Monday, 22 January 2018

Did we fly to the Moon too soon?

UNBELIEVABLY it has been almost a half century since Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin bounced across the lunar landscape for the first time.

Certainly, in terms of human exploration, project Apollo was perceived as a stepping stone to greater things rather than marking a pinnacle of human achievement.       

But the sudden cancellation of the final three missions - despite the fact that the hardware for each had already been built - ably illustrates the financial and political difficulties of sustaining space exploration. Apollo 20 was shelved in January 1970. Eight months later, Apollo 18 and Apollo 19 were also cancelled, making Apollo 17, all the way back in December 1972, the final and most recent human mission to the Moon.

Five decades on and the United States, Europe, Russia, China, Japan and India, along with a handful of private entrepreneurs and firms, all harbour new lunar exploration ambitions.

In October 2017, US Vice-President Mike Pence announced a significant re-direction for NASA - a new road map to create a sustained human presence on the M oon’s surface. It’s a big change for the agency which, for the past decade, has been heading, somewhat tentatively, for a future of deep space exploration and taking humans to Mars.

But words are not enough and to become reality ambitious programmes require ambitious sums of money, along with sustained long-term political commitment.           

Fortunately, NASA’s rapidly maturing new hardware for deep space missions can also be easily re-purposed to take us back to the Moon.

Its giant rocket - known prosaically as the ‘Space Launch System’ (SLS) - and a crew capsule called Orion designed to carry people into deep space, can easily become the mainstay of future lunar missions.               

A so-called cislunar architecture and an associated economy that supports or is part of a return to the Moon offers many opportunities.

Fresh political direction and some of the essential hardware may almost be in place but establishing a sustained presence on the Moon is also going to require the creation of a lunar lander, habitats, life support systems and more.

Long-term funding (at one point, NASA estimated a return to the Moon would cost upwards of US $100 billion) and time (particularly in a political context) are rare commodities in our modern world.

To succeed, space exploration projects still need to be challenging and inspirational, perhaps with a nod towards commercialism.

They must also cover the bases of meaningful international partnerships and private sector
participation, and include the less glamorous aspects of building components, delivering cargo and providing ‘multi-layered’ services.   

Today, the nature of leadership in space is very different to the politically driven aspirations of the 1960s and 1970s. Back then it was more about doing things that no other country could do - and being there first.

Ten years after Apollo 11, the science writer and science fiction author Arthur C Clarke suggested that space travel might be “a technological mutation that should not really have arrived until the 21st century”.

If mankind was not really ready to go to the Moon in the late 1960s and the early 1970s then perhaps now is exactly the right time.

This article was first written by Clive Simpson as the Editorial in the Winter2017/18 edition of ROOM - The Space Journal for which Clive Simpson is also the Managing Editor. For online subscriptions please go to:

Tuesday, 17 October 2017

Choosing our destiny

 James Vaughan

SIXTY years ago this month the Soviet Union’s Sputnik 1 became the first artificial satellite to orbit Earth and the world woke up to a new age - the Space Age.

This first satellite was a marker in human history and heralded a massive period of growth in science and technological development, much of it spurred by the subsequent six decades of space exploration.

In its broadest sense the whole sphere of space exploration, its inherent international cooperation and the expanding worldwide business of space has had a massively positive impact on the world.

Despite this, one wonders whether planet Earth has perhaps become a rather gloomy place of late - a world where vested interests often trump the wider common good, a world where optimism might be in short supply?

Like so many inventions and revolutions that have come of age and spawned a new breed of adventurers and entrepreneurs, there are also significant pitfalls and dangers on the road into deeper space.

In his magnum opus De Re Metallica (Of Metal Matters) on natural resources, the 16th century scientist and philosopher Georgius Agricola wrote, ‘Good men employ the elements for good and to them they are useful. The wicked use them badly and to them they are harmful.’

The approach of Agricola, widely regarded as the originator of the experimental approach to science, is perhaps more sensible than either the blind faith of the pure optimist or the destructive cynicism of the pessimist.
De Re Metallica (Of Metal Matters)

His renaissance philosophy speaks to many of the challenges society still faces today because many of our most potent technologies - space included - are finely balanced between creation and destruction, between benefit and exploitation.

