Heavenly Choir

03 09 ivan ivanovitchGoodness, March is turning out to be quite the month for space travel. On this day in 1961,the Russians launched their spacecraft Sputnik 9. At the beginning of the 1960s, there was a huge race between Russia and the United States to be the first nation to launch a human into space. Everyone needed to learn a lot about space flight; what it would do to a human body, how to make a successful landing, and they needed to learn it quickly. Sputnik 9 was not a manned space flight, but it was an important and interesting step along the way. On March 9th 1961, a dummy was launched into space. He was named Ivan Ivanovich which is the Russian equivalent of ‘John Doe’ or ‘Joe Bloggs’.

People who were working in the space programmes were worried about the effects of the lack of gravity on the human body, about the presence of radiation and also that a human confined in a tiny capsule so far away from earth would succumb to what they called ‘space madness’. As much as they wanted to send a person into space, they wanted that person to come back safe and well. The Russians tested and retested their equipment and their final test was to send something as human as possible in an orbit around the earth.

Ivan was made mostly from metal with bendable joints because they needed to dress him in a space suit. He had a skin of synthetic leather and a detachable head. His head, they decided to make as lifelike as possible. He had eyes and eye brows, even eyelashes. Then they thought about what might happen if he crash landed in a remote area. Someone might think he was a real human, even an alien. So they taped a big label over his face with the word ‘maket’ which means mock-up. To make sure that space travel was as safe as possible for organic life, Ivan had companions. Because space was at a premium inside the capsule, they used cavities inside his body to carry forty white mice, forty black mice, some guinea pigs, various reptiles, human blood cells, human cancer cells, yeast and bacteria. In addition to this, they sent a dog with him called Chernushka, which means ‘Blackie’.

Apart from testing how all these life forms would fare, the safety of the capsule and of the space suit, they also needed to test the ejector seat mechanism that would be used on landing. Sputnik 9, could not land safely, so the pilot would need to be ejected, along with a parachute before the capsule reached the ground. Ivan could also carry, within his body, instruments that measured things like acceleration and radiation levels but they also needed to test communication between the capsule and the ground. For this, Ivan would need a voice. They knew that their transmissions would be picked up by western countries, so they had to think carefully about what Ivan would say. If it sounded like a coded message, people might think they had secretly launched a human into space and that they were being spied upon. Perhaps, they thought, a tape of someone singing a song. This was rejected because anyone who intercepted the transmission might think they had sent up a cosmonaut who had succumbed to space madness. Their solution was simple and rather beautiful. They fitted Ivan with a tape that would play a whole choir singing. There was no way anyone would think that they had sent a whole choir into space inside one tiny capsule.

So, Ivan Ivanovich was first launched into space on March 9th 1961. Sputnik 9 made a single orbit of the Earth in a journey that lasted a little over an hour and a half. The mission was a success, the ejector seat and parachute worked and the dummy was recovered. You’ll be happy to know that Chernushka, the dog, who crash-landed along with the craft also survived.

A second trial was made on March 25th. This time Ivan was accompanied by a dog called Zvezdochka which means ‘little star’. The dog was given this name by Yuri Gagarin who would, less than three weeks later, become the first human in space. This time, they added to the choir recording, a recipe for cabbage soup, either to make the message even more confusing, or because they thought the world needed to know how to make it properly. This flight was also a success and Zvezdochka also survived her trip. This time the recovery team were unable to get to the landing site, in the Ural mountains, for twenty four hours. The local people, who had watched a figure floating down in a parachute, arms and legs flailing, were very surprised when they approached the lifeless figure and opened his helmet, only to see the word ‘maket’ taped across his face.

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To Seek Out New Worlds

03 07 kepler spacecraftOn this day in 2009, NASA launched its Kepler space observatory. Its purpose is to identify earth like planets orbiting other stars. It is focused on the Milky Way where there are billions of stars. Its only instrument is a photometer which continually measures the brightness of 145,000 stars. If any of the stars it is looking at dim periodically, that might indicate that there is a planet passing in front of it. So far, it has identified 1039 planets.

As I have been thinking about space travel today and, as I casually mentioned yesterday a seventeenth century bishop who wrote a story about flying to the moon with some swans, I thought I’d take a closer look at that today, along with another story that I didn’t get chance to mention, which heavily influenced Cyrano de Bergerac‘s ‘Other Worlds’. It is ‘True History’ written by Lucian of Samosata some time in the second century.

Francis Godwin was born in 1562 and became Bishop of Hereford. His father was the bishop of Bath and Wells. Both of his grandfathers were bishops. His ‘The Man in the Moone, or a Discourse of a Voyage Thither’ was published posthumously under an assumed name in 1638. He may have written it in about 1620. It is about a man called Domingo Gonsales, the book’s supposed author. Domingo has made a fortune in the East Indies but has to flee because he killed someone in a duel. He leaves for his native Spain along with his servant Diego. Ill health forces him to stop at St Helena. There he finds a new variety of swan he calls a ‘gansa’ that he discovers can carry substantial weights. 03 07 the man in the mooneEventually he harnesses some of them together so they can carry the weight of a man and flies around the island. Then, he decides to use the swans to fly him home. Nearing Tenerife he is attacked by British ships and forced to land. Finding the natives hostile, he takes off again. The swans carry him higher and higher. On the first day he meets demons and wicked spirits who give him a package of food for his journey. They promise to see him safely back to Spain if he promises to join them and serve a master who they will not name. He refuses.

