Posts Tagged ‘British Interplanetary Society’

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.

Advertisements

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.

Ancient Christian Apologist Tertullian on Human Damage to the Environment

July 15, 2017

Some of the most vocal opponents of environmentalism and climate change in the US are politically Conservative Christians. They object to it, not just on the grounds that they believe it to be wrong scientifically, but also because they are highly suspicious of it on political and religious grounds. It is argued that the Green movement is really a pagan movement, or else a way of sneaking Socialism in through the back door through stressing the need for legislation and the regulation of industry to protect the environment. It’s also denounced as a form of Nazism, because the Nazis were also eager to protect the German environment.

It’s true that Green politics has strongly influenced some contemporary neo-Pagan religious movements, particularly Wicca, whose deities consist of an Earth mother and horned god. However, the scientific evidence on which the Green movement is based is separate and independent from any one particular religious or political group. And modern Green politics began with books such as Silent Spring in the 1960s and the Club of Rome, a gathering of concerned scientists, in the early ’70s, and not with Hitler and the Nazis.

Furthermore, writers and philosophers long before the Nazis were also acutely concerned with the threat of overpopulation and the damage humans were doing to the environment. One of them was the early Christian apologist, Tertullian, who wrote

‘Most convincing as evidence of populousness, we have become a burden to the Earth. The fruits of nature hardly suffice to sustain us, and there is a general pressure of scarcity giving rise to complaints. Need we be astonished that plague and famine, warfare and earthquake, come to be regarded as remedies, serving to prune the superfluity of population?’

This quotation was dug up by Adrian Berry, a fellow of the Interplanetary Society, Royal Astronomical Society and Royal Geographical Society. Berry is very much a man of the right, who used to write for the Torygraph. He used it to argue that people have always had exaggerated fears about the threat to society. Or alternatively, they could also be extremely complacent, such as the 2nd century AD Roman writer Pliny. Pliny wrote of the enduring splendor of the Roman Empire just before it began to collapse. Jonathan Margolis also cites in his chapter on predictions of environmental catastrophe, ‘Global Warning’, in his A Brief History of Tomorrow: The Future, Past and Present (London: Bloomsbury 2000) 89, where he also discusses the possibility that predictions of environmental collapse may be wrong.

At the moment, the majority of the world’s scientists are convinced that climate change and environmental damage caused by humanity are real, and a genuine threat to the planet, its flora and fauna, and ultimately humanity itself. Furthermore, archaeologists become increasingly aware how global changes to the environment have caused civilizations to collapse. The early Viking colonies in Greenland were destroyed in the 14th century, when the environment in the northern hemisphere became colder, making it impossible to practice European-style agriculture so far north.

Similarly, the highly developed Pueblo Indian cultures in the Chaco canyon in what is now the southwestern US collapsed and were abandoned when the climate became hostile in the 13th century. The cultures existed in an arid region of the US, using extensive irrigation canals to water their crops. The area suffered an intense drought, and unable to support themselves, the inhabitants moved away.

As for ancient Rome, one of the causes for the barbarian invasions may well have been climate change. The environment became colder from the 3rd century onwards. Central Asian tribes, such as the Huns, moved west, crossing the steppes into Europe and moving south to attack China. This displaced other tribes, such as Goths, who were settled around the Black Sea. The sea levels began to rise, so that the Frisians and other Germanic tribes settled in what is now the Netherlands, were forced to abandon low-lying farms and villages on the coasts. This may have been one of the causes of the Anglo-Saxon migrations to Britain.

In the Greek-speaking eastern Roman Empire, towns shrank, while in the west there was a movement away from the cities, partly through economic grounds. Historians have argued whether the Roman population was decimated by disease. Certainly in Rome itself, located amidst swampland, malaria was endemic, and the sheer size of the population meant that it was periodically subject to outbreaks of other diseases. And the city depended on a steady influx of new immigrants to replenish its population. And there was a constant threat of starvation. The free Roman masses depended on shipments of grain from Egypt and north Africa, and one of the elected officials in the city was responsible for securing the grain supply. Amongst the graffiti found scrawled on walls in Pompeii are election slogans urging men to vote for a particular candidate because ‘he gets good bread’.

