Archive for October, 2007

More Gilat Rumors

Wednesday, October 31st, 2007

Back in August, we reported on the rumor that Hughes was looking to buy Gilat. That rumor (not necessarily our reporting on it) sent Gilat’s stock climbing sharply, from the $8.50 range then to just over $11 per share now.

That deal never happened, but rumors of new suitors are again making the rounds. As Aaron Katsman writes: 

Last weekend’s FT article about Gilat Satellite Networks (GILT), and potential suitors has received a lot of attention over the last few days. The article said that the company could fetch upwards of $500 million in a deal. That puts it about 15% above it’s current market value. I would expect a deal to get done, and I wouldn’t be surprised if it was for even more than the predicted $500 million.

Gilat’s business is doing well. Its revenues for Q2 ‘07 were at a 5-year high, and its net income grew strongly. It also continues to sign both extensions, and new deals. On Wednesday, it signed an expansion deal with Russian telecommunications provider North-West Telecom (NWTEY.PK). North-West Telecom is expanding its Gilat SkyEdge satellite network to bring telephony, and broadband Internet services to a growing number of remote communities in northwest Russia. The network expansion will serve many more sites in the Murmansk, Karelia, Komi and Vologda regions. Heck, if can do a deal in Kamchatka, it would win in RISK. 

Globes Online reports that William Blair believes Apollo or ViaSat are the likeliest buyers of Gilat, and notes that Mivtach Shamir Holdings Ltd. (TASE:MISH) offered to buy Gilat at $10 per share in the first quarter, but that this was a price that Gilat "deemed too low, but management left open the possibility of being acquired if it found the ‘right opportunity’."

We’ll let you know when and if Gilat finds a suitor (and a price) to its liking. 

Space University Sets Up Shop on Isle of Man

Wednesday, October 31st, 2007


The Isle of Man, the tiny island in the Irish Sea that has been luring space and satellite companies to its shores with the promise of simple regulations and low taxes, has scored another victory:

The International Space University (ISU) has launched the International Institute of Space Commerce (IISC) as the world’s leading authority on space commerce. It is located at the International Business School (IBS) in the Isle of Man to capitalise on the island’s growing importance as a space industry jurisdiction….

By agreement with the ISU, the Isle of Man Government has made a five-year commitment to establish and host the IISC. Both ISU and the IBS are working together to strengthen links between the two institutions with the longer term goal of facilitating both academic and student exchanges to the benefit of both groups.

The decision to locate the IISC in the Isle of Man followed the first-ever board meeting for over a decade of ISU trustees outside their Strasbourg base, and which took place last September on the island. There the trustees saw at first hand the strong commitment and innovation of the Isle of Man space commerce industry. 

Isle of Man Minister for Space Alex Downie said, "Welcoming the IISC to the Isle of Man is part of our overall strategy to encourage space innovation."

 That strategy seems to be working quite well: Sea Launch Co., Inmarsat and Loral Skynet are among the companies that have set up subsidiaries on the Isle of Man. And it’s a strategy that the Isle of Man is aggressively pursuing; they recently knocked Bermuda out of the competition for a satellite slot worth an estimated $850 million a year in revenue serving the North American market:

The Island’s initial application for the slot, in 2002, was followed by one from Bermuda for a very similar frequency on the radio spectrum that would have caused interference.

The Island’s Communications Commission was granted £500,000 of legal expenses by Tynwald to allow it to argue against conflicting filings of this nature.

A subsequent representation to Ofcom resulted in a consultative document recommending that, in the result of conflicting filings, the party making the first application would have priority, meaning that legal action was not required.

So what’s the appeal of this small island in the Irish Sea? A very pro-business political environment certainly helps: 

 The Isle of Man has long had a reputation as a banking, insurance and shipping center, and the government now is working to become known as an optimal place for other kinds of businesses to set up shop, he said.

"The Isle of Man has been one of the fastest-growing economies in Europe over the last 10 years, and we have a desire to diversify the Manx economy into new and innovative technologies," Ramsey said in a telephone interview from the capital city of Douglas. Manx is the traditional reference to things related to the Isle of Man. "We have a small economy, and we only need a small slice of cake to boost it significantly."

