Why I think Mars One is a really stupid notion

I posted last week about the silliness of trying to colonise Mars on a one-way basis, unless you’re sending Justin Bieber.

Sure, most colonists here on Earth made the trip one-way. But Earth’s way more hospitable. Even Roanoke. You can breathe the air, for a start.

Artists' impression of the Orion EFT-1 mission. NASA, public domain.

Artists’ impression of the Orion EFT-1 mission. NASA, public domain. Eventually, Orion may be part of the system that takes us to Mars – and brings us back.

Mars – that’s another planet. It has red skies and blue sunsets, temperatures that make Antarctica look summery, and surface air pressure about 0.6% that of Earth, though that’s academic because it’s mostly carbon dioxide anyway. Mars also has no magnetic field, which means the surface is irradiated from space. Then there’s the dirt, which the Phoenix lander found was saturated with naturally-formed perchlorates. Know what perchlorate is? Rocket fuel. It’s nasty stuff, it’s toxic, and the chances of keeping the habitat clear of it after a few EVA’s seems low.

The biggest problem is that nobody’s been there yet. There’s bound to be a curve ball we don’t know about. It’ll be discovered the hard way.

That was the Apollo experience forty years ago. It turned out lunar dust is abrasive and insidious. As early as Apollo 12, astronauts found dust in the seals when they re-donned their suits for a second EVA – moon-walker Pete Conrad reported that ‘there’s no doubt in my mind that with a couple more EVA’s something could have ground to a halt’. All the later Apollo astronauts hit it; leak rates soared in the suits as dust worked its way into the sealing rings.

I think it’s safe to say something of equal practical difficulty will be discovered about Mars, one way or another. Not good if you’ve just arrived – permanently. Besides, what happens if someone gets needs a hospital now? Or is injured? Well, that’s a no-brainer. You can imagine the colony consisting of a cluster of grounded Dragons with a row of graves next to it.

Cut-away of the modified Apollo/SIVB 'wet lab' configuration for the 1973-74 Venus flyby. NASA, public domain, via Wikipedia.

Cut-away of the modified Apollo/SIVB ‘wet lab’ configuration for the 1973-74 Venus flyby. NASA, public domain, via Wikipedia.

Mars One plan to send more missions every two years, each with four colonists to join the happy bunch. If they’re alive. My money says they won’t be. This is Scott of the Antarctic territory – high-tech for the day (Scott even had motorised tractors) but still gimcrack.

The main reason we’ve not gone there yet, despite space agencies making serious plans since the 1960s, is cost. Manned interplanetary fly-bys were (just) within reach of the hardware built for the Moon landings – and until the Apollo Applications Programme was slashed to just Skylab, NASA was looking at a manned Venus flyby for 1973-74, using Apollo hardware.

Composite panorama of Mars. Not going to be seen by the 2018 expedition, as they'll fly past the night side. NASA, public domain.

Composite panorama of Mars. NASA, public domain.

Unfortunately, stopping at the destination, landing on it, and all the rest was another matter. It was easy to accelerate an Apollo CSM and habitat module into a free-return Venus or Mars trajectory; no further fuel was needed, it’d whip past the target at interplanetary velocities, and the CM could aerobrake to a safe landing on Earth. But stopping at the destination, landing and then returning home? In rocketry – whether chemical or nuclear-thermal (NERVA), the two technologies available until recently, mass-ratios are critical.

Mass ratio is the difference in mass between an empty and fuelled rocket at all times, and fuel takes fuel to accelerate it. It’s a calculation of sharply diminishing returns, and the upshot for NASA and other Mars mission planners in the twentieth century was that a practical manned landing mission was going to (a) require a colossal amount of fuel, and (b) would still transit by low-energy Hohmann orbit requiring a 256 day flight each way, meaning more life support, which meant more fuel (see what I mean?).

Some plans looked to refuel the system from Martian resources, but that had challenges of its own. Either way, the biggest challenge in all Mars mission schemes was the first step, lifting the Mars ship off Earth into a parking orbit. No single rocket could do that in one go, meaning multiple launches and assembly in orbit, raising cost and complexity still further. With figures in tens and hundreds of billions of dollars being bandied about, and no real public enthusiasm for space after Apollo, it’s small wonder governments were daunted.