Tertullian may well have been absolutely right about the dangers of overpopulation. And regardless of whether he was or wasn’t, the fact that he, one of the great defenders of Christian faith and doctrine in the Roman Empire, was prepared to accept and argue that overpopulation and environmental damage were a danger, shows that there is nothing inherently anti-Christian in the Green movement. This was shown a few weeks ago when the current pope, Pope Francis, criticized Trump’s government for ignoring science and failing to tackle climate change. There’s an irony here in a religious figure attacking the elected leader of a supposedly secular state for having an anti-scientific attitude. And it remains true that there is nothing fundamentally contrary to Christianity about Green politics regardless of the support for Green politics amongst peoples of other religions or none.

Real Warp Physics: Travelling to the Pleiades in a Hyperspace with Imaginary Time in 1.3 Years

June 20, 2017

Now for something a little more optimistic. Don’t worry – I’ll get back to bashing the Tories and their vile policies shortly.

Looking through a few back copies of Journal of the British Interplanetary Society, I found a paper by a Japanese physicist, Yoshinari Minami, ‘Travelling to the Stars: Possibilities Given by a Spacetime Featuring Imaginary Time’ in JBIS vol. 56, no. 5/6, May/June 2003, pp. 205-211. The possibility of Faster Than Light travel is taken seriously by a number of physicists, engineers and space scientists, and a number of papers on the possibility of using warp drive or other advanced systems to travel to the stars have been published since Marcel Alcubierre published his paper showing that warp drive was possible, if only in theory, in the 1990s. Incidentally, one of Alcubierre’s names using the Spanish system was ‘Moya’, which was also the name of the living space ship in the SF TV series, Farscape.

In the article, Minami discusses the physics of hyperspace, using some seriously difficult maths to prove that it is in theory possible to travel to the Pleiades, otherwise known as the Seven Sisters, a star cluster 410 light years away in 1.3 Earth years. Without some form of FTL drive a round trip to the Pleiades in a spacecraft travelling at 0.99999 per cent of the speed of light would take 820 years, although due to time dilation the crew would only experience the journey as 3.6 years long.

Minami acknowledges that imaginary time is a difficult concept, and gives some examples of how contemporary scientists are nevertheless incorporating it into their theories and experiments. For example, Stephen Hawking has used imaginary time as part of his attempt to unite relativity and quantum physics. In real time, the universe has a beginning and an end in singularities in which current physics breaks down. However, no such boundaries exist in imaginary time, and so imaginary time may be far more basic as a fundamental property of the cosmos.

He also discusses the way quantum tunnelling is utilised in a number of electronics components. These are the tunnel diode, the tunnel transistor, the tunnel diode charge transformer logic and other devices. Quantum tunnelling is the phenomenon in which a sub-atomic particle can travel slightly faster than light if it has imaginary momentum.

This is seriously mind-blowing stuff. I can remember the excitement back in the 1990s or perhaps the early part of this century, when a team of physicists showed it was possible to use quantum tunnelling to send information slightly faster than the speed of light, something which was previously thought impossible. For SF fans, this raises the possibility that one day Faster Than Light communication devices – the ansibles of Ursula le Guin and the Dirac Telephone of James Blish, could become a reality.

The paper then discusses the possibility of using wormholes or cosmological theories, which posit that the universe has extra dimensions, such as Kaluza-Klein Theory, Supergravity, Superstrings, M theory and D-brane theory to enter hyperspace. Minami states that one form of wormhole – the Euclidean – is considered to include imaginary time in their topology. However, using such a wormhole would be extremely difficult, as they’re smaller than an attempt, suffer fluctuations and the destination and way back is ultimately unknown.

He therefore does not make any detailed suggestion how a future spacecraft could enter hyperspace. But if a spaceship was able to enter hyperspace after accelerating to with a infinitesimal fraction of the speed of light, a flight which lasted for 100 hours in hyperspace would appear to last only 70 hours to an observer on Earth.

