Posts Tagged ‘Satellites’

Rolls-Royce on Their Record-Breaking Electric Aircraft

November 29, 2021

One of Bristol’s most important industries is aviation and space research. The city has a proud heritage of designing and manufacturing aircraft and space satellites. One of the greatest of these planes was the Anglo-French Concorde, partly built in Bristol at Filton. Rolls-Royce is one of the companies involved, which is why I was particularly interested in this little video from them. posted on their channel on YouTube. It’s a short film about their new plane, ‘Spirit of Innovation’. It’s a small, single person propeller plane, but differs from other, similar aircraft in that the engine’s electric rather than oil-driven. In the video, the pilot and various officials and technicians describe working on the aircraft, how it involved engineers from all over England and the huge advance in research into electric aviation the plane represents. It was designed to beat the speed record and has done so by a large margin. The team believe that the third age of aviation – electric planes – are here and will make a strong contribution to carbon-neutral travel.

It’s a fascinating plane and obviously a great achievement, but I wonder how much of a contribution such planes will make to making international travel greener. I think to have any significant impact on the production of greenhouse gases by aircraft, it will have to be installed on the large passenger aircraft. And while I have seen other videos about electric airplanes, I can’t recall seeing anything about replacing jet propulsion with electric propeller engines. One possible replacement for fossil fuel jets may be engines using liquid oxygen and hydrogen, like the large space rockets. If this was done, the result would be water and steam rather than anything harmful to the environment. I first read about the idea of planes using Lox and liquid hydrogen way back in the Usborne Book of the Future when I was 12. There has been the odd murmur about the idea since then, but I really haven’t heard anything about any research on it for a long time so I do wonder if that idea is dead.

In the meantime, I salute the Rolls-Royce engineers latest achievement, and hope it does help create the greener future our planet and society so desperately needs.

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Russians Now Shooting Film in Space – And I Predicted It!

October 6, 2021

Arthur C. Clarke was nicknamed ‘the space prophet’ because in the late 1940s he wrote an article for a radio magazine predicting communications satellites. He also wrote another later piece, with the title ‘How I Lost a $Billion in My Spare Time’ or something like that lamenting the fact that he lost millions by not copyrighting the idea. I had a similar experience last night when I saw on the news a piece about the Russians shooting a film aboard the International Space Station. Starring Yulia Persilda and directed by Klim Shlipenko, the film is about a doctor, who travels to the ISS in order to save one of the astronauts.

Years ago I presented a paper at a symposium of the British Interplanetary Society on the popular commercialisation of space. I suggested that one way to stimulate further interest in space exploration and development was to shoot a movie up there. The amount paid to some of Hollywood’s most popular actors, like Arnold Schwarzenegger, is almost that to cover the costs of launching a person into space. Arnie was paid $7 million for one of his movies, and it cost one of the first commercial space tourists, someone like Dennis Tito, $16 million to go into space aboard the Russian proton rockets. It therefore seemed to me to be entirely economical to send a film crew to the station, provided that only a limited number went. Say the star and a director/cameraman. I gather that Shlipenko’s crew numbers seven, which is larger than I had in mind, but still far from a cast of thousands.

My idea was printed in the BIS’ Journal, and I’ll try and dig that out at some point to show that I’m not spinning a yarn. And in the meantime, if any space company wants to take me on as a consultant or some other job, you can contact me here.

And best wishes to William Shatner, who today also ventures into the final frontier.

Shatner, as any fule kno, played Captain James T. Kirk in the original Star Trek series. ITV news reported yesterday that he too was heading into space aboard a rocket at the grand age of 90. I haven’t watched the recent iterations of Star Trek since Deep Space 9 ended, but the original series was definitely one of my fave programmes when I was a kid. It helped stimulate my interest in space and astronomy, as it did many thousands of others. And Star Trek’s portrayal of a world without racism, where women enjoy equality and poverty, starvation, crime and unemployment are things of the past is still inspiring. So I salute him as he makes his personal voyage into the Black.

And here’s the intro to the original series that started it all off in the early ’60s, which I found on dinadangdong’s channel on YouTube.

The Almaz – The Soviet Union’s Armed Spy Space Station

June 26, 2021

This is another fascinating little video from the military historian Mark Felton. I’ve put up a couple of his videos demolishing the stories about Nazi UFOs and space/time travel. But some real aerospace and military technology comes very close to Science Fiction. In this video, he talks about the Almaz armed spy stations launched by the Soviet Union in the 1970s. They were manned spacecraft, designed to photograph NATO military targets during the tense days of the Cold War. They were launched under the cover of a civilian space programme, Salyut. And to protect them from western attack, each station was armed with a rapid fire aircraft gun. It’s an idea close to the Bond film, Moonraker, in which Bond tackles Hugo Drax and his minions aboard their own space station.

The Almaz, ‘Diamond’, stations consisted of three sections. There was the main, piloted station module, a cargo section for resupply, and a launch and return craft. The stations were launched using a Proton rocket, and carried a two-three man crew, in space for 20 to 30 days before returning to Earth and being replaced by the next crew. They were armed with 25 mm Rikhtor guns, a modified version of the tail canon used on the Tupolev Tu-22 Blinder Russian bomber. The Russians were afraid that vibrations from the canon might damage the spacecraft, and so arranged a test firing. Salyut 3 (Almaz 2) was due to come to the end of its life in July 1974, and so was selected as a suitable test vehicle. After the last crew left on the 19th of that month, the station was remotely operated so that it targeted and shot down a defunct Soviet satellite. The Almaz station, the satellite, and the spent rounds were all burned up when they re-entered the Earth’s atmosphere afterwards. To date, Russia is the only country that has fired a weapon in space, but this may change.

