ZENGER ON BOOKS: Astronomers Are Just Like Us—but They’re a Dying Breed

ZENGER ON BOOKS: Astronomers Are Just Like Us—but They’re a Dying Breed

Under August’s full moon comes a love letter to every kid who has ever struggled to bracket Earth’s biggest satellite in a dime-store telescope’s eyepiece. Professional astronomers chart the night skies, risk their lives for science and occasionally flee from curious bears.

In “The Last Stargazers: The Enduring Story of Astronomy’s Vanishing Explorers,” University of Washington astronomy professor Emily Levesque has chronicled the academic challenges and personal sacrifices the profession demands.

A combination of computer software and intellectual brainpower by astronomers has led to remarkable advances and discoveries in the last 30 years. But astronomy, like most of the sciences, needs ever-growing pots of money to support cutting-edge research.

The cover of The Last Stargazers. (Sourcebooks)

“Can a singular powerful telescope be so spectacularly built that it meets the needs of everyone?” she asks. “The answer is a resounding no. For one, collecting new discoveries isn’t enough; we need to explain what we find.”

Levesque, who holds a Ph.D in astronomy from the University of Hawaii, lays out atronomy’s demands. And in an instant the astronomer stereotype, gleaned from TV shows and movies, vanishes.

Due to the job requirement of working primarily at night, most professional astronomers are sleep-deprived. Levesque says they’re are easy to spot at airports: They often carry a laptop computer with a NASA decal on the carrying case. They’re pale from a lack of sunlight exposure. And late at night they look “suspiciously awake.”

Sleep deprivation, coupled with the fact that telescopes are often located atop mountains, makes most astronomers poor drivers, Levesque writes: “I can fill an entire separate book with stories of astronomers crashing cars at observatories.”

The author does not spare herself from this classification. The dangers pile on.

Since telescopes are in dark domes—all light must be eliminated to get the best possible images—it is not uncommon for astronomers to fall from ladders or catwalks, or even walk at full speed into concrete telescope mounts.

And if he’s not careful, he can be killed, according to Levesque.

Marc Aaronson, a University of Arizona astronomer, was observing the stars with a student at the Kitt Peak National Observatory in the Arizona-Sonoran Desert.

On an April night in 1987, “[h]e asked that the telescope and dome be turned to point at a new galaxy and then hurried to the dome catwalk to get a good look at the sky conditions,” writes Levesque.

Emily Levesque takes readers through a day in the life of an astronomer and makes the most of every page in “The Last Stargazers.” (Emily Levesque/Facebook)

Aaronson didn’t know the dome turned instantaneously.

“Weighing more than five hundred tons, and moving at almost a foot per second, it would silently coast for several feet before stopping,” she writes.

“As soon as the (dome) motors stopped, Marc opened the door to the exterior catwalk, unaware that the dome was still coasting. Just as he stepped through the portal, part of the coasting shutter struck the door and forced it shut. He was killed instantly.”

Despite the risks, “Stargazers” is a tale of a great era for astronomy. Photographs of the constellations, planets and stars are now collected on silicon chips similar to the ones inside digital cameras.

And telescopes built in the last 30 to 40 years are much bigger in diameter than their predecessors. The result is more and clearer images.

Levesque’s enthusiasm for the stars is reflected page after page, giddy with schoolgirl energy at the thought of quivering binary stars and the depths of black holes.

But more, she has in every sentence the persistent joy of finding things out.

During the total solar eclipse of August 2017, she writes, “I proceeded to lose my ever-loving mind for the next two and a half minutes.”

Ping-ponging among family members who witnessed the event with her, she hugged all of them, thrust binoculars into their hands, and  loudly proclaimed: “You can see Mercury!” Then, when the sun reemerged, shouted: “Eclipse glasses back on!”

These explosions of zest make “The Last Stargazers” immensely readable, and worth recommending to anyone who ever saw a constellation, an eclipse or a shooting star, and wondered about giving chase.

(Edited by Fern Siegel and David Martosko.)

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Young Indians Propelling Private Space Tech

Young Indians Propelling Private Space Tech

Anirudh Sharma, an alumnus of relatively new private university Lovely Professional University, was 19 years old when he began working on a satellite project. The year was 2017, and he and a small team of friends had been brainstorming about space traffic management—especially space debris, which plagues satellites.

“The present observation of space traffic is limited to ground monitoring through radars,” said Sharma. “The global rush to launch micro-satellites over the last five years necessitated the need for a mechanism for space-based monitoring of space traffic.”

Sharma and his college mate Rahul Rawat started Digantara Research and Technology. Sharma and Rawat’s ideas struck a chord with researchers and innovators in India’s startup capital Bangalore, and the Indian Institute of Science, one of India’s top institutions for scientific research, incubated their project.

The startup is one of few private companies working on a space-based solution for space debris, said Sharma, and is working on expanding realtime space-based surveillance with what he called “a constellation of cost-efficient nanosatellites.”

Though India’s startup scene is known for information technology work, ventures into space tech like Digantara are growing. On Aug. 12, startup Skyroot Aerospace became the first private Indian company to test-fire a homegrown upper-stage rocket engine.

To support growth in the industry, the Indian government took several steps to liberalize the space tech market in June and is opening up to the possibilities of doing away with the monopoly of the government-owned Indian Space Research Organization.

“ISRO’s student programs gave a lot of encouragement to students in space technology to look at the sector commercially,” said Sharma. “And now since the government opened the space sector, a lot of Indian space tech companies have got funding. We are planning to raise $1 million from investors.”

