Posts Tagged ‘British Interplanetary Society’

‘I’: British Government Considering Solar Power Satellites

November 17, 2020

A bit more space technology news now. The weekend edition of the I, for Saturday 14th November 2020 carried a piece by Tom Bawden, ‘The final frontier for energy’ with the subtitle ‘Revealed: the UK is supporting a plan to create a giant solar power station in space’. The article ran

Millions of British homes could be powered by a giant solar power station 24,000 miles up in space within three decades, under proposals being considered by the government.

Under the plan, a system of five huge satellites – each more than a mile wide, covered in solar panels and weighing several thousand tons – would deliver laser beams of energy down to Earth.

These would provide up to 15 per cent of the country’s electricity supply by 2050, enough to power four million households – with the first space energy expected to be delivered by 2040. Each satellite would be made from tens of thousands of small modules, propelled into space through 200 separate rocket launches, and then assembled by robots.

The satellites would use thousands of mirrors to concentrate the sunlight on to the solar panels, which would be converted into high frequency radio waves. These would be beamed to a receiving antenna on the Earth, converted into electricity and delivered to our homes.

While the prospect of a solar space station beaming energy into our homes might seem outlandish, advocates are hopeful it can be done. The Government and the UK Space Agency are taking the technology extremely seriously, believing it could play a crucial role in helping the country to fulfil its promise of becoming carbon neutral – or net zero – by 2050, while keeping the lights on.

They have appointed the engineering consultancy Frazer-Nash to look into the technical and economic feasibility and it will report back next year.

“Solar space stations may sound like science fiction, but they could be a game-changing new source of energy for the UK and the rest of the world,” the science minister, Amanda Solloway, said.

“This pioneering study will help shine a light on the possibilities for a space-based solar power system which, if successful, could play an important role in reducing our emissions and meeting the UK’s ambitious climate-change targets,” she said.

Martin Soltau, of Frazer-Nash, who is leading the feasibility study, said: “This technology is really exciting and could be a real force for good. It has the potential to transform the energy market and make the net-zero target achievable – and from an engineering perspective it looks feasible.”

Previous analysis by other researchers on economic viability suggests space solar could be “competitive” with existing methods of electricity generation but that will need to be independently assessed, Mr Soltau said.

If the UK is to become net zero it needs to find a green source of energy that is totally dependable because the wind doesn’t always blow and the sun definitely doesn’t always shine.

This is where solar space comes in, with its panels sufficiently much closer to the sun that they are not blighted by clouds and darkness.

“This would provide a baseload of energy 24/7 and 365 days a year – and has a fuel supply for the next five billion years,” said Mr Soltau, referring to the predicted date of the sun’s eventual demise.

Until recently, this project really would have been a pipe dream – but two developments mean it is now a realistic prospect, Mr Soltau says.

The first is the new generation of reusable rockets, such as the Falcon 9 launcher from Elon Musk’s SpaceX, which mean satellites can be sent into space far more cheaply.

The cost of launching objects into low Earth orbit has gone from about $20,000 (£15,000) a kilogram in the early 2000s to less $3,000 now – and looks to fall below $1,000 in the coming years, he says.

At the same time, solar panels are much cheaper and more than three times as efficient as they were in the 1990s, meaning far fewer need to be sent into orbit to produce the same amount of energy.

Mr Soltau is hopeful, although by no means certain, that his study will find the technology to be feasible in economic and engineering terms – with the technology looking like it’s on track.

The five satellite solar power station system envisaged by the Government will probably cost more than £10bn – and potentially quite a lot more – more than the Hinkley Point C nuclear power station, which would produce roughly similar amounts of electricity, is expected to cost about £30bn, including decommissioning, Mr Soltau points out.

When all is said and done, there’s no getting away from the fact that building a satellite of that size and complexity in orbit is a mindboggling task. But it could well be feasible.

The article was accompanied by this diagram.

The captions read

  1. Solar reflectors: Orientation of satellite with respect to the Sun controlled to constantly reflect sunlight onto the solar power array below.
  2. Solar panels and transmitters: Approximately 60,000 layers of solar panels that collect the sunlight from the reflectors, and convert this to transmit high frequency radio waves.
  3. Power transmission: High frequency radio wave transmission from satellite to receiver on ground.
  4. Ground station: approximately 5k in diameter rectenna (a special type of receiving antenna that is used for converting electromagnetic energy into direct current (DC) electricity), generating 2 gigawatts of power enough for 2 million people at peak demand.

The solar reflectors are the objects which look rather like DVDs/CDs. The box at the top of the diagram gives the heights of a few other objects for comparison.

The ISS – 110m

The London Shard – 310m

The Burj Khalifa – 830m

The Cassiopeia solar satellite 1,700m.

