I initially learned of the British Interplanetary Society when I read Sir Arthur C. Clarke’s novel Prelude to Space. This was in 1977 and I was a high school student. The novel was one of a handful of science fiction books in our school’s library. They were all classics and Prelude to Space excited my imagination and yearning to become either an engineer or scientist. In this 1947 novel the first manned mission to the Moon is launched from the Australian Outback. It is an international endeavor and is led, in part by a British organization called “Interplanetary.” Only later did I realize that this was actually a nod to the British Interplanetary Society of which Sir Arthur was a former chairman.

The organization was founded on October 13th 1933 by a group of people who were interested in spaceflight. The organization, since inception, is dedicated to creating, exploring, and promoting concepts, technologies, and information about spaceflight. This applies to activity in Earth orbit, within the solar system, and beyond. Even as a fledgling organization it initiated some ground-breaking work, including a 1938 design of a lunar lander, the patent for a spaceflight navigation aid, and conferences on artificial satellites and remote sensing of the Earth’s surface. NATO and other national organizations took interest. The BIS has an international membership and highly respected reputation.

BIS Moon Lander 1930s
Moon Lander Design from the 1930s study as featured in the Journal of the British Interplanetary Society by RS Smith & HE Ross
BIS Meeting 1938
1938 meeting of the British Interplanetary Society and American Rocket Society. From l to r H.E. Ross, J.H. Edwards, H.E. Turner, R. Truax (in US navy uniform), R.A. Smith, M.K. Hanson, A.C. Clarke

Around the time I read Prelude to Space the BIS conducted studies related to interstellar flight. This included the famous design program for an interstellar probe called Daedalus. In recent times Daedalus has been revisited by the BIS and updated as the Icarus Project. More recently a study for a manned mission to the Martian north pole called Project Boreas was undertaken. The study looked at the advantages of establishing a scientific base at the planet’s north pole in terms of resource utilization and the ability of using the little settlement as a sort of beachhead to explore other parts of the planet.

bis daedalus
Design concept for unmanned interstellar probe “Daedalus”

The organization is very detailed when it undertakes such studies and applies solid engineering and scientific principles to its designs and reports. In many cases they serve as a touchstone and lay the foundation for follow-on work where such ideas become reality. Indeed, this fall has seen a symposium on new launcher systems and their potential impact on Mars exploration. And this November the BIS will offer a symposium on space elevator design and development. There seems to always be something new taking place at the British Interplanetary Society and it is certainly an organization to watch.



International Asteroid Day

International Asteroid Day

I first learned of the potential threat of asteroids when I read Arthur C. Clarke’s Rendezvous with Rama. As with all of Sir Arthur’s novels it is a book full of hope, speculation, wonder, and hard science. We travel with the crew of the exploration vessel Endeavour as it encounters a massive space vehicle from parts unknown that is just passing through our solar system. It’s a fabulous book and I pick it up from time to time and re-read it. It’s a thoroughly enjoyable yarn.

The book begins on a bit of a grim note, however. It briefly mentions the Tunguska event of 30 June 1908 when a meteor or comet slammed into the Earth’s atmosphere and exploded with several megatons of energy high above the Siberian taiga. The airburst flattened millions of trees and devastated almost 2100 square kilometers of an unpopulated region.

Clarke goes on and describes a fictional event in the year 2077, when a large asteroid enters the atmosphere somewhere high above the Mediterranean Sea. Crossing the sky, it leaves a trail of devastation across southern Europe and northern Africa before it impacts northern Italy. I read this book in high school and the scenario left a deep impression on me. When the Chelyabinsk meteor and its shockwave struck in February of 2013 Clarke’s book immediately came to mind.

Clarke suggested that one of the remedies to avoid potential disaster was to use powerful arrays of optical telescopes and radars to catalog the many asteroids that cross Earth’s path. In the novel he called this observational campaign Project Spaceguard. It is one such telescope array that discovers the object Rama and drives the plot forward.

The Earth has been struck by asteroids many times. Evidence of this can be seen in places like Meteor Crater, Arizona. Earlier impacts include the devastating Chicxulub impact that wiped out the dinosaurs 65 million years ago. Perhaps lesser known is the Eltanin impact that struck the Pacific Ocean 2.5 million years ago. The Eltanin asteroid was 4 kilometers in diameter and left a crater 35 kilometers across on the ocean floor. It led to large tsunamis and was perhaps the trigger for an ice age. If an Eltanin happened tomorrow it would be a global catastrophe.

