Friday, 16 January 2015

Beagle found on Mars

 

This is what it should have looked like. A tiny series of platelets no bigger than a dustbin lid flattened against the reddish dust of Mars, gathering sunlight and sending back juicy data.

It was the mission that inspired a generation and we thought it had been lost for ever. But now it has been discovered by scientists operating a camera on NASA's Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO).

Beagle 2 - named after Darwin's exploration ship - hitched a ride on ESA's Mars Express orbiter as the only robot up to that time designed specifically to look for signs of life on the red planet.

It left the mother craft on 19 December 2003 and was on course to land on the Martian surface on Christmas Day but in the end sent no signal back.
   
In February 2004, after two months of attempts to make contact, the project's scientists and engineers led by Prof Pillinger of the Open University, finally accepted their mission was lost.

Beagle 2 was planned to hit the thin Martian atmosphere at 13,000 mph and mission scientists favoured the theory that a freak thinning of the atmosphere caused the lander to go in too fast.

They thought the craft may have burned up in the atmosphere, its parachute could have failed or become entangled, or the shock-absorbing air bags may have under performed.

As Editor of Spaceflight magazine at the time I wrote about the inspirational British programme on many occasions and interviewed the late Prof Colin Pillinger about its fate.

At a press conference in London in May 2004, Prof Pillinger (pictured below) told me that it could also have been something as simple as a failed transistor or a piece of wiring. It turns out he might not have been far from wrong.

Prof Pillinger at the May 2004 press conference

Of course, the ever-optimistic Prof Pillinger was always of the view that one day the tiny craft created and built in British laboratories and cheekily flown piggyback on a European space probe would be discovered.

So, at an eagerly anticipated press conference organised by the UK Space Agency (UKSA) today, a new and perhaps final chapter was written in the story of the first British mission to Mars.

It was all made possible by an instrument known in NASA-speak as ‘HiRise’ on MRO, the only camera in Mars orbit that can image the surface in high enough detail to spot missing spacecraft.

It has already found the twin Viking landers, which touched down on Mars in the 1970s, and photographed Nasa's Phoenix, Curiosity and Opportunity rovers. The team had been actively hunting for Beagle 2 for several years.
   
"HiRise is the only camera at Mars that can see former spacecraft like Beagle 2,” said Shane Byrne, a scientist on the HiRise team at the University of Arizona. “It's definitely pretty close to its intended landing spot, no matter what. It entered the atmosphere at the right time and place.”

Designed to look for signs of life on Mars, Beagle 2 carried a drilling instrument to poke beneath the surface. Its release from Mars Express went smoothly, placing Beagle 2 on course for a landing site at Isidis Planitia, a huge plain near the Martian equator.

The lander deployed a parachute on its way down to the Martian surface and inflated triple air bags at the last minute to cushion the impact.

Rumours that remnants of the lander had been found were sparked at the beginning of this week when the UKSA scheduled a press conference to announce an unexpected “update” on Beagle 2.


Dr David Parker, UKSA chief executive, opened the packed press conference in London by confirming what we pretty much already knew by then - that Beagle 2 is “no longer lost”.

He said: “We are not looking at a crash site. The new images show good evidence of Beagle 2 resting on Mars. They are consistent with the spacecraft having landed on the planet’s surface.”

Alvaro Giménez, ESA’s director of science and robotic exploration, described how not knowing what happened to Beagle 2 had been a nagging worry.

“We are very happy to learn that Beagle 2 touched down on Mars,” he said. “The dedication of the various teams in studying high-resolution images in order to find the lander is inspiring.”

The images were initially searched by Michael Croon, a former member of the Mars Express operations team at ESA’s Space Operations Centre, ESOC, in Darmstadt, Germany, working in parallel with members of the Beagle 2 industrial and scientific teams.

The small size of Beagle 2 – less than 2 m across when fully deployed – meant this was a painstaking endeavour, right at the limit of the resolution of the camera technology.

After the identification of potential parts of Beagle 2 in the expected landing further images were obtained and analysed by the camera team, the Beagle 2 team and NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory.


They show the lander in what appears to be a partially deployed configuration, with only one, two or at most three of the four solar panels open, and with the main parachute and what is thought to be the rear cover with its pilot/drogue parachute still attached close by.

