Taiping again

My third visit in 2018!  This time a bit longer than usual, first three nights in hotel Furama, then two nights in the Nest bungalow up Bukit Larut.

I took the 10:55 ETS train from Sentral and arrived 14:18 in Taiping, where my friends Lay Chun and Bok Kin were waiting for me. We had a late lunch together and chatted a lot about Taiping heritage. As the weather was rainy, they dropped me at my hotel,  and arranged to meet again the next morning.

After some rest, I walked in the evening to the Lake Gardens, to have a look at the second raintree, recently fallen down. Both trees fell down in that part of Jalan Pekeliling (Circular Road) that recently has been closed to traffic and is now called the Raintree Walk. A coincidence?

The trees have become a tourist attraction! Armed with my umbrella I walked to the Larut Matang food court for my dinner. I had popiah’s at the famous Omar Popiah stall (now renamed Jaffan Popiah). Delicious and value for money (RM 0.70 each).

Walking back to my hotel, I passed the floodlit clocktower, now tourism office, which I was planning to visit the next day. 

The next morning I met Dr Indra of the Ceylon Association. We had breakfast together and a look at the renovated Association building, one of the few successful restoration  projects in Taiping. Left the building as it looked in December last year, right the present situation

Since my last visit, a new fence has been erected. The interior still has to be refurnished. 

Nearby (corner of Jalan Taming Sari and Jalan Idris) an example of what unfortunately is more common in Taiping, the skeleton of a ruined building, waiting for its final destruction.

One of the plans I had for this Taiping trip, was to visit the history galleries of two famous Taiping schools, St George’s Institution and the King Edwards VII school.  Here is the beautiful facade of SGI. It is a Lasallian school.

At the school I met Lay Chun and Bok Kin. And Yeap Thean Hock, who had the key of the gallery, because it is not open to the general public.

The gallery was opened in 2015, when SGI  celebrated its centennial. Yeap, who was involved in the creation of the gallery, guided us around. An interesting collection of photographs and memorabilia.

After a char kway teow lunch with my friends in the Peace Hotel, we went to the recently opened Telegraph Museum, another example of a successful restoration.  

Both outside and inside it looks magnificent. The first telegraph lines in Malaya connected Taiping to Port Weld and to Kuala Kangsar, so it is apt that a museum about the history of telegraphy and telecommunications has been established here, in the old Post & Telegraph Office (1885).

I hope the museum will become a success, the collection is well presented but quite technical. And the ticket price is too high, RM 8 (15) for Malaysians (non-Malaysians). Compare that with the National Museum in KL, RM 2 (5) or the Perak Museum in Taiping, RM 2 for everybody.

Around the corner the former Topo and Survey Office (1891), also a few years ago beautifully renovated. It housed the First Galleria until a few years, now a signboard says that it is the Galeri Perbandaran (Town Gallery), it looks empty and closed.

My next stop was the Tourism Office in the Old Clock Tower (1890). During my last visit it was closed “for renovation”, now it was open, a friendly young lady was mopping the floor because it had been raining and the roof was leaking (!).

I asked her if there was a Taiping heritage trail leaflet, she told me that it was out of stock, but she had a tourist map of Taiping. It showed all the traffic lights (!) and had a list of tourist attractions, some of them (13, 14, 17) not existing anymore.

I appreciated her attitude, she can not help it that this “Tourism Office” is pretty useless at the moment and looks more like an antique shop.

I realise that this blog is a bit pessimistic and sombre, I can’t help it. Taiping is still my favourite “second hometown” in Malaysia, but a Bandar Warisan (Heritage Town) , as it proudly promotes itself? I don’t think so. A Town of Past Glory would be a better epithet.

Take for example the Central Market, Malaysia’s best preserved example of a 19th century market building (1884/1885). What will be its future? Hopefully not changed into a Central Market, KL-style!

Of course there is some good news too, like the renovation of the well-known Ipoh Bakery. Here two photos, one earlier this year during the restoration and the final result.

One reason for this Taiping visit was that I wanted to meet my friend ST Lee, living in Singapore but with a keen interest in Taiping Heritage, where he owns a beautifully renovated house in Barrack Road.

I met him, his sister and her friends for a nice dinner at the Chinese Recreation Club (excellent food!) and the next morning for breakfast at my favourite Chee Cheong Fun stall of Mr Tong, together with Yeap Thean Eng.