In addition to the space industry, the Isle of Man also is trying to attract the film industry, Ramsey said.

And that it’s a nice place to live doesn’t hurt:

With a population of approximately 76,000, the Island enjoys one of the highest standards of living in Europe, with a higher GDP per capita than the UK. It is recognised by the IMF as a jurisdiction “of the highest standing” and is ‘AAA’ rated by both Standard and Poor’s and Moody’s.

In addition to its focus on space interests, as one of the world’s larger international finance centres, the Isle of Man boasts a thriving captive insurance market, one of the largest shipping fleets (with more tonnage on the Manx registry than the British fleet), a super yacht register, a specialised high tech manufacturing sector and a growing film industry.

Interestingly, as a Crown Dependency, the Island is fully self regulating via its Parliament, the Tynwald, which is the world’s oldest continuous legislature celebrating this year its 1,026th anniversary of democratic home rule. The Isle of Man is neither constitutionally, politically, nor legally part of the United Kingdom, unlike an Overseas Territory or colony of the UK. It benefits from membership of the WTO, the IMF, and the OECD and other relevant international bodies by dint of its relationship with the UK. The Island also has a special relationship with the EU under which it enjoys free movement of goods within the EU but is not subject to the vast majority of EU law (most notably rules governing tax harmonisation).

But how’s the weather? Maritime gray.

HDTV Penetration

Wednesday, October 31st, 2007


Think you know about the HDTV market? No question: HDTV is the differentiator. It is or will be why people switch pay-TV providers. DirecTV and Dish Network are in a race toward offering the most HD channels. Local cable companies like Cablevision are giving away HD as part of any digital package. All because the Consumer Electronics Association released figures back in July that 32% of U.S. households have HDTVs — inflection point’s coming at us fast.

Akamai is passing by all this by offering HD content delivery on the Web.

But wait, what’s this from Nielsen? Only 13.7% of households are "HD capable?" The latest, via Broadcasting & Cable:

Measurement giant Nielsen finally released estimates of high-definition-set penetration for both the total United States and Local People Meter markets, and the overall numbers may surprise some consumer-electronics manufacturers and programmers as being rather low — particularly given the recent momentum of HD-set sales and launches of new HD networks.

They may also disappoint advertisers, which have long been seeking clarity on the actual size of the HD audience.

Nielsen found that only 13.7% of TV households in the United States — or roughly 15.5 million out of 112.8 million total U.S. TV households — are equipped with HD televisions and HD tuners capable of receiving HDTV signals, a status Nielsen described as “HD Capable.”

Nielsen didn’t define what an “HD tuner” means, but a conversation with a Nielsen spokesman indicated that it could mean an integrated ATSC (Advanced Television Systems Committee) tuner in the set or a connected HD-capable cable or satellite set-top (there are also over-the-air set-tops that receive HD signals, albeit few).

That 13.7% figure is much lower than research from the Consumer Electronics Association, the trade group representing HDTV-set manufacturers. The CEA estimated that HDTV household penetration in July 2007 stood at 32% — or some 36 million homes, going by Nielsen’s household numbers — and would rise to 36% by year-end. The CEA put the total number of HDTV sets sold by year-end 2006 at 39.9 million, climbing to 60.6 million by the end of this year, and it said one-third of HD households own multiple sets.

Of course, not all HDTV sets are actually used to watch HD programming — something both set-makers and programmers have long lamented. Industry research has generally indicated that anywhere from 40%-60% of HD sets are still being fed exclusively with standard-definition content, either because consumers don’t know any better or they haven’t bothered to sign up for HD cable or satellite service or to hook their TVs up to over-the-air antennas to receive local broadcast HD signals.

The CEA’s own research, in fact, indicated that in 2007, only 44% of HDTV owners are actually receiving HD programming. A CEA spokesperson explained that this was because many consumers buy the wide-screen sets simply to watch DVD movies.

