I told Ben's fiancée Amy (obviously the one in charge of these kinds of decisions) that I wouldn't be taking quite such a leading role in these decisions this time which she was more than happy with. So with a bit of discussion so far, final decisions have yet to be made but it looks like I'll be heading down a more traditional style cake this time. But, to make sure that my life won't be too easy, the cake will have to be completely gluten free for allergy reasons. This should be an interesting challenge as I have not done much in the way of any gluten free cooking before as I love my gluten, but at least I have my own mixer and equipment this time. But that does mean that I should have plenty of test cakes to eat (and maybe even share) over the next few months.

I'm sure that's enough writing to chew on for the moment! So until the next time.

Thursday, 3 April 2014

Humans of Perth

I was stopped in the street shortly before I left Perth by a very nice guy who's started a blog based on Brendan Stanton's 'Humans of New York'. He captures a photos a brief quote from a question he asks.

Here's my entry.

But check out the rest of his blog too: Humans of Perth, it's a very interesting read.

Saturday, 29 March 2014

The Importance of Eating Right

As Virginia Woolf once wrote, "One cannot think well, love well, sleep well, if one has not dined well."

And I'm a firm believer in that food can really make most situations an enjoyable one. You can be freezing, burning, bored, tired, embarrassed, hurting, dripping wet, dirty, or any innumerable other horrible things, and a good meal or a nice snack can make the world of difference. Food can also make good things amazing: snacking and reading, blogging and eating chocolate cake and coffee, walking and ice cream, food and sex, you name it - there isn't much that I can think of that can't be improved upon with some food!

But what do you do when you are cold, wet and miserable in the middle of nowhere, a long way from your nice fully stocked fridge and household of cooking appliances. Same thing you would do if you were there, cook! This is my kitchen out here:

I've made stews, curries, pasta sauces, roast beef, stir fry, pancakes, porridge, salads, the list can go on and on. And all on these little stoves running on unleaded fuel 6 inches from the ground.

One great time that comes to mind is when we were in Coral Bay. We headed over to cook in the camp kitchen using my stoves rather than by the tent to be a bit sociable. All around us people were cooking pasta with tinned tuna, pasta and tinned tomatoes, pasta and ketchup (!!!). And we begin chopping up all these fresh vegetables and putting together a rich, spicy, aromatic vegetable curry with the flavours wafting throughout the kitchen. People kept stealing glances in our direction the whole time. As it was dished out, steaming and colourful, people openly stared at our plates before forlornly looking back at their own camping creations. 

It doesn't take much, just a bit of thought and will to spend the extra few minutes on something fantastic!

I think Scott Adams best summed up my feelings towards food and cake, "I love you like a fat kid loves cake." - Meta, I know.

On a side note - I also won a bet that night that I could eat a curry upside down.

Until next time!

Thursday, 20 March 2014

A Tribute to the Humble Without Reason

You know how hard it is to begin writing an essay? Or a job application? Or even sometimes just an email? Well, how the hell does one begin writing something when you feel that there is no way that you can do justice to the subject that you are about to try and honor through the medium of text? I wish I could write poetry or music or sonnets or even just be a better writer - I feel I have no business in even trying to compose a compendium on a persons life when I look around at all the examples of the far better, far more beautiful works that I read all the time. But, I can't write music, or poetry, and I can only write as well as I can at the moment - so you'll have to suffer through, and I only hope that I can do justice to someone who deserves nothing but.

Two weeks ago my Grannie died. Two days ago, she would have been 91. Yesterday was her funeral. 

Stealing a bit of thunder at her grandchild's graduation

I thought she was going to make her birthday, I selfishly hoped that she was going to last another couple months, I foolishly did not spend as much time as I should have speaking to or seeing her these past 13 years - but I feel that one will always think that when someone is no longer there. And here I am, over 16,500 km away, enjoying myself on the east coast of Australia. Racked with guilt for having the audacity to enjoy myself at such a time, not being there when she died, for not being there for the funeral, for not being there to support my Mum who just lost her mother and best friend; all compounded by being torn apart by feeling some sense of relief for not being there - no matter what people say to you, you feel like a terrible person for even having an inkling of those kind of feelings. 

I'm not good at emotions (and yes I've written it like that on purpose). I feel awkward, ashamed and emasculated at the prospect of displaying how I feel openly (god-forbid). I much prefer to maintain a stoic, controlled façade with which I can calmly deal with what's going on around me. Now this is great a lot of the time and means I can think clearly in times of high stress or emergencies, however, it's not an ideal way to go through life in terms of dealing with grief, etc. And I this is why I've chosen to try and write something instead. I've stayed quiet this week on the blogging front as a sign of respect for the passing, and now I will try to honor my Grannie, Wendy's, memory. 

Here goes everything...

