University of Leicester Homecoming 2010: 50 years of Space Science

I spent most of today at the University of Leicester's alumni event, Homecoming 2010, and I'm writing about it here because it marks 50 years of space science at the uni, and many of the items on the programme were geared towards this. I'd like to talk briefly about the lectures I attended.


Keynote lecture: Hubble Telescope and the Future of Human Space Flight
Dr. Jeffrey Hoffman
Dr. Hoffman fixing the HST

I loved this lecture, and felt that it was a great way to start the day. Dr. Hoffman is Professor of Aerospace Engineering at MIT, and is a  former NASA astronaut who has actually flown in five space flight missions, including the first servicing mission to the Hubble Space Telescope which had the primary focus of installing equipment to correct for the effects of its flawed mirror.

The lecture was a fantastic whistlestop tour of Hubble's history illustrated with some of the amazing images it has captured since its installation in orbit in 1990. Dr. Hoffman briefly talked about the end of Hubble's life and its intended successor, the James Webb Telescope. He then went on to talk about humanity's future in space, with reference to the International Space Station, Chinese, Indian and other countries' contributions to space exploration, and the increasing success of commercial ventures into space.

The Hubble Space Telescope is, in my opinion, one of the most important and influential technological achievements in modern history. You can read more about it, and view some astoundingly beautiful snapshots of our universe, at the Hubble Heritage Project site.


Saturn and the Cassini Space Mission
Professor Stan Cowley

Stan Cowley is Professor of Solar-Planetary Physics and Head of the Radio and Space Plasma Physics Group at the University of Leicester, and is directly involved with the ongoing Cassini mission.

Professor Cowley's lecture centred on the Cassini mission to explore the Saturnian system. Cowley covered important events since its launch in 1997, including gravitational-assist flybys of Venus* and Earth, the Jupiter flyby, and the release and descent of the Huygens probe to the surface of Titan, Saturn's largest moon. He also included information about the future of Cassini and its planned mission ending, and Hubble's last-chance video capture of aurorae at both of Saturn's poles in one shot, included in the video below:


This lecture also drew my attention to the Hubblecast HD video podcast series.



The Earth After Us
Dr. Jan Zalasiewicz

Dr. Zalasiewicz is senior lecturer with the paleobiology group at the University of Leicester's geology department, and his lecture focussed on what a possible alien species might find if they came to Earth a hundred million years in our future, specifically using the information available to them in the fossils and other clues preserved in our planet's strata. He only offered the briefest of plugs for his book on the subject, The Earth After Us, which I am very tempted to buy from here (cheaper than it was in the uni bookshop, even with a pound off!).


I was also lucky enough to be taken on a short tour around the University of Leicester's Space Research Centre, a building which was being completed towards the end of my degree course, and which I hadn't previously had the opportunity to look around. We were told about some of the projects and missions that the centre is taking part in, including XMM-Newton and the James Webb Space Telescope, and were able to look (by way of a window**) into a controlled-environment lab with some current project items on display.


All in all, I really enjoyed all three lectures and would recommend it as a great way to spend a day for anyone with at least a passing interest in astronomy and related sciences, if you ever find yourself presented with the opportunity!







* Cassini performed two gravitational-assist flybys of Venus.
** Which I banged my head on, and felt like a numpty afterwards.

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