Lucy In The Sky With Diamonds: A feature documentary about the trip to the Trojans

In March this year I was invited to be a moderator for a projects-in-development session at M:Brane festival in Malmö. I could not resist. A whole bunch of new AR, VR, traditional documentary and animation projects with the themes centered on science and young audiences. What’s not to love?

One of the projects being explored was a feature documentary about the Lucy Mission, currently in its final preparatory stages with NASA. The Spanish filmmakers, Alphonse de la Puente and Ruth Chao have huge access to the scientific team charged with preparing every detail for the launch of a probe this October that will shoot to the Trojan asteroids around Jupiter. The Trojans are the remnants of the earliest formation phases of our solar system, that are stuck in a Lagrange point with Jupiter. Think 4 billion years ago when dust swirled around the Sun: some of it congealed, in a way, and formed our planets, while some just… didn’t. The left over materials are the Trojans: pure, loose rock almost untouched since then. They are of great interest to scientists because closer examination could reveal more about how our solar system was formed, and maybe even how life started to evolve on Earth. I admit I had not heard of this mission and was immediately intrigued. Their enthusiasm for the project and the great characters I saw in the trailer made me think this could be an unusual film for astronomy lovers and even for audiences who are not. So I asked Ruth and Alphonse if they would have a chat.

Enjoy this edited transcript of our conversation from March 10, 2021.

Hussain Currimbhoy: So onto your fantastic project. I was like, how can I have not known about this amazing mission. 

There is lots of talk right now because of the recent landing on Mars and even about making a submarine to visit Titan (Saturn’s Moon). But how did you hear about this mission and what drew you to this project when there are so many other big sexy ones out there?

Ruth Chao: It was just being in the right place at the right moment. We were filming another documentary in about asteroids. And then we get to know some of the members of the Lucy mission, Cathy Olkin, Hal Levison and so on.  And we sent them our documentary when it was finished. After that they asked us if we would like to film a documentary following their job with the Lucy mission.  We agreed with them some important points for them and for us. First, to show that the science is funny, its cool; that you can enjoy being a scientist. They are not such strange people. We want to demystify the cliche of the crazy, lonely scientists. 

Alphonse de la Puente: Yeah. I mean, Hal has the big beard, which is part of the cliche.

RC: But he’s funny. He’s very friendly. 

HC: Hal seems like a very passionate, lovely scientist.

RC: Yes. Another point was to show that you need a team to do such great things like this You cannot work alone. And the third one was to try to convince young women that if they want, they can be scientists. Two of our main characters are really powerful women. They dreamed of being scientists. These are our main goals.  And the mission, what can I explain about the mission.

AD: Yeah, but the mission’s focus is on the Trojan asteroids, which are swarms that share an orbit with Jupiter. They are not well known.  That’s the difference between the Titan Mission and its ‘submarine’. The submarine is just a proposal at this stage, only a concept. There is another mission to an asteroid, to the asteroid Psyche, a metallic asteroid in the Main Asteroid Belt. And maybe that’s the reason why you didn’t hear about Lucy before, because the target is very unknown.

RC: Not many in the public know about these swarms of asteroids sharing their gravity space with Jupiter.

AD: And in comparison with Perseverance, the Lucy mission is a flyby, like New Horizons over Pluto. 

RC:  It’s curious.

AD:  It’s enigmatic. And people know about the name Pluto. When the first images of the Lucy mission arrive on Earth, I don’t know what will be the impact on the media. With Pluto, you have a flyby and as soon as the first picture came, it made headlines around the world.

HC: It’s like Pluto was Instagram ready.

RC: Yes, there was a heart, lost in the shadows the outskirts in the Solar System…

AD: We will get the first images of the first target in 2025. Th second and the third in 2027. Then 2028. So you have very little regular information and you are flying over not a very cinematic target.

HC: Yeah.  It’s not terribly photogenic.

AD: Not as catchy as Pluto! But  it is very interesting because they are trying to unveil the origins of the solar system.  

HC:  And space agencies prioritize such missions because they’re asking the question: where did life come from? Perseverance is trying to find microbes in the Mars soil to know if life spread may have from there. I mean, it doesn’t look as great as Pluto or Mars. But the questions raised are very profound. The Lucy mission is taking images of the rock on these asteroids to see what it is made of. Those rocks haven’t been affected as much as rocks that came close to the sun. Heat and pressure will change an asteroid’s features. But these asteroids are more pure.  So you have an insight into the original state of the matter that formed our solar system, right?

RC: The Trojans are the most ancient objects in the solar system. They are fascinating.

AD: Maybe more fascinating than going to Pluto or going to Titan because in the beginning of the formation of the solar system, there was a primordial disc of dust that was spinning around the sun. And they were colliding and they were aggregating and becoming bigger. Some of them aggregated into planets. Some of the rocks didn’t aggregate at all and that’s what has happened with the Trojans million of years ago.They are like fossils that capture a snapshot of the formation of the solar system. That’s why they are so fascinating. And they are very different from what we find on Earth. They have formed in the outskirts of the solar system, but they don’t know why.

HC: Is it true that some of these asteroids sit on a slightly higher plane. 

AD:  Yeah, they are not like Saturn’s rings. As in, all in the same place. The Trojans are a little up and down because they are in the Lagrange points which are a point of gravitational stability.  Due to the huge gravitational fields of Jupiter and all the planets on its balance. They are special points that, let’s say, if you throw something into that area of space, it will be stable forever. They are not going to move. They are going to be synchronized with the planet.

AD: I’m sure that as soon as the hype around the mission gets higher, it will  grab peoples  attention. Because as soon as people know that there are fossils that are pictures of the beginning of the solar system, they would say, oh, my God, how would this be possible 2 or  2.5 two billion years after the formation?

RC: The Trojans are in exactly the same status as they were in the beginning, because they weren’t corrupted.

HC: Exactly. They’re still pure. The Trojans haven’t been touched by other junk in the solar system. Some clues to the truth as to how this solar system came to be.

AD:  And that’s just connected with the name. Which is something cool. The name of the mission, Lucy, is a reference to the Lucy hominid, which is the first ancestor of the human being. 

