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Archive for November, 2014

5283 Braving the surf

Braving the surf, Bronte Beach, April 24, 2009

Recently I’ve posted a number of shots from Bronte beach in Sydney, and this one was also taken at Bronte on the edge of the salt-water pool. This is a great place to be when the surf is especially strong and waves come crashing over the edge. During an especially big swell, the waves can hit the pool with such force that the local life-guards will shut the pool to avoid any injuries. This might seem an extreme measure, but often so much water enters the pool that the outflow could potentially carry someone out with it onto the rocks. There is also a danger of being hurt by the sheer power of the waves.

One afternoon back in 1996, during a gigantic swell driven by a tropical cyclone off the coast of Queensland to the north, I ran down for a swim in the pool. The waves hit the water with such strength that it was constantly white with foam and the pool was full of violent eddies and currents. After about five minutes of being tossed around like a cork, one particularly large wave struck and hit me so hard that I was pushed underwater onto the bottom of the seven-foot deep pool and driven across the floor until I ran up against the back wall. Both thrilled and a little shaken by the experience, I got out of the pool immediately afterwards.

This shot captures a favourite sport for many people, especially kids, who visit the pool – hanging onto the boundary rope for dear life and getting smashed by the waves as they crash over the rocks. It’s both a test of strength and a fun way of being thrown into the pool in a shower of foam. I doubt anyone could ever get bored of this and most only stop when they become tired, get a fright or simply have to go home. This shot was something of a gift, nature and people combining in a dynamic scene – I was just lucky to be in the right place at the right time.

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Rosetta, woot!

On the 12th of November 2014, if all goes according to plan, the European Space Agency will land a probe named Philae on the surface of a comet. This is the first such attempt to do so and will not only be a gigantic milestone in our understanding of these heavenly bodies in particular, and the origins of the solar system, but it also marks one of the most daring and brilliant engineering efforts of the modern era. Philae will be dispatched from the Rosetta space probe which went into orbit around comet  67P/Churyumov–Gerasimenko (hereafter 67P/C-G) in August this year. What it has taken even to reach this point and achieve these initial goals is truly extraordinary.

Rosetta was launched on March 2, 2004 and finally reached the comet with which it was designed to rendez-vous on August 6, 2014.

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Powered only by its solar panels, Rosetta has been forced to make a number of complex manoeuvres in order to save energy and accelerate sufficiently to chase a speeding comet. Thus, after launch, Rosetta has relied on gravity assists from a number of planet flybys – first swinging around Earth in March 2005, then Mars in February 2007, Earth again in November 2007, before flying by an asteroid – 2867 Steins – in September 2008, back around the Earth in November 2009, then out past another asteroid, 21 Lutetia, in July 2010. Having finally picked up sufficient momentum and been set on the right trajectory, in mid 2011, as it swung out toward the orbit of Jupiter, Rosetta was shut down and entered a 31-month period of hibernation.

Rosetta trajectory 2

For almost three years Rosetta floated in space, waiting patiently for the comet to swing past so that it might begin its final chase. Then, earlier this year, on January 20, 2014, Rosetta was woken by her internal alarm. The probe fired its thrusters to slow its rotation, faced its solar panels towards the sun, rotated its antenna towards the Earth and finally, after an anxious wait, sent a signal to indicate that its systems were operational. It was the first communication heard from the craft during those 31 months and mission controllers (along with fans and supporters the world over) were understandably ecstatic.

She's alive!

Rosetta was alive and well and the mission to pursue comet 67P/C-G was back on.

Since waking, Rosetta spent nearly eight months chasing the comet and finally caught up in August, at which point it executed a series of burns to manoeuvre into orbit around the comet by September 10. On arriving at the comet, scientists were surprised to discover that it was curiously misshapen, appearing almost to be two comets stuck together and joined by a narrow bridge.

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On account of its shape, it was likened to a rubber duck and presented mission controllers with significant problems in identifying a suitable landing site for the Philae lander. A decision was finally made in October and the landing site name “Agilkia” was selected, along with the date of November 12. The name of the site carries on the Egyptian theme of the mission – Agilkia being an island in the River Nile.

