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The first space mission to Swindon

Blimey! Did you know Jon's New Zealand book Squashed Possums is out now - find out more

Mars ExplorerThere can't be many reasons to visit Swindon. But I can think of one at least. The Science Museum in Kensington, after years of accumulating the nation's scientific bric-a-brac, simply ran out of room. What they needed was the equivalent of a garage to bung all their junk in but much bigger, of course.

It all ended up in several RAF hangars near Swindon. Alas, it's not widely known because it's not usually open to the public. But on occasion, they do open their doors...
On arrival though, I was more than a little disappointed to discover that three of the four hangars were shut. And there was no sign at all of the decommissioned nuclear missiles the museum hold. Not even a small note to explain they were on loan to the Museum of Tehran.

In fact there was an awful lot missing and I was beginning to think the day would be a terrible disappointment. Thankfully, whilst distracted by a display called "UK goes to the planets", I was nobbled by a friendly scientist with a wild frenzy of greying hair. "Do you know about the Mars Express program?" she twitched, with a nervous laugh. I didn't. To be honest, I thought Mars Express sounded like a tub of McDonald's plastic ice cream. Of course, I didn't tell her that.

It turned out that she worked on the results sent back by a satellite that Europe had sent into orbit around Mars. But hadn't that mission failed dramatically when it exploded into the face of the red planet, I asked? "That was Beagle," she corrected. "It was part of the Mars Express mission but never landed. It only had three safety bags, one failed and that was that." Couldn't they have afforded a better safety net than that, I asked? "Oh no, the entire mission was horribly short of funding," she explained, rather sadly. "It was mostly put together by volunteers from different universities." Although it made for dramatic news at the time, it shouldn't have been a surprise that Beagle never made it. Stuck together with sticky back plastic by a Blue Peter generation of resourceful academics, it was a miracle that Mars Express made it there at all.

Yet, whilst Beagle slipped out of the news, its satellite quietly went about its business, mapping the planet's surface and looking for signs of water. "We're not sure," she confided, blinking her eyes nervously, "but we've seen patterns that indicate recent water movements on the surface of Mars." But isn't all the water buried beneath its ice caps, I asked? "Well, we think the rivers maybe seasonal," she explained, lowering her voice, as if imparting secret knowledge. "Unlike here on Earth, the magnetic poles on Mars wander dramatically. This could be causing the temperature to fluctuate and the buried ice to thaw." If we wait and keep looking, rivers may yet appear again on the surface of Mars...

More interesting still, was the light this shed on our own planet's development. "The Earth's magnetic poles are more static, you see, because they're stabilised by our Moon's orbit." She continued to laugh nervously, filling the brief gaps in our conversation.

Ok. I said, getting my head around this latest development. "The same gravitational pull that causes Earth's tides also holds our magnetic pole in check, helping to create the stable conditions for life?"

"Well yes," she answered. "Without the Moon, our climate would have been much less stable. Life may still have developed, but intelligent life may never have had a chance."

Had the Moon been too small or further away, Earth's magnetic poles would vary too much, destabilising the planet's environment. Too close and its affect would be too strong, causing massive tsunamis and destruction.

"I went to a conference," she went on, "where the speaker explained that the Moon is gradually moving away from the Earth. Funny isn't it?" she laughed. "Billions of years ago, the Moon was much closer to the Earth. Close enough that it would have accelerated the Earth's orbit." Apparently, if someone had been there with a watch, they'd have noticed that their day was a couple of hours shorter than it is today.

I haven't looked at the Moon the same way since. It's easy to understand why people once worshipped the Sun - its energy is the basis for all life, after all. But I'd always seen the Moon as more like a curious interloper, a stray piece of space rubble hanging onto the Earth like some stellar hitch-hiker.

We left the museum and travelled the few short miles to Avebury, perhaps the country's most impressive stone circle and certainly the only one with a pub in the middle of it. I picked up a copy of 'The Avebury Circular'. A quirky little publication, its articles on enchantment spells and "sacred geometry" were a far cry from the boffins in Swindon's Science Museum.

Yet, despite the wild ideas about why these stones were built, the speculation continues that these structures were built in alignment with the Sun and the Moon. It's not hard to imagine. After all, as someone who practices yoga, I'm not the only one who continues to perform salutations to the Sun and the Moon.

I like to think that there maybe some unexpected common ground here. We may have upgraded our efforts from dragging stones to the Salibury Plains to gaffer taping an artificial satellite together and sending it to Mars. But they both point to the same thing, a continuing search for purpose and understanding in the skies...

Blimey! Did you know Jon's New Zealand book Squashed Possums is out now - find out more


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