ROMBUS in Mars orbit: Mars Excursion Module backs away ready for landing. Public domain, NASA.

Conceptual art of Philip Bono’s colossal ROMBUS booster in Mars orbit: Mars Excursion Module backs away ready for landing. Public domain, NASA.

My take – which is far from original to me – is don’t try going to Mars now. Focus on building a space-to-space propulsion system that offers better impulse than chemical or nuclear-thermal motors. Do that and the 256-day trans-Mars cruise – which is what drives the scale and risk of the mission, including problems with radiation doses in deep space – goes away. One promising option is the Variable Specific Impulse Magnetoplasma Rocket (VASIMIR), a high-powered ion drive that might do the trick if it works as envisaged. Another is the FDR (Fusion Driven Rocket). Current projections suggest Earth-Mars transit times as low as 30 days.

Of course, if your drive won’t light when you need it to slow down, you’re on a one-way trip out of the solar system. But hey…

Maybe we should send Justin Bieber on that first VASIMIR mission, just in case…

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2015

Yes – a Kiwi might go to Mars, but I still wish it was Justin Bieber

A New Zealander’s reached the short-list of 100 possible candidates for the one-way Mars One mission proposed for 2025-26 by Dutch entrepreneur Bas Lansdorp, co-founder of the project.

Personally I’d have preferred they despatched Justin Bieber and left it at that. But the presence of a Kiwi isn’t bad given that the original long-list ran to 202,586 individuals.

Conceptual artwork by Pat Rawlings of a Mars mission rendezvous from 1995. NASA, public domain, via Wikipedia.

Conceptual artwork by Pat Rawlings of a Mars mission rendezvous from 1995. NASA, public domain, via Wikipedia.

Still, I can’t quite believe the plan. Settlers will be lobbed to Mars in batches of four, inside modified Space-X Dragon capsules. They’ll land, build a habitat based on inflatable modules and several Dragons, and remain there for the rest of their lives. Kind of like Robinson Crusoe, but with all of it beamed back to us for our – well, I hesitate to use the word under these circumstance. Entertainment.

I doubt that the show will run for many seasons. The development timing for the mission seems optimistic – a point I am not alone in observing. There have been a wide range of practical objections raised by engineers at MIT. But apart from that, nobody’s been to Mars before. Sure, we’ve despatched over 50 robots, 7 of which are still operational. But that doesn’t reduce the challenges involved in keeping humans alive in a hostile environment for their natural lives, and I figure from the Apollo experience that there’ll be curve balls along the way.

Those challenges will begin as soon as the colonists are cruising to Mars, a 256 day journey jammed into a 10-cubic metre metal can along – eventually – with 256 days worth of their wastes. Think about it. Popeye lived in a garbage can. The first Mars colonists? Well, they’re going to live in a commode. Hazards (apart from launch-day waste bags bursting on Day 255) include staying fit in micro-gravity and radiation flux. That last is the killer. The trans-Mars radiation environment was measured by the Curiosity rover, en route, and turned out to be – on that trip anyway – 300 millisieverts, the equivalent of 15 years’ worth of the exposure allowed to nuclear power plant workers. A typical airport X-ray scan, for comparison, delivers 0.25 millisieverts.

I suppose the heightened risk of cancer isn’t really an issue, given their life expectancy on Mars (68 days, according to MIT). Though if the sun flares – well, that’ll be too bad. (‘My goodness, what a lovely blue glow. Nice tan.’)

A large solar flare observed on 8 September 2010 by NASA's Solar Dynamics Observatory. Public Domain, NASA.

A large solar flare observed on 8 September 2010 by NASA’s Solar Dynamics Observatory. Public Domain, NASA.

Unfortunately the radiation problem continues on the surface of Mars. The planet lacks a magnetic field like Earth’s and its atmosphere is thin, meaning radiation is a threat even after you’ve landed. The answer is to bury yourself under Martian dirt, but Space One’s plans don’t seem to include that. There also a possible problem – which we’ll look at next time – with the nature of that dirt.

