Spotting Asterix: France Marks 50 Years of Space Exploration

Author’s note: In the wake of the November 13th terrorist attacks, the French Space Agency CNES canceled the celebration of the 50th anniversary of the launch of Asterix. This post commemorates the launch of France’s first satellite 50 years ago this week, and pays a small tribute to the noblest of human endeavors, namely the exploration of space and the pioneering spirit of humanity exemplified by a heroic nation.

A milestone in space flight occurred 50 years ago tomorrow, when France became the sixth nation—behind the U.S.S.R., the United States, Canada, the United Kingdom and Italy—to field a satellite. The A1 mission, renamed Asterix after a popular cartoon character, launched from a remote desert base in Algeria a few hours after dawn at 9:52 UT on November 26th.

Though France was 6th nation in space, it was 3rd—following the Soviet Union and the United States—to launch a satellite atop its very own rocket: the three stage Diamant-A.

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The launch of Asterix into the blue desert skies over Algeria.

The satellite launch was intended mainly to test the ability of the French-built rocket, which flew 11 more times before its retirement in 1975. Asterix did carry a signal transmitter, and was due to carry out ionospheric measurements during its short battery-powered life span. With a high elliptical orbit, Asterix won’t reenter the Earth’s atmosphere for several centuries to come.

The launch occurred from the remote desert air base of Hammaguir, located 31 degrees north of the equator in western Algeria. Then as today, the site is a forlorn and austere location with very few creature comforts, though we can personally attest from our deployment to a similar French Air Base in Djibouti that the French military does serve wine in their mess hall…

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The tense control room during the launch of Asterix.

The French space program started in 1961 under president Charles de Gaulle and centered around the construction and use of the Diamant rocket. Three variants were built, including the one used to place Asterix in orbit. One of the stranger tales of the early space age involved the first—and thus far only—sub-orbital launch of a cat into space from the same Algerian site in 1963, though Iran recently made a vague statement that it would do the same in 2013.

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An aerial shot of Hammaguir Air Base in Algeria from the early 1960s.

Contact with Asterix was lost due to a damaged satellite antenna shortly after launch. Founded in 1961, the French space agency CNES (The Centre National d’Etudes Spatiales, or National Centre for Space Studies) now partners with NASA and the European Space Agency on missions including micro-gravity studies on the International Space Station, Rosetta’s historic exploration of comet 67P Churyumov-Gerasimenko and more. And although the Hammaguir space facility in Algeria is no longer in use, CNES operates out of the Kourou Space Center in French Guiana and the Toulouse Space Center in southern France today.

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A stamp series commemorating the Diamant rocket and Asterix.

Tracking Asterix

Though inoperative, Asterix still orbits the Earth once every 107 minutes in an elliptical low Earth orbit. Asterix ranges from a perigee of 523 kilometers to an apogee of 1,697 kilometers. In an orbit inclined 34 degrees relative to the Earth’s equator, Asterix isn’t expected to reenter for several centuries.

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A replica of Asterix hanging in the Paris Air and Space Museum. Image credit: Pine/Wikimedia Commons

A 42 kilogram satellite approximately a meter across, Asterix is visible worldwide from about 40 degrees north to 40 degrees south latitude. Essentially a binocular object, you can nonetheless see Asterix from your backyard if you know exactly where and when to look for it in the sky. Asterix will appear brightest on a perigee pass directly overhead.

Asterix’s NORAD ID satellite catalog number is 01778/COSPAR ID 1965-096A.

The orbital trace of Asterix. Image credit: Orbitron
The orbital trace of Asterix. Image credit: Orbitron

When it comes to hunting for binocular satellites, you need to now exactly where it’ll be in the sky at what time. We use Heavens-Above to discern exactly when a given satellite will pass a bright star, then simply watch at the appointed time with binoculars. We also run WWV radio in the background for a precise audio time hack. This allows us to keep our eyes continuously on the sky. This simple method is similar to that used by Project Moonwatch volunteers to track and record satellites starting in the late 1950s.

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The evolution of the Diamant rocket.

Other satellite challenges from the early Space Age include Alouette-1 (Canada’s first satellite), Prospero (UK’s first and only indigenous satellite) and the oldest of them all, the first three Vanguard satellites launched by the United States.

Don’t miss a chance to see this living relic of the early space age, still in orbit. Happy 50th to the CNES space agency: may your spirit of space exploration continue to soar and inspire us all.

Is Iran REALLY Planning on Sending a Cat Into Space?

“I’m going where?”

No, this isn’t The Onion… as a concerned consumer of all that is space news, you have indeed arrived at the cyber-doorstep of Universe Today.

I’ll admit though, that we did do a double take about a week back when a peculiar claim came our way via the Iranian Space Agency. Yes, there is an Iranian Space Agency, and it’s kind of frightening that they remain open for business while NASA is largely shutdown.

