Space mission patches are the best.

Valentina Tereshkova patch

The history of Soviet mission patches begins with one of space travel’s most significant achievements. In 1963, Valentina Teresknova made history as the first woman in space. Her call sign was Chayka—Seagull—and under it, she completed 48 orbits of Earth. As she did so, hidden from view, sewn onto the thermal garment under her orange space suit, was the first mission emblem. It depicted a dove of peace flying in the sun’s rays, and underneath, in blocky red text, the letters CCCP. Teresknova called it a seagull, after her call sign.

Atlas Obscura

A few months ago I met an astronaut at the Intrepid Museum. He was extremely extremely cool — patient, friendly, relaxed in front of a crowd, excited about his work and the bigger picture of doing science in space. And he had the coolest collection of patches (including one for 100 days in space).

They’re a bit like grown-up Boy Scouts/Girl Guides patches — or a more child-like, illustrated version of standard military ribbons/medals. Either way, I’ve always found the visual symbolism — narrative, yet independent of spoken or written language — fascinating and delightful.

Apollo 11 Patch

In other words, I really want this book.

Wallflower Words: Saturnine (a./n.)

Wallflower Words is a series of Proof (v.) posts dedicated to beautiful but under-appreciated and seldom-encountered words. Those that are never invited to dance at the parlance party; those that deserve more exposure than is currently afforded by contemporary trends in popular English. This is their turn on the dancefloor.

The Word: Saturnine (a./n.)

Huh? Influenced by Saturn. Contaminated with lead [the effect of lead poisoning may also known as Saturnia] and therefore leaden. Hence the quality of having a heavy, slow, dull, sullen and depressed demeanour.

As in? January Astrology.  Saturn takes 29.5 YEARS to orbit the sun, as opposed to our 365 DAYS. Saturn is the ruling planet of Capricorn (implying that we January babies are goatishly stubborn).

“Astrologically, Saturn is associated with the principles of limitation, restrictions, boundaries, practicality and reality, crystallizing and structures… Saturn is also considered to represent the part of a person concerned with long-term planning… According to the first-century poet Manilius, Saturn is sad, morose, and cold and is the greater malefic… Saturn symbolized processes and things which were dry and extremely cold, and, therefore, inimical to life. It governed the melancholic humor… Saturn being the planet of mortality, and hence, why the Grim Reaper carries a scythe).”


Also: In bodily (sort of) form, Saturnine is The Guardian of the Road of Lost Souls in the Marvel Universe (which exists within THIS universe of course, but which anyone who has had more than a cursory glance can tell you, occupies a practically endless interlinking Wikipedia Universe of its own). Very morose; very Grim Reaper; very apt.

And? Planetary adjectives are all the rage. Happy people are commonly described as jovial, and mad ones as lunatic. The changeable are mercurial; and anything alien is either martian or at the very least, unearthly. So I say that ‘saturnine’, dark and sluggish beast that it is, deserves a better linguistic workout.

See also: Wallflower Words: Liminal (adj.)

—  Lunar Loveliness
The Language of Deep Space

Our eclipsing star: The Big Picture

I just knew that the The Big Picture would do a remarkable job covering last week’s solar eclipse! And I hate to say “I told you so”, but I was right in predicting that India would have an incredible view, wasn’t I?

(All amazing photography courtesy of that aforementioned Font Of Great Photography; click each image to link)

{ Eclipsing the Taj Mahal: Agra }

{ A golden eclipse, and the Sikh Golden Temple: Amritsar }

{ Sol, and a statue of Ghandi: Chennai }

{ The peeking “limb”: Varanasi }

{ The other Red Crescent: Varanasi }

{ The Full Corona: Varanasi }

Simply stunning! (The photographs, and our universe).


Lunar loveliness

It was 40 years ago today… that a handful of Really Brave Menfolk* did something unfathomably unfathomable, and jetted off to the moon for a bit of a stroll on the lunar surface.

As usual,’s The Big Picture has put together Remembering Apollo 11 for the occasion: a remarkable photographic retrospective. My favourites are the ever-famous ‘Earthrise’ image (see below for more on the wording):

And this beautiful portrait of a beautiful young Neil Armstrong:


But, as usual, it’s the  highly-specialised, sometimes elegant, often eccentric extra-terrestrial lexicon (with cutely self-explanatory acronyms) that tugs at my heartstrings.

