Tag Archives: space

Matt’s Astronomy Question of the Day: Why is Earth called Earth?

I know this one falls within the category of ‘Questions Asked By A Five-Year-Old’, but I don’t know the answer. I mean, Earth has always been called Earth, right? We take it for granted. Never mind that all the other local planets have dramatic names, names of gods, while our own is named after dirt. Earth is Earth.

I guess you can see why the henchman of Ming the Merciless pronounced it with such disgust.

Sure, our planet has other names, cooler names – Terra, Gaia – but they’re not common currency. ‘Earth’ endures.

The Internet doesn’t seem to know the answer, although I admit my searches haven’t been exhaustive. I’m told where the word comes from – the Old English for ‘ground’ or ‘dirt’ – but that doesn’t explain how it got tagged to our planet as a whole. Sites like Yahoo Answers blithely trot this out as an explanation, but with no real details – was Earth first named in a book? A scroll? On a wall somewhere?

I can take a good guess as to the whys – earth is symbolic of life, growth, harvest, Adam created from the dirt, from dust we come and to dust we return. Earth is less a name, more a primal description, one that we lose sight of in our ongoing divorce from the land. But that’s still not the full story – why Earth and not ‘Water’ or ‘Forest’? My gut answer is because Earth sounds better, but is that just because we’re so used to it? And what was the planet called by people for whom the earth is hostile – those in deserts or arctic wastelands?

On a similar note, ‘the earth’ is used biblically to distinguish this sphere of creation from heaven and hell. If this at the root of it then it implies Earth was named by someone from the Judaeo-Christian tradition, which is probably true given how the West seems to dominate this sort of thing, but that’s still not a definitive answer.

Maybe it’s a similar thing to the Moon, an act of possession – it’s not the only moon but heck, it’s our Moon. But by that logic the Earth should be called the Planet. And it’s not, it’s called Earth and I don’t know why!

Answers in the comments please. Go on. Put me out of my misery…


Tomorrow, a lump of rock the size of an aircraft carrier will pass between the moon and Earth. Although there will no doubt be conspiracy theorists convinced this thing is going to hit us and do to humanity what another asteroid did to the dinosaurs, reputable agencies are adamant that there’s no danger of it slamming into us and triggering earthquakes, tsunamis and the collapse of civilisation.

Of course, they would say that. This blog couldn’t possibly comment.












* Please note – may not necessarily be accurate.

Zambia vs the Martians: The Strange Story of a Forgotten Space Programme

In celebration of Zambia’s Independence Day, here’s a post I wrote a while back about one of the strangest space programmes in history…


Ahh, thank you Library Angel. I was only thinking yesterday that I haven’t written a Historical Randomness post for ages; this morning I update my iPod’s news feeds (because I don’t do anything as predictable as listen to music on my iPod) and there, on Discovery’s feed is the most historically random story I’ve come across in a long time. Because, ladies and gentlemen, Zambia was once about to launch a manned mission to Mars.

Well, when I say “Zambia”, I mean “a Zambian science teacher”, and when I say “about to”, I mean “was never going to”. It seems a bit churlish to point this out, because it’s such a cool story, but this isn’t a story about a great, lost technological advancement buried in the West’s ignorance of African history, this is the story of an enthusiastic amateur, two cats and a bunch of horny potential astronauts.

The background: in 1962, African nationalist parties won Rhodesia’s elections and voted for the secession of Northern Rhodesia; two years later, on 24 October 1964, the Republic of Zambia was born. Cue much celebration, but all this partying was, for one new Zambian, a distraction from the country’s real priority – Edward Makuka Nkoloso was going to get a spacecraft to Mars by 1965, dammit. Even Time magazine noted this ambition in their coverage of the independence celebrations.

