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.

Connecting comets and rubber - Out of Space

Jun 11, 2019

Comet Grigg-Skjellerup was one of the first such celestial bodies to be visited by a spacecraft, the Giotto probe which was sent on to encounter it in mid-1992 after having first visited the famous Comet Halley in 1986. Comet Grigg-Skjellerup was discovered about a century ago, independently by a New Zealander (John Grigg) and an Australian (Frank Skjellerup). The younger brother of the latter (George Skellerup) moved to New Zealand in 1902, and established the iconic NZ rubber company.  It being my birthday, I thought that the occasion should be marked with a blog post. But about what? My quandary was solved when my partner Jan presented me with a splendid pair of gumboots. And here they are:   Now, perhaps (like the BBC) the Science Media Centre might eschew any advertising, but it happens that … Read More

The problem of knowing when a lunar year begins and ends - Out of Space

Jun 05, 2019

The Islamic fast of Ramadan has come to an end, marking the beginning of the tenth month of the religion’s twelve-lunation year and therefore Eid al-Fidr, the ‘Festival of Breaking the Fast’. How the decision is made when each of those months begins and ends depends upon the actual sighting of the crescent new moon in the sky, a highly-complicated matter that is briefly explained here.  Most of us are habituated to the use of a calendar based on how long it takes the Earth to orbit the Sun (for present purposes, a ‘solar year’), and it is such a system that is used as the global standard in all but a few places (such as North Korea) for ease of international communications. Very often people refer to this as the ‘Gregorian calendar’, but it is not. It seems self-evident … Read More

The 250th anniversary of Cook’s observation of the transit of Venus - Out of Space

Jun 02, 2019

On June 3rd occurs the 250th anniversary of the transit of Venus across the face of the Sun, the observation of which was the prime purpose behind the expedition of HM Bark Endeavour to the South Pacific, under the command of Lieutenant James Cook. Following the measurements of the transit made by Cook and the mission’s scientists in Tahiti, the Endeavour sailed west, leading to the claiming of New Zealand and then eastern Australia by the British.  It happens that I have a particular – some would say peculiar – interest in calendars. This manifests itself in various ways, one of which is finding an excuse to have a celebratory drink on just about any day of the year. Last week I wrote about why 29th May is a special date, last Wednesday having been the centenary of … Read More

The Great Eclipse of 1919 - Out of Space

May 29, 2019

Measurements of photographs obtained during the total solar eclipse of 29th May 1919 were pivotal in demonstrating the veracity of Einstein’s General Theory of Relativity, turning him into a household name. The centenary of that event is now upon us, and well worthy of being remembered.  As I sit here typing on my keyboard, my favourite photo showing myself and my two sons aged 6 and 4 is beside me on the desk. I can tell you precisely where the photograph was taken: we were fossicking for crabs and shrimps in rockpools at St Michael’s Mount in Cornwall, England. I can also tell you the precise date: it was the tenth of August, 1999 – almost two decades ago. The reason I can recall the date so easily is that the times of total solar eclipses are well-remembered by all … Read More

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