In May, the government announced that startups and private firms would be allowed to use the facilities and assets of the ISRO. And, the Indian government wants to establish the Indian National Space Promotion and Authorisation Centre, which would support space technology development and incubation. It would also be the go-to authority for firms looking to test, launch and license space ventures.

The Indian space-tech market is likely to grow quickly over the next five years, said Pawan Kumar Chandana, CEO and CTO of Skyroot Aerospace. “Coupled with the government’s recent announcements, the demand for satellite services in India is likely to fuel this growth.”

But India’s private space tech firms have a long way to go before they can compete with big names. India’s share in the global space market, estimated at more than $350 billion, is less than 2 percent. Compared with global peers raising big money, Indian space startups, many started by recent graduates, are working on shoestring budgets.

“SpaceX and Blue Origin drew an estimated $1.9 billion in combined investment during the year, while low-Earth orbit (LEO) broadband venture OneWeb attracted another $1.25 billion,” according to a report by technology analyst Bryce Space and technology. “Sir Richard Branson’s space tourism startup Virgin Galactic raised more than $682 million in 2019.” 

Worldwide startups in space ventures pulled in $5.7 billion in financing in 2019, “largely driven by investors continuing to pour large amounts of capital into a handful of the industry’s largest companies,” the report states.

India’s competitors in Asia are advanced economies like Japan, China, South Korea and Taiwan. But the Indian Space Research Organization itself is proof budgets aren’t always the sole determinant of success. The annual budget for India’s Department of Space for 2019-2020 is around $1.67 Billion (Rs 12,473.26 crore). In comparison, NASA’s annual budget for the fiscal year is more than $21 billion. But the Indian organization carries out regular satellite launches and Mars and Moon missions, including the successful 2014 Mangalyaan Mars Orbiter Mission, which cost $74 million — less than the $108 million budget of the Hollywood movie “The Martian.”

Despite political upheavals and dramatic changes in the government and its policies, space tech has been supported across parties, and the ISRO has run unaffected by changes in New Delhi.

The organization began running student satellite programs as early as 2009 and in 2016, it launched a consignment of 20 satellites, including two developed by students — Swayam, developed by students of College of Engineering at Pune, and Sathyabamasat, built by Sathyabama University students. Many private universities have fostered breeding grounds for space tech startups.

Dhruva Space, one of about 10 space-tech startups in the country, became the first private company in India to manufacture satellites, in 2012. And Mumbai-based Exseed Space became the first private commercial organization in the country to launch a satellite to space in December 2018, via the Elon Musk-led SpaceX — that too at a cost of about $1.3 million.

Pixxel, a space technology company started in 2019 by students of Birla Institute of Technology and Science at Pilani, a top engineering college in northwestern India, is working on launching a constellation of 30 satellites by mid-2023. The satellites will provide images of Earth to subscribers every 24 hours. The first launch is scheduled for November.

But not all companies see the government’s efforts to liberalize the sector and streamline the regulatory hurdles with the new agency as enough yet. Pixxel, for example, will launch its satellites from Russia instead of India to avoid the 18 percent goods and services tax to launch on ISRO’s rocket.

The tax was one major factor in choosing Russia over India, said Awais Ahmed, Pixxel’s founder and CEO. “And secondly, in India, we needed to wait for four months before getting a clearance to launch from ISRO. There is not much clarity about space tech laws in India, although it is likely to change over the next few months with IN-SPACe.”

But the company is optimistic: It recently raised $5 million through Indian venture capital firms Lightspeed India Partners, Blume Ventures and growX ventures, adding to the $700,000 it raised last year. Ahmed said 85 percent of the components will be made in India.

(Edited by Siddharthya Roy and Cathy Jones.)

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PHOTOS: Scots Head to Space Using Iceland as a Base

PHOTOS: Scots Head to Space Using Iceland as a Base

A Scottish-built rocket hurtled 17 miles into the sky from an Icelandic launch site, a test flight for Skyrora’s eventual plans to send larger rockets with satellite payloads into outer space. The 13-foot- (4-meter-) tall sub-orbital Skylark Micro was launched Aug. 16 from Iceland’s northeast peninsula of Langanes.

The two stages of the rocket, developed by Edinburgh-based Skyrora, reached altitudes of 4 and 17 miles (6 and 30 kilometers), respectively, before both parachuted back to the Norwegian Sea. The launch was hosted and assisted by Space Iceland, which was established early this year as the centerpiece of the Nordic country’s efforts to take part in the ongoing commercialization of space flight.

Unlike the first such “space race” during the latter half of the 20th century that was mainly underwritten and run by governmental agencies, this latest round of ventures into outer space is being spearheaded by private-sector entrepreneurs, such as Elon Musk’s U.S.-based SpaceX.

Picture of the rocket. (Skyrora/Newsflash)


The rocket ready for launch. (Skyrora/Newsflash)


Scot-built rocket launches from Iceland. (Skyrora/Newsflash)

On its website, Skyrora described the Skylark Micro flight is part of a “de-risking program” designed to lead to the launch of larger rockets. More specifically, the recent mission tested onboard avionics and communications systems for its Skylark-L and Skyrora XL launch vehicles, as well as providing practice for marine-recovery operations at sea.

Until this year, Iceland had no permit procedure to allow rockets to be launched until Skyrora met with relevant government officials in January, leading to the implementation of a framework for the formation of Space Iceland.

“I am very happy that Iceland has allowed us to launch from their country,” said Skyrora CEO Volodymyr Levykin. “This allowed us to continue our developmental and de-risking program, which we must complete so we can scale up and learn from any mistakes before launching our larger vehicles. I also hope this educational launch promotes the space industry in a positive way and inspires the younger generation.”

(Edited by Matthew Hall and Stephen Gugliociello)

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