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On seeing the Euclid launch

On seeing the Euclid launch

In July, I had the great luck to visit the Kennedy Space Flight Center to see the launch of the Euclid satellite. I wrote this a few days after the launch, but with the great amount of work that we have all been doing since then, I have not had time to publish this! I was thinking I had better get caught up…

My trip to Florida started inauspiciously enough, with a text message telling me that my flight to Newark, the first leg of my journey, had been delayed. This meant that I would miss my connection to Orlando. At CDG the united staff told me that, although they couldn’t rebook my flight from Paris, don’t worry, in Newark they will look after you. I imagined disembarking from the plane and walking right to the smiling United representative at the service desk who would immediately put me on the next available flight. The reality was a four-hour wait in the line-up at Newark until finally a very helpful lady booked me on a flight to Orlando the next morning. I arrived in the humid Florida heat on Friday with enough time to pick up my tickets and those of my colleagues. I will pass in silence over the night spent in a hotel in the grey post-industrial suburbs of New Jersey.

I admit that I had a certain ‘frisson’ seeing the signs for ‘Kennedy Space Flight Center’ (KSFC) as I drove away from Orlando airport. As a child in Ireland in the 1970s I wrote to KSFC and asked them to send me stuff about space and planets. Soon enough, a big wad of old press releases as well as some nice colour pictures of planets arrived from America in a big yellow envelope. It was wonderful. I couldn’t understand why more people were not interested in astronomy given the Universe was so large and the Earth was so small. And so now, 40 years later, I was on a highway heading right to KSC. Soon enough, I was flying over a large river inlet and in the distance I could see what I knew was the famous Vehicle Assembly Building, the largest building in the world. But right now, I was not going to KSC, I was only going to the hotel to get the tickets…

The next morning, I left the hotel at 07:20. The launch was scheduled for 11:12AM, but I knew that My bag was full of cameras and factor 50 sunscreen. I had a big hat I bought at the surf shop near my hotel, ready for the intense heat and light of a summer morning in Florida. I picked up a colleague at his nearby hotel.

Although we had left early, there were already many people at Kennedy for the launch. It was blisteringly hot, and the sun shone brightly in a blue sky without clouds. Although I have been working on the Euclid project for more than a decade and have been to every consortium meeting (except one), there were many people I had never seen before.

Soon enough, we left on the first bus carrying everyone to the bleachers at banana creek, a prime viewing location across the water from the launch towers. The bleachers, however, had not an inch of shade, and it was more than an hour until the launch; no question of staying outside. But next to the bleachers was the Saturn V Apollo building, and we spent a good hour there looking at this impressive space hardware from the past. Soon it was time to go outside again

At the bleachers, everyone was finding their places. There was blinding heat and light. To the right, there was a big screen relaying the SpaceX/ESA livestream, and a local commentator provided us some additional context. I stared out at the horizon at where the Euclid will soon leave the Earth. Confusingly, there were several different launch towers.

Waiting for the Euclid Launch

And suddenly, we were only a few minutes before launch. We were in the bleachers. I had promised to do a livestream with IAP auditorium where everyone was gathered to watch the launch. I put in my AirPods and my colleague Amadine tried to film me with my iPhone. There was so blinding light everywhere it was impossible to see the screen, but I could hear the questions from Paris and I tried to formulate some intelligent answers.

We were in the final minutes before the countdown. No sign of a hold or a delay. There were no clouds in the sky. We were told there was a delay between the livestream and the real world, a few seconds, not much but enough to make everyone chanting countdown pointless. We didn’t know the real-world number of minutes left. Suddenly, there was an enormous cloud on the horizon, low down, and rising from the clouds we could see the Falcon 9 rocket atop a bright orange-yellow flame. It was one of the brightest things I have ever seen. But at first it was completely silent as the rocket arched up into the sky. Then the sound came, a great rolling rumbling wave of sound energy. My cheap straw hat vibrated in time to the roar of the nine merlin rocket engines. Clearly, it takes a lot of energy to get a one-ton rocket to L2, I thought to myself.

I was transfixed. In the bag at my feet I had my two Leica cameras, I had my telephone and a Ricoh compact camera too, but I didn’t want to do anything but look at this bright orange candle as it disappeared into the cloudless sky. On the callout from the screen we heard ‘maxq’ indicating the rocket had passed through the zone of maximum aerodynamic pressure. And then, it was gone, and there was finally just a cloud in the sky, a cloud of water vapour made by the Falcon 9 rocket.

The livestream from ESA and SpaceX continued. We saw the booster coming back, landing on the drone ship. There in orbit was a short coast phase and the second stage ignited again. By this time, all the public had left and there were only a few of us in the bleachers or sheltering nearby. Then, on the “jumbotron” — the big screen they have there — we saw Euclid deploy, the silvery yellow foil catching the sunlight as at it separated from the SpaceX second stage. But still, the story was not over. Was the satellite alive and communicating with the Earth? Then finally on the screen we saw the first signal from the spacecraft. Euclid was alive and heading to L2. And the real work would start very soon.

Waiting for the signal from Euclid at KFC
Underland and Arranmore

Underland and Arranmore

I’ve recently finished reading Robert Macfarlane’s Underland, a poetic and profound book about all that is hidden. Macfarlane descends into caves, tunnels and holes all around the world as well as climbing a few mountains too. Much of it is genuinely terrifying especially as MacFarlane interleaves his stories with tales of similar past expeditions which went tragically wrong. And MacFarlane travels to Paris.

The entrance to the Underland…is somewhere in the second tunnel

While I was reading the book, I took a walk down to the Petit Ceinture, the abandoned railway that rings Paris and that passes under the Mountsouris not far from here. Like the High-Line in New York, the railway has now been rehabilitated for Sunday strollers. The day that I went there, surprisingly, the gate leading to the tunnel under Montsouris was open. There in the middle of that tunnel there used to be an entrance to the carrières, Paris’ former underground quarries where the limestone that made famous monuments all around Paris were extracted. The middle of that tunnel is dark, silent and damp. Today, the entrance to that Parisian Underland that Macfarlane writes about in his book is closed, sealed off. But there in the middle of the tunnel, daylight a thin semicircle a few hundred yards away, one can catch more than just a whiff of the solitude and isolation, so paradoxical a sensation in such a crowded and dense city.

Continuing in the book, I found myself agreeing with much of what Macfarlane wrote, impressed by his learning, nodding in agreement with his little sketch of the scientist making incredible measurements in a cave deep underground with as about as much drama as someone buttering a slice of bread. That’s what science teaches you to do, it tells you how to confront the infinite and to abstract it away so it can’t touch you or affect your judgement.

Further on in the book I found this passage:

In the Celtic Christian tradition, ‘thin places’ are those sites in a landscape where the borders between worlds or epochs feel at their most fragile. Such locations were, for the peregrini or wandering devouts of circa AD 500 to 1000, often to be found on westerly headlands, islands, caves, coasts or other brinks. This place [Norway], now is one of the thinnest I have ever been.

I looked down again at the words I was reading and I saw that my bookmark was in fact a thin test strip of baryta paper on which I had printed a slice of Aranmore island, a close-cropped landscape with a house in the distance with grey-white walls and the paint only there in places.

Now I understood. Arranmore is a small island just off the coast of Donegal, very close to the mainland but far enough away so that one indeed feels some slight sense of such things. I was there for a few days this summer with ML. Even then in the heights of July and August there are not many people on the island. If one walks around to the other side of the bay, away from where the small passenger ferry comes in and where the pubs are one is alone facing the Atlantic. The lights of the mainland are resolutely blocked by the cold soil of the land. There are beaches with abandoned boats and low grey skies heavy with silvery clouds. People live here, though. I walked past a school and on the wall there was a big map of Ireland. What surprised me about it was there was a big black blank hole in the top of right of the map, devoid of features and writing or place names, that’s where I come from.

Hang on St. Christopher…

I realised reading Underland that in fact I have been searching for these “thin places” like this Island for all of my life. I am not as an adventurous traveler as Mr. McFarlane, but I will bear his words in mind, I think.

In Heidelberg

In Heidelberg

I have just returned from a short trip to Heidelberg. Looking back at what I wrote the last time I was there I see that my concerns haven’t really changed at all (and stay tuned for my next post). And I discovered there is at least one person who reads this blog ! So I will try to post a little more.

Deep in the fog

This time, I was in town for a Euclid meeting on the mountain, in the forest, and I stayed with ML for a few days in a hotel in the old town. The very centre of Heidelberg is certainly beautiful but does not seem to be the most dynamic place I have ever visited. The Saturday market boasts only one stand selling rather tired-looking fruit and vegetables. The streets at night seem strangely quiet.

At night in Heidelberg

The last morning there was a heavy fog over the river. It was easy to take photographs which looked like that they were taken a hundred years ago, especially with a film camera to hand, and I had fight hard against that urge. The place where we had our meeting was beautiful, a lovely glass building surrounded by the forest. With some luck, I’ll be back before too long.

52 photographs (2018) #29: Mysterious stones in Ireland

52 photographs (2018) #29: Mysterious stones in Ireland

I am well aware that I have let these posts slide. But it is not because I am no longer taking photographs. Here we are in the last week of December and I am almost at roll 160! And there are a few things in there that should be shown:

During this summer were were in Ireland. It was one the the hottest summers in Ireland for more than twenty years. We made a trip up to the Beaghmore Stone Circles one of my favourite spots in Tyrone and not far from where I grew up. My father always claimed that were more stones there each time we visited, who knows? The stones were all excavated a few decades ago and are thousands of years old. The are slowly sinking back in to the bog.

So it was the first time I was there with my film cameras. It is not easy to take pictures of stones in Ireland in black and white, but I like to think I was more attentive to those chance arrangements of sky and bush and stone that I might have been in the past.

A Beaghmore stone

There is a long low level ground all around. I suppose there were trees here a few millennia ago, but today it is windy, desolate place even in the heights of summer.