Grannie at her 90th birthday
I've obviously known my Grannie for the past 26 years, since I was born. I have many memories of her coming to visit us in America always bringing with her British sweets, Dandy and Beano comics and ham sandwiches (quite illegally of course but also for some reason one of the most vivid things I remember about helping her unpack her suitcase). I also remember visiting her in Britain on several occasions growing up, my main memories of these times again being the sweets, collectible football stickers and the river across the road from her Bungalow in North Wales.

Outside her bungalow of  30 years, early this year with all of her children and grandchildren -  I think I have more hair there than everyone else combined...

I moved to the UK a week after I had turned 13 with my mum and three brothers. In what epitomises the very essence of Wendy, she welcomed us with open arms to her two bedroom bungalow where we lived for the first few months before Mum could find a place for herself. Just over a year later, my dad died. We had moved out by that point but we spend the next few days back at my Gran's house. My reaction when I got the news back at the house, was to promptly walk out of the lounge, away from everyone, into my Grannie's room and promptly lie face down on the bed and not talk to anyone for about a day (see - emotionally retarded from a young age). Instead of coming to bother me or move me, I was left there and Grannie happily took the fold out sofa to leave me with myself. From this point on, Grannie stepped up even more than she already had to help raise me and my brothers and support Mum. From babysitting, helping with school, preparing in the mornings, feeding or punishing (Grannie had very hard hands for a good spanking - not that I'd know of course, I was an angel and never got punished and only know this from hearsay from my brothers...).

Since that time, Grannie has been such a significant, consistent and important presence in my life, that it has yet to really click that she is no longer there. Nothing has technically changed for me yet, having been on the other side of the world for the past two years. And I can't even imagine what it's going to feel like not being able to walk the two minutes down the road to her house when I return home in a short 6 weeks time, it just doesn't even make sense in my head, as it's never happened each time I returned home to visit. It's all I can do to not try and delay the inevitable return. I'm just very happy that I decided to book a surprise trip back over Christmas so that I was able to see one last time, say some semblance of goodbye and have her see me in a considerably better spirit than I had sounded for the past couple years, else I don't know if I would have ever seen her again, not being originally due back again until May this year, though knowing her, she probably would have stoically and stubbornly hung in there until I had made it back.

My brothers and me with Grannie. I'm the upside down one (not much has changed), and I'm fairly sure that Ben has Nick in a death grapple rather than a hug (also not much changed).
Wendy was a talented and worldly woman with a plethora of talents and amazing personal qualities. She enjoyed gardening, reading, tapestry, woodwork and going to the theatre all the way through her life until she unfortunately became significantly partially sighted a few years ago. However, she never complained about this once, 'she just got on with things', as my Mum puts it, and continued to be her wonderful self. Mum aptly, summarises the wonderful person that Wendy was through the qualities that she passed on to her through example: empathy, strength, forgiveness, honesty, generosity, laughter, a sense of the ridiculous, how to listen, the importance of friendship, loyalty and an abundant capacity to live: this list could go on and on. She has even 'adopted' several children's (including my Godmother) and grandchildren's friends who may not have had a mother or grandmother of their own, fully incorporating them into her love and family including sending regular letters, Christmas cards, birthday cards and even wedding presents. As both Mum and Tina Turner phrased it - she was simply the best (the original song may or may not have been about Wendy).

Just prior to this photo, Grannie decided to have everyone yell 'Sex!' instead of the more traditional 'Cheese!'. It works very well to generate a fake or genuine smile, so feel free to adopt it for any future photos - especially in front of your grandparents, remember it was Grannie's idea!
Granny was one of the first real 'Wendys' in existence, being named as such as her mother knew James Barry, the author of 'Peter Pan' and even receiving a signed copy of the book as a christening present. She was born and grew up in Liverpool before moving to London at the age of 18 to study nursing at Guy's Hospital, working throughout the Blitz of WWII and distinctly remember trying to beat out fires in her backyard with a bin lid at the behest of her father after a particular incendiary incident. Her career perfectly suited Wendy's compassionate, empathetic and kind nature and transitioned perfectly to the role of mother and grandmother, even earning her another fairy tale nick name of 'The Pied Piper' as she took all the children from her road to school every day even after her own two children had moved on.

Wendy's life has been lived to the fullest with many adventures both known to me and unknown. These include those listed above as well as washing dishes at the Strand Palace Hotel after her date didn't have enough money to pay for their meal, getting a little tipsy and very stately on the Orient Express for her 70th birthday and even including deciding to jokingly declare that she was a lesbian if there was ever a lull in the conversation - it's definitely one way to pick the conversation back up. I can only wish now that I was able to learn more of her rich, adventure filled life in the time that I had with her.

Grannie and me before my days of being a hairy buffoon.
As only the most humble and unassuming among us can be the most deserving of a tome of recognition written about them, Wendy will be sorely missed by her friends, neighbours, community and of course her family. The world is that little less bright without her, but she is at least now at peace and without pain, having left this world "like a little flower slowly fading away" as Mum described her shortly before she died.

