The New Horizons spacecraft at the Kennedy Center. Photo: NASA
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The risks, rewards and rocky starts of space travel

Space is hard but deep space is perhaps harder – yet, as we hope to find out, still worth the effort. 

Given the risks inherent in space missions, this seems like a good moment to draw attention to the New Horizons (NH) probe, which is approaching Pluto. If we wait a few weeks – by which time things could have gone awry – we may not be able to focus on the achievement of getting the fastest spacecraft ever launched to the furthest reaches of our solar system.

Many space missions run into unexpected problems. As Richard Branson put it last year, when Virgin Galactic’s SpaceShipTwo crashed, “Space is hard.” There was the Apollo 13 incident and the near-disaster of the European Space Agency’s SOHO mission, in which the solar observatory satellite’s control system went awry. On 28 June, we discovered again that space is hard when SpaceX’s Falcon 9 rocket disintegrated shortly after take-off on a mission to resupply the International Space Station.

With NH, which launched nearly a decade ago, it’s so far, so good. On 14 July, after a three-billion-mile journey, the probe will fly past Pluto at a distance of less than 8,000 miles – assuming that its navigation works until the end. To get a feeling for how hard this is, consider the manoeuvres carried out in mid-June. Radio tracking data, which takes four and a half hours to reach earth from NH, showed the need for a velocity adjustment. The signal to fire the thrusters for 45 seconds took another four and a half hours to reach the probe. Then NH communicated its status: another wait for news.

As the probe gets closer to Pluto, such adjustments will become increasingly crucial. We are now in “approach phase three”. It is exciting, because we are seeing Pluto and its moons in unprecedented detail, but it is also nerve-racking. We may discover dust rings or hitherto-unknown moons that pose a danger to the spacecraft. And, after almost a decade, we could still lose everything.

NH could drift off course, missing its optimal rendezvous point. After 4 July, there will be nothing we can do. NH takes photographs of Pluto every day and sends these back to mission control. The relative positions of the stars in the background allow the team to calculate the probe’s position. Yet they don’t help when it comes to deciding how far the probe is from Pluto. That must wait until Pluto is close enough that its position in the pictures moves sideways relative to the background stars. However, once that can be seen, it will be too late to do much about any problems with its trajectory. The only thing to do if the craft turns out to be closer than anticipated is to switch on its scientific instruments and get straight to the task of taking data.

This will be beamed back to us as NH continues its journey. It will employ what is perhaps the greatest unsung achievement of modern times: the Deep Space Network. All the data coming from distant spacecraft is channelled through three telescopes – in California, Madrid and Canberra – that work together to keep in constant contact with the missions revealing the secrets of our solar system. They were vital in resolving the crisis on Apollo 13 and in rescuing the SOHO mission.

Because of the distances involved and the limited power of NH’s antenna, new information about Pluto will arrive at roughly one kilobit per second, thousands of times slower than your internet connection. The whole transmission will take more than 16 months. Space is hard but deep space is perhaps harder – yet, as we hope to find out, still worth the effort. 

UPDATE: New Horizons put itself into “safe mode” on 4 July, after receiving subtly misprogrammed commands. A short while later, it returned to full operation: everything is on track for full data collection at the Pluto flyby on 14 July.

Michael Brooks holds a PhD in quantum physics. He writes a weekly science column for the New Statesman, and his most recent book is At the Edge of Uncertainty: 11 Discoveries Taking Science by Surprise.

This article first appeared in the 01 July 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Crisis Europe

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Oliver Stone on interviewing Vladimir Putin: "There are two sides to every story"

The director says his conversations with the Russian president, like all of his works, speak for themselves.

“You’re going to start with this blogging bullshit?” Oliver Stone raises his voice at a reporter, a look of fury on his face.

The director has been asked about the veracity of a video shown to him by the Russian president in his recent Showtime series, The Putin Interviews. The hapless Norwegian journalist who is asking the question notes that bloggers have taken exception to the footage’s true provenance.

What bloggers think of Stone's work, however, is clearly of no consequence to him. When another journalist asks if he’s afraid to be seen as Vladimir Putin’s "PR guy", though, he erupts. 

“Do you really think I’m going to go and spend two years of my life doing a tourist guide book? You really think I’m that kind of a filmmaker? Do you have no respect for my work?”