But Nielsen sees HDTV consumption in a more optimistic light. Its HDTV estimates — based on in-home collection by its field staff in metered samples and currently limited to National and Local People Meter samples — suggested that 11.3% of U.S. TV households, or some 12.7 million homes equipped with HD televisions and HD tuners, receive at least one HD network or station, a category it calls “HD Receivable.” And those 12.7 million homes are included within the overall 15.5 million household total, which would indicate that some 82% of homes with HD sets are actually using them to watch HDTV.

That 82% usage number, frankly, is far more surprising than Nielsen’s HDTV household estimate, as it would suggest a much higher adoption of HDTV content among HD set-owners than even the most optimistic network programmers and engineers would claim. When repeatedly asked for further clarification, a Nielsen spokesman stood by the numbers. But he added that Nielsen had actually found that some 21% of U.S. households, or 23.6 million, have HD displays but not necessarily tuners.

Using that larger number from Nielsen — which inexplicably was not included in its press release — means that only 53.8% (the aforementioned 12.7 million) of HDTV-display owners are using them to consume HD content. That usage number falls more in line with CEA research and other industry studies.

In market-by-market breakdowns, Nielsen found that Los Angeles has the highest penetration of HD Capable homes, with 20.4%, or some 1.2 million households, while New York has the highest penetration of HD Receivable homes with some 17.5%, or 1.3 million households.

But the market-by-market numbers don’t include a total for HDTV displays, regardless of whether or not they have tuners, so they similarly lack clarity and suggest an adoption of HD content that is probably much higher than reality. For example, a quick look at the data Nielsen released would suggest that 1.29 million of the 1.33 million HD Capable homes in the New York DMA — or some 97% — are watching HD content.

Nielsen also released some demographic data on HDTV, reporting that 10.4% of U.S. Hispanic or Latino households are HD Capable and 8.2% are HD Receivable, while 8.1% of African-American households are HD Capable and 6.9% are HD Receivable.

 I still think HD will make a difference — especially in the major markets.


Bringing IPTV to Market: The Legal Front

Tuesday, October 30th, 2007

Local cable franchises, eager to maintain their control over delivery of content to local markets, have been fighting IPTV entrants everywhere.

In response, Verizon has chosen the strategy of pursuing state-wide franchises for a couple of years now. In New Jersey:

 Twenty-six communities, business organizations and a county freeholder board are calling on Gov. Richard Codey and state legislators to end the cable industry’s stranglehold on the video marketplace.

The resolutions were issued over the past month, with Howell Township this week becoming the most recent community to support updating New Jersey’s 30-year-old laws to permit state-issued franchises. Under current law, a competitor to the monopoly cable-TV provider must obtain franchises community-by-community, a time-consuming process that inhibits competition.

As a sign of how contentious the introduction of IPTV has become, AT&T recently announced it was going to court in Connecticut to open up the statewide marketplace: 

AT&T will file a lawsuit challenging the Connecticut Department of Public Utility Control’s decision not to grant the company a statewide video franchise for its U-verse service, a company spokeswoman confirmed today.

The company admitted surprise Monday when the CDPUC ruling was announced, since the state has a video franchise law, and AT&T expected to be able to continue providing its U-verse IPTV service, which it launched in three Connecticut markets earlier this year, under a statewide franchise. Instead, the DPUC said AT&T’s offering is a cable TV service and therefore requires cable TV franchise agreements with individual municipalities.

AT&T also is threatening to immediately eliminate 300 jobs in the state, cancel plans to fill 1000 other positions, redirect its investment to other states and disconnect its more than 7000 current U-verse customers in the state.

The CDPU, surprisingly, justified its decision by explaining it had classified IPTV as a cable service

A new FCC rule could change the rules governing the market, however, allowing for easier entrance of IPTV offerings: 

The Federal Communications Commission reportedly will end thousands of contracts giving cable companies exclusive service rights in U.S. apartment buildings.

The rule under consideration could stem the rising costs of cable and open markets across the United States to more competition, The New York Times reported.

At the same time, it would be seen as a victory for telecom giants Verizon Communications and AT&T, which have lobbied for the change — with support from consumer groups, satellite TV providers and smaller rivals to large cable companies, the newspaper said.