I remember the Salyut space programme. It was always presented as just civilian research into living in space, and people were impressed by the lengths of time the Russians were able successfully to keep crews in orbit. However, these achievements were never as spectacular or interesting as the Moon landings. Now it’s been revealed that they were military spy missions, a fact that has almost certainly been revealed as a consequence of the Fall of Communism and the end of the Cold War.

It’s not just with the Bond film Moonraker that the Almaz stations have a similarity. In Kubrick’s and Clarke’s classic SF film, 2001, the world is on the brink of a nuclear war. After the first section, which shows a group of primitive hominids being led to intelligence by the black monolith on the prehistoric Earth, the film cuts to space, showing various satellites gliding in orbit while the Orion space shuttle makes it complex maneuvres to dock with the wheel-like space station. Although their purpose isn’t obvious, as Kubrick didn’t want people to think his film was repeating the themes of his Cold War nuclear satire, Dr Strangelove, these satellites are actually orbiting nuclear weapons platforms. Real killer satellites like them, but using ‘pop-up’ lasers to destroy nuclear missiles, were designed as part of Ronald Reagan’s Strategic Defence Initiative, or ‘Star Wars’ programme. There have been a number of books written about possible future wars in space, such as The Shape of Wars to Come, and a year or so ago former president Donald Trump called for the creation of an American space force. Which I think has provided the subject matter for a comedy on Netflix or one of the other streaming channels.

The arming of the Almaz stations shows how terrifyingly close the threat of war in space is to reality. I hope that for the sake of the world we manage to halt the militarisation of space and keep space exploration and, hopefully, colonisation, peaceful. Although this may be difficult given rising tensions between the West, Russia and China.

Mark Felton Demolishes the Claims for Die Glocke, Hitler’s Anti-Gravity Time/Space Machine

June 21, 2021

Yesterday I posted up a piece by the military historian, Dr Mark Felton, considering the evidence for Nazi flying discs. Felton’s an expert on World War II and the military technology of that time. He came to the conclusion that if the Nazis were experimenting with flying discs, then they were almost certainly failures given the spectacular failures of later, post-War experimental disc-shaped aircraft like the Avrocar. In this video he casts a similarly bleak, withering gaze over claims that the Nazis were working on a secret antigravity craft, called Die Glocke, or ‘the Bell’ because of its resemblance to the musical instrument installed in church towers. Not only is it claimed that the Glocke used antigravity, but it was also apparently a time/space machine. I thought immediately of Dr Who’s TARDIS. Did the Nazis really possess such a device, or have the people who are pushing this watched too many episodes of Dr Who, Time Tunnel and so on?

Felton begins in his usual dry manner. ‘Did’, he asks, ‘the Nazis possess antigravity? Could they flip between dimensions? And did Adolf Hitler escape to the Moon using such a craft? No, I haven’t been self-medicating,’, he says, and goes on to explain he’s only considering the claims made in ‘certain documentaries’. He wants to know if they contain any truth or are just ‘bovine excrement’. I think after watching this the answer lies far more on the side of bovine excrement, but I’ve never been persuaded by the Nazi saucer myth. But Felton states that the Americans and their Allies were astounded by how advanced German aerospace engineering was. The Nazi regime produced a number of highly advanced air- and spacecraft, like the Messerschmitt 262 jet plane, the Bachem Natter rocket interceptor, the V1 Flying Bomb, the V2 rocket. It was a secretive regime, operating from underground bases using slave labour, and so it was ideal for distortion of historical truth. Much of that distorted history was created by the Nazis themselves, and by their successors since then.

The video states that the Glocke entered public consciousness in a book published in 2000. This, followed by others, claimed that the project was under the control of Hans Kammler, the head of the V2 project. Kammler was the stereotypical Nazi leader, straight out of a comic book. He disappeared at the end of the War and was never seen again. It was supposedly powered by a highly volatile substance, red mercury. But Felton eschews discussing how it worked because it’s all theoretical. He just gives a physical description of the putative machine, stating it was 12-14 feet tall, shaped like a Bell, and had a swastika on its side, just so’s people knew where it came from. Is there any documentary evidence for this? No. The only evidence comes from an interview between an author and a Polish intelligence officer, who claimed access to a dossier produced by the SS personnel working on the project. Various names have been suggested for the scientists and officers in charge. One of them is Werner Heisenberg, due to a close similarity between his name and one of the scientists supposedly involved. Heisenberg was the German physicist in charge of the Nazis’ atomic programme. He produced a nuclear reactor, which partially worked, and an atomic bomb which didn’t. Mercifully. But everything is known about what he did during the War, and he was captured and thoroughly interrogated by the Americans afterwards. He didn’t mention the Glocke. Which in my view means that he very definitely wasn’t involved.

