ALICE: Where does the Solar System end and inter-stellar space begin?

NewHorizonsProbe from Nasa dot Gov

New Horizons

One of the interesting questions in Astronomy is where does the Solar System end and inter-stellar space begin? There’s a nice result being shared by NASA from the ALICE instrument on the ‘New Horizons’ spacecraft that is helping with that question and confirming observations from the Voyager spacecraft.

converted PNM file

Surface of Pluto

‘New Horizons’ is the spacecraft that flew past Pluto on 14th July 2015 and was then sent onwards towards the Kuiper belt object (486958) 2014 MU69 (nicknamed ‘Ultima Thule’ by the New Horizons team), which it should reach on 1st Jan 2019.

NASA Voyager 1

Voyager 1

‘Voyager’ was actually two probes, launched in 1977 to study the outer Solar System.

So, where does the solar system end? It depends… Based on the standard structural model (see below) we’d say somewhere near 50,000 to 200,000AU, at the far edge of the Oort Cloud. Based on the distribution of solar system hydrogen (see below), and taking Voyager 1’s results to be correct (more below), we’d say it was around 121AU, with the result to be further verified by Voyager 2 and ongoing measurements from ALICE.

In the Standard Model of the Solar System the part we are most familiar with is the inner-most region containing the Sun and the eight major planets: Mercury, Venus, Earth, Mars, Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus and Neptune. There is a gap between Mars and Jupiter where a planet should be which actually contains the ‘asteroid belt’, an area of rocky asteroids that are probably material that never managed to accrete into a planet. This inner-most region extends out to around 4.5 billion km (or 30AU, as astronomers term it) from the Sun.


Planets of the Solar System

The next area beyond that, extending to about 50AU is the Kuiper Belt, which contains left-over material from the formation of the inner solar system, predominantly frozen volatiles like methane, ammonia and water. That is not to say that the objects in the Kuiper Belt are all ‘small’ as it contains three officially recognized dwarf planets: Pluto, Haumea and Makemake. Overlapping the Kuiper Belt and extending beyond 100AU is the Scattered Disk, which is sparsely populated with small icy bodies like asteroids and comets. But the solar system doesn’t end there… There is then also the Oort Cloud lying at around 50,000 to 200,000AU, which is believed to contain icy planetesimals and be the source region for some comets.

So somewhere beyond the region around 200,000AU we should no longer find any solid constituents of our solar system, and that would denote one boundary to our solar system. Anything beyond that point will not be bound by our Sun’s gravity.

But what about gas? The main gas found in stars and the inter-stellar medium is hydrogen. Within our solar system these hydrogen atoms are pushed outwards by radiation pressure from solar photons. There will also be a radiation pressure applying inwards from the interstellar wind, and at some point those pressures will balance, causing solar system hydrogen atoms to bunch up in a ‘wall’ – this ‘heliosphere’ will also mark another boundary to our solar system… and this is where the latest results from the ultraviolet spectrometer ALICE (named after the Alice Kramden in ‘The Honeymooners’) on New Horizons comes in.

NASA has already reported that Voyager 1 was about 121AU from the Sun when it passed through the heliopause (outer boundary of the heliosphere) on 25th August 2012 and entered inter-stellar space. Voyager 2 has a different trajectory and has not yet crossed that boundary.

Long‐term observations made with ALICE have confirmed measurements made by the Voyager spacecraft. NASA scientists are reporting that both sets of data are best explained if the observed ultraviolet light results from BOTH the scattering of sunlight by hydrogen atoms within the solar system, AND a substantial contribution from a distant source, which could be the ‘wall of hydrogen’ at the heliosphere.

It could also be that the additional source of UV light is more distant, and more twice-yearly observations are being planned for New Horizons/ALICE. — here is a link to the abstract for NASA’s paper, which is due to be published in the journal ‘Geophysical Research Letters’.

All pictures from


If I could only keep 1 singer from the ’80s it would be…

Imagine that a weird time accident happened and all the singers from the ’80s never performed a single a note… except for one… who would you keep?