He then considers a mission in which a spaceship leaves Earth at a tenth or a fifth the speed of light. After escaping from the solar system, the ship then accelerates to near-light speed. Such a spacecraft would be able to reach the Pleiades in 1.8 years ship time, which 1.3 years have passed to the scientists waiting back on Earth. This method of transport would not violate the causality principle, and could be used at all times and everywhere back in real space.

I don’t pretend for a single moment to be able to follow the maths. All I can say is that, if a hyperspace with an imaginary time exists, then, as Star Trek’s Captain Jean-Luc Picard would say, ‘Make it so!’

The Saturn Five Variants that Were Never Built

May 4, 2017

And now a little break from the elections. This is a short video from Vintage Space, discussing the variants of the Saturn V moon rockets that were designed, but never built. These new space vehicles were designed to be bigger and better. From what is said about them in the video, it seems the designers adopted a modular approach, or something like it, so that stages and rocket motors could be swapped around and altered to allow the rockets to be customised to suit different missions.

It’s a pity that these awesome machines were scrapped at the end of the Apollo missions. I’ve read letters in Spaceflight, one of the magazines published by the British Interplanetary Society by scientists, who believed that the proper way into space would have been through building Big Dumb Boosters. Although not reusable, they could be mass produced, which would mean they could be constructed for the cost of a battle ship, and bring launch costs down to about $100,000.

Some space scientists are still bitter about the destruction of the Saturn Vs and even the plans for them. They were the only rockets capable of taking people out to the Moon, and potentially further out into the Deep Black. John Lewis in his book, Mining the Sky, on how humanity could expand into space to exploit the rich material and energy resources of the solar system, compares the destruction of the Saturn V to the destruction of Chung He’s fleet. Chung He was a Fifteenth century Chinese explorer, who led an expedition that sailed around the world. One of the places he reached was the Bight of Benin in West Africa. On his return, however, the eunuchs of the imperial court decided that the fleet represented a threat to the stability and order of the Chinese empire. So they destroyed it, thus helping to keep China isolated from the outside world for centuries. The bureaucrats, who ordered the destruction of the Saturn V moon rockets were, in Lewis’ view, guilty of the same kind of thinking.

There are alternative crewed space vehicles under development, and it is believed that the Chinese are planning to send a crewed mission to the Moon, quite apart from the various schemes to land people on Mars.

In the meantime, this video shows some the spacecraft that could have been.

Future Possible ESA Space Launchers from 2005

March 26, 2017

The British Interplanetary Society published these designs for a possible future space launcher for ESA, the European Space Agency, in their magazine Spaceflight, vol. 47, no.5, for May 2005. Below it was a caption explaining some of them. This read

Artist sketch of several concepts considered under ESA’s Future Launcher Preparatory Programme (FLPP). On top left are the European eXPEriment Re-entry Testbed (EXPERT) capsule and the Intermediate Experiment Vehicle (IVX), a hypersonic re-entry demonstrator. Below are the Phoenix suborbital reusable demonstrator and two concepts advanced reusability demonstrators.

On the right are concepts for future operational launch systems – a fully reusable winged shuttle, a fully expendable launcher and partly reusable launch vehicle.

Maintaining a guaranteed access to space for Europe is one of ESA’s strategic missions. In order to prepare the future European launch systems, which might replace the current Ariane launchers when they will have to retire, ESA and European space industry are reviewing multiple concepts to ensure the continuity of European space transportation while reducing the cost of putting payloads into orbit.

In 2001 it was proposed the ESA Council should set up a programme to assess concepts for future European launchers. The result was the decision to set up the FLPP. This programme, kicked off in 2004, covers the further development of expendable launchers as well as the identification and assessment of technologies required to design partly or fully reusable launch systems.

I’m afraid I don’t know what, if anything, was decided about these spacecraft. For all I know some or all of them may still be under consideration. If Skylon does become a reality and begins flights from a British spaceport in 2020, I think it’ll probably stimulate interest in competing spaceplanes from the other European nations, such as the Hermes spaceplane in France and the Saenger craft in Germany.