Since Clarke’s novel a number of efforts have been made to actively catalog near-Earth objects (NEOs). In a nod to Sir Arthur these efforts are collectively referred to as Project Spaceguard. Many scientists, amateur astronomers, and even governmental agencies around the world have become involved. This includes many notable writers, cosmonauts, astronauts, artists, and celebrities. Detection of a threatening asteroid would give us some lead time to prepare either for a disaster or, better yet, to put the energies and technologies of humanity forward to deflect a NEO. An asteroid strike is the only type of natural disaster that could potentially be prevented.

International Asteroid Day is an attempt to raise awareness of the hazard of NEOs. It also seeks to explore possible mitigation methods which could literally save the planet. Many activities related to the International Asteroid Day and Project Spaceguard are led by the B612 Foundation. One of the founders of the B612 Foundation is Apollo 9 astronaut Rusty Schweikart. He and Brian May…who is both a celebrated guitarist for Queen as well as a PhD astrophysicist…helped establish Asteroid Day. According to the B612 Foundation’s website there is a working group in place that has three primary goals:

1. Employ available technology to detect and track Near-Earth Asteroids that threaten human populations via governments and private and philanthropic organisations.

2. A rapid hundred-fold acceleration of the discovery and tracking of Near-Earth Asteroids to 100,000 per year within the next ten years.

3. Global adoption of Asteroid Day, heightening awareness of the asteroid hazard and our efforts to prevent impacts, on June 30 – with United Nations recognition.

Activity on these three tasks has been robust and the third action item has been achieved. There are many ongoing events and activities around the world today. There are also links and interesting interviews and videos at Asteroid Day.


It should be noted that in recent years various exploration craft have visited both asteroids and comets. This small armada includes the Deep Impact mission, the Rosetta orbiter and Philae lander, NEAR-Shoemaker, and the Dawn spacecraft that is currently orbiting Ceres. In addition, the OSIRIS-REX craft is on its way to asteroid Bennu. The spacecraft’s acronym stands for: Origins, Spectral Interpretation, Resource Identification, Security, Regolith Explorer. That’s a mouthful!

The “Security” part of that title is based on the fact that this mission will extensively study the asteroid to learn about its composition and interaction with its surroundings, including the Yarkovsky Effect. Bennu was chosen in part due to the fact that it has a 1-in-1800 chance of impacting the Earth when it passes nearby in the year 2170.

In flight to a distant worldlet and on the hunt, OSIRIS-REX has used its camera systems to search for NEOs. It should arrive at Bennu in August of 2018. A sample probe will be returned to Earth by September of 2023. The samples could shed light on the composition of asteroids. It may also give us some idea as how to thwart an asteroid should we ever detect one on a path to hit us.

According to NASA’s JPL website other scientific objectives of the mission include:

  1. Return and analyze a sample of pristine carbonaceous regolith in an amount sufficient to study the nature, history, and distribution of its constituent minerals and organic material.
  2. Map the global properties, chemistry, and mineralogy of a primitive carbonaceous asteroid to characterize its geologic and dynamic history and provide context for the returned samples.
  3. Document the texture, morphology, geochemistry, and spectral properties of the regolith at the sampling site in situ at scales down to millimeters.
  4. Measure the Yarkovsky Effect on a potentially hazardous asteroid and constrain the asteroid properties that contribute to this effect.
  5. Characterize the integrated global properties of a primitive carbonaceous asteroid to allow for direct comparison with ground-based telescopic data of the entire asteroid population.

The Yarkovsky Effect is of interest and definitely falls under the “Security” part of the OSIRIS-REX mission. First described in 1900 by Ivan Yarkovsky, the theory relates the thermal effects of sunlight falling on a rotating body in space to tiny forces that are generated on the object’s center of mass. Over time these tiny forces could nudge even a large asteroid into a different orbit. Scientists have studied the idea that by changing the areal coverage or location of sunlight on the surface of an asteroid its course could be adjusted. Given enough of a warning a spacecraft could be sent out to intercept the asteroid. A crew or robots (or both) could paint absorptive material onto an asteroid or deploy reflectors that might increase the level of solar radiation that strikes its surface. These alterations could change the asteroid’s orbit just enough for it to miss Earth.