This was the sixties, of course, and space was the new frontier – Stephen King has written of a childhood memory of how the adults around him freaked out at the news that Russia had launched Sputnik, and Wernher von Braun was now using the technology used by the Nazis to bomb London in the service of America’s own Saturn programme. In 1962, JFK delivered a speech at Rice Stadium, Texas, pledging to carry out a successful round trip to the Moon by the end of the decade. It was the start of the Space Race between the USA and the Soviet Union, but in Nkoloso’s mind they were also rans, trying to steal his own secrets of space travel for their own ends. After all, they just wanted to carry out small potatoes projects like getting to the Moon by 1970; he had the far more ambitious target of landing a crew on Mars by 1965 (he outlined his aims in this editorial).

Nkoloso was a school science teacher in a country where just 0.002% of the population had a degree. Establishing a secret HQ outside the capital Lusaka, Nkoloso’s space pioneers were 11 men, one 16-year old girl, a Christian missionary and two cats. Trained by swinging off ropes, rolling down hills in oil drums and walking on their hands (and yes, footage of this has made it to Youtube, albeit complete with slappable presenters), the project was derailled by the fact that the men were more interested in copping off with the girl, and things kinda fell apart when she left the project after getting pregnant.

Despite the space programme still being in its relative post-war infancy, the idea of getting to Mars wasn’t all that out-there. The aforementioned von Braun had become the chief populiser of space exploration and in 1952 he published The Mars Project, outling his ideas for a manned mission to the red planet. Remember, this is Mars we’re talking about, and the idea that it might be inhabited has long maintained a hold on the imagination, at least since Percival Lowell popularised the idea in the 1890s that Mars was covered in artificial canals (an extension of astronomer Giovanni Schiaparelli’s view that the planet was covered in channels, as opposed to canals built by Martians – blame translation from the Italian). Science fiction also built on the idea that we could be invaded by our nearest astronomical neighbour – the variois tellings of The War of the Worlds is probably the best example of this.

Nkoloso went along with the life on Mars theory, believing it to be inhabited by a primative culture – hence the inclusion of a missionary in his crew, although they vowed not to force Christianity on the natives (it’s interesting to put this approach to First Contact in the context of a country that had only just emerged from colonial rule by Britain – the colonised looking to become the colonisers, maybe, whilst not making the mistakes of the past? It’s not like HG Wells didn’t draw a link between his Martian invasion and European imperialism).

At any rate, the Zambian space programme (which, I should add, wasn’t sanctioned by the government, unsurprisingly) never took off; UNESCO wasn’t keen to stump up the £7 million worth of funding Nkoloso requested from them (although it would have been a bargain compared to the Apollo programme’s $25.4 billion); they were more interested in setting up CERN (the organisation responsible for the World Wide Web and the Large Hadron Collider) and moving the Abu Simbel temple to prevent it from being flooded by the Nile). The project, such as it was, died a death and Nkoloso went on to become president of the Ndola Ex-Servicemen’s Association.

It would be easy to laugh at the whole thing, and it is faintly farcical (although it would make a fantastic film, and someone should look into it – Film Zambia?), but perhaps it’s an example of the potency of two Big Ideas – this article links it to the power space exploration has over the human imagination, and I think there’s definitely something in that, but I guess there’s also something attractive about the opportunity for the little guy, however deluded, to stand up to the big dogs, even in the shadow of colonialism and Cold War superpower posturing. After all, the US may be the only country to have sent someone to a neighbouring celestial body, but Nkoloso shows us we don’t have to believe they’re the only ones who can do it.

So when the first Zambian makes it into space, he or she should spare a thought for Edward Nkoloso and his visions of Mars. The universe is vaster than we make it, and there’s always room for bigger dreams.

T Minus 12 Days: The final curtain for the shuttle programme

If I could go back in time and witness any event of the 20th Century, I think the moon landing would be top of the list. Maybe it’s my inner geek, but the whole idea of looking up and seeing the moon, that big ball of rock that’s been Earth’s companion for billions of years, and knowing that human beings have actually been up there, knowing that technical ingenuity is capable of getting people over 300,000km from home and back again, with less computer processing power than most household gizmos (probably including my microwave)… It’s kinda awe-inspiring.