RC: The same way Lucy, the skeleton, gave us a lot of clues about ourselves as humans. Lucy, this spacecraft, will give us a lot of clues about the origins of the solar system. It is a wonderful parallel with human evolution.

HC:  It’s a great link. It’s a snapshot into our past. But also the Lucy link is also connected to music which I love. You have this great theme throughout the film about music, like the song ‘Lucy in the Sky With Diamonds’ and how much Hal is a music fan. I just love that element because you don’t really see that very often in science documentaries. And I just like how you brought that thread into this story. Because there is a certain poetry to trying to imagine these big concepts. It’s like music to me. And this group that you’re following is like a little band. 

AD: It’s not that little. It’s huge, an orchestra. The mission has hundreds of people for five or six years thinking about this all day. And the budget has risen to 1 billion dollars. 

HC:  I mean, considering what they’re accomplishing for a billion dollars, it’s pretty incredible. And just to go back to a comment you made earlier, once you said once the public starts to understand this mission and they start to see how inspiring and incredible it is, I feel, it is  then the pressure will start to build on the team. 

The launch window is in October and it’s not very far away. And once this pressure starts to infiltrate the team, I’m wondering how you prepare to capture all of these potential events that will happen in various departments and egos, and in the technology. How are you preparing to capture this band having a small breakdown every day?

RC: So we have a team there that are prepared for whatever they do. For instance, in March they are going to test the solar panels. We can’t travel there. But we have a great DP there. You have to be ready for every important moment. But then to capture their daily lives, I mean, to get them when they are relaxed, sometimes we go to their houses because many are working at home now. 

It’s a combination sometimes. For instance at Lockheed Martin, which is the company building the spacecraft, sometimes they work at home. But there are people that have to be present to work on this mission. So we film them at their homes talking with each other, or having conversations on Skype for example.

We shot some scenes in Senegal last year. Because in order to know the size of some of the asteroids, the scientists have to be in particular points on the Earth to see when an asteroid passes in front of a star. So in different moments of the mission that are important for them, we are there.

And, of course, the launch is the most important moment for them because it is super tense. So we want to fly with them to Florida before the launch. And then wait with them every day until we get the green light and see what happens.

HC: So you have access to all of this, to Lockheed Martin and access to all of these people’s homes?

RC: No. Not to people’s homes. But Lockheed Martin is being a great partner on this because they tell us if they are assembling something and we are often allowed to go inside to film.

Last month, they developed a test in a huge vacuum chamber with solar panels. It is a very complicated technologically speaking, and we cannot go there. But they will film it for us with their team of filmmakers. When we cannot go inside, they try to provide us with whatever we need.  But there are some things that we would like to film and at the moment we couldn’t, for instance, some confidential meetings.

And you know, there are problems. And this is normal, but at some point there must be negotiations between the engineers and the scientists, because for scientists their point is, I need all the data I can get. And the engineers have to solve these requests. So of course, it’s a balance between what is feasible and what is not feasible. But there have to be hard negotiations. But sometimes they are kind of joking too. I mean, they have to ponder what an engineer can do. And they all were very reasonable people. They are a team. They are complete. But you cannot do everything. I mean, they are very sane people. But it’s good to know a team has different points of view sometimes. 

HC: I guess a scientist has to make an argument to why this is such a vital piece of technology that is needed. And therefore has to be solved. This question has to be solved. And the engineer has to balance so many imperatives, sometimes they have to invent things that don’t even exist yet. I think this process of reaching a kind of perfection is fascinating. It’s like having architects vs engineers. They have an idea for a building. And the engineer says this is not possible. It’s going to look great but it’s not possible. 

RC: Exactly. And it’s very hard for the scientist. I mean, for some of them, this is the mission of their lives, of course.

HC: Of their careers. 

RC: It is difficult for them not to have everything they want. 

HC: So you have access to all these great characters, like Donya Douglas-Bradshaw please tell me what they are like? What are their temperaments like?

RC: I find Donya amazing. I mean, the whole team. I’m like a teenager fan because I really feel admiration. Donya is a very powerful woman with a sense of humor, very, very clever, of course, very easygoing and is always happy, but with a lot of pressure because she has an important job and with a lot of responsibility. Yet she is a kind of peacemaker in the group.

HC: It sounds like Hal was very willing to have a team follow them and to enter this very specific, very special world. But can you share some insights into how you got their trust? 

RC: Yeah, well it was their idea to do this. We shot about 15 people and none of them are shy. And Cathy (Deputy Principal Investigator) is always helping, is always giving information. 

HC: I’m asking because most science films thrive because of their characters.  Also I’m curious to know about using your animation process and techniques. How are you going to use that when you can’t film on an asteroid for example?

RC: There will be about 15 minutes of 3D and animation in a very realistic style. Mainly to illustrate scientific concepts or the spacecraft itself, and the Trojans.

AD: The flybys over the Trojans.

HC: That’s what I was imagining. 

AD: The animation, there is no breakthrough there. It is going to be designed as a spacecraft would be designed. With a 3D computer so that we can move the camera around the spacecraft whenever we want, however we want. We also have to design the asteroids. The scientists have models of the asteroids in their offices.  They are hanging from the ceilings. About six or seven of the models.

The scientists don’t know for sure how the asteroids look, because they can explore from the Earth, but they know more or less how big they are, and their shapes more or less. Of course they are not exactly. We are going to use those models, this technique to create the 3D models for the film.

RC: And then there will be but just a touch of some psychedelic graphics. Because some of scientists are like old rockers. And they play 70s music. So yes, sometimes we want to play with these psychedelic flavors that they are in fact using for the logo of the mission. And the posters too. They like to play with humor sometimes too.

HC: For sure. And also that era is when a lot of these ideas around astronomy became popular in that era. They were perceived as esoteric, strange fringe ideas. But then when people saw that you could land on the Moon and you can explore the solar system and the universe in a detailed way, the art around these ideas changed. The writing and filmmaking changed. Our perception of the universe changed.

 It’s a great theme to have since it does connect to a moment of discovery and culture, especially in the United States in the 70s. Take some drugs and dream. That was it.