Whereas sometimes a mechanism might be needed to tip the balance towards good, Agricola’s philosophy also reminds us of the need for wise leadership whether in politics, business, science or technology.

In Earth orbit, for example, we continue to exploit the opportunities provided by satellites for communications, navigation, TV broadcasting, observation and research, whilst at the same time creating a serious debris problem.

Space exploration is inextricably linked to the great reach of human progress and, if our further expansion beyond Earth is not to stall, the considered words of a scientist such as Agricola might just provide guidance enough for our future custody of the space realm.

We might also be wise to heed the solemn and inherent warning in a Buddhist proverb which tells us that,‘to every man is given the key to the gates of heaven, the same key also opens the gates of hell.’

Sputnik, the first artificial satellite, was launched on 4 October 1957.

In the days following the first Sputnik our vision of the future was perhaps more constrained. Today we find ourselves on the threshold of an unimagined space tourism era, eagerly anticipating the first crewed flights to Mars and perhaps even human colonies on the red planet.

At the same time zealous entrepreneurs, and even whole countries, are eyeing the untold mineral wealth of asteroids and the opportunity of a new mining ‘gold rush’ for which the old ways will not suffice.

Neatly juxtaposed with the Sputnik anniversary is the first birthday of Asgardia, the world’s first ‘space nation’ which is also about to mark its presence in orbit with the launch of its
inaugural satellite.

In all of these ventures judicious leadership and governance are vitally important. By the same token, we are all part of the whole and hold individual keys to our own destinies. And, as we recall the anniversary of the first Earth orbiting satellite, it means we can all be part of the future in whichever way we choose.

This article was first published as the Editorial to the Autumn 2017 edition of ROOM - The Space Journal for which Clive Simpson is the Managing Editor.

Wednesday, 11 October 2017

Bright lights in the sky

The Chelyabinsk asteroid over Russia in February 2013.
THERE'S been significant worldwide media interest in tomorrow morning’s flyby of asteroid 2012 TC4, which will make an unusually close pass to Earth at a distance of just 43,780 km -  that’s well inside the orbit of the Moon and closer than some satellites.

"We know the orbit of TC4 well enough to be absolutely certain that it won't hit Earth," assures Paul Chodas, manager of the Center for Near-Earth Object Studies (CNEOS) at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in California,"but we haven't established its exact path just yet."

The chunk of space rock is about as big (in the range of 10-20 m diameter) as the famous 2013 Chelyabinsk object which hit Earth without warning as the sun  rose over Russia’s Ural mountains on 15 February 2013.

As the space rock skimmed into the atmosphere the early morning sky lit up with a second ‘sun’ as shock waves shattered windows in hundreds of buildings around the wakening city.

It had impacted Earth literally ‘out of the blue’, flying in from the direction of the sun where no telescope could see it - and it took everyone by surprise.

Years later, meteorite hunters are still finding pieces of the ‘Chelyabinsk asteroid’ that rained down after its 17 m-wide body disintegrated in the atmosphere.

The difference with 2012 TC4, which could be up to 30 m wide, is that NASA knows it's coming. At 07:41 CEST (Central European Summer Time) tomorrow morning (12 October) it will pass 43,500 km above Earth’s surface, about 1/8th the distance to the Moon.

The flyby is so close, gravity will significantly alter the asteroid's trajectory before it exits the Earth-Moon system.

To get a better handle on the asteroid's orbit (and possible future encounters), an international network of telescopes will monitor 2012 TC4 as it speeds by.

Pinging the asteroid with its Goldstone telescope, NASA also hopes to learn much about the space rock's physical properties.

This asteroid is too small to see with the naked eye. However, skilled amateur astronomers using small telescopes will be able to observe it. At peak brightness, 2012 TC4 will shine like a 13th magnitude star as it zips through the constellations Capricornus and Sagittarius.

The house-sized space rock does afford space agencies across the globe an opportunity to test some of their planetary defence scenarios that might be needed if Earth was in the path of a more dangerous asteroid.

If an asteroid the size of TC4 or slightly bigger was on course to hit a populated area, agencies such as the ESA and NASA would look to warn people and work with relevant governments to potentially start an evacuation.