FCC officials and consumer groups said the new rule — which is set to be approved Wednesday — could result in lower cable fees for millions of subscribers who live in apartment buildings.

Studies have indicated prices can drop by as much as 30 percent when a second cable company enters a market, the Times reported.

We’ll keep you updated. 


Fast-track Road Trip

Tuesday, October 30th, 2007

Cross-country road trips serve as a right of passage — one of the few memorable and transformational experiences that almost anyone can do (we’re not talking about hiking the Appalachian Trail here). It can be a remarkable experience: have a pint at a rural dive-bar, detour on the historic Route 66, spend the night at a college dormitory, eat breakfast at truck-stops, and, most importantly, just enjoy the ride. So, what’s the rush?

Roy’s memoir, The Driver: My Dangerous Pursuit of Speed and Truth in the Outlaw Racing World, will hit bookstores this week, serving dual purposes. For one, its narrative proffers the backstory to Team Polizei, the Teutonic-themed guise Roy derived for the Gumball rally in 2003. Perhaps more important, at least for automotive information junkies, is the formal declaration it’ll issue. And this is it: Roy and co-driver Dave Maher last year raced from New York City to Santa Monica Pier – a total of 2,795 miles across 13 states — in a 2000 BMW M5, arriving after 31 hours, 4 minutes on the road. If accepted by the community of rally cohorts who scrutinize such matters, that time will best all other such records of lore, the most recent clocked this past May, when rivals Richard Rawlings and Dennis Collins claimed a time of 31 hours, 59 minutes from New York City to Redondo Beach, California in a black Ferrari 550. It also dramatically undercuts the celebrated record of 32 hours, 7 minutes set by David Diem and Doug Turner, winners of the 1983 US Express.

The New York Times has more, including a photo:

The message came across the police scanner in October 2006 as Alexander Roy was driving his 2000 BMW M5 west on Interstate 44 in Oklahoma: “I have a report of a blue BMW speeding, weaving in and out of traffic and driving recklessly. Be advised.”

Roy said he heard it shortly after he and his co-driver, David Maher, had been exceeding 150 miles an hour. As Maher scanned the prairie through binoculars for a place to hide, the car’s radar detectors lighted up. They decided to exit the highway and feign a bathroom break while a support team in a Cessna overhead searched for the speed trap that would inevitably materialize.

Having temporarily escaped, Roy eased back onto the highway. As he approached two state police vehicles waiting on the median, he ducked to the right of a tractor-trailer in a move he called “the cross-country racer’s ideal police line-of-sight blocking position.”

You can check out a detailed “driveplan” here. They made a total of only five fuel stops, thanks to a reserve fuel tank, as part of the gear.

The gear is all bought and loaded. Twenty packs of Nat Sherman Classic Light cigarettes, check. Breath mints, check. Glucose and guarana, Visine and riboflavin, Gatorade and Red Bull, mail-order porta-pissoir bags of quick-hardening gel, check.

Randolph highway patrol sunglasses, 20-gallon reserve fuel tank, Tasco 8 x 40 binoculars fitted with a Kenyon KS-2 gyro stabilizer, military spec Steiner 7 x 50 binoculars, Hummer H1-style bumper-mounted L-3 Raytheon NightDriver thermal camera and LCD dashboard screens, front-and-rear-mounted sensors for a Valentine One radar/laser detector, flush bumper-mount Blinder M40 laser jammers, redundant Garmin StreetPilot 2650 GPS units, preprogrammed Uniden police radio scanners, ceiling-mount Uniden CB radio with high-gain whip antenna. Check. Check. Check.

The car’s modifications:

So, this isn’t just an average road-trip on speed. In fact, Roy and his team were breaking a record originally set back in 1971. Still, I’d still prefer my lazy journey and lots of Fast Food breaks.

Name That Asteroid

Tuesday, October 30th, 2007

赵九章 – "Zhao Jiuzhang"


That who we’re naming an asteroid after, according to eViewWeek:


An asteroid has been named after late Chinese geo-scientist Zhao Jiuzhang with the approval of the International Minor Planet Center (IMPC) and the International Minor Planet Nomenclature Committee (IMPNC).