“The size, shape, colour and separation of the features are consistent with Beagle 2 and its landing components, and lie within the expected landing area at a distance of about 5 km from its centre,” said Prof Mark Simms, of Leicester University.


Pictures of such a lost lander are of huge interest to space scientists in helping them plan future missions to Mars, such as ESA's Exomars mission, which is due to launch in 2018 and land the year after.

“Beagle 2 was very much more of a success than we previously knew,” added Dr Parker. “The history books will now have to be slightly re-written to say Beagle 2 did land on Mars on Christmas Day 2003.”

In the final analysis, scientists admit that it is frustrating that such an ambitious mission came so much closer than we all thought to realising its aims - but that is the nature of space exploration.

Sadly, the discovery of Beagle 2 came just too late for Prof Pillinger who died last May without ever knowing what really happened.

With mutton-chop whiskers, an eccentric choice of clothes and distinctive west country burr, he was a natural enthusiast and the epitome of a scientist. He would have been overjoyed at today’s announcement.

Blog post by Clive Simpson, Editor of Spaceflight magazine 2001-2011 and now working as a freelance journalist

Sunday, 28 December 2014

A sense of place


Early morning walks - Two Plank Bridge across the Vernatts drain

As well as writing for a living, the author of this blog is also a keen photographer and many of my blog articles are illustrated, where possible, by my own photos. Some of my pictures are also published alongside magazine and online media articles.

It's a useful trait as a freelance journalist to be able taken your own pictures on occasion for either a news or feature article - and it often helps when pitching a piece.

Of course, unless the photo is of extreme or uniquie news value, I'm not talking about shots grabbed on a smartphone camera, though I have to confess I have recently witnessed local reporters using such.

It is said that a picture is worth a thousand words, so I thought it would be good to end a year of blogging, writing and reporting by publishing some of my photos taken during 2014.

It's a rather random selection of a few favourites, and I've called the piece 'A sense of place' as most of the pictures evoke that in some way. Enjoy!
.
Peace and tranquility on a summer's day in the Fens
Waiting for its catch - a beach tractor at Cromer in Norfolk
Looking the other way - from Niagara Falls viewing tower
Fenland barn and treescape on my way to Peterborough


Great dining at the top of Toronto's very high CN Tower
Toronto skyscrapers and the tower from across Lake Ontario
Early Sunday morning in downtown Detroit
Inside Detroit's opulent Fisher building
Big music came from a little house
Detroit's derelict and eerie Packard Motors plant

Coming to life - Willow Tree Fen nature reserve near Spalding
Premiership promotion - 2015 might be our year
Farewell to the Bittern 4464 - at Spalding on 30 December

Fenland sunsets - big skies make them unbeatable

I hope you liked my selection. And here's a final thought for the year - if a picture is worth a thousand words then a few well-written words might also be worth a thousand pictures.

So if you are ever stuck for words in 2015 - whether it be for a business or company website, blog, article, news item or even a book - I'm here to help. Please do get in touch. And in the meantime, have a very happy and prosperous New Year!

Friday, 5 December 2014

Back to the future


 Photos: Nasa
Today's first-ever test flight of NASA's Orion deep-space capsule is all about the future of America's space effort - but it's also about reviving the past.

"I feel like the Blues Brothers - we're getting the band back together," Bob Cabana, director of NASA's Kennedy Space Center, told a pre-launch news conference in front of Orion's Florida launch pad.

After a 24 hour launch delay the Delta IV Heavy and Orion cleared the tower in just a few seconds to begin a carefully choreographed climb skyward.

The core stages on either side of the rocket burned their propellants and fell away at T+3minutes, 56 seconds. The central core stage continued for another 94 seconds as the rocket and spacecraft climbed higher and picked up more speed. The first stage fell away and the second stage took over to put Orion into an initial orbit of 115 miles by 552 miles.

Orion is Nasa’s successor to the Space Shuttle and the agency hopes it will take humans further into space than ever before, possibly as far as Mars. The test flight is the start of a “new chapter in human space exploration”, the agency says.