If anything signifcantly bigger the TC4 is ever detected, much more drastic action might be needed, including the possibility of trying to deflect any such asteroid before it collides with Earth.

Friday, 29 September 2017

On Earth as it is on Mars

The UAE (United Arab Emirates) confirmed plans this week to build a city called ‘Mars Scientific City’, a US$135 million (Dh500 million) project that will simulate life on the red planet on Earth.

The announcement was made on the first day of the Annual Government Meetings in Abu Dhabi and also coincided with the International Astronautical Congress (IAC) being held in Adelaide, Australia. Dubai will host the IAC in 2020.

The high-tech city will cover 1.9 million square feet, making it the largest space-simulation city ever built, providing a viable and realistic model to simulate living on the surface of Mars.

The project encompasses laboratories for food, energy and water, as well as agricultural testing and studies about food security in the future.

It will also include a museum displaying humanity’s greatest space achievements, including educational areas to engage young citizens with space and inspire a passion in them for exploration and discovery. The walls of the museum will be 3D printed, using sand from the UAE desert.

"We are seeking a better life and education as well as a stronger economy and the internationally most sophisticated infrastructure for generations to come," said His Highness Shaikh Mohammad Bin Rashid Al Maktoum, Vice-President and Prime Minister of the UAE and Ruler of Dubai.

The Mars Science City project falls within the UAE’s objectives to lead the global scientific race to take people to Mars and is part of the country’s Mars 2117 Strategy which seeks to build the first settlement on Mars in the next 100 years.

The project seeks to attract the best scientific minds from around the world in a collaborative contribution in the UAE to human development and the improvement of life. It also seeks to address global challenges such as food, water and energy security on Earth.

The plan for the Mars Science City project includes an experiential element, which will involve a team living in the simulated red planet city for one year, involving a range of experiments are to be devised, which will lead to innovation around self-sufficiency in energy, water and food.

The Mars Science City structure will be the most sophisticated building in the world and will incorporate a realistic simulation environment replicating the conditions on the surface of Mars.

The city will consist of several domes, with innovative construction techniques providing support for the structures. A team of Emirati scientists, engineers and designers, led by a team from the Mohammad Bin Rashid Space Centre and Dubai Municipality, will carry out the project, in cooperation with internationally renowned architects.

Friday, 18 August 2017

An inconvenient BBC

Perhaps I should not have been quite so astounded to hear on the BBC’s Radio 4 Today programme a week ago Lord Lawson, the former Conservative chancellor, being wheeled out again in the interests of so-called ‘balance’ on a climate change story.

In response to an interview with Al Gore an hour or so earlier, Nigel Lawson was largely unchallenged as he pedalled a series of untruths disguised as fact.

Despite overwhelming scientific opinion that human-induced climate change is heating up the atmosphere, melting glaciers and raising sea levels, Lawson was yet again given a prime slot by the BBC to shout down evidence in an unsubstantiated way.

He lightly dismissed the former US Vice-President Al Gore film The Inconvenient Sequel: Truth to Power saying it had "bombed" at the box office a week before it even went on general release (in the UK from today), adding that he would not "bother seeing it" either.

Listeners to BBC radio’s flagship news programme also heard Lawson, Britain’s most renown climate science sceptic, claim global temperatures have not been rising in recent years.

It was a lie which went completely unchallenged by the interviewer Justin Webb even though Lawson’s think tank, the Global Warming Policy Foundation (GWPF), was forced to admit immediately after the broadcast that the statement was based on data from an "erroneous" temperature chart.

Gore’s latest film describes how climate change is already having a significant effect on our planet but also says that the plunging cost of renewable energy might offer a viable solution.

The film points out the world’s average temperature has hit the highest on record for three years in a row – 2014, 2015 and 2016 – and highlights a significant increase in global extreme weather events.

But in his BBC interview Lord Lawson claimed that the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) had "confirmed that there has been no increase in extreme weather events".

He then added: "As for the temperature itself, it is striking, he [Gore] made his previous film 10 years ago, and to the official figures during this past 10 years, if anything, mean global temperature, average world temperature, has slightly declined."

Afterwards the GWPF revealed the source of these supposedly ‘official’ figures was a meteorologist who works for a libertarian think tank, the Cato Institute, founded by US billionaire and leading climate sceptic, Charles Koch.

