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Futures 50 Years in Space: The Challenge of the Stars

David A Hardy and Patrick Moore

AAPPL, 2004, ISBN 1-904332-13-7, £17.95, 112pp

If men are from Mars and women are from Venus, then men are cold, red, dry and have a giant volcano, while women are hot, cloudy and rain sulphuric acid. Hmm, best not pursue this train of thought. But this conjecture does give us a hint as to the contents of Futures 50 Years in Space, The Challenge of the Stars. Futures is authored by the wonderful Patrick Moore, who needs no introduction, and illustrated by artist David Hardy, who was the first artist on The Sky at Night. It is an updating of The Challenge of the Stars, originally written some 30 years ago. The book’s format comprises a written introduction to every planet in the solar system, with detailed descriptions of the planet’s composition, atmosphere and geography, all lavishly illustrated, making full use of the book’s ample dimensions – you could use it as shelter should you be washed up on a desert island with a gramophone and the complete works of Shakespeare.

Time is an important factor in this edition; each description also gives us an idea of how theories about a planet’s composition have changed over the years, with modern thinking enhanced by the information sent to us by sophisticated telescopes and probes, improving our understanding of other worlds. Did you know, for example, the Saturn’s satellite Mimas’ gravity is so weak you’d have trouble distinguishing up from down? Or, if you viewed Saturn from Mimas, you’d never see the full beauty of the rings, because Mimas moves in the same plane as the ring system. Or that Pluto and its satellite Charon have identical rotation periods and could therefore be viewed as a double planet? Once the solar system has been covered, Moore and Hardy move out of our immediate galactic backyard and onto the increasingly speculative realms of galaxies, nebulae and black holes where our everyday conceptions of scale and even existence are severely challenged.

The text is unquestionably fascinating even for those with only a passing interest in astronomy, with Moore’s enthusiasm and knowledge leaping out from every page. The illustrations are more variable. The best artwork depicts the impressions of the pure landscapes and spacescapes. There is a stunning illustration of polar aurorae on Jupiter and a view of Neptune from the south pole of its satellite Miranda (as could be seen in 2029, fact fans, although you’ll have to hurry if you want to get there in time). However some of the paintings include images of possible space craft, probes or even base stations and, although perfectly relevant to the speculative nature of the book, are somehow less interesting. But, that’s purely a matter of personal preference, the quality of the artwork cannot be faulted and manages to be informative without being overly cold and technical.

A fascinating and enlightening read but you are left asking one question: are cats from Callisto?