Posts Tagged ‘Rockets’

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.

Arthur C. Clarke Book on the Terraforming of Mars

March 18, 2017

Arthur C. Clarke – The Snows of Olympus: A Garden on Mars – The Illustrated History of Man’s Colonization of Mars (London: Victor Gollancz 1994).

A little while ago I put up a number of articles on the possible terraforming of various planets in our solar system. The prime candidate at the moment would be Mars, but people have also suggested ways to terraform Venus and the Moon. I’ve managed to dig out from my bookshelves a copy of Arthur C. Clarke’s book, The Snows of Olympus, which I bought way back in the 1990s. Clarke’s been called ‘The Space Prophet’ because of his article published in a radio hobbyists’ magazine shortly after the War predicting geostationary communications satellites. He has jokingly said in an article ‘How I Lost a Million Dollars in My Spare Time’ that he should have patented the concept, and so made himself a billionaire because of its immense value to the telecommunications industry. This book is no less prophetic in that it uses computer simulations to depict the gradual greening of the Red Planet over a thousand year period from the next few centuries to c. 3000.

The book has a prologue, in which Clarke gives the text of a speech he gave to future Martian colonists as part of the Planetary Society’s ‘Visions of Mars Project’. Launched by the late and much-missed astronomer and space visionary, Carl Sagan, this was a project to send the future colonists the gift of a collection of SF short stories about Mars aboard two probes due to land there. There’s then a short introduction in which Clarke lays out the aims of the book. The first chapter, ‘Prelude to Mars’, discusses the history of the exploration of the Red Planet by terrestrial astronomers and writers, such as Giovanni Schiaparelli, Percival Lowell, H.G. Wells and Edgar Rice Burroughs, C.S. Lewis in Out of the Silent Planet, and the controversy surrounding the supposed ‘face’ on Mars, made by Richard Hoagland and others.

Chapter 2 – ‘The Curtain Rises’ – is on the probes sent to explore Mars, such as the Mariner probes and discussion between himself, Sagan, Ray Bradbury and the JPL’s Bruce Murray at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory on the probes and their findings. He goes on to discuss Viking probes and the debate about American and Russian cooperative ventures in space research. This last ended for a time because of international tensions created by the Solidarity crisis in Poland.

Chapter 3 – ‘Going There’, describes the problems and suggested methods for reaching Mars, establishing crewed bases there, including various types of rocket from the conventional chemical to nuclear-thermal and atomic; solar sails and space elevators, George Bush seniors’ intention to launch a crewed mission to Mars by 2019, and the tasks that would immediately face the astronauts landing there.

Chapter 4- ‘Virtual Explorations’ is on the use of computers and VR to explore and map Mars, and particularly the Vistapro programme used in the generation of many of the images in the book.

Chapter 5 is on the artistic and computer depictions of Olympus Mons, the planet’s highest mountain and the gradual reclamation of its surface by vegetation, beginning with lichens, during the long centuries of terraforming. This culminates in the emergence of liquid water and creation of a sea surrounding the mountain.

Chapter 6 does the same for Eos Chasma, the ‘Chasm of the Dawn’, in the Valles Marineris.

Chapter 7 shows the same process as it would affect the Noctes Labyrinthes – the Labyrinth of Night. This forecasts the growth of forests in this part of Mars, beginning with pines but later including deciduous trees.

Chapter 8 – ‘The Longest Spring’ discusses the various methods that could be used to terraform Mars, such as coating the ice caps with carbon from Mars’ moon, Phobos, the use of orbiting mirrors to melt them, raising its temperature by turning Phobos into a miniature sun for about 40 days using ‘muon resonance’ – a form of nuclear reaction, and bombarding the planet with comets to cover it with water, and ‘Von Neumann’ machines that would gradually terraform the planet automatically.

‘Disneymars’ looks forward to a museum display and audiovisual presentation that would show the colonists what their planet would look like in the future as the terraforming progresses.

