Archive for May, 2008

Phoenix Mars Lander images just got better…

Posted in Planetary science on May 28, 2008 by salul

Phoenix landing

I’m speechless…

…and a beautiful little context shot of the landing site, courtesy the MRO team:

Phoenix landing site

More incredible images from Barsoom

Posted in Planetary science on May 27, 2008 by salul

Since last night we have been treated to a continuing stream of stupendous images from Mars. Herewith two favourites.

Actually, the first one is a favourite, simply because it provides one of the first colour shots of Mars’s Northern plain; the second is absolutely BREATHTAKING, because it may seem aesthetically banal…but is profound and awesome in its meaning.

UMSF colour

Above is a nice preliminary attempt at colourisation by a member of the UMSF community.

Below…well, judge for yourselves.

Phx parachute






 To those readers who have no specific interest in planetary exploration, this parachute pic may seem like a relatively humdrum affair.

But consider that it was taken by an orbiting spacecraft that was travelling thousands of kph around Mars and had to be positioned precisely on target in order to capture this falling object, which is a parachuting lander travelling at somewhere close to the speed of sound with respect to the ground. Moreover, the picture was taken with a high resolution camera that had to be rotated (actually, they had to rotate the spacecraft AROUND the camera, which is even more complicated) in order for the image not to be smeared by the various motions involved…and all of this was carried out remotely, via radio signals and electronic commands from a distance of 278 million kilometres.

EDIT (from the NASA Phoenix site): 

From a distance of about 310 kilometers (193 miles) above the surface of the Red Planet, Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter pointed its HiRISE obliquely toward Phoenix shortly after it opened its parachute while descending through the Martian atmosphere.

The image reveals an apparent 10-meter-wide (30-foot-wide) parachute fully inflated. The bright pixels below the parachute show a dangling Phoenix.

The image faintly detects the chords attaching the backshell and parachute. The surroundings look dark, but correspond to the fully illuminated Martian surface, which is much darker than the parachute and backshell.

Phoenix released its parachute at an altitude of about 12.6 kilometers (7.8 miles) and a velocity of 1.7 times the speed of sound.

An informative little animation relating to this particular photographic manoeuvre has been posted here.

Consider: all of these movements and calculations had to come together flawlessly at one specific instant during the landing phase.

There was no second chance.

Call me a geek, but this is more than enough to make me pause and allow myself to be enchanted. Not simply by a certain aspect of mankind’s engineering prowess (with apologies to Alfie Gell and other postmo critics of enchantment), but by the fact that we are witnessing the descent of a man-made robot on another world…as imaged by another man-made robot which is orbiting that world.

This could be the stuff of sci-fi. But isn’t.



Debating the value of cultural knowledge

Posted in Uncategorized on May 26, 2008 by salul

Herewith a link to this discussion , and its associated site, which I was recently alerted to by the feed at Savage Minds. I may edit this post a little later (had a late night last night with the whole Martian landing brouhaha and must rush off to work now), but thought I would pre-empt this entry cause I found the debate to be very stimulating.

The Arctic plains…of Mars

Posted in Planetary science on May 26, 2008 by salul

Vastitas Borealis

68.22º North lat., 234.3º East lon.

25 May, 2008

Martian Arctic

First images from the North Polar regions of Mars, taken today by the Phoenix Lander.

Phoenix footpad



It was a textbook perfect rocket-powered landing, and means that there are now three different and fully functioning science platforms active on the surface of this world. 


I am speechless.

And delighted.

Phoenix Render




Above: A rendering of Phoenix at the beginning of the surface operations phase of the mission (from the U of A MPL website).

Phoenix false colour



From the JPL website:

This image, one of the first captured by NASA’s Phoenix Mars Lander, shows the vast plains of the northern polar region of Mars. The flat landscape is strewn with tiny pebbles and shows polygonal cracking, a pattern seen widely in Martian high latitudes and also observed in permafrost terrains on Earth. The polygonal cracking is believed to have resulted from seasonal freezing and thawing of surface ice. This is an approximate-color image taken shortly after landing by the spacecraft’s Surface Stereo Imager, inferred from two color filters, a violet, 450-nanometer filter and an infrared, 750-nanometer filter. 

Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/University of Arizona

Phoenix false colour 1

Phoenix TwilightFrom the JPL Website: Phoenix Twilight. The Phoenix Lander begins to shut down operations as winter sets in. The far northern lattitudes on Mars experience no sunlight during winter. This marks the end of the mission because the solar panels can no longer charge the batteries on the lander and the frost covering the region as the atmosphere cools will bury the lander in ice. This rendition of the Phoenix lander was created by artist Corby Waste of the Jet Propulsion Laboratory.

Into the fray: Tibet, racism and Islamophobia

Posted in Tibet on May 24, 2008 by salul

A colleague at one of my blogs of interest recently posted an opinion regarding the oft-ignored issues of Islamophobia and ethnic Tibetan racism in respect of the March 2008 riots in Tibet.

Since I don’t want to quote his post and my subsequent response back-to-back, I will simply point those who might be interested to his original posting and reproduce my reply below:

Whew. A lot of stuff in this post, some of it spot on and worth underlining because it throws important light on an often hopelessly muddled debate.

Some of your opinions, however, are strangely misinformed, even visceral, and do a disservice to what is an otherwise important opinion.

I hope that, as one of those Tibet-related anthropologists who might be accused of ignoring the “dark side” of the issue, I can provide a constructive reply in as few words as possible.

In respect of the accuracies in your argument:

* “Tibet is neither a mono-cultural geopolitical entity, nor a one-hundred percent Buddhist country…”

Definitely true, and not represented often enough in both the mass media and a significant proportion of otherwise serious Tibet-related academic output.


* The realities of Tibetan racism and Islamophobia.