Ok, last question. I want to ask about where they’re at now. How is it going now? Do you think that they will make their  launch window?  How is vibe?

RC: I have no doubt that they are going to be on time. I mean, it’s not like they can stop. They have a schedule and they cannot have a delay.  I will say, OK, they have to deal with Covid. They have to reorganize everything. But they dealt with it properly 

HC:  Talk to me a bit more about how Covid has changed your working practice and also the practice of of the scientists. Any insights into that?

RC: Well, we cannot travel to the U.S. But we were very fortunate that we were working with our DOP there.  But you have to develop another method. When you are interviewing, you have to pretend to be there, sometimes interviewing and you have to pretend to be there. But in the end it’s not very traumatic for us. Sometimes, even NASA scientists can not get into places. Alphonse, do you remember that place we planned to shoot this instrument…

AD: I know –  it was at Goddard Space Flight Center in Maryland.

RC:  It was the one that we could not record in, but they recorded inside with their iphones. 

AD:  Yeah, because Goddard has higher Covid restrictions. They just allowed the scientists to continue their work and to use their personal iPhones. And of course the sound is not very good. Especially in this hangar, it is very noisy. It is really hard to even hear anyone talk. 

HC:  Right. I mean, it is not the same as being there. You obviously lose a lot of reacting in the moment as directors to be around these hot spots of tension. But I’m very curious to see how other directors respond to filming under Covid and how films change. But it sounds like you’re going to have a film in October.

RC: Yes, definitely.  

Notes on the James Webb telescope

A great read this week came from the always engaging​ ​Dennis Overbye and his NYT article  about a mysterious black hole phenomenon in the galactic cluster Abell 2261. Doing the best they can with the best tech at their disposal, astronomers are not quite able to explain the gravitational dip hiding within this cluster. While trying to figure out the speed of some jiggling stars within the cluster (and therefore what kind of black hole was needed to keep the star formations together), the article mentioned that this light knot was so faint, even Hubble Telescope could not quite read it. The end of the article mentions the James Webb telescope ​: ​​a new, infrared telescope that is planned for deployment in October this year. This baby will be able to peer deeper into regions with faint light waves and bring us closer to understanding anomalies like the one Overbye’s article outlines.

I like how NASA is encouraging art around Webb. If you want to submit something look up #NASAWebb

James Webb was one the administrator of NASA’s under John F. Kennedy and was charged with delivering on the promise to land a man on the moon by the end of the decade. But the telescope (just Webb, as it is known) is crazy. Check out NASA’s run down here.

This is not a replacement of Hubble, but its extension. It’s operating distance from Earth, its heat shield, all very different from Hubble. But the size of the mirror is the most striking to me. Not only is it beautiful to look at,  wonderful beryllium coated with gold, at 6.5 meters in diameter the collecting area is over six times that of Hubble. The heat shield is ​huge. And vital. It ​divides the observatory into a warm​ ​side​ that interacts with the Sun​ (about 185 degrees ​F) and ​the colder space​ ​side (​- 388 degrees ​F)​ – which is needed for the instruments to do their work properly.

Webb will orbit with the Earth at about 1.5 million kms away, at the Lagrange point, or L2.​ ​As an infrared telescope it will be able to detect light from deep in the early universe​ that has  ​red ​shifted out dramatically ​due to ​the ​inflation​ of the universe​. Only ​something with the sensitivity and  depth of Webb will be able to detect this light.​ Astronomers​ are looking for evidence of what happened with galaxies ​when they were ‘toddlers’, ​even ​younger than babies, at around 1 billion years after the Big Bang. ​So much we don’t understand occurred at this stage of the universe. One of the most intriguing occurrences is of course around Black Holes. There is evidence of super massive black holes with billions of solar masses emerging, early on in the universe. But how and why this happened is still a mystery for astronomers. Having something like Webb operating will help fill in the knowledge gaps around how galaxies form, understanding patterns in the distribution of solar mass, luminosity and star-formation rates​.​

Astronomers will combine information from Hubble, Chandra X Ray Observatory, Atacama Array and Jansky Array very large telescopes to make a map of the sky in detail never seen before.

Jupiter / Saturn Conjunction of Dec 21st

An exciting meeting of masses will peak December 21st when Jupiter and Saturn will be very much in synch. They will be so close together in the South Western sky that the brightness should be quite spectacular.

The 21st of this month also happens to be the winter solstice​, ​​making for ​extended viewing should the clouds be considerate.

For sure this is an epic sky show. And a meaningful one. Jupiter and Saturn come close every 20 years but they will not appear this close again until 2080. 
About an hour after sunset allows for viewing without mechanical aides. But  if you do have a telescope/binoculars you may even see the Galilean moons Io, Europa, Ganymede, and Callisto, in order of distance from Jupiter. (These moons were discovered by Galileo Galilei in 1610  and are named after the lovers of Zeus. Callisto has quite a back story should you be interested.)

But I pay this occurrence great respect because without Jupiter and Saturn, we would not be here. It seems that in the early formation of our solar system when Jupiter was getting itself together it was so big it cleared much of the dust and gas nearer to the Sun. It could have quite easily cleared up the materials that ended up constituting Earth and being an annoying neighbor to the Sun were it not for Saturn. Jupiter and Saturn’s orbits were aligned in such a way that their gravitational tug of war drew Jupiter into a certain rhythm, easing its migration. In time this allowed four other smaller bodies to form nearer to the Sun Alas, one of them was Earth.   
​Feels like a new beginning.​

Interview with Dr. Craig Bowers of the Perth Observatory

A few months ago an old friend of mine, Kirralea Birch, posted some archival photos of  the Perth Observatory on Instagram. Her father, Peter Birch, was one of the astronomers who worked there for many years and had collected photos and mementos of the place during his career. 

The photos fascinated me. I was drawn to the analogue nature of the instruments. I wanted to know what these astronomers were doing when they worked with tools like this. After all the Perth Astronomy is one of the very few international locations NASA used to track planets back in the 70s. 

And this was a place that I visited when I lived in Perth. 