After our breakfast we went to the King Edwards VII school. Yeap, the president of the Taiping Heritage Society, had warned us already that the history gallery might be closed, because the building where it was housed, was infested by termites.

But I still was shocked by what I saw. Yes, the century old raintrees are still impressive, but the iconic building is locked and cordoned off.

How can this have happened? And what will be done about it? No history gallery, but I was told that there exists one in a different building of King Edwards. Will check during my next visit.

Opposite the school there are a few buildings which are in a much worse condition. Five years ago I have published a blog post, Shame on Taiping, about these buildings, the Town Rest House (1894) and the former Perak Railway Building (1885/1893). Both buildings abandoned and slowly going down the drain.

Here is the Perak Railway Building, later housing various government offices. You can just enter, if you don’t mind meeting an occasional squatter. I explored the buildings this time with my friend Amril and took many pictures. I am planning to write a separate post about these buildings and the Resthouse. I have visited them almost every time I was in Taiping.

And this is the Rest House, in slightly better condition, at least the floor boards are still there.

Incomprehensible that in front of the Resthouse there is still a signboard about the Rest House , one of the “Firsts” of Taiping and part of the Taiping Heritage Trail. What will a tourist think when he follows this trail and sees this building?

Early afternoon Aric arrived from KL, we went to Kamunting for Assam Laksa, one of his favourite dishes, he is always looking for new stalls and collecting the info on his Assam Laksa website. This stall was not very special (pretty awful according to Aric).

We had much better food that evening, with ST Lee and his sister, in vegetarian restaurant Teik Ee, Jalan Tupai.

After the busy days in Taiping, it was time to relax. The next morning we picked up our friends Paul and Fahmi from the station and drove to the jeep station of Bukit Larut. From there with the 4WD to the Nest, where we were warmly welcomed by Suet Fun and Peter. They have really done a wonderful job, I love the colonial atmosphere.

And the food, Suet Fun is a creative cook. It was quite chilly, with occasional rain, we were the only guests that night, and spent the rest of the day doing nothing ūüėČ

Evening view. Left Gunung Bubu, about 20 km away

The next morning I took pictures of some beautiful “creatures of the night”

After breakfast and some droning by Aric, we walked up the hill until the Cottage bungalow, the oldest bungalow of Maxwell Hill, now out of bounds because it is part of the telecom installation.

We were back in time for lunch, where a group of nice ladies had arrived, former school mates of Suet Fun.

In the afternoon we walked down to the “Sixth Mile”, looking forward to a cup of tea in the Cafeteria, but it was closed already. Misty weather, very scenic.

The evening dinner was exquisite and the company pleasant.

The next morning the weather had changed, blue sky, nice views of the plains and the Straits. Compare with the evening picture above.

Aric did some more droning. In this short video you can see how the Nest is surrounded by jungle, with Taiping deep down and far away the coastline.

Reluctantly we had to leave, our jeep was taking us down at 11am. Still enough time to take more pictures. Looking forward already to a next visit.

On our way back to KL, we had lunch in another Assam Laksa stall, near Bukit Gantang. Much better quality!

It was again a very rewarding visit, although it must be clear to the reader that I am rather pessimistic about what is (not) happening in Taiping. The authorities may claim that Taiping is a Bandar Warisan, but I miss a sense of real commitment.

In my April blog I quoted from the Rough Guide (digital version):

Nowadays, bypassed by the North‚ÄďSouth Expressway and replaced in administrative importance by Ipoh, Taiping is declining gracefully, its streets lined with tattered architectural mementoes of its glory days.

Maybe I just will accept that, of course it has its own charm.

Landing on Mars

Landing a spacecraft on the planet Mars is not a piece of cake!

After several failed attempts the first successful landing took place in 1976, when two(!) spacecrafts, the Viking 1 and 2, landed safely on the surface of the Red Planet. And a Red Planet it was. Here are the first (color) pictures taken, left by the Viking 1, right by the Viking 2

The next successful landing was more than 20 years later, the Mars Pathfinder in 1997. The lander contained a small separate vehicle, a Mars rover, that could independently explore the surface. Here you see the Sojourner, after it had just rolled down from the Pathfinder. It is a tiny vehicle of 63 x 48 x 28 cm and with a mass of about 12 kg.