Asteroid No. 7811 was discovered on Feb. 23, 1982, by astronomers at the Purple Mountain Observatory of the Chinese Academy of Sciences, according to a gazette of the IMPC and IMPNC.


Zhao Jiuzhang, who was born in central China’s Henan Province in 1907 and died in 1968, made significant contributions to the development of atmospheric science, geophysics and space science, especially the development of China’s first satellite. He is also one of the founders of modern meteorology in China.


According to international convention, those who discover minorplanets and have confirmation from the IMPC and the IMPNC have the right to name them.


So far, more than 30 minor planets have been named after ancient and contemporary Chinese scientists by Chinese or overseas astronomical observatories.


I thought I read somewhere he was killed by the Red Guards during the "Cultural Revolution" in 1968. Does having an asteroid named after you make up for it? Maybe.


Read more about the Minor Planet Center.


Monday, October 29th, 2007

SES is announcing today its financial results for Q3 of 2007, reporting strong recurring revenue And EBITDA growth. Highlights include:

  •  Recurring  revenue of EUR 405 m was up 9.9% on the prior year period
  • Reported revenue was EUR 406.9 m (Q3 2006: EUR 481.8 m)
  • The prior year period included one-time items totalling EUR 83 m (as reported)
  • Recurring1 EBITDA of EUR 290 m was 17.1% ahead of the prior year period
  • Reported EBITDA was EUR 283.2 m (Q3 2006: EUR 323.9 m)
  • The prior year period included one-time items totaling EUR 59 m (as reported)
  • Operating profit was  EUR 175.9 m (Q3 2006: EUR 199.6 m)
  • Net profit was EUR 138.8 m (Q3 2006: EUR 132.0 m)
  • 12 month weighted EPS 0.92 (2006 reported EPS EUR 0.82), favourably impacted by the ongoing share buyback programme

The full report can be read here in PDF.

Romain Bausch, President and CEO of SES, comments in the report:

"Despite the introduction of additional satellite capacity via the move of ASTRA 2C to 28.2 degrees East, the group fleet utilisation rate has remained high, at 75%.  The growth of our operational business, coupled with some financial developments and our ongoing share buyback activities, translates into a strong earnings per share growth through the year.

"This positive trend will continue. We have revised upwards our 2007 guidance for both revenues and EBITDA. In our 2008 guidance, we show revenue growth exceeding 6%. Over the period 2008 – 2010 the revenue CAGR  will equal or exceed the growth rate foreseen in the guidance for 2008, with an infrastructure EBITDA margin of over 81%."

Intelsat has yet to report on their Q3 results, though in Q2 they reported EBITDA at just over $410 million.


Malagasy Cup Uses Satcom to Stay Connected

Friday, October 26th, 2007

We recognize the what cup? might be your first response to the title of this post. What is this, as Rocco asked, a geography lesson?

Well, sort of. Malagasy, of course, refers to Madagascar, and the Malagasy Cup is a race from Anakao to Andavadoaka “for traditional Malagasy vessels, boutry and pirogue/lakarna vezo…. with dozens of vessels making the 200 kilometre journey in five stages stopping at: Tulear; Ifaty; Salary; Ambatamilo and finally Andavadoaka.”

Anakoa looks particularly inviting to us on this gray rainy East Coast of America day:

Vizada is helping the general public follow the race:

 New video satellite communications will make it possible for the general public to follow the five stages of the Malagasy Cup…  occurring along the Madagascar Coast. This is because Vizada (formerly FTMSC) and Satellite Air Time will manage the race communications as well as communicate photos and videos from these remote areas. The BGAN (Broadband Global Area Network) service will allow journalists to follow the race as well as to send video and photo reports from the race’s five, staging point villages. The BGAN laptop sized satellite terminal uses high-speed Internet connections of up to 492 kbps to send large volume of data in areas that lack mainstream telecom networks.