For the UK’s leading broadcaster, there are worrying parallels between the BBC’s ‘balanced’ or ‘impartial’ coverage of climate change and other major issues of the day, such as Brexit.

Today, it is Nigel Lawson being portrayed as a so-called expert on climate change. Tomorrow, it is po-faced, right-wing Tories such as Ian Duncan-Smith, Liam Fox and Jacob Rees-Mogg intelligently moving the Brexit agenda towards a cliff-edge clean break.

In a sense the BBC’s policy of ‘impartiality’ is actually giving credence and currency to more extreme views and, because of this, we are inadvertently being fed a distorted reality, which some would call ‘fake news’. Either way this is ultimately is going to be a disaster for us all.

Monday, 12 June 2017

Spy satellite buzzes ISS

AMATEUR satellite observers are keeping a close eye on a US National Reconnaissance Office classified satellite (USA 276) to see whether it returns to the vicinity of the International Space Station (ISS).

After its launch into orbit from Cape Canaveral by SpaceX on 1 May 2017 analysts around the world quickly realised it was doing something more unusual.

Its orbit was similar to that of the Space Station and so could theoretically make close approaches to the orbiting outpost.

Then, just over a month after launch on 3 June, that is exactly what happened. "USA 276 made a close approach and effectively circled the ISS," reported satellite bserver Marco Langbroek of Leiden, The Netherlands. 

Amateur satellite watchers have been tracking USA 276 since late May and their observations have resulted in ever-improving estimates of the satellite's orbit. 

"With the latest data included, we can establish the moment of closest approach as 3 June 2017, 14:01:52 UT. It happened in daylight over the southern Atlantic north of the Falklands, near 43.75 S, 45.45 W, with a miss distance of only 6.4 ± 2 km,” says Langbroek.

In the accompanying chart (prepared by Langbroek) showing the circumstances of the encounter, the brick-coloured box has dimensions of  4 x 4 x 10 km and normally, whenever an object looks like it is going to pass through the box, ISS mission controllers evaluate the possibility of a collision avoidance manoeuvre.

"USA 276 remained just outside the 4 x 4 x 10 km box at closest approach and as a result collision avoidance manoeuvres were not required,” adds Langbroek.

Diagram prepared by Marco Langbroek showing encounter.
The question arises as to why a US spy satellite buzzed the ISS and senior satellite analyst Ted Molczan has published arguments for and against that possibility. "I am inclined to believe that the close conjunctions between USA 276 and the ISS are intentional," he says.

Molczan points out that USA 276 might be visiting the ISS to test Raven - a technology demonstration project on the ISS researchers are using to develop spacecraft autopilot systems.  Raven has visible, infrared and lidar sensors that can track incoming spacecraft, feeding the data to an onboard processor for decision-making about rendezvous and docking.

"I imagine that USA 276 could add to the Raven data set as follows," speculates Molczan. "If it can rendezvous, then it could keep station for long periods, during which it could change its attitude to present the sensors with a variety of views, under a variety of lighting conditions. The total data collected could potentially far exceed that from the other visiting spacecraft."

Another way of looking at the problem, is to ask why, if the ISS is not a target of USA 276, would the highly secretive NRO have permitted a launch so close to its plane, let alone one that yielded such close conjunctions not long after launch, which could only have increased public interest in the mission?

USA 276 looped around the ISS, according to an analysis.
Langbroek says he does not believe for a moment that the NRO was not aware that the launch on 1 May would lead to the ISS close approach a month later. “It would be extremely sloppy of them - from a Space Situational Awareness (SSA) viewpoint - if they were not aware, especially given how close the orbital parameters are to that of the ISS.”

He adds: “This event was sure to attract attention which harms the classified character of the mission. USA 276 is relatively bright and the approach was bound to be noted by independent observers.

“Indeed, some space enthusiasts in Europe unaware of the issue who were out to spot Dragon CRS-11 and Cygnus OA-7 close to the ISS on 4 June, did accidentally see USA 276 passing some three minutes in front of it.

At the time of the launch - and at the request of the NRO -SpaceX cut off launch coverage two minutes and 48 seconds after liftoff, some 30 seconds after the booster’s first-stage separated from the upper-stage. The NRO has declined to provide further details about the satellite or its orbit.