Primary purpose of the mission was to test a new 16 foot wide heat shield aimed at protecting the capsule, which can carry up to six astronauts. After two orbits, Orion plunged to Earth off the coast of Baja, California, travelling at 20,000 mph and generating 2,200 C as it plunged through the atmosphere.

Nasa confidently asserts that Orion will send people to an asteroid and onward to Mars, but the first astronauts are not scheduled to travel in it for at least seven years, which is a long time in space politics.

Even this crew-less outing - known as Exploration Flight Test 1 (EFT-1) - carried echoes of Apollo. The 4.5 hour trip sent Orion 3,600 miles out from Earth, the farthest that a spacecraft meant for humans has flown since 1972.

And it splashed down in the Pacific Ocean - just like NASA's last Apollo spaceship that returned to Earth at the end of the Apollo-Soyuz Test Project in 1975.

For NASA, even the fact that people are paying attention to the Orion test flight comes as a welcome blast from the past. The space agency said more than 500 journalists were accredited to cover the launch, which is more than for any other Florida launch since the Shuttle fleet's retirement.


Orion is being developed by Lockheed Martin alongside a powerful new rocket that will have its own debut in three or four years' time. Together, they will form the core capabilities needed to send humans beyond the International Space Station (ISS).

Today's flight therefore was on a stand-in Delta IV-Heavy rocket - currently the largest US launcher which duly delivered a fiery launch spectacle to the millions of people watching Nasa’s live internet broadcasts.

At this point immediately after the mission it seems that just about everything worked perfectly. The test will go down as a huge success as analysing the data begins in earnest.

However, in the background, there are still worries about the strength of political commitment  underpinning to the Orion programme - and any resulting lack of money could mean the momentum of successive missions becomes hard to maintain.
       
Space rarely seems to be out of the news these days. Hot on the heels of last month’s Rosetta and the inspiring  Philae comet lander we've also had an ESA ministerial meeting (at which decisions are made on the funding of future European space programmes) this week .

The UK has committed over £50 million to the project that has an estimated price tag of €340 million. But with promises extending to €180 million for funding, the ExoMars plan is still short of all the funds it needs.

According to ESA's pragmatic director general Jean-Jaques Dordain that is more than enough to be getting on with, thank you very much. It means that Britain will likely take the lead and build the rover on these shores.

The government's pledge to the ExoMars programme amounts to £55 million, alongside a similar amount to help keep the Space Station operating in orbit. This more than triples the sum offered as a ‘one-off' payment to the ISS two years ago.

Eager to join the positive band wagon, even George Osborne managed to work in a quip or two about Mars exploration and his great support for space when introducing his budget deficit this week in the House of Commons.

Joking at the expense of the opposition benches, Mr Osborne said: "We on this side of the house have often gazed at the barren and desolate wastelands of the red planet. We have long given up hope of finding intelligent life there. But signs of any life at all would be a major advance."

The country's growing space industry is at last getting the recognition and investment it needs - not just ‘because it is there’ but because politicians now recognise it is a pretty shrewd investment for the country as a whole.

Credit must be given to all political parties. The good work in space was started by the last labour government and has been continued by the coalition in a true example of what joined up, long-term thinking should be about. If only this could be applied in other areas - like the country's energy policy.

It does remain to be seen, however, whether Nigel Farage and his Ukip brigade have anything like a space plan scribbled on the back of a fag packet should they get anywhere near the final countdown during next May's elections. I guess we just have to say, ‘watch this space’.

Report by Clive Simpson

Farmers fight flood threat

High tide for the newly formed Wash Frontagers' Group

Vast swaths of the Fens in eastern England could be catastrophically flooded by the next North Sea surge if nothing is done to shore up sea defences.

Much of the country’s prime arable land around the Wash is below sea level and farmers say that more than 80 miles of neglected sea defences need urgent attention.

The £2.3bn spend confirmed by the government for flood projects around the country this week earmarks nothing for raising defences across one of the country’s most at risk areas.

Farmers of land around the Wash marked the first anniversary of last December’s tidal surge with the formation of the Wash Frontagers' Group (WFG) and an urgent call to action.

They are concerned that the region’s farming and food production industry - worth an estimated £3bn to the UK economy - would be fatally damaged if sea walls are breached.
           