Iridium satphones will allow competitors and organizers the ability to stay in permanent contact with the capital city, Antananarivo, as 200 canoes and 30 dhows cross the staring line of the Malagasy Cup. This is a 200 km race along the world’s third largest reef in southwest Madagascar and offers a unique opportunity to showcase the traditional sailing boats of the Vezo “people of the sea” as well as the preserved landscape of this area of the world.

Vizada is also a reseller of aeronautical satcom services from Inmarsat; two days ago, they announced the release of Swiftbroadband, which is “Inmarsat’s first fully IP-based, high-speed data service offering broadband in-flight connectivity including both cockpit communications and cabin applications.”

But back to Madagascar. Among its many fascinating natural wonders are lemurs; check out this video on YouTube to experience them firsthand.

DIY Friday: Your 100-MPG Microcar!

Friday, October 26th, 2007

Longtime readers of Really Rocket Science know we’re huge fans of the X-Prize, and we’ve been especially intrigued by the potential of an automotive X-Prize, whose objective is to promote the design of "viable, clean and super-efficient cars that people want to buy."

But what about design viable, clean and super-efficient cars that people want to DIY?


Jory Squibb of Camden, Maine put together Moonbeam (both pictured above), "a three-wheeled microcar that he built with $2,500 in parts and 1,000 hours of his labor, product of a mechanical engineering degree at Yale and a childhood growing up in Detroit as son of a General Motors man," according to the Nashua Telegraph:

Squibb says Moonbeam gets 85 mpg in the city and 105 mpg on the open road (it’s not fast enough for the interstate), despite the lack of a high-tech power plant.

It’s powered by an ordinary four-stroke, water-cooled engine, taken from a 150CC Honda motorscooter. He attributes the mileage largely to minimalism: Moonbeam only weighs 400 pounds, barely more than a decked-out Hummer’s hubcaps.

Squibb… knows Americans won’t abandon their F-150s for something that looks like a gunner’s ball turret from a World War II bomber. He regards Moonbeam as inspiration for other tinkerers, and perhaps a bit of comic relief in the important job of remaking our transportation system….

[A]s Squibb acknowledges, it will be just about impossible to give up oil, he thinks technology can greatly cut our use of it.

That’s why he has also joined the hunt for the Automotive X Prize.

This is an Earthbound version of the $10 million contest that prodded the first private spaceflight in 2004. (The X Prize Foundation also has a $10 million genomics contest for the first team to sequence 100 human genomes in 10 days.)

Details are still being worked out, but the idea is that a big-bucks Automotive X Prize will spur invention of a super-efficient, super-clean and super-marketable car – no concept vehicles, please.

Squibb is psyched, and he’s also psyched by signs the major companies are getting seriously involved in electric and alternative-fuel vehicles.

Luckily for us DIY fanatics, Squibb has his own website in which he describes how an average Joe (or Joette) can build their very own Moonbeam, and explains the reasoning behind some of his decisions in the design of the car — including the question of why three wheels instead of four, which we found rather edifying:

We pioneers and prototype makers are, to some degree, trapped with three wheels.   We want to go beyond two wheels for reasons of stability, enclosure, year-round use, and user friendliness.  Yet we are blocked from four wheels by the large amount of safety regulations of such cars.   And yet, for a prototype to be tested, seen, and thereby enter vehicle evolution, it needs to roll on the roads, and therefore be licensed, insured, and inspected.  A four wheel car will need dual brake systems, safety glass windows, air bags, impact bumpers, etc.

These requirements are based on safety, which is good.  It’s not that we are sleazes who want to build death-traps!   Rather, we need a little slack to try something new, something which in eventual production will have more safety refinements.  Building three wheelers,  which are classified as motorcycles, we have that breathing space.

There are also links to some cool videos of the Moonbeam in action, er, motion: 

Squibb and about 20 of his fellow visionaries from Down East have formed a team to compete in the Automotive X-Prize — but Moonbeam is not among them. Still, for $2,500 and 1,000 hours of labor, you can be cruising on in your very own Moonbeam by this spring. And with oil at $91 a barrel and rising, you can recoup that cost quickly!

Lightsaber Aboard the I.S.S.