British Interplanetary Society Paper on Terraforming Mars with Microorganisms

January 1, 2017

Yesterday I put up a couple of articles on terraforming the various planets of the Solar system, including Mercury, Venus and Earth’s Moon, as well as Mars. There have been a couple of really interesting comments posted to them. Florence, one of the great people, who read this blog, stated that she was a microbiologist. She was very much looking forward to working on microorganisms for Mars, but unfortunately that, and much of the rest of the space programme, vanished.

As well as Carl Sagan’s suggestion in the 1960s that blue-green algae could be used to create a breathable atmosphere and Earthlike environment on Mars, a number of scientists have also suggested using microorganisms to terraform the Red Planet. Twenty years ago the American Astronautical Society published a series of papers, edited by Robert M. Zubrin, about the colonisation of Mars, From Imagination to Reality: Mars Exploration Studies of the Journal of the British Interplanetary Society: Part II: Base Building, Colonization and Terraformation (San Diego: Univelt 1997). This included a paper, ‘Genetic Modification and Selection of Microorganisms for Growth on Mars’ by Julian A. Hiscox and David J. Thomas.

bis-mars-terraforming

The abstract for this paper reads

Genetic engineering has often been suggested as a mechanism for improving the survival prospects of terrestrial microorganisms when seeded on Mars. The survival characteristics that these pioneer microorganisms could be endowed with and a variety of mechanisms by which this can be achieved are discussed, together with an overview of some of the potential hurdles that must be overcome. Also, a number of biologically useful properties for these microorganisms are presented that could facilitate the initial human colonisation and ultimately the planetary engineering of Mars.

After an Introduction, in which they state that the terraformation of Mars could be a two-stage process, with the construction of an Earthlike environment by microorganisms being the first, they then proceed to the following sections:

2. Selection of Bacteria for Mars The Search for a Marsbug, which discusses the suitability of terrestrial microbes for the process, such as the cyanobacterium Chroococcidiops and the extremophiles, which occupy of extreme environments here on Earth;

3. Genetic Engineering – A simple Matter of Cut and Paste;

4. Genetic Modification and Selection;

5. Gene Expression, with subsections on

1) Survival Properties – Tolerance to Peroxides; Osmotic Adaptation; UV Resistance; Tolerance to High Intracellular Acid Concentrations; Endospore Formation;

2) General Properties, with further subsections on photosynthesis, nitrogen fixation, and denitrification;

6. Uses of GEMOS and Some Speculations,

and then finally the conclusion and acknowledgments.

The conclusion reads

The introduction of microorganisms on Mars will greatly facilitate colonisation, both during initial attempts and in establishment of a stable ecosystem, either in enclosed habitats or at the end of ecopoiesis or terraformation. During the initial stages of ecopoiesis climatic conditions on Mars will be limiting for most terrestrial microorganism. By using genetic modification and directed selection under simulated Martian conditions, it may be possible to greatly enhance the survival capability of microorganisms during the alteration of the Martian climate to more clement conditions. Such microorganisms could be used to facilitate any planetary engineering effort. For example, they could be used to release Co2 and N2 from putative carbonate and nitrate deposits.

The genetic alteration of microorganisms will not be so much of a problem of introducing foreign genes into the organism but more a matter of understanding and controlling the regulatory pathways for the expression of such genes. However, such understandings will provide valuable insights into genetics, not only for increasing the productivity of microorganisms on Mars but possibly for Earth.

I’ve got very strong reservations about genetic engineering and modification, but here there is a strong case if it can be used to bring life to a sterile world. Assuming, that is, that Mars does not already possess life. In a way, the article’s ironic. Over a century ago, H.G. Wells had a germ, the common cold, destroy the invading Martians in his book, The War of the Worlds. Now terrestrial scientists are discussing using such organisms as ways to creating a living environment on the Red Planet.

