Talk of a mission to Mars has rekindled my love for space – shame about my daughter | Steve Canavan

As a child I was fascinated by space and like, I suspect, many youngsters, had a large poster of the solar system on my bedroom wall.

Friday, 12th February 2021, 6:00 pm
The Solar System (and definitely no Pluto). Elements of this image furnished by NASA, picture by Shutterstock.

Alas, this was replaced by Britney Spears and Louise from Eternal when I was about 12, which I kind of regret now; I mean Britney and Louise are very nice but – and I’m going to stick my neck out here - they’re probably not going to hold the key to everlasting humanity in a way space exploration might.

That said, however, Jupiter’s never going to release a catchy hit single – it can’t play guitar or sing for starters - so swings and roundabouts I guess.

I lost faith in the whole space thing when they heartlessly banished Pluto, like a drunk being kicked out of a club.

Sign up to our daily newsletter

The i newsletter cut through the noise

You may remember this. It happened in August 2006 when something called the International Astronomical Union (which, I like to imagine, has as incredibly high-tech, lavish and expensive HQ, somewhere just south of Neptune) downgraded the status of Pluto and said it was no longer an official planet.

I remember feeling really sorry for Pluto at the time.

It was already the human equivalent to the kid who always got picked last at football.

Now it had become the kid told by the coach he was so rubbish he had to pack up and go home.

These days poor Pluto is deemed only a dwarf planet, which is – and hold on to your hat because this is a pretty thrilling, sexy definition – a celestial body in direct orbit of the sun (the big yellow thing, not the daily newspaper) but – and this is the bit which meant it was downgraded - has not ‘vacuumed up’ its neighbouring region of other objects, so it’s not gravitationally dominant in its vicinity of space.

NB: I’ve read that last sentence three times now and still don’t understand it, but I’m leaving it in, in case you’re cleverer than me.

Anyway, my interest in the planets has been sparked again this week after watching a report on last night’s 10 o’clock news, a programme I make a point of tuning into, not because I enjoy it, but because Huw Edwards has such a lovely calming voice.

The United Arab Emirates is, I learned, celebrating its first mission to Mars after putting a probe (a word which always reminds me of my last colonoscopy) called Hope into orbit around it.

The report went on to say all the usual things – that this mission will study the planet’s atmosphere, provide the ‘clearest ever images of the surface (I don’t wish to sound cynical but I’m sure they say that about every single mission to Mars), and help us understand if humans could ever live there.

Which clearly they never will.

I mean why would you want to live on Mars?

There’s nothing to see, unless you’re into dust and the colour red, and we’d have to spend ages building a load of purpose-built towns, which means everywhere would end up looking like Milton Keynes – and, let’s be honest, who wants to live in Milton Keynes?

It did get me searching the internet for facts about Mars and I must admit I quite enjoyed rediscovering stuff that I daresay could reel off automatically as a child, like the fact Mars is the second smallest planet in the solar system (roughly half the size of earth); it has two moons (called Phobos and Deimos, which, ironically, are exactly the names Mrs Canavan and I were going to call our children before we changed our minds at the last minute and plumped for Mary and Wilf); and that the temperature there can plummet to -143 degrees Celsius (which on the plus side means if ever there’s an outbreak of Covid, they won’t have to mess about building special storage facilities for the Pfizer vaccine).

I also learned an interesting thing I didn’t previously know, namely that there is a huge mountain on Mars called Olympus Mons, 24 kilometres high, about three times the height of Everest.

I wonder if one day there’ll be a Mars-style Edmund Hilary, photographed at its summit, looking very cold with a flag forlornly fluttering in the background?

I won’t bore you with much of what I discovered on the internet, such as things like experiments show the soil on Mars has a basic pH of 7.7 and contains 0.6 per cent of slat perchlorate, for I fear – and this is just a gut feeling –you won’t really care.

What it has made me do, though, is order a solar system poster for Mary’s bedroom.

It’s fantastic, shows all the planets in order from the sun, and has a little simple one-sentence write up about each.

I excitedly showed it Mary – who’s three – last night.

‘This is earth, where we live,’ I said, ‘and here are all the other planets out there in space.’

I glanced across at her to see she was sat picking her nose and then examining what was on her finger.

‘Dad, you know tonight,’ she started.

Ah, I thought, she has been listening after all and is going to want to go outside and look at the sky and try and spot a planet. How marvellous.

‘Can I’, she continued, ‘instead of Paw Patrol, watch Ben and Holly’s Little Kingdom instead?’

That’s the problem with kids.

You spend your hard-earned money trying to educate them and spark their interest in the wider world, and they prefer to watch a cartoon about elves and fairies.

Honestly, I don’t know why I bother.