Langbroek also speculates that such a close approach of a high profile object like the ISS is politically risky too.

“As the ISS is an international cooperation which includes two parties (the United States and the Russian Federation) that are currently geopolitically on an uneasy footing, sending your military payload so close to the ISS as one party is eyebrow raising,” he says.

Friday, 2 June 2017

Space industry's Brexit fears

ESA's Jan Worner at the opening of UKSC in Manchester this week
AN AIR of confidence and normality prevailed at the fourth biennial UK Space Conference (UKSC) in Manchester this week despite its rather awkward juxtaposition between the city's terrorist atrocity and the country's unexpected general election.

But scratch a little deeper amongst delegates and exhibitors and there was one over-riding business concern just under the surface - the potential impact of 'Brexit' on the future of the industry.

Last June's referendum result seems to have been universally unpopular across both the rapidly growing UK space industry itself and in academic circles more generally.

So it was no surprise that speakers not constrained by pre-election 'purdah' rules took the opportunity during the opening plenary to have their say.

Speaking to more than 1200 British and European space experts at UKSC, Richard Peckham, head of trade organisation Ukspace and director of strategy for Airbus Defence & Space, raised the prospect of Brexit damaging the buoyant and expanding sector.

His general tone was that a 'hard’ or ‘no deal’ Brexit delivered by a future [Tory] government could seriously affect the UK’s £14 billion a year space industry, which is estimated to contribute around £250 billion a year across the British economy. 
“Research-based academia and industry here and in Europe are completely entwined with goods, services, data and people crossing borders and I don’t think I’ve met anybody in the space industry or academia who wanted Brexit. Uncharted waters lie ahead,” he said.

“The space industry sees many challenges ahead as we navigate ourselves as a nation out of the European Union with the potential for major disruption to our businesses if things go badly.”

Mr Peckham described the most immediate threat as continued participation in the EU’s Galileo navigation and Copernicus Earth observation programmes, as well as Govsatcom (communications), IRIS (air traffic management) and SSA/SST (space debris).

“Our industry is already feeling the pain, especially as customers and suppliers in other nations are making contingency plans for the worst case in which British companies become ineligible for future contracts, and are planning to exclude British companies now just to be on the safe side,” he added.

“To be realistic there are some other countries out there who will see this as an opportunity to take work from the UK and I would urge government not to approach these negotiations in such an adversarial manner.”

Earlier Graham Tunnock, appointed chief executive of the UK Space Agency (UKSA) on 1 April, said election rules allowed him to attend the conference but restricted his comments on future government space policy.

Jan Worner, European Space Agency (ESA) director general, reminded delegates that at last year’s ministerial meeting the UK had committed €1.4 billion to ESA’s budget until 2020 and he urged the UK to remain a strong member of the ESA community.

“Brexit is happening and you have made a decision which I do not like,” he said. “UK membership of ESA is not at all in question but of course a future exchange rate might have an effect in the future.”

He also said it would be vital to find a solution for the ESA family members living and working in the UK from other countries.

 “I understand the politicians will be discussing a divorce between London and Brussels but in any divorce there are the children and in that respect we are the children,” he added.

The UK space trade association presented a ‘facts and figures’ document and urged British delegates to lobby their MPs on behalf of the space industry.

“The decision to leave the EU has created significant uncertainty and could impact the efficiency of the integrated supply chain, R&D collaboration and joint programmes with other countries,” it stated.

Five key requests for the Brexit negotiations are listed:
  • Retain full access to vital EU space programmes
  • Avoid UK industry being marginalised during Brexit process 
  • Retain access to and influence in the collaborative R&D programmes run by the EU
  • Maintain access to the EU pool of skilled labour which is required to maintain UK competitiveness
  • Keep frictionless access to the EU single market without burdensome customs and administration.
The UK space industry is currently showing growth of around seven percent a year and provides jobs for around 40,000 people.

Prior to any notion that the UK might leave the EU, the Space Innovation and Growth Strategy (IGS) set an ambitious target to increase Britain's share of the global space economy form six to 10 percent by 2030, raising revenue to £40 billion a year and potentially creating more than 100,000 skilled jobs.