The use of solar power satellites as a source of cheap, green energy was proposed decades ago, way back when I was at school in the 1970s. I first read about it in the Usborne Book of the Future. I don’t doubt that everything in the article is correct, and that the construction of such satellites would be comparable in price, or even possibly cheaper, than conventional terrestrial engineering projects. I went to a symposium on the popular commercialisation space at the headquarters of the British Interplanetary Society way back at the beginning of this century. One of the speakers was an engineer, who stated that the construction of space stations, including space hotels, was actually comparable in cost to building a tower block here on Earth. There was just a difference in attitude. Although comparable in cost, such space stations were viewed as prohibitively expensive compared to similar terrestrial structures.

Apart from the expense involved, the other problem solar power satellites have is the method of transmission. All the previous systems I’ve seen beamed the power back to Earth as microwaves, which means that there is a possible danger from cancer. The use of laser beams might be a way round that, but I still wonder what the health and environmental impact would be, especially if the receiving station is around 5 km long.

I also wonder if the project would ever be able to overcome the opposition of vested interests, such as the nuclear and fossil fuel industries. One of the reasons the Trump government has been so keen to repeal environmental legislation and put in place measures to prevent the Environmental Protection Agency from doing its job, is because the Republican party receives very generous funding from the oil industry, and particularly the Koch brothers. And there are plenty of Tory MPs who also possess links to big oil.

At the moment this looks like a piece of industry PR material. It’s an interesting idea, and I’ve no doubt that it’s factually correct, but given the resistance of the British establishment to new ideas, and especially those which might involve government expenditure, I have grave doubts about whether it will actually ever become a reality. Fossil fuels might be destroying the planet, but there are enough people on the right who don’t believe that’s happening and who get a very tidy profit from it, that I can see the oil industry being promoted against such projects for decades to come.

Have Astronomers Found Traces of Life on Venus?

September 19, 2020

The big story on Tuesday was that astronomers had discovered traces of a gas, phosphine, in the atmosphere of Venus. The gas is produced by living organisms, and so it’s discovery naturally leads to the possibility that the second planet from the Sun may be the abode of life.

The I’s edition for 15th September 2020 reported the discovery in an article by David Woods entitled, ‘Forget Mars, a startling discovery may mean there’s life on Venus’. This ran

Alien life could be thriving in the clouds above Venus: a team of astronomers detected a rare gas in its atmosphere, according to a study involving British researchers.

Venus, the second planet from the Sun, has a surface temperature of 500o C, and 96 per cent of its atmosphere is composed of carbon dioxide. But the discovery of phosphine, around 31 miles (50Km) from the planet’s surface, has indicated that life could prosper in a less hostile environment.

On Earth phosphine – a molecule of one phosphorus atom and three hydrogen atoms – is associated with life. It is found in places that have little oxygen, such as swamps, or with microbes living in the guts of animals.

A group of British, American and Japanese scientists – led by Jane Greaves from Cardiff University – first identified Venus’s phosphine using the James Clerk Maxwell Telescope in Hawaii. The presence of the gas was confirmed at an astronomical observatory of 45 telescopes in Chile. The discovery was published yesterday in the journal Nature Astronomy.

Professor Greaves said: “This was an experiment made out of pure curiosity. I thought we’d just be able to rule out extreme scenarios, like the clouds being stuffed full of organisms. When we got the first hints of phosphine in Venus’s spectrum, it was a shock.” Dr Emily Drabek-Maunder, a Royal Greenwich Observatory astronomer, who was part of the research team, added: “This was an incredibly difficult observation to make. We still have a long way to go before we can confirm how this gas is being produced but it is definitely an exciting time for science.”

The team is now awaiting more telescope time to establish whether the phosphine is in a particular part of the clouds, and to look for other gases associated with life. While the clouds above Venus have temperatures of around 30oC, they are made from 90 per cent sulphuric acid – a major issue for the survival of microbes.

Professor Emma Bunce, president of the Royal Astronomical Society, has called for a new mission to Venus to investigate the findings.

This reminds me somewhat of the excitement in the 1990s when scientists announced that they may have discovered microfossils of Martian bacteria in a meteorite from the Red Planet found in Antarctica. The above article was accompanied by another piece by Woods, ‘Nothing found since claims awed Clinton’, which described how former president Clinton had made an official announcement about the possibility of life on Mars when the putative microfossils were found. The article states that confirmation that these are indeed fossils is lacking. It also notes that 4,000 exoplanets have also now been found, and that some of them may have life, but this has also not been confirmed. Astronomers have also been searching the skies for radio messages from alien civilisations, but these haven’t been found either.

Dr Colin Pillinger, the head of the ill-fated Beagle Project, a British probe to the Red Planet, also argued that there was life there as traces of methane had been found. This looked like it had been produced by biological processes. In a talk he gave at the Cheltenham Festival of Science one year, he said that if a Martian farted, they’d find it.

A few years ago I also submitted a piece to the Journal of the British Interplanetary Society suggesting that there might be life in Venus’ clouds. It was based on the presence of organic chemicals there, rather similar, I felt, to those on Saturn’s moon, Titan, which at one time was also considered a possible home of alien life. I got a letter stating that the Journal was going to run it, but in the end they didn’t. I think it may have been because another, professional astronomer published an article about it just prior to the proposed publication of my piece. I think I threw out the Journal’s letter years ago while clearing out the house, and so I don’t have any proof of my claim. Which is obviously disappointing, and you’ll have to take what I say on trust.