Stafford Proctor, who farms at Long Sutton and is WFG chairman, says the Wash sea defences protect some of the country’s most productive farmland.

And he described last winter's floods across the Somerset Levels as being like "a drop in the ocean" compared to what could happen in the Fens.

"Last year's tidal surge showed just how vulnerable our land, homes, businesses and the whole area is to sea water inundation,” he says.

“In Boston alone, 700 homes and businesses were affected. Just think what the effect of a massive inundation would be on the economy of the whole Fen region. It would be devastating.”
           
Recent figures show that behind the protective seawalls there are 365,261 hectares of farm land, more than 80 per cent of which is classified as at risk of flooding.

The region, which includes South Lincolnshire and parts of Cambridgeshire and Norfolk, is known as the Fens Strategic Area and is home to around 655,000 people spread across remote rural communities in towns and villages.

“We were very close a catastrophe across this area and we don't want people to revert back to the status quo as though nothing had happened,” says Proctor.


Stafford Proctor - WFG chairman

According to the National Farmers’ Union (NFU) county adviser for South Lincolnshire, Simon Fisher, raising the sea defences is not just about protecting the future for farmland.

“It includes everything else that makes life tick - people, communities, towns, industry, agriculture, environment, utilities, energy generation and transport infrastructure,” he says.

“A huge amount of fresh produced is produced from South Lincolnshire and the financial contribution this county makes to the economic well-being of this country is worth billions of pounds.

“If we look at the true value of local agriculture and its upward supply chain, it is £3 billion plus and supports in excess of 60,000 jobs in the Fens.

“We need to protect the land and businesses surrounding the Wash and find the funding to raise the sea defences that so many people depend on.

“If you had a major sea inundation around here, no matter how well defended the towns of Boston, Kings Lynn, Wisbech and Spalding are, they are going to be cut off and sat in the middle of a giant pond.”


WFG members (from left): Nicola Currie, Simon Fisher, Simeon Disley, Stafford Proctor, Gavin Lane

Fisher is also dismissive of the concept of ‘managed retreat’, a suggestion put forward by some wildlife organisations, including the RSPB and Lincolnshire Wildlife Trust.

“There are some very good examples of tiny bits of land being left to the sea and that is probably perfectly feasible,” he says.

“But when you are talking of the Fenland area as a whole you'd be heading inland to Peterborough before you get to a point where it wouldn't flood anymore.”

Proctor is sceptical too. “The argument for managed retreat is creating more ‘green’ areas to try and dissipate the waves - but if anyone was down here last year they would have seen there weren't any waves.

“It was like a silent invasion,” he recalls. “The water just came up flat and got higher and higher. No amount of green marsh will protect you against that.”

Negligible sea bank maintenance work on this part of the coast has been carried out since the mid-1908s and WGF estimates the cost to fix the most needy parts of the sea banks would stretch to around £100 million.

“Compared to what is at stake everyone says this makes a lot of sense,” adds Proctor, who farms 2000 acres of Crown Estate land.

“But in order to do something we need public support and funding - the whole point of what we are trying to do is to raise awareness of the need to do something urgently.”

Country Landowners Association (CLA) eastern regional director, Nicola Currie, believes the WGF will only succeed if it garners support from the Environment Agency and Natural England.

“Under the current cost benefit system, farm land and rural areas miss out because government funding for flood and coastal defences is prioritised for schemes that protect people and property,” she says.

Defra minister Dan Rogerson has indicated his support for the WFG project andsuggests that up to 25 per cent more schemes for coastal defence work could go ahead through partnership funding than if costs were met by central government alone.

“There are real challenges to raising funds locally, which is why the CLA is calling on the Environment Agency and Natural England to be fully supportive of this innovative group,” adds Currie.

“If we continue to do nothing eventually we are going to have a major disaster - we just can't keep carrying on having nemesis like this.

“The only solution is a stitch in time - we have to keep going on sea flood defence and this is why we are calling upon government to help both financially and with changes to legislation to make it easier to get this work done.”

Climate change and rising sea levels mean that storm surges are expected to become more frequent in years to come.

