Monday, 27 July 2015

Following in Yuri Gagarin's Canadian Footsteps

Cyrus Eaton and Yuri Gagarin in Pugwash, Nova Scotia, August 5, 1961. image

Pugwash is a village in Cumberland County, Nova Scotia, with a population of about 800 people. Located on Northumberland Strait opposite Prince Edward Island and not too far from the New Brunswick border, its main industries are lobster fishing and salt mining. 

Canada Day in Pugwash was the highlight of my recent visit to Nova Scotia, a trip that included several days in Halifax and an excursion to Baddeck on Cape Breton Island, the site of the first airplane flight in Canada. For someone interested in aeronautics and space exploration, what could top Baddeck? Well, Pugwash could.

A friend I was visiting in Canada’s Ocean Playground wanted to take part in the annual July 1 Gathering of the Clans in Pugwash, and I readily agreed to the excursion. A big reason was that Pugwash is the site of the only visit to Canada (or North America) by Yuri Gagarin, the first human to venture into outer space.

While in Pugwash, I enjoyed some great pipe bands at the Gathering of the Clans, and I was also able to gather some information about Gagarin's historic visit to Nova Scotia.

Gagarin’s visit stems from Pugwash’s political claim to fame, which began in the depths of the Cold War. Cyrus Eaton (1883-1979), a millionaire who was born in Pugwash but resided in the United States once he made his fortune there, set up the first of a series of conferences of intellectuals and scientists in Pugwash in 1957 to discuss issues arising out of the existence of nuclear weapons.

The Pugwash conferences were more warmly embraced by the leadership of the Soviet Union than the United States, and so not long after Gagarin made his historic space flight aboard Vostok 1 on April 12, 1961, Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev decided to dispatch Gagarin to Pugwash. 

Immediately after his flight, Gagarin had been feted in Red Square in Moscow and in other capitals of Soviet-aligned countries in Eastern Europe. In July, Gagarin visited Great Britain and met the Queen, and late that month he headed for Cuba and Brazil. On Saturday, August 5, 1961, Gagarin arrived from Brazil at Halifax International Airport, where he was greeted by a crowd of more than 300 people. 

He was immediately driven the 100 miles to Pugwash, passing through villages where curious locals lined the road.  

There was no conference going on at the time, so a program for Gagarin was improvised. He was paraded through the village to a local bandstand where he was entertained by the Amherst Legion Brass Band and the Dunvegan Girls Pipe Band and Dancers, and took in presentations from the Little League, local 4-H clubs and a Red Cross swimming class. Gagarin and Eaton spoke to a crowd estimated at 2,500 people, along with the Soviet ambassador and local dignitaries. A newspaper account called the event “an abbreviated version of the Gathering of the Clans." 

Gagarin also visited Thinkers Lodge, the rambling white wooden house on one of the most spectacular spots in Pugwash that Eaton had donated for the Pugwash conferences, and promised reporters that there would be exciting new Soviet space achievements “very soon.” 

The world’s first spaceman was as good as his word. That evening he went to Eaton’s farm in Deep Cove on Nova Scotia’s South Shore, where he looked forward to a day off from his official duties. But Gagarin was roused early the next morning with news that his backup and friend, Gherman Titov, had been launched into orbit on a 17-orbit, 25-hour flight. Gagarin was granted his wish to return to the Soviet Union, and a few hours later, he was back at Halifax airport, this time with a crowd of nearly 1,000 people to see him off. 

The Illyushin-18 airliner's takeoff was delayed for two hours due to mechanical problems, and Gagarin was cheered by the crowd whenever he appeared during the wait. But in the middle of the afternoon, barely 30 hours after he arrived, he was on his way to Moscow for the celebrations of Titov’s flight.

Although Gagarin would travel widely in the years ahead, he would never return to North America. He died in the crash of his jet aircraft in 1968, and entered the pantheon of Soviet heroes. His popularity has outlived the Soviet Union, and among the many honours he was given during and after his life, his name adorns the trophy that signifies supremacy in the Kontinental Hockey League, Russia’s and eastern Europe’s version of the NHL. 

The Pugwash Conferences on Science and World Affairs have also outlasted the Cold War. Pugwash’s continuing work to eradicate the threat from nuclear weapons was recognized in 1995 with the Nobel Peace Prize, which was on view in the Thinkers Lodge in Pugwash when I came to visit, along with photos of Gagarin’s visit. 

The Clan Thompson Pipe Band from Stellarton NS marches by Thinkers Lodge, Pugwash NS, at the Gathering of the Clans on July 1, 2015. Chris Gainor photo

Thursday, 16 July 2015

Celebrating the End of the Beginning of Solar System Exploration

Plutopalooza at Pluto's Diner, July 14, 2015. Chris Gainor photo

New Horizons is now moving away from Pluto after its rendezvous with the King of the Kuiper Belt on July 14, 2015. 

Many people around the world celebrated this historic encounter, notably at the control centre at the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory in Laurel, Maryland. One of the places where a Plutopalooza celebration took place on Encounter Day was near my home in Victoria, B.C.

During the nine-and-a-half years since New Horizons was launched from Cape Canaveral, I have patronized a restaurant in Victoria called Pluto’s Diner. I’ve appreciated its slogan (‘The Hottest Food from the Coolest Planet’), its great food, and its building, a former Pacific 66 service station, complete with its futuristic touches. Some years ago I decided that this would be the perfect place to celebrate when New Horizons reached Pluto.