In mid-September, senior Iranian space program official Mohammad Ebrahimi issued a statement that Iran will attempt another bio-capsule launch “within 45 days”. The unwilling occupant: a Persian cat.

Apparently, a rabbit, a mouse, and another “Space Monkey” were also in the running. Iran’s space program is shrouded in secrecy, and most launches are only announced after they’ve been conducted. This is a convenient political strategy for hiding launch failures that harkens back to the early days of the Cold War. You’re right in guessing that the Iranian Space Agency probably won’t hold a Tweetup for this one. Many western analysts see the Iran’s space effort as a thinly veiled attempt to develop its long range ballistic missile technology. Along with Israel, Iran remains the only Middle Eastern country with the proven technology to conduct indigenous satellite launches.

Iran has stated that it hopes to put an astronaut in orbit by 2019.  The Pishgam (or “Pioneer” in Farsi) 2 bio-capsule launch could occur from a mobile launcher at Semnan Space Center as early as October 15th.  Satellite sleuths are also expecting activity at Semnan to pick up this month, with the possible launch of SharifSat atop a Safir 1-B rocket, and Iran’s Toulou satellite aboard a rumored new launch vehicle.

Iran successfully became a space-faring nation with the launch of its 27 kilogram Omid satellite on February 2nd, 2009. It isn’t immediately clear if the upcoming launch will be an orbital launch or a sub-orbital ballistic shot. If Pisgam-2 achieves orbit, said “Space Cat” would become the first feline to circle the Earth. If recovery is attempted —again, Iran is always nebulous as to their intentions— it would also be the first time they’ve achieved a return from orbit.

But is “Space Cat” even a reality?

Iran has been caught red-handed before playing a shell game with the media in terms of its space program. Earlier this year, “Monkey-gate” erupted, as before-and-after images from the Pisgam-1 bio-capsule suborbital launch clearly showed two different monkeys before and after the flight:

Monkey business? Iran displayed a decidedly different looking monkey before, during, and after launch earlier this year! (Credit: Iran News Agency).
Monkey business? Iran displayed a decidedly different looking monkey before, during, and after launch earlier this year! (Credit: Iran News Agency).

Clearly, Iran and other ‘Axis of Evil’ countries definitely need to sharpen their Photoshop, or at least their monkey-switching skills. Either said monkey launch never actually occurred, or (more likely), the unwilling Iranian space primate never survived the flight.

Perhaps this is why Iran decided on a feline occupant this time around, for possible ease of replacement?

PETA, the People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, have also issued a statement concerning the impending launch of “Space Cat” by Iran, calling the action an “archaic experiment, a throwback to the primitive techniques of the 1950’s.”

NASA did entertain the idea of "Catronauts" early in the space program. (Credit: NASA).
NASA did entertain the idea of “Catronauts” early in the space program. (Credit: NASA).

The U.S. and the Soviet Union launched animals into space as a prelude to human spaceflight. On November 3rd, 1957, Laika the dog became the first animal to orbit the Earth. Laika perished is space due to overheating, as did several unfortunate monkeys that were launched on the first US ballistic tests.

Russia still conducts the occasional launch of animals into space, including the Bion-1M “Space Zoo” mission earlier this year. The Bion missions allow for scientists to dissect the specimens afterwards to study the effects of a month in zero-g, something you can’t do with humans.

And the U.S. did once fly cats in zero-g aboard its Convair C-131 “Vomit Comet” aircraft, as can be seen in this bizarre video:

But the first cat in space was actually launched by France atop a Veronique AGI sub-orbital rocket 50 years ago this month on October 18th, 1963. It would be ironic if Iran conducted it launch this month on the anniversary! The story goes the Felix, the original cat slated for the flight, escaped just prior to launch from the Sahara desert Hammaguir test site in Algeria, and was replaced by the “backup crew,” a female cat named Felicette. Felicette survived the 15 minute flight, reaching an apogee of 217 kilometres. A follow-up launch of a second cat six days later wasn’t so lucky.

Felicette (left) and Felix in publicity shots prior to launch.  Note the cranial electrode (!) implants.
Felicette (left) and Felix in publicity shots prior to launch. Note the cranial electrode (!) implants. (Credit: Marjorie-art Voila.net)

As always, Iran’s intentions for the future of its space program remain hidden. Their current launch capabilities remain limited, and are a far cry from being able to hoist a human into orbit anytime soon. If the launch of “Space Cat” does come to pass this month, it’ll be over protests from animal rights groups and the general public. Hey, didn’t the former Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad  say earlier this year after “Monkey-Gate” that he was willing to be “The first Iranian to be sacrificed by the scientists of my country and go into space” as the first Iranian astronaut? Is he really going to let Space Cat upstage him?

Felix and Felicette where also commemorated on several African postage stamps. (Credit:
Felix and Felicette where also commemorated on several African postage stamps. (Credit: Majorie-art.voila.net).

Read a great synopsis of the history of felines in space from Heather Archulletta @Pillownaut.