Chapter 9 – ‘Concerning Ends and Means’ discusses the moral dimension of terraforming, the immense historical importance of exploration and the need to continue this exploration to the Red Planet in order to preserve human civilisation and progress.

There are two appendices. The first is an extract from a speech, The Mars Project: Journeys beyond the Cold War, by US senator and WWII hero, Spark Matsunaga. The second, ‘So You’re Going to Mars’, is fictional advice given by the immigration authorities to people moving from Earth to Mars.

The quality of the computer graphics is mixed. Many of them, which were without doubt absolutely astonishing for the time, now look rather crude and dated as the technology has improved. Others, however, still stand up very well even today. The quality of the computer simulations of the terraforming process can be seen from this image below of what Eos Chasma might look like in 2500 AD.

There are also plenty of illustrations of Mars, rendered using more traditional artistic methods such as painting, including photos of Percival Lowell’s own drawings of what he believed was the planet’s network of canals.

Although the computer tools may have been superseded and improved in the decades since the book’s publication, I think the science, and the social issues Clarke discusses, are still solidly relevant and contemporary. Certainly there is now a popular movement to send humans to the Red Planet at some point in the coming decades, and prospective future colonists have even come forward to volunteer a few years ago. There is, however, a greater awareness of the medical dangers from radiation and microgravity that would affect – and possibly destroy – a mission to Mars. The dream, however, is still there, as shown by the success of the film The Martian a few years ago.

British Spaceplane Skylon to Fly in 2020?

February 25, 2017


The papers also reported this week that the government was looking for somewhere to put a spaceport for a British spacecraft, which would take off from ordinary runaways. The spacecraft would be launched in 2020. One of the places suggested as a possible site for the spaceport is Newquay in Cornwall.

This sounds like Skylon, a spaceplane that has been in development by British scientists since the 1980s. The plane will use a mixture of advanced air-breathing engines and rockets to enter space. It’s sort-of the successor to an earlier spaceplane project, HOTOL, which was under development in the 1980s before it was cancelled due to problems developing its air-breathing engines.

This is really great news. There have been other spaceplanes planned by a number of other countries, quite apart from the American space shuttle, and its Russian counterpart, Buran. The Germans had the Sanger spaceplane under consideration in the 1990s, named after the German aerospace engineer and scientist, Eugen Sanger, while the French were also considering the Hermes spacecraft. This was going to be a mini-shuttle launched by their Ariane rocket, rather like the American Dyno-Soar spaceplane of the 1950s. If this does go ahead, it will mean that Britain has once again returned as an independent space power after the cancellation of the Black Knight rocket launcher in 1975.

Russia and China Agreed to Join Moon Programme?

January 3, 2017

The I newspaper reported last week that the Chinese were continuing their programme of sending probes to the Moon and Mars, with the unstated intention of landing a human on the Moon. Way back in 2006, they were negotiating with the Russians about forming a joint programme to explore the Moon. Spaceflight, in its edition for November that year, reported

Russia and China may conclude a Moon exploration agreement by the end of the year, according to Anatoly Perminov, head of the Russian Space Agency.

China has successfully launched into orbit two manned space vehicles. Its first manned flight three years ago made it the third country to launch a human being into space on its own, after Russia and the US.

“I can say that as a result of the Russian-Chinese space sub-commission’s work, our priority is a joint programme on Moon exploration,” said Perminov. “A number of contracts have been signed involving both Russian and Chinese enterprises.”

“We are currently working on the Moon as partners, and we have concluded that Russia and China have moved beyond their previous relationship, when China was a buyer and we [Russia] were a seller,” Perminov added.

He explained that the Russian-Chinese Space Exploration Commission will hold a concluding session in Beijing by the end of 2006, and that the Russian delegation will be led by Prime Minister Mikhail Fradkov.

“The work of our sub-commission should create a favourable context for the visit of our [Russian] prime minister to China,” he said. “We have already adopted a cooperation programme with China for 2007-2009.”