So please raise your glasses, hug your loved ones, love those around you unconditionally, be the best person that you can be; in the memory and honor of Wendy Stewart; mother, grandmother, friend, nurse, wife, jester, and rock to many - you will be sorely missed by many people for many years to come.

At my cousin's wedding last year, seeing the eldest of her 6 grandchildren married off from the less fighty side of the family - My brother's and my chances have dropped significantly since losing her influence.

Thursday, 13 March 2014

Kalbarri, Caves and Foreign Countires

Well, it's only been a week and I've already managed to fail at my self imposed blog update target of Sunday and Wednesday... That's why I didn't quite post it on the page yet - I knew I wasn't quite at that discipline or organisation level. But, it's still Wednesday somewhere, so I can just make the once a week secondary target if I post in the next few hours! So here we go...
Overground, underground and foreign ground

Kalbarri's calling! So we decide to do the sensible thing, and ignore the tourist information advice and do the 9km Nature's Window trek in the rather warm Western Australian summer heat. So we got there nice and early (only 36C at 0730 in the morning) and had plenty of company for the walk in the guise of hundreds of flies. 500m from the car park is the main and often only destination of this hike - a lovely natural rock arch called Nature's Window, for obvious reasons. In this time I managed to drain my camera battery, go back to the car to get a charger, get back and promptly break my cord - so not many photos for me this day.

Nature's Window
There was a lovely view admittedly, but thought we could improve on it slightly before setting off for the remaining 8.5km jaunt in the now 40C heat. 

There were some fantastic views along the way (see accompanying album), a nice little scramble along the river, a wee swim in the river (on purpose) and plenty of flies and heat. By the time we got back to the car, we were all very grateful for the air con and the slightly less fly-filled car - though this required a complex and hard to master 'fly dance' in order to get rid of all the flies and run into the car with as few still on you as possible - unfortunately we never recorded this moment. The rest of the day was a spent as a well earned break after what I liked to now refer to as the 'fox's anus walk'.
Nature's Peep Show

On the way out, there were the breathtaking red bluff, mushroom rock, eagle gorge, natural bridge and island rock. These are possible to do as a 5km walk or so or driven to separately. They were many tempting times where I wanted to get down onto the cliffs, but thought the access without ropes was a bit dodgy so I resisted this time.

Mushroom Rock - shaped like a mushroom, funnily enough
After a nice scenic morning we took an off-road detour to another country. Here we learned about the country's war with Australia, it secession, shook hands with a Prince and learnt that gravity does in fact propagate instantaneously across any distance - a fact known by this king for over 50 years, and yet somehow still being searched for by the scientific community, even though this paper is posted publicly on a billboard. 

This country is of course: Hutt River, run by HRH Prince Leonard Casley. The Principality of Hutt River is the oldest micronation within Australia which seceded on the 21st April, 1970 and is now an independent nation of 75 square kilometres. HRH Prince Leonard decided to separate from Australia when he got very annoyed with the government in 1969 during the Wheat Quotas allowing the Casleys a quota equivalent to 100 acres of wheat after many years of consistently producing 13,000 acres. After being told there were to be no compensation and the government tried to illegally reclaim a large portion of his land, Leonard decided to announce his secession. After a complex argument and legal battle with the government, Hutt River finally managed a legal Sovereignty by declaring a state of war. Three days later, Leonard declared the State of War over, and through the Laws of War, Sovereignty goes immediately to a Government undefeated in a State of War. HRH Prince Leonard has now had a rather illustrious political career, with many foreign dignitary visitors and gifts and now happily gives a personal tour of the country and a stamped passport or visa for $2.

Last stop on the update this time is Stockyard Gully Caves. These caves are located about 90 minutes south of Gerladton near Eneabba. They form an part of an underground river system that has carved out the limestone with many caves in the area, unfortunately only one open to the public. This is a 300m easy walk through the caves with various side passageways and nooks you can go exploring in. There can be bats in there if you're lucky and there are definitely feral bee hives (it is in the Beekeepers National Park after all) at the entrances so be quiet and careful! The hives were incredibly interesting in that the honeycomb was hanging directly from the cave roofs and not inside any kind of hive.

Painfully tempting
The caves are 4WD accessible only (from the south is much better access than from the north), and we managed to get George bogged after foolishly not dumping him by the side of the road. So we spent a little while digging him out, putting him to the side of the track before Claire happily continued on the soft sand track. From the car park, where you get general and safety information, it's a short hike down to the cave entrance along the river bed. Be aware that if it's due to rain or has rained recently, you should not enter the caves, flash flooding can occur and there is a sign showing the exceptionally high flood levels from back in 1998 on the way down from the car park. These caves were awesome fun and I'd really love to go back to have a play in the less easily accessible ones. Unfortunately, time, equipment and personnel made that impossible on the day. 

Onwards and southwards back towards Perth.

Until the next time.