Earlier today, the space shuttle Atlantis launched for the last time, marking the end of NASA’s shuttle programme. It’s poignant – while the private sector seem to be picking up the reins of the getting-humans-into-space industry, the shuttle always seemed, to me, to be part of a lineage that included the Mercury and Apollo programmes. Somehow, with the end of the shuttle project, it feels even less likely that I’ll see a human being land on Mars in my lifetime. And sure, the shuttle was never going to get us there, but these things have a symbolic value…

But I’m biased. I want to see us go back into space. I know what people are saying – it costs too much, there are problems to be solved here on Earth. Well, yeah, but we haven’t gone beyond our galactic back garden for 37 years and you know what? Those problems still need fixing.

That said, the challenges of the 21st century seem more inward looking than concerned with heading further into space. The internet and social media seem to be rewiring society at the moment, not excitement over space travel. It’s the role of Twitter and Facebook in things like the Arab Spring and the collapse of the News of the World that generate column inches at the moment, and while that’s all fascinating, I don’t really think it counts as awe-inspiring.

“Space travel costs too much” is the refrain we always hear, but I want to know why it’s always staged as a choice between space exploration (and the resulting scientific advances) and, say, eradicating AIDS. Why is it never a choice between space exploration and dropping bombs on people? Why is it never a choice between space exploration and the money used to deal with the greed of bankers and dodgy MP expense claims and media giants, and any other instance of corruption you can think of? Why can’t we do something good at the expense of something bad?

I found it unsettling when I read in the book Moondust that only nine of the twelve men who walked on the moon are still alive. I think it’s because, as the book mentions, the moon landings are often seen as the last optimistic act of the twentieth century; well, we’re eleven years into the 21st and that optimism is still lacking. In a world that’s currently dealing with everything from revolutions to horrifying natural disasters, the idea of a major act of optimism is highly attractive. Part of me wants to see humans walk on Mars, simply because it would be a great historical act that doesn’t involve people killing each other.

Besides, I’m not sure my generation has had it’s moment to gather around – maybe Live Aid – and there’s another couple of generations below me that are in the same boat. Much as I think the Internet is hugely significant, in 40 years time I really hope I’m not sitting in front of a TV documentary celebrating Facebook. What’s our big moment going to be? I’d love it if it was putting a man or woman on Mars, but you know, I’d also love it if we cured cancer or wiped out Third World debt or pioneered a clean energy source that no-one’s even thought of yet. There’s got to be something more that can unite us beyond death and Simon Cowell.

We’re a clever species when we put our minds to it, but we seem to get locked into cycles of destruction. We seize on anything, be it religion, or politics, or race, or land to perpetuate the darker angels of our natures. Fundamentalisms that have forgetten the fundamentals add fuel to the fire, and while knowledge increases exponentially, I’m not so convinced about wisdom – to paraphrase Smashmouth, our brains get smart but our hearts get dumb.

Atlantis is due home in twelve days, and then the shuttles will be retired to museums. We’ll see what that means for space exploration in general, but it raises the question of where humanity goes from here – the role of the internet in society is major, but there have to be greater horizons to shoot for; the future shouldn’t be limited to 140 characters, and lifting off will always be more of an adventure than logging on.

Halley’s Comet and a Dark Day o’ Doom: A couple of doomsday panics

On this day in 1910, the world had one of its regular doomsday panics. This time catatrophe was thought to be coming from space.

Wired has a nice article on Earth’s encounter with Halley’s Comet; we passed through its tail for six hours and, picking up on reports that this would expose the population to deadly levels of cyanogen, the press went crazy. Vigils were held, churches put on prayer meetings. And, of course, nothing happened.

Interestingly, in 1780, residents of New England also thought May 19 was bringing the end of the world in its wake. A mysterious darkness fell in the daytime and obviously people feared the worst, expecting the Second Coming at any minute. It wasn’t until 2007 that the link was Made between the Dark Day of 1780 and the smoke from forest fires in Canada.

Still, at least it’s not as though anyone’s predicted the end of the world for this weekend, is it?