The possibility that there’s life on Venus is interesting, and undoubtedly important in its implications for the existence of life elsewhere in the cosmos if true. But I think that, like the Martian microfossils, there isn’t going to be any confirmation for a very long time.

Elon Musk and Tom Cruise to Film Movie on International Space Station

June 23, 2020

Here’s another fascinating video that has absolutely nothing to do with politics. It’s from the YouTube channel Screen Rant, and reports the news that tech mogul Elon Musk and Tom Cruise are planning to film an action movie on location in space. They’re planning to use the International Space Station. Neil Lehmann, who was worked with Cruise before on previous movies, is going to be the director. And no, apparently it’s not a hoax or publicity stunt. NASA’s Jim Bridenstine has announced that the space agency is totally behind the idea, and hopes that it will inspire more people to be interested in space, and to become scientists and engineers.

There aren’t, however, any details yet regarding the movie’s title or what it will actually be about. It won’t be a sequel to Mission: Impossible nor to Top Gun: Maverick. Neither is it connected to another film set in space that starred, or was to star Cruise, Lunar Park. What is certain, however, is that it’s going to be expensive. It cost Musk $90 million to launch his $100,000 Tesla car into space. Another film-maker, Richard Garriott, also spent two weeks in space at the station, where he filmed a five minute short, Apogee Lost. NASA charged $30 million for those two weeks. The station is open to paying guests, who are charged $35,000 per night for their stay.

According to Garriott, the station isn’t the best place to shoot. Because of the weightlessness, anything not stuck down with velcro tends to float away, and he did have trouble with the sets and props he was using floating off the walls. It also gets hot up there, so the station has a multitude of ventilator fans going, whose noise may pose a problem when recording sound.

There’s also a problem in that Cruise, and everyone of the film crew who goes with him, must pass NASA’s stringent astronaut fitness tests. They also have to be proficient swimmers and pass the course on water survival as part of the rigorous astronaut training.

The film is being billed as the first to be shot in space. It isn’t that – that honour belong’s to Garriott’s, but it will be the first full-length movie shot in space. And Screen Rant says that it will be interesting to compare it with other SF films shot on Earth.

The video naturally includes clips from a number of Cruise’s movies, including Top Gun and Mission: Impossible.

I’m particularly interested in this news because I presented a paper at a meeting of the British Interplanetary Society recommending the same idea. 

It was at a symposium at the Society’s headquarters in London on the popular commercialisation space in September 2001. All of the talks presented were really fascinating, but the one that justly received the greatest interest and applause was on how space could be used for sport, especially Harry Potter’s school game, Quidditch. Some of the papers, including mine, were later published in the May/June 2002 issue of the Journal of the British Interplanetary Society (JBIS). The paper is quite long, so I’ll just put up the abstract:

Space exploration is the subject of intense media interest in a way unparalleled in any other branch of science. It is the subject of countless films and television programmes, both fact and fiction, many using original footage from space. Astronauts have broadcast live from the Moon, and TV journalists have travelled to Mir, similar to the use of exotic terrestrial locations for filming by professional film crews. Although prohibitively expensive at the moment, the next generation of spacecraft may lower launch costs to an affordable level, so that space locations become competitive against computer graphics and model work. The constructions of orbital hotels will create the demand for human interest stories similar to those set in holiday locations like the south of France and Italy made just after the Second World War, at a time when much tourism on foreign holidays was just beginning, aided by the development of large transport aircraft able to cater to the demand for mass flight.

Moreover, special effects and studio artificiality have been eschewed by a new generation of auteur directors in pursuit of cinema verite like the Danish Dogme ’94 group. These directors will prefer to travel to orbit to film, rather than use terrestrial studio locations and special effects. The construction of zero-gravity playrooms in orbital hotels may create new spectator sports which can only be played in low or zero gravity, necessitating sports journalists to travel into space to cover them. The lack of human-rated vehicles for the Moon and the great distance to Mars will rule these out as film locations for the foreseeable future, although journalists may well accompany colonists to Mars, and a native, Martian film industry may develop when that colony matures. (p.188).

I can’t claim that Musk and Cruise stole my idea, as I doubt Musk and Cruise are even aware my article exists, let alone have read it. When I wrote the paper, NASA was testing advanced spacecraft designs using aerospike engines, which they hoped would significantly reduce launch costs. These never materialised due to the repeated failures of the spacecraft leading to the programme’s cancellation. It may be, however, that the development of Musk’s SpaceX rocket, which has just successfully carried a crew to the ISS, may lead to the emergence of further spacecraft vehicles which may do this. NASA is also is also involved in the development of landers for a possible crewed mission to the Moon. Space hotels aren’t a reality yet, but a first step towards them was made in 2016 with the addition of an inflatable section, the Bigelow Expandable Activity Module (BEAM) to the International Space Station. This was launched aboard the Spacex rocket, and was developed by the hotel magnate Robert Bigelow.

