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.

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

Lunar landing by Indian space probe - Out of Space

Sep 06, 2019

All being well, the Indian space probe Chandrayaan-2 now in orbit around the Moon will drop its lander safely and softly onto the surface on Saturday morning. The lander (named Vikram) will then roll out its rover (Pragyan), which it is hoped will prowl around for the next two weeks before the cold of the lunar night closes it down. The parent orbiter should continue to function for the next year, mapping the lunar surface and making other measurements of the space environment.  Life-off for Chandrayaan-2 on July 22nd. Photo: ISRO. Following its launch on July 22nd (above), the Chandrayaan-2 mission (a follow-up to Chandrayaan-1, which flew to the Moon a decade ago) has been following a path that many would find peculiar. For a direct path to the Moon, a vast amount of energy is needed. Read More

An invitation to name a star and a planet - Out of Space

Sep 04, 2019

The International Astronomical Union (IAU) — the global organisation of professional astronomers — is marking its centenary this year by inviting different nations to propose names for both a distant star, and a planet found to orbit it (a so-called exoplanet). Anyone can suggested a moniker, for the star, for the planet, or both. So: calling all New Zealanders to suggest names suitable for ‘our’ celestial pair! Let me begin by saying that I will not be proposing names myself, as I’ve had the privilege already of labelling many minor planets (usually called asteroids, but the IAU prefers the ‘minor planet’ terminology). My sons (5263 Arrius and 6828 Elbsteel) are spoilt, as are my parents, siblings, and the little town where I was born, amongst others. It is not the done thing to suggest one of … Read More