Posts Tagged ‘Satellites’

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.

‘I’ Newspaper: Scots Spaceport Company Has Rocket Ready for Launch in 2021

February 8, 2019

Excellent space news, if today’s I for 8th February 2019 is to be believed. According to the paper, Orbex, the company that’s building a spaceport to launch satellites in the Scottish highlands, has a rocket and intend making its first launch in 2021. The article by Lucinda Cameron, entitled ‘Rocket Revealed for Scottish Spaceport’ on page 13, runs

A spaceflight company has unveiled a new rocket as it opened its headquarters and rocket design facility in the Highlands.

Orbex, which is involved in plans to create a spaceport in Sutherland, said its new base in Forres, Moray, will create more than 130 jobs.

At the opening yesterday the company unveiled its Prime rocket, which is designed to deliver small satellites into Earth’s orbit.

Made from a specially formulated lightweight carbon fibre and aluminium composite, it includes what the company said is the world’s largest 3D printed rocket engine.

It is designed to work with biopropane, a clean-burning, renewable fuel source that cuts carbon emissions.

The Prime rocket will make its maiden flight from Scotland in 2021, when it will carry an experimental payload from UK-based Surrey Satellite Technology Lt, which manufactures small satellites.

Graham Turnock, chief executive of the UK Space Agency, said the new rocket design facility “firmly positions the UK as Europe’s frontrunner for those looking to Earth’s orbit and beyond for new opportunities.”

If all goes ahead as planned, then this is brilliant! Brilliant! As we used to say when I was at school. Britain developed a number of superb space rockets over the years, including the sounding rocket Skua used in high atmosphere research. The first and last time this country launched a satellite into orbit using a domestically developed rocket, it was way back in 1973 with Black Arrow. This was launched from Woomera in Australia, and carried the satellite, Prospero. After that, the politicians and civil servants decided that producing and developing rockets for space research was too expensive, and cancelled the programme. It was decided that instead we’d use American rockets. Which put us at a disadvantage, as it meant that we were dependent on the Americans and whether they had space available in their launch vehicles. Meanwhile, the French pressed ahead with their rocket development programme, and produced the superb Ariane, which is the launcher used by ESA, the European Space Agency, from its launch site in Kourou in South America.

After 46 years, Britain could once again be sending home-produced spacecraft back into the High Frontier.

Radio Programme on Controversy over Space Launch Site in Scotland

January 22, 2019

Radio 4 this Thursday, 24th January 2019, is broadcasting an edition of their Open Country programme on local attitudes and debate over the proposal to build a space launch complex in Scotland. The programme is entitled ‘Journey into Space, in Sutherland’, and the blurb for it in this week’s Radio Times runs

The A’Mhoine Peninsula in the Scottish Highlands has been chosen as the potential site of a spaceport that would launch small satellites at the rate of three a month. Many local people are enthusiastic about the plans; others are angry about building on a wilderness virtually unchanged since the last Ice Age. Ian Marchant travels to the peninsula and hears from people on both sides of the debate. (p. 137).

The programme is going to be broadcast at 3.00 pm in the afternoon, and will be repeated next Saturday at 6.07 am.

Historic British Space Rocket Rescued to Go on Display in Scotland

January 22, 2019

Yesterday’s I for Monday, 21st January 2019, carried a very interesting bit of news for fans of the British space programme. The article, ‘UK rocket to go on show 50 years after Australian crash landing’ by Conor Riordan, reported that the Black Arrow satellite launcher has been retrieved from the Ozzie outback, and is due come back to Britain to be put on show in Penicuik in Scotland. The article ran

The UK’s only rocket to successfully blast a satellite into orbit is to go on show nearly 50 years after its crash landing in the South Australian outback.

Black Arrow, which lifted off on 28 October 1971 from a launch site 280 miles north-west of Adelaide, has been returned home after decades of exposure to vandalism and the elements. It has been transported by Skryrora, a space technology firm, and will be unveiled in Penicuik, Midlothian, later this month.

The Prospero satellite that Black Arrow propelled into orbit, was sent up to study the effects of space environment on satellites.

