Lunar eclipse 21 January 2019

Weather thwarted attempts to obtain photographs of what will be the last total lunar eclipse visible from Britain until 16 May 2022. Good conditions prevailed until about 15 mins before the onset of totality, when the Moon disappeared into the clouds never to return.

I obtained a good shot of the uneclipsed Moon, and subsequent shots at around 40 percent and 80 percent totality. The so-called ‘blood moon’ effect was not visible, and the 80 percent shot looks very little different to an ordinary crescent Moon.

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Perigee full moon

The reasonably common phenomenon of full Moon coinciding perigee was completely ignored until the media discovered the term ‘supermoon’ a few years ago, Perigee (minimum distance from Earth) varies between 356400 and 370400 km (average 362600 km) and apogee (maximum distance from Earth) varies between 404000 and 406700 km(average 405400 km), so on average a perigee full Moon will appear 12 percent larger and 25 percent brighter than one occurring at apogee.

However, perigee on 14 November will be the closest one since 1948, and the Moon will appear 14 percent bigger and 30 percent brighter compared with the smallest apogee full Moon. This still isn’t an enormous difference, and prior to the current frenzy over ‘supermoons’ was only of interest to astronomers. Here in Britain, of course, we are in any case set to see absolutely nothing.

One giant leap for mankind: now for Mars

Forty years ago today, on 20 July 1969, Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin became the first men to land on the Moon.

In Houston, the time was 15:17:40 CDT; in the UK 21:17:40 BST. Even aged 14, watching with my family, I was aware of how historic the moment was. I was an avid space enthusiast, my interest (like I suspect many boys of my age) having been sparked by Gerry Anderson’s TV shows such as Fireball XL5 and Thunderbirds. With us that evening was my grandfather, Robert “Pop” Mitchell, who was born in October 1892. He had just turned 11 when the Wright Brothers first flew at Kitty Hawk in 1903, a few years younger than I was in 1969. He was 19 when the Titanic sank and in his early 20s when he fought in the trenches of World War I, where he was seriously wounded in action.

As we now know, the mission came close to failure as the Eagle’s primitive computer, already overloaded, began to take the LM down towards an area strewn with boulders. Neil Armstrong was forced to take control and brought the spacecraft down safely with just 25 seconds of fuel remaining. But to those watching on TV and listening to the dialogue between Armstrong, Aldrin and CAPCOM Charlie Duke (who later went to the Moon himself), there was little hint of trouble:

Mission
Elapsed
Time
102:44:24 Aldrin: 200 feet, 4 1/2 down.

102:44:26 Aldrin: 5 1/2 down.

102:44:31 Aldrin: 160 feet, 6 1/2 down.

102:44:33 Aldrin: 5 1/2 down, 9 forward. You’re looking good.

102:44:40 Aldrin: 120 feet.

102:44:45 Aldrin: 100 feet, 3 1/2 down, 9 forward. Five percent. Quantity light.

102:44:54 Aldrin: Okay. 75 feet. And it’s looking good. Down a half, 6 forward.

102:45:02 Duke: 60 seconds [at this point Eagle is down to her last 60 seconds of fuel].

102:45:04 Aldrin: Light’s on.

102:45:08 Aldrin: 60 feet, down 2 1/2. 2 forward. 2 forward.

102:45:17 Aldrin: 40 feet, down 2 1/2. Picking up some dust.

102:45:21 Aldrin: 30 feet, 2 1/2 down.

102:45:25 Aldrin: 4 forward. 4 forward. Drifting to the right a little. 20 feet, down a half.

102:45:31 Duke: 30 seconds [of fuel remaining].

102:45:32 Aldrin: Drifting forward just a little bit; that’s good.

102:45:40 Aldrin: Contact Light [these were actually the first words spoken from the Moon, not as is commonly thought, Armstrong’s famous change of call sign to “Tranquillity Base”].

102:45:43 Armstrong: Shutdown.

102:45:44 Aldrin: Okay. Engine Stop.

102:45:45 Aldrin: ACA out of Detent.

102:45:46 Armstrong: Out of Detent. Auto.

102:45:47 Aldrin: Mode Control, both Auto. Descent engine command override, off. Engine arm, off. 413 is in.

102:45:57 Duke: We copy you down, Eagle.

102:45:58 Armstrong: Houston, Tranquillity Base here. The Eagle has landed.

102:46:06 Duke: Roger, Tranquillity. We copy you on the ground. You got a bunch of guys about to turn blue. We’re breathing again. Thanks a lot.

102:46:16 Aldrin: Thank you.