I contacted my friend and she connected me with Dr. Craig Bowers, an astronomer from the observatory who worked with Peter Birch had recently completed a Phd in the history of the place.

We ended up having two wide-ranging, engaging and often hilarious conversations about elements of astronomy I never really considered before. Much of it is transcribed below. The power of serendipity. The impact of  traveling astronomers. The way Astronomy can heal you. The way Astronomy is built on intuition. And you better be good at politics too because it can make or break your project.

It is a long interview, even though it is edited. But the stories are just great, connecting us to another era of astronomy that was not always about Hubble-scale projects. This is a very personal take on astronomy that is pared down and emanates from someone with 40 years experience in the field whose passion and curiosity are still intact.

Craig Bowers: In  1959/1960, the government astronomer of the day, Hyman Speigel, got a traveling scholarship to travel the world and visit sites that were doing the same sort of stuff we were.  But he was looking at the future. 

He went to Lowell Observatory in Flagstaff, Arizona and Hamburg, Germany to name two out of the 47 locations during that years travel. The Germans  were famous traveling astronomers. They would travel the world with their telescope and do things. 

The Perth Observatory was having financial challenges. Should it keep going, they asked. And with this tour Speigel brought back all these offers from overseas observatories saying, we really didn’t know where Perth was. Perth’s advantage is its latitude and longitude. On Australia’s eastern seaboard its pretty bad weather and the next stop is South Africa. 

Perth was just not known about. We had an American in the Eastern states to take over one of the observatories and they were already involved in the International Planetary Patrol Project. He knew Speigel, and suggested him as the project wanted global coverage and Perth fitted in nicely. So that’s how we ended up getting a telescope. 

The Lowell Observatory actually packaged up and sent a telescope over and in 1971 when we started observing the International Planetary Patrol. 

It was a massive event at the time. This was to be the largest in Western Australia, customs freaked. You have to have paperwork for everything. Packaging up a large telescope and then sending backwards and forwards –  film and electronic equipment was a bit strange for them.

And that structure in itself was quite unique.

HC: Why is that?

CB: If you look at the photograph you will notice that the structure in the middle, the column, is actually open. It is very unusual for a building like that first of all, to be built that high off the ground. They normally build buildings either on the ground, maybe one floor up, and that is for scintillation or the effects of the ground heating up. Then as the sun sets in the early evening you get this haze going up. The architect that designed that building was Mr Andrzejaczek.

One story is that he kept designing it to be higher and higher because it fitted in the background with the height of the trees, so “…it was aesthetically pleasing.” So it wasn’t scientific, just aesthetic. I don’t know if that is actually true but it is a great story. 

In the background you could see the background and the telescope just fitted in. Another theory I heard  to me was that  the architect  was fascinated with ancient building design like the Divine Proportions like the Golden Triangle.  

But in the construction, the central column is separate to the actual building. So you don’t have vibrations. There is a concrete column in the middle of that structure, then there is a gap, then there is the rest of the building. The whole idea is when you stand on the floor it is not going to cause vibrations. The one thing they didn’t factor into the building was that it built up a resonance, a vibration in the column itself, because it was so tall. And when they first put the telescope on there it was quite visible in the observations. I think a Phd student did his thesis on this, and ended up putting counter balance weights on the top with neoprene pads underneath, almost like shock absorbers really.

HC: Canceling out disruptions is an interesting pursuit.  Perth is so pristine, but sometimes you get these winds that may cause a ripple in your observations. And yet the building itself was causing the disruption. 

CB: Yes, and as I said, it wasn’t enclosed. For other such  structures, they’d build the column, and they would encase it in wood or some other material around it, to protect it from wind. And sometimes if it was a very strong easterly wind, you knew the wind was there,  so you would get a little bit. But they ended up working it out any way.

So Planet Patrol started, April 1971 and went on until 1973 full time, then they got a bit more money from NASA and it went through until 1975. From 1975 onwards the amount of money from NASA dropped. They were only allowed to have two telescopes around the world. And funnily enough the Perth Observatory was selected. That in itself is quite interesting because what they would do is take a photograph in one particular filter and then another filter and then another filter and then another. And  at one point in time during the project they wanted to do some color photographs. Everything else before that was in a particular wavelength, because, that’s the science of it. But to actually publish some photographs for this magazine they decided to layer them with multiple colors and the largest  number of photographs used were from the Perth Observatory. Now that might not sound massive, but you know where Maua Kea is?

HC: The one in Hawaii?

CB: And you know the telescopes there which are several thousand meters up, above the clouds, pristine skies, all that. The photographs from the Perth observatory, 385 meters up, were better. 

HC: That’s unbelievable. 

CB: That’s because of Peter Birch. He wasn’t a perfectionist because he was very careful in his observing techniques. He mentored me. And that rubbed off. The way he observed was very different to everyone else. They used Manua Kea ones as well but the data coming out of there was because of Peter Birch. He was the mainstay of that project. 

HC: Can you tell me what makes Birch’s  technique so much stronger, to get better imagery out of what you get in Hawaii?

CB:  He kind of ‘lived the data’ as I called it. 

Roll forward. 

When we started this, we had little observing  books. So every night you went up to the telescope, you’d write your name down, when you started, you’d check the clocks, and you’d write something like ‘its not too bad tonight, bit of a breeze from the south west, then you would start your observing. When you observed in the early days, we didn’t have disk drives. So what would appear on the screen would be 4-6 digit numbers and you would write them down every ten seconds in an observing book. In the beginning you started understanding  what the numbers meant. You could dissociate how bright a star was to what the numbers should look like. There was a strip chart as well. But every night you would do things like stand on the verandah 14 meters up, and you would write a note like: I can feel a slight change in the breeze from the south west on my face, or,  there is a little bit of cirrus down in the south west. It was all about annotating these books. 

And even when they added these 8-inch floppy drives and three and a quarter floppy drives, Peter demanded they still have the numbers visible on the screen. What were they called? VDU’s? Visual Display Units. He would write them down in a book even though they were going to a diskette. This is important because when it came down to doing reductions of the observations, if the data had significant error bars he’d go back to the observing books and read through them. And sometimes you could go, hang on a sec, that’s when I said I smelled some smoke. Then you’d say, ok, smoke was in that filter, and that filter, they suffer from issues, if any, from airborne particles.