2017: The Year We Land on the Moon, according to Russian Rocket Pioneer

December 31, 2016

I was watching a talk on CD-Rom last night by Dr. Gerald K. O’Neill, one of the leading advocates of space colonisation. Way back in the 1970s, O’Neill suggested that humanity should colonise space by constructing special space habitats at the Lagrange points between the Moon and Earth. The L5 points are excellent sites for space colonies, as they’re the points at which the gravity from the Moon and Earth interact to form stable points. The space habitats he designed were solar powered cities, with areas of parkland, housing and manufacturing areas. The CD-Rom with these talks came with a book I bought nearly a decade ago by him, The High Frontier: Human Colonies in Space (Burlington Ontario: Apogee Books 2000). However, for one reason or another I hadn’t got round to watching it. I think part of the problem may have been that the computer I may have been using at the time had an incompatible version of Windows.

Along with his other arguments about the ecological and economic benefits space colonisation would bring, and the technological and scientific methods, which would be used in the construction of these colonies, Dr. O’Neill also mentioned that, according to the Russian rocket pioneer, Konstantin Tsiolkovskii, it would be this New Year, 2017, when humanity would first break out from Earth and land on the Moon. O’Neill makes the point that instead, we got to the Moon 50 years early. He then goes on to predict that, despite cuts to NASA’s budget and the low priority given to funding science, and particularly to supporting the space programme for itself rather than those products which have spun off it, humanity will be colonising space in a centuries’ time. He even predicts that by that time, we may well be starting to send space colonies outside the solar system to colonise the neighbouring stars.

The video seems to date from around 1982, and I’m rather more pessimistic about humanity’s possible colonisation of space. There’s immense public interest in it, but it is expensive using the technology currently available. The costs aren’t prohibitively so. I went to a symposium at the British Interplanetary Society nearly a decade and a half ago, where one of the speakers pointed out that the cost of constructing an orbital hotel actually are the same as building a tower block here on Earth. And once the commercial exploitation of space begins in earnest, launch costs can be expected to fall as new ways and launch vehicles are developed to put people and objects into space more easily and cheaply. Indeed, one of the aerospace engineers talking at the Symposium also made the point that there were planes and vehicles planned in the 1940s and ’50s which would have had the ability to achieve orbit. So, far from humanity being 50 years ahead of schedule, by another set of standards we’re 60 or so years behind.

Still, I hope that with China now planning to send a probe to the far side of the Moon and its unstated intention eventually to send humans there, 2017 won’t be too far off Tsiolkovskii’s prediction. I’d like humanity to begin colonising the Moon as well as the Red Planet. At the moment, we’re just languishing, sending people to the International Space Station. It’s a great scientific achievement, but there’s so much more that needs to be done to open up the High Frontier properly.

The Young Turks on SpaceX’s Falcon 9 Space Mission and Return to Earth

December 24, 2015

This is another great piece from The Young Turks. This time, unlike many of the other reports I’ve reblogged from them, covering such iniquitous events and individuals as Donald Trump and so on, it’s actually good news. This is their report on the launch of the private space rocket, Falcon 9, which successfully put a satellite into space. The rocket then returned to Earth, where it can be refuelled and used again on another mission.

Here’s the report:

The Turks’ anchor, Cenk Uygur, reports that this raises hopes that satellites can be put into space much more cheaply. Elon Musk, the founder and CEO of SpaceX, originally from South Africa, states that this is part of his ultimate goal to build a city on Mars. He also developed an idea for a rapid transit system in California, which he gave away for others to work on because he and his company didn’t have time to develop it themselves. Uygur makes a joke comparing him to Tony Stark, millionaire inventor and alter ego of Iron Man.

This is great news, as there have been a number of private companies since the 1990s that have been trying to develop low-cost, efficient ways of taking satellites and ultimately humans into space. There’s even a prize of about $100,000 called the X-Prize, offered to the first private spacecraft to do so. Or there was. The prize was based on the early aviation prizes, such as those awarded to great pioneering aviators like Louis Bleriot, Charles Lindbergh, ‘Wrong Way Corrigan’ and Amelia Earhart, or at least their fellows, and which greatly stimulated the development of aircraft technology. The hope behind all this is that one day, costs will be so low that a trip into space will be affordable to most people. At the moment, the only people, who can afford it are multi-millionaires and governments.

