The International Space Station is amazing. Humanity has a permanently manned space station.

You may think I’m saying that in every article of this series, and I probably am. But that’s because space and our accomplishments are quite frankly brilliant!


The International Space Station (or ISS) is not the first manned space station. The Russian space station Mir is widely considered the first successful long-term space station. Before the launch of the ISS, Mir was the largest satellite in orbit, and until 2010 when its record was surpassed by the ISS, Mir housed the longest continuous human presence in space; an impressive 10 years.

The Russians were leaders in space station technology, and without their expertise, I would argue the ISS would not be here today.

A Joint Venture

The International Space StationThe ISS is a joint space venture between Russia, the United States, the European Space Agency (the people who put Philae on a comet) Japan, Canada and Brazil.

The station was initially launched in in 1998 and has been continually manned since November 2000. Currently the station’s future is confirmed until 2020. It’s long-term future is to be determined by the relations between its key partners, the US and Russia.

The ISS is constantly being improved and upgraded, and is still being built. Amongst their most recent upgrades, includes the installation of a 3D printer. All the add-ons and upgrades are making the station heavier and heavier, and it now weighs more than 400 tonnes! But don’t worry, it isn’t going to fall from the sky any time soon.

The ISS can be seen from Earth, and if you have a pretty jazzy telescope, then you can view it in pretty remarkable detail. If you want to give it a go, check out NASA’s ISS spotters guide.

ISS as seen from Earth

The ISS as photographed through a telescope on Earth.

You can also track the ISS, and see exactly where above the Earth it is in real time. Check out this site which has a live view of what part of the planet the station is over. You may be surprised just how quickly it is moving!

Next Week

After the Thursday post last week and yesterdays site issues, I’m hoping that next Monday’s post will go without a hitch! See you then.

The Size of Space

I’m starting with a fact today; two actually.


According to astronomer Dr Peter Edwards, if our solar system was a grain of sand, then The Milky Way (our Galaxy) would be 1,000 times the size of Durham Cathedral.

Durham Cathedral from the South

Durham Cathedral


According to NASA there are hundreds of billions of galaxies in our universe.

Need a more visual representation of that? Well luckily for you, the American Museum of Natural History have spent quite a long time developing a digital universe.

Somewhat mind boggling, isn’t it. Dr Edwards doesn’t think the human mind is really built to understand the enormity of the universe. I think I probably agree with him.

In 2012 the Hubble Space Telescope zoomed in on a seemingly empty area of space. This area of space could be covered up with just a single grain of sand if you were looking at it from Earth. Astronomers didn’t think they would discover much, but if you have a super duper space telescope, why not see what it can find?

This is what that seemingly empty bit of space actually looked like when Hubble zoomed in.

A Hubble Space Telescope picture of millions of galaxy clustersEvery single speck of light you can see is a galaxy. Yes the 100 or so huge ones in the foreground, but also the millions in the background.

Each of those galaxies contains billions of stars. Yes many of them look insignificantly small, but they are very very far away. So the well used fact that there are more stars in the universe than there are grains of sand on Earth is actually true. In fact there are many billions more stars in space than there are grains of sand on the Earth. Each star is in solar systems filled with matter – from specs of dust to moons and planets.

The title of this article suggests that I will try to quantify the size of space. This isn’t really possible, so all we can currently do is describe its size relative to other things. If I had to use one word to describe space, I think it would have to be enormous.

A key question surrounding space is: is it infinite?

That is an existential question which I doubt we will ever know the answer to, but never the less it is still an interesting question, which is worth considering.

The theory that the universe is a sphere – like the Earth – is a popular one, and I can understand the logic in this, if you keep going, eventually the universe will loop you back around to where you started. But then my problem with this theory is we can go beyond the Earth. We can travel around the Earth, but space travel proves that we can move in 3 dimensions, straight and sideways on Earth and then upwards into space. If you got to the very edge of the universe, what would happen if you went upwards? If there isn’t an upwards, what is there?

New Scientist states that from all current data, it seems that the known universe has a diameter of about 93 billion light years. That’s pretty big, but by no means infinite. So if this estimate is correct – which is ridiculously unlikely – what comes after that? A big wall with a no entry sign? Just empty space? Another universe? Who knows…

That’s Your Lot

See you next week for the next in the series.

NASA is Closed (Temporarily)

Strangely enough I was in the USA last time there was a government shutdown. I was staying in New Orleans and listening to music all day every day.

At some point during the 6 week excursion I decided to go to Houston, to see the Space Station. That very room, seen by millions on TV as Niel Armstrong spoke from the Moon, those rows of presumably computerized desks, where history was made.

It is a long trip from New Orleans, I traveled by Greyhound bus. The land is swampy as you pass through Louisiana, and on to Texas. The road is raised above the water by just a few feet, on bridges that are miles long. It was a long ride, about 350 miles, on a bus, at 50 miles per hour, but it would be worth it, I was sure.

I got off the bus and made my way to the space center. There was a rocket lying on the grass outside, absolutely enormous, a real rocket! My pace quickened as did my heartbeat, I ran to the gate.


The Space Center Houston, doorway to NASA’s Johnson Space Center, was closed until further notice due to the partial governmental closure.

Glory Days!

Glory Days!

17 years on it is once more closed. But closing a tourist attraction is one thing, what I hadn’t realized all those years ago was that NASA itself had shut down, and it’s closed today too.

18000 NASA employees, about 97% of the entire workforce, are sitting at home today, unpaid, and without any idea of when their work will resume. All communication from NASA to the public has stopped, Tweet accounts are closed, and they can no longer reply to emails.

Reassuringly though the few people left at work are continuing to monitor the skies for objects that may crash into the International Space Station killing all aboard, and larger objects that may pass close to Earth, Phew!

The astronauts working on the Space Station will continue their work, and mission control will be open to support them. They have plenty of food and water so they should be OK for some time.

Other NASA spacecraft, like the Curiosity Rover on Mars and the New Horizons craft hurtling toward Pluto, will be largely left to their own devices (literally) during the shutdown. I believe parking is cheap on Mars anyway, although maintenance is high.

Mars Rover on Holiday

Mars Rover on Holiday

All of this comes just a month after NASA announced that the Voyager space craft, launched in 1977, has left the solar system. It continues to send back data, (although I am not sure if it will now be piling up like emails after a holiday), and 6 days after the now dormant Mars rover vehicle discovered large amounts of water, meaning that pioneers could extract water from the ground to use for fuel and to drink.

This government shutdown is having a huge but largely unseen effect upon science and technology development, as the organizations that are effected are some of the largest and most advanced in the world, not to mention creating a few disappointed tourists.