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A brief(ish) history of rockets

I have a new article over at Sen (Space Exploration Network). It recounts the first 2,000 years (or so) of humanity's journey to the stars.

You might think you know the story, but there was a long and fascinating technological journey to be made before mankind even left the confines of the ground (left alone the planet itself). From the first kites and ancient experiments with steam and rocketry there are some fascinating and (sometimes) hilarious stories paving the way.

For example, have you heard about the 16th century Chinese bureaucrat who tried to launch himself to moon in a wicker chair with 47 rockets attached to it? Or how about the 19th century Italian who launched sheep into "space"? Or the early 20th century Russian school teacher who designed multi-stage rockets, space stations and a space elevator?

No? Well head over here for a read.

Vostok: The lake that time forgot

We often hear remote areas being referred to as ‘untouched by man’, or as an ‘unspoiled wilderness’ but, by the very nature of mankind’s effect on the planet, such descriptions are (sadly) untrue. If it is open to the air, or watered by rivers, something of man will be imprinted upon it. There are no unspoiled environments left.

But what if we found a place that had been locked away from our influence – a bubble of untouched wilderness – a lost world?

Well, such a place does exist and, in the most remote region our planet, scientists are poised to take a first peek at its secrets.

Beneath four kilometres of Antarctic icesheet, Lake Vostok has been sealed away and isolated from the rest of the planet for almost 20 million years.

Put a little extra tick into your tock

As a chronometer, the Earth just isn’t up to scratch and every so often a 'leap second' is added to compensate. Image montage: Ben Gilliland

Those of you booking a holiday at the end of June are in for a treat. The world’s official time keepers have decided to add a ‘leap second’ to 2012. Like a ‘leap year’, a ‘leap second’ is added to bring our clocks back into sync with the rotation of the Earth and, thanks to that, your holiday will be one second longer.

The length of a day is determined by the Earth’s rotation and one full rotation equals one full day. But the speed of the Earth’s rotation isn’t constant – ocean tides pulled back and forth by the Moon’s gravity, churning molten materials deep in the Earth’s bowels, earthquakes and even friction from the wind all add up and force the planet to give up a tiny bit of its rotational energy. In other words, it slows down and our clocks need to compensate for this.

Astronomers aim to 'capture' a black hole

French astronomer Pierre-Simon Laplace predicted the existence of black holes way back in 1796, but we’ve yet to capture one on camera. The Event Horizon Telescope will bring together astronomy’s greatest radio telescopes in an attempt ‘photograph’ the supermassive black hole at the heart of the Milky Way

Where would science fiction be without black holes? As a plot device they are without equal. They can imperil our plucky hero as his spacecraft is sucked like a spider down a plughole to (almost) certain doom and they provide a handy shortcut to the past, or future, in the form of a wormhole. But despite their ubiquity in TV and film, astronomers have never actually seen one.

In fact, everything we know of black holes comes from theory and indirect observations of the effects they have on the space around them. But now scientists are getting ready to take their first picture of these enigmatic phenomena.

Astro-porn, in a 19th century pen and ink stylie

Today's telescopic behemoths have spoiled us with stunning their images of astronomical phenomena. But you don't need millions of quid's worth of kit to capture the awesome beauty of the sky at night.

In the 19th century, a French entomologist-turned-astronomer Etienne Leopold Trouvelot (1827-1895), created more than 7,000 astronomical illustrations while working for the Harvard College observatory. Now these ball-bouncingly beautiful images have been digitised by the New York Library and made available to the public.

Here are just a few of these pre-Hubble wonders:

The rehabilitation of Robert Hooke

History is a living, breathing creature – a fickle beast that is likely to forget even the greatest people unless it is constantly fed by its keepers. They say history is written by the conqueror but it also written by those that follow in its wake.

If history’s keepers don’t celebrate your achievements then history will look elsewhere for sustenance and you will be forgotten.

Time is littered with the corpses of the forgotten – great men and women who should be celebrated as pioneers, change-makers and revolutionaries but for one reason or another have been snubbed by the beast and are not remembered as they should be. One such victim is Robert Hooke.

Hooke was one of the greatest minds of the Renaissance – he was Christopher Wren, Isaac Newton and Galileo Galilei rolled into one, a polymath who should be celebrated as an English Leonardo Da Vinci but who instead is barely remembered at all.

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