A few weeks ago, I began to make arrangements, and finally encounter day arrived. New Horizons reached its closest point to Pluto, 12,500 km, early in the morning of July 14 in the Pacific time zone, but the spacecraft was gathering data and wouldn’t contact Earth until later in the day. 

A signal from New Horizons that took four-and-a-half hours to traverse the nearly five billion km from Pluto reached Earth just before 6 p.m. Pacific time, just as Victoria astronomy enthusiasts began to fill the seats at Pluto’s Diner. The clapping and cheering on the NASA TV coverage on the screen at Pluto's signified that New Horizons had survived its encounter unscathed and had gathered a huge amount of data to be transmitted back to Earth over the next 16 months.

Thanks to the presence of the Dominion Astrophysical Observatory and the University of Victoria Physics and Astronomy Department, Victoria is home to several scientists who are conducting research on Pluto and other objects in the Kuiper Belt in the outer reaches of our solar system. Many of them are part of the New Horizons team. Two Victoria experts on the Kuiper Belt, Dr. Michele Bannister and Ivar Arroway, updated us on the latest findings from New Horizons and the history that led to the encounter. 

Pluto is so small and so far away that not even the Hubble Space Telescope could provide a clear image of this body. The fanciful rendering of Pluto on the restaurant’s neon sign was as good a guess as any of what Pluto looked like. Inside Pluto’s one could find photos of eight planets but not of Pluto. Thanks to a New Horizons image of Pluto released earlier in the day, I was able to present Pluto’s proprietor, Brun Dahlquist, with a real photo of Pluto to display in the diner.

Then it was time to eat, drink and celebrate. We enjoyed the items available on Pluto’s menu as well as decorative and delicious cupcakes from Melissa at Happyditty bakery. 

Amidst the celebrations were memories of Pluto since its discovery in 1930 by a young American astronomer Clyde Tombaugh (1906-1997), some of whose ashes were on board New Horizons. And there were also memories of the great era of planetary encounters, which began in 1962 with Mariner 2’s flyby of Venus, and was concluding at Pluto. 

As we found out the next day, there is still much more to come from New Horizons as it downlinks the data it gathered as it passed by Pluto and its moons. New Horizons is going on to another body in the Kuiper Belt, and other spacecraft are exploring other worlds right now - for example Rosetta and Philae at comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko, and Dawn at the largest object in the asteroid belt, Ceres. 

More robots will explore other worlds, but the Pluto encounter marked the end of the first round of exploration of prominent bodies in the solar system. In Victoria, we were able to mark that milestone in style.

Brun Dahlquist of Pluto's with New Horizons' historic photo of Pluto the day it was released. Diane Bell photo

Wednesday, 8 July 2015

New Horizons at Pluto Marks the End of an Era

One of the better photos of Mars from the 21 sent back to Earth by Mariner 4 in 1965. NASA image
New Horizons is approaching Pluto, just days away from the historic flyby that will give humanity its first look at what once was designated the ninth planet of the Solar System and today is called the King of the Kuiper Belt.

The July 14 encounter will be an exciting for me, but it will also be bittersweet, for it will mark the end of an era in space exploration. The Pluto encounter will mark the end of the first reconnaissance of our Solar System. Spacecraft have provided new and surprising information about every major body in the Solar System, including our home planet.

It all began with Sputnik orbiting Earth in 1957, and within months spacecraft like the American Explorers 1 and 3 and the Russian Sputniks 2 and 3 showed that the Earth was surrounded by a powerful magnetic field, including the Van Allen radiation belts. 

Russian spacecraft struck our own moon and sent back the first photos of its hidden back side in 1959 in the opening shots of the race to the moon that culminated with American astronauts visiting a decade later.

Mariner 2 became the first spacecraft to encounter another planet when it flew by Venus on December 14, 1962.

On July 14, 1965, exactly fifty years before the New Horizons Pluto encounter, Mariner 4 flew by Mars and took the first closeup photos of that world, the first photos to be sent from another planet. Mariner 4’s primitive camera took 21 very rudimentary photos of limited portions of the Martian surface, and Mariner took more than two weeks to transmit the images to Earth. 

Over the years, spacecraft visited the other planets, notably Mariner 10, which flew by Venus and Mercury in the early 1970s, and the two Voyagers launched in 1977 that visited Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus and Neptune. The Voyagers revealed the faces of the many moons that orbited these gas giants, revolutionizing our knowledge of the solar system.

Planetary flybys became big events, and as I wrote in this space last August, I was able to take part in Voyager 1’s encounter with Saturn in 1980, an event that drew media and celebrities to the control centre and helped rewrite astronomical textbooks. 

After Voyager 2 flew by Neptune in 1989, only Pluto remained unseen and unvisited.  Since it is so small and so distant, our best view of Pluto until a few weeks ago was a very low-definition view provided by the Hubble Space Telescope. Now the face of Pluto is being revealed to us.

Once New Horizon’s work at Pluto is done, all of the major bodies of the solar system will be known to humanity. The Solar System contains many more asteroids, moons and comets, and spacecraft will continue to reveal them to us. New Horizons itself will head to another body in the Kuiper Belt once it is done with Pluto. 

That means many more discoveries await us, but the era of the first views of major bodies in the Solar System is drawing to a close. I consider myself privileged to have been a witness to that time.