And the cutely obvious:

  • ALOTS: Airborne Lightweight Optical Tracking System
  • Earthrise: Only On The Moon. From Earth, we can watch the moon rise above the horizon. On the Moon, it’s t’other way around. Simple.
    “The Earthrise photograph was not on the mission schedule and was taken in a moment of pure serendipity
    [cute phrase]As Apollo 8 emerged from the far side of its fourth orbit, crew commander Frank Borman rolled the spacecraft so as to position its antennas [sic. I know: I’d use “antennae” too…] for radio contact with mission control. Looking to the lunar horizon for reference he exclaimed: “Oh my God, look at that picture over there! Here’s the Earth coming up!”…The image shows our entire world as a small and blue and very finite globe, without our nearest celestial neighbour a desolate presence in the foreground.”

    — ‘Genesis: The Story of Apollo’, The Sciences 1998, via

  • Late Heavy Bombardment: The era during which frequent meteor impacts left the moon with its pock-marked complexion.

And, to finish, an iota of luminous trivia for us all: the reason the moon glows so is because almost half of all moondust is made of tiny spherical glass particles, which reflect dazzling sunlight in our general direction (much like those reflective glass bead road markings… but, er, prettier).

And on that note, Goodnight Moon!

* I have no feminist or post-feminist qualms referring to Armstrong, Aldrin & co as such: I can’t think of anything more terrifying than space travel, let alone pioneering space travel.

DEFINITELY RELATED POSTS: The language of deep space

All photos: Remembering Apollo 11, The Big Picture

The language of deep space

I love beautiful, sciencey, spacey things. Mainly because I’m an absolute nerd, born and bred. And because supernovae and nebulae are pretty to look at and nice to write (they have dipthongs, which I like). And because I’m easily impressed by anything that is truly unfathomable.

But also, just quietly, it’s because I love the oddball, highly-specialised vocabulary. Obviously, these words were created by a boffin (or boffins*), with a brilliantly nerdy sense of humour, and the knowledge that the only chance of said neologisms making it into general usage rests entirely on a healthy dose of absurdity.

  • Airy Disk: “the brightest spot formed by a star image as seen through a telescope”.
  • Cygnus Rift: Cygnus, as in swan. Also known by the even sillier name ‘The Northern Coalsack’.
  • Hoag’s Object: because calling it ‘Hoag’s Thing’ would have been too vague?
  • I Zwicky 18: a galactic “hot, young star”.
  • Oort Cloud: a spherical cloud of comets which may or may not exist somewhere between our Sol and Proxima Centauri.

And then we come to the acronyms of astronomy, which are all painfully forced:

  • FORS: FOcal Reducer and low dispersion Spectrograph
  • HiRISE: High Resolution Imaging Science Equipment
  • ALEXIS: Array of Low Energy X-ray Imaging Sensors
  • ARTEMIS: Advanced Relay TEchnology MISsion
  • GLIMPSE: the Galactic Legacy Infrared Mid-plane Survey Extraordinaire (no, seriously)

And, of course, the implements that were named at the end of a long day, when all the boffins were exhausted from brainstorming silly names, and just wanted to go home and play dorky 1980s computer games. “I give up!” they said. “Let’s just go with the bleedingly obvious!”

  • Big Dumb Booster: a space travel launch booster whatsit
  • VLT:  the Very Large Telescope (not to be confused with VLOT: the Very Large Optical Telescope)
  • ELT: the Extremely Large Telescope, of which there are ten, including…

And a couple forced acronym/I’m bored hybrids, which are really quite smart:

  • OSCAR: Orbiting Satellite Carrying Amateur Radio
  • SOFIA: Stratospheric Observatory for Infrared Astronomy
  • SPOT: Satellite Pour l’Observation de la Terre (even cooler because it works in both languages)

It’s a whole new lexicographical universe out there. Quirky, obscure, generally unusable, but nonetheless open to intrepid exploration.

{ }

* And I quote Wikipedia, on the subject of Boffins:

The word [boffin] conjures up an image of men in thick spectacles and white lab coats, obsessively working with complicated apparatus. Portrayals of boffins emphasize both their eccentric genius and their naive ineptitude in social interaction. They are, in that respect, closer to the “absent-minded professor” stereotype than to the classic mad scientist.

Sadly, I can’t decide on a truly apt collective noun for said boffins. ‘Team‘ seems to be a common choice, but it’s not particularly expressive. I rather think “bevy of boffins” sounds appropriately insular/awkward.

PS. I love the Big Picture at any time of the year, but their Hubble Advent Calendar is like all my nerdy Christmases come at once.