This is also possibly one of the few areas where private industry will genuinely be beneficial. Part of the problem developing cheap space travel is that at the moment, space exploration and transport in America is almost totally dominated by NASA. Many space scientists and enthusiasts are frustrated with the agency because it’s part of NASA’s charter that it should be active developing ways to broaden access to space. This goal, however, is very low down in it’s priorities, and there is a feeling that the agency is actively blocking progress in this area. I was at a symposium of space experts and fans at the British Interplanetary Society about a decade and a half ago, where this was discussed by one of the speakers. He believed people should be rightfully angry about it, and should right to the appropriate authorities. NASA is a public corporation, funded by the American taxpayer, and so the American public have a right to see their scientists find ways to get ordinary Americans into space. The various X-Prizes offered by a private foundation are private enterprise’s way of opening up the area to some competition in order to achieve this.

And with the successful return of the Falcon9 rocket, that aim just came a little bit closer.

Forget Fracking – Space Solar Power is the Real Alternative to Middle East Oil

December 18, 2015

Solar Power Satellites

An Array of Space Solar Power Satellites from O’Neill The High Frontier.

Mike over at Vox Political has posted a number of articles about the threat fracking poses to our homes, our communities and our environment. The Greens and community groups are very concerned about environmental damage done by such shale oil extraction. In America, the dangers posed by fracking has been highlighted by the documentary, Gasland, which shows areas where the water table has been so heavily contaminated by the gases pumped in to free the oil, that there’s footage of people setting the drinking water from their taps alight. I’ve seen other claims from the right that dispute the authenticity of that footage, at least as it applies to fracked chemicals. But there is much other evidence that fracking is unsafe and poisonous. Much like the Tories and the Republicans, who are its biggest supporters.

In the West Country near where I live, the residents of Keynsham have been concerned about fracking on their doorstep. And this week Mike reblogged a report that the Tories had passed legislation permitting fracking under the National Parks, the most beautiful areas of our Sceptred Isle. One of the arguments the Repugs have trotted out in America to justify and promote fracking is that this will somehow make America independent of Middle Eastern oil. Good, patriotic Americans need never have to worry about their dollars getting into the hands of oppressive Middle Eastern regimes or Islamist terrorist groups.

In fact, there is already a scientific alternative to oil, that deserves serious consideration because of it potential to alleviate pollution and the industrial pressure on Earth’s fragile ecosystem: Space Solar Power. Gerard K. O’Neill, one of the major pioneers and advocates of space colonisation, was strongly in favour of developing power stations out in space that would turn the Sun’s rays into energy that could be safely beamed back to Earth. Such energy could then be used to power vehicles, homes and industry without the harmful environmental impact of fossil fuels. Margo R. Deckard, a member of the Space Frontier Foundation, also described its immense ecological potential in her paper ‘A Technology for A Better Future: Space Solar Power An Unlimited Energy Source’ in the third edition of O’Neill’s book The High Frontier: Human Colonies in Space (Ontario: Space Studies Institute/Apogee Book 200). She wrote

A fundamental challenge in the next century is how to meet the world’s growing energy needs from an environmental perspective. We must meet this challenge to provide the opportunity for prosperity to all humans. Fortunately, the Sun supplies the Earth with an abundance of clean and natural energy. Space Solar Power or SSP, is a means of collecting that energy and beaming it down to the Earth wherever it is needed. SSP may be the key to meeting this challenge. SSP could be an environmentally friendly, economical energy producing technology that simultaneously promotes the human realization that the Earth is an open system while protecting the Earth’s fragile biosphere.

She is also very much aware of the power of the Green lobby and an increasing ecologically aware public, and the potential of these groups to support the development of such power systems as well as world governments.

