Category Archives: Space Exploration

PicSat Takes a Train to Orbit

Artist's conception of PicSat nanosatellite in Earth orbit
Artist’s conception of PicSat in orbit. Image courtesy PicSat.

A couple of days ago, PicSat rocketed into orbit on a mission that will last about a year, thus neatly spanning this new year 2018.

The mission will be to observe the transit of a gas giant exoplanet, Beta Pictoris b, as it passes between us and its sun.  The planet is new in at least two senses:  it was discovered in 2009, orbiting a star just 63 light-years from Earth, and it’s believed to have been formed quite recently.  In fact, its orbit is actually inside the cloud of dust and debris left over from the birth of the planet.

What makes this satellite special is its minuscule size and mass:  PicSat isn’t much larger than a baguette. This comparison is particularly apt, because PicSat was designed and assembled in Paris.  Here it is leaving Paris via the Gare du Nord, the Parisian train station dedicated to generally northbound departures.

Outside the station—taking the train to orbit!rain
Photo courtesy PicSat

If you’re wondering where in the picture the satellite is, it’s in that picnic cooler-size container being carried by PicSat team members Sylvestre Lacour and Maturin Grénot.

PicSat’s train ride to Holland was powered by an electric locomotive, by the way; electric locomotives were first introduced about a hundred and ten years ago—a nice illustration of the old and the new coexisting side by side.

PicSat’s size, mass, and a few other properties were  set by the CubeSat nanosatellite specifications which allow smaller packages to piggyback on launches of other, more complex and expensive payloads so long as they pose little or no risk of jeopardizing the host vehicle.  As an example of this philosophy, once in orbit the host vehicle deploys CubeSat packages by means of a simple spring launcher—like a child’s toy.  In a way, that’s precisely what they are:  CubeSat specifications were originally developed to enable graduate students to design and build their own satellites.

In railroad terms, this corresponds to a less-than-carload (“LCL”) shipment; while most people don’t know it, it’s still possible to ship small parcels in the baggage car on Amtrak trains today.

Here’s PicSat, proudly posing in front of four of its creators:

PicSat nanosatellite standing on table in front of four of the experiemnters who built it.
Photo courtesy PicSat

From left to right, these experimenters are Vincent Lapeyrere, Antoine Crouzier, Mathias Nowak, and Lester David.  Who says science can’t be fun? To learn more about the PicSat project, or help receive telemetered data from the satellite, visit  Continue reading PicSat Takes a Train to Orbit


Artist’s impression of 1I/2017 U1 (`Oumuamua)-image credit ESO/M. Kornmesser

It so happens that I titled my previous blog post. “Rendezvous with Routine.”  Science fiction readers will catch the reference to Arthur C. Clarke’s seminal Rendezvous with Rama, a novel about an enormous, cylindrical alien habitat that happens to pass through our solar system in transit from some unknown-to-us location to another unfathomable location.

Now real-life astronomers are preparing to publish a paper about their discovery of an actual visitor passing through our solar system.  It’s a strangely elongated asteroid evocative of the shape of Rama. Just weeks ago it passed closer to our Sun than we are here on Earth. Though not artificial, but it’s nonetheless historic: the first object known to humankind to have entered our solar system from outside and to become available for our study.

The interstellar asteroid’s new name, ‘Oumuamua, means “a messenger from afar arriving first” in Hawaiian.

The detailed European Space Observatory press release can be found here.

Rendezvous with Routine

This week another one of Orbital ATK’s unmanned (self-driving?) International Space Station resupply rockets lifted off from NASA’s Wallops Flight Facility, VA. Perhaps the most remarkable aspect of the launch is that it was so unremarked: it received a paucity of media attention that would have astounded anyone from the age of Gemini and Apollo.

The payload includes the Cygnus spacecraft and 7,400 pounds of spare parts, scientific equipment, and food. No word as to whether the menu includes Space Food Sticks, Tang, or Purina Astronaut Chow. (Maybe we’ll know that space travel is finally here to stay when someone publishes the first Orbital Cookbook. )

It seems to be in the nature of humankind’s most impressive achievements to drift down from the lofty perches they first occupy to end up, eventually, floating around in the back of the family station wagon—or space station.

The Human Condition

“The total amount of energy from outside the solar system ever received by all the radio telescopes on the planet Earth is less than the energy of a single snowflake striking the ground.”
― Carl SaganCosmos
Isn’t this the human condition:  we all have our antennae out, listening for all we’re worth—literally—for a signal that will reassure us that we’re not alone in the infinite night.

Dust to Dust

“The reappearance of the crescent moon after the new moon; the return of the Sun after a total eclipse, the rising of the Sun in the morning after its troublesome absence at night were noted by people around the world; these phenomena spoke to our ancestors of the possibility of surviving death. Up there in the skies was also a metaphor of immortality.”
― Carl Sagan, Cosmos


My science fiction and fantasy tends to have theological or spiritual angles, and this post is no different.