Instead, the gansas carry him higher and higher, for twelve days, until he reaches the Moon. Suddenly, he feels hungry and opens his package to find that it contains dry leaves, goat’s hair and animal dung. There is also wine that he says smells like horse piss. He finds that the people who live on the moon are tall Christian people who live in a kind of paradise. He finds out that they maintain their Utopian existence by swapping any delinquent children for children from Earth. Here, he cites an example, the Green Children of Woolpit.

This is a very odd story dating from the twelfth century about two children who suddenly appeared near the village of Woolpit in Suffolk. They spoke an unknown language, their clothing was unfamiliar, their skin was green, and they would eat only beans. When they adapted to a normal diet, they lost their green colour. The boy died but the girl survived to adulthood. They couldn’t say how they arrived, only that they had been tending their father’s cattle, there had been a loud noise and suddenly they found themselves in a strange place. There is only one other writer we know of from this time who mentions the story and suggests that they may have come from an extra-terrestrial world. It is Robert Burton in his ‘Anatomy of Melancholy‘. This is an interesting piece of information for me as, over the last year, the Anatomy of Melancholy has become one of my favourite books that I’ve never read. But I digress.

After six months of living on the moon, and learning their strange musical language, three of Domingo’s gansas have died and he becomes concerned he will never get back to earth. He sets off for home, but before he leaves, the King of the Moon gives him a gift of three sorts of stones. Poleastis, which can store and generate great quantities of heat, Macbrus, which generates great quantities of light and Ebelus. Holding one side of this stone to you, renders you weightless, touching the other side makes you half as heavy again.

He uses his Ebelus to make himself lighter so that the journey back to Earth is easier for his remaining gansas. He lands in China where he is arrested as a magician. It takes him ages to learn Mandarin so he can explain himself. Eventually he makes contact with some Jesuits who write down his story and promise to send it to Spain. The book ends with him hoping that his adventures will make him famous.

The second century tale written by Lucian of Samosata was intended to be a parody against contemporary and ancient sources which quote obvious myths and legends as if they had really happened. So its title ‘True History’ is a joke. In the story, Lucien and some adventuring heroes sail west beyond the Pillars of Hercules (the Straits of Gibraltar) and come to an island with rivers of wine filled with fish and bears. They also find marks indicating that Heracles and Dionysus have passed that way. On leaving the island they are 03 07 bearsley's space spidersswept up by a whirlwind and, after seven days, deposited on the moon. There, they find a huge war between the king of the Moon and the king of the Sun over who should colonise the Morning Star (Venus). There is a fantastical description of the two armies which includes men who wear long gowns that they use like sails to fly around, dog-faced men riding winged acorns and giant spiders. The armies of the sun are victorious when they build a wall that eclipses the moon. Lucian tells us that there are no women on the moon but that children grow inside the calves of men. This sounds like a weird idea, but it’s one I’m probably going to mention again at Bacchanalia next week.

After returning to Earth, they become trapped inside a 200 mile long whale. There are some amazing things inside the whale; among them, a little garden a lake and a temple dedicated to Neptune. There are also a thousand people who they go to war with. Then they discover a sea of milk and an island of cheese. After that, they sail to the Island of the Blessed. There, they meet the heroes of the Trojan War and Herodotus who is being eternally punished for all the lies he wrote in his own ‘Histories’. Herodotus was responsible for some of the more outlandish beliefs of Pliny the Elder and which persisted into medieval times, such as the belief in a race of dog-headed people. Lucian tells us that he is glad he will never suffer such a fate as he has never told a lie in his life.

Lucian then discovers a chasm in the ocean, which they manage to sail around and he ends his story as they discover a new continent and begin to explore it. It ends with the promise of more to come. No one now has any idea if there ever was more.

Gift From Above

11 07 ensisheimOn this day in 1492, just before lunchtime, the people of the Alsation town of Ensisheim heard an enormous explosion, louder than anything they had ever heard. It was followed by a sound like thunder. According to some reports, it could be heard over ninety miles away. There was only one eyewitness who saw what actually happened. A young boy saw a burning, smoking object hurtle out of the sky and slam into a wheat field just outside the town.

He was able to lead the townspeople to a three foot deep hole in the ground. At the bottom was a large shiny black rock. It was a meteorite, though they didn’t know that. No one was quite sure what it meant or what to do about it. Eventually they decided to dig it out of the ground to have a proper look at it. It required quite a bit of effort. It was triangular in shape with three sharp corners and they guessed it weighed around 300 lbs. Then they used whatever tools they had handy to knock lumps off it to carry away as talismans. So someone had obviously decided that having a huge rock hurled at them from the heavens meant good luck.