Stone is on fiery form at Starmus science and music festival in Trondheim, Norway. His series on Putin was filmed over two years. The final four hours of footage were cut from an original 19 of recorded interviews, which covered such diverse topics as “Russia in the 1990s and the 2000s, the American expansion of Nato, the American support of terrorism in Central Asia, Syria from his point of view, Ukraine, nuclear arms…”

Critics, however, have termed it a hagiography, and argued it offers Putin a deferential platform to share his view. Others have dismissed Stone as a propaganda poodle. 

Stone counters the criticism: “I researched it, I did the best I could, and I think it proves the old adage that there are two sides to every story.”

Whether because of naivety or professional courtesy, on the face of it, in the interview series the 70-year-old appears to buy into everything Putin tells him. "You catch more flies with honey than with vinegar," is all he'll say at the conference.

Later on, in the calm after the storm, we speak alone. “This was a special deal,” he tells me. “He was very congenial and articulate and willing to talk. He grabbed the moment.

“People need to keep something in mind. They said I was soft on him - that’s nonsense.

“You can’t have an interview where you’re asking hostile questions. He would have just tolerated it and said what he did, and then after that first interview he would have not have done a second or a third.

“I was interested in the long view. Nobody in the West has gone that far with him that I have seen.”

The long view is a speciality of Stone’s, as he reveals with his address at Starmus to a packed auditorium. As befits a science festival, he addresses the development of the atomic bomb and the modern digital arms race of cyber warfare.

In his view, “politics invariably gets a stranglehold on science and takes it in the wrong way”. He cites J Robert Oppenheimer, known as the father of the nuclear bomb, and computer analyst Edward Snowden’s life following his decision to turn whistleblower. 

Stone directed the film Snowden, a task which involved navigating numerous obstacles, including gaining access to the real Snowden, by then in Russia, himself. 

“Science gets slaughtered by politics,” he tells me.

In the shadow of the criticism on the Putin front, he admits that from an American perspective, for him to become involved with Snowden was, well… “beyond the pale". 

But despite – or perhaps because of – the Academy Award-winning director’s commitment to the truth, he’s not letting go of various facts as he sees them.

“There is no evidence as far as I’m concerned for the Russian hacking allegations,” he says, adding that this was an “assessment” from the US security services which turned into a “farce”.

He has read the detail for himself, he says – and he also appears on film looking like he believes Putin when the president says it’s nothing to do with him.

Back at home, the American domestic political situation has him as appalled as ever. He is critical, not only of Donald Trump, but the system the US president operates in. 

“It seems that the president does not have the power he thinks he has," he says. "You get elected, you think it’s a democracy, but there is this mechanism inside, this Deep State – intelligence agencies, military industrial, the generals, the Pentagon, CIA combined with other intel – which seems to have some kind of inner lock.”

Although Stone places characters at the heart of many of his films, he finds Trump hard to figure out.

“I don’t know what Trump’s mind is like, I think so few people do," he muses. "He says super-patriotic things suddenly like 'I love the CIA, I’m going to really support you, I love the military, I love generals, I love all that beautiful new equipment' – that he sold to Saudi Arabia.

“He also said, and it’s very disturbing, ‘the next war, we’re going to win’. As if you can win a war where you use cyber and nuclear and various weapons. He’s thinking this is a game like a child.

“The purpose of war is not to have one.”

Stone believes – as Trump initially seemed to profess – that Russia will be the chief ally in future for the United States: “They can be great partners in every walk of life, it’s crazy to have them as an enemy."

Nevertheless, he is not as slavish to the official Russian line as many have countenanced.

“I was able to shoot this documentary because of my reputation," he says. Some people say he pulled his punches, I counter.

“Gloves off, gloves on – the truth is, he sees things his way," Stone says. "I’m not there to change his mind, I’m there to show his mind.”

In his view, an observant watcher will learn about Putin just by watching him. "The camera doesn’t lie – the camera tells you things, body language, eyes – you can get a feel sometimes," he says. "I think if you watch all four hours you’ll see that we got an enormous amount of information."

Perhaps those who sit through those four hours will be satisfied that they know more about Putin – or about Stone himself. After all, if the camera doesn't lie, it doesn't lie for anyone.

As I leave the room, Stone raises his voice after me: “Don’t change my words.” He’s smiling broadly as he speaks.

Kirstie McCrum is a freelance journalist. Follow her @kirstiemccrum.

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