Duncan Steel

Duncan Steel is a space scientist based in Nelson. He has worked in scientific research for over 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.

Southern Cross and Pointers Painted Large Across Christchurch - Out of Space

Dec 25, 2019

Using knowledge of when the Sentinel-1A radar satellite was due to pass over New Zealand, a team at Christ’s College laid out specially-constructed radar retroreflectors across Hagley Park in Christchurch, in that way painting the Southern Cross and the Pointers in a huge array clearly visible in the derived radar image of the city.  A special – but brief – post for Christmas Day (with more details to follow in a later post). The image in the header above shows the Southern Cross (Crux Australis) and the Pointers (Alpha and Beta Centauri) painted large across Hagley Park in Christchurch, by Dr Andrew Taylor and a team of students from Christ’s College. Here is a wider view of the centre of Christchurch: Now, this is actually a radar image collected by the European Sentinel-1A satellite as it passed over New … Read More

Kiwi exoworlds are named - Out of Space

Dec 20, 2019

The International Astronomical Union (IAU) this year invited nations to propose names for distant stars selected on the basis of having planets (exoplanets) discovered to be orbiting them. The New Zealand entries, now adopted officially by the IAU, are Karaka for the star, and Kererū for its associated exoplanet.  In a previous blog post I described how New Zealanders had been invited to propose names for a distant star, and the planet (exoplanet) that had been discovered to be in orbit around it. And now the results are in… The announcement from Dr Nicholas Rattenbury at the University of Auckland reads as follows: Alternatively, one can look at the official International Astronomical Union (IAU) website to find the following: One could say that this is a year late, in that the kererū was … Read More

Among my favourite asteroids: (2309) Mr. Spock - Out of Space

Nov 27, 2019

Minor planet/asteroid (2309) Mr. Spock is named not for the character in Star Trek, but for a cat that was itself imperturbable, logical, intelligent and had pointed ears.  In a preceding blog post I introduced one of my favourite asteroids, (2472) Bradman, and also mentioned (6581) Sobers amongst a few others. I did have something to do with the naming of (2472) Bradman; but for (2309) Mr. Spock I can admit to no involvement whatsoever. Here is the citation for Mr. Spock and, surprise, surprise, it is not titled directly for the character of that name in the TV and movie series Star Trek: Named for the ginger short-haired tabby cat (1967- ) who selected the discoverer and his soon-to-be wife at a cat show in California and accompanied them to Connecticut, South Africa and … Read More

Among my favourite asteroids: (2472) Bradman - Out of Space

Nov 25, 2019

There are many thousands of asteroids with formal names, some humdrum but other more noteworthy (depending on your predilections). One of my favourites, the name of which I was involved in suggesting, is (2472) Bradman, named for the Australian cricketing great. After discussing (2472) Bradman, I also make some comments about (6581) Sobers.  As a minor planet (synonym: asteroid) spotter, I have had the privilege of proposing names for a dozen such celestial objects for which I was the formal discoverer. These are most-conveniently found on my Wikipedia page, being named for my two sons (Harry and Elliot), their mother, two of my undergraduate-student-days lecturers who were particularly pivotal in affecting my career and providing inspiration, the town near Bath where I was born, my four siblings including elder sister Karen and youngest sister … Read More

JFK’s assassination: a bit of physics - Out of Space

Nov 22, 2019

There are perennial arguments about the circumstances of the assassination of President Kennedy in 1963, and in particular whether more than one shooter is required by the evidence (such as the Zapruder film). Those who know little about physics frequently claim that the sharp backwards motion of JFK’s head as the fatal shot hit him is proof that there must have been a gunman in front of the car carrying Kennedy. This is simply untrue. As I show here, the movement of the head is consistent with a bullet arriving from behind, from Oswald on the sixth floor of the Texas Book Depository in Dealey Plaza, Dallas. There is no need, in terms of the physics, for a second gunman.   It’s that time of year again. On 22nd November 1963 (it was already the 23rd in New Zealand) President … Read More

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