Sunday, April 28, 2019

Ten ways to get involved in space without leaving Earth

Experiencing weightlessness, watching the Earth rise over the stark lunar landscape, and seeing the stars exposed without the veil of the Earth's atmosphere: who hasn't thought about what it would be like? At the moment, getting into space is the preserve of the elite, whether they are scientists, military, or those wealthy enough to purchase a rocket ride. Space is a just dream to most of the rest of us.

But this doesn't mean that we have to live as if our feet were made of clay, Earth-bound like a worm when what we really want to do is fly like a bird. There are many ways to be part of space without ever leaving the Earth. I'm going to take you through some of them.

1. Visit a planetarium

Planetariums are dome-shaped cinemas designed to show the night sky and other celestial phenomena. The idea has been around since the 17th century, but today's planetaria use the best of high-tech projection and software to create immersive experiences. For a short time, you can be taken out of yourself and visit the furthest reaches of the universe. Most capital cities have them, and some regional centres too. They're not all stars and galaxies: planetarium shows also look at space junk, space weather, and aliens (hoorah!) among many other spacey good things. Here's a list of some places you can find one:

Wollongong Science Centre and Planetarium (NSW)
Sir Thomas Brisbane Planetarium (Brisbane)
Adelaide Planetarium
Launceston Planetarium
Melbourne Planetarium
Swinburne Virtual Reality Theatre, (Melbourne)
Ballarat Observatory 3D Theatre (Vic)
Sydney Planetarium
Horizon - the Planetarium (Perth)

There are even mobile planetaria which will come to you! In NSW, contact the Planetarium Education Group; in Queensland, Starlab Education, in Western Australia, the Spacedome.

2. Keep up with the breaking news from space

Subscribing to a space news service is a good way to get all the latest dirt on what's happening in the solar system. Some are more geared towards the general public than others. You can subscribe to their feeds or newsletters, and also follow them on Twitter. is a very reliable and prestigious source of news.
Space Daily has a slightly more industry focus. You can subscribe to their newsletters for free.
Universe Today also covers astronomy.
Space News covers civil space, military space, commercial space and satellite communications business.
Space Ref is a space news and reference site. This includes space exploration and missions, and a space calendar of events.
Space Info features astronomy, Australian science, and spaceflight news
Aviation Week also covers a lot of space news.

Of course, there are a multitude of space resources online that cater to all interests. Starting points for the Anglophones are the NASA and ESA websites.

3. Do some space craft

Spacecraft, geddit? Don't spend all your time staring at the screen as if it will magically whisk you into orbit, get your hands dirty! And gluey and covered in paint, and maybe some glitter. I suppose you can get some kids involved if they're hanging around and won't go away.

Fabulous astronaut masks! made by Erin at Luck and Bliss.
Se7en makes bottle top aliens!
This is rather gorgeous: a 3D space garland from Jessika Hepburn
Doodle and Stitch make a simple but effective paper rocket
Here's another rocket made from a toilet roll - my favourite craft item
This rocket's made from a plastic bottle. You can have space fun while recycling too!

There are some more ideas in this post and there are plenty of amazing space craft projects on the internet.

4. Visit a space museum

Of course, the ne plus ultra of space museums is the National Air and Space Museum in Washington DC. Another favourite is the Musee de l'Air et de l'Espace in Paris. But you don't have to go overseas to see some wondrous space artefacts. Here's a few more local options.

Museum of Applied Arts and Sciences (the Powerhouse), NSW, has the only permanent space display in the country.
Woomera Heritage Centre, SA, also has an amazing rocket park. Not for playing, the rockets are real.
South Australian Aviation Museum, located in Port Adelaide, has plenty of Woomera artefacts if you can't get to the outback.
At the Esperance Museum in WA you can see the remains of the space station Skylab, one of the most famous spacecraft ever to re-enter the atmosphere.
At the South Australian Museum you can see Australian astronaut Andy Thomas' spacesuit!
The Canberra Deep Space Communications Complex, ACT, has a brilliant museum celebrating both Australian and US space.
In Tasmania, don't miss the Grote Reber Museum. This is the heartland of radio astronomy!

Don't forget your local museum or heritage centre either - I've found some extraordinary space artefacts displayed in regional museums and small towns. Often they've been donated by someone who has worked in aerospace or has travelled to space places.