They occur when a rising area of low pressure takes pressure off the surface of the sea allowing it to ‘bulge’ upwards before being pushed down through the North Sea by strong winds.

During last December’s surge parts of the North Sea reached higher levels than the devastating floods of 1953 but sea wall defences around the Wash area largely kept the water at bay.


A new blue plaque marks the level of last December's storm surge
The WFG chose to launch its campaign this week alongside the giant sluice gates of a tiny settlement called Surfleet Seas End, where water is poured into sea channels to keep farm land from flooding.

Here, the Welland and Deepings Internal Drainage Board has just erected a small plaque several metres above the normal sluice gate water level.

It serves as a stark reminder of how sea water came to within just a few inches of bursting these banks at the height of the storm surge during the night of 5 December last year.
 
Report and photographs by Clive Simpson - please contact for further information


Thursday, 4 December 2014

Countdown to launch


Launch of the first flight test of Orion, NASA’s next-generation spacecraft that will send astronauts to an asteroid and onward to Mars, is now less than an hour away.

The Orion will launch, uncrewed, on a United Launch Alliance Delta IV-Heavy rocket at 0705 local time (1205 GMT) from Space Launch Complex 37 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station (CCAFS) in Florida.

The window for launch is two hours and 39 minutes, and weather at both the launch and splashdown sites is currently showing ‘green’.

During its 4.5 hour trip, Orion will orbit Earth twice and travel to an altitude of 3,600 miles into space.

The flight is designed to test many of the elements that pose the greatest risk to astronauts and will provide critical data needed to improve Orion’s design and reduce risks to future mission crews.

United Launch Alliance operates the Delta IV-Heavy, the largest rocket in the American launch inventory.

The first stage includes three core stages, each one 134-feet-tall and 16.7 feet in diameter. An RS-68 engine is at the base of each core stage to give the rocket a combined thrust of about two million pounds.

The stage holds super-cold liquid oxygen and liquid hydrogen propellants. The second stage of the Delta IV Heavy is powered by a single RL10B-2 engine that also uses a combination of liquid hydrogen and liquid oxygen. The Orion spacecraft is bolted to the top of the second stage.


The Spaceflight Meteorology Group at Johnson Space Center is saying the weather looks good off the coast of Baja, California, where Orion will descend and splashdown to end the flight test. Navy ships are waiting in the area to recover the Orion spacecraft.

Live coverage of the launch from Nasa can be viewed by clicking here

Ready for blast off


Sunrise at Kennedy Space Center in Florida and a new era is about to begin. Today is probably Nasa’s biggest day since the final Space Shuttle launch in July 2011.

There are no people on today’s test flight of Orion, the capsule that is planned to take humans once again beyond the confines of Earth into deep space. Whether such a small capsule will ever make it as far as Mars is another question.

Launch weather officer Kathy Winters says conditions “are promising” with a 70 per cent prospect of favourable weather for the opening of the early morning (1205 GMT) launch window.

Heading into the final hours of countdown the mood in Houston mission control is upbeat. “On the vehicle side everything is extremely clean. We're ready to go,” says Mark Geyer, NASA's Orion programme manager.

Flight director Mike Serafin hasn’t experienced this kind of feeling around Nasa since the end of the Space Shuttle programme. “We are launching an American spacecraft from American soil and beginning something new,” he says.

“It’s a new mission and there are some things I'm sure we're going to learn from this unmanned flight test that will enable us to fly humans into deep space.”

With the launch of Orion, Nasa is about to claw back some of the ground it lost after the premature cancellation of the Space Shuttle programme by President Bush when there was nothing on hand to replace it.

The short, unmanned flight of Orion - a conical vessel reminiscent of the Apollo command modules that carried men to the Moon in the 1960s and 1970s - will test key technologies.

Orion is being developed by Lockheed Martin alongside a powerful new rocket that will have its own debut in three or four years’ time. Together, they will form the core capabilities needed to send humans beyond the International Space Station (ISS).

Today’s flight will be on a stand-in Delta IV-Heavy rocket - currently the largest launcher in the world and so the blast off will be spectacular.

Shortly after midnight local time the 330-foot tall mobile service tower was retracted from Cape Canaveral's pad 37B and the wheeled gantry structure moved along rail tracks to its launch position about the length of a football field away from the rocket.