The following chapter, ‘Space Solar Power stations for the 21st Century’ by Peter E. Glaser further outlines the advantages of this technology. He argues

The concept of SSPS has been validated by studies undertaken by the international technical community, and supported by academic institutions, industry and governments. The results of these studies are reported in the substantial literature on the associated technical, economic, ecological and societal issues.

There is a growing consensus that SSPS could deliver sufficient energy in the form of electricity for most conceivable future human needs thereby:

* Increasing the standard of living of all inhabitants on Earth,
* Stabilising population growth,
* Safeguarding the ecology of the Earth,
* Averting potential global instabilities caused by efforts to control increasingly scarcer terrestrial energy resources, and
* Enabling the development of a spacefaring civilisation.

Space Solar Power Stations have been studied for 45 years or more, since the first international meeting was convened in the Netherlands in 1970. Among the nations that have researched such power stations are the US, Ukraine, Russia, the European Union, Japan and China. Glaser also notes that all nations are legally entitled to benefit from such energy resources under the UN Treaty Principles governing the Activities of States in the Exploration and Use of Outer Space, including the Moon and other Celestial Bodies.

And the current crisis in the Middle East should show how solar power, and particularly Space Solar Power, is a reliable and viable alternative to oil. Science Fiction frequently provides a literary Gedankenexperiment for writers to explore the possibilities in science, technology and human society that could emerge in the future. Donald Kingsbury’s short story, The Moon Goddess and the Son, is about a romance between a teenage girl, who has run away from her violent father in the hope of settling on the Moon, and the son of one of Moon colony’s leading engineers, who heartily loathes the place. The story was first published in 1979. Despite their difficulties, all ends well for the star-crossed couple. The son learns to love the Moon, and settles down as one of the engineers there. He marries the girl, who makes her living running the local bar and restaurant. The story takes place against a backdrop of political instability in the Middle East. Funding for the lunar colony looks uncertain, until there is a Communist revolution in Saudi Arabia. At which point, funding suddenly increases as Congress decides they desperately need to find an alternative energy source to oil. Space Solar Power is one of these. Eventually the Communists are defeated and the Saudi royal family restored. The lesson has been learnt, and the colony continues to develop.

Okay, so there are significant differences to today. Fortunately, the Saudis haven’t been toppled, and the threat is Islamism rather than Communism. However, there is still a threat to global oil supplies, and the Islamists are hoping to use their oil wealth to finance their wretched regimes. It would seem the opportunity is right for the development of such space-based power industries.

As for the cost of setting up such stations, it would admittedly be extremely expensive. However, way back at the start of this century I went to a meeting of the British Interplanetary Society in London about the development of space tourism. One of the speakers, a specialist in construction, stated that the costs of developing a space hotel would be equivalent to building a high-rise building on Earth. As for space power, I think he argued that it would be comparable to setting up the national grid today. In other words, they’re very expensive, but no more so than conventional, terrestrial buildings and industries, whose construction is definitely not seen as excessive.

Of course, you don’t have to go into space to get power from the Sun. Hundreds of thousands across the country are probably doing it by having solar panels on the roof of their homes and businesses. And that’s clearly annoyed the Tories, as they’re cutting funding for solar power and other renewables, just as their Republican counterparts across the Pond are doing in the Land of the Free.

The real reasons for it have less to do with the supposed disadvantages of solar power, and far more to do with the massive subsidies the oil companies receive from the US taxpayer due to giving donations to finance the campaigns of their pet politicians. And I strongly suspect that the same applies over here, especially in the Tory party, which has always promoted itself as ‘the party of business’.

Don’t be fooled by Dave Cameron gazing rapt at the TV screen as Tim Peake heads off into space. He wants the elan of backing Britain in space, but he doesn’t want us to develop the High Frontier’s vast potential for clean power, or have to put government money into anything that isn’t strictly terrestrial and won’t benefit his corporate backers. And that means he is definitely not going to put his or anybody else’s money into solar power, whether in space or down here. Why develop clean, renewable energy when his paymasters will make billions trashing the environment?