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Come the 12th, Philae will detach itself from Rosetta and fall slowly towards the comet, a process which will take around 7 hours to complete. The landing will be hazardous, largely as it is very difficult to pinpoint exactly where Philae will touch down within the chosen site and there is a risk that it will land on a boulder or ridge and flip over. Also, on account of the incredibly low gravity of the comet, a consequence of its negligible mass, there is some concern that even if Philae lands on a flat surface, it may rebound from the comet. Thus, Philae is equipped with harpoons which will fire into the surface, as well as feet designed to screw into the ground upon landing.

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The scientific understanding that has come from this mission so far is very valuable indeed and, even if Philae fails, roughly 80% of the mission’s objectives will have been met. Rosetta will continue to orbit comet 67P/C-G until August 2015, as it swings around the sun, thus giving us an opportunity to study the material make-up of the comet and its behaviour in unprecedented detail. The images that have already been released show an inspiring and magnificently barren landscape with robust and jagged features, stark in the high contrast of the unfiltered sun.

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For a mission first conceived in 1993, after rejecting plans for a sample-return mission, this data has been a long time coming. Irrespective of the scientific understanding that comes from Rosetta’s remarkable journey, its very conception, the skill and precision which has gone into its execution, and the beautiful images that have come to us already constitute a wonderful and inspiring achievement. Fingers crossed, come Wednesday, we shall be looking at the first ever images taken from the surface of a comet. That is truly something worth celebrating in a jaded world in which humanity has little to be proud of right now.

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Paper and Sand

6221 Blue birdy

6185 Young corndog 2

6179 Life goes on

6287 man with child

5922 Bronte

3621 Dog walkers

5649 Biplane

6359 Beach pattern 3

6259 Native

6156 Reading 2

5989 Reading by the pool

5818 Reading at the beach

4970 Reflection deck

5916 reading in the sun 2

0697 Playground dream

1043 Texture

6139 The Bronte train

6212 Bogeyhole window

6065 Backwash over seagrass

5950 Rooftop tramp

6231 Blue bird

These shots follow recent themes, mostly revolving around the beach. This is partly circumstantial – as I always take my camera to the beach these days and it’s one of the few occasions now where I dedicate time specifically to taking shots. Much of the time my shots are purely reactive and incidental – I see something, pull out my camera, grab the shot and continue with whatever I was doing. In many ways this means I don’t spend enough time lingering in the scene and making more use of it, so it can be a bit hit and miss. Then again, so can any shoot, and hanging around does not guarantee results.

Having said all that, the desire to focus on the beach also stems from a long-standing fascination with beach culture as a core element of the Australian lifestyle. Ever since studying Australian literature and the history of various Australian artistic movements, I’ve had an interest in the gradual cultural transition from the bush as the principal symbol of Australia in the nineteenth century, to the 20th century recognition that the beach was in fact far more representative of Australia and Australian life. In recent decades the Australian geographical identity has coalesced into a combination of bush, beach and outback, as any international tourism advertisement will confirm.

This interest was piqued again recently when writing several series of courses for HSC ESL students – in other words, final year high school students with English as a second language. Much of the HSC material is focussed on getting students to identify and analyse distinct Australian voices and visions – writers, artists, film-makers, lyricists etc, whose subject matter and themes reflect or directly engage with Australian experiences, attitudes and concerns. This is very difficult for people who have arrived in Australia only a year or two before who have little grasp of Australian attitudes and stereotypes. It’s nigh impossible to explain why Paul Hogan, for example, is distinctly Australian, if you’re not entirely sure what distinctly Australian is. It’s also very difficult to make sense of say, Henry Lawson, if you have no understanding of Australian tropes and archetypes. My courses were designed to address this problem by focussing on fundamental aspects of Australian history and identity through the lens of Australian writers and artists – with, of course, an appropriate focus on indigenous contributions. Ironic, isn’t it, how indigenous art is, arguably, the most key signifier of Australia after the kangaroo, yet the people themselves are entirely marginalised. Sadly, mainstream Australia uses indigenous identity to disguise its own lack of distinctness.

Enough prattle, but yes, the beach, hardly unique to Australia, yet utterly key to its identity. This is presently the wealthiest society on the planet and it shows, especially in the Eastern Suburbs of Sydney – an upper middle class paradise. It’s wonderful, sure enough, to have such abundance, but it carries with it the underlying guilt of decadence in a world in which nearly everybody else is less well off. Drink in the sun and forget, I suppose. Just drink and forget. And swim.

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