This is not science fiction. The Deep Impact mission voyaged to the comet Tempel-1 and arrived in 2005. It launched an impactor into the comet. The impactor was a semi-autonomous vehicle that could maneuver and return telemetry and images to Earth. On July 4th 2005 it hit Tempel-1 at a high rate of speed and released the energy equivalent of 5 tons of dynamite. Careful study showed that the comet’s course was altered slightly, with a 10 centimeter adjustment to its perihelion, or closest point of its orbit to the Sun. Follow-on studies by NASA and other organizations have indicated that an impactor strike of this type is perhaps the most mature technology currently available to successfully deflect an inbound asteroid.

So we live in an amazing age. Rather than fearing this hazard, people around the globe are staring it in the face, pooling resources, and coming up with competent strategies. We even have an International Asteroid Day. I think Sir Arthur would approve.

Comet Tempel-1 at the moment of collision with the Deep Impact spacecraft’s impactor probe. Although Tempel-1 is not an asteroid, it definitely experienced a (very tiny) orbital deflection!

Yuri’s Night

Yuri’s Night

Fifty-six years ago Yuri Gagarin was the first human to fly in space. That flight was relatively brief, a few orbits for a lone man cramped within a little bubble of light and warmth and life. The flight of Vostok 1 was as much a milestone as the Wright Brothers flight and Lindbergh’s solo crossing of the Atlantic. After Gagarin came more flights, the first spacewalk by Alexei Leonov, and of course the manned landing on the Moon by Armstrong and Aldrin.

Sir Arthur C. Clarke once said that he had shaken hands with the first man to fly in space, the first space-walker, and the first to trod the dusty surface of the Moon. He also strongly believed that in the long run of history it would not matter that two were Russian and one was American. The promise of a human future was bigger and better than mere nationalism. I hope he was right.

And since April 12, 1961 we’ve continued to explore our farther horizons. This has included Vostok and Salyut and Gemini and Apollo and Mir and Shuttle and Progress and Soyuz and, of course, an International Space Station where men and women of many nations work together. Happy Yuri’s Night everyone!

Note on photo: A recent image from Izzy. A Soyuz and Progress freighter docked to the station.

March Is A Riddle

March Is A Riddle

It was one of those March days when the sun shines hot and the wind blows cold—-when it is summer in the light and winter in the shade. —Charles Dickens, Great Expectations (Chapter 54)

March is a riddle. I’m sure there are meteorological and climatology-based explanations for the inherent fickleness of this month.  But to me March has always offered winter’s last hurrah. In Rochester, we sometimes get what I like to call a false spring. It begins mid-February and wraps up near the end of that month. Like February, false spring is short. We might get a few consecutive days where the thermometers edge upward and the thermostats are lowered. And after January any outside air temperature in the 40s Fahrenheit seems downright balmy. Then we all make the Mistake and tell ourselves that March, and therefore spring, is just around the corner. Many conversations in the department break room center on this hypothesis. There may even be reports of robin sightings.

This year March First started out warm but then a blast of wintry wind pummeled the city. In the days following the temperatures dropped below freezing and a few passing flurries powdered our area. It was pretty. And perhaps a sign that winter was giving up but just making an effort for show. But by that first weekend rumors abounded that more winds were on the way. Soon, we heard ominous warnings from that most modern of oracles: the weatherman. High winds and gale warnings. Squirrels going to ground. Trouble! Harbingers, harbingers everywhere! It was as if we were all in that first chapter of Ray Bradbury’s novel Something Wicked This Way Comes when a strange, wizened little man has limped into town carrying lightning rods for sale. We all held our breath.

Tuesday, March 7th, saw a beautiful beginning with the brightest, bluest sky. Cloudless and clear. Yet the winds came and strengthened all day. The Rochester Airport recorded gusts of 81 MPH and the last flight was allowed to land at noon. Power lines and infrastructure succumbed and by that afternoon my son called me at work with a report of no power.

I arrived home late and our entire block, several square miles, was dark. We opted to go out and have dinner. We searched amid darkened intersections where nervous cars stopped and started. Above us hollow traffic lights swayed uselessly in the high wind. Standing against the growing night our old haunts seemed entirely abandoned. Had we really, ever, eaten there? It seemed like another age now. We made desperate calls and to our surprise found that our favorite Thai restaurant remained valiantly open. We drove a half mile to this little oasis of light and warmth and enjoyed delicious phad thai and panang tofu. Like two idlers in a far-off land we laughed about not having to cook dinner. Around us in the dining room the lights flickered and dimmed with each passing gust.