So it was really his way he kind of lived the data. And he taught me that as well. I think that was the reason why he was at one with the data. A good example of the use of such a technique was when years later a Lowell colleague came over and looked through the observing books as the data had some issues, he found annotations that explained the inconsistencies. 

I am currently writing a little article. This year I took over an automated telescope to start research again, some Exo-planet work. I don’t go to the observatory any more. I just wake up in the morning and all my data is there. But I wasn’t there to smell for the smoke or see the Cirrus. I suppose what I am writing about is, are automated observatories all they are cracked up to be. It’s just going back to what Peter taught me. We don’t have notepads any more. So at 3 oclock in the morning I have no idea if the Cirrus passed by or if a bush fire went down to the south west. I don’t know. 

HC: I remember reading about a medival scientist who timed how fast two balls of different materials would roll down a hill. Back then there were no clocks. So he used his pulse to time them. Which is incredible. I guess, if you are divorced from what you are observing, in a way you are losing something, an intuition. 

CB: I agree. I understand there are significant advantages, as an astronomer nowadays you can observe on telescopes around the world that you would have normally had to have flown to. Some people believe I can go to work in the day time, as an astronomer, and just reduce my data and work on it. Which is far better than being outside when it is -3 degrees , and that’s warm in Western Australia compared to other parts around the world. That’s the idea of my little article is that I think we have lost a little bit. 

Also, an amateur can buy an automated telescope now. You stick it on a tripod, you turn it on, and it tells you this is the process you go through to align it. Pick two stars and there’s the whole process. And for the rest of the night you just press this button that says I want to see Jupiter. When that telescope has a problem, no one knows what to do. 

Another thing that was important is the Bulova clocks or watches. 

On one of the photos, one with Jupiter with the banding, there is a little card that says red, 8,9,10,11,12, and there is a triangle that tells us which filter we are using it in, 

And then there are the clocks. The clocks are superimposed onto the 35 mm film. So there is a shuttering system and a prism, where they expose the image just before the end, and that will be imposed on there. So it gives you a time of the observation. I don’t know why exactly they selected those Bulova watches, but they were very accurate. The Bulova Accutron watches are the first tuning fork watches as opposed to those that used a balance wheel. And legend has it that one of the Apollo missions, (and on those missions you were told what to wear,) I don’t know what they used back then, but one of the astronauts took a Bulova instead. Because when they are on the moon, and during space flight, the wheel system watches suffered because gravity is mostly gone. Where as the tuning fork mechanism doesn’t have that problem and keeps perfect time.

HC: Wouldn’t  he have gotten in a lot of trouble for doing something like that?

CB: Of course he would have. Didn’t one of them want to bring his own tomato sauce? I mean there was always some give and take. 

I write a column for our local newspaper once a week about the night sky, and I always like to tell the story about the early days about how the Russian capsules used to land in the Russian tundra: why did they carry shotguns? It was not to fight off the aliens. Apparently when they had landed and they had to get out of the capsule, well, there’s bears up there. And they needed the shot guns in case….

HC: You would think someone could have picked them up. 

CB: We have a couple of those Bulova’s in the observatory and no one seems to know about them. they are quite innocuous in a way. They are battery operated, rather beautiful clocks. 

HC: I also have some photos of Jupiter here. What does RAR stand for? 

CB: Its RGB, Red, Green Blue, that’s the color of the filter .

When they started this program the only communication you really had between America and Australia was only if it was really serious and urgent, you would make a phone call. But phone cost a fortune. Or you would do a telex. A telegram. And they cost a fair bit as well. The majority of the work was done using little postcard sized aerogrammes. So you would fill out the week’s data and post that off. There was a turn around time of 7-10 days doing astronomy. In the beginning they were asking Lowell, what exposure time do I use? But you can’t say, well I’m not gonna not observe for 10 days until they tell me. So you start bracketing <Bracketing is the process by which you take photos of different exposure times, say 10 seconds, then 30s, then 60s….and use that to work out the best exposure time> and stuff like that. And in the observing books I found, after 5 days, they got the best exposure they thought, and on the 10th day the card came back and they would say we believe you should use this exposure, which was exactly what Peter had done. So in a way, because he was working for Lowell, and indirectly for NASA, there was almost a feeling of, ‘I don’t want to mess this up.’ He just used his head  and worked it out. And he was a good photographer. The turnaround was an important thing. They had two canisters for 35 mm film. There was one canister for testing. As the position of the object changed, you would have to change the exposure time. They were asked to develop test strips. I got this ten foot piece of 35 mm film, you put it on, you take some bracket and get some exposures, then you go down dark room and you develop them to see if the exposure looked good enough. If it was good enough you would get the big canister which was two or 300 feet of this film and you would take 40-60 photos in a night, and that would be put in containers and be shipped to America. So it was not then developed here. The process they put it through was different. They had a custom built developing environment and people who knew exactly what they were looking for so they would alter exposure times and development. 

HC: So what was the relationship between the Perth Observatory and the US? What were they  relaying on Perth for? Because this is one of the earliest photos of jupiter right?

CB: We did Jupiter. Mars was one of the big ones. As I say the space race was sparking. They were going to fly by planets. They were talking about fundamentally landing devices on planets. If you got a mass of photographs were are 24 x7 you brought all together, fundamentally you have modeled the planet. 

One of the Mariner missions was going to be landing, and not far off the time for it to land there was a dust storm on mars. And they could not look down at the planet’s surface and say this is where we are going to land. I mean, you are coming down, like you do on the Moon, and you say its coming closer and I can see it. But this dust storm occurred. Now to my understanding, the positioning of where they landed was based on the photography that had been constructed from the International Planetary Patrol Program. The date, the time, the rotation, they had seen all this before. So they could actually pull out these maps of Mars, maps that are now digitally stitched together, and say well, this is where the storm is so this is where it is potentially going to come down to land. 