The Moon walk wasn’t actually scheduled until around 07:00 BST next day, with NASA having scheduled a sleep period first, but Armstrong and Aldrin were understandably anxious to get on with the job and having just landed on the Moon I’d imagine sleep was the last thing on their minds. So shortly before four o’clock I dragged my brother (a few days short of his ninth birthday) out of bed and together we watched as Neil Armstrong became the first man to walk on the surface of the Moon and fluff his lines at the same time:

109:23:38 Armstrong: I’m at the foot of the ladder. The LM footpads are only depressed in the surface about 1 or 2 inches, although the surface appears to be very, very fine grained, as you get close to it. It’s almost like a powder. Ground mass is very fine.

109:24:13 Armstrong: I’m going to step off the LM now.

109:24:48 Armstrong: That’s one small step for [a] man; one giant leap for mankind.

About 20 minutes later, Aldrin joined Armstrong on the lunar surface:
109:43:08 Aldrin: That’s a good step.
109:43:10 Armstrong: Yeah. About a 3-footer.
109:43:16 Aldrin: Beautiful view!
109:43:18 Armstrong: Isn’t that something! Magnificent sight out here.
109:43:24 Aldrin: Magnificent desolation.

That first lunar EVA lasted just over 2½ hours. In addition to collecting contingency, bulk and documented lunar samples, Armstrong and Aldrin deployed a seismometer to detect moon quakes and a retro-reflector array to reflect laser beams back to Earth and so determine the Earth-Moon distance very accurately. Also left behind was a US flag; an Apollo 1 mission patch commemorating Ed White, Gus Grissom and Roger Chaffee; Soviet medals commemorating Yuri Gagarin and Soyuz 1 cosmonaut Vladimir Komarov; a gold olive branch; and a plaque mounted on the LM Descent Stage ladder bearing drawings of Earth’s Western and Eastern Hemispheres with an inscription reading “Here Men From The Planet Earth First Set Foot Upon the Moon, July 1969 A.D. We Came in Peace For All Mankind” together with signatures of the Apollo XI crew and President Nixon.

Finally there was a silicon disk containing goodwill statements by US Presidents Eisenhower, Kennedy, Johnson and Nixon and 73 other world leaders and heads of state. The latter detail makes interesting reading. The signatories include such notorious dictators as Nicolae Ceausescu, Ferdinand Marcos, the Shah of Iran, Chiang Kai-Shek, Park Chung-hee and Anastasio Somoza. Others perhaps more positively remembered include Queen Juliana, Archbishop Makarios, Indira Gandhi and Eamon de Valera. The only signatory still remaining in office is HM the Queen. France is conspicuous by its absence; so is the USSR and indeed all but a handful of communist countries; China was represented by the Republic of China in Taiwan.

For months afterwards the story was doing the rounds that the Chinese people had still not been told about the landing and in those pre-internet times it might have been true. By contrast, Soviet television gave extensive coverage to the event.

Before beginning preparations for blasting off from the Moon, Armstrong and Aldrin took their sleep period and, following their example, my brother and I went back to bed. By the time I woke my father was waking my grandfather and telling him about the moonwalk. Six months after the landing, my grandfather passed away, aged 77. His life thus spanned the entire history of human powered flight, from Kitty Hawk to the Sea of Tranquillity.

On 24 July 1969, Apollo XI returned to Earth safely and, after three weeks in quarantine, its crew emerged to a heroes’ reception. But astonishingly, the public almost immediately lost interest. Six more manned missions were sent to the Moon, but only the incredible drama of Apollo XIII made the headlines (and, a quarter of a century later, an excellent if not entirely accurate Hollywood movie). Since December 1972, not a single manned spacecraft has left Earth’s orbit.

In 2002, a moon landing hoax conspiracy theorist confronted Buzz Aldrin outside a Beverly Hills hotel and called him “a coward, a liar, and a thief.” Aldrin – then aged 72 – punched him in the face. Beverly Hills police and the city’s prosecutor refused to file charges.

It is a fact that thanks to unmanned space probes, we now have better maps of the surface of Mars than we do of the Moon; though NASA’s Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter will redress the balance. Already it has returned images of abandoned Apollo hardware, unseen through all these years. The photographs from the Apollo XIV site are particularly good and show footprints left by Alan Shepard and Edgar Mitchell on the Moon’s surface; finally burying for good the ridiculous conspiracy theory that the Moon landings were faked.

As a boy, my grandfather could hardly have expected to see men land on the Moon in his lifetime, but I never doubted I’d live to see a Mars landing, assuming then that it would happen in the 1980s. If the will had been there, it would have done, but NASA was sidetracked by the space shuttle for decades before returning to the original Apollo concept in an updated form, Project Orion. Very tentatively NASA is now talking about an expedition to Mars in 2037. I’ll be 82 that year – I might just make it.