Crews then worked on securing the complex for launch before leaving the danger area around the pad.

All workers had to be clear prior to the start of hazardous operations in the countdown - which include fuelling the Delta IV's Common Booster Cores and the second stage with supercooled liquid oxygen and liquid hydrogen propellants - which began shortly before 3 am.


Friday, 28 November 2014

Profits before people

Photos: Clive Simpson
It’s all railways in this neck of the woods at the present. The past six months have seen major work by Network Rail to upgrade the local track, signalling and level crossings on the relatively under-used GNGE line across rural Lincolnshire between Peterborough and Lincoln.

All this is not for the benefit of the poorly served rural community with more commuter passenger trains to Peterborough and Lincoln.

It's to pave the way for goods trains currently using the main east coast line between London and Edinburgh to be diverted cross-country and thus free up more space on the fast track for lurative passenger traffic.

With its six level crossings and a railway line that splits off the area’s vast new housing developments from the services of the town centre, the true impact of frequent goods trains passing through the market town of Spalding remains to be seen.


 Network Rail reckons its multi-million pound investment will mean just six daytime and six over night good trains a day. All will become clearer once diversions start from the middle of December.

This week we have also learned that Virgin Trains and Stagecoach are to take over the running of passenger trains on the east coast mainline from next spring after being awarded the franchise for the re-privatised line.

The new company will be known as Inter City Railways, a separate joint venture 90 per cent owned by Stagecoach but with the trains being branded Virgin Trains East Coast. Sir Richard Branson retains a 10 per cent stake.

This is pertinent to Spalding too because the local line connects directly with mainline Peterborough and thus could be very convenient for the residents of South Lincolnshire wanting to travel to London or further afield by train.



In truth, those of us in the area and using Peterborough as our gateway both north and south have - once we’ve arrived in Peterborough by car - had a good run over the past five years or so with the inter city service provided by East Coast.

The line ended up depending less on public subsidies than any of the 15 privately run rail franchises elsewhere in the country and the franchise has proved a lucrative cash cow for the state, bringing in around £1bn to the exchequer since 2009.

East coast is no stranger to the rail franchising controversy. For some, its public ownership has been a rather embarrassing success story - a stark contrast to the general disaster of railway privatisation that is so often an Achilles’s heel for free-market ideologues.

Handing east coast to Stagecoach and Virgin represents an ‘up yours’ to British public opinion, which largely despairs of our over-crowded, fragmented and rip-off rail network.

According to a YouGov poll last year, two-thirds of people in the UK believe railway companies should be run in the public sector, with less than a quarter opting for privatisation.

And that is not just Labour supporters, either. More than half of Tory voters opted for public ownership, and pretentious Ukip voters also say they are more likely to support a nationalised network.

The government’s dogmatic policy could hardly be more divorced from the pragmatic commonsense of the British people - but then we know there is an election just around the corner.

And things could have been worse. Instead of being run by a tax exile and a Scottish businessman - the latter perhaps best known for campaigning against gay equality - the whole east coast line could have fallen into foreign hands.

For the record, about three-quarters of Britain's railways are now run in full or part by subsidiaries of foreign, state-owned rail firms, including DeutscheBahn's Arriva, the Dutch-owned Abellio and Keolis, 70 per cent owned by France’s SNCF. Our government is also preparing to sell its stake in Eurostar, almost certainly to the SNCF, the majority owner.

Unsurprisingly, Mick Cash, the acting general secretary of the RMT rail union, described re-privatisation as nothing short of a national disgrace.

“While domestic public ownership puts money back into the coffers that can be reinvested in our railways, the private operators, overwhelmingly owned and controlled by European state rail outfits, suck out colossal sums in subsidies and profits,” he says. “That’s what privatisation means.”


One thing is for sure - by the time of the election in May 2015 we’ll have a much clearer idea of whether Inter City Railways is really delivering the kind of services it has promised.

And the people of Spalding will either be grid-locked with frustration or celebrating the fact that traffic chaos in the town was something of the past. Oh, and did I mention that the town’s MP John Hayes is the government’s transport minister?