Despite the immense costs involved, I hope this movie does get made and that it inspires other film makers to use space as a location. And I also hope they do start building proper space tourist hotels and start playing and broadcasting sports in space. After all, one of the last Apollo crewmen played golf on the Moon.

And if there are other billionaire space entrepreneurs looking for a few ideas to develop, perhaps they might consider another I had, which I discussed in a previous post. I had a piece published in one of the British Interplanetary Society’s magazine’s looking forward to competitive, human-carrying hobby rocketry, similar to hang gliding and microlights in aviation. I’d be delighted to see someone start developing that.












































Video of the V-9: the German Missile Against America

December 26, 2019

Hi peeps! I hope you had a great Christmas Day, and are enjoying Boxing Day.  Here’s another piece about German World War 2 aerospace technology. It’s a video from Mark Felton’s channel on YouTube about the America Rocket. Felton posts vlogs about World War II fighting machines, and in this video he describes how the rocket was designed by Werner von Braun to hit New York. It was a two-stage version of the V-2. Unlike its predecessor, however, it was to be piloted. The German guidance system couldn’t work over such a long range without beacons. The German navy tried placing these in Greenland and other places on the other side of the Atlantic, but they were quickly found and destroyed by the Allies. This left them with creating a piloted version of the missile their only option. It was not, however, a suicide weapon like the Japanese kamikaze. Just before or during its final dive, the pilot was expected to bail out and parachute to safety. Lack of funding and the turn of the War against the Nazis meant that this was fortunately never built. If it had been, not only would the Nazis have built the world’s first ICBM, but they would have been the first nation to put a man in space.

Again, I should say that while I’m impressed with the scientific and engineering expertise in the development of the V-2 and this missile, I despise its purpose. The V-2 was responsible for thousands of deaths in London, and the prospect of a missile that could hit New York is terrifying. Particularly if the Nazis had succeeded in developing nuclear weapons. And the Third Reich was, of course, a brutal dictatorship dedicated to the enslavement and extermination of millions.

After the War there was a plan by the British Interplanetary Society to adapt a captured V-2 so that it could carry a man into space. Nothing came of it, however, as when the plan was finalised the Ministry of Supply weren’t interested and the missiles and their parts were no longer available.

Astronomers Discover ‘Super-Earth’ around Barnard’s Star

November 15, 2018

Interesting little snippet in the I today. According to the paper, scientists have discovered a ‘super-Earth’ orbiting Barnard’s Star. The planet’s frozen, but they speculate there may nevertheless be water under its ice cap. The article runs

A frozen “super-Earth” has been discovered orbiting Barnard’s Star, the closest single star to the Sun. Despite temperatures of -150 degrees C, scientists believe there could be pockets of liquid water beneath the i8ce capable of harbouring life. Barnard’s Star is six light years from Earth and three times bigger. (p. 2).

Barnard’s Star is a red dwarf, a small, cool star smaller than the Sun. As a result, the ‘goldilocks’ zone around it, in which the temperatures are right for organic life as we know it, is also smaller and closer to the star. Way back in the 1960s one astronomer also believed he had detected two planets, about the size of Jupiter or bigger, orbiting it, but his findings were not confirmed by other astronomers.

Nevertheless, Barnard’s Star was selected as the destination for an interstellar mission by the BIS in the 1970s. Their Project Daedalus was the design for a two-stage, robotic starship using Helium-3 as fuel, mined from the atmosphere of Jupiter. They considered that the ship would be built in the 15th century, and would be able to make the trip in 50 years. This would mean that scientists, who started work on the programme in their twenties would still be alive when the ship finally reached its destination.

In the realm of Science Fiction, the Russian SF author Valentina Zhuravlyova chose it as the setting for her story, ‘The Astronaut’. This is the tale of Captain Alexei Zarubin, the captain of a doomed mission to a planet orbiting the star. In order to combat the terrible boredom experienced by space crews during long, largely automated voyages, each crewmember is required to have a hobby. Zarubin’s is painting. There’s an accident, so that the ship is unable to return to Earth unless one of them stays behind. Zarubin volunteers. Years later, another mission arrives at the Star in order to investigate what happened to him. They don’t find him, but he has left behind his paintings, showing the red-lit frozen wastes of the planet on which he was marooned. The story was included in the anthology Science Fiction Stories (London: Octopus Books 1979), Tom Boardman Jr., ed., pp. 267-84.

Of course, to fans of The Hitch-Hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, Barnard’s Star is where the Galactic Hyperspace Development Council but the plans for the construction of a new hyperspace bypass going through the solar system, which would require the demolition of Earth. Just like the terrestrial council put the plans for the demolition of Arthur Dent’s house in a locked filing cabinet in a disused basement marked ‘Beware of the Leopard’.

