Posts Tagged ‘Spaceflight’

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.

Crowdfunded Solar Sail Spacecraft Makes Successful Flight

August 6, 2019

Bit of science news now. Last Friday’s I for 2nd August 2019 reported that a satellite developed by the Planetary Society and funded through internet fundraising had successfully climbed to a higher orbit using a solar sail. This propels spacecraft using only the pressure of light, just like an ordinary sail uses the force given by the window to propel a ship on Earth, or drive a windmill.

The article on this by Joey Roulette on page 23 ran

A small crowdfunded satellite promoted by a TV host in the United States has been propelled into a higher orbit using only the force of sunlight.

The Lightsail 2 spacecraft, which is about the size of a loaf of bread, was launched into orbit in June. 

It then unfurled a tin foil-like solar sail designed to steer and push the spacecraft, using the momentum of tiny particles of light called photons emanating from the Sun – into a higher orbit. The satellite was developed by the California-based research and education group, the Planetary Society, who chief executive is the television personality popularly known as Bill Nye the Science Guy.

The technology could potentially lead to an inexhaustible source of space propulsion as a substitute for finite supplies of rocket fuels that most spacecraft rely on for in-flight manoeuvres.

“We are thrilled to declare mission success for Lightsail 2,” said its programme manager Bruce Betts.

Flight by light, or “sailing on sunbeams”, as Mr Nye called it, could best be used for missions carrying cargo in space.

The technology could also reduce the need for expensive, cumbersome rocket propellants.

“We strongly feel taht missions like Lightsail 2 will democratise space, enable more people send spacecraft to remarkable destinations in the solar system”, Mr Nye said.

This is very optimistic. The momentum given to a spacecraft by the Sun’s light is very small. But, like ion propulsion, it’s constant and so enormous speeds can be built up over time. It may be through solar sail craft that we may one day send probes to some of the extrasolar planets now being discovered by astronomers.

In the 1990s, American scientists designed a solar sail spacecraft, Star Wisp, which would take a 50 kg instrument package to Alpha Centauri. The star’s four light years away. The ship would, however, reach a speed of 1/3 that of light, meaning that, at a very rough calculation, it would reach its destination in 12 years. The journey time for a conventional spacecraft propelled by liquid oxygen and hydrogen is tens of thousands of years.

Although the idea has been around since the 1970s, NASA attempt to launch a solar sail propelled satellite a few years ago failed. If we are ever to reach the stars, it will be through spacecraft and other highly advanced unconventional spacecraft, like interstellar ramjets. So I therefore applaud Nye and the Planetary Society on their great success.

Three Soviet Anti-War Posters

October 21, 2017

I found these three posters in the art book, The Soviet Political Poster 1917-1987 and was struck by their continued relevance to events today. The book is a collection of Soviet political posters from the Bolshevik coup of 1917 to the time the book was published in the mid-1980s, taken from the Lenin library. In many ways it’s an art-historical chronicle of the great events that shaped the Soviet Union, from the Revolution, through the Civil War, collectivisation and industrialisation, the Nazi invasion, nuclear tensions of the Cold War, Gagarin’s epoch-making spaceflight and then on to the years of stagnation under Brezhnev.

Two of the posters below were part of a number produced to mark the 20th anniversary of the end of the Second World War, which the Russians called the ‘Great Patriotic War’. Their message against war is simple and eternal, using the images of a woman and child in one, and a small child in the other, to get the message across.

The Russian behind the little girl reads simply ‘Don’t Need War’.

The slogan in this poster says ‘Not For Wars’.

This last poster is less anti-war, than anti-nuclear testing. Nevertheless, it was painted in 1958 during the Cold War, when the West and the Communist bloc faced each other amid an intense atmosphere of distrust and hostility, and it seemed that nuclear Armageddon could come at any moment. This is the background to the formation of groups in the West like CND. The Russian is a simple cry of ‘No!’

I realise that there’s an element of hypocrisy in these posters, as the Soviet Union was a military superpower, which used its armed forces to dominate its satellites in eastern Europe, and was intent on developing its own nuclear arsenal.

But I wanted to put these images up because of their powerful message now, when our political leaders seem to be intent on driving us towards another useless, dangerous Cold War with Russia, and Trump and Kim Jong-Un, the madman in charge of North Korea, have been threatening each other with their nuclear and conventional weapons over in the Pacific.