Sometimes you could be forgiven for thinking that the entire decade only spawned 10-15 good songs, but the reality is that it was a really vibrant period for music and there was an enormous number of top quality acts including Whitney Houston, Chaka Khan, Spandau Ballet, Tina Turner, Wham, Bon Jovi, Heart, Echo And The Bunnymen, Talk Talk, Depeche Mode, OMD, Tears For Fears, XTC, Madness, Bronski Beat, Ultravox, Pat Benatar, Culture Club, Adam And The Ants, Madonna… the list goes on and on…

But for me the answer to the question is simple: Gary Numan.

GaryNuman~singerNuman made me want the future to come, and for it to be as cool as he was making it sound. I wanted the connectivity and electronic wonders. I wanted the energy and drive he was projecting. I wanted to be as cool as the stuff he was singing.

His music captured everything the ’80s were about. It was a unique, new sound, that sounded like the future but was relevant now, that was exciting but thoughtful, that sometimes made you want to dance and sometimes to listen.

Don’t get me wrong, Numan is not a great singer, and his live recordings can be pretty bad, but his studio-produced recordings are usually superb. I’ve been listening to his album ‘Telekon’ for over 35 years and still find it as riveting today as the first time I heard it.

If you only ever listen / watch Gary Numan perform three songs, these are my recommendations:

… and for fun, try this take on “Music for Chameleons” from Alan Partridge… or the real track here.

Yeah, I know, technically that’s four songs. You didn’t think I could stick at three did you?

GaryNuman~pilotOne of my best Numan memories is from an Eighties airshow at Biggin Hill, watching him fly his AT-6 Harvard (dressed up as a Japanese Zero). How many times do you get to watch your pop star hero flying at an airshow? Thinking of that still brings tears to my eyes, he gave a wonderful performance! There are no good recordings online of him flying, this is the best I could find from Barton Airshow, 1992.

Numan’s career got going when he formed Tubeway Army in the ’70s. Initially playing punk sounds, he then moved towards sci-fi influenced synthesiser music… and that is the sound that grabbed me! From “Are ‘Friends’ Electric?” and “Cars” (technically ’79 tracks but I’m adopting them for my list anyway!), to “We Are Glass”, “I’m an Agent”, “I Die: You Die”, “I Dream of Wires”, “This Wreckage” and “Music for Chameleons”, his sounds define a decade. He didn’t just stop after those successes and he has released 18 solo albums between 1979 to 2017, or roughly one every two years. How many singers can claim such a long track record (pun intended)?

Cold War memories…

I have very strong memories of the closing days of the Cold War which often resonate in my writing. The invention of the internet and social media means that today I can connect with people from all around the world who have an interest in Cold War history, and in many cases who also retain a fear of ‘the bomb’.

Some places that I have found really helpful and informative include the Facebook groups ‘History of the Cold War’, ‘Aircraft of the Cold War’, ‘Cold War Bunkers’ and ‘Britain’s Cold War’, and also the excellent ‘Cold War Conversations’ podcast, which is really worth listening to.

Three factors really shaped my fear of total destruction during the Cold War:

  1. The film ‘Threads’, which showed the aftermath of a nuclear attack on the UK. When it was first shown the film was very shocking. As a teenager I was sure that I wouldn’t want to live in a world like that. I had real nightmares about what it would be like to build some kind of refuge in our house and then, assuming we had lived, to step outside and try to survive.

Manston 1MT blast map

I live close to RAF Manston. The declassified 1972 “Probable nuclear targets in the United Kingdom” paper by Air Commodore Brian Standbridge lists it as being targeted with 3 x 1MT airbust weapons. If the dispersals for nuclear bombers had been reactivated the suspected targetting would have been 3 x 1MT groundburst weapons.

The problem I have with ‘Threads’ is it maintained the idea that some people could survive a nuclear attack. “Nukemap” ( indicates that even a single 1MT airbust bomb over Manston would be enough to collapse my home through overpressure from the blast.