While future centuries may see the construction of real spaceships heading to Barnard’s Star and its world, fortunately there seems very little likelihood of the Vogon Constructor Fleets appearing in our skies to demolish our world.

JBIS Article on the Skylon British Spaceplane

October 9, 2018

In my last article, I discussed the forthcoming edition of the Beeb’s long-running space and astronomy programme, the Sky at Night, on the history of Britain in space. The programme will be presented by Tim Peake, and the blurb about it this week’s Radio Times looks forward to the opening of Britain’s first spaceport in Scotland within the next few years. The Radio Times doesn’t mention it, but recent newspaper articles have stated that such a spaceport will be built sometime in the very near future for launching the Skylon spaceplane. This is an unmanned vehicle, which has been developed as the successor to the 1980s HOTOL spaceplane.

Two of the scientists and engineers involved in the project, Richard Varvill and Alan Bond, published an article describing the plane in the Journal of the British Interplanetary Society, Vol. 57, no. 1/ 2, for January/February 2004. The JBIS is the technical magazine of the British Interplanetary Society, founded in the 1930s to encourage British research into rocketry and space travel. The article runs from p.22 to p.32. The article itself is too long to reproduce, but its abstract runs as follows:

SKYLON is a single stage to orbit (SSTO) winged spaceplane designed to give routine low cost access to space. At a gross takeoff weight of 275 tonnes of which 2202 tonnes is propellant the vehicle is capable of placing 12 tonnes into an equatorial low Earth orbit. The vehicle configuration consists of a slender fuselage containing the propellant tankage and payload bay with delta wings located midway along the fuselage carrying the SABRE engines in axisymmetric nacelles on the wingtips. The vehicle takes off and lands horizontally on its own undercarriage. The fuselage is constructed as a multilayer structure consisting of aeroshell, insulation, structure and tankage. SKYLON employs extant or near term materials technology in order to minimize development cost and risk. The SABRE engines have a dual mode capability. In rocket mode the engine operates as a closed cycle liquid oxygen/liquid hydrogen high specific impulse rocket engine. In airbreathing mode (from takeoff to Mach 5) the liquid oxygen flow is replaced by atmospheric air, increasing the installed specific impulse 3-6 fold. The airflow is drawn into the engine via a 2 shock axisymmetric intake and cooled to cryogenic temperatures prior to compression. The hydrogen fuel flow acts as a heat sink for the closed cycle helium loop before entering the main combustion chamber. (p. 22).

Schematic of the SKYLON spaceplane in the above article.

I’m delighted that the spaceplane is now set to enter service and look forward to the opening of the new spaceport in Scotland.

Self-Taught Engineer Successfully Flies aboard Steam Rocket

September 21, 2018

And now, before the serious stuff, something completely different, as Monty Python used to say. This is a short video I found on YouTube from the Inside Edition channel. It’s their report on the successful flight of a steam-powered rocket, built and crewed by ‘Mad’ Mike Hughes. Hughes is a limousine driver and a self-taught engineer. His reason for building the vehicle is, er, eccentric: he wanted to see if the Earth was flat.

The video was posted on 18th March 2018, and shows Hughes and his rocket taking off in the Mojave desert in the south-western US. It climbed to an altitude of 1,850 feet before finally returning to Earth, its descent slowed by two parachutes. Hughes had spent ten years building it, and the video shows stills of early versions of the rocket.

Hughes’ landing was rough, however. The video describes it as a crash. A rescue team got him out of the cockpit, but he complained that his back was broken. When the news crew caught him with him to talk, ironically just outside a courthouse where he’d been giving a ticket for speeding, Hughes’ claimed that he might have a compressed vertebra.

The video ends by reassuring its viewers that, yes, the Earth is indeed flat.

I’m actually saluting this bloke, because he’s obviously really clever and has done something I’d love to do myself: build a low power rocket that could hold a man or woman and send them up to a reasonable height. Way back in the 1990s I had a paper printed in the Journal of the British Interplanetary Society arguing for the construction and flight of such vehicles as a new leisure industry. I based this on the use of hang-gliders, paragliding and microlight aircraft as hobby aviation. People fly them because they want to enjoy the experience of powered flight, not because they actually want to go from A to B. In the same way, I feel, human-carrying rockets could be built and flown to give ordinary people something of the experience of astronauts going into space aboard real rockets, like the Space Shuttle or the Russian Soyuz craft. But obviously without having to spend millions on a ticket to space.

Steam, or hot water rockets, have been around since the 19th century. The first modern hot water rocket was patented in Britain in 1824 by the American inventor, Jacob Perkins (1766-1849). The American Rocket Research Institute, based in California, and founded in 1943, established a special centre for the research and construction of hot water rockets, the Perkins Centre, named after him. The Institute runs a number of training programmes for students and aspiring rocket engineers. The rockets developed could carry payloads up to 5,000 feet.