5. Follow a spacecraft on Twitter

This is one of the best things about social media. There are a number of spacecraft with Twitter accounts, and some hilarious parody accounts too. As a follower, you get the latest information and the opportunity to interact with the spacecraft (ie the team running it). But beware. You can become very attached to your robot space friend, and if the mission ends, it can be a very sad and emotional experience.

Here are a few recommendations.

@NSFVoyager2 - Voyager 2. Run by the amazing Dr Paul Filmer, you can expect regular updates on distance from Earth and which instruments are collecting data.
@MarsCuriosity - the Mars Curiosity Rover. This is the only rover still working on Mars after the death of Opportunity in 2019.
@SarcasticRover is a witty parody account which has a huge following. As well as space science, you get commentary about life on Earth from the viewpoint of space.....
@OSIRISRex is a NASA mission to the asteroid belt.
@Haya2e_jaxa is a Japanese asteroid mission with several components, due to return its sample to Earth in 2020.

As well as actual spacecraft, most space agencies, research centres and missions have social media accounts.

6. Celebrate a space event

You can have your own space event whenever you want! Get in some space beer or wine, encourage people to dress up, make a spacey mixtape. Get crafty (see No 3) and decorate your house like a space station or mission control room. Invite your friends and talk about space with them!

There are a few space occasions which are celebrated worldwide. 

Yuri's Night is April 12 and celebrates the day on which Yuri Gagarin became the first human being to enter space and orbit Earth. This is the official website where you can register your party and or find out what events are happening in your town.

A great way to participate in this anniversary is to orbit with Yuri by watching Christopher Riley's film First Orbit, available here. The film blends archival footage and recreations of Yuri's view taken by one of my favourite astronauts, Paolo Nespoli. I love it because it's almost meditative; you have to focus on every minute through Yuri's eyes, seeing a view of Earth that was truly unique.

Later in year is World Space Week, which kicks off on the anniversary of Sputnik 1's launch on October 4th. On the website you can find guidelines about how to organise an event, as well as events planned around the world that you can attend.

I'm going to start a new one: Valentina's Day. On 16 June 1963, she became the first woman to orbit the Earth and she is still the only woman to have carried out a solo space mission. We should celebrate this! 

7. Go satellite spotting 

Although light pollution has made it harder for people in densely populated areas to see the night sky, most people would recognise a star. Fewer, perhaps, realise that they're also watching satellites.

Satellites don't have their own lights, but we can see them when they reflect the light of the Sun, often bouncing off the solar panels which power the spacecraft. Even at night the satellites are high enough to catch the Sun's rays. You'll generally only see Low Earth Orbit satellites, but there are plenty of them, as well as the International Space Station.

Stars move very slowly, but satellites are fast - after all, they orbit Earth every 90 minutes or thereabouts. Look for a fast moving light. Beware of flashing lights: this is probably an aeroplane, not a satellite.

To see the largest and brightest object in orbit, the ISS, this handy NASA site allows you to search for local sighting opportunities.

Everyone knows the old folk rhyme about wishing on the first star you see in the evening (usually Venus, by the way - a planet).
Star light, star bright,
First star I see tonight,
I wish I may, I wish I might
Have the wish I wish tonight

The sky has changed since that rhyme was made, and our relationship to it has changed also. This is Billy Bragg, in his 1983 song Looking for a New England:
I saw two shooting stars last night
I wished on them but they were only satellites
Is it wrong to wish on space hardware
I wish, I wish, I wish you'd care

Is it wrong to wish on space hardware? I say no. Instead, ask Dr Space Junk to grant your wish on a satellite. Here is my rhyme to go with your satellite spotting expedition, and it's even better because you get to make THREE wishes.

Dr Space Junk in your ship,
Watching every tiny blip.
Please bestow my wishes three:
One for Earth, one for Sea,
and one for the satellite high above me.

8. Join a space society

What could be better than making new space friends and getting to hang out at space events with them? There are a number of societies at national, state and local level which will enable you to get involved in space. Here are a few that I recommend.

Space Industry Association of Australia. This is an industry representative organisation, but definitely worth joining if you work in aerospace or a space-adjacent area.  Full disclosure: I am a member.
Space Association of Australia. Based in Melbourne, the SAA has regular meetings open to the public with guest speakers, and also has a radio broadcast.
National Space Society. This is a chapter of the US society. Every year the NSS hosts the Australian Space Research Conference.
The American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics. There are chapters of the AIAA in Sydney, Canberra, and Adelaide.
The British Interplanetary Society is one of the oldest space societies in existence. (Maybe even the oldest one).  They publish a journal and a magazine.
The Planetary Society is another US one. It was founded by Carl Sagan, among others, in 1980.
Mars Society Australia is part of a global network of Mars societies. Basically they want to go to Mars, but they have lots of activities on Earth too.
Australian Space Research Institute (ASRI) is a volunteer organisation interested in space activities.