Both true points, which have been severely underreported in academic publications, not to mention public opinion, and deserve far more extensive and critical discussion than has thus far been the case.

However, the reasons for the lack of informed and critical analysis of ethnic Tibetan racism lie more squarely in the fact that the very volume and development of contemporary Tibet-based research is still severely limited, and constitutes an as-yet developing field of studies, rather than with any sort of crude attempt at hiding or ignoring uncomfortable truths.

Nevertheless, I believe you have a point, and that there is indeed an implicit bias and unacceptable silence in Tibet-related research regarding the issues of racism and Islamophobia in Tibet.


*Your assert that “religion has nothing to do with Tibetan racism, even though it is fostered and provoked by Buddhist monks”.

This is a rather misguided statement, and goes to the heart of my critique of this post, which is that you seem to be quite skilled at exhibiting the contradictions and nuances of the multi-ethnic and -denominational reality of Tibet, but do so by presenting a blanket condemnation of what you repeatedly refer to as a homogeneous and generalised class of Tibetan Buddhists and, especially monks or “lamas”, who presumably represent the majority of Tibetans in Tibet, and certainly the violent rioters of recent weeks.

In fact, if we are to nuance the analysis of this situation, rather than quote selectively from Andrew Fischer’s important scholarship and from an Aussie reporter’s wankish opinions, I would simply point to:

1) the fact that the monastic community in Tibet is not represented by any sort of organised “lamaic” class with retro-feudal interests, but rather by a heterogeneous, young, largely tolerant and mostly toothless set of disaggregated schools and groupings each of which tend to be quite restrained in their political expressions and organisational capabilities, if only because they are the most vigilantly controlled sector of Tibetan life (watched by both lay Tibetan and Han police and Party officials).

2) What you refer to, beyond the “lamas”, as “ethnic Tibetan Buddhists” becomes a sort of shadow generalisation for referring to Tibetans in Tibet.

In fact, most non-monastic Tibetans in Tibet are nominally Buddhist and, beyond their personal faith practices, mostly act and think in ways that are about as non-religious (or, if you prefer, earthly) as lay Catholics in Latin America or, indeed, a majority of Muslims across the Islamic world. The point here is that there is no such thing as an ethnic Tibetan Buddhist majority that is easily manipulated by “the monks”, or motivated by specifically Buddhist forms of race hatred.

3) Both lay Tibetans and Tibetan Buddhist monks in Chinese-occupied Tibet act and react in ways that are actually quite beyond the ability of the Dalai Lama or its Government-in-Exile to control. In this respect, to offer up the DL as easy target practice for your critique of Tibetan Islamophobia is rather pointless. Whatever his dark sides may be, what he and the broader Tibetan diaspora think and do is very distanced indeed from how Tibetans in Tibet act and think.

For the record, this is one of the most important and contentious points in Andrew Fischer’s overall work, and I believe it merits far more consideration than has been given it by many of my colleagues.

4) Finally, while you accurately differentiate between Tibetan Hui and non-ethnic Tibetan Hui, you then collapse distinctions when you report that “the Lhasa mosque” was burned down.

While there is no getting round the fact that Hui Muslims (Tibetan and non-Tibetan) were targeted in the recent riots by violent, LAY, disaffected urban Tibetan male youths, it is also true that the “Lhasa mosque” that was targeted was the more recently erected of two mosques in the historical district of Lhasa and represented, for many disaffected urban Tibetans, a symbol of the encroachment of the more recent and economically successful Hui arrivals from other Chinese provinces.

Does this justify the hatred and violence?

Of course not. But that’s not the point. The point here is that there are many complicated grievances (both grounded and fictional) behind the violence of the recent riots, which were otherwise not exclusively directed against Hui Muslims but against any non-ethnic Tibetan persons who were perceived to be the beneficiaries of the accelerated modernisation and inequality that has been pursued by local and national government officials in recent years. In short, this is very much to do with socio-economics AND racism, than with Buddhist inspired Islamophobia or puritanical fantasies of an ethnically-cleansed Tibet.


I don’t know if this long comment helps. I hope it does. I find myself in agreement with some of your points, and thank you for raising the bar in respect of the seriousness with which we should discuss these issues (by contrast, I find my own blogging on the subject to be quite lukewarm, and am determined to be sharper about it in the future).

But I also think you should be more careful about how you go about arguing the case against Islamophobia in an otherwise multi-layered context which needs less, and not more, stereotyping on both sides.

Planetary exploration

Posted in Planetary science on May 21, 2008 by salul


Rhea and rings


Courtesy The Planetary Society Blog comes this wonderful little reminder of the miracle that is the exploration of the Solar System.




Read that blog entry slowly and think about it for a moment: five active missions at Mars, with another one about to attempt a North Polar landing (this coming Sunday 25 May), another that is gradually closing in on a stable orbit around Mercury, another at Venus, three international probes rounding the Moon, an amazing mission giving us daily insights into the Saturn system, and at least eight other active interplanetary probes – two of which are actually interstellar and one that has recently flown past Jupiter on its way to Pluto!


NHAnd for those who care to be amazed, one can be treated to almost instantaneous front row views and coverage.



I never cease to be speechless with, well, yes, the enchantment of it all.Io and Jupiter





I kind of figured…

Posted in Uncategorized on May 18, 2008 by salul

From the Beeb’s man in Cannes (yes, that’s meant to be a cheap play of words):

For the hardcore Jones fans, this film was never going to live up to expectations.

One cinemagoer leaving the first press screening in Cannes said: “George Lucas, you gotta stop hurting us”.

But this is no Phantom Menace or Godfather III. The quality control has been maintained, despite the 19-year wait.

And as Indy himself says, “I dunno kid, it’s just a story.”