When the town’s magistrate saw them, he made them stop and had the stone hauled into town and placed outside the door of the church, where it was very much admired. A few weeks later Holy Roman Emperor Maximilian happened by, on his way to fight the French. (If you read yesterday’s post, you might like to know that he was the father of Philip the Handsome.) He heard about the stone and ordered that it be sent to his castle. He puzzled over it for a few days and also decided that it was a good omen. He chipped off a couple more pieces, for himself and his friend Archduke Sigismund of Austria, and sent it back to the church. But he thought it would be best to fasten it with chains in the choir loft, because that would neutralise any malevolent forces it might carry.

Everyone was pretty excited about their sky rock. They wrote poems about it that were printed up and distributed far and wide. When Maximilian’s father died the following year, and he inherited the title of Archduke of Austria, everyone decided that the meteorite had predicted that too. Maximilian later tried to use the falling of the meteorite as proof that God wanted him to go on a crusade, but that didn’t really work out. He was pretty selective when it came to signs and portents though. In 1495 there was a considerable fall of meteorites near the town of Münckberge in Bavaria that were all said to be shaped like human heads wearing crowns, yet Maximilian chose to ignore them completely.

photo credit: Konrad Andrä, licenced to wikimedia commons
photo credit: Konrad Andrä, licensed under creative commons

People didn’t really know what meteorites were in the fifteenth century. They thought that the air could sometimes solidify and produce a huge rock. Or they thought the stones came from volcanoes somehow. It would be another 300 years before anybody suggested that they came from space. The Ensisheim meteor is the oldest documented meteorite in Europe that still survives. It’s not chained up in a choir loft any more though. You can see it in the town’s museum.

New Moon

08 28 enceladus scaleOn this day in 1789 William Herschel discovered a sixth moon orbiting the planet Saturn. It was eventually named Enceladus. It is named after a giant from Greek mythology who is supposed to be buried underneath Mount Etna. I mentioned buried giants when I wrote about Pliny a few days ago. It isn’t a giant though, it’s tiny, only 310 miles (500 km) across and it sits on the edge one of Saturn’s outer rings, the E ring.

08 28 enceladus polesWe didn’t really know much about Enceladus until in was photographed by the two Voyager spacecraft in the early 1980s. They showed us that it was a very unusual place. It’s northern hemisphere in pitted with craters, as one would expect of an object that has been subject to impacts for millions of years. It’s southern hemisphere though shows far less damage, suggesting that it is a much younger surface. It is also has deep ridges in its icy surface, similar to the fault lines seen between tectonic plates on earth. This led scientists to realise that the moon must be geologically active and was more than likely the source of much of the material in the E ring.

08 28 enceladus coreIn 2005 another space probe, Cassini, was able to send us much clearer images of the surface of Enceladus. What was discovered were four deep fractures over the south pole. Thermal imaging revealed that the moon’s temperature beneath the ridges was much warmer that elsewhere. Further images showed that huge plumes of vapour were continually spewing out through vents much like a geyser. The vents are throwing out as much as 440 lb (200 kg) of material a second. When tested the vapour was found to be largely water with some salt and a few other minerals. It is this water vapour  that produces the lumps of ice found in Saturn’s E ring. Some of the ice though, falls back to the surface and as it builds up, pushes and folds the icy crust much in the same way that mountain ranges are pushed and folded here on earth. This means that somewhere beneath the surface of the moon there is an ocean of liquid water. The surface temperature of Enceladus is -198 °C, so what is it that heats the ice enough to melt, expand and be pushed out through the vents? And why is it happening at one of the poles, we would expect the warmest temperatures to be found at the equator. Although Enceladus is composed of rock, it is much too small to have a molten core. It is possible that the gravitational pull of Saturn is causing friction inside the moon, that could raise the temperature. But the answer is no one knows yet.

Cassini is still in orbit around Saturn, and we may still find out more about Enceladus. With the presence of liquid water and minerals it is, at the moment, the most likely place in our solar system where we might find evidence of extra-terrestrial life, which would be amazing.

Shooting Stars

08 12 perseidsIf you want to see the Perseids Meteor Shower, then tonight is probably your best bet. If you look towards the north (or towards the constellation of Perseus, if you happen to know where that is) you could see as many as sixty meteors an hour. Another good time to look would be before dawn tomorrow. They are best seen in the northern hemisphere.

These meteorites are fragments from a comet called Swift-Tuttle which passes us by every 133 years. It leaves a trail of tiny pieces of itself all along the path of its orbit. In late July and early August our planet passes through this trail and some of them are drawn into our atmosphere. The fragments are mostly only about the size of a pea and few ever reach the ground. They burn up at a height of around 60 to 80 miles above our heads. What makes them visible is the reaction of the gases in the atmosphere to the friction caused by the meteor falling through it at thousands of miles an hour.

08 12 priapusI mentioned on August 10th that the Perseids are sometimes known as the Tears of Saint Lawrence because they appear around the same time as the saint’s feast day. In earlier times, the Romans believed that the meteor shower was the ejaculation of Priapus, one of their gods of fertility, and that he was fertilising the fields. Priapus is always represented as a man with an enormous erection. He is a rural god who is associated with both agricultural fertility and general protection from the evil eye. For this reason there are many Roman artefacts which represent him. Either that, or the Romans just thought it was funny.