Daniel Smith, director at Skyrora, said: “This is quite feasibly the most important artefact linked to the UK’s space history.
“While our engineers have been working on our own launches, our Stem ambassadors have been arranging all of this in the background.

“We’ll be unveiling it in Penicuik later this month, not far from our headquarters and workshop in Edinburgh. With the UK Government aiming to make us a launch nation again, it seemed like the perfect time to bring Black Arrow back. We really hope the rocket will help to inspire current and future generations of scientists and engineers.”

The UK Space Agency has previously announced 2.5m pounds of funding for a proposed vertical launch spaceport in Sutherland.

Developed and tested on the Isle of Wight, the Black Arrow programme completed four rockets between 1969 and 1971. The third flight was the first and only successful UK-led orbital launch, but the programme was then cancelled. This is said to have given the rocket cult status.

Skyrora has also commissioned a plaque to be placed where Black Arrow had lain.

Dr Graham Turnock, chief executive of the UK Space Agency, said: “Black Arrow is testament to Britain’s longstanding heritage in the space sector which continues to thrive today.” (p. 13).

The video below is a short video of just under two minutes from James Bignell’s YouTube channel showing a montage of all the Black Arrow launches.

It’s great that Britain is finally going to launch rockets again after nearly half a century, and that this superb piece of British space engineering is coming back to Blighty to inspire a new generation of space cadets.

Democracy Now on the Crimes and Mass Murders of President George H.W. Bush

December 10, 2018

The Friday before last, former president George H.W. Bush, the father of former president George ‘Dubya’ Bush, finally fell off his perch at the age of 94. Like Monty Python’s parrot, he had shuffled off this mortal coil and joined the choir invisible. He was an ex-president, and well and truly. He was buried with due state honours last Wednesday.

And the press and media fell over themselves to praise him to the rafters. If you believed them, you would have thought that America had lost a statesman of the stature of the ancient Athenian politico, Pericles. Or that he combined in himself the wisdom of Thomas Jefferson, Maddison and the rest of the Founding Fathers.

He wasn’t. He was the successor to Ronald Reagan and a former head of the CIA, and had been involved with shady dealings, dirty, proxy wars and invasions in Latin America and Iraq, that had cost thousands their lives, while thousands others were tortured by the dictators he supported. And domestically he was responsible for racist electioneering and a highly discriminatory drugs policy that has resulted in the massive disproportionate incarceration of Black American men.

Mehdi Hasan on George Bush Senior

He was a disgusting creature, and Mehdi Hasan wrote a piece in the Intercept describing just how disgusting and reprehensible he was. In the piece below, he also appeared on Democracy Now! to talk to host Amy Goodman about Bush senior and his legacy of corruption, murder and terror.

Bush was elected president in 1990. He was a former director of the CIA, and served from 1981-89 as Reagan’s vice-president. Despite calling for a kinder, gentler politics when he was vice-president, Bush refused to tackle climate change, saying that the American way of life was not up for negotiation, defended future supreme court justice Clarence Thomas even after he was accused of sexual harassment. He was responsible for launching the first Gulf War in Iraq in 1991. During the War, the US air force deliberately bombed an air raid shelter in Baghdad killing 408 civilians. The relatives of some of those killed tried to sue Bush and his deputy, Dick Cheney, for war crimes. The attack on Iraq continued after the end of the war with a devastating sanctions regime imposed by Bush, and then his son’s invasion in 2003.

The Invasion of Panama

In 1990 Bush sent troops into Panama to arrest the country’s dictator, General Manuel Noriega on charges of drug trafficking. Noriega had previously been a close ally, and had been on the CIA’s payroll. 24,000 troops were sent into the country to topple Noriega against Panama’s own military, which was smaller than the New York police department. 3,000 Panamanians died in the attack. In November 2018, the inter-American Commission on Human Rights called on Washington to pay reparations for what they considered to be an illegal invasion.

Pardoning the Iran-Contra Conspirators

As one of his last acts in office, Bush also gave pardons to six officials involved in the Iran-Contra scandal. This was a secret operation in which Reagan sold arms to Iran in order to fund the Contras in Nicaragua, despite Congress banning the administration from funding them. Bush was never called to account for his part in it, claiming he was ‘out of the loop’, despite the testimony of others and a mass of documents suggesting otherwise.

The Collapse of Communism and Neoliberalism

Bush’s period in office coincided with the collapse of Communism. In the period afterwards, which Bush termed the New World Order, he was instrumental in spreading neoliberalism and the establishment of the NAFTO WTO treaties for international trade.

Hasan not only wrote for the Intercept, he also hosted their Deconstructed podcast, as well as a show, Up Front, on Al-Jazeera English.

The Media’s Praise of Bush

Goodman and Hasan state that there is a natural reluctance against speaking ill of the dead. But they aren’t going to speak ill of Bush, just critically examine his career and legacy. Hasan states that as a Brit living in Washington he’s amazed at the media hagiography of Bush. He recognizes that Bush had many creditable achievements, like standing up to the NRA and AIPAC, but condemns the way the media ignored the rest of Bush’s legacy, especially when it involves the deaths of thousands of people as absurd, a dereliction of duty. He states that Bush is being described as the ‘anti-Trump’, but he did many things that were similar to the Orange Buffoon. Such as the pardoning of Caspar Weinberger on the eve of his trial, which the independent special counsel at the time said was misconduct and that it covered up the crime. And everyone’s upset when Trump says he might pardon Paul Manafort. Bush should be held to the same account. It doesn’t matter that he was nicer than Trump, and less aggressive than his son, he still has a lot to answer for.

The Iran-Contra Scandal

Goodman gets Hasan to explain about the Iran-Contra scandal, in which Reagan sold arms to Iran, then an enemy state, to fund a proxy war against a ‘Communist’ state in South America despite a congressional ban. He states that it was a huge scandal. Reagan left office without being punished for it, there was a Special Council charged with looking into it, led by Lawrence Walsh, a deputy attorney general under Eisenhower. When he looked into it, he was met with resistance by Reagan’s successor, Bush. And now we’re being told how honest he was. But at the time Bush refused to hand over his diary, cooperate with the Special Counsel, give interviews, and pardoned the six top neocons responsible. The Special Counsel’s report is online, it can be read, and it says that Bush did not cooperate, and that this was the first time the president pardoned someone in a trial in which he himself would have to testify. He states that Bush and Trump were more similar in their obstruction of justice than some of the media would have us believe.

Iraq Invasion

They then move on to the Iraq invasion, and play the speech in which Bush states that he has begun bombing to remove Saddam Hussein’s nuclear bomb potential. It was done now, because ‘the world could wait no longer’. Because of Bush’s attack on Iraq, his death was marked by flags at half-mast in Kuwait as well as Washington. Hasan states that Hussein invaded Kuwait illegally, and it was a brutal occupation. But Hasan also says that Bush told the country that it came without any warning or provocation. But this came after the American ambassador to Iraq, April Glaspie, told Hussein that American had no opinion on any border dispute with Kuwait. This was interpreted, and many historians believe, that this was a green light to Hussein to invade.

Bush also told the world that America needed to go into Iraq to protect Saudi Arabia, as there were Iraqi troops massing on the border of that nation. This was another lie. One reporter bought satellite photographs of the border and found there were no troops there. It was lie, just as his son lied when he invaded twelve years later. As for the bombing of the Amariyya air raid shelter, which was condemned by Human Rights Watch, this was a crime because the Americans had been told it contained civilians. Bush also bombed the civilian infrastructure, like power stations, food processing plants, flour mills. This was done deliberately. Bush’s administration told the Washington Post that it was done so that after the war they would have leverage over the Iraqi government, which would have to go begging for international assistance. And this was succeeded by punitive sanctions that killed hundreds of thousands of Iraqi children. It all began on Bush’s watch.

Racism, Willie Horton and Bush’s Election Campaign

They then discuss his 1988 election campaign, and his advert attacking his opponent, Michael Dukakis. Dukakis was attacked for having given a weekend pass from prison to Willie Horton, a Black con serving time for murder, who then went and kidnapped a young couple, stabbing the man and repeatedly raping the woman. This was contrasted with Bush, who wanted the death penalty for first degree murder. The advert was created by Lee Atwater and Roger Ailes, who later apologized for it on his deathbed. This advert is still studied in journalism classes, and until Trump’s ad featuring the migrant caravan appeared it was considered the most racist advert in modern American political history. Atwater said that they were going to talk about Horton so much, people would think he was Dukakis’ running mate. Bush approved of this, and talked about Horton at press conferences. And unlike Atwater, he never apologized. Roger Stone, whom Hasan describes as one of the most vile political operatives of our time, an advisor to Donald Trump and Nixon, actually walked up to Atwater and told him he would regret it, as it was clearly a racist ad. When even Roger Stone says that it’s a bad idea, you know you’ve gone too far. But the press has been saying how decent Bush was. Hasan states he has only two words for that: Willie Horton.

In fact, weekend passes for prison inmates was a policy in many states, including California, where Ronald Reagan had signed one. Hasan calls the policy what it was: an attempt to stoke up racial fears and division by telling the public that Dukakis was about to unleash a horde of Black murderers, who would kill and rape them. And ironically the people who were praising Bush after his death were the same people attacking Trump a week earlier for the migrant caravan fearmongering. It reminded everyone of the Willie Horton campaign, but for some reason people didn’t make the connection between the two.

Racism and the War on Drugs

Hasan also makes the point that just as Bush senior had no problem creating a racist advert so he had no problem creating a racist drug war. They then move on to discussing Bush’s election advert, in which he waved a bag of crack cocaine he claimed had been bought in a park just a few metres from the White House. But the Washington Post later found out that it had all been staged. A drug dealer had been caught selling crack in Lafayette Square, but he had been lured there by undercover Federal agents, who told him to sell it there. The drug dealer even had to be told the address of the White House, so he could find it. It was a nasty, cynical stunt, which let to an increase in spending of $1 1/2 billion on more jails, and prosecutors to combat the drugs problem. And this led to the mass incarceration of young Black men, and thousands of innocent lives lost at home and abroad in the drug wars. And today Republican senators like Chris Christie will state that this is a failed and racist drug war.

This was the first in a series of programmes honouring the dead – which meant those killed by Bush, not Bush himself. The next programme in the series was on what Bush did in Panama.

Dark Rock and Bush: The Sisters of Mercy’s ‘Vision Thing’

I’ve a suspicion that the track ‘Vision Thing’ by the Sisters of Mercy is at least partly about George Bush senior. The Sisters are a dark rock band. Many of front man Andrew Eldritch’s lyrics are highly political, bitterly attacking American imperialism. Dominion/Mother Russia was about acid rain, the fall of Communism, and American imperialism and its idiocy. Eldritch also wanted one of their pop videos to feature two American servicemen in a cage being taunted by Arabs, but this was naturally rejected about the bombing of American servicemen in Lebanon. Another song in the same album, ‘Dr Jeep’, is about the Vietnam War.

‘Vision Thing’ seems to take its title from one of Bush’s lines, where he said, if I remember correctly, ‘I don’t have the vision thing.’ The song talks about ‘another black hole in the killing zone’, and ‘one million points of light’. It also has lines about ‘the prettiest s**t in Panama’ and ‘Take back what I paid/ to another M*****f****r in a motorcade’. These are vicious, bitter, angry lyrics. And if they are about Bush senior, then it’s no wonder.

The Sky At Night Looks at Britain in Space

October 19, 2018

I just managed to catch the weekday repeat a day or so ago of this month’s Sky at Night, in which presenters Maggie Aderin-Pocock and British astronaut Tim Peake looked at the history of Britain in space, and forward to the country’s future in the deep black. The programme’s changed a bit over the past few years in the case of its presenters. It was famously presented by Sir Patrick Moore from its beginning in the 1950s until he passed away a few years ago. This made the programme the longest-running show presented by the same person. Aderin-Pocock joined it before Moore’s departure. She’s a black woman scientist, with a background in programming missile trajectories. She’s obviously very intelligent, enthusiastic and very definitely deserves her place on the show. But I wish she’d done a job that didn’t involve the military use of rocket technology, however much this is needed as part of national defence.

Aderin-Pocock was speaking to one of the management officials from Orbex, a new, British company, which has developed a rocket launcher and intends to open a spaceport in one of the more deserted areas of Scotland. The rocket will stand about 17 meters tall, using propane and High Test Peroxide as fuel. High Test Peroxide is a highly concentrated version of the hydrogen peroxide used by hairdressers to bleach peoples’ hair. The use of propane is particularly important, as it’s lighter than conventional rocket fuels, meaning that the rocket doesn’t have to carry as much fuel to lift off into space. Advances in satellite design have also allowed the rocket to be smaller than other spacecraft used elsewhere. British universities have succeeded in developing microsatellites – satellites that are much, much smaller than some of the satellites put into orbit, but which can perform the same functions. As these satellites are smaller and lighter, they only need a relatively smaller, lighter rocket to launch them.

The Scottish launch complex also wasn’t going to be as big as other, larger, major launch complexes, such as those of NASA, for example. I think it would still contain a launch tower and control buildings. As well as the official from Orbex, the show also talked to a woman representing the rural community in the part of Scotland, where they were planning to build it. She admitted that there would be problems with building it in this part of the Scots countryside. However, the community was only going to lease the land, not sell it to Orbex, and care would be taken to protect the farms of the local crofters and the environment and wildlife. Like much of rural Britain, this was an area of few jobs, and the population was aging as the young people moved away in search of work. She looked forward to Orbex and its spaceport bringing work to the area, and creating apprenticeships for the local young people.

The programme went on to explain that this would be the first time for decades that a British company was going to build a British rocket to launch a British satellite. From what looked the British space museum in Manchester, Time Peake stood under the display of Britain’s Black Knight rocket and the Prospero satellite. He explained how the rocket launched the satellite into space from Australia in 1975. However, the project was then cancelled, which meant that Britain is the only country so far which has developed, and then discarded rocket technology.

But Black Knight wasn’t the only space rocket Britain developed. Peake then moved on to talk about Skylark, a massively successful sounding rocket. Developed for high altitude research, the rocket reached a maximum of altitude of 400 km in the few minutes it was in flight. At its apogee – its maximum distance from Earth – the vehicle briefly experienced a few minutes of zero gravity, during which experiments could be performed exploring this environment. The Skylark rocket was used for decades before it was finally cancelled.

Aderin-Pocock asked the official from Orbex how long it would be before the spaceport would be up and running. The manager replied that this was always an awkward question to answer, as there was always something that meant operations and flights would start later than expected. He said, however, that they were aiming at around the end of 2020 and perhaps the beginning of 2021.

Orbex are not, however, the only space company planning to open a spaceport in Britain. Virgin Galactic have their own plans to launch rockets in to space from Cornwall. Their vehicle will not, however, be launched from the ground like a conventional rocket, but will first be carried to a sufficiently high altitude by an airplane, which would then launch it. I’m not a betting man, but my guess is that of the two, Orbex is the far more likely to get off the ground, as it were, and begin launching its rocket on schedule. As I’ve blogged about previously, Branson has been telling everyone since the late 1990s at least, that Virgin Galactic are going to be flying tourists into space in just a few months from now. This fortnight’s Private Eye published a brief list of the number of times Branson had said that, with dates. It might be that Branson will at last send the first of his aspiring astronauts up in the next few months, as he claimed last week. But from his previous form, it seems far more likely that Orbex will start launches before him, as will Branson’s competitors over the pond, Elon Musk and Jeff Bezos.

When asked about the company’s capability of perfecting their technology, Orbex’s manager not stressed the skill and competence of the scientists, technicians and engineers working on the project. This included not just conventional space scientists, but also people, who had personally tried and failed to build their own spacecraft. He said that it was extremely important to fail to build rockets. He’s obviously referring to the many non-professional, hobby rocketeers out there trying to build their own spacecraft. He didn’t mention them, but one example would be the people at Starchaser, who started out as a small group of enthusiasts in Yorkshire but have gone on to create their own space company, now based across the pond in America. I think it’s brilliant that amateurs and semi-professionals have developed skills that the professionals in the industry find valuable. And the failures are important, as they show what can go wrong, and give the experience and necessary information on how to avoid it. I don’t think the rocket will be wholly built in this country. The manager said that some of it was being constructed in Copenhagen. This sounds like Copenhagen Suborbitals, a Danish team of rocket scientists, who are trying to put a person into space. They’re ex-NASA, I believe, but it’s a small, private venture. They have a webpage and have posted videos on YouTube, some of which I’ve reblogged. They’ve also said they’re keen for people to join them, or start their own rocket projects.

I’d been looking forward to that edition of the Sky at Night for the past week, but when the time came, it slipped my mind that it was on. I’m very glad I was able to catch it. If Orbex are successful, it will be the first time that a British satellite will launch a British satellite from here in Britain. And it sounds really optimistic. Not only will Britain be returning to space rocket development, but the Scots spaceport sounds like it will, hopefully, bring work to a depressed area. I’m also confident that the local environment there will also be preserved. The launch complex around NASA is necessarily so remote from other buildings, that it’s actually become a wildlife haven. So much so that it’s now a location for birdwatching.

When it was announced that they were planning to build a new spaceport in Scotland, I assumed it would be for Skylon, the British spaceplane. There had been articles in the paper about the spacecraft, which stated that it would be launched either from Scotland or Cornwall. It seems I was wrong, and that it’s Orbex’s rocket which will be launched there instead. But nevertheless, I wish Orbex every success in their venture, and hope that sometime soon Skylon will also join them in flight out on the High Frontier.

‘Sky At Night’ on Sunday on Britain in Space

October 9, 2018

Next Sunday’s edition of Sky at Night, for 14th October 2018, will be looking at the history of the British space programme and its possible future. The blurb for it in the Radio Times runs

Space Britannia

The future of Britain’s space programme, examining plans for the first UK spaceport in Scotland and the potential launch of revolutionary micro-satellites over the next decade. Guest presenter Tim Peake looks at the history of British space exploration.

The programme’s on BBC4 at 10.00 pm.

Britain did have a very successful space programme from the 1950s to about 1975. The UK developed a number of very successful sounding rockets, like Skua, which were used by meterologists for the exploration of the upper atmosphere. Development of the Blue Steel missile, intended as the launcher for Britain’s independent nuclear deterrent, resulted in the creation of the Black Knight rocket, which successfully launched a British satellite, Ariel, into orbit in 1975 from Woomera in Australia. And then the British launcher programme was cancelled, as civil service mandarins felt it would be more economical to have our satellites launched by the Americans.

We were also part of the ESRO programme in the 1960s until that finally fell to pieces in the 1970s. This was a European programme to produce a common launch rocket for European satellites We were to produce the first stage, and the French, Germans and Italians the others. Our part of the rocket worked perfectly, but there were problems with the other stages. This led to the programme’s cancellation as costs mounted. The French, however, continued developing rockets, leading eventually to the launch of Ariane, which has been immensely successful. We were left behind as the launch of our satellites depended on the Americans’ own plans and launch priorities. And the suspension of the space shuttle programme after the Challenger disaster, I believe, did result in Britain losing that as a launch vehicle for the duration.

Black Arrow, another British Rocket

There have been a number of plans to develop British spaceplanes, like MUSTARD in the 1960s and then HOTOL in the 1980s. HOTOL was cancelled because of difficulties getting the airbreathing engines to work. However, work on the plane continued after its official cancellation. The problems have been ironed out, and a new spaceplane developed, Skylon. It’s not a crewed vehicle, so it doesn’t look like any British astronauts will be going into space direct from Blighty just yet. Nevertheless, things are looking very optimistic for the British space programme, as there were reports in the papers a few months ago that the plane would be all set and ready to fly in the very near future, like 2020. I certainly hope so, and will look forward to seeing what this programme has to say about it all.

Paintings of British Spaceplane MUSTARD

December 28, 2017

This is awesome. It’s another couple of piccies from the SF art page, 70sscifiart, and it’s one of the entries for the 18th June 2017. They’re illustrations from a book on space about the MUSTARD spaceplane, a reusable space vehicle designed in 1964 by the British Aerospace Corporation. The scientists and engineers, who designed it realised that it was wasteful and expensive to build rockets that would last only for a single mission, before being mostly discarded.

Their solution, MUSTARD, effectively consists of three spaceplanes linked together. There’s the main craft, which flies into space, and two supporting planes, which serve to provide fuel to the main craft, helping it reach orbital velocity. When their fuel was used up, they broke away from the main plane, and flew back to Earth.

I first came across the MUSTARD project in an issue of the space/ science fiction magazine New Voyager back in the early 80s. This described the project, and interviewed some of the scientists and engineers involved. I think the problem with it is that it was probably far too far ahead of its time. I can remember reading that they estimated that the vehicle would start breaking even after 50 journeys. Now, looking at the economics of the space shuttle, that’s probably acceptable today. The only way the Space Shuttle remained competitive compared to the other launch vehicles developed by the Russians, the Europeans, India, China and Japan is because its subsidized by the American government. If you left it to market forces, it’d be uncompetitive. It’s another example of the way market forces are absolutely wonderful, but only so long as they don’t hurt big business and the ‘national interest’.

There were also probably political reasons for its cancellation as well. Britain at the time was also developing its own space rocket, Black Arrow, which successfully launched a satellite into space in 1975, to date the only British satellite that’s been launched by a British rocket. At the time Britain was involved in a European project to build a space rocket, with various stages built by the French, British and Germans. All of the other stages were failures with the exception of the British, and the project eventually fell apart. The civil servants in charge of British space research did not feel that there was a sufficient market to support an independent British rocket launcher, and instead decided that we’d piggy-back on the Americans.

The French, on the other hand, persevered, and developed their massive successful Ariane rocket, which is actually much more economical and performs better than the US space shuttle did. Which shows how farsighted the French can be when it comes to developing new technologies. Unlike our politicos, who seem to want to get everything cheap from someone else.

Tragically, the space shuttle was beset with problems, which resulted in a series of horrific catastrophes. The best known of these is probably the Challenger disaster, which led to the programme being suspended for years while the Shuttle was being examined and redesigned. Then there was that terrible incident a few years ago where the Shuttle exploded just when it was re-entering the atmosphere, breaking up over the US. This has led to the Shuttle being cancelled, and America reliant for manned spaceflight on the Russians.

I don’t doubt that the design for MUSTARD was sound, and it would have been way ahead of the other competing spacecraft if it had been built. Unfortunately, economics, politics and the will to do it weren’t there.

George Galloway Interviews on China and Tax Dodging by the Rich

December 6, 2017

This is a very interesting edition of Sputnik, one of the programmes on RT, hosted by media bete noir George Galloway, and a young Asian lady simply called Gayatri. Sputnik was, of course, the first satellite put into Earth orbit by the Russians. The name means ‘fellow traveller’ in Russian, and has come to mean an artificial satellite ever since.

In the first half of the programme, Galloway and Gayatri interview Jeanne-Marie Gescher, a British sinologist, who has been studying China ever since the notorious Tiananmen Square massacre in 1989. Gescher has written a book about the country and its transformation, and describes how she was just about the only western person flying into China after the massacre, when all the other westerners were trying to get out. This, however, gave her a head start of a couple of years over the other academics researching China, when she was one of the very few westerners actually in the country. Galloway talks about President Xi’s party congress, and makes the point that most of it was about ‘socialism with a Chinese face’, rather than economics. He and Gescher also discuss the role of a strong central authority in governing and forming China, ever since its foundation all those millennia ago. They make the point that the role of a strong central authority is so much at the core of the country’s character and government, that it has been said that without it China is like sand. Gescher states that ever since the ancient shamans led the earliest ancestors of the Chinese to settle down, there has been a tension between two philosophies towards government and the natural order. One is that the natural world is too complex for people to understand, and so government is best carried out by a single ‘son of Heaven’ – the official title of the Chinese emperor – who governs autocratically. The other recommends instead that the world be subject to a structured investigation. This is not democratic, but it is wider than the concentration of power in a single autocratic figure. Gescher also describes the way China has repeatedly fragmented over the ages, only to come back together as a single, unitary empire again, with a quote from The Romance of the Three Kingdoms, one of the great classics of Chinese literature. To people of a certain age, the book is best known as the basis for the Chinese swashbuckling tale broadcast by the Beeb in the ’70s, The Water Margin.

They also discuss Donald Trump’s apparent volte-face last week. Before he went to China, he was full of anger at the Chinese and there was much resentment in the American media about perceived Chinese mistreatment. Trump was going to tear them off a strip about it. After he got there, however, and met the President, he ended up praising the country. Gescher states that this has shown the Chinese that Trump ‘flip-flops’. This will worry them, as there is nothing more dangerous than a leader, who so capriciously changes position.

Next on the show is Professor Steve Keen, who has also written a book demolishing economics. Keen’s a former economics professor at Kingston University, though at the end of the interview he states that he has left academia to go his own way via Patreon. Keen, Gayatri and Galloway discuss the infamous Paradise Papers and the tax dodging by the very rich. Keen himself isn’t shocked by the way the super-rich like Bono, Lewis Hamilton and the Queen have deprived the treasury of their taxes. He seems to accept that it’s just part of the pathology of the very rich. He states that they’re terrified of anyone else getting their hands on their money, and so pay enormous fees to people, who tell them how they can legally avoid paying cash.

Galloway is shocked, however, and makes the ironic point that the Queen, in her case, is actually avoiding paying tax to herself. Which is true. He also wonders about the mentality of the rich, who will spend their money on colossally expensive items like luxury super-yachts. Keen states he knows someone, who has actually bought one. This man had a 120-ft yacht, but turned it in for a 140 foot vessel, complete with space for a grand piano. He states that this comes from the sheer greed and sense of entitlement of the rich.

He then talks about the various fake holding companies and offshore accounts that the rich use in order to avoid paying tax in the country where they really make their money. He’s actually been to the Cayman Islands, and seen the office block, where so many multinational companies legally have their headquarters. He states that he read so many of the brass plaques on the building’s walls before he gave up. But it was all a scam. There was no-one in the building. It was all very much a legal fiction.

Keen himself has recommended his own way to stop this. At the moment, the tax on profits allows the rich to dodge paying tax by allowing them to cast their companies as subsidiaries working for a parent organisation somewhere else in the world. To stop them doing that, Keen recommends that there should be a tax on transactions instead, which would bring money back into the treasury and which couldn’t be avoided by setting up fake parent companies.

He also has a very different view of taxation than other economists. He argues that the point of taxation isn’t to pay for government services. Governments, by their nature, create money. They pump it into the economy. What taxation does is take it out of the economy, so you don’t have runaway inflation.

Talking about his decision to leave academia, Keen states that it was forced on him by the government’s effective privatisation of higher education. This has turned students into ‘informed consumers of higher education’. However, the league tables concentrate on the Russell Group, and so the new universities that were created post 1992 are starved of funding. This has led him to break with the university, and start crowdfunding his work. He states that he has a great bunch of people funding him through Patreon, and that he’s learned a lot from them. He is also critical of university tenure, because it creates a very conformist mindset. It’s not supposed to. It’s supposed to do the opposite, but he states that by the time professors have done all the things needed to gain tenure, they are afraid of stepping out of line.

The programme ends with Galloway and Gayatri reading out some of the Tweets they have received on the shows contents. Several people remark that, whatever Trump says, America very much needs China to avoid collapsing. And others are about the Queen and the rest of the rich dodging tax.

This is interesting, as it shows that Galloway is a very good interviewer. I also find it quite a nostalgic experience, as it reminds me of what quality television on BBC 2 used to be like in the 1970s and 1980s. No fancy graphics, just the programme’s host or hosts in the studio and his or her guests, talking. You can see the same approach used by Tariq Ali on his TV show. And while it is talk, it’s very much informed talk by experts, that isn’t dumbed down and reduced to soundbites by programme editors afraid that too much pop videos have left people with an attention-span no longer than a gnat’s.

Keen’s perspective on the rich and their sheer avarice is interesting, as is his proposed solution. I’m also struck by his innovative attitude to taxation. I’ve read similar things like it on Mike’s blog, where he has reblogged material from the Mainly Macro economist. As has the Angry Yorkshireman, Tom Clarke. This looks like a positive approach to the dismal science that will break the Tory orthodoxy about taxation and paying for the welfare state.