Thursday, October 25th, 2007

The original prop used as Luke Skywalker’s lightsaber in "Return of the Jedi" (watch the trailer from 1983) is aboard the International Space Station, marking 30 years since the release of the first Star Wars movie in 1977. It’s not the first time historical items have made the trip into space, according to NASA (podcast):

The Wright Flyer got only a few feet off the ground during its maiden flight in 1903, but traveled to the moon 66 years later.

A lead cargo tag that took months to cross the Atlantic Ocean from England to the nascent colony at Jamestown recently made the same crossing in minutes.

Now a plastic handle whose sole role was to make the fictional world of Star Wars look realistic is ready to take a real trip to the stars aboard space shuttle Discovery for mission STS-120.

From pieces of history to articles of pop culture, the assortment of items astronauts have taken with them into space is as varied as the world the artifacts represent.

Most of the objects find esteemed homes when they return, such as a stuffed teddy bear that STS-116 Commander Mark Polansky took into orbit. The bear was a replica of one owned by a Holocaust survivor. The astronaut returned the replica to a museum after the flight for its collection.

For the Star Wars prop, a lightsaber handle that was used by Luke Skywalker, even the send-off was celebrated. Actors dressed as characters including Chewbacca and X-wing pilots escorted the item to an airport in California for the flight to NASA’s Johnson Space Center in Houston, where it was packed into a shuttle locker and taken to NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida for loading aboard Discovery.

Astronaut Jim Reilly, who flew three missions and has conducted eight spacewalks, said there is a symbolic tie between the lightsaber and the real-life work NASA does in space.

"There’s a kind of a fine line between science fiction and reality as far as what we do and it’s only just time really because a lot of what we’re doing right now was science fiction when I was growing up," he said. "I think it’s a neat link because it combines two space themes all at one time."

The lightsaber will spend 14 days in orbit on mission STS-120, but is not expected to leave the locker during the flight. It will be returned to Star Wars creator George Lucas’ film company after the mission.

It will not be the first time a Star Wars-related item has gone into orbit, though. Reilly said astronauts have taken small Star Wars toys into space with them when asked.

"Toy mementos, things like a Star Wars toy that might have meant something in their life, so there are any number of things that might be just a little out of the ordinary," he said.

More solemn markers have also accompanied astronauts. For example, Reilly’s STS-117 mission carried a medal earned by a World War II pilot who died in the war.

Patches, flags and medallions are routinely carried by the dozens or more on each flight, with some going on display and many going as awards to shuttle workers and VIPs.

"I think it makes it real," astronaut Rick Arnold said. "I lived in several countries and I think it’s nice to be able to present one of the flags that flew on our mission to those host countries as a thank you."

Arnold has been picked to fly aboard STS-119 in 2008, and is just starting to contemplate what to take with him to mark the occasion.

"There’s not a lot of room for personal items," he said.

Wedding rings and other small tokens are often taken into orbit. They are small enough to fit and large enough to have meaning. Each crew member is allowed to take about two pounds of mementos on their flight, but they must fit in a comparatively tiny area.

Astronaut Stephanie Wilson is taking a sheet of music from the Boston Symphony Orchestra onboard Discovery for mission STS-120. The music comes from Beethoven’s "Ode to Joy," a favorite in the orchestra’s extensive repertoire. Wilson worked at one time in a music store in Tanglewood, Mass., which is the summer home of the orchestra.

Some items never leave space, notably mission emblems like those stuck to the walls inside the International Space Station.

Another example is a golf ball astronaut Alan Shepard carried to the moon on Apollo 14 and hit with an improvised club.

Moonwalker Charles Duke left a portrait of his family on the lunar surface.

Thousands of signatures have also gone into the solar system in the form of computer codes imprinted on compact discs.

Whether they go into space to stay or to be appreciated anew back on Earth, the artifacts manage to find a unique home.

"When you get the chance to deliver that stuff back to your family and friends, they’re really excited about it," Reilly said.

Our favorite bring-along was the dried elk, crispbread and gingerbread by Swedish astronaut Crister Fuglesang.

Here’s the memorable lightsaber duel from that movie: