Duncan Steel

Duncan Steel is based in Nelson but works for the Xerra Earth Observation Institute with its HQ in Alexandra. He has worked in space research for almost forty years, with times spent with NASA, ESA, various universities and observatories, and also running his own company. Duncan is the author of four books, over a hundred research papers, and more than a thousand articles for newspapers and magazines. He has also appeared in hundreds of radio and TV programmes. Minor planet/ asteroid (4713) Steel is named for him, as is a lunar-roving robot in one of Arthur C. Clarke's SciFi novels.

Earth’s artificial rings - Out of Space

Nov 20, 2019

Satellites pass over NZ all the time (literally). Here I focus on the 187 Planet Labs ‘Dove’ Earth-imaging satellites, and I show that one can determine in advance where they will be, enabling scientists on the ground to correlate their environmental and other data collection with opportunities to get imaging from space. That is, we can get ‘space-truth’ (rather than ground-truth) for the various types of scientific  investigation underway in the wonderful natural laboratory known as Aotearoa/New Zealand.  When you work in a certain area of science and technology, generally you soon become rather blasé with regard to the reality of what your discipline entails. Familiarity breeds contempt, so the saying goes. This was brought home to me over the past month or so, when I was giving two talks in Auckland to two quite different groups of people. All … Read More

How NZ was put on world maps using a transit of Mercury - Out of Space

Nov 10, 2019

There will be a transit of Mercury – the planet Mercury will pass across the face of the Sun – taking place at sunrise in New Zealand on Tuesday, 12th November. It was by observing such an event 250 years ago that James Cook and his scientist colleagues were able to determine the longitude of NZ, and so put these islands in their proper place on the global map.  Notwithstanding the fact that Polynesians had been in Aotearoa for about half a millennium before the arrival of HMS Endeavour (or HM Bark Endeavour) in these islands in October 1769, the mechanism whereby what was to become New Zealand was placed on maps of the world is often misunderstood. It was by observing the transit of Mercury across the face of the Sun on 9 November 1769 (from what … Read More

India a major player in Earth observation satellites - Out of Space

Oct 15, 2019

While many imagine that countries like the USA and Europe dominate space activities, in fact India is now a major player on this stage. It launches satellites for its own purposes and also commercially, and has constellations orbiting our planet and returning data of vital importance to that nation in many ways.  Yesterday I was really pleased to give a short presentation at the annual Summit of the India New Zealand Business Council, in Auckland. The poster for the Summit, as below, shows something important: that agriculture and technological progress are linked with our activities in space (note the rocket launch). In the present-day space game, India is a major player. Many prominent Indian and New Zealand dignitaries were present, including MPs and the Leader of the Opposition, Simon Bridges, gave a pictorial account of a recent … Read More

Night lights of NZ from orbit - Out of Space

Oct 10, 2019

New Zealand has prided itself for decades with regard to its lack of pollution, and all will be aware that the ‘100% Pure New Zealand‘ meme is under threat through land, water and air pollution of various causes. There is another type of contamination that the country also faces: light pollution. Astronomers are concerned that the dark skies of NZ, speckled with myriad stars and a fine view of the Milky Way, might be a thing that future generations will no longer be able to experience and enjoy.  Let me begin by admitting that the image in the header above is not of New Zealand; it did, however, prompt this blog post. The photograph is of the Iberian Peninsula (Spain and Portugal) at night, taken by an astronaut on board the International Space Station. The European Space Agency … Read More

Google Doodle for Bill Robinson’s birthday - Out of Space

Oct 02, 2019

The Google Doodle today (at least in New Zealand and Australia) commemorates the birth in 1938 of Bill Robinson, the kiwi scientist who invented the rubber ‘shock absorbers’ that provide some seismic insulation for large buildings, notably under Te Papa in Wellington.  Sometimes a Google Doodle (the cartoon seen when one opens the Google search page) leaves one befuddled as to what it’s all about, but today’s subject seemed obvious to me. That doodle is shown in the header to this blog post… Clearly it is concerned with the stiff rubber shock absorbers (for want of a better term) used under large buildings in order to minimise the risk of earthquake damage. If you click on that particular doodle, you will be taken to the following selection of web links, telling you that this doodle celebrates the work … Read More

Crowded on the Space Station - Out of Space

Oct 01, 2019

Currently there are nine astronauts in orbit, passing a bit more than 400 km above our heads several times a day. If you would like to watch the Space Station in New Zealand’s skies, there are several opportunities this next week, so long as you don’t mind getting up reasonably early, before sunrise.  Just at the moment it’s fairly crowded on the International Space Station, as the photo below indicates; and for a different photo of the nine smiling astronauts, see here. The nine astronauts/cosmonauts currently on board the International Space Station; three will return to Earth on Thursday. Photo courtesy NASA. The reason for the large complement now in orbit is that last week a Russian Soyuz rocket was sent aloft carrying three new crew, and for a week the number aboard is bolstered until … Read More

All Blacks take a bath in Beppu - Out of Space

Sep 28, 2019

The All Blacks are currently resting up in the Japanese spa town of Beppu, awaiting their next game. Like Rotorua and several other spa towns spread around the globe, Beppu has an impact crater on asteroid (951) Gaspra named for it.  Perusing the intellectual pages (i.e. the sports section) in The Press this morning whilst sipping coffee at Yaza! in Montgomery Square, the buzz of the Nelson Saturday Market ongoing outside, I noted the following headline:   Now, Beppu might not mean much to you (apart from being the town where the All Blacks are resting up and/or training prior to their match against Canada in Ōita on Wednesday night), but because I was born near the city of Bath in England I knew Beppu to be a spa town. That makes it a … Read More

Interstellar comet update - Out of Space

Sep 19, 2019

The discovery of a true interstellar comet – a comet passing through the solar system having arrived, presumably, after having been thrown out of some other planetary system orbiting another star – re-opens a long-debated question in science: is life unique to Earth, or is it common in the galaxy? The panspermia hypothesis holds that life is common in the universe, and has been spread from planetary system to planetary system through the agency of interstellar comets. That idea could hold little sway so long as we knew of no such objects, despite observing thousands of comets gravitationally bound to the Sun. Now, though, an interstellar comet has been found, and it will undergo intense scrutiny as it barrels through the solar system over the next twelve months.  Update, 2019 September 25: As I predicted, this interstellar comet … Read More

New interstellar comet discovered - Out of Space

Sep 13, 2019

Astronomers have searched over many decades for comets that have come from interstellar space, perhaps from a planetary system orbiting a nearby star in the Milky Way. A blank was drawn in this quest for a long, long time… and now, similarly to London buses, two have come along almost at once. The diagram at the head of this post shows the trajectory of the recently-discovered comet C/2019 Q4 (Borisov). Later I will explain how that label/name comes about (and why it will likely soon be altered), but first let me say why it is newsworthy and noteworthy. It’s moving too fast. That is, it’s moving too fast to be a member of the solar system, and it seems to be a transient visitor from interstellar space, cast out from its parent stellar/planetary system aeons ago (by which … Read More

How the Indian lunar lander was lost - Out of Space

Sep 09, 2019

The Indian lunar lander and the rover it was carrying appear to have been destroyed when they plummeted to the surface after contact with them was lost when about 2 km up and a few minutes from the planned soft touchdown. Here I examine what one can deduce about what happened, and when, from the TV coverage of the situation in the mission control centre.  Earlier today I posted an update to my blog concerning the space mission Chandrayaan-2 which had been sent to the Moon by the Indian Space Research Organisation. That mission has three component parts: an Orbiter, which is still working well, a lander named Vikram, and a small rover vehicle named Pragyan which was to be deployed once Vikram had landed safely. Unfortunately it seems that contact was lost with the lander when it was still more … Read More