Saturday, 22 December 2007

The Shipping Forecast on Titan



The shipping forecast on BBC Radio Four is a real British institution, something akin the red double decker and opinionated black cab drivers. Two of these symbols of all things British were to the fore when I visited the Royal Society to attend a lecture given by Professor John Zarnecki of the Open University about Saturn's moon Titan and the probe Cassini-Huygens.

My friend Rakesh, who also came to listen to the talk, had to hot foot it from work as I did and his cabbie proffered an interest in his destination. The cab driver reckoned that there 'Just has to be aliens out there cos its just SO big' which pretty much sums it all up!

Arriving at the Royal Society near the Mall was quite an eye opener due to the incredible building in which it is located in one of the poshest areas of London. When I arrived the queue was already snaking out onto to the pavement. There was an excellent turn out which was good to see, including quite a few kids.

The lecture was introduced by Sir Martin Rees Astronomer Royal and chairman of the Royal Society, so we were doubly honoured. Professor Zarnecki started the talk with a playback of the aforementioned BBC Shipping Forecast, but this version had an extra terrestrial slant and gave the sea conditions for Titan as imagined for when Huygens would land. As far I remember it was poor, turning very poor with constant methane drizzle.

We were then treated to an in-depth history of the Cassini-Huygens mission, and John gave us some of his stories direct from the 'coal face' so to speak. Then the Huygens probe was described including complete history of the trials and tribulations of constructing the tiny probe with all the graphs of results you could desire.
Professor Zarnecki gave a fascinating lecture and really passed on his obvious enthusiasm for his work and space exploration in general. The plans he outlined for future possible probes really do sound exciting and it was great to hear these ideas first hand.

The floor was then opened for the audiences questions. The first question was about the unfortunate missing channel of data that Rakesh seemed desperately eager to ask himself. Professor Zarnecki was wearing his optimistic hat and said it was a case of the glass being half full... although it can't be denied its a bit of a shame that we didn't get to see the other half of that glass.

After the lecture we were given the chance to have a closer look at a quarter scale model of the Huygens probe and I managed to get these pictures... Rakesh also got this one of John Zarnecki. So all in all it was a highly enjoyable lecture and I am keeping my ear to the ground for similar talks coming up, and will no doubt write about them on here if I do attend anything interesting.