Wednesday May 27th 2009. Day 13.
Astonishingly, this is all becoming routine. We were expecting the first few months of the mission to be hell but, in fact, things are very calm. We have a little more than two weeks to our next critical point: the cryocover opening at 11:02UT on June 13th. Shortly after that we will have first light with the telescope and will discover if the telescope optics are in a good condition; if they are… well, we see. It’s a Saturday and in theory I am not working that weekend. What I do not know right now is when we will have the first image – it may not be until Monday – and what it will be of. The “first light” target is being discussed right now, with the Whirlpool Galaxy, M51, being suggested. This was the first light target for ISO and we have a lot of ISO veterans here. However, to see if the focus is good and to assess the quality of the images a point source is better, which would most likely be a bright asteroid. I suspect though that the big-wigs will want an image that looks like something and that a star-like point is not going to make great television.
Something that did make great television was the Soyuz launch today of the OaSIS mission carrying the first European commander of the ISS. The launch was broadcast live for us from ESA Television and the big meeting room was full. Retired astronaut Pedro Duque commented on the images as they came: he actually knew several of the crew personally and had his own unique “been there! Done that! Know him!” perspective on it all. Despite Soyuz being a very very old launcher – the first Soyuz flew in January 1967, with Vladimir Komarov – a Soyuz launch is still extremely spectacular. The Space Shuttle, the Ariane 5 and the Soyuz all have their particular characteristics and it is fair to say that the only two fatal Souz accidents, both in the early days of the programme, were on re-entry and not on launch; Soyuz is tried and tested and extremely safe technology. It was a beautiful day on the steppes of Kazhakstan and the launcher could be followed a lot way downrange.
One curiosity was that the Soyuz had an on-board camera and was beaming images almost continuously up to Loss Of Signal, something that NASA do not do. One of the astronauts had hung a toy on a string in front of the camera, so you could follow the progress of the burn just from watching how tense the string was. As the explosive bolts fired to separate the capsule there was a big jerk on the string and the classic whiplash of the astronaut’s necks before the toy started to float free. The Soyuz launch images show a graph of the g-force that the astronauts are experiencing: a Saturn V would reach 5g, whereas the Shuttle is around 3g; in contrast, a Soyuz launch gets up to around 4g, although is usually below this. Despite the science fiction images of astronauts flattened to their couches like pancakes, in fact the crew were active and moving all through launch. The commander has a recessed couch that is set a long way from the control panel, so he actually uses a stick that allows him to press buttons on the control panel in front during launch and seemed to have no problems with this even at 3 or 4g. It is a far cry from the standard image of a launch. One of the highlights of the day was introducing our newest signing (a young computer engineer) to Pedro Duque: he had been absolutely thrilled at the thought of seeing Pedro in the flesh and Pedro, who is nothing but a gentleman, autographed his launch event programme and had a photo taken with him after giving him a warm handshake. Rumour has it that the boy will not wash that hand for the next month (he had a broad grin on his face all afternoon – as his home is almost at the end of the runway of the Shuttle’s European landing site at Morón, he feels a special connection to the space programme).
With things going so quietly, by 7pm almost everyone had disappeared. I gather that there was a football match last night!
I watched the DVD of “Twilight” before going to bed. Definitely a love story with a difference! It’s not often in a vampire film that you see the heroine gasping “bite me! Please bite me!” in a moment of passion. I have a feeling that I will watch the film again tonight to follow it a bit more closely. Before I was watching a Star Trek – the Next Generation episode. It had a fascinating plot, but one with more holes in it than a block of Swiss cheese. Now I can accept that those nasty, evil Romulans could make that nice Ensign Ro and Jordi disappear. And I accept that they could pass through consoles and bulkheads and that when they get mad at the nasty Romulan who is trying to kill them they just throw him through a solid wall out into space, but… how the hell do they not sink through the floors??? You would have thought that floors would be just as transparent to them as walls???
Unofficial Herschel image of the day archive:
Frequent updates are provided during the day on the Herschel Twitter (ESAHerschel) here:
You can follow Herschel testing and observations in real time on the Twitter.