Babe Among the Stars: Ground Control to Major Tim

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Galaxy Babe's column banner, showing a full moon and some little folk looking up at the sky

Mortal as I am, I know that I am born for a day. But when I follow at my pleasure the serried multitude of the stars in their circular course, my feet no longer touch the earth - Ptolemy

Stargazing Live

Stargazing Live was broadcast on BBC2 between 12-15 January. Usual presenters Dara O Briain and Prof Brian Cox brought us the live shows from Jodrell Bank Observatory with invited guests including Dame Jocelyn Bell Burnell who was the first person to detect pulsars. The first show featured Prof Chris Lintott appealing for viewers to log onto a website and assist in the search for new pulsars. Later in the week it was revealed that people-power had discovered a brand new object which was going to be studied by astronomers at Jodrell Bank. Another guest was musician and retired astronaut Chris Hadfield1, who was primarily there to assist the presenters when Major Tim Peake, the first British European Space Agency (ESA) astronaut, performed his first EVA (spacewalk). The fact that David Bowie passed from this life to the next at the start of the week was a cosmic coincidence not unnoticed by many a teary-eyed viewer. Video clips of comedian John Bishop going through astronaut training at the European Astronaut Centre in Cologne, Germany, were broadcast throughout the Stargazing Live programmes. This was not played for laughs: Bishop underwent the strict routine of a simulated spacewalk in a neutral buoyancy pool and also braved the G-force centrifuge machine. He was also fitted for astronaut gear - a blue jumpsuit - and when his training sessions were over he was awarded a special patch for his jumpsuit. Spacesuits are extremely expensive - costing multiple millions each - so Bishop wasn't getting one of those as a keepsake. The spacesuit is basically a spaceship in miniature - it keeps the astronaut alive in the lethal environment of space when work has to be done outside the space station.

'Ground Control to Major Tim'

The Stargazing Live programmes were only scheduled for three consecutive nights, but on the third, viewers were informed that another show would be broadcast the following night as an update on Major Tim Peake's spacewalk which was due that day. Breaking news throughout the day on normal television included shots of the two astronauts, 'our' Tim and the more experienced American Colonel Tim Kopra, on their EVA repair mission. They had already carried out their scheduled repair to a power unit when, better than anything Hollywood could dish up, the mood changed when Colonel Kopra reported having cold water in his helmet and the pair were ordered to terminate their EVA immediately. No-one wants an astronaut to drown in their suit - which is what almost happened to Italian astronaut Major Luca Parmitano during his EVA in 2013. With Kopra wearing the exact same suit2, ground control were taking no chances. Kopra was able to make his own way back to the airlock but Peake was effectively in command of the EVA mission from the time of the termination - it was now his job to assist Kopra if necessary and to complete Kopra's tasks, including the replacing of the heat shield and closing the hatch once both were back inside the ISS. These tense moments were all filmed on Tim Peake's helmet-cam, and we could even see the checklist he kept referring to. On the extra Stargazing Live programme we saw a clip of Dara, Brian Cox and Chris Hadfield discussing the EVA in front of these images when the emergency arose. Full marks to Chris Hadfield for explaining what was happening without panicking the audience, he stayed in full control of his emotions when he must have been extremely worried for Tim Kopra! The whole eventful situation was discussed after it was all over - phew! As if we needed reminding how difficult and dangerous living and working in space is, we viewers had a ringside seat when disaster was averted. I had to smile when I heard that the other astronauts on board the ISS were standing by with towels - it felt very much like the spirit of Douglas Adams was there too.

February 2016 Diary Dates

Comet Catalina will be viewable for Northern Hemisphere astronomers all month. The comet has a double tail and it had a spectacular close encounter with Arcturus on 1st January. This first-time visitor from the Oort Cloud will pass through the North Celestial Pole in early February, just a few degrees from Polaris (alpha Ursae Minoris). The comet will then traverse Camelopardalis and around mid-February it will be in the same region as two photogenic objects - face-on spiral galaxy IC 342 and the asterism known as Kemble's Cascade.

All five naked-eye planets will appear together in the pre-dawn sky until 20 February.

  • 01: Anniversary of the Space Shuttle Columbia disaster when seven astronauts perished upon re-entry
  • 01: The Moon passes 3° north of Mars
  • 01: The 101m-wide asteroid 2016 BE will pass Earth beyond the orbit of the Moon
  • 01: The 19m-wide asteroid 2016 BA15 will pass Earth beyond the orbit of the Moon
  • 03: The Moon passes 3° north of Saturn
  • 06 (pre-dawn): The Moon, Venus and Mercury form a triangle
  • 06: The Moon passes 4° north of Mercury
  • 07: The 33m-wide asteroid 2015 XA379 will pass Earth beyond the orbit of the Moon
  • 07: The 16m-wide asteroid 2014 QD364 will pass Earth beyond the orbit of the Moon
  • 07: The 19m-wide asteroid 2016 BQ will pass Earth beyond the orbit of the Moon
  • 08: All four Galilean moons will be on one side of Jupiter
  • 08: The 165m-wide asteroid 2013 VA10 will pass Earth beyond the orbit of the Moon
  • 08: New Moon
  • 08: Chinese New Year (Year of the Monkey)
  • 09: The Moon passes 2° north of Neptune
  • 10: The Moon is at perigee (closest to Earth)
  • 12: The Moon passes 1.7° south of Uranus
  • 14: The 94m-wide asteroid 2014 EK24 will pass Earth beyond the orbit of the Moon
  • 16: The Moon passes 0.3° north of Aldebaran (alpha Tauri)
  • 16: The 1.2km-wide asteroid 2010 LJ14 will pass Earth beyond the orbit of the Moon
  • 19: The 2km-wide asteroid 1999 YK5 will pass Earth beyond the orbit of the Moon
  • 22: All four Galilean moons will be on one side of Jupiter
  • 22: The 22m-wide asteroid 2010 WD1 will pass Earth beyond the orbit of the Moon
  • 23: Full Moon - the Snow Moon according to folklore
  • 23: The 1.4km-wide asteroid 1991 CS will pass Earth beyond the orbit of the Moon
  • 23: The Moon passes 1.7° south of Jupiter
  • 26: The Moon is at apogee (furthest from Earth)
  • 29: The Moon passes 4° north of Mars
  • 29: All four Galilean moons will be on one side of Jupiter

  • Chat about your celestial observances at the H2G2 Astronomy Society. Comment on anything in this edition of Babe Among the Stars by starting a new conversation below.

Babe Among the Stars Archive

Galaxy Babe

01.02.16 Front Page

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1His delightful rendition of 'Space Oddity' from the International Space Station will never be forgotten.2If you are the next one to be told 'you're wearing it', perhaps ask if they've got one in another colour?

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