When I went to the Destination Star Trek convention at the National Exhbition Centre in Birmingham last Saturday, it was as a casual Star Trek fan. I was pleased to say hello to and get autographs from some of the guests, such as Gates McFadden (Dr Beverly Crusher in Star Trek: The Next Generation) and Jeri Ryan (Seven of Nine in Star Trek: Voyager). There was also Alice Krige, who played the Borg Queen in Star Trek: First Contact, but who I mainly knew from Chariots of Fire, a film I love. The things that I enjoyed most about the event, however, related to less fictional space exploration.
In attendance was real-life astronaut Fred Haise, the lunar module pilot of Apollo 13. Having already met Ken Mattingly and Jim Lovell at Space Lectures in Pontefract, getting to see Fred meant that I had now met the entire original Apollo 13 crew! (Jack Swigert, the command module pilot who ended up replacing Mattingly on the flight, is sadly no longer with us.) Fred gave a lecture later in the day, where he talked about not only Apollo 13 – his only spaceflight – but the work he did flying approach and landing tests of the prototype Space Shuttle Orbiter, which was (appropriately for the occasion) named Enterprise. He mentioned that he felt more pressure flying Enterprise than he had when working on Apollo; after all, if anything went wrong, there was no replacement Orbiter and only so much funding! Haise ultimately left NASA in 1979, before the Shuttle was ready for space; despite the disappointment of not getting to walk on the Moon, he said that today he looks back and feels happy with his career. I couldn’t help but note that he still has a cheeky smile exactly like that in his astronaut pictures.
There was a small Science and Education Area being manned by various scientists from the European Space Agency (ESA). Also in that area was Mat Irvine, who worked as a technical consultant and visual effects designer on such BBC shows as Doctor Who and Blake’s 7; he was there with his models of real-life spacecraft, most of which had been used for demonstrative purposes in programmes like Stargazing Live. His models of Skylab and the Apollo-Soyuz Test Project were being used back in the 1970s when those missions actually flew.
The ESA scientists also gave lectures on the projects they had been working on. The one I found most interesting was by Richard Moissl, who talked about BepiColombo, a mission which had successfully launched at 2:45am British time that very morning – Moissl’s explanation for why he might have looked a little bleary-eyed. A joint venture between the ESA and the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency, BepiColombo will be only the third space mission to visit the planet Mercury, after Mariner 10 and MESSENGER. Moissl went into detail about BepiColombo’s components, its flight path, and what it will do when it arrives at its destination. As anyone who has tried to get to Moho on Kerbal Space Program can appreciate, going into orbit around Mercury is difficult due to the incredibly high speeds created by the Sun’s gravitational pull, and Mercury’s low gravitational force. That is why it will take BepiColombo seven years to reach that point, using flybys of Earth, Venus and Mercury itself to burn off speed with minimum fuel expenditure, until it slows down enough to enter orbit in December 2025.
Upon arrival, the spacecraft will split into two orbiters: Japan’s Mercury Magnetospheric Orbiter and Europe’s Mercury Planetary Orbiter. The wide range of instruments on both spacecraft will study Mercury’s terrain, its very thin atmosphere, its magnetic field, local radiation, any dust rising from the surface, and the irregular gravitational forces. One objective is to learn more about Mercury’s interior, which features an especially large iron core; later, when Moissl was in the Science Area, I asked him about how BepiColombo would study this. He explained that by measuring the effects of gravity on the spacecraft with its spring accelerometer, and recording anomalies, inferences can be made on the density of the interior, and it can be determined which of the various theoretical models best match reality. These measurements can also be used to test Einstein’s theory of general relativity with extra precision; when Albert Einstein came up with this theory of how gravity works and applied it to high-gravity environments (e.g. the orbit of Mercury), he was able to account for small shifts in Mercury’s orbit more accurately than Isaac Newton’s older theories of gravity and motion.
It’s really fascinating to learn more about exactly how space scientists draw conclusions from the experiments they send into space, sometimes through inferences rather than direct observations. The lecture on BepiColombo contained an appropriate quote from Mr Spock, worth bearing in mind when thinking about space probes: “Instruments register only those things they are designed to register. Space still contains infinite unknowns.” There is so much more to learn, hence why we have BepiColombo, and many more ESA spacecraft which have received less media attention.
Conventions usually leave me feeling cheerful and refreshed, and this one was no exception.