The video goes back further, stating that claims of the Glocke actually go back even further, to 1960 and the publication of the French author’s Bergier and Pauwels’ Le Matin des Magiciens, translated into English in 1963 as The Morning of the Magicians. This made a series of claims about the Nazis, including UFOs and occultism, that were roughly based on fact. The Horten brothers had designed flying wing aircraft, which resemble UFOs. After the War their plane ended up in America. Felton says that it clearly influenced later American planes, like the Stealth aircraft. He suggests the Horten flying wing plane contributed to the flying saucer craze of the late 1940s. It has been suggested that what Kenneth Arnold saw in his 1947 flight over the Rockies, which produced the term ‘flying saucer’, was in fact the Hortens flying wings being secretly flown. As for Nazi occultism, Heinrich Himmler, the head of the SS, was an occultist. He intended Wewelsburg castle to be a pseudo-pagan temple, but claims of Nazi involvement in the occult have been greatly exaggerated. Indeed they have. Nicholas Goodricke-Clarke, in his book on Nazi paganism, states that Hitler drew on the bizarre evolutionary ideas of the neo-Pagan cults in Germany and Vienna, like the Ariosophists, whose ideas really were bizarre and quite barking. He also had some contact with the Thule society. However, the pagan sects were banned during the Third Reich because Adolf was afraid they’d divide Germans. He concludes that real Nazi paganism was slight, except in the case of Himmler and the SS, who really did believe in it and wanted his vile organisation to be a new pagan order. Pauwels and Bergier’s book fed into the nascent 60s counterculture and then into the later New Age. Their book is notorious, and has certainly been credited as a source for much New Age speculation and pseudo-history by magazines like the Fortean Times. I think there was a split between the two authors. Bergier was an anti-Nazi, who had spent time in a concentration camp. I think he may even have been Jewish. Pauwels, on the other hand, gravitated towards the far right.

Villainous Nazi super-scientists also became part of SF pulp fiction of the 1960s and 70s. The Nazis were supposed to have discovered the secrets of space and even time travel. One of the books flashed up in this part of the video is Norman Spinrad’s The Iron Dream. This came out in the 1980s, and pondered what would have happened if Hitler had emigrated to America and become a pulp SF writer. The West German authorities weren’t impressed, and it was banned in Germany under the Basic Law outlawing the glorification of the Nazis. I found it in a secondhand bookshop in Cheltenham. It proudly boasted that it contained the SF/Fantasy novel Hitler would have written. Well, Hitler didn’t go to America, and never wrote any SF or Fantasy novels, and the book actually looked really dull. So I saved my money and didn’t buy it. This type of literature flourished because the Americans had been so impressed by genuine German scientific achievements. And the post-War atomic age and UFO craze allowed imaginations to run riot. So Nazi scientists also turned up as the villains in various SF film and TV shows. One prize example of that is the X-Files, in which the secret programme to breed human-alien hybrids at the heart of the UFO mystery is done by Nazi biologists, who came to America under Operation Paperclip.

The video then asks whether the Nazis really did experiment with antigravity. Well, they experimented with everything else, including occultism. NASA was also experimenting with antigravity from the 1990s onwards, as were the Russians and major aerospace corporations like Boeing in the US and BAe Systems in Britain. The Russians even published a scientific paper on it. But despite their deep pockets, these were all failures. And it seems that Operation Paperclip, which successfully collected German rocket scientists, chemical and biological weapons experts, and aerospace engineers, somehow failed to get their antigravity experts. We don’t have the names of any of the scientists and engineers, where they worked or even any credible documents about them. If the Glocke really had been built and its scientists captured by the US and USSR, why were the Americans and Russians trying to build it all from scratch. And if Hitler did have antigravity and UFOs, then how the hell did he lose the War?

Some sources claim that the project was also run by SS Gruppenfuhrers Emil Mazuw and Jakob Sporrenberg, both deeply noxious individuals. Mazuw was the governor of Pomerania, one of the former German territories later given to Poland after the War along with Silesia. He was the head of the SS and high police in Pomerania, and was deeply involved in the Holocaust. Before the War he was a factory worker. What use would he have been to a secret scientific project at the cutting edge of physics? Ditto Sporrenberg. He was also deeply involved in the Shoah, and had zero scientific or engineering background.

The video then considers the 1965 Kecksburg UFO crash, which is also cited as the evidence for the Glocke’s existence. That year a bright fireball was seen in the sky over six US states and Ontario in Canada, coming down in Kecksburg, Pennsylvania. The US army was mobilised, cordoning the area off and taking something away. In 2005 NASA revealed that the object was a capture Russian satellite, the Cosmos 96, which had re-entered the atmosphere and broken up. But this has provided much material for certain TV documentaries from the 90s to the present.

Felton concludes that if the Glocke ever existed, it was probably part of the German nuclear programme, and not a time machine. That’s if it ever existed at all. Echoing the X-Files‘ Fox Mulder, he finishes with ‘The truth is out there, as they say’.

Well, yes, the truth is out there. But as Scully was also fond of reminding Mulder, so are lies. And the Glocke is almost certainly one of these. The UFO world is riddled with fantasists and liars, some of whom are government agents apparently on a mission to spread misinformation. I think this is to destabilise the UFO milieu and stop them getting too close to real secret military aircraft. There’s the case of a civilian contractor working near one of the US secret bases, who became convinced that it really did contain a captured alien, with whom he was communicating over the internet. It seems he was being deliberately led up the garden path and pushed into madness by two air intelligence operatives, who first fed him information apparently supporting his views, and then told him it was all rubbish. It’s a technique known in the intelligence world as ‘the double-bubble’. They lead the target first one way, pretending to be whistleblowers, and then tell them it’s all lies, leaving them confused and not knowing what to believe.