But first, meet SOFIA:

photo credit Alexander Golz

This is the Stratospheric Observatory for Infrared Astronomy—a retired jetliner modified to carry an astronomical telescope.  Originally built to service what the airline industry calls “long, thin routes”—ultra-long-range segments that attract relatively few passengers per week, the airplane is a specially shortened version of the ubiquitous Boeing 747.  It was built for Pan Am and christened Clipper Lindbergh by none other than Anne Lindbergh on the 50th anniversary of Charles Lindbergh’s takeoff, destination Paris.

After service with Pan Am and United Airlines, the future airborne observatory was retired to a desert boneyard to await her date with the scrapper’s torch—but fate intervened.  In 2008, after restoration, modification, and the installation of a German-designed and -built infrared telescope, the reborn aircraft was again christened Clipper Lindbergh on the 80th anniversary of Charles Lindbergh’s arrival in Paris, this time by Erik Lindbergh.

SOFIA is jointly funded by NASA and DLR, Germany’s national aeronautical and space research agency.

photo credit NASA/Jim Ross

Here you can see SOFIA in flight with the telescope port fully open.

The reason for lofting the telescope to the base of the stratosphere is that water vapor strongly absorbs the infrared frequencies of greatest interest to astronomers, and by flying at 39,000-45,000 feet above sea level the observatory eliminates 99% of the atmospheric water vapor between the telescope and the celestial objects under study.

At the center of most, perhaps all, galaxies there is a supergiant black hole.  Some are quiescent and some are quite active, and observations recently made by SOFIA enabled astronomers for the first time to calculate the median size of the dust particles being drawn into the active black holes; it turns out that they’re about the size of sand grains.

But where do these dust particles come from?  Most of the universe consists of hydrogen and helium, not the more complex atoms that fill out the periodic table and make life interesting—and possible.  It’s now generally known that the complex atoms are thrown, like grains of rice at a celestial wedding, across the galaxies by novas and supernovas.

photo credit NASA/SOFIA/FLITECAM team/S. Shenoy

Here’s SOFIA’s “before and after” portrait of supernova 2014J, the 10th supernova discovered in 2014, nestled in its galaxy.

At one time supernovas were believed to be simply more dramatic novas, but the more recent understanding is that they result from very different processes; in fact, they’re quite distinct.

Their gifts to the universe are, likewise, quite distinct.  Supernovas provide us with the heavier elements that are the building blocks of the cores of rocky planets—and a single supernova can produce enough dust to form 7,000 Earths.  Novas, by contrast, provide us with the middleweight atoms—the ones that are essential to all life as we know it.

photo credit NASA/CXO/Lau et al

Belief systems the world over are fond of telling us of one deity or another dying that we may live and be redeemed.  We now know they’re almost right about this after all:  let us reflect that stars died that we might live and that we might have a world on which to live . . . and that, in a very real sense, we and our Earth are, indeed, heavenly.

Pets From Space

Pets in Space!  Science fiction—so far.  Someday. . . .

But how about pets FROM space?  Not fiction, but historical fact.

In August, 1960, two dogs, Belka and Strelka, were launched into space aboard the Soviet spacecraft Sputnik 5.  They were the first animals to successfully orbit the Earth and survive their adventures.  They did more than merely survive:  Strelka (the name translates to “Little Arrow”) later gave birth to five puppies.

The successful space flight of Belka and Strelka did more than enable Strelka to start a family; the two dogs also served as tangible—indeed, pettable—evidence of Soviet superiority in developing space technology.  In fact, it was the event that motivated President John F. Kennedy to commit to sending human beings to the Earth’s Moon by the end of the decade.  (Kennedy made his announcement on the Rice University campus, my alma mater and just a few blocks from where I am right now.)

At a state dinner in Vienna, early in June, 1961, Jackie Kennedy, seated next to Nikita Khrushchev and at a loss for innocuous dinner-table subjects, thought to ask about Strelka and her puppies.  Some time later, a mysterious package arrived at the White House.  Inside was one of the litter—a puppy, Pushinka.

Pushinka was cute and fluffy, but that only made sense:  the name Pushinka actually translates to “Fluffy.”

In October 1962 the world held its breath as what became known as the Cuban Missile Crisis unfolded.  Nuclear war was averted, and the personal relationship between JFK and Nikita Khrushchev is often credited with making this possible.  Perhaps, too, the world’s first Pet FROM Space had a paw in this.

We’ll never know, but we can wonder.

In this photo, Pushinka in the middle is flanked by parents Strelka (left) and Pushok (right).

Pushinka thrived in White House care and eventually gave birth to her own litter, which JFK referred to as “pupniks.”