The next mission was the Mars Exploration Rover in 2004. Two separate missions actually, landing two rovers on Mars, the Spirit and the Opportunity. Both missions were very successful, the two rovers were planned to operate for 90 Sol’s (a Sol is a Martian solar day), but Spirit remained active until 2010 and Opportunity until June this year. Actually they are still trying to contact Opportunity, hoping it survived the huge dust storm that raged on Mars this year. Check this update for the latest info.

Here is an artist impression of the Opportunity rover. Compared with the Sojourner this is a big boy..:-) , 2.3 x 1.6 x 1.5 m, mass 180 kg. Until the loss of signal on Sol 5111 (June 10, 2018) it had traveled 45.16 km.

Four years later, in 2008, the Phoenix landed on Mars, for the first time a landing in the polar region. It confirmed the existence of water ice on Mars. Here is an artist impression of the Phoenix landing. Mass about 350 kg

In 2012 the Mars Science Laboratory (MSL) mission landed a rover on Mars, the Curiosity, which is still active at the moment. Dimensions 2.9 x 2.7 x 2.2 m. mass 900 kg.

This photo shows the difference in size. In the foreground the Sojourner, left the Opportunity and right the Curiosity.

The last successful landing took place two weeks ago, 26 November 2018, when the InSight lander touched the surface of Mars. Diameter of the lander 1.5 m (without its solar panels), mass 360 kg.

Main mission is to get more information about the interior of the planet. A seismometer will record “marsquakes” and a “drill”¬† designed to burrow as deep as 5 m, will measure the heat flow from the interior. Here is an artist impression of the lander with the solar panels deployed. Foreground left the seismometer, right the drill.

Here is a map of Mars with the location of the eight successful landings.

More than half of all missions failed, for example the Beagle 2 in 2003 and the Schiaparelli in 2016.  For a full report , see the Wikipedia article Mars Landing.

Why is landing on Mars so difficult and risky?

Let us look in more detail at what is called the Entry, Descent and Landing (EDL) phase of a  Mars mission. This phase starts when the spacecraft enters the atmosphere of Mars and ends about 6-7 minutes later, when it lands on the surface.

For the MSL (Curiosity) mission in 2012, NASA created a fascinating YouTube video: 7 Minutes of Terror, in which scientists and engineers explain how many things can go wrong in this phase, while they can only watch helplessly. Watch the video, it takes only 5 minutes and gives a better explanation than I can provide here…:-)

But let me try. I will concentrate on the Curiosity lander because until now it is by far the most complicated mission of all.

The atmosphere of Mars is very thin, but the spacecraft enters with a high velocity of about 20.000 km/h and would be destroyed if it was not protected by a heat shield. Here is an artist impression of the so-called aeroshell in which the Curiosity (and all other landers) is safely stowed away. It consists of a backshell and a heat shield.

Here is the aeroshell in the assembly hall. The diameter is 4.5 m. You can see the Curiosity inside the backshell. On top of the backshell is the cruise stage which controls the spacecraft during the cruise from Earth to Mars.

An exploded view of the aeroshell. From left to right the cruise stage, the backshell, the descent stage, the Curiosity rover and the heat shield.

All Mars landing missions have three parts, two of which are basically the same: 1. slowing down by atmospheric friction and  2. further speed reduction by a parachute. You need one more step, because the Martian atmosphere is so thin that a parachute can not reduce the speed to (almost) zero at ground level. One way or another, you need (retro) rocket power for the last part

When the spacecraft is a lander, the “easiest” way is to provide it with retro-rockets. After the lander detaches from the backshell, it will unfold its legs and use its rockets to land. See the picture above of the Phoenix. The InSight used the same solution. Here is a picture of the InSight landing.

Rovers have to move around, so it doesn’t make sense to burden them¬† with the extra weight of these rockets. That’s why for the Pathfinder, Spirit and Opportunity another solution was developed. Put the retro-rockets in the backshell, lower the rover on a tether connected to the backshell,¬† protect it with airbags(!), use the rockets until almost zero speed, then drop the rover. Here is a collage of what it would look like for a Martian observer. Left, the airbags are already inflated, the rover is still hanging under the backshell, which is retro-firing. Middle, the rover has touched the surface but is still bouncing many times, before it comes to rest (right). Then the airbags will deflate and the rover is ready for action. Here is an animation of the landing of the Spirit rover.

The Curiosity is too heavy and voluminous for this airbag technique, so a spectacular new (and expensive) solution was developed. A sky crane!