After the War, the German rocket scientist, Eugen Sanger, and his wife Irene Sanger-Bredt, carried out research into hot water rockets to see whether they could work assisting heavily loaded aircraft into the air. The main US researcher in the area was Bob Truax.

The rocket engines developed by the RRI ranged from senior student college engineering projects with a thrust of 700 lbs per second to the Thunderbolt II constructed by Truax Engineering, which had a thrust of 16,000 lbs per second.
The photo below shows the STEAM-HI III hot water rocket being installed at the Perkins Safety Test Centre in 1963.

This photo shows Truax Engineering’s Thunderbolt rocket and its static test firing in 1973.

See ‘The Rocket Research Institute, 1943-1993: 50 Years of Rocket Safety, Engineering and Space Education Programs’, George S. James and Charles J. Piper, in Jung, Philippe, ed., History of Rocketry and Astronautics, AAS History Series, Vol. 22; IAA History Symposia, vol. 14 (American Astronautical Society: San Diego 1998), pp. 343-400.

And the Earth is very, very definitely round. As it has been known to be by educated European since the 9th century, and by the Greek astronomers long before that. All that stuff about how people in the Middle Ages believed the world was flat and that if you sailed far enough west you’d fall off was basically invented in the 19th century by Washington Irving. The Church Fathers knew and accepted that it was round. St. Augustine said so in one of his works, and argued that when the Bible spoke of the world as flat, it was an instance of God using the beliefs of the time to make His moral message intelligible to the people then alive.

I’ve no idea where the modern delusion that the world’s flat comes from. Well, actually, I do – it seems to have started a year ago in 2017 with the comments of a rapper on American radio. But before then I thought the idea was very definitely dead and buried. In Britain, the Flat Earth Society had dwindled to a single member. This was actually a physicist, who believed that the Earth was round. He used the Society to argue against dogmatism in science. And I thought he had packed finally packed it in, leaving the number of Flat Earthers in Britain at zero.

Now it seems that there are any number of eccentrics, who believe the world is really flat. They’re completely wrong about that, including Hughes.

But Hughes did something superb in building his own, human-carrying rocket

CBS Series on Jack Parsons, Rocket Scientist and Occultist

May 29, 2018

I found this trailer the other day on YouTube for a forthcoming TV series on CBS about one of the weirder figures in the history of American rocketry, Jack Parsons. The series is called Strange Angel, which was the title of a biography of Parsons that came out way back in the 1990s or thereabouts.

Parsons was one of the founders of the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in the 1930s and ’40s, when it was little more than a piece of waste ground in the Californian desert. He was one of the pioneers at the very beginning of American rocket research, when it was still very much the province of the early rocket societies, like the American Rocket Society over the other side of the Atlantic, and the British Interplanetary Society here in Britain. As the trailer shows, this was the period when the early visionaries launched very small, experimental rockets, all the while dreaming of the day when larger machines would carry people to the Moon, the planets and beyond. Parsons also had a very practical approach to experimenting. Instead of worrying very much about complex theories of chemical reactions, he simply mixed various types of explosives together and then tested them to see which worked best.

And as the trailer also shows, Parsons was deeply into the occult. He was a follower of Aleister Crowley’s ritual magic. I think he also ran a boarding house, which only accepted guests, who were atheists or otherwise rebels against American religion and society. And one the people, who stayed there was the future head of the Church of Scientology, L. Ron Hubbard. According to the very definitely unauthorised biography of Hubbard, Barefaced Messiah, Hubbard took Parsons in completely. Parsons believed that Hubbard was a man of extreme occult talent, and the two started performing rituals together out in the desert. One of these was to bring about the birth of the Antichrist. Or something. And just as Hubbard was performing these weird rituals with Parsons, he was also sleeping with his girlfriend. In the end, he ran off with her and several thousands of dollars of Parsons’ money, which he’d promised Parsons he’d use to buy a fleet of three yachts. Parsons managed to get some of his money back, but told Hubbard he could his girlfriend. Hubbard himself produced his own version of the story, claiming that he had rescued the girl from a group of Nazi Communists. Or Communist Nazis. Hubbard died a few years later, when he dropped some of the explosives he was experimenting with on the floor of his garage and blew himself up.

I don’t condone the occult, but Parsons is very definitely one of the most fascinating figures of that period of rocket research, and it’s easy to see why he was chosen to be the subject of this drama series. Quite how faithful it’ll be to real life is going to be an interesting question. And it will be very interesting to see if it mentions anything about his relationship with Hubbard, as I’ve no doubt that the Church of Scientology would be very sensitive about that.

However, as it’s on CBS, there’s going to be little chance that those of us on this side of the Pond will be able to see it. Oh well, perhaps it’ll come out on DVD.