© Christopher Seddon 2009

Moonwatch

In 1965, as the space race between the United States and the Soviet Union was hotting up, officials at NASA realised that they did not have “space rated” wristwatch that could be used for the upcoming Project Gemini. Given that the program was slated to include an EVA or space walk, there was an obvious need for a watch that could withstand exposure to vacuum and other rigours of spaceflight. In addition to being able to keep good time under such conditions, the watch would have to incorporate a chronograph or stop-watch function, so astronauts could see at a glance how long they had spent outside their spacecraft and to help carry out other tasks that required accurate timing.

Rather than go through the time consuming procedure of inviting bids for a “space watch”, NASA decided to send a couple of engineers to out to downtown Houston with instructions to procure a variety of off-the-shelf chronographs for testing. The tests included exposure to extreme temperatures, vacuum, intense humidity, shock, acceleration, pressure and vibration. At the end of the tests, NASA had a clear winner as the watch most suitable for spaceflight: the Omega Speedmaster.

The Speedmaster was first introduced by in 1957 and utilised the Lemania 2310 (AKA Omega 321) manual-wind movement. It is often stated that NASA specified a manual-wind movement because they thought automatic (“self-winding”) movements would not function in zero-gravity conditions, but this is incorrect on two counts. Firstly an automatic works by inertia and is not dependent on gravity; secondly the simple reason NASA selected a manual-wind chronograph is that at the time that was the only type available. The first automatic chronograph movement – the Zenith el Primero – did not come into use until near the end of the decade. However it is likely that in the cramped conditions of a Gemini or Apollo spacecraft, there would be insufficient activity to keep an automatic fully wound and a manual-wind would be more suitable.

On 3 June 1965, Gemini 4 pilot Edward White became the first US astronaut to make a spacewalk. He was wearing an Omega Speedmaster, strapped to the outside of his spacesuit with a Velcro strap. Curiously it was not until almost a year later that Omega finally learned the use to which NASA had been putting their watches. As might be expected, they wasted little time in cashing in and photographs of White’s spacewalk were soon featuring in their advertising literature. The watch itself was renamed the Speedmaster Professional, but its finest hour was yet to come.

Early on the morning of 21 July 1969, Buzz Aldrin stepped out onto the surface of the Moon wearing a Speedmaster Professional, which thus became the first watch to be worn on the Moon. Earlier, Neil Armstrong had had to leave his own watch in the Eagle lunar module after the lander’s onboard chronometer developed a malfunction. Sadly this historic watch was later stolen while on loan to the Smithsonian and has never been recovered.

In April the following year a Speedmaster Professional was used to time a crucial engine burn aboard the crippled Apollo XIII during the desperate and ultimately successful endeavour to return the spacecraft safely to Earth.

Meanwhile feeling was growing that an American watch should be used on NASA moon missions and the US-owned Bulova company lobbied the White House for their watches to be used instead of the “Speedy Pro”. Eventually NASA was persuaded to test a fresh batch of watches, including a specially-manufactured Bulova chronograph, but the Omega again came out on top with the Bulova stopping several times during testing.

By now, not only NASA was equipping its astronauts with the Speedmaster Professional. In 1975, when an Apollo spacecraft rendezvoused with a Soviet Soyuz in Earth orbit, both crews were wearing what had by now become known as the Moonwatch.

In 1978 NASA held a fresh series of tests ahead of the Space Shuttle program. Once again the Speedmaster Professional triumphed. The watch had by now received an updated movement, the Lemania 1873 (AKA Omega 861), which featured a shuttle/cam system rather than a column-wheel. The former design is simpler and thus is cheaper to both manufacture and service, but it yields nothing in terms of performance and reliability. The 1873 is again a manual-wind movement.

Externally however the Speedmaster Professional has changed very little in over half a century, even retaining its old-fashioned Hessalite (plexiglass) crystal in preference to a modern scratch-resistant sapphire crystal. This has been at the request of NASA. Plexiglass scratches quite easily, but it is virtually indestructible. By contrast, a sharp blow can shatter a sapphire crystal. Having sapphire fragments floating about inside the zero-g environment of a spacecraft is obviously not a good idea! A sapphire version, also featuring a sapphire display back, is available at extra cost but many enthusiasts prefer the Hessalite model, which is the only flight-qualified version.

The Speedy Pro is certainly not the only watch to go into space (and was probably not even the only watch worn on the Moon – contra Omega’s website), but even now it is the only watch permitted to be used for EVAs from the International Space Station or from the Space Shuttle. The Casio G-Shock – a watch almost as iconic as the Speedy – is routinely worn aboard the ISS, but because their batteries may explode in a vacuum, they cannot be used for spacewalking.

Who knows, the Omega Speedmaster Professional may even eventually become known as the Marswatch.

© Christopher Seddon 2009