Archive by category | Space

Illustrated books of 2017: the magnificent eight

Illustrated books of 2017: the magnificent eight

There’s something about a collection. We seem to harbour an urge to amass and sort as we build menageries, museums, taxonomies. And the illustrated book is a portable simulacrum, a paper cabinet of curiosities, curated for maximum aesthetic punch.  Read more

Rocket woman


A physicist at the Indian Space Research Organisation’s Space Applications Centre, Moumita Dutta was part of the team that put a probe into Mars orbit in 2014. The instruments they designed for the Mangalyaan are still beaming back data. Now India is gearing up for its third planetary mission in 2018 — Chandrayaan-2, a return to the Moon. As Dutta prepares to take part in the London Science Museum’s Illuminating India events, she talks about the lure of optics, the challenge of crafting super-light sensors, and the rise in Indian women entering space science.    … Read more

Snapping Earth for more than seven decades

In 1960, cameras aboard NASA's first weather satellite TIROS-1 captured Earth.

For centuries, the only way to ‘see’ Earth whole was through globes and maps; its grandeur was merely glimpsed in mountain vistas or across a stretch of ocean. That changed in the 1940s, when the first images of the planet were snapped from rockets probing the border of space, 100 kilometres up. The imaginable became the visible.  Read more

Tracking the propulsive power of science books

Tracking the propulsive power of science books

What makes a science tome so audacious, original and right that it kickstarts a life’s journey, propelling someone to the bench or field? Science writer Ann Finkbeiner (of The Last Word on Nothing) has written about that for A View from the Bridge. And when Academic Book Week fired up on 23 January, I started musing anew about encounters with remarkable books.  Read more

Hidden Figures: the movie


High-profile protests dominated the media during the civil rights era in 1960s America. At NASA, a quieter struggle was already underway. From the 1940s, African-American women had been chipping away at perceptions and making incursions into the early space programme — that otherwise very white, male world.  Read more

Top 20 books: a year that made waves


This was a year that made waves — some so steep that I found myself reaching for a psychological surfboard. I skimmed along the discovery of gravitational waves (featured in Janna Levin’s Black Hole Blues and Other Songs of Outer Space), and rode the CRISPR tsunami. The political turbulence stateside, in Britain and beyond had me scrabbling for balance — and historical precedents. Yet amid all the Sturm und Drang, it has been a terrific year for science and culture.  Read more

Show home for the Red Planet

Mars show home at the Royal Observatory Greenwich, London.

A big red igloo with a towering antenna seems a little overblown for a London show home. And so it proves. The object squatting outside the Royal Observatory Greenwich is actually a life-sized mock-up of a Mars habitat, billed as the imaginary dwelling of a second wave of settlers from Earth. That is, those who might live on the Red Planet in their thousands by around 2037, if the ambitious plans of space entrepreneurs such as SpaceX’s Elon Musk bear fruit.  Read more

Breaking barriers: the US space programme’s black women mathematicians

Breaking barriers: the US space programme's black women mathematicians

Some of the most intriguing stories in the history of US science have emerged over the past few years. It’s about time. These books centre on something long under wraps: the centrally important roles women played starting some 70 years ago in the great technological transition that gripped the twentieth century. Denise Kiernan’s The Girls of Atomic City (Touchstone, 2013) chronicled the contributions of the women who worked at the secret atomic-bomb laboratory in Oak Ridge, Tennessee, during the Second World War. Rise of the Rocket Girls by Nathalia Holt (reviewed here) depicted the mathematicians or “human computers” who crunched numbers at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in southern California from the 1940s. In this catalogue, Margot Lee Shetterly’s Hidden Figures is more than just another entry.  Read more

The Hubble ‘space opera’

Hubble image of the Orion Nebula, at 1,500 light-years away, the nearest star-forming region to Earth. The bright glow at upper left is from M43, a small region being shaped by a massive, young star's ultraviolet light.

In 2012, composer Paola Prestini began collaborating with astrophysicist Mario Livio — who worked at the Hubble Space Telescope’s operations centre from 1991 to 2015 — on a “space opera” celebrating the intrument’s 25th anniversary. The result, The Hubble Cantata, debuted on the telescope’s 26th. Performed on 6 August at the BRIC Celebrate Brooklyn! festival in New York City’s Prospect Park, it is a multidimensional paean to the ‘eye in the sky’, meshing Livio’s narration with performances by Norwegian orchestra 1B1, a 100-strong chorus and Metropolitan opera stars Jessica Rivera and Nathan Gunn, and a climax featuring a 3D virtual-reality (VR) experience incorporating Hubble images that allows viewers to drift through the Orion Nebula. Here Prestini talks about the joys and challenges of putting together a highly collaborative meld of science and art.  Read more