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Monthly archive October, 2012

The First International Space Exploration Symposium in Japan

I will be attending a two day symposium organized by JAXA in Tokyo. The theme is Space Exploration for Humanity and the Future. It will open Tuesday October 30 at 1300, Japan time. The complete program can be found at the following address:


I will try to cover the event live on Twitter with pictures. Even if it proves difficult (power supply problems, etc.) I will write about it here later in the week.

As you can see, the philosophical aspects of space exploration will be discussed but also its future. With the attendance of top executives from Lockheed Martin, Boeing, Mitsubishi HI, SpaceX among others, we can expect some interesting talks about the commercial aspects of space exploration.

I also intend to make use of the event to contact persons interested in starting a SpaceUp or Space Tweetup events in Japan in the near future.
Anyone interested can contact me through my Twitter account @ScienceInSpace
I am looking forward to having an active exchange with my fellow Spacetweeps from all around the world.

Philippe Valdois


The importance of telling stories…

Spurred on by @SpaceKate and her recent blog post about the talk in Pontefract by Apollo 16 Astronaut Charlie Duke, I thought I’d post something here as I’ve been thinking a lot about this the past week since the talk.

I grew up in the 80s and 90s. My parents watched the first moon landing when they were young. They can both remember it well. I, of course, wasn’t around then. I do remember they dragged me out of bed as an 8-year old boy in 1989 to watch the in-real-time repeat of the moon landings on BBC television to celebrate the 20th anniversary. But still, my connection is to the Space Shuttle, the winged space plane floating serenely above the earth, Challenger, the Hubble telescope and feats like Bruce McCandless’s first untethered MMU EVA (you’ve all seen that picture, right?). This was ‘space’ for me when I was growing up and these are the things that stick in my mind.

Now I have to be brutally honest. I had never had a particularly strong affinity with the Apollo program. While undoubtedly impressed and amazed by it’s achievements and groundbreaking place in history, and admiration for the people who made it happen in such a short time, it sat as just that. An important piece of history. As someone outside of that generation I had no personal connection with the program, the events or with that period in history. A week ago that changed.

Somewhat last-minute I found out that Charlie Duke, the tenth man to set foot on the moon alongside fellow Apollo 16 astronaut John Young, was doing an evening talk at a school in Pontefract in Yorkshire. At first I didn’t know if I could make it, some excuses started to cross my mind, but about three days before the fog seemed to clear in my mind and I heard this loud voice yell “It’s Charlie Duke, he walked on the moon!” (that’s the polite version anyway). Things were catalysed further when I found a cheap room for the night and realised it was only a modest drive from where I live. So I decided to go. Boy I’m I glad I did.

Meeting up beforehand I didn’t really know what to expect. I know the whole thing felt mighty incongruous. For those that don’t know Pontefract, it’s a small industrial town near Leeds in South Yorkshire. It’s claims to fame are having an unfeasible number of train stations (three last time I counted) for a town its size, being wedged between two major motorways and making sour liquorice sweets called Pontefract Cakes. Not much connection to space there! Still, here we were and there it was. The talk was very well organised (thanks to @Space_Lectures) and was held in a large lecture theatre at a local school. When I got in and got a seat the place was already 4/5ths full and by the time the talk started it was almost full to capacity.

What followed was an exciting, animated and enthralling account of Charlie Duke’s life up to and including the flight to the moon and his three day stay there. There are other accounts of the talk and the stories told (@SpaceKate’s blog post put it into words much better than I can) but what struck me was a man that is genuinely still excited about what he did 40 years and countless thousands of talks later, and delights in relaying the tales of his experiences to an audience. This bright, lively talk not only had me enthralled for the whole hour, it also did something else. Hearing about the experience and seeing it for myself through Charlie Duke’s words forged a connection for me to another time and place beyond my own lifetime. As any good story or tale puts you in a place beyond your own, Charlie Duke’s talk transported you to the moon, helped you understand what they did, what went through their minds, what it felt like to be there. After the talk we were lucky enough to get the opportunity to have an item autographed by Charlie Duke and (thanks to @SpaceKate) I had a lovely photo print of him on EVA on the moon ready to sign. That photo is now in a frame on the wall at home. I’ll never forget that evening.