Some UFO sightings are almost certainly of secret spy aircraft, including balloons. The Russians also encouraged belief in UFOs as a spurious explanation for secret space launches from Kapustin Yar, their main rocket complex. I also think that some of the stories about crashed UFOs, secret Nazi research were disinformation spread by the superpowers to put the others off the scent. The extraterrestrial hypothesis was only one explanation for UFOs after the War. It’s been suggested that when Major Quintillana said that the US had captured a flying disc at Roswell, he was deliberately trying to mislead the Russians and hide what had really come down, which was a Project Mogul spy balloon. Friends of mine are convinced that the Russians were similarly running a disinformation campaign about Soviet official psychical research in the 1970s. A number of western journos were given tours of secret Russian bases where experiments were being conducted into telepathy, telekinesis and so on. Some of the more excitable American generals were talking about a ‘psychic cold War’. One of the most bonkers stories I’ve heard was that the Russians were supposed to have developed hyperspace nuclear missiles. Instead of passing through normal space, these rockets were to be teleported to their destinations by trained psychics, rather like the mutated navigators folding space in the David Lynch film of Frank Herbert’s Dune. The hacks who followed up these stories found the secret bases were actually bog-standard factories. Workers told them that their places of work had been briefly taken over by the government, new rooms constructed, and a lot of strange equipment put in which was subsequently taken out. It looks very much like the Russian government believed it psychic research was all nonsense – hardly surprising for an officially atheist regime committed to philosophical materialism. The whole point of the exercise was to convince the Americans it worked, so they’d waste their money going down a technological and military blind alley. It wouldn’t surprise me if the Polish intelligence agent at the heart of this claim had been engaged on a similar project. Or perhaps he was just lying on his own time.

As for fantasists and yarn-spinners, well, I believe the Montauk project is one prize example. This was the subject of a series of books published in the 90s by two Americans. They claimed there had also been a secret time travel project based on, you guessed it, Nazi research. I think it also involved evil aliens and whatever else was going round the UFO world at the time. Kevin McClure and the Magonians were highly suspicious of it, not just because it was bullsh*t, but because it also seemed to glorify the Third Reich. They suspected the authors of writing far-right propaganda.

The Montauk project also appears to be partly based on the Philadelphia Experiment. This was the claim that during the War the Americans had conducted an experiment to render warships invisible to radar using magnetism, following Einstein’s Theory of Relativity. This had gone seriously wrong. The crew of the ship under test suffered terrible effects. Some burst into flame, another walked straight through a bulkhead before the ship itself vanished. The story was later turned into a time travel movie of the same name in the 1980s.

Was it true? Naaah. Although I’ve seen it in various UFO books, the claims seem to come down to one man. I’ve forgotten his name, but someone who knew him wrote in about him to the Fortean Times. The man had been his uncle, an alcoholic and spinner of tall tales, who had precious little, if anything, to do with science or the military.

It looks to me very much like the Glocke antigravity time/space machine is yet another of this myths or pieces of disinformation. I don’t think it was ever built, and the Polish intelligence officer who claimed it was, was a liar. As for the authors of the subsequent books and articles claiming its all true, no doubt many of them are sincerely genuine. But it doesn’t mean they’re right.

And some of the people pushing the Nazi saucer myths are real Nazis, seeking glorify the regime through sensational claims of secret technology and bases in the Canadian far north, Antarctica and the Moon. They do it to enthral people with the glamour of Nazi technology to divert attention away from the real horrors it perpetrated.

I’m sure most of the people, who believe in Nazi UFOs are decent people, who are genuinely appalled at the atrocities committed by Hitler and his minions. But there are Nazis out there trying to manipulate people, and that’s the danger.

Nazism and Fascism need to be fought and any claims of Nazi superscience or occult power critically examined, even if it seems to be harmless nonsense.

1980’s Book Discussing the Future Militarisation of Space

March 16, 2021

One of former president Donald Trump’s controversial decisions has been to propose the establishment of an American military space force. As with just about every stupid decision the orange buffoon made, this caused immediate controversy. It breaks the current international agreement banning the militarisation of space and threatens a new arms race, increasing international tension and the possibility of real war. Which could result in the nuclear annihilation of humanity and the reduction of our beautiful, blue-green planet to a smouldering atomic cinder.

But The Donald’s proposal was hardly new. Congress and the US military discussed the possible establishment of a space force over thirty years previously. These discussions had been accompanied by the publication of a book, Military Space Forces: The Next 50 Years, by John M. Collins (Washington: Pergamon-Brasseys 1989). The book was published to help congressional representatives understand the issues. It also gives a fascinating insight in what American politicians and military staff considered might happen in this new area of human combat over the following half century. The book’s blurb runs

‘The latest from renowned defense authority John M. Collins, Military Space Forces: The Next 50 Years was requested by key U.S. congressmen to help them and the White House evaluate and understand future space issues. This is the foundation document upon which future U.S. space policy will be based.

Concentrating on the Earth-Moon system, Military Space Forces has four purposes:

  • To describe space as a distinctive military medium.
  • To describe military space planning and programming, with particular concern for problems and options.
  • To compare present and projected U.S.-Soviet military space postures.
  • To indicate courses of action that might improve U.S. military space posture at sensible costs.

All appraisals are based on present technologies and predicted improvements during the next 25 to 50 years. Designed as a tool to help Washington blend military space capabilities with land, sea, and air power in ways that best assure U.S. security-without avoidable destabilization or waste of time and resources-Military Space Forces also clarifies the complex technology and issues facing military space planners today. This pathfinding new book provides any citizen an essential frame of reference with the nation’s future role in space.’

Among the issues discussed are military strategies, doctrines and tactics in space, and the development of space forces themselves. This includes their military infrastructure on the High Frontier, military space industries, military space installations, deployable space forces, R&D requirements and contributory science and technologies.

