Monday, January 14, 2013

First visit to the European Space Agency

ACES (a precise atomic clock) will be taken to the Columbus Space lab in 2014.
At the end of November, Mihai and I visited the European Space Research and Technology Center (ESTEC) in the Netherlands to present a seminar. It was my first invited talk in Europe!  I talked about the applicability of atomic clocks on Earth and in space and Mihai lead the discussion that followed. Both the discussion and the seminar went really well! We then attended a conference on optical networks, which I will discuss in a separate post.

First Impressions of ESA
Once you pass the front gates of ESTEC, you see numerous flags that move as the wind blows. Each represents a country that is part of ESA. Our host picked us up from the ID check-point. The hallway was paved with stars and every now and then there was a stand with a little mock-up of an ESA satellite flying around the Earth. The most impressive models were that of Envisat, the largest civilian Earth-observing satellite ever put into space.  It monitored the Earth between 2002 to 2012. In addition  to the little model inside, just outside ESA there was a light life-size model of Envisat.  The original satellite weights about 8 tons. Unfortunately, it became inoperative and ESA lost contact with it in April 2012.

I had forgotten space in the proximity of Earth is pretty crowded: there are many thousands of satellites orbiting our planet. It is unclear how to decommission Envisat. Two objects pass within 200 meters of Envisat every year. So, the probability of collision with other objects is quite small, but if it does happen the cloud of debris would be much more dangerous than the big satellite because it contains lots of small objects traveling at high speed in unpredictable trajectories. Even screws lost in orbit can damage the International Space Station (ISS), which is the biggest satellite that goes around the Earth. A Russian and a US communication satellite did collide in 2009 without much damage to other flying devices.

My seminar and the discussion that followed provided us with ideas and enthusiasm for future work. We are following up with emails and phone meetings, and I hope some cool science and collaborations will result from this trip.

The Space Mobile!
After we came back to Switzerland, my brother, Mihai, bought a toy for the children with the Earth and 8 satellites/vehicles that go around it.  It's hanging from the ceiling as I write. We have (1) the ISS, (2) the Space Shuttle, which was a partially reusable spacecraft that was used for 135 missions from 1981 to 2011 (it fixed the Hubble telescope, took people to and from the ISS, and much more), (3) Sputnik (the world's first artificial satellite launched in 1957; it was 58 cm in diameter - the size of a beach ball), (4) Apollo 11 (went to the Moon), (5) Mir (first modular space station; used between 1986 and 2001), (6) Soyuz (still used by the ISS; a Soyuz rocket will be used by the LISA Pathfinder), (7) Skylab (America's first experimental space station from the 1970s) and (8) Mercury (first international manned spacecraft).

Overall, the Space Mobile is a nice toy that encourages children to love space, space history and space missions! ... and, of course, it is not sold or designed by ESA. No toys were provided there. I would have liked to see some outreach with books for children and young adults and even some toys.

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