Whether the intrepid colonists will get away is entirely another matter. Apart from the hilariously optimistic timetable, the project relies on a modified version of Space-X’s Dragon, which has yet to be human-rated. And then there’s funding, which I understand will come from media coverage. But I suspect the likely barrier will be regulatory. These people will be flying inexorably and certainly to their deaths, and odds are on it will be before the natural end of their lives. Will the nation that hosts the launch permit that?

Still, let’s suppose there are no legislative barriers. And let’s say the colonists get to Mars without their hair falling out or the waste bags bursting and filling the cabin with – well, let’s not go there. Let’s say they land safely. Suddenly they’re on Mars. Forever. What now? And what about those curve-balls?

More next week.

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2015

Waitangi Day: the story behind the Treaty

It’s Waitangi Day here in New Zealand – the 175th anniversary of the signing of the Treaty that established a Crown Colony in these islands. These days it’s a public holiday.

Possibly the closest equivalent in the US is Independence Day, though the New Zealand version isn’t quite the same. Our day is usually divisive, and the normal outcome is a succession of public spats in a couple of key places around the country – including Waitangi itself – while just about everybody else ignores it and has a day off. To me that isn’t really how it should be, but it’s hard to see what can be done to change it – such matters are generational.

Reconstruction by unknown artist of the Treaty being signed. New Zealand. Department of Maori Affairs. Artist unknown : Ref: A-114-038. Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington, New Zealand. http://natlib.govt.nz/records/22701985

Reconstruction of the Treaty being signed. Note William Hobson (left centre) in his blue morning coat and hat. Department of Maori Affairs. Artist unknown : Ref: A-114-038. Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington, New Zealand. http://natlib.govt.nz/records/22701985

I’d like to think things might be less tense if people better understood the differing historical and present realities of the Treaty of Waitangi, so called because it was signed at Waitangi (Wailing Waters) just north of the Te Tii marae (formal meeting place) in the Bay of Islands. These are indicative of the way that the Treaty is a living document, not just a historical relic – something that underscores its importance and value to New Zealand. Legally and constitutionally, it remains a key founding document; and the idea of the Treaty – its social place and meaning – has been re-cast many times since it was signed, reflecting changing values, all of them valid to their own times. Some of the mid-nineteenth century ideas were backdrop to the career of the man whose hidden private life and character I explored in my latest book Man Of Secrets – The Private Life of Donald McLean (Penguin Random House 2015). Donald McLean,  coincidentally, arrived in the Bay of Islands just as the Treaty was being signed – little realising that he had a career ahead of him as a major Crown land buyer and Native Minister whose job it was to live by its values. Sort of, anyway. (Click on the cover in the sidebar to the right to check it out).

Those ideas, in turn, were very different from the way it was seen in the late nineteenth century, or the twentieth, or today. Needless to say, all of the ways the Treaty has been seen are a far cry from the gimcrack way the Treaty was actually set up in 1840.

Gimcrack? Sure. In 1839-40, when it was mooted and then signed, the British weren’t very interested in setting up a colony in New Zealand. Theirs was a trading Empire, and although there was a supply centre developing in the Bay of Islands, New Zealand lay far off the main trading routes. To a penurious Treasury, it seemed to offer only cost and very little benefit.

Treaty grounds at Waitangi - now a national historical site. The Treaty was signed near a marquee raised on the grass to the right of the flagpole, which is about where the flagpole was in 1840.

Treaty grounds at Waitangi – now a national historical site. The Treaty was signed near a marquee on the grass to the right of the flagpole, about where the flagpole was in 1840.

But pressure was growing to do something. The place had become a haven for white criminals – escaped convicts from Australia among them – and there had been some nasty incidents, including the Elizabeth affair, when a British sea captain apparently chartered his ship to Maori so they could conduct a war expedition that ended in heavy bloodshed and, allegedly, cannibal feasting on board the British vessel. Nobody objected to what Maori had done; it was accepted that they were at war and the conduct of the war party was precisely correct according to their own values. The problem was the intimate involvement of a British sea captain; not only had he profited from it, but apparently his crew had gotten rather too enthusiastically involved – and by British law, those actions rendered him a pirate.

A photo I took in 2011 of the 'Treaty House' at Waitangi - the home of British Resident, James Busby from 1833. Now restored as a museum. The Treaty was finalised in the room behind the window on the right, which is laid out today as it was on 5 February 1840.