2) News reports of US Cruise Missile launchers prowling the UK countryside on manoeuvres, practicing for the day that they might need to rain nuclear hell on the USSR. To be clear: I don’t think the UK should be an advanced launch pad for US nuclear weapons and I very much resented becoming a target due to the policy of allowing US GLCMs on UK soil.

3) Volatile global politics including anti-nuclear protests by CND, the Falklands War, the Reagan Administration’s ‘Star Wars project’ (ie SDI) , social uprisings in Eastern Europe, the eventual fall of the Berlin Wall and German reunification – ‘The World’ seemed like a very dangerous place… and a single mistake was all it would have taken…

GenerallOppenheimery speaking the UK public still seems to believe the message of the old Civil Defence films that survival is possible, even though the government knew for decades that it was untrue. With the thousands of nuclear weapons stored in the arsenals of the US and Russia, survival in the event of a hot war between the superpowers seems pretty unlikely.

I think it is important for the debate about the Cold War to continue and for people to discuss the massive danger that nuclear weapons pose for all of mankind. It is too easy for shallow soundbite politicians like Trump to threaten to destroy their enemies with nukes – the reality behind that threat is much more dangerous. Anyone who wants to know what it would really be like should take look at the links above, watch some films on YouTube and read John Hersey’s ‘Hiroshima’…

“Now I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds.”

… and if you are still not convinced, watch the recording of J. Robert Oppenheimer’s reflection of the weapon he had created at Los Alamos during the 1965 television documentary “The Decision to Drop the Bomb” – he looks haunted by his creation and I never want to feel as much fear as I can see on his face.

From ‘Evil Eye – A Lissa Blackwood Thriller’: A walk across London in the footsteps of the Head of SIG, Colonel Peter Carson, DSO with Bar, MC…

Towards the start of my new Lissa Blackwood thriller called ‘Evil Eye’, her boss, Peter Carson, faces the challenge of knowing that on that day he will be the target of an assassination attempt.

Now fifty eight years old, as a young man Carson had originally intended to train as a chemical engineer. However, in his final year at Cambridge he was recruited by the army to train as an intelligence officer. 20180718_101218_edit4Carson found his natural niche in the army. He rapidly developed a ruthless flexibility, instinct and cunning on missions that eventually made him a highly decorated, front line, special forces Colonel.

His record and total devotion to the Crown, regardless of party politics, spoke for itself, and three Prime Ministers ago he was appointed as ‘R’, the head of SIG, remaining there ever since.

Where the security of the realm is concerned there are the MI5/MI6 assets and missions that sit above the line, and then there is the ‘Special Investigations Group’. SIG is the Prime Minister’s covert intelligence unit, answerable only to the PM’s conscience.


Now Carson is facing a real life or death dilemma. An attempt on the Queen’s life was barely thwarted by his actions and he has just been warned that the same group are seeking to kill him. The warning comes from a potential defector within the terrorist group. Carson isn’t told exactly how the attempt will be made, just that they are relying on his normal routine to pull it off. Carson still has to function as the head of SIG but is starting to suspect that the terrorists have a mole in his organisation:

“I suspect everything and everyone,” – he tells Janet Audlish, one of the few people he feels he can trust.

“I’ll be back in two hours to ask about your progress on the searches. Get this sorted by then, eh? My next appointment will be at the Palace to talk with Her Majesty, and I suspect they already know that. If I was going to kill me, that’s when I’d do it.The irony would make up for some of their failure at killing her. The game’s on as soon as I leave VX.”

London is a crowded city and the attack could happen anywhere..Collage1~shrink

Carson is relying on Audlish to work with SIG’s Quartermaster (another trusted individual, they served and fought together), to find a way for him to be seen heading towards his meeting with the Queen and survive the attack he knows will be coming.