BBC 2 Programme on ’21st Century Race for Space’ Next Tuesday

August 30, 2017

Here’s news of yet another BBC programme on space exploration and science. Next Tuesday, 5th September 2017, physicist, broadcaster and massive Carl Sagan fan Dr. Brian Cox will present a programme, The 21st Century Race for Space, on BBC 2 at 9.00 in the evening, on the private companies planning to take humanity into the High Frontier. Among the scientists and engineers he interviews in the programme are Richard Branson and the founder of Amazon, Jeff Bezos. The blurb for it in the Radio Times runs

As a new age of interplanetary exploration dawns, it is private companies and their maverick owners who are planning to finance space tourism, asteroid mining and even colonies on Mars. Professor Brian Cox investigates the technical challenges that could stop these billionaires achieving their dreams and also finds out how they hope to overcome the daunting obstacles to human space travel. Sir Richard Branson is among the stargazers explaining how they plan to fly through the heavens. (p. 76).

Another piece about the programme on the previous page, page 75, by David Butcher, also adds the following

When the likes of Richard Branson or Amazon founder Jeff Bezos enthuse about space travel it’s easy to be skeptical. But when Brian Cox meets both billionaires for this engaging look at “the prospect of us becoming a space-faring civilization” he comes away convinced by their vision, their desire to push boundaries and to make sci-fi stuff happen.

And for us, it’s hard to see the various hangars and labs and prototypes and launches and not get the feeling that space tourism, mining on asteroids and trips to Mars really aren’t that far off.

Cox is a good guide, leaning towards the deeper questions implicit in the subject. Ultimate, one designer argues, space travel is about “building life insurance for the species.” Though you hope we won’t need it.

That snippet also has a photo of Cox and with the space scientist, Brian Lillo, in space suits outside a Mars Society Research Station in Utah, ‘exploring the Red Planet’.

I went to a symposium 17 years ago on space tourism at the British Interplanetary Society’s headquarters in London. There are no end of really great ideas, and very motivate, intelligent people out there planning and discussing ways to take people up into the Deep Black for their holidays. One of the scientists, reviewing previous spacecraft designs going back to the early days of spaceflight, showed how sophisticated some of these were. He made the case that we’re actually decades behind schedule in our ability to explore and commercially exploit space and its resources.

Torygraph Journo’s Book on Interstellar Travel Through Artificial Black Holes

August 10, 2017

The Iron Sun: Crossing the Universe through Black Holes, Adrian Berry (London: Jonathan Cape 1977).

No, not the Iron Sky, which was a Finnish Science Fiction film that came out a few years ago, in which the Nazis secretly colonized the Moon, and fight an interplanetary war with an America governed by a female president, who bears a certain similarity to Sarah Palin. This is the Iron Sun, a book in which Telegraph journalist Adrian Berry explains his theory that it should be possible to explore space using artificial Black Holes to travel faster than light. Berry was a Fellow of the Royal Astronomical Society, a Senior Member of the British Interplanetary Society, and a member of the National Space Institute of America. According to the potted biography on the back flap of the dust jacket, he also covered two of the Moon Landings from Cape Kennedy and Houston. Along with this book, he also wrote The Next Ten Thousand Years and The Great Leap.

The latter book was published in the 1990s, and is also about interstellar travel and exploration. It’s a good book, though marred by Berry’s Libertarian politics. Towards the end of the book, he devotes an entire chapter to argue for Von Hayek’s daft and destructive economic ideas. So did a number of other space and extreme technology groups at the time. The transhumanists, the crazy people, who want to transform themselves into cyborgs, explore the Galaxy, and ultimately achieve immortality by uploading themselves into computers, were also very much into Von Hayek and Libertarianism. I have a feeling that this has gone by the way now. A friend of mine, who was also into it, told me a year or so ago that the Austrian economist is rather passe now. One of the leaders of the movement has said that Hayekian economics was just something they were into at the time, and they’re now distancing themselves from him, so that his ideas aren’t synonymous with the movement as a whole.

In this book, after taking the reader through Einstein’s Theory of Relativity and explaining what Black Holes are, Berry then advances his book’s central idea. This is that humanity will be able to use a fleet of automated Buzzard ramjets as cosmic bulldozers to create an artificial Black Hole of a particular size one light year from Earth. The Buzzard ramjet was a type of spaceship devised in the 1970s. Instead of taking its fuel with it into space, like conventional rockets and spacecraft, the ramjet would scoop up the necessary hydrogen for its nuclear fusion engines from the surrounding interstellar medium, in the same way that a high-performance ram jet sucks in the air it needs to reach supersonic velocities from the Earth’s atmosphere. It was an immensely popular idea amongst space scientists, SF fans and advocates of the human colonization of space, as it appeared a practical way of creating a spacecraft that could reach the very high speeds approaching that of light needed to cross space to the nearest stars within a few years, or tens of years, rather than centuries and millennia.

Berry believed that strong electromagnetic fields could be used to collect and push the necessary hydrogen atom ahead of the spacecraft. Once in place, the hydrogen and other gaseous material would be forced together into a single mass, until it was so large that it collapsed under its own gravity, forming a Black Hole.