The book includes two sets of recommendations. One is a set of nonprovocative actions intended to strengthen deterrence and improve American combat capability in the event deterrence fails. These are:

  1. Develop comprehensive military space doctrines applicable to the total Earth-Moon system.
  2. Integrate military space more effectively into U.S. national security strategies.
  3. Emphasise verifiable arms control to confine threats.
  4. Reduce Army, Navy, Air Force, and Marine Corps dependency on space support by cross-training to preserve traditional skills such as communications and navigation.
  5. Embellish basic research to multiply serendipitous results that might benefit military space programmes.
  6. Employ technological expertise to produce first-class systems at acceptable cost.
  7. Improve passive defences for selected military space installations and vehicles, with particular attention to innovative hardening and deception.

These are all low cost options. Far more expensive are those in the second list, which suggested

  1. Survivable launch, recovery, and C3 infrastructure.
  2. Heavy lift boosters.
  3. National Aerospace Planes (NASP) able to breach the atmospheric barrier easily and maneuver in space.
  4. Reasonable redundancy and reconstitutions capabilities for essential military space systems.
  5. Anti-satellite systems.,
  6. Active onboard defences for military support satellites on a case-by-case-basis.
  7. Land-and space-based SDI systems.

The book concludes with this paragraph

Former Secretary of State Henry A. Kissinger, at a March 1974 press conference in Moscow, asked, “What in God’s name is strategic superiority?” It may be unilateral control of space, which overarches Planet Earth, all occupants, and its entire contents. If so, possessors of that vantage position could overpower every opponent. They might, in fact, impose their will without fighting, a feat that Sun Tzu called “the acme of skill” 25 centuries ago. U.S. military space forces therefore need means to forestall strategic surprise from space and respond successfully, unless best case estimates prove correct as events unfold.

The book’s clearly a product of the Reagan era and his wretched ‘Star Wars’ programme. Among the weapons and installations the book discusses is a six-man lunar base, space-based railguns, which use electromagnets to propel missiles to colossal speeds, and space based lasers. I don’t know how dated the book and its predictions are. It considers the threat of electromagnetic pulses generated from nuclear explosions high in the atmosphere above targets disrupting computers and other electronic systems, but I think that threat might have been overcome.

Whatever the reality is today, it shows that Trump’s demand for a space force follows decades of debate within the American military and political establishment.

‘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.

Is This the Most Insulting Comment Aliens Have Said to an Abductee?

April 29, 2020

I’ve just finished reading Dr. David Clarke’s The UFO Files, a history of UFOs in Britain from the phantom airship scares of the late 19th and early 20th centuries to the abduction experiences from the 60s onwards, the 70’s craze created by Spielberg’s Close Encounters of the Third Kind, right up to the years immediately preceding the book’s publication in 2009. The book was written to accompany the release of the government’s files on UFOs by the National Archives, and is naturally based on the records compiled by the MOD, the Air Ministry, RAF and armed forces, and the Airmiss inquiry group, which investigates near misses between aircraft.

It’s a fascinating book that shows that UFOs have been around for over a century and that the government and the British military don’t really know any more about them than anyone else. The aliens haven’t established secret bases in Britain, and neither to the RAF or anyone else for that matter have alien bodies stashed away in a secret hangar somewhere. The official government line, repeated over and again, is that UFOs or of ‘no defence significance’, and they really don’t want to get involved unless it’s absolutely necessary. They’ve therefore investigate UFO sightings and encounters when it affects national security, such as if the UFOs may actually be foreign planes. The last government report on the phenomenon concluded that most of them were generated by people wrongly identifying a variety of artificial objects and natural phenomena. Those that couldn’t be properly identified, were probably poorly understood meteorological phenomena, electromagnetic plasmas, which could also create hallucinations through interfering with the brains of witnesses. This part of the report was, however, attacked by scientists on its release as pseudoscience.

But very many of the UFOs reported over the years have been people mistaking a variety of normal objects and phenomena for alien craft. During the First World War, an anti-aircraft crew at an army base in Cumbria fired at what they honestly believed was a German Zeppelin. Except that an officer, arriving at the scene, reported that he saw them staring at a star. It was discovered during the Second World War that flocks of migrating birds could make radar trails very much like approaching enemy aircraft, although the airmen sent up to intercept them would find no-one except themselves up there. During the Cold War, UFO reports were generated by the Americans releasing the Mogul spy balloons from their base in Scotland, as well as later flights by spy planes like the U2 and SR-71. These were so secret, the Americans didn’t inform their NATO allies in the countries across which the planes and balloons traveled on their way to the USSR. As a result, RAF jets were scrambled to intercept these unidentified aircraft, while there was a spate of UFO reports along the German border.

Some UFO sightings were also caused by particularly spectacular fireball meteors burning up in the Earth’s atmosphere. One of these was responsible for the Berwyn mountain crash, dubbed by some ‘the Welsh Roswell’. A series of meteors were seen over England, followed by an earthquake measuring 4-5 on the Richter scale centred in Bala. It was feared that a military plane had crashed on the mountain, as several had done so previously. The RAF therefore sent up a mountain rescue squad, which found nothing and came back down again. This was subsequently inflated into stories of the RAF’s retrieval of a crashed UFO and alien bodies.