So the space race was a big thing. This is why NASA was giving people money. Luckily for Perth, its latitude and longitude and  stable government, it just turned out really well for them. And that telescope is still there today. We are trying to get some funding to get it going again. The observatory was closed for scientific research because its government funded. They closed down the operational research people. Its volunteers run it now. But I’m trying to get it resurrected. 

HC: I assume all the big telescopes were in Canberra. It’s also isolated, and has links to government in that very city.

CB: The majority of the large telescopes are on Australia’s eastern sea board. And it still amazes me – Western Australia has significantly clearer  skies, darker skies, than the Eastern states. But it has always been a political thing. In australia: the eastern states and to an extent south australia, Western Australia doesn’t exist.  

HC: I spent some time in Perth, and its a great place. But to have ideas, to want to do something different or cool, you don’t exist. Then everyone with ideas leaves. How did you end up in Perth?

CB: My sister and her husband came to Perth as ten pound POMS in 1976 and I followed soon after. 

In England, there was a program that my dad was keen on me getting into which was an armed forces entry program. He was an architect and an engineer, he pushed me with physics and pure mathematics, because they were the only things to exist in life.

So I was going on these courses between school and college, which were either for the army, navy or airforce. The navy were very interested in me because I showed an aptitude for flying helicopters. I was close to university, in Bath, because that’s where you did physics in England, and the navy were going to put me through university as part of their training. One day I came home on a Wednesday. In england, you had a roast on a sunday, because you could afford it. Once a week meat. I came home on a Wednesday and there was a roast chicken for dinner. So I knew either mum had found out I got a motorbike and I was going to have to explain, but well, Dad is basically dying and unless we go some where warm… 

So the offer from the navy was there but I went to Australia. 

I went to university, did a degree in physics, and then funnily enough I could not get a job. I saw an advertisement as a night- assistant at the Perth Observatory. I applied and at the interview they said I was over qualified and under experienced. Well, I saw red and basically said if you can’t leverage my skill set I’m wasting my time and got up and left. On the following Friday they rang me and asked me to start on the Monday. 

Within six months I had gone up the ranks to a senior astronomical officer. Then round about five years in, I became an astronomer. You have to have a science degree, and show aptitude and do things out of the norm. So I was working on one particular telescope that I was paid to do, then I started helping out Peter Birch. I initially started doing work for nothing. Because it was interesting. Then he started changing the  shifts so I would get money. I showed initiative in terms of writing programs to interface devices for computers. In the end they gave me my own telescope. 

Unfortunately that was around 1987, and the West Aust government had a big financial problem.. So the observatory got cut in half, staff wise. he meridian telescope I worked on got canned and the staff that worked with me got canned and I got redeployed. 

I went back to the observatory in 1995 when Michael Candy, the government astronomer, passed away, to look after the Astrographic  section. 

HC: So you weren’t necessarily a kid who was fascinated by the night sky or stories about planets or space travel.

CB: There definitely was something there. I remember that I wrote about building rockets when I was a kid, and I sent those letters to NASA and they wrote back. I do remember that. I built the old revel rockets and stuff like that. I used to follow Patrick Moore strongly.

HC: Patrick Moore?

CB: He was the monocled gentleman. He was the British astronomer that gave astronomy to the public. He was an orator and a very clever man, and just fantastic.

HC: It is amazing to have been involved in astronomy at that time. It was, like you say, almost always a political thing. But now there seems to be a resurgence in interest in the night sky and space travel with the public, but now it feels like it is more concerned with money. It is a corporate thing. I mean part of me is happy that Elon Musk has these massive dreams and ideas. That he is making rockets land on their tails. And Jeff Bezos has the same dreams. But it doesn’t seem to be coming from the same place of sharing and discovering and finding out where we came from. 

CB: So many things have impacted people’s perception of astronomy. I think it’s the internet. I always talk to people and correct them because they found something on Wikipedia, or on some blog from someone who really is not an astronomer. 

So there is a loss in terms of what people think about astronomy now. You know, I’m enthused with the night sky, and what people are doing now like looking at putting in LED lights, they are bad if they are of certain wave lengths, and it does effect humans and animals. And, we really don’t need this much light. And they are starting things like dark sky parks. 

HC: I just read about dark sky parks. About a new observatory being built right near the border of India and China.  While the two nations  are adversaries, they are actually collaborating on this telescope. But the Indian government has decided to make a solar farm right near the observatory, which would be a huge disruption. So the astronomers are demanding a dark border, around the observatory. And petitioning for it.

CB: The International Dark Sky Association is a big one, more recently the Australiasian Dark Sky Alliance. We started a petition  in Australia to start something like that. We have a state forest behind our observatory, and two national parks. I don’t think we will ever get a dark sky park. But you can get a thing which is called an urban dark sky Place. It’s not perfectly dark there, because we have the city 30 kms away and Kalamunda, our local town, which does cause issues with light. 

See, with astronomy it doesn’t matter as much. You know the wavelength of the lights. So you can actually filter it out.  This is what people don’t realize. When the observatory closed in 2013 the minister of the day said two things: 1) the observatory is being closed because of a new subdivision that is being built in close proximity. And that’s just garbage because we are in a national park and you can’t build a subdivision. They were just trying to save money. The second thing he said which really proved to me that this science minister had probably failed science as a child, he said that radio astronomy was taking over from optical astronomy. Which is really stupid because there is a wavelength spectrum. Optical is here. Radio is here. They are not comparable. You don’t look through the lens of a radio dish do you. 

You mentioned LIGO earlier. When they announced the first gravity wave, there was a question put forward which was: where in the sky is the gravity wave? And they said we’ve got no idea. And it turned out the only way they could find out where the gravity wave came from was by using an optical telescope. 

HC: They didn’t tell me that part when I visited CalTech.

CB: Its different fields of astronomy, definitely. 

In 1973 there was an International Astronomers Union Symposium in Perth. A big deal. And it was the first time that radio and optical astronomers had ever gone to the same conference together. 

HC: So when you are observing in very deep space, is it a radio wave or  optical  data telling you what the wave length is?

