I've developed an obsession with space in the last couple of years, particularly with satellites, probes, landers, rovers, and other gadgets that we send into it. When I was a kid, I used to read and dream about space, but wandered off into other meadows. Returning to it is a blast (sorry) as my decades studying, working with, and reporting with technology gives me an entrée into the world (or worlds) of mission planning, launches, travel, landing, and deployment.
Here's a collection of what I've been writing about, largely at the Economist.
Voyager 1 & 2
The Voyagers continue to function nearly four decades after launch, delivering useful science. Most recently, Voyager 1 passed the edge of the solar magnetic bubble (the heliosphere), crossing the heliopause into the interstellar medium! (It's still within the solar system, as defined by the sun's gravitational pull, however.)
In a bit of nice timing, I visited the Jet Propulsion Lab in Pasadena in January 2013 for a bunch of reporting, and wrote up a visit with Ed Stone for the Economist, the principal investigator of the Voyager missions from their start in the 1970s and still a
In March 2013, the first paper appeared suggesting that Voyage 1 had broken through the heliopause. I wrote an Economist Explains about it. Later in the year, after more analysis had appeared and more scientific consensus was reached, I filed a long report for Boing Boing on Voyager 1's progress and ostensible current location.
My long-time Economist editor, Tom Standage, co-wrote a feature for Technology Quarterly, "In Praise of Celestial Mechanics," about keeping all this gear alive when it's in orbit around Earth or billions of miles away. (In typical Economist fashion, I wrote a long draft from my JPL visit and other research, Tom tinkered with it and extended material from his expertise, and I was delighted with the final result.)
Nanosatellites and Other Small Birds
The cost per kilogram of pushing something from Earth into orbit, however high, has dropped substantially over the last few decades, and is poised to drop another order of magnitude if SpaceX perfects its reusable craft. However, it's still relatively expensive. But instead of relying on cheaper launches, sending up more compact and capable gear sheds cost, too! Nanosatellites — 10 cm cubes weight about 1 kg — and both somewhat smaller and larger gear are already revolutionizing how information will be gathered from near space.
I did some more travel for this piece, interestingly to San Francisco, where several firms are making bijou satellites inside of ordinary office spaces and small warehouses. Thousands of small satellites will launch in the next couple of years, bringing information from space within reach — anything a satellite can measure up, down, or sideways. I filed this Technology Quarterly cover story, "Nanosats are go!"
As part of this reporting, I wrote about the KickSat, a partially crowdfunded three-unit nanosat (30 cm by 10 cm by 10 cm) that contained over 100 femtosatellites, the size of postage stamps. It launched, but wasn't able to complete its mission — a charging problem left it unable to trigger its spring release in time. The first piece was "Magic Dust"; the follow-up, "An elegy for satellites like maple-tree seeds."
I also wrote about NASA's PhoneSat project, which takes the innards of ordinary Android phones and beefs up the battery and radio components and then puts them into space. These missions go up fast, iterate quickly, and produce useful results.
An ancient spaceship was captured (with permission) by citizen scientists, and I wrote a three stories about it. First, after NASA granted permission and a team was booting up communications ("How to revive a satellite"). Then, when it seemed likely they'd be able to put the satellite into a new permanent orbit ("An old workhorse satellite spins back up"). And, finally, when it still seemed possible that the new trajectory would be possible ("The ancient mariner"). Sadly, the old bird was only able to make a few residual firings before it was determined the tanks were depleted — not strange for living decades past its original sell-by date.
I also filed this story on nanosatellites potentially reigniting interest in aerospace engineer careers, which had fallen on some hard times in recent years as internet engineering jobs took off.