Video not available

In the days since I look back at my fond memories of the talk and feel my view of the Apollo moon landing program has changed forever. It’s gone from an interesting page in history to being something I’ve heard about first hand from an astronaut who went there and did those things. It’s changed my view of the program, of the people involved and of my feelings about it. Something that before I had little connection to I now feel some kind of personal attachment to. Suddenly I want to know more, hear more experiences and know more about it.

This is the importance of telling stories. Stories are mankind’s way of passing our knowledge of these great events down to new generations, for them to cherish and pass on again and again. “I was there” is one of our greatest assets and one of our most valuable sources of not only information but also inspiration. Charlie Duke’s story is a very special one, possibly among the most special of anyone alive today, but lots of people do amazing things and have amazing experiences and never relay their tales. Never believe that no-one is interested. There are always people willing to listen and maybe you’ll inspire someone in ways you never imagined.

Be sure to tell your story and listen to others who have a story to tell…

I tweeted my way to ESO’s Very Large Telescope!

As an introduction, let’s just say that ESO – the European Southern Observatory – basically builds and operates the most advanced and powerful telescopes observing from our planet. For their 50th anniversary, they had the awesome idea to get one of their followers to tweet their way to the VLT… I came back a few days ago, and it was a beautiful life-changing experience.

Striking a pose on the VLT platform

The Very Large Telescope is located on top of a Chilean mountain, Cerro Paranal, at an altitude of about 2600 meters. Cerro Paranal is in the Atacama Desert, the driest region on Earth, 2 hours away by car from the nearest town. ESO chose the southern hemisphere to install their telescopes because it enables them to observe the center of the Milky Way and the Magellanic Clouds… and they chose Chile because the “seeing”, the quality of the observations is excellent. The atmosphere is very stable, the skies are almost always clear, there is no light pollution whatsoever.

Cerro Paranal is often nicknamed the astronomers’ paradise by those who visit it… and with reason; one of them even told me that if he was not married, he would never want to leave! The conditions up there are harsh, and of course observations last all night long, 365 days a year, but Paranal is nonetheless an amazing place to work and live. ESO did a great job when they built the Residencia,  which is beautifully integrated in the surrounding landscape. From the outside, it looks a bit like the underground lair of a James Bond villain… which may explain why the Residencia was chosen as a filming location for Quantum of Solace!

Cerro Paranal hosts 10 active telescopes. There are four telescopes with an 8.2-meters diameter mirror, named UT-1 through 4 and a.k.a. Antu (The Sun), Kueyen (The Moon), Melipal (The Southern Cross) and Yepun (Venus) in Mapuche language. There are also 2 survey telescopes, VST with a 2.6-meters and VISTA with a 4-meters mirror and 4 “small” ones, with “only” an 1.8-meters mirror (the auxiliary telescopes). Telescopes can be combined for specific observations using a process that is called Interferometry – which makes them even more powerful. The 4 auxiliary telescopes can be moved around to any of the 30 positions available on the platform, which opens an amazing range of observation possibilities. I think the only place where I can say it this here, among spacetweeps… I sure did not expect to be so emotionally moved by these gentle giants.

The telescopes are amazing pieces of technology… powerful, silent, and gorgeous in the chilean light – sunrise, daylight, sunset, darkness, moonlight… The view from and on the VLT platform is always breathtaking. Please check out check out my pictures here if youre not convinced yet!

On my last night at Cerro Paranal, I teamed with Henri Boffin – a renowned ESO astronomer- to image Thor’s Helmet, the NGC 2359 nebula… The observation was streamed live on ESO’s website as part of a six-hours broadcast, which I can only recommend you watch if you’re interested in astronomy. The picture we took is stunning! Mathieu (outreach team), Gabriel (astronomer), Claudio (shift supervisor) and I were also live from the VLT platform a few hours later for a Q&A session…

Credit: ESO/B.Bailleul

If I had to sum up this week in Chile… I had a great time, met a lot of people who are passionate about their work, and learned a lot about astronomy and ESO. And if you’d rather read the longer version, please check out my blog entries for this trip… available in both english or french!

Can you imagine that the mirror for the future E-ELT (European-Extremely Large Telescope) will be 39 meters wide?