I’m not going to spoil how that all plays out, but when he leaves the SIG headquarters in the SIS Building at Vauxhall Cross, heading across Lambeth Bridge and onto Horseferry Road, he is placing his life in their hands…

It was fun to walk in his shoes in London, seeing the places that I had imagined in real life, wondering how it would feel if you were Peter Carson, perhaps crossing Lambeth Bridge for the last time? …


All pictures (c) Lee Russell, 2018, except the Union Jack backdrop to Tower Bridge which is public domain (see )

Space 1999: the problem with Victor Bergman…

When I was a boy I really enjoyed watching the TV series ‘Space 1999’. I was fascinated by space exploration and the ‘realism’ of an Anderson creation featuring real people made a strong impression on me. Moonbase Alpha

At that time creating a moonbase seemed like an obvious next step towards mankind stepping out properly into space and colonising the solar system.

I think many people still see the Moon as a viable next-step into space but I’ve long moved away from that idea. The Moon is a harsh place to survive on, a poor analogue for the other planets or moons that are better candidates for a colony, and even though its gravity is low, it still presents a gravity-well that makes its a poor candidate for a way-station… why stop there when remaining in an orbit could take less fuel?

As with all of the Andersons’ creations, the machinery looks functional and you could imagine it working… in space. Eagle

For example, the Eagle spaceships look like viable, adaptable workhorses for many kinds of missions.  For tasks around Moonbase Alpha they are believable, but the series didn’t work so well when they had it flying into planetary atmospheres… it’s not aerodynamic, looks very underpowered for direct lifting from the surface like a rocket, and lacks the ablative shielding that it might otherwise need for a landing. Unfortunately, the more the Eagles are used like that in the programs, the less believable they become…

Which brings me onto the the problem with the character of Victor Bergman, base scientist… Bergman was acted very convincingly by Barry Morse. I have complete respect for the energy and empathy that he put into the role. However, the scripting for Bergman was not convincing, and that’s where the character’s credibility breaks down.Space1999_Bergman

As a boy watching the show I wanted to be Victor Bergman. My friends wanted to be an astronaut or Commander Koenig, but I was struck by how great it would be to have all the answers, to have Koenig’s ear, and be able to solve the massive problems now facing Moonnbase Alpha after it streaked away into space on 9th September, 1999.

The trouble is, watching the show years later as an adult, Bergman looks like a shaman, a bit of a fool spouting pseudo-science at best, when he’s not frequently confessing to not having the answers. Here’s a couple of examples: firstly from Episode 1 – “Breakaway”:

Koenig: “All right, no virus. Then what is it?”

Bergman: “John, I just don’t know. It looks very much like radiation, but…”

Koenig: “But what?”

Bergman: “There is no radiation.” < what? >

and then later…

Bergman: “Hmm. Look at this. It’s a monitoring device from the old Area One. It was used to record the magnetic output from the < Bergman fake science alert! > artificial gravity system  there. When the area was closed down it had nothing to record for five years but now look at it.”

Carter: “A twenty-fold increase in the magnetic field.”Brekaway

Bergman: “And that’s before it burnt out. We’ve been obsessed with radiation. Wrong. This instrument’s given me a lead. < Bergman fake science alert! > I think we’re facing a new effect, arising from the atomic waste deposited here over the years. Magnetic energy outputs of unprecedented violence. < That’s not a very scientific explanation, is it? >

Koenig: “Magnetic energy responsible for the flare-up at Area One?” < looking unconvinced >

Russell: “Magnetic energy causing brain damage?” < looking like she doesn’t believe a word of it >

… later:

Bergman: “Area One burnt itself out in a < Bergman fake science alert! > magnetic subsurface firestorm. < a what? > What worries me now is that the same thing could happen at Area Two.”

So in episode 1 we’re given a pretty good idea of what to expect for Bergman: sometimes he doesn’t know, and what he says he does know can be pretty unscientific with healthy dollops of pseudo-sci-verbage verging on the hope for magic!

Episode 3, “Black Sun” is even worse. It becomes clear pretty quickly that Alpha is heading towards a black hole. Somehow we’re asked to accept that this is a previously undetected black hole lying close to Earth… sigh….