Perminov also said that China may sign a contract to participate in a Russian project to bring soil back from one of Mars’ moons – Phobos.

“One of the directions we are working in is a flight to Phobos, with Chinese participation, which will bring back some of its soil to Earth.” Perminov said. “We plan to reach the final stage [of our talks] by the end of 2006, possibly even by the start of the sub-commission’s work under Prime Minister Fradkov.” (p. 405)

There was no mention of an agreement with Russia in the I’s article, so perhaps the pact has fallen apart. If it does exist, it would certainly show that the Russians are again a major competitor to the Americans in space, especially since the cancellation of the Space Shuttle.

What Happened to the Orion Mooncraft?

January 3, 2017

In his novel Into the Everywhere, set in a future in which humanity has been given fifteen different worlds to colonise by the alien Jackaroo, Paul McAuley mentions a human space ship, the Orion, which has been made obsolete by the new spacecraft introduced by the aliens. It was clear that the Orion is a real spacecraft, but I was left wondering what it was, as I hadn’t heard it mentioned anywhere else. Looking through an old copy of Spaceflight, one of the two magazines published by the British Interplanetary Society, for November 2006, I found an article announcing the news that NASA had selected Lockheed Martin to build it, and that it was intended to take humans to the Moon. The article runs

Just as the last issue of Spaceflight went to press, NASA announced at the end of August that it had selected Lockheed Martin as the prime contractor to design, develop and build Orion, the new US crewed spacecraft.

Orion will be capable of transporting four people on lunar missions and later supporting crew transfers for flights to Mars missions. Orion will also be able to carry up to six crew to and from the International Space Station.

The first Orion launch with people onboard is planned for no later than 2014, and for a human Moon landing no later than 2020, but NASA and Lockheed will be working hard to bring the first crewed mission into Earth orbit forward to around 2012.

The contract with Lockheed Martin is the conclusion of a two-phase selection process. NASA began working with the two contractor teams, Northrop Grumman/Boeing and Lockheed Martin, in July 2005 to perform concept refinement, trade studies, analysis of requirements and preliminary design options.

Meanwhile, the $300 million first test flight of the Project Constellation Ares 1 booster will be made in April 2009. If this fails, another attempt will be made in October.

This first test will use four live Space Shuttle Solid Rocket Booster segments with an inert fifth upper segment and an Orion spacecraft “mass simulator”.

There will also be a full five-segment SRB ground test firing in 2009 and a test of the Apollo Type launch escape system. A full Ares 1 flight test will be made in 2012, followed by a manned flight in 2014, or earlier if the development schedule permits. (p. 407).


Lockheed Martin’s depiction of the Orion crew vehicle and lunar lander in Moon orbit.

I don’t recall hearing about the launch of this spacecraft on the news. Perhaps I wasn’t paying attention, or the news agencies didn’t think it worth reporting. But I doubt I missed it, and am certain that the construction of another rocket capable of taking humanity to the Moon and Mars would be guaranteed massive coverage around the world. It is, after all, nearly half a century since Neil Armstrong and co. stepped out onto the lunar regolith, and a possible mission to Mars is still very much in the news.

This looks very much like it was another NASA project that got cancelled due to budget cuts. Perhaps all the spending that was supposed to go to this got channelled by Obama on furthering the wars in the Middle East instead.

Florence on Terraforming Mars Using Existing Microbes

January 2, 2017

One of the pieces I put up yesterday was on a paper by two scientists in the Journal of the British Interplanetary Society, discussing the possibility of terraforming Mars using genetically engineered microbes. Florence, one of the commenters on this blog, used to be a microbiologist, and was extremely interested in the exploration of Mars and the prospect for finding life there. She commented that there are already anaerobic microbes that can exist in comparable conditions on Earth. She felt that the experiments carried designed to detect life on the Red Planet were very inadequate. She wrote

There appears little need to create GMOs for terraforming. We already have the real deal here on earth. Back 3.6 billion years ago, when first life is thought to have arrived/ developed / etc there wasn’t an oxygen based atmosphere. It was anoxic, and the first organisms (the archeao bacteria) were very sensitive to oxygen, and there are still many that find oxygen toxic. These are still found in many places including the human gut! Some microorganisms developed oxygen tolerance and that allowed them to use new food sources, and they began adding oxygen to the atmosphere. These organisms then used this evolutionary advantage to evolve and diversify. When I studied anaerobic bacteria the main problems were sensitivity to oxygen – very difficult to remove from all materials prepared in the standard lab – and the slow growth rate (making the rapid generation of results for research funding cycles pretty difficult).

Then there are the organisms that can grow in both aerobic and anaerobic environments. These are the ones that would be useful in terraforming if the aim was to develop a breathable atmosphere for humans and other animals. These live on very basic nutrients of sulphur and iron containing minerals, plus water. I think the “red” planet would be a great place to find these organisms, and vee may not even need to send ours over, but to stimulate the environmental conditions that would allow the planet to terraform itself. I recall the so-called search for life on the early Mars probes left me speechless – they were just totally inappropriate. But that’s can other story! Thank you for reminding me of the whole area of microbial life here and across the solar system! Happy New Year, too!

The paper discussing the use of GEMOs to terraform Mars did mention that some existing microorganisms had been considered, such as a variety of cyanobacteria.
Looking through the index of papers published in the Proceedings of the Founding Convention of the Mars Society: August 13-16, 1998, edited by Robert and Linda Zubrin, I did find one paper by James M. Graham and Linda E. Graham on terrestrial microbes on Mars. This was ‘Physiological Ecology of Terrestrial Microbes on a Terraformed Mars’, published in the third volume of papers. Unfortunately, I don’t have that volume, and so I really don’t know anything about the paper or its conclusions, just that it exists.

As for the inadequacy of the instruments aboard the Viking probe to detect life on the Red Planet, Dr. Heather Couper and the late Colin Pillinger also believed that they were too limited to disprove the existence of life in that part of the cosmos. Heather Couper is an astronomer, writer and broadcaster, who’s written a series of books on astronomy. A few years ago I heard her talk about life on Mars at the Cheltenham Festival of Science. Before she began speaking, she asked her audience how many of them believed there was life there. Only a few people put their hands up. She asked the same question again at the end of her talk, after she had explained the problems with Viking’s experiments, and the evidence for life. That time the majority of people put their hands up.

Dr. Colin Pillinger, who was a scientist with the Open University, also made a very strong case for life on Mars, life he hoped to find with the Beagle Probe. One of the ways life could be detected was through its waste gases, like methane. The Beagle Probe carried just such a detector, and Dr. Pillinger said, ‘So if a bacterium farts on Mars, we’ll find it.’ He was another speaker at the Cheltenham Festival of Science, and was well worth hearing. Sadly, the Beagle Probe was a disastrous failure. Rather than soft-landing, it crashed on to the Mars surface, and was destroyed.

Despite this, I still have immense respect for the man. He and his team seemed to be fighting a lone battle to send a British probe to explore the issue, and I am deeply impressed by the way he and his fellow scientists were able to mobilise public support, including celebrities like the artist, Damian Hurst. I got the impression that his team were rushed, and it may well have been this that caused the mission’s failure. But I don’t fault the man for trying, and I think he did a grand job in taking on British officialdom and winning a place for the probe aboard the Ariane craft, when the British authorities didn’t appear to be at all interested, at least, at the beginning.

It’s sad that he failed, but he was genuinely inspirational in pushing for the project. I hope that it will not be too long before someone else sends another, better probe to Mars. And I think we need more scientists, and science educators like him, who can pass on their great enthusiasm for their subject.

Trump and Putin Revive Nuclear Arms Race

December 24, 2016

Yesterday, Mike put up another piece commenting on statements by the American president-elect and Vladimir Putin that they want to strengthen their countries’ nuclear arsenals. Trump had made a tweet on Thursday saying “The United States must greatly strengthen and expand its nuclear capability until such time as the world comes to its senses regarding nukes.”

Trump did so the same day that Putin issued his own statement, declaring that “We need to strengthen the military potential of strategic nuclear forces, especially with missile complexes that can reliably penetrate any existing and prospective missile defence systems.”

Mike makes the point that the threat of nuclear Armageddon will not make the world more secure. It will not make rogue states like North Korea abandon their nuclear programmes. Instead, Mike urged us to listen to George Takei, whose family personally experienced the horror of the atomic bomb in Japan in World War II.

Star Trek’s Mr Sulu tweeted “Trump wants to expand our nuclear arsenal. I think of my aunt and baby cousin, found burnt in a ditch in Hiroshima. These weapons must go.”

Absolutely. I can remember the very large, and vocal demonstrations against nuclear weapons in Japan during the new Cold War of the 1980s. The Japanese had every good reason to demand the reduction and abandonment of the world’s nuclear arsenals: their country had experienced the terrible carnage produced by these horrific weapons.

Mike also reports that back in May, Trump also stated that he would support South Korea, Japan and Saudi Arabia acquiring nuclear weapons for their own protection.


Mike’s also reported that Trump has followed up his idiotic tweet by making his intentions clear in an interview with Mika Brzezinski, one of the presenters on MSNBC’s Morning Joe programme. He said, ‘Let it be an arms race. We will outmatch them at every pass and outlast them all’.

Mike makes the point that his comments risk needlessly inflaming tensions with Russia, pointing out that what is currently repeated in the western media about eastern Europe and the Middle East is propaganda designed to manipulate public opinion. He also argues that Putin could adopt the opposite approach, and concentrate on saving precious money and resources through the same policy, that has been considered by Labour Jeremy Corbyn. This means killing or otherwise neutralising terrorists’ leaders through surgical strikes, leaving them without effective military direction.

He also points out that technological weapons are also increasingly susceptible to infiltration and sabotage.


Trump’s determination to ramp up America’s nuclear arsenal is bizarre, given his previous statements during his presidential campaign in which he deliberately gave the impression that he would be scaling down America’s military intervention around the globe. However, on examination this does seem very much in line with Trump’s determination to go back on every single one of his election promises, with the exception of repealing Obamacare.

Remember the noise he was making about going to Washington to ‘drain the swamp’, and would stop the corporate domination and corruption of Congress? That’s gone. After attacking Hillary for being a fully paid-up stooge for Wall Street, Trump has himself gone and appointed Wall Street bankers – including one from Goldman Sachs – to his cabinet. In fact, if anything, he’s increased the amount of corporate corruption. He’s allowed his daughter, Ivanka, to stay with him during negotiations with heads of government in either Japan or China, despite the fact that Ivanka Trump is also a businesswoman, who could use the information from these interviews to gain a clear economic advantage. And his sons have been raising money for their father by selling tickets to the extremely and not-quite-so filthy rich for them to attend dinners with him and go on hunting trips. All Trump’s talk about tackling corporate power has been a lie. Instead, it’s very much business as usual.

And it appears to be very much the same here. Counterpunch has published several articles over the past couple of months discussing how Barack Obama has been talking to senior military staff in Washington. He has already started to expand America’s stockpiles of nuclear weapons. He has also considered the possible use of low-megaton ‘battle field’ nukes in a limited nuclear war in Europe. The American comedian Jimmy Dore has several times ripped into Obama on his internet show, bitterly attacking the false image of the soon to be ex-president as some kind of dove and peacemaker. Far from stopping wars, Obama has carried on George Dubya’s brutal military policies in the Middle East, from Iraq, Afghanistan and Syria, as well as Libya and Somalia. And so this new policy, announced by Trump, really isn’t new at all. It is, as Max Headroom used to say, merely ‘more… of the same’. The difference here is that Max was a fictional character with a satirical edge talking about pop music. The pilot for his series, 20 Minutes into the Future, showed a decaying Britain with massive poverty and homelessness, dominated by ruthless and unscrupulous media corporations. It’s a dystopian vision that is still very relevant today, even if the human brain is far too complicated to be successfully mapped and modelled electronically to produce an AI like Max.

As for the reason behind this dangerous policy, Counterpunch also published a piece describing Hillary Clinton’s vision of America’s role in the world. She seemed to be intent on expanding America’s military power to the utmost. She and the rest of the hawks talked about ‘full spectrum domination’, which means that America is the superior, dominant military superpower with the ability to bomb everyone else back into submission. At the same time, her domestic policies were aimed at keeping the working class as poor and as desperate as possible, so that she could sell American products cheaply to the emerging east Asian market.

It’s also been argued that America spends so much on the military because it is the only way that the American state can stimulate the country’s economy. Leftwing commenters and political analysts have argued that the experience of the Second World War after the Great Depression taught the American industrial and political class that America needed state intervention to create prosperity. This is, however, the Keynsian economic position, which is vehemently rejected by the Republicans and Libertarians as ‘socialism’ or even ‘Communism’. The only way the American state can effectively intervene in the American economy in a manner that is ideologically acceptable, is by doing what the Nazis and Fascists did in Germany and Italy, and invest massively in a re-armament programme. And like the Fascist states, the state has to use its armed forces to maintain its investments and public support for the rearmament programme. This was part of the reason for the outbreak of the Second World War.

As for Trump’s statement that he is prepared to allow South Korea, Japan and Saudi Arabia to acquire nuclear weapons, this is grossly irresponsible. Especially in the case of Saudi Arabia. In the case of Japan, it unacceptable for the same reason that the country has difficulty launching its own spacecraft. In the 1980s Japan developed its own rocket launcher to carry its satellites and probes into space. One of these probes was amongst the small flotilla of spacecraft that met Halley’s Comet in 1986. From what I’ve read, the country has only used its launcher a few times because of fears that it would be taken as a missile attack by the Chinese. The same would be true of South Korea. Political scientists and foreign policy analysts have argued very strongly against threatening China, as they respond by passing on nuclear technology and armaments to other nations, such as Pakistan.

And I cannot imagine anything more stupid, more calculated to result a nuclear holocaust, than giving atomic weapons to Saudi Arabia. This is a militant theocracy that has sponsored horrific terror campaigns throughout the Middle East and against America itself. Elements within the Saudi aristocracy and political elite, including its intelligence minister and possibly, if I remember correctly, the current king, sponsored al-Qaeda and ISIS. Terrorist organisations like them, who use suicide bombers and deliberately target civilians, simply cannot be allowed to acquire nuclear weapons. But that is what would happen if Trump allowed Saudi Arabia to acquire them.

Trump’s renewal of the nuclear arms race is therefore simply a continuation of Bush’s, Obama’s and Hillary’s arms policies. And it’s insane. During the Cold War of the last century, there were at least three instances where NATO and the former Warsaw Pact were on the edge of full-scale nuclear war. We escaped some of these by the skin of our teeth. This time, we may not be so lucky.

Stephen Hawking on Why British Science Needs the EU

June 1, 2016

One of the many piece Mike put up on his site yesterday reported on Stephen Hawking’s statement that British science would be put at risk if we left the EU. Hawking was speaking as a guest on the show Good Morning Britain, and stated that the EU was good for British science for two reasons. Firstly, it allowed scientists and students from different countries to travel, thus sharing their skills, knowledge and experience. Without this exchange of personnel and ideas, Britain would be come isolated and remote from the centres of scientific endeavour. He also stated that British science benefited from generous funding from the European Union.

Another EU personality clash: Stephen Hawking vs Michael Gove. Who do YOU think should win?

Hawking’s views here are, unsurprisingly, exactly right. In fact, British intellectual culture has benefited from the exchange of staff and ideas from across the continent. Many, perhaps the majority, of unis today have teaching staff and students from elsewhere in the EU and the wider world. In the archaeology department at Bristol University four years ago, when I was studying for my postgraduate degree, there were staff from Greece, Portugal and Germany. There were also speakers at the regular postgraduate seminars from countries such as Austria and Belgium, apart from those from the other parts of the Anglophone world. These archaeologists reported on excavations they had carried out not only in their home countries, but also in places like Turkey, Egypt, Romania and the former USSR. Well some of this is no doubt possible without the umbrella of the EU, it’s made much easier with it.

And Britain does benefit from the international contacts the EU brings at a corporate and financial level. ESA, the European Space Agency, operates a system of a juste retour. Under this system, the countries that contribute the most funding to a European space project get the most contracts for it. And we’ve missed out on the benefits of closer cooperation with the European Space Agency in the past. For example, we could have been much more involved with the Ariane satellite launcher. This was developed by France from the remains of the ESRO project to build a European launch vehicle. We developed our own launcher too, Black Knight, which successfully launched a British satellite in the 1970s, but was cancelled after its first mission. We could have had a place, or many more places for our satellites, aboard Ariane. Instead, some Whitehall mandarin decided that we should instead throw in our lot with the Americans’ space shuttle. Well, we suffered there, not just because of the horrific engineering problems with that space vessel, which resulted in the deaths of the crew of the Challenger and more recent fatalities. We also suffered because the launch of our satellites depended on whether there was space left over after the Americans had filled it with the experiments they wanted for their missions. Meanwhile, Ariane, quietly and successfully, carried other countries’ experiments and satellites into orbit, while we waited for the goodwill of the Americans.

And Ariane itself, the rocket launcher, is excellent value for money. It costs the same as the Space Shuttle to launch a satellite, but that’s only because the Space Shuttle was heavily subsidised by the US government. If you’re looking for something that justifies itself according to free market ideology, then it’s probably Ariane you’d go for.

Much of the cutting-edge, gosh-wow science that science educators love, because it captures young minds, like space, atomic physics and so on, is very expensive. I doubt whether the UK on its own could bear the cost of building a particle accelerator the size of CERN, or its rivals in America. So CERN was the result of collaboration between different European nations. And the importance of international contacts and intellectual mobility between countries is also underscored by the initial post-War success of American atomic physics. The Americans were able to build such huge nuclear reactors and accelerators, not just because they had the vast financial resources to afford them, but also because they benefited from the influx of all the scientists and engineers the Nazis had chased out of Central Europe.

Mike, following one of his esteemed commenters, asks who people should believe about science and Brexit, Stephen Hawking, or Michael Gove? Really, you don’t have to have read A Brief History of Time or understand the intricacies of N-dimensional String Theory to know the answer to that one. It’s definitely going to be Hawking.

Why I Believe Leaving the EU Will Be Particularly Bad for Bristol, Gloucestershire and Somerset

February 22, 2016

Since David Cameron raised the issue of the EU referendum last week, there’s been a flood of posts about the subject. I’ve blogged about the dangers to British workers and the middle class if we leave Europe, and the human and workers’ rights legislation contained in the EU constitution and treaties. The Lovely Wibbley Wobbley Old Lady has put up her piece explaining the issues involved in Britain leaving the EU, as have a number of others. In this piece I won’t discuss the general issues, just give some of my thought on why it would be disastrous for Bristol, Somerset, Gloucestershire, and areas like them elsewhere in Britain if the country decides to leave.

Firstly, Bristol is a port city. It’s not so much now, after the docks in Bristol have been closed to industry, and the port itself moved to better deep water facilities over in Avonmouth. Nevertheless, a sizable amount of trade goes through port facilities. The EU is Britain’s major trading partner, and my fear is that if Britain leaves Europe, trade will be hit, and the income and jobs generated by that trade will plummet. This will, of course, hit British industry generally, but it’ll also affect the ports as the centres of the import/export trade.

Bristol furthermore has a proud tradition of aerospace research through BAE and Rolls Royce at Filton. Further south in Somerset there is the former Westland helicopter firm, while in the Golden Mile in Gloucestershire there are engineering firms, such as Dowty, that specialise in aircraft instrumentation and control systems. The sheer cost of developing and manufacturing modern high-performance civil and military aircraft means that many of these projects are joint ventures between aviation companies across Europe. Airbus is one of the most obvious examples, as is the Eurofighter. And then, back in the 1970s, there was Concorde, which was a joint project between Britain and France. Hence the name. Parts of the aircraft were built in France, but the wings and a other components were manufactured here in Bristol.

The same is true of space exploration, and the satellites and probes sent up to the High Frontier. Several of these, or parts of them, have also been manufactured by British Aerospace at Filton. I’ve got a feeling the Giotto probe that was sent to investigate Halley’s Comet in 1986 was also partly made in Bristol. Again, like aviation, space travel can be enormously expensive. The costs are literally astronomical. So many of the space projects are joint ventures across Europe, between aerospace firms and contractors in Britain, France and Italy, for example. This was always the case going back to ESRO in the 1950s and ’60s. This was a joint European attempt to create a rocket launcher, involving Britain, France, Italy and Germany. Unfortunately the project collapsed, as the only section of the rocket that actually worked was the British first stage. Nevertheless, the French persevered, and out of its ashes came Ariane, launched from their base in Kourou in French Guyana.

ESA, the European Space Agency, operates under a system of ‘juste retour’. Under this system, the country that supplies the most funding for a particular project, gets most of the contracts to make it. Despite various noises about the importance of space exploration and innovation in science and technology by various administrations over the years, space research by and large has not been well-served by the British government and mandarins at Whitehall. It has a very low priority. Opportunities for British firms to benefit from European space research have been harmed by the British government’s reluctance to spend money in this area. I can remember one of Thatcher’s ministers proudly informing the great British public that they weren’t going to spend money just to put Frenchmen into space. It’s partly because of this attitude that it’s taken so long to put a British astronaut into space with Tim Foale. Those of us of a certain age can remember Helen Sharman’s trip into space with the Russians in the 1980s. This was supposed to be a privately funded joint venture with the Russians. It nearly didn’t happen because the monies that were supposed to come from British capitalism didn’t materialise, and in fact the Soviets took Sharman to the High Frontier largely as a favour.

The aerospace industry in Bristol and the West Country has contracted massively in the past few decades, as the aviation industry throughout Britain has declined along with the rest of our industrial base. I’m very much afraid that if we leave Europe, we will lose out on further commercial aerospace opportunities, and that part of Britain’s scientific, technological and industrial heritage will just die out. We were, for example, invited to take part in the development of Ariane, but the mandarins at Whitehall didn’t want to. Rather than invest in the French rocket, they thought we’d be better off hitching rides with the Americans. The problem with that is that the Americans naturally put their own interests first, and so tended to carry British satellites only when there was a suitable gap in the cargo. It also meant that British satellite launches were limited to the times the Space Shuttle was flying. These were curtailed after the Challenger explosion. If we’d have stuck with the French, we could possibly have had far more success putting our probes into space.

I’m sure there are very many other ways Bristol and the West Country could also be harmed by the decision to leave the EU. It’s just what occurs to me, as someone with an interest in space exploration, from a city that was a centre of the aeroplane, rocket and satellite industries. I also decided to post this, because I know that Bristol’s not unique in its position. There are other working ports and centres of the aerospace industry across the country, that will also suffer if we leave Europe. And so I firmly believe we should remain in.

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.