If you want to get your hands dirty, you will find local rocket societies almost everywhere across Australia. This is where you can help build and launch a small rocket. It might not get to space but it's the same technology!

9. Eat astronaut food and drink astronaut drinks

There's lots of books around showing you how to train like an astronaut, but who can be bothered with that? Let's go straight to the gourmet end of astronaut existence. Your first tool is the wonderful Astronaut's Cookbook, which combines recipes with stories of life in space.

It's a myth that the powdered drink mix Tang was created for the space program, but it was invented in 1957, Year 1 of the Space Age. It became permanently associated with astronauts and spaceflight when it was used in NASA's Mercury and Gemini programs in the 1950s and 1960s. These days it comes in many difference flavours. And you can make cocktails with it! Here is the recipe for the Buzz Aldrin:

Tang (for garnish)
1 orange slice
4 oz of vodka (this is an American recipe)
2 tablespoons Tang
Place Tang on a plate. Run orange slice around the rim of a glass; rotate rim of glass in Tang. 
In a cocktail shaker, add Tang, vodka, and ice; shake. Strain into glass. Makes 1 cocktail.
The fanciness doesn't stop there. How about following this yummy cocktail with some luxurious Lobster Newburg, as eaten by the lucky crew of the US space station Skylab?

For dessert - of course you need astronaut freeze-dried ice cream., and it's fairly easy to obtain. Many museum shops stock it, and you can buy the original online here. A cheaper version is available from the Questacon shop. For an easy substitute, try meringues!

Breakfast is a snap. Here is a recipe (scroll down) from the Astronaut's Cookbook for a microgravity-friendly cereal.

Any food in a pouch is a good bet. You can buy lots of yogurt, fruit and baby food in this form.

10. Be aware of space for a day

You can decide to do this any time. Just for a day, think about how you are connected to space through Earth and through human technology.

It starts when the sun rises. As you lie in bed, think about Earth slowly turning underneath you, tilting you towards the Sun.

Think yourself into space. Imagine your body moving through time and space, not confined by your line of sight. Sight is not a sense that helps us here. In your mind's eye, think of how gravity is anchoring you to the surface. Be aware of the layers of atmosphere above you, until they thin out and give way to the stars and planets.

Where's the Moon? Look for it in the sky - if it's daytime, you might see its pale white curves, hard to distinguish sometimes. It seems passive, slowly moving in an arc overhead, but its gravitational force causes the tides. Up on the Moon are the remnants of human missions, forming an other-wordly archaeological record.

Perhaps you look at the weather on your phone or the television/radio news while you're having breakfast. The maps of cloud formations over Earth are brought to you from Earth observation satellites.

Every time you use your smartphone, look up and think of the satellites it's using to hook into GPS. Perhaps you get some cash out from an ATM. Look at the printed receipt: the time on it comes from satellites signals. At the supermarket, all of the goods you're about to buy are transported by trucks and ships using satellite signals.

As dusk falls, think of how you are now turning away from the Sun, turning to face the outer regions of the solar system, where human spacecraft are wending their way out into the galaxy beyond.

And of course, finish your day with some satellite spotting.

Space. You're standing in it.

Monday, April 22, 2019

The end of the Space Age

At the moment, we feel kind of connected to many places off-Earth. We have active experiments, orbiters and rovers on the Moon and Mars. Japan's Akatsuki is in orbit around Venus. New Horizons has whizzed past Pluto and into the Kuiper Belt.

But just imagine if we couldn't send anything more into space. This situation might arise if the density of space junk becomes too great and the exponential cascade of collisions causes the Kessler Syndrome. Objects launched from Earth would not escape fatal damage from these hypervelocity collisions.

Gradually, one by one, orbiters would crash onto planetary surfaces as their fuel ran out. Batteries would fail, materials would decay. One by one, the little spacecraft voices that come to the antennas of Earth would fall silent.

The great antennas set to listen to the human sounds of space would cease their turning like sunflowers to catch the signal; they in their turn would become useless monument to the Space Age.