All posts by Michael L Umbricht

I’m the Curator of the historic Ladd Observatory. The Observatory opened in 1891 and is part of the Department of Physics at Brown University. Today it is operated as a working museum where visitors can experience astronomy as it was practiced a century ago. I spend most of my time presenting science outreach and public education programs, demonstrations, and exhibits. I’m also responsible for the historic scientific instrument collection. My primary research interest is late 19th and early 20th century astronomy with a focus on precision timekeeping using mechanical clocks and transit telescopes. Other research includes the early history of wireless and the industrialization of Providence.

EQUiSat 1.0 (and future revisions)

Idea for EQUiSat 2.0: “Hall thruster powered by LiFePO4s – to go to the moon”

―Mckenna Cisler ’20, Brown Space Engineering

It began as a thought experiment for a class in 2011: “Developing a mission plan for a space related project.” On July 13, 2018 that plan became a reality when astronauts aboard the International Space Station (ISS) deployed EQUiSat. Undergraduate students from the Brown Space Engineering (BSE) team had designed and built a “cubesat” which NASA then launched on a cargo supply mission to the ISS in May of 2018. After deployment it started transmitting data from low-earth orbit to an antenna on the roof of Ladd Observatory and another ground station at Sapienza in Rome, Italy. In the words of former team member and class of ’14 astrophysicist Emily Gilbert: “***IT’S ALIVE! IT’S ALIVEEEEE!!!!***

Constructing EQUiSat
Hunter Ray working on EQUiSat in the Brown Space Engineering lab on Dec.10, 2017.

The idea for their mission was to test a new battery technology called lithium iron phosphate (LiFePO4) which had never flown in space.  While all space missions are risky using untested components for an important scientific mission or in an expensive commercial satellite is an unacceptably high risk. The students set out to build an inexpensive testbed to prove this technology. The satellite cost $3,776.61 to build. That price tag doesn’t include the countless hours spent by more than 200 students to design and fabricate the parts of the satellite. NASA agreed to launch the satellite for free. If the results look promising it could lower the cost of future space missions and enable new capabilities.

But the technical requirements of the mission are merely a backdrop for a broader vision. The real goal and larger dream of BSE mechanical engineer Hunter Ray ’18 is “For space to become more affordable and accessible to a community other than astronauts and rocket scientists and to be able to look up at the Moon and see the lights of the first permanent extraplanetary settlement.

Continue reading EQUiSat 1.0 (and future revisions)


On March 2, 2018 a severe storm impacted southeastern New England. The storm was classified as a Nor’easter which is named for the characteristic strong winds from the northeast. During the storm our weather station recorded fifty-five wind gusts greater than 50 miles per hour. The two strongest were 62 mph at 1:48 and again at 1:50 pm.

Average wind speed and highest wind gusts graph.

Continue reading Nor’easter

“An excellent apparatus”

“Connected with this school is an excellent apparatus, including a telescope, which we understand to be among the largest in the State; this, however. is owned by the Principal, Mr. J. M. Ross.

―”Town of Smithfield.”  Twenty-First Annual Report on Public Schools, January 1866.

The School Committee of the Town of Smithfield submitted a report to the General Assembly of the State of Rhode Island for the school year ending May 1, 1865. One of the challenges conveyed was poor attendance by pupils “… who were suffered to be roaming the streets and fields, when they should have been at school.”

Map of Lonsdale
Map showing the location of the village of Lonsdale in the southeastern portion of Smithfield. From Map of the State of Rhode Island and Providence Plantations by Henry F. Walling, 1855.

The Committee highlights the success of the school at Lonsdale, the only high school in the town at the time. The principal is praised for his work and it is mentioned that he lends his own personal telescope for use by the students. The school is seen as a model that other school districts should emulate.

Continue reading “An excellent apparatus”

The observatory that wasn’t

“The writer of this sketch has been there when the building was thronged with guests; some of them in the upper story enjoying the breezes, and the delightful views far and near; some below were at the billiard or card table; some in the nine-pin alley; some in the saloon; and some in the refectory. The hill itself has utterly disappeared and the neighboring houses have all been either removed or torn down, and all that now remains of this once noted scene of fashion, amusement, gayety and dissipation is this picture of the observatory and of several other buildings,—a picture that was taken near the close of the first third of this century.”

― “Fox Point Observatory.” Publications of the Rhode Island Historical Society, April, 1895.

This is not what I was expecting to find when searching for information on the Fox Point Observatory. It was named for the scenic views of Narragansett Bay, rather than for astronomical viewing which is what I was looking for. The only telescope used here appears to be a spyglass for viewing the sailing ships approaching the port by an observer on the deck, as shown below.

Fox Point Observatory.
“The Observatory” as it looked in the early nineteenth century. By Edward Peckham as reproduced in “A Painter of Old Providence.” The Journal of American History, 1912.

Continue reading The observatory that wasn’t

Fellow Travelers

“The radio signals of the satellite [Sputnik II] were followed and recorded on tape frequently by Mr. C. Newton Kraus, an outstanding radio amateur of Touisset Point, R.I. He had followed Sputnik I signals for the three weeks that the transmitters continued to function.”

―Charles H. Smiley, The First Artificial Earth Satellites, August 1958.

On October 4, 1957 the Soviet Union launched the first artificial Earth satellite which was called Sputnik I. The word Sputnik simply means “satellite” or, more generally, “fellow traveler.” The quotes from Prof. Charles Smiley, director of Ladd Observatory, are from a report published in The Hinterlands, the Bulletin of the Western Rhode Island Civic Historical Society. He describes how Sputnik I could be seen from all parts of the Earth and reports on the local observations of it: “In Rhode Island, between October 12 and November 27, it was observed at Ladd Observatory of Brown University on 13 different passages for a total of 33.2 minutes.” The observed positions and motion were plotted on a star map.

Observations of Sputnik I
Observations of the Sputnik I rocket body from southeastern New England. October 12-17, 1957.

The satellite itself was only 22 inches in diameter and would have been difficult to see from the ground. Instead, they were observing the rocket that launched the satellite which also entered orbit. The second stage of the rocket was 92 feet long and 9.7 feet in diameter. Sunlight reflecting off the rocket body was much easier to see. Notice that observers in Providence RI, Nantucket MA, and Mansfield CT saw the rocket in a slightly different position against the background stars due to parallax.

Continue reading Fellow Travelers