CB: There are different mechanisms to bring together the story of what you are observing. You can do radial velocities, in other words is it coming towards us or away from us, so red shifting. You can do different wavelengths. You can narrow wavelengths. Every component, either optical or radio, has aspects that give you more parts of the picture. 

You can use an optical telescope and you put a CCD camera on the back and you look at it in white light. But then you put different filters in which means you can look at the different wavelengths of the light. You then put a spectrograph on there and you can try to work out the materials, the constructs of the star that you are looking or the region of space. And as you say, ‘the universe’. Is there one universe? Or are there multiverses? 

In astronomy the thing I found was that your imagination can go a  long way. You have to be a little more open than regimented to be an astronomer. 

I have one claim to fame. And that was on that 24 inch telescope. And that was during comet Halley 1986. I drew the short straw and remained in Perth while everyone else travelled around the world. But in a way I was lucky because an American professor, Mike Ahearn, a very famous commentary person, brought over a CCD camera from the university of Maryland to the Perth Observatory. He had a relationship with Bob Millis from Lowell Observatory so Perth got used. He brought over a Phd student, Sue Hoban, and we were given this observing program. They are Americans, so like the watch thing: you must do this, you do that, you must do this, follow this program and do not deviate from it. You take images with a CCD  camera. And there is this little black and white screen. Then you display the image that you’d just taken. And they are all in different filters. There was one particular filter, that was not actually a filter, it was more like a continuum, it sets the boundaries of all the other observations. And there was one particular observation that when it popped up on the screen it was just a blurry round blob that was so boring. “You must observe it for 90 seconds and do not deviate from that.” and on this one night we simultaneously  said to each  other, you know what, I would like to see more of this. So I said, alright, let’s observe it for longer. We took an  image for about seven minutes. We displayed it on the screen and instead of this blur, there was a Catherine Wheel effect, it was spiraling, and we thought ‘oh god we have busted the CCD camera! Mike is gonna kill us.’ 

But then we said hang on, let’s just go back to the normal standard observation and just see. We took a normal observation and it was still fine. We haven’t stuffed the camera. We gradually built up longer and longer images. We didn’t know what we had, but we knew we had something. We just didn’t understand it. Though we knew there was something unique about what we were observing. So we called up Mike Ahearn at 2 am, he was asleep in his motel room and we explained to him what we had seen. I recall saying “Mike, are you there?” And there was silence. I thought, oh god, he’s coming up and we are going to be really in the poo. 20 minutes later he showed and said, right, show me. We showed him, he took a couple of observations, and he disappeared downstairs into the main observatory building and came back about half an hour later and said, ‘Well, its out there.’

Sue and I looked at each other and said, what’s out there? 

We were the first people to discover spiral arms/jets  in a comet. Peter gave me the word for this type of discovery, and think this word is true. It is serendipity.. 

I think its very important to always challenge the status quo. Otherwise I don’t think we are as a race would have ever change. We took a small risk. And it was out of a desire to know more about a particular situation. We got lucky, obviously. The author on the paper, is Mike Ahearn because he was a professor. It was his project, it was supported by NASA. That’s the point that I think astronomy is so interesting to people. 

HC: So much of science though is trying to disprove a theory.

CB: Well this is it, people are saying I have a new theory, and well no, you have a hypothesis. You don’t have a theory until your observations fit within the parameters. Even now its changing. It was only in 1922 when they had the solar eclipse in Wallal that they were able to look at some aspects of Einstein’s theories. Even today things are being challenged. I mean, where is all the Dark Matter?

HC: To observe it, to capture what Dark Matter is will reveal a new kind of physics. 

CB: Think about this. There is a black hole. But a black hole is spherical which means you can approach it from all directions. That in itself is a conundrum. Because if everything is going into it and its a finite size then where is it all going? We understand to an extent. But our laws of physics work to a certain point as you approach a black hole and then they don’t work. But we still want to know what is going on. Is there an event horizon or not? Are we in a closed universe or an open one? Is it folded? Are there multiverses?

HC: Having been at this game for so long, what fields of astronomy excite you right now?

CB: Well, after my stroke, I lost a lot. I threw myself into my IT business because I didn’t lose my project management skills. But I had lost some of my ability to understand some of these theories. 

I was a stickler for going to work too much. We were both career professionals so I spent a lot of time at work. More time than I should have done. So to fill in the gaps after I retired, I thought, you know what, if I could do a Phd, one that could prove to me that I was still a whole man, because, when you have these stouches with death, you challenge your life a lot more. That’s why I started this Phd in astronomy, but more about the scientific history. This was to help me push the envelope a little bit. And in the process of this I was able to do a second order differential equation for air mass. I had to call up Peter and tell him. Because it was like the synapse for that was broken and now it was back.

In my work I did push people, and some people hated me for it, but that’s how it is in astronomy, you push the boundaries. I mean I’m doing it at the moment. I’m annoying some people because I want to do new things, and deeper things. Get research going. 

HC: I’m the same in a way. I like to push. I figure we have so little time on this planet why not make the most of your time. 

CB: You’ve got to try to give people things that will interest them, or make them better people or heal them. 

I got asked years ago: it is a government department and its budget time so what would you rather have : a hospital bed or a tour of the observatory. Most people will say a hospital bed. And I said, well, hang on a minute, maybe before you were in the hospital you had an interest in science or the opera like me. Or Nature. Well this government department does nature, national parks or animals or herbariums, well I understand you need money for a hospital bed but you want to get people out of the hospital and part of the way of getting them out is giving them something that will ultimately improve their well being and their health. The first thing I did when I got out of the hospital was play chess and do some astronomy.

My wife bought me a new telescope so I could sit on the verandah and look at the night sky. I had lost everything, but could look at the moon and a couple of planets. But to me that was improving my health. I appreciated the hospital bed but I was not there anymore. A lot of people don’t look at science that way.

