Category Archives: space

The Modern Space Race

The Institute of Engineering and Technology’s monthly magazine always has plenty of tech articles and this month is no exception with a look at the different approaches to space flight being adopted by the US and Russia in Gateway to the Stars.

In the US, privateers are pushing forwards with the new Spaceport America in New Mexico, while the Russians continue with the Soviet-era Baikonur Cosmodrome. The pictures of the new spaceport under construction and Virgin Galactic craft contrast sharply with the utility of Baikonur. Obviously the sites are aiming at different markets, one consumer-led into sub-oribital flight, the other for ballistic launches, typically satellites and cargo runs to the ISS.

Picture courtesy of Virgin Galactic. The new spaceport terminal is the building under construction in the foreground.

The article also has some great trivia. Did you know that the nearest settlement to Spaceport America is called “Truth or Consequences” or that Baikonur Cosmodrome is actually 300 km from Baykonur so as to mislead the West? Or that the launch countdown to zero can be credited to Fritz Lang’s 1929 film “The Woman in the Moon”?

Great ISS and Meteor Video

One of my favorite web sites, Universe Today, has linked up a video that really captured my imagination.  The video, captured by Bryan Stewart and posted to Vimeo, shows the International Space Station (ISS) passing overhead during the recent Perseid Meteor Shower.

The video is 1:06 in length and was filmed in Texas at 6:25am on August 10, 2011.  In addition to some great videography, it also features a soundtrack that is Carl Sagan set to music.  What more could you ask for?!

If you have never seen the ISS pass over, it’s a steady, non-blinking white light that moves fairly quickly across the sky.  Not meteor-fast, but you will only have 1-2 minutes of viewing time to follow it from one horizon to the other.

If you want to find out if/when it will be viewable in your area, I recommend the Heaven’s Above website.  You will to need to enter the coordinates of your location, but once you have it set up you can bookmark it with your coordinates and you will not need to ever enter them again.  In addition to the ISS, it also gives information on such passes as Iridium Satellites.

The video is posted below.  Enjoy.

ISS pass with perseid meteor from Bryan Stewart on Vimeo.

The Real Cost of SETI

I found an interesting info-graphic today while browsing one of my favorite science blogs – Bad Astronomy, run by astronomer, author, and debunker of woo, Phil Plait.  As everyone has probably heard, SETI, the “search for extraterrestrial intelligence” is being shut down.  The issue was budget-related.  To be fair, Phil got this from the Microcosmologist blog.  A portion of the image is shown below, but you really need to click it and view the whole thing for full effect.

seti info-graphic

The cost of SETI operations is $2.5 million per year, or the cost of 5 Tomahawk missile.  And, from that starting point, costs just spiral out of control.  I ask you all, if you believe in this program, then read what both links I provided have to say.

Check out the info-graphic that displays what we spend elsewhere.  Sure, things like national-defense are necessary.  But, when $1 from every Starbucks customer could fund such great science for years, is that really too much to ask?  When a single bank executive could fund SETI with walking-around money, is that too much to ask?  Google could fund this project without even missing the money.  Hint to any Google execs who read this blog…

Are we alone?  It seems unlikely in a universe so vast.  Can we find ET?  Again, in a universe so vast…  But, without SETI, then one of our best chances will disappear.  And that, I think, is a real shame.  Perhaps SETI needs to sign up for KickStarter….


Yuri Gagarin 50th Anniversary Links

Image credit: NASA

To conclude our short series of posts on Yuri Gagarin’s first orbit of the Earth in Vostok 1 fifty years’ ago, I thought I might put together a few of the best links that I’ve found on the web for those who want to know more about Yuri and his historic flight.

  1. Yuri Gagarin’s Wikipedia Entry
  2. – A comprehensive site dedicated to the 50th Anniversary of Yuri Gagarin’s Flight Into Space
  3. BBC Gagarin 50 Years On – The BBC’s micro-site about Gagarin and space flight.
  4. Sky at Night magazine – I’m afraid you’ll have to find a bookstore or newsagents and buy this one.
  5. NASA – Yuri Gagarin – NASA’s celebration of Yuri.
  6. RIA Novosti’s Gagarin Coverage – Russia’s state-owned newsgency’s take on Yury and the celebrations.
  7. RIA Novosti’s Image Library – Do an advanced search for Gagarin and put in dates from 1960 to 1965.
  8. Astronautix – This is a fascinating site. Once you’ve finished with Gagarin, have a browse round some of the other articles.
  9. Gagarin Cosmonaut Training Centre – Bit difficult to navigate around and translated from Russian but some interesting stuff and photos.
  10. Yuri Gagarin Flight Video on YouTube – Just turn the sound down.
  11. Vostok 1 Mission on YouTube
  12. Propaganda Booklet
  13. Starman: The Truth Behind the Legend of Yuri Gagarin – Generally considered to be the best biography – available from good bookstores everywhere.

Did I miss any? Let me know in the comments.

Starman: The Truth Behind the Legend of Yuri Gagarin

First Orbit

Continuing the celebration of Yuri Gagarin’s orbit of the Earth in Vostok 1 back in 1961, First Orbit is a documentary film that joins archive footage of the event with modern shots taken from the International Space Station (ISS). The filmmaker, Christopher Riley, collaborated with the European Space Agency to see if it would be possible to film the same view across the planet that Gagarin saw out of the window of his tiny spacecraft. As you might guess, it was possible, and by filming at particular time on a particular orbit, astronaut Paolo Nespoli captured a re-creation of that historic flight.

The film unfolds in real-time and includes Gagarin’s original communications with ground control, call sign Dawn. Fortunately there are English subtitles if your Russian is a bit rusty. There’s a stirring soundtrack by Philip Sheppard and it’s really quite mesmerising to watch. You almost forget that it happened 50 years ago and the real-time nature of it makes it feel that it’s unfolding as you watch.

The film is available on YouTube (below) but you can also freely download it in a variety of sizes. I’d recommend downloading the 1.9 GB hi-def version, and putting on the big TV. Set aside 108 minutes and become Yuri.

Thanks Yuri and I’m Sorry We Let You Down

As you’ll know from all the coverage, yesterday was the 50th anniversary of Yuri Gagarin’s historic first orbit of the Earth by a human. Back in 1961 at the height of the Cold War, it was a demonstration of superiority by one superpower over another rather than any altruistic motive that sent him into space.

Regardless of how it was viewed then or now, I can’t help but feel we’ve let Yuri down. In the fifty years since then, human exploration has travelled no further than the moon and that was done in the immediate decades after his orbit. There’s no doubt that we extensively use space-based satellites for telecommunications, GPS and a myriad of other functions. And yes, the International Space Station is a remarkable achievement. But we haven’t really gone anywhere.

Let’s look at this another way. In December 1903, the Wright brothers made the first human flight. By the 1930s, there were commercial transatlantic flights and jet airliners took over the route in 1958.  So in approximately 50 years, flight went from 850 feet in 1 minute to thousands of miles at hundreds of miles per hour.

The comparison with space travel doesn’t look so good.

I understand well the arguments between human and machine space travel. The latter does give better bang-for-buck and machines can go places that we could not. But has the “PlayStation generation” become so ingrained in our psyche that we have to travel by remote control? Is there still no imperative “to boldly go”?

George Mallory, the mountaineer was asked why he wanted to climb Mount Everest. “Because it’s there” was his reply. His journey wasn’t about the accumulation of scientific knowledge, it was about personal conquest and fighting against the odds. And it ultimately cost Mallory his life.

Physics fights against us. We like our explorers to come back and tourists want a return ticket, but this makes exploration twice as hard as the round trip isn’t always easy to achieve. But I bet you that if NASA offered one way tickets to Mars, there would be no shortage of volunteers.

I’m sure Yuri Gagarin would be disappointed with how little we have achieved now and how little we expect to achieve in the coming years for human space exploration. Regrettably we can’t ask him as he died in 1968 before we reached the moon. Yuri, thanks for freeing us from Earth back in 1961 and I’m sorry we let you down.

Astra Satellite 3B

Ariane Rocket on LaunchpadThis is Real Art was commissioned in 2009 by the satellite operator SES- Astra to document the build of a new bird, the Astra 3B, at their factory in France and its subsequent launch.  Collaborating with photographer Simon Norfolk, they’ve produced a stunning series of photographs, a brochure and seven documentaries that show the commerical side of space.

If you want to go on the same journey as they did in producing the material, the best way is to follow their blog articles to the finished products.

Rocket Science (initial announcement)
Factory Visit
More Factory Visit (best photos are here)
Astra Documentary Films
Astra Brochure
Documentary Films  

Those of us in the UK of a certain age will no doubt recognise the film narrator Johnny Ball, who presented the science television programmes on the BBC when we were younger.

Astra Satellite Dishes

Satellite Testing


Photos copyright SES Astra, This Is Real Art & Simon Norfolk.

To Sail Beyond The Sunset

The Japanese space agency JAXA successfully unfurled the solar sail on the IKAROS demonstrator back on 10 June and now they have the photos to prove it.

Taken by a tiny camera module launched from IKAROS, the photo was transferred from the camera module to the probe and then on back to earth.

For those not up on what’s going on here, the concept is that a spacecraft can be accelerated slowly by the pressure of photons (light) hitting a solar sail.  The idea’s been around for years but no-one’s really been able to test it out.

Amazingly the sail is not kept rigid by booms or struts but rather by the centripetal forces created by tiny masses on the edges of the sail as the craft rotates.  JAXA is also going to see if the spacecraft can be steered by adjusting the angle of the sail relative to the sun.  There’s a video  of the sail technology here.  It’s in Japanese but you’ll get the gist.

In earth orbit, satellites can use the concept to reduce their fuel costs maintaining orbit.  In theory, spacecraft could travel between solar systems, using the sail to accelerate away from one and on arrival, decelerate using the same technique.  Obviously, to achieve any significant acceleration, you’re going to need a really big sail.

It’s science-fiction made real!

Oxygen-Free Animals Discovered

The BBC reports that the a team of scientists from Marche Polytechnic University in Ancona, Italy have found three new species of tiny creatures living over 2 miles down in the Mediterranean Sea.  It’s so deep and dark there’s almost no oxygen whatsoever and although only 1mm in size, this is the first time that anything other than bacteria have been found in such places.

Although it wasn’t possible to bring the creatures to the surface alive, eggs from them have been successfully hatched in an oxygen-free environment.  The leader of the team admits that it’s a complete mystery as to how these creatures survive and more research will be needed.  It’s likely that there’s some kind of animal-microbe relationship but it’s otherwise unclear.

I find this story interesting on two levels.  The first is that we’re still making discoveries about the world around us simply by looking.  For sure this was far down in the ocean but it’s not really far down – the Marianas trench is about 7 miles deep.  Secondly, the implications for different forms of life on both this planet and others is significant, given that multi-cellular life without oxygen now appears to be possible.

Every day’s a new adventure…