Other sightings were caused by the re-entry of Soviet spacecraft burning up in the atmosphere. This is believed to be the cause of the Rendlesham Forest incident, ‘the British Roswell’, in which a group of American squaddies from a USAF base entered the forest to encounter a triangular UFO in 1980. It seems that the Americans seen the rocket for a Soviet Cosmos spy satellite re-entering, and then the lights from a nearby lighthouse, believing they came from an alien spacecraft.

One MOD scientific/intelligence officer believed that most UFO reports could be satisfactorily explained if they had been investigated immediately they occurred, rather than sometime afterwards. Nevertheless, there are encounters that are still genuinely perplexing. Such as the report a trucker driving through Devon in the ’70s made at a local police station. He had been driving along the main road there when a craft shaped like a mushroom descended, landing on the road ahead, out of which came six short figures wearing uniforms. After gesturing at him, the creatures eventually got in their spacecraft, which lifted up into the air and flew on, leaving the trucker shaken by the experience.

And then there’s the encounter reported by a gent in Basingstoke in 1968. The fellow had been walking down by the canal one morning when a UFO descended and he was taken aboard by their occupants. They examined him, before telling the poor chap, “You can go. You are too old and infirm for our purposes.” Popular SF, which seems to have strongly influenced the content of UFO encounters, has been full of tales of evil aliens coming to other to conquer and enslaved humanity, and carry off people off for breeding purposes. It’s usually females, as in the SF B-movie Mars Needs Women, but sometimes men as in the 1949 Hammer flick, Devil Girl from Mars. This episode occurred around about the time of the Villas Boas encounter, when a Brazilian farmer of that name had been abducted by aliens and forced to have sex with a red-headed alien woman. Possibly the crew of the Basingstoke UFO also had something similar in mind. If so, both they and the poor bloke they abducted were out of luck. Or perhaps they had in mind something far more unpleasant, in which case their intended victim was lucky. The Contactees, who met peaceful aliens in the 1950s, and the abductees from the 1980s onwards, were given messages by humanity by the aliens they encountered. These tend to moralistic sermons preaching international and intergalactic brotherhood, peace, an end to nuclear weapons and concern for the environment. Sometimes they include descriptions of the aliens’ own planets and their societies. Sometimes they’re even whisked away on journeys to these distant worlds. This poor fellow didn’t get any of that, just the blunt statement that he was too old and infirm for them. He was spared the horror and humiliation of being examined and experimented upon, but their comments still seem just a tiny bit insulting. They could have put it a bit more tactfully.

My own feeling is that UFOs, when they aren’t misidentified normal objects or phenomena, are internal visionary experiences drawing on the imagery of Science Fiction, but expressing deep-seated human fears and needs. I don’t know what generates them. I think some are probably the result of poorly understood psychological states, such as sleep paralysis. But I also wonder if others are genuine encounters with something paranormal, something that in previous centuries took the form of fairies and other supernatural beings, and now takes the form of aliens and spaceships as images more suitable for our technological society.

While David Clarke’s done excellent work researching the government’s UFO archives, and has shown that very many of them have entirely rational explanations, there may still be something genuinely paranormal out there. But it didn’t want the man from Basingstoke it encountered on that day in 1968.

Russian Rocket Engine Street Art in Cheltenham

January 18, 2020

One of the shops in Cheltenham has a very unusual piece of street art decorating its door. It’s of the rocket motor designed to power the Russian N1 spaceship to the Moon. The N1 was the Russian counterpart of the massive American Saturn V, and was similarly intended for a manned mission. Unlike the Americans, the Russian rocket would have a small crew of two, only one of whom would make the descent to the lunar surface in a module very much like the American. Unfortunately the project was a complete failure. Korolyov, the Soviet rocket designer, had died by the time it was being designed, and the head of the design bureau was his second-in-command, Mishin. Mishin was an excellent lieutenant, but this project was far beyond him. The N1 space vehicles kept exploding on the launch pad. These were powerful spacecraft, and the explosions destroyed everything within a radius of five miles. After three such explosions, one of which, I think, killed Mishin himself, the project was cancelled. The Russians never did send a man to the Moon, and instead had to satisfy themselves with the Lunakhod lunar rover.

I’d been meaning to take a photograph of the painting for sometime and finally got around to it yesterday. The full painting isn’t visible during the day, as much of it is on the cover that gets put over the door at night. This is the part of the painting shown in the top photograph. During the day only the bottom part of the engine, painted on the door itself, is visible.

The shop-owner himself was really helpful. He saw me crouching trying to photograph the bottom part of the engine, and asked if I knew what it was. When I told him it was a rocket motor, he proudly replied that it was TsK-33 for the N-1, and asked if I wanted to photograph the whole thing. I did, so he got down the door cover. Talking to him about the painting both then, and later on with a friend, who also has an interest in space, he told us a bit more about the rocket engine and his painting of it. Although the N-1 was scrapped, the Russians still retained the rocket engines. Someone from the American Pratt and Whitney rocket engine manufacturers met one of the engineers, designers or managers on the N-1 motors, who showed him 33 of the engines, which had been mothballed after the project’s cancellation. The Pratt and Whitney guy was impressed, as it turns out that these Russian motors are still the most efficient rocket engines yet created. He made a deal with the Russians to take them back to America, where they are now used on the Atlas rockets launching American military satellites. Or that’s the story.

My friend asked if the shopkeeper had painted it himself. He hadn’t. It had been done by a street artist. The shopkeeper had seen him coming along painting, and asked him if he would do an unusual request. And so the artist came to paint the Russian rocket engine.