Back home, we climbed into our winter kit and read books by flashlight. We snuggled into these amazing arctic bags, one a gift from my Dad and another a gift from my wife. I received the first when we started our winter camping adventures many years ago. You know a woman loves you when she spends $300 on a sleeping bag. My son and I talked about finally being able to enjoy a night “in the mountains.” The next day it was chilly in the house. I opted not to shave, which seemed like a bonus despite everything, and headed into work. My son joined me as there are things to do in warm places at the University of Rochester. Also, we assumed, ample connectivity. Ah, these first world problems.

Dinner that night was at the fabulous Texas Roadhouse. We don’t often eat out but without power it seemed like a good bet. The block was dark but the few shops around the restaurant were lit up. The sight of 30 power company trucks in the parking lot was quite impressive. Although we laughed that maybe the crews restored the power here first so that they could have a good meal. Who can blame them? They came from all over the Northeast and eastern Canada to help restore light to our beleaguered city. We were very thankful for their help.

Dinner was yummy. Our waitress was very nice and we all empathized about our new lives without electricity at home. Camping was definitely a theme. Aidan and I enjoyed dinner under the watchful gaze of Gene Autry posters while country music twanged from the overhead speakers.  Occasionally the wait staff would gather around a patron’s table to dance, sing happy birthday, and conclude the short festivities with a mighty yee-haw. There is now a strict and inviolable agreement between my son and I that this will never be something we experience at any eating establishment. We shook hands on it as another diner was serenaded. But boy, the steaks were really delicious.

Power remained out for two days. We got up on a very chilly Friday morning and talked about a story we had read aloud the night before. The Forgotten Enemy was written by Arthur C. Clarke in 1949. It’s about the last man alive in London’s urban snowscape during the onset of a new ice age. It opens with furs thudding to the ground as Professor Millward is startled awake by the distant booming of glaciers. Later our hero is even chased out of Piccadilly by a polar bear and must seek shelter in the abandoned Underground. The story seemed very topical. We quickly got dressed and wandered out in search of coffee.

Work was quite busy and we stayed late. Maybe to catch up, maybe just to stay warm. We then headed home. There was the promising sign of street lamps as we pulled into our parking lot but our building was quite dark. Resignedly, we went through the main door and just as we got up the stairs to our apartment the lights went on. Perfect timing! We were very happy for electricity but kept those arctic bags close as it took awhile for our little place to warm up. We took it easy with whatever we switched on, avoiding the high amperage stuff like the microwave. Neither of us wanted to be the guy who overloaded the strained system and caused a regional blackout.

A week later power was almost fully restored to our area. And yet the weatherman returned with more grim news. An incoming storm was predicted. It was called Stella. Like hurricanes, winter storms have names now. The name reminded me of A Streetcar Named Desire and I put it on reserve at Netflix. Yet experience now led me to ask whether the power would remain for me to watch?

Stella did indeed arrive. Yet many are now calling it the Ides of March storm. Like an over-eager conspirator this weather pattern decided on an early start. It began on March the 14th and we all knew to beware. By noon the heavy snow started really coming down outside my office window. The University is on Spring Break so it was quiet to begin with. The snow just added to the hush. By mid-afternoon people were being encouraged to stagger their departures from work to help minimize traffic delays. I left around 3PM and was very grateful for the shuttle bus home.

By the next day I experienced what might best be called my first snow day in 12 years at the University of Rochester. All non-essential personnel were asked to stay home. As I don’t do surgery or keep the University’s power plant operating I decided I was non-essential. Hard to believe it was Spring Break. Glad the students all got away when they could. It was nice to stay indoors, have tea, and watch it pile up outside. The facilities people at our apartment did a great job keeping up with it. However, by the end of the day 26.3 inches of snow had fallen. It was amazing!

A week later Rochester is still cleaning up and the snow banks are still quite high. I walked home last night and there were some challenges. But perhaps not the ones experienced by poor Professor Millward in the Clarke story! I warily check the calendar on my computer’s desktop. March still has ten days before some distant midnight turns over and brings us the month of April. Yesterday spring arrived.

We’ll see if it is for real this time.

Note on photo: The Sphinx emerges from the snow yesterday near Rettner Hall at the University of Rochester.