By Margaret Harris
Space is, famously, “the final frontier”. It is also – almost as famously – “hard”. We saw this most recently in October, when the Schiaparelli lander crashed onto the surface of Mars, but throughout humanity’s nearly 60-year history as a spacefaring species, our hopes of exploring and observing the cosmos have repeatedly come up against the stiff challenge of building vessels that can survive the journey. Arguably, no other industry on Earth (or indeed off it) has rejoiced in such high “highs”, or agonized through such low “lows”.
That mix of heady dreams and harsh realities is one reason why the latest Physics World focus issue on astronomy and space science carries the tag line “To the stars, through adversity” (I’ll come to the other reason at the end of this blog post). The articles in the issue – which you can read free of charge – pay tribute to the ingenuity of the scientists and engineers involved in the challenging and rewarding practical work of exploring and observing the cosmos. Here, you can learn about the latest advances in astronomical instrumentation, get up to speed with future space missions, and familiarize yourself with recent developments in the entrepreneurial “new space” industry.
Highlights in this Physics World focus issue include:
• Ups and downs for private space firms – Peter Gwynne assesses the challenges and opportunities facing companies that seek their fortunes beyond Earth’s atmosphere, at a time when strong competition and a string of high-profile failures have put the commercial space industry under pressure
• Upgrading Arecibo – Mark Williamson travels to Puerto Rico to learn how the historic Arecibo Observatory plans to “punch above its diameter” after losing its title as the world’s largest single-aperture radio telescope, and ahead of an important funding review in mid-2017
• Talking of space – Discussing the future of the British space industry with Steve Welch, the outgoing director of the UK Space Innovation and Growth Strategy
• A lobster-eye view of the universe – Keith Cooper explains how a lightweight optic inspired by the structure of crustaceans’ eyes is the key ingredient in an X-ray telescope that could transform high-energy astrophysics
• Optics sharpen telescope view – Richard de Grijs describes how the next generation of extremely large ground-based telescopes demands fresh approaches to correct for the blurring effects caused by the Earth’s atmosphere
The other reason for the “To the stars, through adversity” tag is, well, personal. This is the first focus issue I’ve edited in my new role as Physics World’s industry editor and, conveniently enough, my home state of Kansas has the official motto Ad astra per aspera – to the stars, through adversity (or difficulties – the translation varies). Kansas lacks the space kudos of states such as Florida (home to the NASA launch facilities at Cape Canaveral) or Texas (home of Mission Control in Houston), but it does have one of the world’s best museums of space-related artefacts (the Cosmosphere in Hutchinson), so I suppose there’s a connection there, too.
All full members of the Institute of Physics received a print edition of the Physics World Focus on Astronomy and Space along with their copy of the December issue of Physics World. Anyone can read the digital edition of the focus issue free of charge on your desktop or on any iOS or Android smartphone or tablet via the Physics World app, available from the App Store and Google Play.
I hope you enjoy the issue and I look forward to hearing your thoughts on the topics covered, which you can share with us either by e-mailing firstname.lastname@example.org or by posting your comments below.