In the case of Kim Jong-In, he’s simply the latest scion of a family of brutal ‘Stalinist’ dictators, who hang on to power through terror and mass arrest. In the case of Trump and the western politicians, the new Cold War is another attempt to isolate and weaken Russia on the geopolitical stage, provide a reason for giving more massive government contracts to the arms manufacturers, and in the case of Killary and the corporatist Democrats, divert attention away from their own very corrupt dealings with Putin’s Russia abroad, and Wall Street and big business at home.

America’s wars in the Middle East are killing hundreds of thousands, and have displaced many millions more. They have reduced secular Arab nations to ruins, and created legions of Islamist militants and sectarian death squads, who kill, maim, butcher and enslave in their turn. And now Trump seems intent on forcing some kind of confrontation with Iran.

And so we still need to hear these posters’ vital message, whatever we think of Russia’s Communist past.

During the Cold War of the 1980s, Sting sang ‘Do the Russians love their children too?’ The answer from these posters is clearly ‘Yes’. Just as the Arabs and Iranians do.

No more imperialism.

No more war.

Government Internet Censorship in Stephen Baxter’s ‘Titan’

July 6, 2017

One of the very real concerns about the current attacks on freedom of speech by British and American governments is these states’ demands for increasing powers to regulate and censor what is posted on-line. This has all been framed under the pretext of protecting the British and American peoples from pornography, especially paedophile, and terrorism.

Stephen Baxter is one of Britain’s leading writers of Hard SF. This is the subgenre of Science Fiction, which follows Asimov and Clarke in being based on real science, though obviously also with a greater or less degree of extrapolation and invention permitting the inclusion of FTL drives, AIs and aliens. Baxter’s best known for his Xelee sequence series of books. These are set in a universe dominated by the advanced and unknowable Xelee, an alien race so far ahead of humanity that humans and the other intelligent species compete with each other to scavenge bits and pieces of their technology. At the same time, the universe is being prematurely aged by the Photino Birds, dark matter creatures for whom the light and warmth of the universe of normal matter is a hostile environment.

Baxter has also written a number of novels set in an alternative world. In Voyage, he described a crewed NASA expedition to Mars, whose triumph – a successful Mars landing – comes just when the entire American space programme is cancelled. The book was adapted as a radio play and broadcast on Radio 4.

In Titan, published in 1995, Baxter tells the story of a group of NASA and JPL scientists and astronauts, who launch a manned expedition to Titan to investigate further the discovery of living biochemistry by the Cassini probe. This is to be NASA’s last hurrah after the crash of the Columbia space shuttle results in the cancellation of the manned space programme. The story begins in 2004, in a world that is almost identical to the present of the time the book was written.

There are a few exceptions, however. Amongst the new inventions of this future past are computerised tattoos, which change shape according to the wishes of the wearer, and soft computer/TV screens, which can be rolled up and pasted on walls like paper.

And one of the issues that is very alive is the American government’s ruthless censorship of the internet. This is discussed in one scene, where NASA’s head, Hadamard, meets Paula Benacerraf, an astronaut aboard the ill-fated Columbia mission, her daughter, Jackie, who is responsible for publishing the discovery of life on Saturn’s moon, and her young son, at an official ceremony in Texas to honour China’s first taikonaut, Jiang Li.

He found Paula Benacerraf, who was here with her daughter, and a kid, who looked bored and restless. Maybe he needed to pee, Hadamard thought sourly. On the daughter’s cheek was an image tattoo that was tuned to black; on her colourless dress she wore a simple, old-fashioned button-badge that said, mysteriously, ‘NED’.

Hadamard grunted. ‘I’ve seen a few of those blacked-out tattoos. I thought it was some kind of comms problem -‘
Jackie Benacerraf shook her head. ‘It’s a mute protest.’
‘At what?’
‘At shutting down the net.’
‘Oh. Right.’ Oh, Christ, he thought. She was talking about the Communications Decency Act, which had been extended during the winter. With a flurry of publicity about paedophiles and neo-Nazis and bomb-makers, the police had shut down and prosecuted any net service provider, who could be shown to have passed on any of the material that fell outside the provisions of the Act. And that was almost all of them.
‘I was never much of a net user,’ Hadamard admitted.
‘Just to get you up to date,’ Jackie Benacerraf said sourly, ‘we now have one licensed service provider, which is Disney-Coke, and all net access software has built-in-censorship filters. We’re just like China now, where everything goes through the official news agency, Xinhua; that poor space kid must feel right at home.’
Benacerraf raised an eyebrow at him. ‘She’s a journalist. Jackie takes these things seriously.’
Jackie scowled. ‘Wouldn’t you, if your career had just been f***ed over?’
[Censorship mine].
Hadamard shrugged; he didn’t have strong opinions.
The comprehensive net shutdown had been necessary because the tech-heads who loved all that stuff had proven too damn smart at getting around any reasonable restriction put in place. Like putting encoded messages of race-hate and smut into graphics files, for instance: that had meant banning all graphics and sound files, and the World Wide Web had just withered. He knew there had been some squealing among genuine discussion groups on the net, and academics and researchers who suddenly found their access to online libraries shut down, and businesses who were no longer allowed to send secure encrypted messages, and … But screw it. To Hadamard, the net had been just a big conduit of bullshit; everyone was better off without it.
(pp. 130-1).

This is Science Fiction as the literature of warning: against cuts to the space programme, and net censorship. It even mentions rising graduate unemployment, in a scene where Paula Benacerraf arranges a meeting with her team to discuss the possibility of launching a crewed mission to Titan. They meet at dinner party in Benacerraf’s house, served by her housekeeper, Kevin. Kevin is a fine art graduate, who is working as Benacerraf’s housekeeper in order to work off his student debt. His works are the usual horrors inflicted on the world by contemporary artists. In her only visit to his atelier, Benacerraf is shown a 1/4 size sculpture of himself which Kevin has gnawed from a block of lard. This is just a study for a full-size work, which he intends to gnaw from his own liposuctioned fat or faeces. As she and her guests are being served by Kevin, she reflects that he is like the majority of graduates, who will never have a job.

Well, the shuttle programme has been cancelled, but hopefully this will not prevent the further exploration of universe. The Chinese certainly are looking to put a person into space, and are believed to be aiming to land a human on the Moon by 2020. Baxter also mentions this in Titan in his description of the spacewoman’s mission to the Deep Black, where he states that this is believed to be in preparation for a moon landing in 2019.

And Baxter is absolutely correct about the demands for a comprehensive censorship of the internet by the British and American governments. The only difference is the terrorists the governments are panicking about are Islamist, rather than neo-Nazi. So far, the demands for censorship have been limited, so there isn’t the almost-complete shutdown of the net described in Baxter’s version of the recent past.

But this is still a very real danger, as these accompanying threat, which Baxter didn’t predict, of increased state surveillance of electronic communications, for the same reasons as censorship.

Someone once remarked that all science fiction is really about the issues of the time they were set. Titan reflects the fears about the internet that were present back in the 1990s, when it was first emerging. These fears, and the consequent demands by government to censor nearly everything we see or read online, are still very real, and Baxter’s book is still very relevant.

The Saturn Five Variants that Were Never Built

May 4, 2017

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

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

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

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

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

Future Possible ESA Space Launchers from 2005

March 26, 2017

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

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

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

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

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

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

Russia and China Agreed to Join Moon Programme?

January 3, 2017

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What Happened to the Orion Mooncraft?

January 3, 2017

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

orion-mooncraft

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

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

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

Jodrell Bank and Amateur Radio Telescopes

December 18, 2015

BBC 4 a few weeks ago broadcast a documentary on the history of Jodrell Bank, Britain’s pioneering radio telescope. Bernard Lovell, its founder and director, had been one of the scientists working on the development of radar during the War, and the radio telescope was originally built using parts left over from the project that were due to be scrapped. In the early days it was very much an ad hoc operation. The size of the telescope’s dish has the radius it has because that was the distance between the van holding its key components in the early days to the edge of the field. The programme covered the history of the telescope from its very beginnings to today. It described how the telescope came into its own in the late 1950s and 1960s when it was the only instrument that could independently verify the first Soviet space missions and their conquest of space. This also caused additional pressure on Lovell, as there was official demand for him to monitor space missions in the USSR, which detracted from his real interest in exploring the heavens through the radio signals sent out into space from stars, nebulae and galaxies.

The Russians also liked and admired Lovell, so much so that on scientific trip to the Soviet Union, the Russians showed him some of their highly top secret space installations, and hinted that he would be very welcome if he left Britain and joined them. Obviously the great man did not take up the offer. Eventually such pressure proved so great that he was off work suffering from depression, and even considered leaving science altogether. Lovell was a Methodist, and to the surprise of his children, at this point in his career he considered joining the clergy. He didn’t, but went back to charting the heavens.

Other highlights of the telescope’s fifty-odd year history was the discovery, by Jocelyn Bell-Purnell, of pulsars. These are neutron stars, small, highly compact stars at the end of their lives, which broadcast a signal into space. The stars are small, about 40 miles or so in diameter, and spin quickly, so it appears that the signal is being sent in pulses. They’re also regular, so that in the first few days when they were discovered one of the theories about them was that they were a signal deliberately sent out into space from an extraterrestrial civilisation. After more pulsars were discovered in the following days, the scientists were able to give the true explanation of their origins.

Since its heyday, much larger telescopes and arrays have been built. Jodrell Bank nevertheless still remains important, contributing valuable research in this area of astronomy.

Indeed. I remember a few years ago an edition of one of the Beeb’s astronomy programmes in which Dara O’Brien and Brian May were up there. O’Brien is a failed mathematician, having dropped out of a university maths course, while May is a properly accredited astrophysicist. He had, it’s true, a twenty-odd year gap in his career, due to performing with Queen, but he finally handed his thesis in a few years ago. It was duly marked, and he passed. This obviously makes him one of the most rock ‘n’ roll scientists ever. I think in the programme they were supposed to be looking for signals from alien civilisations. They didn’t find any, which probably surprised no one, given that scientists have been looking, off and on, for radio signals from aliens since the days of Project OZMA in the late ’60s and 70s. Despite NASA’s optimistic prediction in 1995 that in five years they would be discovered, no has as yet.

Patrick Moore, one of the greatest science communicators and popularisers, always maintained that astronomy was still one of the very few areas of science where amateurs using modest equipment could make a real contribution. I doubt that there are very many ordinary people outside the big observatories, who have an active interest in radio telescopy. Nevertheless, it is possible to build your own radio telescopes. There’s a piece by Trevor Hill, who was a science teacher at Taunton School in Somerset, about how he built a an array of radio telescopes in the book, Small Astronomical Observatories, edited by Patrick Moore (London: Springer 1986). He did so as part of an attempt to get the pupils interested in astronomy. Naturally, he started off by building a normal, optical observatory for a telescope. He turned to radio astronomy at the suggestion of one of the pupils after the normal astronomy session had been cancelled due to rain. The pupil pointed out that radio waves travel through clouds, and so observation wouldn’t be stopped by bad weather. His article in the book describes the radio telescopes he built. This includes a set of Ham radio aerials set up in an array to receive radio waves from solar flares.

Taunton School Radio Telescope

Trevor Hill’s Solar Flare Radio Telescope at Taunton School

He also provides a schematic of the telescope’s construction. As you can see from the photo, even as a small-scale amateur project it’s still very large. Nevertheless, he states that it was very cheap. With the exception of the computer, it cost about £200 in 1995. Which means it’s almost possible for every man or woman to become their own radio astronomer. Obviously, this was before the boom ended, and Cameron got in to hit everyone with massive debt and advancing poverty.

Here’s Tim O’Brien, professor of astrophysics at Manchester University and the radio telescope’s associate director, talking about the telescope on the 70s anniversary of its establishment. It’s great to hear him say that it remains at the cutting edge of research, and may be so for the next fifty years.

Cameron’s Picture of Himself Watching Space Launch Gets the Photoshop Treatment

December 17, 2015

Mike has a highly funny article over at Vox Political about an article on RT, commenting on Cameron’s latest stunt to show himself personally backing Tim Peake’s launch into space as the first British astronaut for nearly 20 years. Obviously, Cameron isn’t actually at the Baikonur cosmodrome, or Kapustin Yar, or wherever the launch actually took place. He’s at home watching it on TV. So that has to do. After posting pictures of himself watching the launch, others decided that it would be much more appropriate if he was watching something else entirely. Some of these are, of course, pig related. The most acceptable of these for a family audience, or those of a Nervous Disposition, is him watching Miss Piggy.

Cameron Miss Piggy

The article’s at http://voxpoliticalonline.com/2015/12/16/cameron-tweets-picture-of-himself-watching-iss-launch-internet-reacts-hilariously-rt-uk/ Go there for more scurrility.

Of course, there’s no reason he couldn’t combine his two interests. Here’s the Muppet’s ‘Pigs in Space’, with guests Mark Hamill, R2-D2 and C-3PO, to celebrate the release of the latest Star Wars film.