A photo I took of the ‘Treaty House’ at Waitangi – home of British Resident James Busby from 1833. The Treaty was finalised in the room behind the window on the right, which is laid out today as it was on 5 February 1840.

In this context the Treaty was an expedient – a cheap way of applying British law to a country that, it seemed, was going to be drawn into the British sphere whether the Treasury and Colonial Office in London wanted it or not.

The moment came in a brief window of time when a war-weary Britain was exploring a more liberal and humanist approach to the world. The Anglican-based Church Missionary Society led the charge, arguing that British civilisation would unerringly destroy any indigenous peoples it encountered. The Colonial Office was effectively a hot-bed of ex-CMS officials; and the Treasury – which reflected similar thinking – was insistent that a New Zealand colony could only be set up with the full consent of Maori, by Treaty.

That was why the Treaty was ordered. It was done in haste by officials such as William Hobson, who were not familiar with New Zealand – he was, in fact, a naval commander – and it was drafted in circumstances where neither he nor his local advisors were sure whether it should apply to the whole of the New Zealand archipelago or just the part around the Bay of Islands. Even the way it was signed was ad-hoc. It was put to local rangitira (chiefs) on 5 February 1840; they did not agree during korero (discussion) that day, so Hobson arranged for a further meeting on 7 February. But next morning, 6 February, chiefs arrived to sign it. Hobson decided to take up the offer and rushed to arrange it, clad informally in a morning coat rather than his official naval uniform. Later, when the Treaty was taken around New Zealand, the only people the British actively sought to sign it were rangitira who had signed the 1835 Declaration of Independence, which the Treaty of Waitangi superseded – its whole first clause, in fact, was given over to that purpose.

The Treaty remains the only example of its kind in the world – and it’s fitting that it has become a blueprint in New Zealand for race relations since. But that’s a far cry from its gimcrack origins, a fact that underscores just how times change, and how interesting a foreign land history really is.

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2015

Welcome to 2015, and hope for a wonderful year to come

For me a new year always seems to bring a sense of anticipation. We cannot know our future – but we can influence what happens, have direction, and hold to our dreams.

Yes, like a geeky Tolkien fan I had to pose in the entrance, such as it was - you could circle it, just like the door Aslan made to get rid of the Telmarines in .Prince Caspian'.

Yes, that’s me doing the Tolkien fan thing.

That, for me, is the promise of a new year. And it seems to me, as climate change becomes a pressing reality and the world seems beset with senseless hatreds and wars, that them most urgent thing facing all of us in 2015, wherever we are, is the need to be kind to each other.

Kindness isn’t difficult, and it expresses in small ways, like opening a door for someone or letting them through ahead of you. If everybody on Earth behaved to each other with kindness, care, thoughtfulness and tolerance the world would, I think, be a far better place. It’s maybe a pipe-dream, but these things start in small ways, and it’s up to us individually to make that start.

I am not, of course, the only person to have suggested this.

What have I got lined up for you? Lots of stuff. More blogging, for sure – with the usual writing tips, science, and maybe some posts commenting about the world in general. It’s going to be an exciting year scientifically, what with New Horizons racing through the Pluto system mid-year. Hopefully returning data, and not slamming into some bit of debris we can’t see from Earth.

I’ve got plans for my own writing, which have been brewing for a while. You’ll find out as they unfold – suffice to say, it’s going to be exciting. For me, certainly, and I hope also for you. Watch this space!

The first big thing, in just a few weeks, is the release of my book Man Of Secrets – The Private Life of Donald McLean (Penguin Random House). It’s been years in the making. More soon.

Meanwhile, have a great New Year holiday everyone, keep safe, and, above all – have fun!

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2015

Wrapping up the year by the numbers

Every so often a year rolls by that has an impact on those who lived through it – an impact so intense that the year becomes iconic, legendary. Like 1914, the year that the First World War began – a trauma that divided the old world from the new and set the current shape of the world on its way.