There’s much great street art in Cheltenham, though as it’s an ephemeral genre you have to catch it while it’s there. Just before Christmas there was a great mural of Jeremy Corbyn and the Labour logo in one of the town’s underpasses. I wanted to photograph that too. But when I tried yesterday, it had gone, replaced with another mural simply wishing everyone a happy Christmas.

But I hope the rocket engine, as it was done specifically for the shop, will be up for some time to come.

It also seems to me to bear out the impression I’ve had for a long time, that the real innovative art is being done outside of the official artistic establishment. The painting would have delighted the Futurists, who were into the aesthetics of the new machine age. And also the French avant-garde artist, Marcel Duchamps. Duchamps anticipated the Futurists concern with the depiction of movement in his painting, ‘Nude Descending a Staircase’. He also painted a picture of ‘The Star Dancer’, which isn’t of a human figure, but a ship’s engine, which also anticipates the Futurists’ machine aesthetic. Unfortunately, what he is best known for is nailing that urinal to a canvas and calling it ‘The Advance of the Broken Arm’ as a protest against the artistic establishment. This went on to inspire Dada, and other anti-art movements. It’s now in Tate Modern, although it no longer has the same urinal. As a work of art, I really don’t rate it at all. Neither do most people. But for some reason, the artistic establishment love it and still seem to think it’s a great joke.

The real artistic innovations and explorations are being done outside the academy, by artists exploring the new world opened up by science and the literature of Science Fiction. And it’s to that world that this mural belongs. 

 

 

 

 

Anton Petrov Shows Paintings of a Space Future that Never Came

October 19, 2019

And now for something a bit more cheerful. Anton Petrov is the Russian presenter of the YouTube show, ‘What Da Math’, about space and astronomy. The video below is the second part of his tribute to the Russian cosmonaut, Alexey Leonov, who passed away on October 11th, 2019. Leonov was the first man to make a spacewalk, but as his previous video also showed, he was also an artist. He worked with another artist, Andrei Sokolov, on the illustrations for a number of popular science books. Petrov’s earlier video showed some of them. This is a longer look at those paintings, which Petrov dedicates to those who dedicate their lives to inspiring humanity.

The paintings shown are truly beautiful. Yes, there are landscapes of the dull grey moons and the metal  of rockets and space stations against the black of space. But it’s also a universe of rich, deep colour – vibrant reds, yellows, blues and greens – the light of alien suns on the unearthly landscapes of distant worlds. They’re depictions of a future that never arrived, done when it seemed that Russia would win the space race and Communism would lead humanity to a more prosperous, technological future of international proletarian brotherhood. Progressive humanity would at last realise its destiny and conquer space, moving outward to space stations, the moon and then the rest of the Solar system and the stars beyond. It never happened. Communism collapsed, and the Soviets lost the space race. They had a record of spectacular firsts – first satellite, first man in space, first space walk, a series of successful probes to the planets and a solid record of prolonged life and research in orbit in the Salyut space stations. But they were beaten to the Moon by the Americans. The massive N1 rockets that would have taken them there kept blowing up until the programme was finally cancelled. Instead of sending a man, the Russians had to send instead an automated rover, the Lunakhod. In itself, this is no mean achievement, but it couldn’t match that of Armstrong, Aldrin and their successors. But these paintings look forward to that failed future.

However, it’s possible that something like the future they envisaged may yet come to be. Not created solely by the Russians, of course, but by all the other countries that are now entering space. Nations like India and China, as well as America, Britain and France, Germany and Switzerland with their designs for space shuttles. And if the Space Age really is going to arrive at last, it’s been a very long time coming. It’s fifty years since Neil Armstrong first walked on the Moon, and some of us would humanity to return for good. The Space Race always was somewhat artificial in that it was driven by largely political reasons, as both the Soviets and Americans tried to show which of their systems was superior by outperforming the other. But if the head of the Russian space programme, Sergei Korolyov had not died, but had lived to guide the design and construction of the N1, I think the situation might have been very different today. The N1 might have become a success, and the Russians just might have sent their own people to the Moon. They may not have beaten the Americans, but they would have come a very close second. And if that had happened, I don’t doubt that we’d have had a permanent base on the Moon. Just to make sure that the Soviets didn’t have all the place to themselves.

According to Petrov, the paintings themselves were taken from old postcards which are very difficult to get hold of. This is a pity, as these are paintings that would, I am sure, find an audience among western as well as Russian space fans and enthusiasts. There is a market for books and albums of SF and Fantasy art. Waterstones even has on its SF, Fantasy and Horror shelves collections of 100 postcards of Science Fiction book covers. Some of the published histories of SF, like John Clute’s Science Fiction: An Illustrated History – use illustrations from the novels, pulps and other magazines. There is thus space available, if I may use that phrase, for a similar volume of Russian and eastern European space art. Tarkovsky’s great Science Fiction films, Solaris and Stalker, are considered to be two of the classics of SF cinema. Similarly the Czech SF film, Ikarus IE was shown a couple of years ago at a British cinema. So why not a showcase of Russian and eastern European space art?

Petrov in his tribute was pessimistic about public interest in science, quoting a Russian film director, Kushantsev, who believed that there was no demand for popular science. In his opinion, people had regressed to the level of animals, wanting only to eat and sleep. I think this is too pessimistic. I can’t comment on Russia, but there certainly is a great interest in space and astronomy in Britain and America, as shown by the numerous series Brian Cox has churned out for the Beeb. Since the fall of Communism, western countries have filmed at Star City, the Russian centre of their space programme covering astronauts training for their missions to the International Space Station. Wannabe space tourists were offered the opportunity to train there themselves a few years ago, for the modest fee of £7,000. Russia is the country not just of the first man in space, Yuri Gagarin, but also Konstantin Tsiolkovsky, the deaf school teacher who investigated the problems of space travel and living in space in the 19th century. I therefore feel sure that there is an opening for a series on space fact, perhaps something like the British Sky At Night, on television presented from Russia, but perhaps with an international team.