Here is¬† a schematic view of the EDL process for the Curiosity. The first phase, atmospheric braking, looks normal, but there is a difference. Before the aeroshell enters the atmosphere at an altitude of 125 km, with a velocity of 20.000 km/h,¬† some mass is ejected one sided (“Cruise Balance Device Separation”). The resulting “unbalance” has as effect that the aeroshell will not move ballistically (like a projectile) but can be “steered” a bit through the atmosphere. The Martian atmosphere has turbulence,¬† storms, pressure differences etc, affecting the trajectory of the aeroshell, resulting in a considerable uncertainty in the final landing location.¬† The “hypersonic aero-maneuvering” reduces this uncertainty, important for Curiosity which had to land close to the rim of¬† the Gale crater.

At an altitude of 10 km from the ground, when the velocity is about 1500 km/h, a huge parachute (diameter 17 m!) is deployed, slowing down the aeroshell further. The heat shield is ejected 20 seconds later. From that moment,¬† using radar, the exact altitude can be measured, and the precise time when the descent stage & rover have to detach from the backshell. The descent stage starts firing the retro-rockets, first to move horizontally away from the backshell and the parachute. Meanwhile the rover is lowered 7.5 m¬† on cables, it deploys its wheels, while still connected through an “umbilical cord with the descent stage. Here is an artist impression.

                                                                                                                                             As soon as the rover touches the ground, the connecting cables are cut and the descent stage will fly up and away, to crash a few hundred meters from the rover

Curiosity has landed!¬†¬† ¬† ¬† ¬† ¬† ¬† ¬† ¬† ¬† ¬† ¬† ¬† ¬† ¬† ¬† ¬† ¬† ¬† ¬† ¬† ¬† ¬† ¬† ¬† ¬† ¬† ¬† ¬† ¬† ¬† ¬† ¬† ¬† ¬† ¬† ¬† ¬† ¬† ¬† ¬† ¬† ¬† ¬† ¬† ¬† ¬† ¬† ¬† ¬† ¬† ¬† ¬† ¬† ¬† ¬† ¬† ¬† ¬† ¬† ¬† ¬† ¬† ¬† ¬† ¬† ¬† ¬† ¬† ¬† ¬† ¬† ¬† ¬† ¬† ¬† ¬† ¬† ¬† ¬† ¬† ¬† ¬† ¬† ¬† ¬† ¬† ¬† ¬† ¬† ¬† ¬† ¬† ¬† ¬† ¬† ¬† ¬† ¬† ¬† ¬† ¬† ¬† ¬† ¬† ¬† ¬† ¬† ¬† ¬† ¬† ¬† ¬† ¬† ¬† ¬† ¬† ¬† ¬† ¬† ¬† ¬† ¬† ¬† All this¬† (and numerous details I have skipped) must happen¬† in less than 7 minutes. Seven minutes of terror, because everything is automatic. If something goes wrong, nobody can do anything. Besides, the radio signals back to Earth take about 14 minutes, so, when Mission Control gets the message that the spacecraft has entered the atmosphere, it has actually already landed (or crashed….)¬†Here is an animation of the Curiosity landing. Spectacular.

Compared with the Curiosity mission, the landing of InSight was a lot simpler, basically the same as the Phoenix in 2008. The mission of InSight is to study the interior of Mars, the precise landing location is less important, as long as the surface is flat. Therefore no “guided entry” through the atmosphere was needed. The InSight is also much lighter (360 kg)¬† than the Curiosity (900 kg), so it was decided to provide the lander itself with rockets.

Although the EDL phase for the InSight was 6 minutes,¬† the catchy description “7 Minutes of Terror” was again used in the media¬† for this mission…:-) The BBC:¬† ¬†¬†Nasa’s Mars InSight mission heads for ‘7 minutes of terror’

Of course it is still a major technological achievement! NASA published a very good explanation of InSight’s EDL phase:¬† InSight landing on Mars .

Here are three pictures taken by the InSight. The lander has two cameras, the Instrument Context Camera is a fisheye camera, mounted underneath the lander deck. In the first picture (left), taken a few minutes after landing, the lens is still protected by a transparent cover, because of the dust whirled up by the rockets. In the right picture the cover has been removed. and as you can see, still a lot of dust has managed to crawl under the cover and stick to the lens. Unfortunate, although the images will still be usable.

The second camera is mounted on a robotic arm, Here is a superb picture taken by this camera. The scientist are very happy with the sandy, rock-free location. The reddish box is the seismometer which later will be deployed after the best location has been determined.

The latest news about the InSight mission can be found here