It was Carl Sagan, who first suggested the possibility of using Black Holes as cosmic subways to travel across the universe faster than the speed of light. Einstein, Rosen and other scientists hypothesized that the gravity inside Black Holes was so massive, that not only did it crush matter out of existence, but it also created a wormhole through space and time to, well, elsewhere. An object, including a spaceship, could enter a Black Hole to travel through the wormhole, to exit from a White Hole somewhere else in the universe, or even in a different universe altogether.

The Black Hole would be built a light year away, as this would be a safe but accessible distance. The construction ships would be automated as they would not be able to pull back once construction of the Black Hole was underway, and would be allowed to fall into it.

Berry admits there is one problem with his scheme: no-one knows how far away, nor in what direction, the resulting wormhole would extend. He therefore argues that the first astronauts to use the new wormhole would also have their own fleet of construction vessels, in order to build another Black Hole at their destination, which would create the White Hole needed for them to return to the Solar System. The process would take about forty years.

He explains the details of his proposal in a fictitious interview. There’s also an epilogue, and three appendices, in which he gives further information on Black Holes, including the navigable apertures created by Black Holes of varying sizes.

It says something for the optimism about the future of spaceflight in the 1970s that Berry considers that we should have the capability to do all this sometime around 2050. The 1970s were the decade when it seemed almost anything was possible after the Moon Landings, and astronomers and writers like Sir Patrick Moore seriously predicted that by now we’d have bases and colonies on the Moon and Mars, holidays in space, orbital habitats at the L5 points, as suggested by Gerald O’Neill, and would be gradually expanding into the rest of the Solar System.

If only that had happened!

Despite the formation of public groups, like the Mars Society and the Space Frontier Foundation, for the colonization of space, humans so far seem stuck in Low Earth Orbit. There have been plans over the past few years for crewed missions to return to the Moon, and to Mars, but these haven’t materialized. NASA is planning an expedition to the Red Planet in the 2030s, but I’m really not confident about that every happening. And if it’s a struggle for us to get to Mars, sixty or seventy years after the Moon Landings, it’s going to be impossible for us to build a Black Hole.

Part of the problem is the difficulty of building a viable Buzzard ramjet. After the idea was proposed, someone worked out that the interstellar medium was so rarified that the vehicle would need a ramscoop 3,000 miles long to collect all the gas it would need. I’m not sure if this makes it completely impossible – after all, firms like the Hanson Trust back in the 1980s tried selling themselves to the general public with commercials telling the world that they made enough plastic chairs to go round the Earth so many times. And it might be possible to develop superlight materials for the scoop so that it would not be impossibly heavy. Such a material would similar to the mylar suggested for the solar sails for the Starwisp mission. This is a suggested mission to send a 50 kilo instrument package to Alpha Centauri in a journey lasting thirty years or so. And the construction of a space elevator, which would have to be of a light material strong enough to take the weight of cable cars and carry them tens of thousands of mile into space out of the Earth’s gravity well seems to me to present even greater problems. But even if a ramscoop of that size isn’t impossible, it would be very, very difficult and extremely expensive.

Not all scientists are convinced that it should be possible to use wormholes in this manner anyway. Philip’s Astronomy Encyclopedia state that one particular type of Black Hole, rotating Kerr Black Holes, which don’t have the singularity that eventually destroys all the matter passing through it, ‘have fascinating implications for hypothetical space travel to other universes’. (‘Black Holes, p. 57). However, the entry for ‘Wormholes’ states that, although they’re predicted by Einstein, ‘such wormholes cannot exist in reality, since the occurrence of white holes is forbidden by the second law of thermodynamics.’ (p. 440). On the other hand, Russian physicists have shown that it’s possible to create a wormhole a few light years in extent, though this would take more energy than is currently available in the universe.

I hope that it may one day be possible to construct such wormhole subway routes through the cosmos, as suggested by Sagan. I also wonder if the book may also have influenced comic writer Pat Mills in the creation of the Black Hole and White Hole bypasses for Termight – Earth thousands of years in the future – in the Nemesis the Warlock Strip in 2000 AD. This was an artificial Black Hole and its White Hole counterpart, constructed by Earth’s engineers to provide instantaneous access to space. ‘Nemesis the Warlock’ appeared about 1979, and while it’s definitely Science Fantasy, Mills actually did some reading in science as research for the comic. He said in an interview nearly four decades ago that he shocked the comic’s management because he bought a whole stack of books on science and then invoiced the comic company for them as research. He was annoyed that the attitude to comics at the time was so low, that the idea of doing basic research for them was looked upon with horror. Ah, how things changed after Frank Bellamy and ‘Dan Dare’. Bellamy’s studio for Britain’s greatest space hero, with the exception of Judge Dredd, included a model maker and researchers. Unfortunately, this was all cut away as an unnecessary expense when the Eagle changed hands. Sales had fallen, and the comic was then making a loss. Hence the decision to cut down the number of staff in the studio. But it does show the initial commitment to quality of strip’s creators, and Dare and Bellamy’s superb artwork are still admired as one of the greatest pieces of British comic art and literature.