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.

A new crater on the Moon - Out of Space

May 21, 2019

The scar on the lunar surface produced when the Israeli space probe ‘Beresheet’ slammed into the Moon on April 11 has just been spotted using an orbiting NASA satellite.  Three nations have so far landed spacecraft on the Moon: the USA, the Soviet Union/Russia, and China. A fourth nation, Israel, has attempted to join this club, but its probe (named Beresheet) made a hard rather than a soft landing six weeks ago. Now detailed images of the lunar surface obtained using NASA’s Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter (LRO) have been scoured and the crash site identified. Beresheet (Hebrew for ‘In the beginning’, the first words in the biblical Book of Genesis) was built and operated by Israel Aerospace Industries on behalf of SpaceIL, a non-profit organisation founded in 2011 with the specific aim of landing a probe on the Moon. The … Read More

Talking satellites and space in Washington - Out of Space

May 16, 2019

The annual beanfeast for the US satellite industry — featuring major participation from European nations and companies in particular — is the SATELLITE congress held at the Washington Convention Center, a few blocks from the White House. It was an amazing event to attend, compared to the sort of low-key conferences we have in New Zealand.  Now I’m back in NZ and almost recovered from the jetlag, a few pieces of information about the SATELLITE 2019 convention that I attended last week in Washington DC. Starting at the beginning, the keynote talk on the opening day was by the Vice-President, Mike Pence. I decided I could miss that, as he would not be saying anything not known already, and the security-check lines were long. Yes, the US will be proceeding with the development of a Space Force as a … Read More

Imagine an asteroid impact due in 2027: How would you tackle it?   - Out of Space

May 09, 2019

It’s now scientifically possible to predict potential asteroid impacts years in advance. But knowing that such a calamitous event is going to occur, due to the clockwork of the heavens, presents its own problems. Can we divert it, and if so, how? Similarly, if the impact is inevitable, can we model what is going to happen far ahead of time, and so plan better for this rude intrusion into global affairs?   In my preceding blog post I described the Planetary Defense [sic] Conference (PDC) that I was attending at the University of Maryland: a biennial meeting about the hazard posed to humankind by asteroids and comets, which we know strike the Earth from time to time with calamitous consequences. Just ask the dinosaurs. Smaller objects than the 10 km leviathan that saw off the ‘terrible lizards’ and … Read More

Defending the planet from asteroids - Out of Space

May 02, 2019

Astronauts, astronomers, planetary scientists, space researchers and aerospace engineers are meeting near Washington DC to discuss how we might deal with any asteroid found to be heading for a cataclysmic collision with Earth, perhaps causing a global catastrophe. That is, if it was actually found before it caught us unawares.  As I type this I am sat in a large, darkened room at the University of Maryland, just north of Washington DC. There are several hundred researchers here (and lots of press), listening in this session to talks about how an asteroid named Apophis is going to make a close fly-by of the Earth in 2029, on Friday April 13th. The world’s media are already full of articles about the prediction, for example here and here and here. Images of asteroid Apophis obtained using massive radar systems in … Read More

Orbit of the newly-launched R3D2 satellite - Out of Space

Apr 02, 2019

Last Friday Rocket Lab successfully launched another satellite from the Mahia Peninsula. In this post I describe the satellite’s orbital path, and how it will slowly vary in time over the next week.  Rocket Lab successfully launched another satellite into orbit from the Mahia Peninsula soon after midday last Friday (March 29th), a wonderful achievement. Well done to all who contributed. This satellite, with the appellation R3D2 (Radio-frequency Risk Reduction Deployment Demonstration, producing an acronym to delight fans of Star Wars), is a product of the U.S. Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, or DARPA. Information about the satellite is available here (DARPA website), and also on various independent websites, such as here, and here, and here. Many people will be interested in the intent of the satellite: to trial a new type … Read More

The NZ Aerospace Challenge - Out of Space

Mar 31, 2019

An open competition soon to start will provide a wonderful opportunity for smart people of any age in New Zealand to take on the challenge of how we might assess water and soil pollution using satellite and drone data. What they might choose to do in attacking such environmental problems is limited only by their imaginations, and technical capabilities. All are invited to climb aboard and put in an entry, with expert mentoring and access to various commercial datasets being made available to the up-to-twenty successful applications (by teams or individuals) chosen for the incubation period over the next six months.   Let me tell you about the New Zealand Aerospace Challenge. Better yet, let me direct you to the website that will give you all the details (though I will also use it as an excuse to show you … Read More

Happy New Year (and a missed Easter) - Out of Space

Mar 25, 2019

As I write it is March 25th, which was the date of New Year in Great Britain and its colonies until 1752. Indeed, throughout history it was a common date for the start of the civil year in a wide range of European states and principalities, being the traditional date of the vernal equinox, and so the beginning of the seasonal year. On top of that notable calendrical event, yesterday (March 24th) seems to have slipped by without people recognising that according to the mnemonic (Easter is the first Sunday after the first full moon after the vernal equinox) it should have been the date of Easter, if strict astronomy were followed. Here I explain why it was not (the date of Easter this year).  Being a bit of a tragic when it comes to calendars, I must … Read More

Does Earth have a natural prime meridian? - Out of Space

Mar 20, 2019

We are generally habituated to using the Greenwich meridian as the global standard for mapping and time-keeping, despite it being only 135 years since its adoption. As I show here, if the Catholic Church had adopted in 1582 a more-precise calendar in terms of year length then a natural prime meridian results, in a location that might appear surprising. My apologies for posting a new blog so soon after the previous one, but there’s something I need to communicate today. One could say that time is of the essence. Just how true those five words are will soon, I hope, become apparent as you read this piece. Why today? Well, today’s Google Doodle gives a clue:  Google being a US-based company, you’ll notice that it says ‘Fall Equinox 2019’. They mean ‘Autumn’ of course, but at … Read More

On the Shoulders of Giants? - Out of Space

Mar 16, 2019

Isaac Newton is often thought to be the inventor of the apparently self-deprecating phrase ‘If I have seen further it is by standing on the shoulders of giants’, but he was not: actually it had been in use for over 500 years before he repeated it in 1675. Of more significance is that Newton wrote it in a letter to one of his great scientific rivals… who may have been a hunchbacked dwarf.  Friday afternoons generally bring the welcomed arrival of an email from the Science Media Centre (although today – the dreaded Ides of March – also brought terrible news from Christchurch; thoughts with the victims, their friends and families). That email, containing the weekly ‘Science Deadline’ news in science and technology, generally contains some pithy quote. So here is what appeared in the latest issue … Read More

New Zealand from Space - Out of Space

Mar 11, 2019

The European Space Agency’s current Earth observation image of the week features New Zealand in all its glory. Let us take it as read that NZ is a beautiful, breathtaking country. Myriad artistic renditions and simple tourist snaps bear witness to that, but it is also truly an amazing sight when seen from high above, by satellites in orbit. Although Europe is half the world away, it’s clear that staff with the European Space Agency (ESA) agree, with NZ being made the subject of this week’s Earth observation image of the week featuring a composite panorama made from data collected by the Sentinel-3A satellite in August last year.     And here it is the complete image: New Zealand as it appeared on 2018 August 22 in imagery collected by the Sentinel-3A satellite passing about … Read More