In the meantime, however, we can admire these paintings. And I hope Anton Petrov, and other YouTube broadcasters on space and astronomy, like John Michael Godier and Isaac Arthur, will continue to educate and inspire new generations of humanity on their channels. 

RAF Pilot Set to Join Branson Satellite Programme

October 6, 2019

There were a couple of really great, fascinating science stories in Friday’s I newspaper, which I’d like to cover before I get to the political stuff of attacking and refuting Boris Johnson, the Tories, and other right-wing nonsense.

One of these was the report that the RAF had selected a pilot to join the crews set to fly Cosmic Girl, an adapted 747 developed by Branson’s company, Virgin Orbit, send satellites into space. The article by Ewan Somerville, titled ‘RAF pilot gets space wings as first to join satellite programme’ on page 15 of the newspaper for Friday, 4th October 2019, ran

The Royal Air Force is heading for new heights after selecting its first pilot to join a space programme.

Flight Lieutenant Mathew Stannard has been assigned to a new £30m Ministry of Defence project. He will swap the cockpit of a Typhoon jet to fly a modified 747-400 plane, called Cosmic Girl, to launch satellites into orbit from mid-air, marking a “significant step” for British space endeavours.

A partnership between the RAF and space company Virgin Orbit to develop space technology, a response to billions of dollars being spent by the US, China and India, was unveiled at the Air Space Power conference in July.

Flt Lt Stannard hailed the programme a “truly unique opportunity” adding: “This programme is pushing the boundaries of our understanding of space so it’s a real privilege to be part of it and I’m looking forward to bring the skills and knowledge I gain back to the RAF.”

Over three years, Flt Lt Stannard will join several test pilots to send satellites into space from 30,000ft using a launcher attached to the Boeing 747’s fuselage. Freed from the need to launch from the ground, hi-tech satellites, developed by Britain, weighing only 300kg and described by Flt Lt Stannard as “the size of a washing machine”, could be launched from anywhere worldwide.

The RAF already has a similar small satellite, Carbonite 2, in orbit and plans for a “constellation” of them to provide HD imaging, video and secure communications. 

The mission is design to ensure Britain is not target by foreign powers for lacking its own space capabilities. It comes as the UK is due to send eight military personnel to join Operation Olympic Defender, a US-led coalition to deter “hostile acts in space” over the next 12 months.

I’m another British satellite launcher is being developed, even if the plane is made by Boeing, an American company. I’m also glad that the RAF have supplied an officer, as previous efforts to get a Brit into space have been hampered by squabbling within the armed forces. Before Helen Sharman became the first British person to go into space with the Russians to Mir, Britain was offered the opportunity by the Americans of sending an astronaut to go aboard the space shuttle. The army, air force and navy all put their men forward, and the scheme failed because of the wrangling over which one should be chosen.

I am not, however, altogether optimistic about this project as it’s a space company owned by Beardie Branson. How long has his company, Virgin Galactic, been claiming that ‘next year’ they’ll send the first tourists into space? Since the 1990s! I can see this one similarly stretching on for years. I have far more confidence in Orbex and their spaceship and launch complex now being built in Scotland.

As for using an aircraft as the first stage to send spacecraft into orbit, this was extensively discussed by the aircraft designers David Ashcroft and Patrick Collins in their book Your Spaceflight Manual: How You Could Be A Tourist in Space Within Twenty Years (London: Headline 1990). After discussing some of the classic spaceplane concepts of the past, like the XIB rocket plane and the Dynosoar, they also describe the design by the French aerospace company, Dassault, of 1964-7. This would have consisted of a supersonic jet capable of reaching Mach 4 as the first stage. The second stage would have been a rocket which would have flown at Mach 8, and used fuel from the first stage launcher. The whole vehicle was designed to be reusable.

The two authors also proposed their own designs for composite, two-stage spaceplanes, Spacecab and SpaceBus. These would have consisted of a jet-propelled first stage, which would piggy-back a much smaller rocket-driven orbiter. They estimated that Spacebus’ cost per flight would be higher than that of a 747, but much, much less than the space shuttle. It would be an estimated $250,000 against the Shuttle’s $300 million. Space bus was designed to carry 50 passengers, at a cost to each of $5,000. The pair also estimated that it would need $2bn to fund the development of a prototype Spacecab, and believed that the total development cost would be $10bn, the same as the similar Sanger concept then being developed in Germany. Although expensive, this would have been less than the $20bn set aside for the construction of the Freedom Space Station.

It’s a pity Ashcrofts and Collins’ spaceplane was not developed, though hardly unsurprising. Space research is very expensive, and the British government has traditionally been very reluctant to spend anything on space research since the cancellation of Black Arrow in 1975. The pair were also writing at the end of the 1980s, when there was little interest in the private development of spaceflight. This changed with the X-Prize in the 1990s so that we now have several private space companies, such as Elon Musk’s and Jeff Bezos’ outfits, competing to develop launchers, as well as Orbex. Hopefully, sooner or later, someone will start taking paying passengers into space and developing space industry. But somehow I doubt it’ll be Branson.