An observatory in India

A fantastic dispatch from the New Yorker on an observatory in Ladakh, India, just near the border with China. I had never heard of this telescope, but it is one that lives in some of the most pristine sky one can find. The surrounding terrain is sensitive to say the least, with Pakistan, Tibet and China surrounding it. Prized parcels like Kashmir are in the mix, places as beautiful as the night sky above. China and India may not be the closest of friends, but the article details how they do share interests in the astrodiplomacy, pledging support for the National Large Solar Telescope in Merak in Ladakh < a ground based 2-m class optical and near infra-red (IR) observational facility> and are also working together on the Thirty Meter Telescope in Hawaii <655 m of collecting area, a mirror made up of over 400 individual pieces, making it a whole new class of telescope> along with the USA, Japan and Canada.

The landscape is clearly very special. With such clear skies around I can see why the Indian government has now authorized the construction of a solar farm right near the new observatory. Of course this means light, construction and major disturbances to the observatory’s ability to operate optimally. This has prompted the I.I.A. <Indian Institute of Astrophysics> to lobby for a sanctuary of darkness. Which is a brilliant idea. Please do it. Let’s all do it. Look at Mont-Mégantic in Quebec, Canada – it is the world’s first international dark sky reserve. It just means managing the growth of outdoor lighting within a certain radius to minimize the disturbance on observation tools like telescopes. Why don’t we all have such dark parks, like national parks on Earth? I know there was a movement to create silent spaces, where people can go and not be disturbed by traffic, trains and urban life because apparently that is increasingly hard to do in the Western world now. Having dark parks could encourage amateur astronomers, promote ecotourism, and help us create a habit of using less electricity every day. Perhaps it would help people realize their connection to space and nature too.

Perseid meteor shower peaks on the morning of August 12th.

Considering our Covid moment, viewing stars at night feels relatively safe and satisfying. I’m feeling lucky to be in the Northern Hemisphere as this offers a better view of the Perseid meteor shower which will peak this week, around August 11 and 12th.

In this 30 second exposure, a meteor streaks across the sky during the annual Perseid meteor shower Friday, Aug. 12, 2016 in Spruce Knob, West Virginia. Photo Credit: (NASA/Bill Ingalls)

No binoculars or telescopes needed. Best to try to catch a glimpse before dawn because by all accounts this is a pretty epic meteor shower (if your moon is not too bright that is. Currently my moon phase is Waning Gibbous which could wash out some of the view). Up to 100 meteors might be visible per hour if you are lucky, with a velocity of 37 miles/59 kms per second. If you are in the USA check out for tips to get the best out of your viewing.

The Perseid shower is connected to the comet Swift-Tuttle (109/Swift-Tuttle) with its radiant in the constellation Perseus. Perseus is one of the oldest of the ancient constellations listed by Ptolemy, and contains some very bright stars including Agol (or the Demon Star) system. If the name sounds familiar, Perseus is the famed character of Greek legend rescued Andromeda from a sea creature and who was responsible for slaying Medusa. The demon-related victories may have contributed to the naming of Agol. Anyway, Swift-Tuttle is listed as one of the largest objects to cross Earth’s orbit, around 16 miles/ 26 kms across. The meteor that is theorized to have hit the Earth and ended the reign of the dinosaurs was less than half that size. Luckily it is only the particles of Swift-Tuttle’s tail that intersect with Earth that we are seeing. The comet itself past Earth in 1992 and is not due back until 2126.

To read more about the shower always check out NASA’s page.

Perseverance Launch Today

Excited to check out the live launch of Perseverance to Mars. You can watch the launch on or via NASA’s site at 11:50 GMT. So many launches recently but this one seems to be capturing my attention because it will be taking samples to search for evidence of life on Mars, specifically at the Jezero crater, in new ways. But will also carry ‘Ingenuity’ the solar powered helicopter that is just the coolest machine. Here is a great interview with Chief Engineer, Bob Balaram.

Comet SWAN (C/2020 F8) is out and it is hot

There is a new comet in town, identified by amateur comet hunter Michael Mattiazzo from Swan Hill Victoria. The comet is named SWAN after a detector on board SOHO (SOlar Heliospheric Observatory), not because Mattiazzo is from Swan Hill but I love the connection. As mentioned on Mattiazzo’s blog SOHO has been doing obsersvations for 24 years, gazing mostly at the Sun. But its side hustle is spotting comets that fizzle and sparkle as they get near the sun. C/2020 F8 has a tail of 10 million mile tail (16,093,440 kms). Could be quite spectacular if you are lucky enough to catch it. Best spotted in the Southern Hemisphere. But if you are in the lower north (like Florida or Hawaii) you could catch it just before dawn, as the comet heads North out of Pisces and through the Triangulum and Perseus constellations. Astronomical magnitude is guessed at 3.5. Better viewing of the comet in the Northern Hemisphere is around end of May and early June, around dusk. A great write up from the New York Times about it here, or the interactive map here. Which I can’t get enough of.

New Images of Jupiter

Amazing new images of Jupiter released by the Gemini Observatory. Read the press release here. Using near infrared means scientists can get better perspetive on the cloud cover on Jupiter. Gemini has some of the best instruments in the world for astronomers to use. But its even better when used to compliment images taken from orbiting satellites. This quote from JPL says it best:

“While scanning the gas giant for gaps in cloud cover, Gemini spotted a telltale glow in the Great Red Spot, indicating a clear view down to deep, warmer atmospheric layers. Similar features have been seen in the Great Red Spot before,” said team member Glenn Orton of JPL, “but visible-light observation couldn’t distinguish between darker cloud material, and thinner cloud cover over Jupiter’s warm interior, so their nature remained a mystery.”

Intermediate Black Hole, anyone?

Great (and fun) article by Denis Overbye on the observance of an intermediate black hole by XXM ( Chandra X-ray Observatory and the European Space Agency’s X-ray Multi-Mission). They link to this wonderful paper which is, sadly, beyond me. But I have always liked the light heartedness of Overbye’s writing to make astral phenomena even more human.

Black holes are only detectable when they suck up surrounding stars/material, making their accretion rings glow brightly. Medium-sized black holes are tricky to discern because they tend to emit weaker signals. But confirming this medium sized black hole makes a link between smaller holes and super massive ones because so little is known about how the supermassive ones form: it also gives some clues to how galaxies form in the first place.