Wright_AuthorPhoto2014_LoIn a historical sense, 2014 wasn’t one of those watersheds. But it was a vigorous enough year anyway, not least because of all the 1914 anniversaries that rolled through. For me it’s been an amazing year in many ways. Books to write, blog posts to write, stuff to do that’s too boring to blog about. The usual thing. Here it is by the numbers…

275 – the number of blog posts I published on WordPress this year.

101 – the number of dollars I spent filling my car’s petrol tank just before Christmas.

8 – the number of cents per litre the price fell straight after I filled the tank.

4 – the number of my own books I worked on this year, finishing writing two of them and working with the publishers on the editorial side of all four. They are The New Zealand Wars: a short history (Libro International); Living On Shaky Ground: the science and story behind New Zealand’s earthquakes (Penguin Random House) and Coal: the rise and fall of King Coal in New Zealand (Bateman). The fourth, Man of Secrets, will be published by Penguin Random House in a few weeks.

3 – number of books of mine published this year (see above).

2 – number of books I published on geoscience this year (see above).

1 – number of military historians who snubbed me at parties for writing in their field (down from last year but that, I suspect, is because only one was at this event…)

I hope you all had a great 2014 and have a wonderful 2015 to come. To all my readers, thank you, very much indeed, for your kind support of my little corner of the blog-o-sphere – and especially to my regular correspondents, I’ve enjoyed and been humbled by your kind support and thoughts, and I’ll look forward to blogging with you in 2015.

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2014

Orion’s first flight is good news – but can NASA sell the space dream?

I checked the latest space news on Saturday with bated breath. NASA had a lot riding on this week’s Orion flight. In a climate of limited budgets and little real public enthusiasm, failure wasn’t an option.

Artists' impression of the Orion EFT-1 mission. NASA, public domain.

Artists’ impression of the Orion EFT-1 mission. NASA, public domain.

The problem is where Orion goes next. By Cold War standards ambitions are vague; a couple more test flights, fly around the Moon or go to a captured asteroid by 2021-25, and then on to Mars some stage in the 2030s….eventually. Maybe. Both these aims and the time-frame stand at odds with Apollo-era determination when goals, budgets, public support and intent all meshed. I wouldn’t be surprised if Orion flounders before it gets much further, purely because of that mushiness vs public apathy vs budgetary realities.

Which is a pity, because it’s a good spacecraft and the flight on Saturday demonstrated – after two tragic ‘private enterprise’ failures – that the Apollo-era NASA ‘business model’, which rested on private contractors and commercial suppliers – still works. Rocket science is just that – it’s risky, difficult, and stretches materials science. Cutting corners, private-enterprise style, may save money. But when it comes to spaceflight there’s no room for error.

EFT-1 Orion being prepared to flight atop a Delta 4 Heavy. NASA, public domain.

EFT-1 Orion being prepared to flight atop a Delta 4 Heavy. NASA, public domain.

The other point is that Orion is not – as some critics suggest – a retrograde step. Sure, Orion looks like a 1960s capsule. But it isn’t – it’s stuffed with twenty-first century tech. Don’t be fooled by its 2002-era PowerPC 750FX-based computers, either; space computer hardware has to be well proven and rugged. If it fails at the wrong moment, you die. Armstrong and Aldrin’s Raytheon AGC fly-by-wire computer partly crashed when they were descending to the Moon in 1969. But not totally – and it was safe to land.

What’s driving the illusion of Orion being ‘retrograde’, I think, is that we’re conditioned to imagine space ‘progress’ as ‘advance’ from one-shot cone-shaped ‘capsules’, to multi-use winged spaceplanes designed to fly, literally, into space. They were the future, way back when. Except they weren’t. The problem is that the laws of physics don’t co-operate. Mass is everything in spaceflight – dry mass to fuel mass ratio, in particular. The Shuttle orbiter had to lug a LOT of mass into orbit that was useless up there – wings, tail, landing gear, hydraulics, heat shield and so forth. Dead loss for your fuel budget. And that’s apart from the risks of strapping the spaceplane to the side of its booster.

Orion recovered off California after the flight, 4 December 2014. NASA, public domain.

Orion recovered off California after the flight, 4 December 2014. NASA, public domain.