Initially the Alphans don’t know what the Black Sun is. Bergman disappears into his study where he completes some calculations faster than Alpha’s main computer < of course he does! > and discovers a danger that must be reported to the Commander… he rushes back to Main Mission just in time to see astronaut Ryan’s Eagle torn apart by shearing forces across some kind of horizon… and then he tells Koenig…

Bergman: “If anyone’s to blame, it’s me. I suspected it hours ago.”

Koenig: “A Black Sun.”

Bergman: “Right. So, what are we going to do about it?”

Koenig: “What can we do? We’ll all be dead in three days.”

… so Bergman goes off to have another think and work with the computer… and then tells an assembled group of Alpha’s senior staff that…

Bergman: “It’s gravitational pull can become so immense that just a hatful of the stuff can weigh several Alphas. But it doesn’t stop there. The gravitational force goes on getting stronger so that nothing, not radiation, not heat, not even light itself can escape…

Black Sun… then  “… as you know, < Bergman fake science alert! > these eight anti-gravity towers stabilise our gravity here inside Alpha. <yeah, right > And we’re going to use them to < Bergman fake science alert! > create an entirely new force-field effectWe’re going to re-program our main unit generators so that instead of negating the pressure from the black sun, it will simply reverse it. < Presumably powered by an endless supply of unobtainium >

So if the Black Sun is a neutron star (or similar) we’re being told that the Moon and Alpha stands a chance of passing through it? I don’t think so!

And if it is actually a black hole, that not even light can escape from, we’re to believe that they can pass through it? I don’t think so!

Unless the Black Sun is something else, with the mass of a black hole but without a core? That they can pass through? I don’t think so!

Undetected near-Earth black holes, working faster than the computer to ‘save the day’, anti-gravity, new force-field effects… it’s all in a day’s work for Alpha’s science-shaman!

Fortunately I was impressed enough by Bergman to get a science degree myself… so something came from it… and it was (still is) quite exciting! Just don’t expect realism!


Pictures from  (fair use)

Space: 1999 is copyright ITV Studios Global Entertainment

Crawling around inside Nuclear Bunkers…

Kelvedon Hatch entrance

I was stuck on how to make a section work in the closing scenes of ‘Evil Eye’ (my latest thriller novel) – it all revolves around moving unseen inside an active nuclear bunker – but these are intimate places and, looking at images online, I was getting very bogged down. The (now) cliched fiction solution is to crawl around in the air vents/ducting (Alien / Aliens / Die Hard), bit I like to base my fiction in reality and I wasn’t feeling sure about that…

So I reached out to the “Cold War Bunkers” closed group on Facebook for advice and they just blew me away with the depth of their knowledge and sharing… my thanks to all the guys in the group … you were great and all your help is much appreciated – I now have a solution to the problem!

DDR missile bunker

Thanks to Al McCann, Ben Cooper, Bob Ames, Craig Robertson, Dave Salloway, David Godfrey, Ed Combes, Gareth Baldybloke, Grant More, Jim O’Neill, Michael Scott, Mirko Krumm, Nick Carrière, Nick Lofty Combes, Roger Griffiths, Steve Gardener and anyone else I’ve missed…

Image of entrance tunnel to Kelvedon Hatch bunker by Scott Wylie on (‘Nuclear Bunker’)
Image of entrance to ‘Abandoned Russian nuclear missile bunker in former DDR’ by Nicole von Trigoburg on
– both images are Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic (CC BY 2.0) licensed.

Just 5 more scenes to go and then the first draft of “Evil Eye” will be complete!

I’ve just added another 1300 words to ‘Evil Eye – A Lissa Blackwood Thriller’ this morning. There are now just 5 scenes left to write and the first draft will be complete!

Those 1300 words surprised me – they come at a moment when Lissa Blackwood is trying to work out how to poison the main antagonist, ‘Malocchio’. I knew roughly how the scene was going to work but not exactly how she was going to do it. What I hadn’t expected was for Malocchio to make her the offer of becoming his partner … writing is full of surprises!

Now she has administered the poison all she has to do is warn the governments of Europe that Malocchio’s terror attack is about to begin, make sure he dies and escape – easy?