For anything beyond low-earth orbit, you need a vehicle that lacks the encumbrance of aircraft-style flight hardware – but which can still make an aero-braked descent to Earth, because it’s not practical to carry the fuel you need to slow down by rocket. Ideally the spacecraft also has to generate a certain amount of aerodynamic lift, both to steer the descent and to reduce deceleration forces on the crew. The resulting shape is specific, and Apollo, Orion, the Boeing CST-100 and Chelomei’s 1970s-Soviet era VA re-entry capsule all use virtually the same truncated cone design. McDonnell Douglas’ Gemini, Space X’s Dragon, the Soyuz and Shenzhou offer only minor variations on the theme.

Apollo vs Orion. NASA, public domain.

Apollo vs Orion. NASA, public domain.

Orion, in short, is a recognition of the physics of rocket-propelled spaceflight. Budgets permitting, the 2020s should bring a flurry of similar spacecraft into low-earth orbit – Space X’s Dragon and Boeing’s CST-100, servicing the space station. The Russians (hopefully) will be in on the mix with their late-generation Soyuz. And there’s the Chinese manned programme.

Cut-away of the modified Apollo/SIVB 'wet lab' configuration for the 1973-74 Venus flyby. NASA, public domain, via Wikipedia.

Cut-away of the modified Apollo/SIVB for the 1973-74 Venus flyby. NASA, public domain.

Beyond that, Orion will be on hand to fly to the Moon, a nearby asteroid, and eventually Mars. Orion will not, of course, fly by itself on long-duration missions. It’s good for 21 days in space – enough for an Apollo-type jaunt around the Moon – but for longer flights it’ll be docked to a habitat module. This mirrors the 1968 plan to send astronauts on a Venus flyby using Apollo hardware – the crew would have spent most of the 396 day flight inside a modified S-IVB stage, using the CSM only for the launch and re-entry phases.

Orion with propulsion and habitat module for an asteroid mission. NASA, public domain.

Artist’s impression of Orion with propulsion and small habitat module for an asteroid mission. NASA, public domain.

Orion, similarly, will be docked with various habitats and propulsion stages depending on mission. The whole stack will become the ‘interplanetary spacecraft’. But all this assumes budget and enthusiasm, among other things (‘other things’ includes finding ways of dealing with radiation, of which more some other time). Bottom line is that state-run space efforts can be killed with the stroke of a political pen.

Perhaps the biggest challenge, then, will be re-selling the excitement of the space dream to a wider public, both in the US and beyond. And this, I think, is where the focus needs to be for the foreseeable future. Space flight is, after all, one of the greatest ventures in the history of the world.

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2014

Selfies with dinosaurs – the angry birds of the chalk era

I managed to take a selfie with ‘real’ dinosaurs the other week, thanks to some clever SFX. Cool. But in other ways it wasn’t too remarkable – because the latest science says these remarkable creatures, who once dominated the earth and whose chief badass was Tyrannosaurus Rex, are still with us today. We call them ‘chickens’, and usually pressure-cook them in secret herbs and spices.

Alioramus, an early Tyrannosaur. Not huge...but I wouldn't want to meet a hungry one without a Stryker to hand, even so. Click to enlarge.

Alioramus, an early Tyrannosaur. Not huge…but I wouldn’t want to meet a hungry one. Click to enlarge.

That’s right. Birds aren’t ‘descended from’ dinosaurs. They are dinosaurs – specifically, a type of theropod that survived the comet extinction and spread to fill a variety of ecological niches today.

Most of their Cretaceous-era (‘Chalk-era’) relations, such as T-Rex – also a theropod – couldn’t fly. But that didn’t stop most dinosaurs being brightly coloured, feathered (mostly) three-toed, hollow-boned, bipedal egg-layers. Just like birds. And, of course, that means dinosaurs were almost certainly warm-blooded. Like birds. Angry ones. (Go download the app.)

All this was brought home to me a few weeks back when I visited an exhibition about Tyrannosaurs – a long-standing dinosaur family of which T-Rex was one of the last and largest – in Te Papa Tongarewa, New Zealand’s national museum. I’ve already posted about the first part of the experience. The other part was the fabulous high-tech special effects that the museum used to bring their subjects to life.

That included some live action green-screen type SFX, fed back to museum-goers on huge screens – like this one. That’s me on the right, being checked out by my new friend Dino. Cool.

I'm on the right - a selfie I took with my SLR, green-screened and slightly foreshortened (uh.... thanks, guys) with some dinosaurs. Cool!

I’m on the right with SLR to my face in this selfie, green-screened and horribly foreshortened (uh…. thanks, guys) with dinosaurs.

I often walk on the Wellington waterfront. Until now, I'd never met dinosaurs on it... More green-screen fun.

I often walk the Wellington waterfront. Plenty of seabirds to see there, but until now, none of their ancient cousins. More live-action SFX fun in the T-Rex exhibition. I was lucky to take the photo – these things were moving. Note the feather coats and bird feet.

Velociraptor mongoliensis reconstruction, apparently life-size, which is bigger than I'd have thought (most of them were about the side of an annoyed turkey).

Velociraptor mongoliensis, apparently life-size, which at approximately 2 metres snout-to-tail is bigger than I’d have thought. Most of them were about the size of an annoyed turkey. Another hand-held ambient-light photo (note movement blur in the guy behind the display).

The whole exhibition, really, wasn’t about T-Rex. It was about what dinosaurs have become for us; symbols of total badass, which stands slightly against the fact that by the Cretaceous era they were actually feathered, bird-like and really pretty fluffy looking, including the ones that would have eaten you.

All this is a complete turn-about from earlier thinking. Victorian-age scientists looked on dinosaurs as slow, stupid, splay-legged, tail-dragging, cold-blooded lizards, doomed to extinction. The word ‘dinosaur’ remains a perjorative today in some circles for this reason. They were wrong, though in point of fact there HAD been large, splay-legged, exothermic animals in the Permian period (299-251 million years ago). There were two main land animal families at the time – the Synapsids (mammal ancestors), which included the fin-backed Pelycosaurs, like Dimetrodon. And there were the Sauropsids (reptile and dinosaur ancestors). Then came a Great Death, bigger than the one that ended the Cretaceous, that killed 90 percent of all life on the planet in less than 100,000 years. The jury’s out on what caused it, though climate change played a part. All the Synapsids died out, with the exception of a few species such as the Cynodonts, now regarded as mammal ancestors.

Reconstruction of Troodon by Iain James Reed. Via Wikipedia, Creative Commons attribution share-alike 3.0 unported license.

Reconstruction of Troodon by Iain James Reed. Via Wikipedia, Creative Commons attribution share-alike 3.0 unported license.

Dinosaurs came into their own two ages later, the Jurassic – and flourished particularly in the Cretaceous. By this time they were as far from their reptile ancestors as mammals were. Dinosaurs were feathered not for flight, but for display and insulation. They laid eggs in nests. They had hollow (pneumatised) bones. They fell into two types; Orthinischians (bird-hipped), which included the big quadrupedal herbivores; and Saurischichians, lizard-hipped dinosaurs which included the theropods and – paradoxically – therefore birds. Indeed, some of the Cretaceous theropods, like the various species of Troodon, were originally classified as early birds, which they weren’t. But only birds survived the K-T extinction event, 65 million years ago, apparently because they were small.

Did smarts play a part for dinosaurs? Apparently not. They were relentlessly tiny-brained. And the fact that dinosaurs flourished for tens of millions of years, out-stripping the mammals of the day, suggests that – despite our own conceits – intelligence wasn’t required for a survival advantage. But it’s possible they were smarter than we think. Their surviving cousins, today, offer insight. Crows are as pea-brained as all birds. Yet they can solve complex logic puzzles. So maybe dinosaurs had a different sort of intelligence from us.

More on that soon. But for now I’ll leave you with a final look at one of the biggest predators of the dino-era – the magnificent T-Rex, as seen in all good museums… especially one near me, just now. A feathered, hollow-boned, six-tonne carnivore with bird-feet, jaws with the strength of a hydraulic ram – 3000 kg worth of bite – driving home 15-cm long teeth. Speaks for itself, really.

The real thing - Tyrannosaurus Rex, King of the Tyrant Lizards, in all his glory. Another ambient light, hand-held photo of mine.

The real thing – Tyrannosaurus Rex, King of the Tyrant Lizards. Another ambient light, hand-held photo of mine.

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2014